report by Mark Ellingsen
The Commune held its quarterly national aggregate on 12th December. The first item on the rather packed agenda was a discussion on the organisational principles of the network (see the paper here). The meeting re-affirmed the pluralist nature of the group. It was agreed that members should encourage diversity by embracing different ‘schools of thought’ that were compatible with our platform. The Commune had members who were influenced by various Marxisms and non-Marxist thought, so it would be wrong to characterise the Commune as belonging to a specific tradition. Meaningful pluralism has been rare in the history of the communist movement which has too often been ridden by factionalism and fragmentation. Members are communists who recognise that communism is a movement from below and not a bureaucratic imposition on workers self-organisation. However, it was recognised that there was a need to clarify what communism meant as a specific form of society and that more theoretical analysis of this was required.
The second major item was a discussion of working class representation (see the paper here). There were a number of themes which came out of the discussion. First of all, recognition that the working class is no longer represented by an electoral party and that the trade unions have not been inclined to fill the gap left by New Labour. This lack of representation is all the more urgent given the attacks unleashed on the working class as part of both capital and the state’s response to the economic crisis. Secondly, all recent attempts to build a left reformist party through organisational co-operation have failed due to the manoeuvring of the traditional left organisations. However, it was also suggested that the failure of social democracy in both its right and left-wing variants has more to do with the changes in capitalism originating at least as far back as the 1970s. It may not be possible to reproduce the reformist social democracy of the post-war era. However, if the trade unions did move to build a challenge to New Labour then we would have to take a position on whether we ought to engage with it. Third, it was agreed that a hollowed out electoralism which was not based on struggles within the community and workplaces was something to be avoided. Engaging in the process of struggle at the grassroots was more important than engaging in organisation manoeuvres with other left groups. Finally, it was suggested that we should not try to mimic old ideas of the party and we should be more flexible about organisational forms.
The discussion on the nature of trade unions centred on the questions published previously and on whether there ever had been a consistent Marxist analysis of trade unions, (see the paper here). The debate was wide-ranging but there was no consensus as to the answers. On the one hand it could be argued that the historical reality of trade unions has been for the main part given over to negotiating the terms of labour with capital, at least once legal recognition was in place. On the other hand, the material expression of trade unionism depends on the economic, social, political and legal aspects of the situation which can change, sometime quite rapidly, in either a positive or negative direction. It was also suggested that it was important not to underestimate the role of ideas in the type of trade unionism that may be expressed. To some extent the discussion mirrored the debates within Marxism along a determinist-voluntarist axis with most adopting a position somewhere in between. It was also recognised that most workers are not in trade unions and it was suggested that the existence of trade unions blinds us to the possibility of other forms of organisation which may cut across the capitalist division of labour. There was some discussion of rank and file or grassroots solidarity and struggle and its relationship with the trade union leadership. The discussion was inconclusive except to confirm our commitment to the grassroots.
The final major topic of discussion was on the proposal to conduct a workers’ enquiry in London (see the paper here). The proposal was introduced as a means to connect with workers on a day-to-day level rather than the typical left engagement which tends to be limited to supporting strikes which, although important, does not engage with workers outside of major struggles. A workers’ enquiry can be used both as a means to understand the changing nature of work and a means of stimulating organisation and resistance to the imposition of detrimental working practices and managerial authority. More radically, it can also be used to question the nature of the work organisation and its goals. Furthermore, there is no reason to confine it the workplace but it can be used in localities, for example on council estates. However, it was suggested to start with something limited, for example, with a group of workers in a small workplace. Responses to the proposal ranged from neutral to positive, with the major concern being to do with the resources required to conduct such an enquiry. There was some concern that workers’ enquiries conducted in the past had not adequately theorised the contradictions of capitalism and how this is expressed within the workplace and sometimes had not led to resistance but had remained as a sociological study. However, what everyone agreed with was the need to provide a forum for workers to discuss the situation in the workplace and this could also be provided through the paper and web site. It was agreed that the proposal should be made more concrete for further discussion. It was also mentioned that there was interest in this form of engagement in other parts of the country such as Bristol.
Finally, there was some discussion on the newspaper/web site (for previous discussion on the paper see here). The main conclusions were that there needs to be more input from people on the content of the paper in a more collaborative manner and that their needs to be more content based on workers’ experiences as well as some form of letter page. With the web site, most agreed that it needs to be redesigned at some point because the blog format made it difficult to find previous articles. It was also mentioned that it was intended to produce an international journal in collaboration with other groups. The first issue is likely to be after the ‘Global Commune’ day school in Edinburgh on 16th January.