Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Founding of the Trades Union Congress (1968)

From the June 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Trades Union Congress was founded in the Mechanics Institute, Manchester, on June 2 1868 by thirty-four delegates who had responded to an invitation sent out by the Manchester and Salford Trades Council. In every way the aims of the founders were strictly limited, and in some important respect those limitations are still to be found in the TUC to-day, in spite of its vastly greater representative capacity and the widening of its activities.

This was not in any sense a revolutionary body and even its structure reflected a falling away from earlier attempts to form a unified National Trade Union body with power to act in strikes. The delegates came together only to discuss matters of mutual interest. It was, as George Woodcock describes it in the recently published History of the TUC 1868-1968, no more than "a small debating society".

In the letter of invitation sent out by the Manchester and Salford Council it was called a "Proposed Congress of Trades Councils and other Federations of Trades Societies". This form of organisation was preferred because it would cost less to have delegates from Trade Councils than to have delegates from from separate unions.

Its aims were to enlighten public opinion about trade unionism, and to try to influence Parliament in the matter of trade union legislation. It was to be modelled on the area meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, with the reading and discussion of papers on trade union problems, "with a view of the merits and demerits of each question being thoroughly ventilated through the medium of the public press". Twelve subjects for papers were suggested in the letter of invitation, ranging from trade union law and the Royal Commission on Trade Unions then sitting, to "the effect of trade unions on foreign competition", "Limitation of Apprentices", "The Regulation of the Hours of Labour" and "Arbitration and Courts of Conciliation".

The immediate background of the formation of the TUC was provided by three events then much discussed. The first was a short trade depression in 1966-7 which gave rise - as it does to-day - to complaints by business men and politicians that British goods were being priced out of markets by "high" British wages - hence the proposed discussion of foreign competition at the Congress.

The second was the blowing up of a non-unionist's house in Sheffield in 1866 which led to a storm of abuse of trade unions generally. The unions were anxious to present a collective view repudiating violence, in evidence to the Royal Commission which was considering this and other aspects of trade unionism. (Actually the evidence was presented by the group of trade union officials in the London Trades Council, most of whom were no more than lukewarm about what they regarded as a rival movement from Manchester).

The last event which stirred the unions into activity was a ruling by the High Court in the case of Hornby v Close, which meant that trade union, though not criminal organisations, were still illegal and consequently not protected (as they had thought they were) by the Friendly Societies Act 1855. In particular they could not take court action to protect their funds from defaulting branch officials.

It was in these fields that the TUC claimed to have been successful in the early years of its history, in the shape of a series of amendments of trade union law, growing acceptance of the "responsibility" of trade unionism, and the extension of the franchise.

The early TUC can be seen in perspective by comparing its outlook with, for example, that of the Chartist Labour Parliament held in Manchester in 1854, attended by trade union delegates from all over the country. Marx and Louis Blanc were elected honorary delegates. They did not attend but Marx sent a message in which he expressed the view that the proceedings should be aimed at organsing the working class for the conquest of political power and taking over ownership of the means of production by the workers. The letter was read at the conference.

The TUC did not even try to put into practice what had been attempted unsuccessfully by the Sheffield Association of Organised Trades in 1866, who had called a conference to form a National Trade Union organisation to give financial and other support to workers locked out by their employers.

The early attitude of the TUC is largely to be explained by the fact that the dominant unions represented only part of the working class. B. C. Roberts wrote of this:
The TUC . . . was representative of little more than half a million skilled artisans. The remainder of the working class the millions of unskilled workers, were, with the exception of the cotton industry and a few other rare exceptions, unorganised, and for the most part barely taken into consideration by the Parliamentary Committee. Its policy reflected the philosophy of unions whose members were crafts,en, conscious of their skill, and standing in the community as worthy, respectable and independent citizens. (The Trades Union Congress 1868-1921.)

Marx referred to this in a letter to Bebel* (28 Oct. 1885), pointing out that the craft unions in the TUC deliberately kept the "unskilled" workers outside their ranks.
But do you suppose the unions ever dreamt of doing away with this silly bunk? Not in the least. I can never remember reading of a simple proposal of the kind at a Trades Union Congress. 
If anything else was needed to mark the contrast between the socialist outlook and that of the founders of the TUC it is only necessary to recall the paper Marx submitted to the Geneva Congress of the First International in 1865 (Value Price and Profit) in which he called on the unions to give up the motto "a fair day's work for a fair day's pay" and adopt instead "abolition of the wages system".
Edgar Hardcastle 

*In fact, it was actually Engels who referred to this in a letter to Bebel.

Left Unity - for Socialism or for Reformism? (2013)

From the October 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard

In March, following the relative success of his nostalgic film about the post-war Labour government The Spirit of 45, Ken Loach launched an appeal for the formation of a new left-of-Labour (not to say Old Labour) party. The ball was picked up by others and a new Left Party is to be founded at a meeting in London on 30 November.

Loach’s appeal brought in some 9000 replies, though well under  a thousand of them seem to have followed this up by getting involved in local ‘Left Unity’ groups. An appeal published in the Guardian (12 August) sets out the general aim of those calling for the new party:
‘We urgently need a new party of the left. Labour will not provide the opposition to coalition politics that the situation demands. We need to provide a genuine alternative to the austerity policies which the three main parties support. A party that is socialist, environmentalist, feminist and opposed to all forms of discrimination.’

A meeting in May of those who had responded to Loach’s appeal decided that the new party should be an individual membership organisation. This was in deliberate contrast to a previous attempt to form a new left-of-Labour party in the early years of this century – the ‘Socialist Alliance’, which was in effect an electoral alliance between the SWP and Militant and which eventually fell apart because of rivalry between these two Trotskyist groups.

The individual membership decision was, and was meant to be, a rebuff to such groups, though their members are still free to join as individuals. Some Trotskyist groups – ‘Socialist Resistance’ and ‘Workers Power’ – have accepted this. This is likely to cause the new party problems in the future as it is a well-known tactic of such groups to ‘enter’ a bigger party, form a ‘faction’ (whether open or clandestine) within it, and breakaway away at some point with, they calculate, more members than they went in with.

But why another Left party? Aren’t there already a number of left-of-Labour parties which contest elections? Scargill’s SLP, Galloway’s Respect Party, the SWP, Militant (now calling themselves SPEW), TUSC and even the Communist Party of Britain (who run the Morning Star). The aim seems to be to form a party of a different type, one that is neither dominated by a single individual nor organised on Leninist lines; an open, more or less democratic party like, in the British context, the old ILP. Supporters of the new party cite existing European parties such as the Party of the Left in France, Die Linke in Germany and Syriza in Greece as examples they want to follow.

The general orientation of the new party has yet to be decided. That’s going to be settled at its founding conference at the end of the November. In the meantime three ‘platforms’ for discussion at the conference are circulating amongst those who signed up to Loach’s appeal.

One – the Left Unity Platform – is that of those who took the initiative to call for setting up the new party. They want a broad party that will attract any and every one to the left of Labour. In other words, an opportunist, catch-all party. They have the support of one of the Trotskyist groups, ‘Socialist Resistance’, which claims to be the genuine ‘Fourth International’ and is the successor of the old IMG of the 1970s of which Tariq Ali was a prominent member.

More interesting is the second one, called the ‘Socialist Platform’. It seems to be the initiative of one of the constituents of TUSC – the ‘Independent Socialist Network’, which caters for individuals who support TUSC but are not members of SPEW or of the RMT union. In fact the ISN seems to be on the brink of defecting from TUSC to the new Left Party.

The third – the so-called ‘Class Struggle Platform’ – can be dismissed fairly quickly. It has been put forward by another Trotskyist group, ‘Workers Power’, and just reproduces their programme. These people are nothing if not brazen. The new party has not yet been formed and they have already founded a ‘faction’ within it.

The ‘Socialist Platform’ is reproduced opposite. As can be seen, it is written in the same sort of language that we use; in fact we can agree with a large part of it, especially that ‘capitalism does not and cannot be made to work in the interests of the majority’ and clauses 6, 7 and 9. There are of course differences. For instance, clause 2 could imply that a ‘state’ will continue to exist in socialism. Clause 3 does not say explicitly that socialism has to involve the complete ending of production for the market. Clause 5 ends with a peculiar formulation on Europe (even though this is an advance on the No2EU embraced by most of the Left). Clause 8 is the real stumbling block from our point of view as it opens the way for the party to campaign for reforms.

Others, too, have noticed its similarity with what we say. A supporter of the Left Unity Platform has offered the following criticism of it:
‘There is no acknowledgement that fighting for reforms in the short term is entirely compatible with aiming for socialism in the longer term. Absent is any idea that a fight for reforms can raise people’s self-activity and point towards escalating demands; instead we are offered something approaching impossibilism. Current struggles are played down in favour of visions of a utopian future.’
If you follow the link from the word “impossibilism” it takes you to a Wikipedia page which explains that the main current exponent of this in Britain is us (see: leftunity.org/which-way-for-left-unity-the-case-for-the-left-party-platform). The author, Tom Walker, is a member of a breakaway group from the SWP. So this is a case of a Trotskyist criticising the ‘Socialist Platform’ for being too like the SPGB, a damning argument amongst Trotskyists.

One group of Leninists who have signed it are not satisfied with it, but because they see it as non-Leninist. This group, calling itself the ‘Communist Party of Great Britain’ (even though they have nothing to do with the old, now defunct CPGB) and publishing the Weekly Worker, have proposed a series of amendments intended to turn it into a Leninist statement.

For instance, where the original version says:

‘The Left Unity party is a socialist party. Its aim is to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism’

they want to change this to:
‘It seeks to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by the rule of the working class. Our ultimate aim is a society based on the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs’, a moneyless, classless, stateless society, within which each individual can develop their fullest individuality.’

On the face of it this seems more explicitly socialist and of course we too want a ‘moneyless, classless, stateless society’, but what this is actually doing is introducing the Leninist distinction (which we reject and which was never in Marx’s writings) between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’. We call a moneyless, classless, stateless society ‘socialism’ (or, occasionally ‘communism’, as the two words mean the same) and this may well be the view also of some of those who have signed the original platform. For us, this is the immediate aim, but for those behind the amendment it is only a far-off ‘ultimate aim’, just as it was for the government of the old USSR. Their immediate aim is a so-called ‘workers state’ in which money, classes and the state will continue to exist.

There is no chance of the ‘Socialist Platform’ being accepted at the founding conference of the new party. The Left Unity Platform will be adopted and a new wishy-washy, leftwing reformist party will come into existence.

The trouble, for them, is that such a left-of-Labour party already exists in the Green Party. The only difference is that the Green Party does not claim to be ‘socialist’, only ‘environmentalist, feminist and opposed to all forms of discrimination’. Apart from that, the policies that the two parties will be advocating will be the same, for instance, defence of the welfare state, bringing the utilities back into ‘public’ ownership, failed Keynesian policies as a supposed alternative to austerity, against overseas military action… So, to succeed, the new party will have to replace the Green Party. Which hardly seems likely.

Then there are the other smaller left-of-Labour parties competing on the same ground. They are not going to go away. Nor will the Trotskyist groups that have decided to ‘enter’ it. So the new Left Party is likely to be a non-starter and will probably end up as just another such small party, so adding to the confusion as to what socialism is and how to get it.

The only positive thing that could come out of this is for some of those who signed the ‘Socialist Platform’ to realise that a socialist party, on sound socialist principles, already exists and is already campaigning for socialism and nothing but.
Adam Buick

Statement of Aims and Principles for the [Left Unity] Party (‘Socialist Platform’)

1. The [Left Unity] Party is a socialist party. Its aim is to bring about the end of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.

2. Under capitalism, production is carried out solely to make a profit for the few, regardless of the needs of society or damage to the environment.  Capitalism does not and cannot be made to work in the interests of the majority. Its state and institutions will have to be replaced by ones that act in the interests of the majority.

3. Socialism means complete political, social and economic democracy. It requires a fundamental breach with capitalism. It means a society in which the wealth and the means of production are no longer in private hands but are owned in common. Everyone will have the right to participate in deciding how the wealth of society is used and how production is planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the natural world on which we depend. We reject the idea that the undemocratic regimes that existed in the former Soviet Union and other countries were socialist.

4. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all oppression and discrimination, whether on the basis of gender, nationality, ethnicity, disability, religion or sexual orientation and aims to create a society in which such oppression and discrimination no longer exist. 

5. Socialism has to be international. The interests of the working class are the same everywhere. The [Left Unity] Party opposes all imperialist wars and military interventions. It rejects the idea that there is a national solution to the problems of capitalism. It stands for the maximum solidarity and cooperation between the working class in Britain and elsewhere. It will work with others across Europe to replace the European Union with a voluntary European federation of socialist societies.

6. The [Left Unity] Party aims to win support from the working class and all those who want to bring about the socialist transformation of society, which can only be accomplished by the working class itself acting democratically as the majority in society.

7. The [Left Unity] Party aims to win political power to end capitalism, not to manage it. It will not participate in governmental coalitions with capitalist parties at national or local level.

8.  So long as the working class is not able to win political power for itself the [Left Unity] Party will participate in working-class campaigns to defend all past gains and to improve living standards and democratic rights. But it recognises that any reforms will only be partial and temporary so long as capitalism continues.

9.  The [Left Unity] Party will use both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means to build support for its ultimate goal – the socialist transformation of society.

10. All elected representatives will be accountable to the party membership and will receive no payment above the average wage of a skilled worker (the exact level to be determined by the party conference) plus legitimate expenses.