Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Unite Speaker Condemns SWP

What to make of the SWP's response to the barrage of criticism they've faced since Saturday's stunt? Reading this report and subsequent comments is to wade armpit deep through a swamp of willful delusion and tenuous self-justification. We're told critics are engaging in a "hatefest", are falling into "historical irrelevance", etc. etc. In other words, everyone else is wrong, do not matter, and the protest was the best thing since sliced bread.

There is however one point a comrade makes that is reasonable enough: that the response of rank-and-file workers is a useful barometer for evaluating the action. Sure, I bet many were pleased to see Willie Walsh harangued by a phalanx of paper sellers. But relying on praise from striking workers is thin gruel for Leninists - if they know their Lenin. As he notes in What is To Be Done, "Attention must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries; it is not at all our task to descend to the level of the “working masses.”" (source). In other words, as socialists the SWP should be aware of the political and strategic context in which their action took place. Before charging into ACAS offices the leadership (central committee members, full-timers and Socialist Worker journalists were all present in the throng outside), our self-styled vanguard of the working class should have taken into account whether it would aid perceptions of the SWP, the strike, and the labour movement. It is significant the SWP's defence has dismissed rather than engaged with criticisms framed in these terms. So much for all those International Socialism articles about Gramsci.

As you might expect the point about rank-and-file workers is followed by glowing reports from picket lines. One group of workers were so grateful they let one SWP'er use their loo! But, embarrassingly, there is one rank-and-file BA worker left less than impressed, and that was the speaker at the SWP's Right to Work conference. On the Unite Broad Left email list, they wrote:
I was very happy to be invited to speak at the Right to Work conf on Saturday but I left before 5pm to catch a train home. I had no idea the conference would end with a call to ransack negotiations across the road, and I utterly condemn it. This will make it very difficult now to get a motion through policy conference next week in support of the aims of Right to Work. It also could set back United Left's wider strategy of working with broad-based movements like Right to Work, something which I argued for and supported in my speech that day. We need allies but not allies who undermine our work in the trade unions. It's our dispute and if we want extra demonstrators to support us we will ask for them [emphases mine].
What a stupid, pointless own goal. Will the SWP ever learn?


Anonymous said...

Time to step back a bit I think.

First reports (coming from the media and both exhulting SWP comrades and critics)indicated that negotiations had been disrupted and seemed to indicate that the SWP equated the bosses with the bureaucrats - and that was outrageous, with strong hints of substitutionism and a waft of a March Action to come. But, it seems, under the weight of condemnation, the SWP have moved to clarify what happened - and there was no actual disruption of negotiations, just shouting (some of it embarrassed if you look at the coverage)slogans at Mr Walsh who happend to be in the corridor by happenstance. A different kettle of fish from what was the original take. So, respect to the cabin-crew member you quoted, but that was clearly based on the first take. The SWP are saying they got an enthusiastic from strikers afterwards and on the picket-line; but if you look at the Party Notes for May 24th, up on their web-site, in the defence of the event was the admission that it was a mistake in an admonition not to do it again (that is do stunts that involve messing with trade union and Labour party figures).

So time to file it in the storm in a tea-cup folder.
Matthew Grculus

Madam Miaow said...

It looked hysterical and ill-thought out.

But let's suppose for a moment that this was the best thing since sliced bread. Expecting the inevitable press backlash and TU reaction, did they issue a press release? Did they have a nominated spokesperson at the ready for when they got their limelight? Did they have anything coherent to offer the media, so getting across their perspective? What is their perspective and how many of the public are now aware of it?

What was the purpose of the action? Was it to communicate a thought-out message that they'd come to with the workers they were supposed to support? Did they think of how this would be portrayed and did they take measure to counter the charges of irresponsibility? Or was this an indulgence that flashed them up in the media for a moment with negative consequences, not just for them but for the BA workers' cause?

Unknown said...

As well as seconding what Matthew has said, could I just clarify: is that really the anonymous BA cabin crew worker who spoke in the 1st session? Because the account sounds much more consistent with the Unite Left speaker from the last session.

Anonymous said...

I think you are confusing two different speakers. That sounds like it came from the unite left speaker at right to work not the BASSA member who also spoke and left a lot earlier.

Alex Snowdon said...

The fact is that what happened on Saturday looked awful. No amount of claiming a positive response on the picket lines can possibly detract from that. The official SWP line is also not entirely plausible - the critical words from the striker who addressed the conference are very powerful. If that's what he's saying, it's not credible that other BASSA activists are glowing with praise!

More fundamentally, this was an action that betrayed a deeper shift towards substitutionism. Rather than building genuine coalitions, it's a party front model that's now being adopted. I estimate 75% of RTW conference attendees are in the SWP. Abdicating the challenge of coalition-building lies behind the adventurist antics at the weekend.

SamG said...

It called spontaneity, the reaction to these protests have been hysterical and beyond belief. So a few keyboard warriors were upset, SO FUCKING WHAT, the rank and file beleaguered workers were grateful for the solidarity.

As for the quote from Lenin, what a joke! These protestors showed courage and fight and gave solidarity to workers being attacked. Hardly tailing the workers, hardly descending to the level of the masses. Quite the contrary actually.

A pathetic response.

Tim said...

This is exactly why I didn't join the SWP and decided to join a more grown up party. The video footage looks like a group of students on their way to Glastonbury who took a wrong turn and started jumping up and down.

Never mind the fallout (or lack of it), just, oh dear.

Editor said...

The comment quoted was from the Chair of the United Left who is not a Bassa member. The position of the UL is stated on the UL website.

Anonymous said...

tonight, we dine in wetherspoons!

Budapestkick said...

'It called spontaneity, the reaction to these protests have been hysterical and beyond belief. So a few keyboard warriors were upset, SO FUCKING WHAT, the rank and file beleaguered workers were grateful for the solidarity.'

Solidarity work means going on the pickets every week, producing a regular strike bulletin (as the SP did) and showing the way forward politically. Such work is difficult, long-term and often demanding. Silly adventurism like the SWP stunt is the easy option. You seem to be suggesting that the SP are 'keyboard warriors', yet the work the SP have put into this action is admirable. The SWP stunt shows a failure to connect with the workers (first reactions have been along the lines of 'WTF are those students doing?') and a decision to go in for cheap publicity stunts as opposed to actual work.

Also, when you find yourself swearing in capital letters and accusing OTHER people of being hysterical you're heading down irony street at 150 mph. This is a logical consequence of making a ludicrous argument in the face of logic and reality.

Jim Jepps said...

Yes, I think it's probably a UNITE United Left person as they've just issued this statement asking all SWP members to step down from UL positions which seems of a piece with the email you cite.

"United Left is proud to be a genuinely broad-based socialist rank and file movement in Unite the Union, bringing together working class shop stewards
and activists of no particular political affiliation, the Labour Party, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party, Communist Party and other groupings. By uniting together the forces of the Left in UNITE we seek to overcome our differences and make a strong and effective voice for the Left
in our Union, to build a strong fighting back union based on effective lay member democracy and control, and with a socialist vision politically for working people.

The United Left at its 2009 hustings meeting in Manchester democratically agreed to support Len McCluskey for General Secretary by an overwhelming
vote and therefore calls on all United Left supporters to actively support his candidature and work hard for his victory in the forthcoming UNITE The Union General Secretary election.

It is with deep regret that we note that the Socialist Workers Party at its meeting on Saturday 22nd May 2010 has agreed to call on all its supporters to back Jerry Hicks for General Secretary, in the full knowledge that this
will bring its members in United Left in conflict with the democratic position of United Left. It is of particular concern to the United Left National Co-ordinating Committee that this decision was made not by SWP
United Left supporters alone, but by the SWP as an independent political party, the majority of whom are not members of UNITE The Union and have no rightful voice in the affairs of UNITE let alone United Left.

United Left NCC has no wish to exclude SWP members from United Left, but must insist on the following standards of conduct from SWP United Left supporters for the duration of the UNITE General Secretary election:
SWP members in United Left must not use the United Left e-group or any other United Left vehicle for communicating support for Jerry Hicks SWP members in United Left must not openly campaign for Jerry Hicks, including submitting nominations or distributing leaflets. If they wish to do this they should withdraw from United Left (and not attend United
Left meetings) for the duration of the General Secretary election

The above principles were agreed at the United Left NCC meeting held in Preston on 8th May not with particular reference to SWP whose decision was not known at that time, but in anticipation of a minority of United Left
supporters actively campaigning for a candidate in competition with United Left's democratic choice of candidate, Len McCluskey. Such principles
therefore apply to any United Left supporter, not just SWP members.

In response to the Socialist Workers Party decision last weekend, it is the view of the Chair and Secretary of United Left that the following principle
must also apply:

SWP members must stand down from any official elected position within United Left for the duration of the General Secretary election campaign, unless they make a personal declaration of support for Len McCluskey.

This includes United Left national officers, NCC delegates, and those
holding Regional United Left elected positions.

The above principles are the only possible course of action to take if we are to maintain the most basic left discipline within United Left at this crucial period in the history of our Union, whilst trying to pre-empt calls
from United Left supporters for the exclusion of all SWP members, a course of action which United Left NCC has no wish to take.

Martin Mayer
Chair United Left

Paul Birkett
Secretary United Left

neprimerimye said...

The quote at the top of the piece is not from a BASSA striker. the comrade in question could not have made such a statement for reasons that comrades speech made clear. That the statement comes from a member of the now disunited United Left in UNITE seems obvious.

As for this disgraceful statement from the 'United Left' it is a disgrace that the signatories assume that they somehow have the right to dictate to SWP what they can and cannot do within UNITE. As is so often the case with Broad Left type formations their aim is to elect to office one of their chums and to hell with workers struggles.

skidmarx said...

As SamG says, the quote from Lenin is inverted from its actual meeting. Dr.Phil to the back of the class.

If someone else had done this, I am sure the SWP reaction would have been: Good that someone is making a stand, the real enemy is Walsh, Woodley should stop critcising demonstrators and defending his members, finally maybe have some criticisms of the action.But then they stand in a tradition of getting things into perspective.

The decision of the SWP to back Jerry Hicks does seem to have provided the occasion for the SP in Unite to stick the boot in. Shame.

Alex Snowdon - perhaps what lacks credibility and plausibility is the line you have on your blog and here, that because the SWP decided to dispense with your wise counsel they must be wrong about everything and heading for disaster.

Phil said...

And that - quelle surprise coming from SWP supporters - show you haven't a clue what Lenin was talking about.

I'm still amazed at the level of delusion otherwise intelligent comrades have sunk to. My party right or wrong, eh boys?

skidmarx said...

Oh contraire, there seems to have been a healthy debate among SWP supporters about the rights and wrongs of the action, in contrast to the knee-jerk sectarianism of those who condemn it as a cynical stunt.

Dismissing the reaction of strikers and claiming Lenin's support for not desending to the level of the masses, well I could pick apart this misreading, but I think I'll settle for now for a later Lenin quote from the same article:
Hemmed in by the narrow outlook of Economism, the mind is lost in details that positively reek of red tape and bureaucracy.

Today's word verification is "outrarse", please insert joke.

Phil said...

there seems to have been a healthy debate among SWP supporters about the rights and wrongs of the action

A debate which they've kindly shared with the rest of us by variously praising the action, disputing criticisms and attacking the critics. Until Party Notes took a couple of steps back, whereupon we were told that there had been a healthy debate and lessons had been learnt. Fair makes me wish I was a revolutionary too.

andy newman said...

The way I read the UNITED LEFT statement quoted above by Jim Jepps is a desperate attempt by some Len McClusky supporters to create an association in people's minds between thr SWP and Jerry hicks, while memory is stil fresh about thr ACAS fiasco.

Of course Jerry had nothing whatsoever to do with the stunt by the SWP

Phil said...

I understand in real life Skidders is in a professional occupation, and one that requires more than a modicum of intelligence. So why he can't grasp the simple meaning of the Lenin quote above is beyond me. If you are a Leninist whose activity revolves around building a revolutionary socialist party that one hopes will lead or significantly contribute to the overthrow of capitalism, the justifications for one's activity always has to be framed in terms of this project.

Using this as a starting point only the most blinkered could think the SWP's stunt (the kind of action it used to criticise as "elitist" by the way) has put it in a more advantageous position vis the party's reputation and standing in the organised working class. This is nothing to say of how this impacts on wider perceptions of the strike.

So yes, to justify the action because a couple of cabin crew think it was alright has absolutely nothing to do with Lenin's contributions to Marxism.

skidmarx said...

I've been fairly careful not to provide too many details of what I do in "real life", primarily because of the use those like Andy Newman make of them for personal attacks. I hope you're not starting down the ad hominem route too. And if you look at the debate on the most popular SWP supporting site,there was plenty of doubt about the wisdom of the action, before the Party Notes. Get your facts straight.
I'll try and lay out the Lenin thing so that you can grasp the meaning. Starting with irony of a text devoted to arguing the case for a revolutionary party being used by someone who has gone with the broad party politics that he fulminates against, going on with the quote's application to a context which Lenin is not dealing with, continuing with the point that seems to elude Dr.Phillers(do you have trouble spelling my eight-letter screenname, or a mental block about using it?)that Lenin is arguing for an organisation of the most advanced workers and "descend[ing] to the level of the working masses" is an argument against allowing the least militant to hold back a revolutionary party, not to rubbish its connection with the most militant.

You have failed to address my point that if someone else had done this the SWP, individually and collectively, would have had a much more measured response. This is one of the things that has meant I've always had more time for the SWP than other left organisations, and why I've always found predictions of their imminent demise fanciful at best: those who cannot bring themselves to have a good word to say about the SWP cannot understand that those unaffiliated might always see a more balanced picture.
As an example, when the Lindsey dispute occured, the SWP had a nuanced position that it supported the workers but was concerned about the prevalence of the BJ4BW slogan, the response of the SP and I believe yourself was to claim they were dismissing the strikers as racists.

chjh said...

As it now seems fairly clear that the e-mail critique was not written by the BA striker who spoke, perhaps that could be corrected in the article?

Anonymous said...

That's not exactly true as the SWP did not initially support the Lindsey strike at all. In fact they said that 'anybody who supports this strike is playing with fire'. Hardly a nuanced position!


skidmarx said...

Steve - again the truth is that initially the SWP was more positive, and became less as the thing developed. And finding one quote about "playing with fire"(which can be done if you're careful) hardly makes for the basis of accusing the SWP of having a black-and-white attitude.

Phil - I've searched through that section of What is to be Done that you cite as the source for your quote, and can't find it.
I did find this
"we socialists would be failing in our direct duty to the masses if we did not prevent the police from making a secret of every strike and every demonstration"
"the spontaneously awakening masses will also produce increasing, numbers of “professional revolutionaries” from their own ranks (that is, if we do not take it into our heads to advise the workers to keep on marking time)"
"Our wiseacres, however, at a time when Russian Social-Democracy is passing through a crisis entirely due to the lack of sufficiently trained, developed, and experienced leaders to guide the spontaneously awakening masses, cry out ,with the profundity of fools: “It is a bad business when the movement does not proceed from the rank and file.”"
You might say that some of this applies to Russia 100 years ago in conditions of illegality, and when Lenin had not formulated his break from German Social Democracy., but far more this could be said of your interpretation of a supposed Lenin quote that far more easily points in the opposite direction.

By the way, I thought I saw a comment from Charlie Pottins here in which he said he thought that many in the SWP would recognise this as a mistaken stunt after some thought. Am I imagining things, or has he got caught in moderation limbo?

Phil said...

It's there in the Marxist Internet Archive mark up. My hard copy of WITBD is stuck under my bed. But for all the quotes celebrating spontaneity above, did Lenin not have choice words to say about uncritically tailing it? I think he did.

The Charlie Pottins comment should be in 'tuther thread.

skidmarx said...

It is immediately preceded by this:
Not only are revolutionaries in general lagging behind the spontaneous awakening of the masses, but even worker-revolutionaries are lagging behind the spontaneous awakening of the working-class masses. This fact confirms with clear evidence, from the “practical” point of view, too, not only the absurdity but even the politically reactionary nature of the “pedagogics” to which we are so often treated in the discussion of our duties to the workers.This fact proves that our very first and most pressing duty is to help to train working-class revolutionaries who will he on the same level in regard to Party activity as the revolutionaries from amongst the intellectuals (we emphasise the words “in regard to Party activity”, for, although necessary, it is neither so easy nor so pressingly necessary to bring the workers up to the level of intellectuals in other respects)
and followed by this:
...as the Economists wish to do, or to the level of the “average worker” as Svoboda desires to do (and by this ascends to the second grade of Economist “pedagogics”)...You, gentlemen, who are so much concerned about the “average worker”, as a matter of fact, rather insult the workers by your desire to talk down to them when discussing working-class politics and working-class organisation.
He's not complaining about the uncritical tailing of spontaneity,he is complaining that those who would become the Mensheviks think that politics is something that the "average worker" can't understand, and should be left to professionals like themselves. Lenin is saying that the advanced workers should be engaged with, and that the more backward elements shouldn't be used as an excuse not to do so.

To use this as an argument that because strikers had a more positive response to this show of solidarity than modern day Mensheviks (no offence) is grotesque.

Phil said...

And so the entire labour movement outside of the SWP and Workers' Power are "Mensheviks"? You couldn't make it up.

skidmarx said...

Who said the entire labour movement? BA strikers weren't making that criticism, it is the professional anti-SWP crowd doing so. Which may be large on the internet.
And why don't you just admit that Lenin says nothing like what you want him to be saying. It wouldn't hurt.

Anonymous said...

skid, these comments are unbelievable. the entire point of witbd is an extended criticism of those who would uncritically jump on the back of spontaneous action, those who would call 'every striking worker a social democrat' (paraphrase). not to mention that if you're truly following the Cliffite tradition, you won't really be using witbd as your case analysis. here's Cliff's perspective:


-Lenin’s early ideas on organisation were presented in What is to be Done?, written in 1902. There he argued:

"There could not have been social-democratic [3] consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. . . The working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e. the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation. [4]"


"The spontaneous working-class movement is trade unionism ... and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie. Hence, our task ... is to combat spontaneity. to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous. trade unionist striving ... [5]

"But why ... does the spontaneous movement ... lead to the domination of bourgeois ideology? For the simple reason that bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, that it is more fully developed, and that it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination. [6]"

The organisational form needed by social-democracy is derived from the nature of the political tasks: “In an autocratic state, the more we confine the membership ... to people who are professionally engaged in revolutionary activity and who have been professionally trained in the art of combating the political police, the more difficult will it be to unearth the organisation.” [7]

the article then goes on to argue that Lenin's conception of involvement in the workers' movement was much more fluid, and that in fact witbd played a very minor role in his analysis and practice over the years to come.

-Lenin knew that organisation had to be subordinated to politics. His genius in the field of revolutionary practice – in strategy and tactics – was the real pillar that established his hegemony in the party. Scientific understanding of the general movement of history, fortified by great sensitivity to the moods and aspirations of the workers, gave Lenin extreme confidence that the path he chose was right. Under such circumstances, of course. organisational rules and regulations appeared to him as of secondary importance to practice. Without the correctness of his conclusions, the ‘indiscipline’ of Lenin would have been no more than simple arbitrariness and caprice.