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From The Socialist newspaper, 29 June 2006

SWP / Respect conference: Flawed perspectives

TRADE UNIONS are presently being circulated with an invitation to attend a conference of 'rank and file trade unionists' later this year on the theme of 'anti-union laws, privatisation, deregulation, job losses and the crisis of political representation' initiated by Respect and the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP).

Peter Taaffe Socialist Party general secretary

The appeal for this conference has been made without inviting or consulting with others on the left such as the Socialist Party or the Campaign for a New Workers' Party.

Also, there is no indication of what the main aims of the conference are, how it is to be conducted, whether resolutions will be accepted or what conclusions the organisers hope to arrive at from the conference. A letter has been sent to Respect by the Campaign for a New Workers' Party expressing concerns and the socialist will be happy to publish any reply from them.

If it was genuine, open, democratic and led to viable solutions to the crisis that confronts working-class people today, this conference could represent a step forward. However, we are not convinced that the main initiators of this conference, particularly Respect and the SWP, given the deficiencies in their approach towards the trade unions and how a new mass workers' party can be built, are capable of doing this.

'Rank and fileism'

Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the SWP, outlined their current approach to the trade unions in their weekly newspaper, Socialist Worker, on 25 March 2006. In an article entitled 'The politics of the new rank and file', he spelt out their perspectives for the unions.

In the past, the SWP pursued a policy of crude 'rank-and-fileism' with inglorious results for their organisation. This involved counterposing a 'pure', largely romanticised vision of the 'rank and file' to the unions' 'bureaucratic structures', by which they meant the national executives, branches and district committees of the trade unions.

The Socialist Party pointed out to them their mistaken approach. Historically, rank and file organisations, the shop stewards committees in particular, were themselves built both as 'unofficial' union organisations and also as semi-official organisations.

It is wrong to concentrate in a one-sided fashion on 'movements from below' at the expense of the struggle to transform the official structures of the trade unions. Both tasks are vital and complementary, not opposed to one another.

The official trade union structures and the leadership have retained, particularly when a swing towards the left takes place, significant authority in the eyes of union members. An effective socialist and Marxist policy, therefore, involves a struggle to win influence and support from below, which inevitably assumes a patient character, and an organised attempt to transform the unions' official structures in a leftward direction.

Such a patient and systematic approach is foreign to the SWP, with their tradition of zigzags, of switching from one wrong, one-sided position to another, which in the recent period has taken on a dizzying form. Their past 'rank and file' policy led their members, under instructions from the national SWP leadership, to resign from official positions in the unions.

This considerably weakened them and forced them to change their policy in the 1990s when they began once more to participate in 'broad organisations', usually with the intention of completely dominating them. Now Callinicos and the SWP propose another switch, towards what he calls 'political rank and fileism', to be clearly differentiated from the previous policy of 'industrial rank and fileism'!

This means that the existing 'rank and file' of the unions are to be ignored or pushed aside because, according to Callinicos, they have "often been worn down by the endless war of attrition waged by the bosses".

The countless thousands of workers who have consistently and patiently struggled against great odds, to maintain the trade union organisation and the workplace representation are dismissed out of hand. Without their work, the new generation moving into action would not be able to use the trade union organisations which they have helped to maintain.

As workers are confronted with the need to fight in defence of their pay and conditions, the question of fighting for a trade union leadership effective in struggles is also posed.

However, these workers have, according to Callinicos, been "worn down by holding basic organisation together in an era of defeat". Included in this are "the far left of the PCS civil service workers' union - including its general secretary Mark Serwotka and the Socialist Party", allegedly for accepting a 'shabby pensions deal', in the words of the SWP. [Chris Bambery, SWP website, 18 October 2005.]

This 'shabby deal', supported overwhelmingly by the rank and file of the PCS, is loathed by the capitalists and is now 'regretted' by New Labour. Cabinet Minister Hilary Armstrong is currently trying to unpick it!

As a result of their stand on the PCS pensions' agreement, the SWP lost one of their two members of the National Executive Committee of the PCS and got little support at the recent PCS conference or amongst the union's members for their position.

In the light of this attack on the left in the PCS and his own role in the pensions agreement, it is surprising that Mark Serwotka has personally aligned himself with Respect and appears to have signed up to speak at the Respect/SWP Conference without asking any questions, it seems, about the character of this conference, its lack of a democratic structure and whether the organisers would defend their quite false position on the pensions' deal in the PCS.

Political voice

Having failed with a 'pure' industrial rank and fileism, Callinicos has now lighted on another magic wand - 'political rank and fileism'.

He states a "powerful rank and file organisation is more likely to develop from a growing political radicalisation rather than from the piecemeal build-up of sectional organisation". By "sectional organisation", he means the day-to-day 'nitty-gritty' (his term) organisation

The way to increase left influence amongst trade union members is, firstly, for the left to fight and organise on the basic day-to-day issues that confront workers - pay, privatisation, etc. - as the Socialist Party does, and then patiently and skilfully link this to the broader political issues. This includes the key issue today of ending union funding of the Labour Party and the need for a new workers' party.

The war in Iraq is an important issue to workers. But to work in the unions in a crude fashion intoning endlessly and monotonously just on this one issue, as the SWP do, and at the same time arguing to bypass trade union organisation and structures, is a cul-de-sac for militant fighting trade unionism.

Callinicos and the SWP give every indication that this will be their approach in general and particularly towards the conference which they are proposing. It appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to build trade union support for Respect, not in an open manner - which is their right - but by hiding behind phrases about the 'crisis of political representation'.

If they were genuine in resolving this crisis, why have they not approached others such as the Socialist Party, which has an important base in the trade unions, and the RMT and others to participate in an organising committee to set up such a conference?

When trade unionists receive an invitation to attend this conference, these are the questions that they should ask. If a conference is called on an undemocratic basis, which appears to be the case at the moment, a serious challenge will be raised to this.

Given the neo-liberal offensive of the bosses, the British working class faces a serious situation. This, however, is not reflected in the mistaken political analysis of the SWP on trade unionism in Britain.

The absence of a mass political voice for the working class is now urgent in the struggle against capitalism and demands a far more serious approach than that of the organisers of this conference.


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