Monday, 12 September 2011

Quote of the day...

...comes from an old pamphlet on the 1926 General Strike by Chris Harman, which a comrade has just directed me to today;
Some lessons of the strike stand out clearly: never trust the government; freedom of speech in a situation of social crisis is a myth; the right wing union leaders will sell out. Such lessons will be accepted by most people on the left today. But there is another one, which is much more important precisely because it is often ignored by those who should know better: the ‘left’ wing of the trade union bureaucracy is part of a social group that is isolated in all sorts of ways from workers on the shop floor, and can only be trusted in so far as it is directly and immediately controlled by shop-floor militants.
I highly recommend that you go and read the whole thing. It demonstrates how union leaders "speaking in tones ... quite close to those of revolutionary socialists," and still the working class "were sold out by those leaders whose words had gone furthest in expressing their own desire to fight."

Union officialdom's real aim was never to stage a militant fight, but to "assert its own importance within existing capitalist society and at the same time prevent itself being outflanked by militants below." Their biggest worry was "the rank and file engaging in a struggle which could no longer be played according to the rules of existing society," meaning that "a trade union bureaucracy that had grown up in existing society would have no place" and "the newly insurgent rank and file would rapidly cast it off."

During all of this, "the ‘lefts’ in the union bureaucracy behaved no differently from the right." Except "to increase the confusion and bewilderment of militants below," who "put their hopes in such action as never before." They were the linchpin of illusions in the trade union leadership, not an alternative to it.

This lesson remains important today because much the same is happening again. The Daily Mail is screaming about the "call to arms" from GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny - of all people - who has declared that "bad laws have to be broken" and "if going to prison is the price to pay for standing up to bad laws, then so be it." Unite leader Len McCluskey voiced similar sentiments, declaring "class law, pushed through a parliament full of expense cheats by a cobbled-together coalition which no one voted for is not going to paralyse me and it should not paralyse our movement."

Make no mistake, these people aren't our salvation. They are talking tough to avoid being outflanked in a climate of increasing class antagonism and a groundswell of militancy. As I said when Brendan Barber warned of increasing wildcat strikes, "for the umbrella body of the country's trade unions, supporting such action would be nothing short of suicidal."

We saw proof of this pudding again in the 1980s, when a promise to meet Thatcher's laws with "non-cooperation" became a cynical betrayal. They had promised to support any union attacked by the laws, but when a railway strike put that promise to the test the TUC general council threatened them with suspension from the TUC if they didn't go back to work. The National Graphical Association's dispute with the Stockport Messenger was next in line to suffer, and Thatcher had a clear path to pick off the unions one-by-one.

There should be no doubting that the windbags at the TUC Conference this week are just as keen to assert their own importance within existing capitalist society and at the same time prevent themselves being outflanked by militants below as their counterparts in 1926. They are not our saviours and if we want to win the present fight we would do well to learn that lesson.