Sunday, 9 October 2011

Talking about a revolution

As I noted on Thursday, yesterday I attended Near To Revolution? The 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike Centenary Conference.

This was only the latest in a strong line-up of events to commemorate 1911. First, there was Steve Higginson, Tony Wailey and Ian Morris's Rhythms That Carry, which has been put on now at a number of venues. Then, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, we had a commemoration on the steps of St George's Hall. Liverpool Solidarity Federation hosted Liverpool in Revolt: 1911-2011, with local historian Frank Carlyle among the speakers.

At all of these meetings and events, we were reminded of the strong syndicalist and anarchist currents that underpinned the events of the Liverpool General Transport Strike. In the midst of the Great Unrest of 1910-1914, it was defined by a rank-and-file revolt against trade union officialdom and an upsurge in militant class struggle.

This, indeed, was the point made by Ralph Darlington, in the workshop on Syndicalism and Trade Union Officialdom. His talk focused on the British syndicalist movement, and its successes and failures in addressing the problems of officialdom. Though he appeared to have far more time for the idea that unions could be de-bureaucratised or "moved left" than I, his analysis of the "boring from within" strategy and its limitations was interesting - particularly in how Tom Mann's Industrial Syndicalist Education League, despite a scathing analysis of union officialdom in general, tempered criticism of specific leaders in the name of "unity."

Some of Darlington's analysis is similar to what I've said myself, whilst some was radically different. Though he contrasted the establishment of syndicalist unions in Europe with the looser networks of activists in Britain, and mentioned the CNT, CGT, and USI as specific examples of this, he didn't touch upon anarcho-syndicalism and how it developed syndicalist methods alongside a more explicitly revolutionary anarchist philosophy. He approached it from the point of view that a party was the best vehicle to address the problem of syndicalism being almost apolitical. Nonetheless, he hit the mark with reference to traditional syndicalism's flaws, and I was able to pick up on this during the open floor to argue - as Durruti did - that the problem of bureaucracy in fact stems from unions taking on the representative function and removing decision-making power from the mass of the rank-and-file.

Going by what I heard from other people, other workshops varied significantly in how successful or interesting they were. There is a tendency already for some on the left to retreat from practical points and intellectualise the struggle, steeping themselves in academic language and alienating anybody not already familiar with the concepts they are discussing. Unfortunately, that only increases when we're talking about history, draining all the fun and interest out of it. There were at least a couple of contributions to that effect in the Darlington workshop and, from what I can gather, many more in others!

Later on in the day, there was a panel discussion titled "1911 and the Labour Movement Today: lessons for the Present Crisis?" The speakers were Socialist Workers' Party National Secretary Charlie Kimber, Tony Mulhearn from the Socialist Party, Labour MP John McDonnell, and RMT General Secretary Bob Crow. Not, on the face of it, the people you would expect to be speaking on what lessons we can learn from a struggle defined by the rank-and-file breaking from officialdom.

The Liverpool Solfed stall at the conference
First up, Kimber's speech was largely forgettable, except for one token reference to the problems of trade union officials which was quickly followed by a "but not all of them are like that" in reference to the fact that he was sitting next to Crow.

Likewise, if you've heard Mulhearn speak before, I don't need to tell you what he talked about. As I tweeted at the time, it boiled down to "In the 80s, in the 80s, Liverpool 47, Liverpool 47, Labour traitors, Tories, Tories, in the 80s." Though it was particularly hysterical to hear him compare the trials and tribulations of Liverpool's Militant Council with the struggle in 1911. He also betrayed, for all that the Socialist Party now denounce and deride Labour, just how deep the illusions they have in the party go. Surprise that Labour didn't support strikes, denouncing Neil Kinnock as a "traitor," and numerous other comments about how "a real Labour leadership" would act show that he knows as little about the history of the party he only left because they expelled him as he does about 1911.

McDonnell's speech was interesting, because throughout it he came across much as sections of the left view him - one of the few good ones left in Labour. Indeed, earlier in the day I and others had come to the conclusion that he was the Labour Party's equivalent of the Sikh the BNP used to wheel out to "prove" they weren't racist. However, listening to him it soon became clear that his "radicalism" extended only as far as the trade union bureaucracy's, and after acknowledging rank-and-file disillusionment he kept harking back to how officialdom wasn't all bad and how one-day strikes were "a vital first step" rather than a safety valve for class anger which we need to push beyond by taking control of our own struggles. Far from justifying the illusions of leftists in the Labour Party or parliamentary politics, McDonnell is just another example of our would-be leaders trying to avoid being outflanked from below whilst they tried to contain our struggles to serve their own social interests.

Unfortunately, I had to leave immediately after Crow's speech (entertaining but offering little substantial) in order to meet up with the two Unite officers with whom I would be doing the workshop on organising the unorganised. Due to a number of other things catching up with me, I hadn't found time previously to sort out what would be happening in the workshop and so it all had to be coordinated on the day.

For clarification, initially it was Liverpool Solidarity Federation who were approached to do the workshop because of our focus on that particular area. However, sometime after, we were told that Unite the Union had also been approached to run the workshop with us, and it was intended to offer people a view of two approaches to this kind of organisation. This in itself wasn't viewed as a problem, as we are looking both to establish ourselves as a union and to challenge the way that traditional trade unions organise workers in terms of both tactics and structure.

In hindsight, this would have worked better if we had taken the time to discuss it in detail and work out exactly how we were going to approach the situation. Due to a number of circumstances, which I'm not about to go into, this never happened and so it basically fell to winging it on the day. There is no question that this was a mistake, and one we need to learn from in the future.

However, at the same time, Unite moved to dominate and take over the workshop to promote their own work. They decided that a video would be shown at the start of their work organising migrant cleaners in London, and that this would be followed by a "conversation" over our differing approaches to organising workers and our experiences. I wasn't at all sure about this, especially as the chair of this was also a Unite full-timer and so as well as opening with a video about the work of Unite there would have also been two of them to one of me - again, other members of Solfed with the organising experience not able to take part for reasons I won't go into.

Ultimately, I agreed to go along with it. This was because, due to the panel discussion over-running, few people turned up to the workshop and almost all were those I recognised as long-standing left activists. If this turned out to be a balls up, it wouldn't be in front of the target audience of our training (workers in precarious jobs looking to gain the tools and confidence to organise).

Most of my reservations about the format were realised pretty much straight away. The chair spent as much time talking about the Unite approach to organising as the Unite organiser to his right. It proved difficult to steer the discussion towards the areas that define Solfed's approach to organising. It failed to effectively engage the audience and was dragged out long enough to allow very little discussion at the end.

Despite this, I was able to make the point about where Solfed stood apart from traditional trade unions quite effectively as well as make sure that everyone who attended got a leaflet for our workplace organiser training, as well as our Stuff Your Boss pamphlet.

There are similarities between Solfed's approach to organising workers and the Unite organising model. We both emphasise organising around winnable issues that matter to workers, engaging with "social leaders" who  can influence others to get involved, and mapping the workplace and finding out who is supportive of or hostile to organising. However, whilst the methods may be similar on one level (and certainly Unite's are a massive improvement on the servicing model of most trade unions) there are also important differences.

For a start, Unite's model is part of a "strategy for growth," which means recruiting members to the union and strengthening the position of the union structure itself. This not only increases the amount of subs going into their coffers but, just as importantly, allows them to "build sector agreements." In essence, this brings us back to the contradiction between syndicalism and officialdom - the latter seeking to make itself relevant to capitalism by offering a disciplined workforce and selling industrial peace. Though the talk is of "increas[ing] the ability of workers to win for themselves at work," ultimately it is the union structure itself that wins the right to bargain on behalf of workers and all the associated problems of the representation of the workers radically opposing itself to the workers.

It could even be argued that this is just the unions trying to avoid being outflanked from below in another arena. Whilst superficially appearing to be the same as more radical tendencies - as the two Unite officials in the workshop were at pains to point out - it also keeps such worker organisation safely within the confines of the traditional union model where leadership is built from the top and the interests of the membership are weighed against the law and the need to reach agreements with the bosses or the government.

By contrast, Solfed argues for workers to be in control of their own struggles through direct democracy. In place of reps we argue for delegates with strict mandates who can be instantly recalled by the workplace committee. In place of mediation and bargaining we argue for direct action to force demands.

If you want to see the limitations of the Unite model, you need only look to the cleaners in London who broke from Unite and worked with the IWW to win a number of inspirational wildcat strikes, or the Sparks rank-and-file network - whom the union's officials have described as cancerous. This is why Solfed's emphasis is on organisation rather than recruitment and why at no stage are we offering to bargain with the bosses on the workforce's behalf.

Moreover, as we approach the strikes on November 30, it is important to remember the limitations of the trade union leadership across the board and that we must be building in order to seize control of our own struggles and go beyond them. This is why, to use one example, I am looking to initiate a strike committee in the area where I work so that it is the workers ourselves making the demands about where the struggle goes next. Ideally, though we are obviously a long way from that point, I would see workers in Britain pursuing the path of the CNT and other radical unions in Spain - circumventing trade union officialdom to push for a rank-and-file led general strike.

As what would be the final point of the workshop, I ended by saying that organising the unorganised is the most vital aspect in reaching this point. We have a long path to tread and a lot to learn along the way, and there is no point in being less than honest about that. We need to learn from our mistakes as well as our successes. But this all starts from giving workers those tools not only to organise for themselves, but to take decision making and the class struggle into their own hands.

That, if anything, is the real lesson of both 1911 and of yesterday's conference. The conclusion is that the rank-and-file of the working class must shrug off those who claim to lead us. Especially when they come start trying to usurp the language of the libertarian left.