by Chris Ford
We are in a time of transition: New Labour is on the way out with the almost certain ascendancy of the Tories to government in June 2010. Many certainties from the period of New Labour are also passing, and the whole working class has a right to be anxious about what to expect from a Tory Party which is sharpening the knives.
This should not be a time for business as usual thinking amongst activists. This should be a time of critical reflection over what has taken place over the last thirteen years. Why have the trade unions failed to reinvigorate during the period of partial recovery in the economy? Why has the response to the crisis of working class political representation staggered from one failure to another? There is a third rarely discussed question which should be important, at least for a minority of the most militant section of our movement: a crisis of communism.
The last few years in particular should have been favourable for revival and growth of the communist movement. Capitalism is stricken by a deep structural crisis of war, unemployment, mass poverty and looming environmental catastrophe. Millions are disillusioned and discontent with capitalism. Yet the communist movement has not revived and grown! It is to those genuine communists who want to see a revival of our movement and to remove the obstacles to such a revival that this article is addressed.
Workers’ representation on ice
Whether or not there is a left electoral alliance at the General Election won’t solve the crisis of working class representation. As the New Labour era draws to its close, it is not so much that the labour movement is at a crossroads, but that an historical phase has run its course. It is surely a time for re-evaluation.
Part of the problem has been the manner in which the entire question has been framed by the traditional left. It has been seen as one arising from the transformation of the Labour Party not as an issue of the labour movement as a whole. The Tories don’t see things with such tunnel vision — one of their major policy studies is entitled Labour and the Trade Unions: an Analysis of a Symbiotic Relationship — which aims to restrict the ability of organised labour to engage in any political activity.
Historically this symbiotic relationship has failed. Part of the roots of the derailment can be traced to the division of the labour movement into a “political arm” and an “industrial arm”. It was thought that the “political arm” — which cohered into the Labour Party — would legislate in the interests of the working class. But instead of strengthening the fighting force of labour in its struggles with capital, the ‘political arm’ confined the unions to ‘trade disputes’. What was supposed to be the ‘political voice of labour’, engaged in ‘gradual change’ ended up imposing capital’s interests. The Labour Party was largely the political reflex of leaders, who accepted the ideas of moderate trade unionism, the spirit of compromise, translated into middle-class Parliamentary activity.
This reformist model, that of the industrial-political divide, was reinforced during the years of the post-war boom with workers securing significant social reforms. Indeed the working class went on an offensive which began to break out of the old constraints and ways of thinking. But with the onset of the structural crisis of capital around 1974, and the ensuing capitalist counter-offensive everything changed. We saw neo-liberal restructuring, working class defeats and retrogression. As Istvan Meszaros explains: “Once, however, the historical phase of capital’s expansionary concessions is left behind, the total capitulation of reformist labour we witnessed in the last few decades accompanies it.” Essentially the rug was pulled out from under the labour movement, dominated as it was by reformist Labourites and Stalinist communists.
If we accept this analysis of the depth of the changes that have occurred then we can also see the past initiatives to solve the crisis of workers’ representation as self-defeating by their own limitations. It makes no sense to re-create a pure and simple electoral party which will reconstitute the debilitating industrial and political division. In the changed conditions of 21st century capitalism we need a more radical process of rethinking and recomposition of the workers’ movement.
Communists and workers’ representation
The lack of progress on workers’ representation has seen two responses which appear to be polar opposite positions but in fact have much in common. On the one had the remnants of the Labour left and even some who claim to be Marxists believe new opportunities will arise in the Labour Party in the period following its coming electoral defeat. There is however little evidence either from the existing state of New Labour or other such parties abroad who adapted to neo-liberalism, that there is scope for such a scenario. On the other hand one wing of the Communist Party of Britain and others cut from that cloth, contend that the Labour Party is essentially unchanged and as such there no political space for a broad left type party. This schema is essentially sectarian. They do not start from the needs of the working class, but rather their own organisations.
Rejecting the status quo of labourism, the many failed initiatives and sectarianism does not mean communists should abandon addressing the problem of working-class representation. We need to start a discussion on the wider agenda of recomposition of the movement and how that relates to our activities today. There is a need to recognise workers’ representation is not just about elections: the first national workers’ movement, the Chartists besieged the ruling class for a decade with next to no access to Parliament. So successful were the neo-liberals in clearing our class from the terrain of politics that there is no choice to be had today, despite our right to vote. But we do not have to settle for lesser evil capitalist alternatives at elections for workers to be represented.
The concept of workers’ representation committees, open and democratic bodies based on the principle of the united workers’ front was a positive idea for a way forward. The RMT adopted and failed to implement this policy. Nevertheless the idea remains valid: whilst it would be wrong to fetishise any particular form of organisation communists should strive to develop this concept. That is, representative bodies which can overcome the political and industrial division perpetuated by the existing movement. Communists can’t create such bodies for workers themselves, but we should seek to stimulate their creation through existing workers’ organisations and struggles. The solution to workers’ representation is not something which will be solved through superimposed solutions or coalitions stitched up behind closed doors. It is something which will arise through the praxis of the class struggle itself.
To talk of communists raising slogans and advancing ideas sounds very grandiose, but in reality tiny few workers will have a clue about them. This is because communists are absolutely tiny in numbers and influence. There exist organisations which describe themselves as a ‘Communist Party’ but these are names carried over from a past history. These bodies are obscure sects or in the case of the Communist Party of Britain, far from being communist. The CPB is a very conservative body, committed to the reformist British Road to Socialism. The members may be nostalgically attached to an idea of communism but it cannot be renewed inside rusting structures that see the state, not the self-activity of workers, as the mechanism for achieving liberation. Unlike some other Communist Parties the CPB is not engaged in any radical rethinking of the failure of state-socialism in the Eastern Bloc. It has made no effort at renewal or being a catalyst of re-composition such as the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista in Italy or the CPs in Bosnia or New Zealand who broke from Stalinism.
In the wider Marxist milieu the situation is one of fragmentation into a myriad of groups, who seem to hate each other more than capitalism. What is most striking is that many who consider themselves Marxists in particular see no need for either renewal of a vision of communist society or our forces. This is either because they have no perspective for the movement beyond their own organisation, or look to form a wider non-communist organisation as the way forward, i.e. a new Labour Party. What we have is essentially the abandonment of remaking communism for sectarian isolation or else remoulded social-democracy.
For communist recomposition
Many who consider themselves genuine communists, in the spirit of Marx’s vision of human liberation, are disillusioned by the current situation. Some reject any form of organisation. The question we face is: do we need a communist organisation and, if so, can we develop one free of the poison of the traditional left?
Whilst we have a difficult legacy to overcome, on both counts this is possible and necessary. In a small and unpretentious way, the communist network initiated by The Commune is laying the ground for a new beginning for both longstanding activists and young communists. The first steps are to build a functioning network of committees which puts into practice actual open unity in diversity, without all the falsity of hidden factions, enforced discipline and fake loyalties. Within The Commune there is no pre-determined outcome in terms of an organisational form. It is not that there are not historical experiences we can draw on, but that past forms should be critically examined on their own terms in their own historical context. We need to learn to shape and form an organisation for today’s needs, not superimpose such concepts of an eternal party, where theory is simply an affirmation of something already decided.
A key aspect to creating a new organisation is the consideration of its relationship to our goal. Communism is not a party — it is a society. A self-managing society is one which as such cannot be created by organisations which are not based on these principles. Our aim cannot be to substitute a ruling Communist Party for workers’ own self-organisation, but to actively assist in developing class consciousness, self-organisation and the welding of the working class into a force to transform society. We should aim to create a body in which the structure and process of adopting decisions must grow from below: organisation and coordination does not negate independent activity and self-initiative. Such an organisation must be as transparent as possible and based on the principle of self-association and communist pluralism.
The experience of the Eastern Bloc has pointed towards the creation of a league of communists as opposed to a sectarian party as the form of organisation most suited to self-management. Such a league should unite communists around common principles and a collective effort towards the renewal of our vision of communist society, and as such will foster a culture of freedom of discussion. How long will this take? The more there are of us, the sooner we can bring about new unity and the re-composition of communism and shake off the curse of sectarianism.