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Essentially reformist?

Dear comrades,

I suppose that I should be flattered. I criticised Maeve Connaughton’s views on the trade union bureaucracy in a footnote to a book review, and her article (Red Banner 16) contains a reply to me nearly four times as long.

Nonetheless, any subjective feeling of gratitude I might have must be subordinate to the objective fact of her political weakness. Her views on union bureaucracy expose her claim that Joe Craig is excessively negative on economic partnership by showing her position as eclectic, depending heavily on an inevitable flow of class struggle and, thereby, essentially reformist.

Firstly, Maeve, you imply that because the bureaucrats can be pressurised by a militant rank and file, they are at one with that rank and file. This is not quite the case. The very fact that they have to be pressurised at all presupposes their alienation. In Britain, at the end of the 1980s, mass pressure from outside the established structures forced the Conservative government to withdraw the poll tax. Did this make the Conservatives a working class leadership?

Actually, a case (a bad case, I agree) might be made that, if response to pressure is to be the decisive factor in judging such leaderships’ class character, the said Conservatives are more of a force for the working class than their alleged opponents of the bureaucracies. The poll tax surrender was far greater than anything forced out of the trade union leaders, British or Irish, in the last two decades. It was also possible to remove the Tories, even if they were replaced only by Blairism. On the evidence, it is far easier for the bureaucracy to cast out one of their number for excessive enthusiasm in the cause of the union membership than it is for that membership to cast out its leadership for class collaboration.

The bureaucrats (let us give them the accurate old nickname: fakirs) have alibis because they are heading the workers’ own institutions against these institutions’ enemies. In the last resort, they can claim that they are protecting what the workers have built. Such a statement ignores two things:
That the unions exist for a purpose, and that the fakirs’ defence of them tends to be less the defence of that purpose than of the organisations’ role in putting jam on their officials’ bread and butter. This has been the case since the time of the Dublin Lock-out and the Limerick Soviet. Joe Craig’s pamphlet has given several more recent examples.

This point is proved by the exceptions: those whom you have listed as successful socialist trade union leaders. You cite Big Jim Larkin, Matt Merrigan and Michael O’Reilly. I would add Young Jim Larkin, without making these names any less exceptional: one name per generation does not amount even to a viable current. Moreover, this exceptionalism meant isolation for each of them, apart, of course, from Big Jim in Ireland before 1914. To survive, each had to conform to the terms set by the fakirs. Merrigan was the least ill-trained, but he trusted too long to the Labour Party as a political base to counter the right.  When he tried to build a more reliable instrument, it was too late. Of course, Mick O’Reilly may buck the process. However, confidence is not inspired by his acquiescence in the postponement of the anti-privatisation stoppages.

Above all, to talk of pressure is to beg the question: pressure how, and for what? To be effective, it has to come from below and threaten the union leaders, not least in their jobs. How not to do this appears in the Anti-War Movement. For many of our friends there, getting some trade union fakir to waffle from the platform is an end in itself and one that should not be imperilled. Certainly, such fakirs have names to pull the crowds, but whether this justifies making appeals beyond their cliques such as might raise general working class consciousness and embarrass them is another matter. It is at least arguable that an immediately smaller but more conscious crowd might make more of a difference. This possibility is simply ignored by the leaders of the Anti-War Movement. On this matter I do not know your position. What I do know is that such general avoidance of confrontation with the union leaders meshes very closely with your general approach to industrial work.

You caricature Joe Craig’s strategy as amounting to no more than verbal support for strikers on specific issues. You miss the point: like myself, Joe sees that, for socialists, any support for militancy must introduce the programme: an incomplete but real summary of working class experience, and one that can help each dispute fulfil its potential as a further nail in the capitalist coffin. You make it clear that you will do all you can physically to help the strikers, but your acceptance of the fakirs’ accessibility allows you to avoid any political guidance.

The only advice you seem willing to give is: abandon partnership and resume free collective bargaining. All other things being equal, this would be fair enough. Partnership is the more effective way of tying the trade union heads into the capitalist system. If those people were indeed the ultimate enemy, we could applaud your subtle call for their hamstringing. Sadly, you don’t nobble the organ-grinder by scragging his monkey. For the bosses, profit is the aim, partnership merely the tactic: a valuable tactic, but only a tactic.


D R O’Connor Lysaght



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