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The Emperor’s new clothes

Lessons of Grangemouth and the consequence for the future direction of the socialist movement.

30 January 2014

The debacle at the Grangemouth refinery has come and gone, but the lessons of the defeat have still to be absorbed by the socialist movement both in Britian and Ireland. Below Unite union activist and Socialist Democracy member James Fearon presents his analysis.

The Grangemouth debacle has laid bare the nature of the present systemic capitalist crisis, which has been so completely misread by Unite’s leadership in general and by Len McCluskey in particular. Its severity is revealed by the spare capacity in the oil industry, the potential mobility of finance capital and the political pointedness of the assault that so definitively exposed the most left wing face of the British union bureaucracy. Workers who are paying attention can plainly see that their emperor has no clothes, and indeed no prospect of clothing himself in the near future. 

The prospect of the posturing ‘militants’ of the trade union leadership putting up a determined fight, never strong, is fading ever fast as the fight is taken to the old ossified husk of the labour movement’s leadership. Posturing by bureaucrats routinely precedes some sort of facilitation with employers’ demands but in this case the poseurs were caught out, the bureaucracy put on the swagger, presented itself as the people to talk to if the bosses want their system to run smoothly, only to find itself, in this instance, being unceremoniously dispensed with. The traditional game wasn’t played.

With desperation intensifying to reduce the British budget deficit, projected to be “still the largest among advanced capitalist nations in 2015”, the drive to push labour costs down and restore profitability continues. The current government plans continued austerity measures in to 2019 and beyond and the British Labour Party are attempting to prove that they are up to the task of fronting the exercise. With the next election looming and the possibility that the working class may elect them out of desperation the Falkirk attack is to remind the trade unions that they must ‘know their place’. The body politic rallied around Milliband and, encouraged by the Grangemouth humiliation, launched a right wing attack on our trade unions. 

The masks were lifted momentarily. Behind Milliband and Salmond lay the true faces of British Labourism and Scottish nationalism. Milliband, like Eamon Gilmore, stands eager to do whatever it takes to rein in the aspirations of the working class. Salmond, once so keen on the Celtic Tiger, is no different to whichever Irish politician whose turn it is to defend the same corporate elite’s ultra low corporation tax and is every bit as keen to throw grant money at transnational capital in order to convince it to stay in the country, irrespective of its assault on workers’ pay and conditions. 

In the face of these realities Len McCluskey’s leftist façade crumbled completely. The cat is out of the bag! The blustering trade union careerists are paper tigers, just look at how easily Ratcliffe dodged around the union’s petit bureaucracy in the Plant, look at the numbers who bother to vote in leadership elections, where an optimist would expect a 20% turnout, or look at the numbers attending union meetings. Those struggling for a fighting rank and file movement and a rejuvenation of our unions’ internal life have been aware of this weakness for some time and sought to strengthen our fighting ability in the teeth of determined opposition from entrenched and complacent bureaucracies. 

Blame the workers?

There are those that defend decades of bureaucratic passivity by blaming the workers and making the point that had the workers taken more militant action they too would have been defeated. While unlikely, given the numbers accepting the employers offer over the union’s head, workers could have occupied the plant, but it is worth bearing in mind that it was not a healthy workers movement overall that suffered defeat at Grangemouth, but a weak bureaucratised one with a leadership that is hopelessly dependent on electing a ‘friendly’ government. A leadership that desperately seeks government investment as a way of ameliorating the worst pangs of austerity and hopes to continue through this crisis in the same way it has muddled along since similar blows were laid on it by Thatcher – blows they were determined not to resist when the opportunity of the miners strike presented itself. 

Even with a healthy rank and file leading an occupation at Grangemouth, without widespread and determined sympathy action on an international scale, it would still have faced a difficult task. But had the workers taken this action on their own account, spontaneously, the lessons would have been manifold. The road ahead is not likely to be marked by a smooth continuum of gradually increasing levels of victory, indeed if the working class are to face the class enemy there will be plenty of hard lessons to be learned and plenty of defeats before workers as a class are combative enough to face any major conflict with even the semblance of a political programme and a revolutionary leadership. Workers will fight but they do not just fight ‘against’ capitalist aggression, they fight ‘for’ something. Whether it is for a rerun of an idealised version of the reformist past or for a revolutionary future depends on the willingness of the socialist movement to oppose the bureaucracy and put forward a revolutionary perspective. 

Like many of their uncritical supporters on the Left the union leadership do not recognise the depth and fundamental nature of the capitalist crisis. They do not accept that profits drive production, that the organic composition of capital has risen and the rate of profit has fallen accordingly hence the inflation of the bubble of fictional capital. That bubble has burst and the capitalist response is to burden a virtually defenceless working class with the consequences while they produce another one which is inflating prodigiously, preparing the ground for an even more profound catastrophe. 

This fundamental crisis, the mechanics of which was explained so long ago by Marx, cannot be repaired with the sticking plaster advocated by Unite’s leadership. They do not learn from Milliband’s attack on them and they cling desperately to the Keynesian economic fantasy that state investment, which they mistakenly believe to be socialism, would produce growth, restore profitability and act as an example to the cash soaked corporations. 

Benevolent capitalism?

At the recent “Workers Uniting” conference, a coalition of Unite and the US United Steelworkers, Len McCluskey, fresh from the Grangemouth humiliation, laid out the unions strategy; “We need the state to lead investment and drive the economy forward. And we know that the global financial markets need to be regulated and brought under control.” The experience has not shifted the bureaucracy’s focus from the Keynesian holy grail of a new benevolent state intervention. Even the Tories talk of a state financed ‘kick start’ for the economy, while delivering a 13% decrease in infrastructure spending last year alone. These same trade union leaders would announce it as an outstanding victory if Milliband managed to even marginally reduce the rate of decrease in spending while at the same time continuing the torture of lowering labour costs and budget deficit reduction, in the interests of ‘competitiveness’ of course. Workers can expect nothing but betrayal from this attempt to convince us that this crisis can be solved by a ‘friendly’ bourgeois government without massive sacrifices on the part of the working class. At the ‘Workers Uniting’ conference Len stated his belief that “we stand on the edge of something immensely important”, but if Grangemouth is anything to go by the bureaucracy will remain there, motionless, until they are pushed out of the way, either by a resurgent workers’ movement or by the enemy.

This should be a moment for a sober reassessment. The union bureaucracies are now faced with the prospect of carrying on as before or caving in even more readily, but further posturing is worse than useless, it is dangerous, we must rebuild our movement. The workers must take up cudgels themselves to defend trade unionism from this attack and to reinvigorate our movement, this must be done in spite of our leaderships failures and inactivity, in spite of bureaucratic sluggishness and in spite of the bureaucracy’s hostility to any rank and file initiative. 

British head cold …. Irish flu!

In Ireland the trade union leadership’s gross inadequacies have been exposed to socialists long ago by Social Partnership. The illusions among the ‘left’ in Keynesian cures and the unawareness of the depths of the crisis are even harder to excuse given this history. In the face of the assault by the Troika and the coalition with the obvious collaboration of ICTU we have witnessed a collapse to the right. The evidence provided by the promissory note deal, which could loosely be described as a Keynesian measure, prolonging the agony, gives workers and their ‘conscious’ socialist leadership a view of what a “Better, Fairer Way” looks like, and what lies ahead for Irish workers. 

Why the Irish left sticks so resolutely to reformism attests to the lack of real Marxism within the groups and a cultish compliance with their party line which does not extend beyond commentary on events and calling on the state to act on behalf of the workers. This most commonly takes the form of an idealistic invitation to the state to oppose the requirements of capitalism and attack the rich. Besides the blindingly obvious fact that the bourgeois state is busy attacking the working class so that the bourgeoisie do not have to pay, this abrogates these organisations responsibilities as Marxists by creating illusions in the state, in the process alienating left republicans who know well the nature of the state, and failing to convey the most basic Marxist lessons from the recent class conflict, that the state is an instrument of class rule, that parliament, the law and the special bodies of armed men are there to protect the rich and that the workers’ defence organisations that do exist, primarily the trade unions, must confront that state. 

When the leadership of the trade unions, accustomed to the social partnership method of salami slice sell-outs, are complicit in the betrayal of the working class on such a historic scale it should be obvious to every socialist that it is their duty to expose and consistently campaign against the bureaucrats’ rule. Instead, the search for a ‘left’ wing of the bureaucracy becomes ever more desperate, and opportunist, as reformist illusions in a parliamentary road to socialism are strengthened by calls for the return of a morally pure ‘genuinely socialist government’. Plan B, the amelioration of the repayment plan by the rescheduling of Irish debt through the promissory note deal, amounts to the content of plan A, running little more slowly with a great deal more expense, but the response of the left, still muttering that ‘austerity isn’t working’, is to continue to appeal to the state on increasingly less central issues while offering no perspective on how to fight back apart from attend a demonstration or ‘join us’! To protect their irrelevant cabals within various unions they refuse to confront the traitor Begg and his cronies or to build a meaningful rank and file resistance across all unions.

This detached complacency has remained stable in part due to the soporific effects of decades of relative calm in the class war, carefully managed by the trade union bureaucracy through social partnership, during which the left found itself in a workable niche it now cannot break out of. For years now the ‘Left’ have repeatedly assembled in committee rooms in the guise of the left wing of the trade union movement or tried to form relationships with ‘Left’ bureaucrats. The result was, on the one hand, to limit the role of the socialist organisations to acting as the left rump of the bureaucracy, on the other it exacerbated tendencies to substitute themselves for barely existent campaigns that had the semblance of spontaneous trade union activities but which was little more than various political groups in another guise. As a result political demands are shelved for fear they should appear unrealistic, or should blow the cover of what has been passed off as a ‘spontaneous’ trade union activity. Increasingly inane slogans are produced that are perceived to be at the level of workers’ consciousness and in this way the left organisations have abrogated their political responsibilities and joined the general drift to the right following every defeat. 

This state of collapse must urgently be addressed. Even though the farcical  failures of the recent past have generated dissent, any dissent emerging within centrist or reformist organisations tends to result in ex members moving to the right. This tendency can only be arrested by a return to Marx, in particular with reference to Marxist crisis theory, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, because this theory can explain the depth of the current crisis, its systemic nature, and concomitantly the tasks the working class face.

Lenin opposed ‘economism’ and advocated that “we must actively take up the political education of the working class and the development of its political consciousness.” Bowing in awe before spontaneity for a protracted period has resulted in many on the left on the one hand being unable to discern the difference between the “beginning and constituent part” of socialist activity represented by trade union work, and revolutionary political tasks, or on the other, placing an unbridgeable divide between them. While the lack of trade union rank and file activity and the low levels of conflict have allowed political mistakes and trade union misleadership to remain relatively well concealed, conditions have changed now and the question of political leadership and transitional demands is highly important, simply due to the fact that signs of spontaneous movement among the working class are beginning to appear. 

Transitional demands

The challenge for revolutionaries then is to present workers in struggle with transitional demands. Concrete demands that, should they be realised, improve workers conditions, raise confidence and consciousness; should they be defeated, raise workers’ consciousness of what defeated them and why. In the Grangemouth context this means that lessons must be drawn from the defeat inflicted on Unite’s bureaucracy. This means we must expose the inadequacy of the unions bureaucratic method of feinting in the direction of possible industrial action followed by negotiation and concession bargaining and pose a fighting rank and file that does not shy away from the political implications of industrial struggles. Political and trade union demands are inseparable, not to be kept for different audiences as maximum and minimum demands respectively. Demands for a fighting union are strengthened, not weakened, by revealing the weakness of the reformist politics that hamper trade union leaders and the revolutionary implications of the present systemic capitalist collapse. Without confronting illusions in Keynesian reforms, sometimes mistaken for transitional demands, we leave the bureaucracy politically intact.

In attempts to formulate transitional demands it is not the task of revolutionaries to pose half way measures and justify their viability, or to attempt to posit how these intermediate ‘workable’ measures will coexist with capitalism. The point is that a transitional demand is a demand that capitalism can not wholly and satisfactorily answer and which at least begins to lead struggling workers to recognise the rapacious nature of the economic system, the political system that fronts it and the “special bodies of armed men” that defend it. They must have the potential to show the entire vista, not just the ‘realistic’ view, hemmed within the parameters set by bourgeois society, that the entire body of reformism, which includes the overwhelming majority of the Irish left, cannot see beyond. 

While demands presented as partial, like occupation of industries, cannot be expected to be victorious in the longer term, especially during crises, workers will use, and are using in a limited way at present, this technique as a spontaneous, desperate, method of resistance. The point is however that it is the workers who are taking action on their own account. It is precisely because these methods reveal to workers exactly what is lined up against them, poses in however limited a form, the question of power and reveals the weakness of their own position that they end up in defeat. 

This is repeatedly ignored by reformists and covered up by the trade union bureaucracy, who attempt to portray the smallest insulting concession as a victory, because they will not face the political implications of a defeat and are determined to wait in hope for another reformist parliamentarian to present them with a face saving fig leaf. Workers recognise the weakness of this and accept the only way out they can, a redundancy package or payment of wages that are due. So workers are learning, their consciousness is developing, but the conclusions they come to are that their leadership is ‘useless’ and that to fight on is ‘hopeless’. Some socialist ‘deep entry’ union activists have spent so long presenting themselves as the spontaneous face of the workers that they cannot recognise the real thing when it happens and have buried their revolutionary instincts so deep that they cannot find them, or are too timid to do what the revolutionary left is supposed to do, draw and propagate the revolutionary lessons and agitate on that basis among the affected workers. 

No progress will be made by telling workers what we think they are ready for, adapting to some assumed aggregate of current consciousness. Based on an understanding of Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall we must spell out the real state of the capitalist emergency and show the true capitalist objectives that lie behind the austerity drive, the restoration of profitability by the destruction of capital and the permanent reduction of workers’ living standards and wages to a level where labour costs are “competitive”. 

Opposition must begin with a rejection of the tactics of electoralism and an uncompromising repudiation, not a call for an amelioration, of the debt burden that has been imposed on the Irish working and middle classes. 

Repudiation in words means nothing without action and that action, if it is not to be a spontaneous blip, requires systematic organisation. This means joint activities between left groups, republican socialists, single issue campaigns and workers in struggle with open democratic decision making processes to guide action as part of a united front. 

Any such initiative must focus its efforts immediately on mobilising existing working class organisations, which cannot be ignored or bypassed. This focus must be neither academic nor bureaucratic but must be rooted in working class action.

This demands that we “call things by their proper names”. The entire bureaucratic trade union leadership has acted as facilitators for the imposition of austerity and the bureaucracy per se is incapable of leading any consistent resistance to the capitalist assault taking place. 

Only a fight to build an active and independent trade union rank and file can create the culture that will produce a fighting union leadership, rooted in the daily struggles of the membership and only such a struggle can multiply the active participation of members in union life and replace bureaucracy with democracy turning our own organisations into fighting organs of resistance. 

The purpose of building such a rank and file organisation is not just to change the unions’ leadership at some future indeterminate point but to act immediately to resist the imposition of austerity at the point where it effects both organised and unorganised working people, at the point of application. It is at this point that austerity’s plans meet working people face to face. If workers obey the ICTU’s leadership and do austerity’s dirty work then all is lost, we surrender before we fight. Unite’s demand that only union members should install water meters is typical of the pathetic posturing that attempts to put a brave face on a sell out. 

No worker should install water meters, the work is plainly tainted! When tasks such as this are outsourced the companies that do it should be blacked by all organised workers, their staff should be confronted or recruited and community campaigns, that are already being spontaneously organised, should receive vigorous coordinated support from internal union campaigns to assist and focus their activities. This will require confrontation with ICTU which disowned and betrayed the CAHWT and conspired with the state to kettle their contingent on a national demonstration.

Such actions will either gain concessions or, given the depth of the crisis, elicit a harsh response from the state on behalf of global finance capital. What would a confrontation with the state over a refusal to pay the bankers debts do to the Irish bond yield and what would that do to the anarchic markets that control our lives?

For workers to have the confidence to take a stand on these issues they need a fighting organisation, one that can only be formed through struggle, with a leadership of, and for the rank and file and fundamentally different from the existing trade union leadership. Such a development would represent a more advanced level of struggle, Lenin noted the difference between “spontaneity and spontaneity”, but even such fighting organs are still defensive and can only find conscious political leadership in and through a revolutionary internationalist organisation, aware of the depth of the crisis and determined to build a revolutionary leadership, not just in Ireland but in Europe and beyond.

Socialist Democracy believes that such an organisation is essential, is committed to helping create conditions in which it can be built, and encourages like minded comrades from all organisations and none to join us in building practical resistance to the planned impoverishment of Irish workers and to begin to build the Irish revolutionary left.


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