Sunday, January 07, 2007




IS Policy Statement on Industrial Work

The importance of the Policy Statement on Industrial Work adopted by the International Socialists in 1971 lies in that none of the established leaders of IS wrote it. There can be no doubt that had Jim Higgins, as the groups most authoritative trades unionist, or any of the leading theorists of IS written the document that it would have been superior in every way. Except it would not have represented, as it does, the collective experience of that small layer of industrial, primarily blue collar, militants who had been won to IS in the previous few years.

It represents the collective views of the most politically advanced militants with regard to internal union democracy and its relationship to the struggle against the employers. It represents a set of views that were not confined to IS, although best represented by the organisation, but were to be found throughout the entire workers movement at the height of post-war militancy from which time the document dates. The role of IS in the production of the document was that of a fraction of the class defined by its politics but not separate from the class, or the embryonic vanguard within it, as a whole.

This is in contrast to the role played by the ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ of the period who also had a small following within the class. They, namely the Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy, saw their task as bringing knowledge of sacred scriptures (the Transitional Program, etc.) to the workers and thereby enlightening them. This policy, substitutionist by its very nature, was seen as being based on the idea of the revolutionary party bringing revolutionary class consciousness to the working class from outside its ranks, a parody of Kautskys views as quoted by Lenin in What Is To Be Done? and was often counter-posed to the supposed economism attributed to IS.

In fact the writing of the document bears witness to IS acting as a part of the class, of a party of its vanguard if you like, developing itself by developing roots within the class and its trade union organisations. Central to this effort was the development of rank and file bodies within the unions themselves but based on workplace or industrial location. Such a strategic conception being very different from the efforts of the orthodox whose entire efforts were to win ‘leadership’ in the class by counter-posing their own narrow party organisation to the reformist bureaucracy within the unions. In its concreteness having nothing abstract about it we may also legitimately contrast the rank and file strategy to the conception of a ‘class struggle left’ that the Mandelites touted at this time as they turned away from their infatuation with guerrilla warfare.

More importantly although the document could easily be subscribed to by the present day SWP it is arguable that its practice is very far from the IS conception of rank and fileism as represented in the Policy Statement. Despite its verbal genuflections to rank and fileism the practice of the SWP is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Mandelite idea of a class struggle left wing in its very amorphousness. Thus on the one hand the SWP claim to be producing rank and file papers, lacking any genuine basis of support from the union rank and file, while on the other hand their members on the executive of PCS vote to drop the ‘suspended strike’ on the pensions issue. This in contrast to the spirit of the Policy Statement which demanded negotiations with the bosses be subject to the ratification of mass meetings.

It should be noted just how much has changed in the field of trades unionism since the document was passed and how the context of 1971 shaped the document. Thus by demanding that negotiations be submitted to mass meetings the document reveals its roots as lying in the blue collar unions of the mass production industries of the time particularly engineering. Today even in that reduced industry mass meetings are rare and have always been less typical of white collar unionism. The Policy Statement is then marked by its origins from deep within a tradition of the British trade union movement which no longer exists on the same scale or in quite the same forms it did between the rise of the General Unions and the defeat of the Miners Strike.

Despite the restructuring of British capitalism since 1979 the efforts of IS to understand the lessons of earlier class struggles, as represented so well in the contents of the issue of the International Socialism journal in which the Policy Statement appeared (see here for a full list of contents), continues to yield results from which revolutionaries can benefit. For example the Policy Statement makes considerable efforts to develop a number of principles by which militants can struggle for workers’ democracy within the trades unions. One aspect of which struggle was the fight against bureaucratism and the co-option of militants into the bureaucracy itself.

Today, if anything, that anti-bureaucratic struggle is more important than it was in 1971. At that time in those plants where Joint Shop Steward Committees existed they were unofficial bodies outside the direct control of either the union bureaucracies or of the state. Today by contrast such committees are recognised and governed by both law and the union bureaucracies with the result that they have all too often become bureaucratised and incorporated into the machinery erected by the bosses to police the workers. Indeed despite the decrease in union density and absolute numbers of unionists there has been a proportionate increase in the size of the union bureaucracy parasitic on the dues paid by the rank and file membership.

It becomes even more important then for revolutionaries to emphasise the need to resist the union bureaucracies and their politics of class collaborationism. Given which it is critical to avoid the possibility of naïve revolutionaries becoming detached from their class base in the workplaces not only by virtue of accepting appointed positions in the union bureaucracy but also by becoming elected to leading committees when lacking support for class struggle policies. If anything the Policy Statement neglects these dual dangers as at the time it was written the number of serious activists of all political hues within the unions was far greater and the level of class struggle far higher so that such a likelihood was unlikely.

What may come as a shock to many young revolutionaries today is the stress placed on workplace organisation in the document. It is then worth contrasting it to those sections of the Transitional Program which discuss trades unionism marked as they are by the authors knowledge of the French working class scene and, to a lesser extent, by the then recent experiences of the American working class in forging the CIO. As such the Transitional Program points towards the absolute importance of workplace democracy in a fashion similar to the main drive of the Policy Statement although the specifics of this are obscured by the roots of the Transitional Program in a union tradition very different to those of Britain in 1971 a fact which the orthodox Trotskyists neglected to their cost.

What emerges from both the Policy Statement and the relevant sections of the Transitional Program is a commitment to workers’ democracy based on the workers own organs of struggle. Such organs, in the first instance strike committees and mass meetings, are however extremely unlikely to emerge if militants allow themselves to become enmeshed with the union bureaucracy when lacking support for their politics at grassroots level. The domination of say the PCS National Executive by members of various left groups is then meaningless when they cannot if so much as lift a finger to defend hard won pension rights. The same is true of the SWP members on the PCS executive who voted against strike action, not only were they betraying the interests of new entrants to the civil service for purely opportunist reasons, but they were also lining up against the need of the proletariat to learn from its own experiences of class struggle in favour of a conception of socialism that sees it as something which ‘leaders’ can deliver to the class through clever negotiations rather than something that must be fought for by the workers ourselves.

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Mike - it is excellent that you are publishing these very importnat documents. I hop they do spark of the debate among the young peole who have not been exposed to these ideas before.

But surely today the probelm is exactly the opposite, that the union officals are often having to substitute and provide representation becasue in many unionised workplaces there simply is no shop floor organisation.

What we need is a campaign popularising basic class consciouness, and solidarity, and the bureaucracy can be an ally in that task. (not that theya re doing it much, but then neither is the poligtical left)
BTW - an even worse scandal than the PCS fiasco, whcih seems to have gone unnoticed was the failure of Jane Loftus on the CWU exec to vote against a bonfire of conditions which are a management prelude to provatisation

No explanation is forthcoming for her non-attendance at the crucial meeting.
Andy I agree that in many cases the lower ranks of the officals can be in advance of the workforce. But surely this is a result of the lack of combativity over the last period for which the union bureaicracy has been responsible for some considerable degree by virtue of their class collaborationist policies?

I agree that a massive campaign to renew class conciousness is urgently needed but only if it is not abstract and is based on solid issues that have an echo in large sections of the class. And this si something that the union bureaucracy will not do as long as they remain linked to labourism i suspect.

Quite frankly I believe that in todays conditions the crucial section of the class socialists need to reach out to are the new Eastern European workers. They have far less to lose and are in general younger and potentially more combative.
Very interesting post.

I'm impressed with the revival of the IWW, and the organizing Starbuck's. An actual union based on class struggle, going back to Joe Hill.

You are right about the immigrants Mike, The GMB has set up a Polish branch in Southampton, and we are currently recruiting a Polish organiser for the GMB in Swindon.
Keep on blogging, Mike. I've added you to my hallowed hall of fame.
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