Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Socialist Workers' Party demonstrate why "revolutionary leadership" is a dead weight for the working class

Yesterday, nembers of the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) invaded the concillation talks between British Airways and Unite. They touted it as a strong show of solidarity by 200 members. In reality, it was a cheap PR stunt which only highlights the irrelevance of "vanguard" parties in workers' struggles.

Superviced by the concillation service ACAS, these talks represented a last-ditch attempt to avert the coming strikes and begin resolving what is an increasingly bitter dispute.

There are issues with the way events have unfolded, such as the continual willingness of the union leaders to sell their members short. Unite drew out the time between the ballot on strike action and the action itself. Their unwillingness to fight was evidenced by their insistence on seeking concillation even as BA shed jobs and declared "We will not allow Unite to ruin this company." Tony Woodley's public comment that the strikes were "unneccesary," as workers were in need of solidarity, was beneath contempt.

However, whilst this does need to be challenged, it is the members who must do it. These issues are a product of the bureaucratic hierarchy present in all unions, and can only be addressed by a grassroots movement to reclaim control of the union from within. Stunts such as the SWP's fail to address this fact, or to achieve anything, and are incomprehensible to ordinary union members who can only see a bunch of Trots causing havoc.

Tony Woodley referred to the SWP invaders as "idiots" and "lunatics," but - as Harry's Place point out - union members "will be saying things far harsher than what their union leader said."

A Very Public Sociologist goes further;
Call me cynical (and one cannot help be after watching the SWP's behaviour for a period of time), but this is about promoting the SWP and has little to do with the demands of the workers themselves. Since its split with Respect and losing ground on the left to the Socialist Party, the SWP have placed more emphasis on narrow party building than was previously the case. That might be more comforting to the leadership and long term members who had their fingers burnt engaging with "the movements", but if it is to build wider influence it has to make its own opportunities. High profile stunts is one such way it can make itself visible to the public at large.

So leaving aside the wishes and interests of cabin crew and the trade union, AND the effects the stunt will have on popular perceptions of the strike, today's been an unalloyed success for the SWP. They were catapulted to the top of the news agenda for the first time since ... well ... when has the SWP ever led a news bulletin? The coverage has also positioned them as a dynamic activist force able to throw convention aside to get its message across - a portrayal that will prove attractive to some. And lastly for the comrades involved, well, a few of them will feel a wee more revolutionary tonight than when they woke up this morning.

I'm sorry though, but this is a pretty poor show. The SWP have let down those they profess to defend, and future such antics will find them further marginalised in the labour movement.
The degree to which they are out of touch and margianlised already is apparent to most people who have dealt with them. Serious antifascists will compare chanting "Willie Walsh, who are you? We support the cabin crew!" whilst disrupting the talks that would have saved the same cabin crew from going on strike to scenes of all-white middle class students leading off with "we are black, white, Asian, and we're Jews..."

The assertion over at Lenin's Tomb that "the protest did not disrupt negotiations" because "the BA management is not negotiating, and the union leadership is neither in a position to compel them to negotiate, nor is it inclined to" is a case in point. As one commenter on Socialist Unity put it, "as if all that matters is that the BA workers strike - no, what matters is that they can defend their pay, conditions, jobs and union. If ever there was an illustration of how a student organization without working class influence can get tactics so wrong, this is it."

But the SWP is just the tip of the iceberg. With a "activist" base of students who like to hide behind the newspapers they're flogging*, and little connection to actual workers in struggle, they are perhaps the archetypal Trotskyite group. However, many if not all of the same critiques that can be applied to the SWP can be applied to their rivals.

Dave Hyland, for WSWS, outlines a couple of these key criticisms as they relate to the recent general election. Unfortunately, he follows this up by declaring that "the advanced nature of the political situation in Britain places before every class conscious and politically aware worker and young person the urgent job of building the Socialist Equality Party as its new revolutionary leadership." In doing so, he unwittingly reveals the real problem with what he calls the "pseudo-left," including his own party.

The working class do not need a "revolutionary leadership."

The "vanguard of the proletariat" is a concept common to both the Leninist and Trotskyist strains of communism, and it is nothing more than a convenient precedent to seize and hold power. In post-revolutionary Russia, it saw the self-organised soviets infiltrated and commandeered by the Bolsheviks, the army re-centralised, and the establishment of a counter-revolutionary dictatorship.

Vanguardism is a dead-end for real, libertarian socialism. In times when it had a chance of gaining power, it was a vehicle for dictatorship. Now, the point is to boost the numbers, fill the coffers, and sell the papers.

Some groups, such as the Socialist Party - being formed from Militant Tendency - do have the upside of actually getting involved in workers' struggles in practical ways. But they hold to the same belief in workers' needing revolutionary leadership, and the same tendency towards building front groups. I also have a personal aversion to their ideology following on from a conversation I had in 2005 with Tony Mulhearn, who informed me that he thought George Orwell was "overly cynical about Stalin!"

Ultimately, workers need to self-organise. Yes, we need to rid ourselves of the dead-weight of union bureaucracy, but that does not mean installing an out-of-touch vanguard in their stead. Serious and effective resistance to the class war can only come from below, at the hands of people who are willing to take direct action but who also realise that looking revolutionary isn't the same as being revolutionary.

The invasion of the Unite-BA talks, then, was an act of attrocious stupidity. But if there is anything positive to be gained from it, let it be that the labour movement pushes away from the trappings of the authoritarian left and its many front and splinter groups.

*I realise that this is a very crude stereotype. I do actually know people within the SWP who are sincere and amiable people. I also have nothing against students or the middle class, especially those who realise their shared lot with the rest of the working class and want to get involved. Unfortunately, that is the stereotype they convey to the working people their party wishes to be the vanguard of, and it is a stereotype that too many of them fit.