What We Stand For – Part Three: Is socialism possible?

As yet the growing anger at the existing capitalist order is not matched by clear ideas on the way forward; or of a viable way of transforming society. As a result the programme of the Socialist Party may currently appear unrealisable to some, even to the majority. In reality, however, it offers the only realistic way forward. Capitalism cannot be transformed into a fair and just system, capable of preventing environmental devastation.

The Socialist Party and our co-thinkers globally in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) base ourselves on learning the lessons of working-class struggle and revolutionary movements throughout history. The twentieth century was littered with mass working-class attempts to overturn capitalism. That most of these failed was not down to the scale of the movements, or a lack of heroism and determination, but to failings and betrayals of leadership.

The exception was the Russian revolution in October 1917 where, led by the Bolshevik Party, the working class was for the first time able to overthrow capitalism and begin to build a new democratic workers’ state. However, capitalism broke at its weakest link. Russia was a very poor country, ravaged by war, and the basis of socialism is overcoming scarcity and want. The task of spreading the revolution internationally was therefore extremely urgent. But while a revolutionary wave swept numerous countries, the absence of parties of the calibre of the Bolsheviks resulted in its defeat.

The resulting degeneration of the isolated Soviet Union into the dictatorial monstrosity of Stalinism, and then its collapse, is used by the capitalist class as an enormous propaganda weapon to try and discredit socialism. In reality, however, there are countless vital positive lessons to be learnt from the Russian revolution for socialists in the twenty-first century. At the same time the rapid economic development of the Soviet Union for a whole period gave a glimpse of the superiority of a planned economy, even though it was enormously weakened – ultimately fatally – by the complete lack of workers’ democracy.

What We Stand For – contents

We take the experiences of the past – and in particular the ideas of Marx and Engels, and of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the key leaders of the Russian revolution – as our starting point for analysing the tasks we face today. We do not suggest it is impossible for the oppressed to make any steps forward while capitalism remains. On the contrary, a clear understanding of the need for the socialist transformation of society makes for the most effective fighters for reforms. The Socialist Party, then called Militant, demonstrated this on a national stage in the early 1990s when we led the mass campaign against the iniquitous poll tax. This was a system of local authority taxation where every individual – ‘from a duke to a dustman’ – had to pay exactly the same. We led an eighteen million-strong campaign of mass non-payment, which not only defeated the tax, but was also central to the resignation of its instigator, the hated Tory prime minister Maggie Thatcher.

A few years earlier, from 1983 to 1987, we played a leading role in the Labour-run Liverpool city council which also took on the Thatcher government, forcing it to hand back £60 million that had been stolen from the city through funding cuts. The council built over 5,000 council houses, six new nurseries, six new leisure centres, and much more. Contrast our fighting approach to the Labour councils up and down the country who are currently implementing Tory austerity, while – at best – pleading with the government to think again. Appeals to reason or to the ‘better nature’ of the capitalists (or the Tories!) will not win social progress. Over the centuries of capitalism’s existence, steps forward – whether economic, social or democratic – have only come as a result of mass struggle forcing the elites to make concessions. This remains the case today.

Furthermore, no gain won under capitalism is permanent. Under the pressure of mass movements the capitalist class can make major concessions in order to maintain power, but they do not hesitate to snatch them back as soon as they have the opportunity to do so. In this era of crisis the capitalist class aims to take back many of the crumbs that the working class won in the past. In Britain, the NHS and the welfare state won after the Second World War have been systematically undermined over decades. For example, for the baby boomers university was free, with no tuition fees, a maintenance grant, and the right to claim benefits in the holidays. These past gains were annihilated by successive New Labour and then Tory governments.

The transitional approach

Trotsky in his brilliant pamphlet, ‘The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International’, known as ‘the transitional programme’, explains the approach we take to the fight for the immediate demands thrown up by the struggles of the working class and young people. We are the hardest fighters to defend every past gain of the working class, and for every possible step forward. However, we carry on “this day-to-day work within the framework” of a “revolutionary perspective”.

The Socialist Party aims, at every stage “in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution.” Trotsky’s pamphlet is explaining a method rather than a fixed set of demands which applies for all time regardless of circumstances.

Nonetheless, as the crisis of capitalism develops many of the demands he included are increasingly applicable for today. Most importantly, we take the same fundamental approach when working out the Socialist Party’s programme, the central tenets of which are outlined in this pamphlet.

The central role of the working class

The working class is potentially the most powerful force in society, and the only one capable of overturning the rule of the capitalists. Marx and Engels described how capitalism brought into existence its own ‘gravediggers’, when it created the working class. Today some may claim that this is an old fashioned idea. However, an idea is only outdated if it no longer matches reality. Currently, on a global basis, the working class makes up a far larger proportion of the population than was the case when Marx and Engels were writing. In a country like Britain the working class constitutes a big majority of society. Opinion polls about to which class people consider themselves belonging only give a limited picture, but nonetheless the 2016 Social Attitudes Survey reported that 60% of the population considered itself ‘working class’.

It is true that the number of workers in ‘traditional’ manufacturing industry is far smaller in Britain today than in the past. Productivity improvements in Britain lag well behind other economically developed countries, but even here increases in productivity over decades have had a major effect. In 2019 Britain’s car workers made around the same number of cars as in the 1970s but with a workforce around a third of the size. It is true that in 2019 they were overwhelmingly made by foreign-owned companies and with just 41% of the parts made in Britain, pointing to the need for international collaboration of car workers against their employers, but it shows that Britain’s car workers still have enormous potential power.

At the same time, other sections of the working class have grown dramatically in numbers, like logistics and delivery workers for example. Where these workers have taken action they have been able to win important victories, such as the Deliveroo strike in 2016 which stopped pay being slashed. More struggles by workers in these sectors lie ahead. The pandemic increased the social weight of these workers further and made clear just how essential the services they provide now are.

Plus, employees who previously considered themselves part of the middle class have increasingly, as a result of their lower pay and working conditions, been forced down towards the working class, and have adopted working-class methods of struggle, as in the 2016 junior doctors’ strike. Some of the most militant industrial action during the pandemic was taken by teachers, forcing Johnson into a humiliating U-turn over schools reopening in January 2021. Small business people often struggle to survive in the face of competition from the big corporations. Many can be won to supporting workers’ struggles.

The fundamental power of the working class remains intact today. When London Underground workers go on strike, for example, the City of London grinds to a complete halt. Many other workers, like retail and hospitality workers for example, are currently mainly unorganised, but the Covid ‘pingdemic’ gave a glimpse of the importance of their role and therefore potential collective strength.

The working class has an organised power and social cohesion like no other subject class. As a worker, individual action is generally ineffective. Walking out on strike alone, for example, might only get you the sack, whereas collective action can bring whole industries, and even the whole of society, to a decisive halt. Under capitalism the working class is forced to struggle collectively through strikes, demonstrations and workplace occupations in order to win concessions and defend its interests.

The decisive role of the working class in the socialist transformation of society arises because of the collective consciousness which it develops in the workplace, and because it faces common attacks from big business, which it can only defeat through collective action. This allows it to prepare for the collective, democratic control and management of society, preparing the basis for establishing workers’ democracy and beginning the task of building a new socialist order.

This is not, as some left intellectuals argue, a ‘European idea’ which is not applicable in Africa or Asia. Even in countries where the working class makes up a small minority of society, as was the case in Russia in 1917, they will still play the key role in changing society, bringing behind them the poor peasantry and urban poor. This has been repeatedly demonstrated. A recent study in the Washington Post looked at a century of protest in 150 countries. It concluded that the common factor in movements being successful was the active involvement of the working class, especially the industrial working class. Numerous examples could be given. In South Africa the powerful revolutionary black working class was the key force in the heroic movement to overthrow apartheid. More recently, in the Arab Spring of 2011 it was strike action by the working class which acted as a key tipping point in the mass movements to overthrow the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships. In many countries in Africa and Asia – such as Nigeria and India – there is a recent history of gigantic general strikes which dwarf most in Europe over the same period.

Given the historically low level of workplace struggles in Britain in recent years, these points will not be obvious to many who are first becoming involved in fighting for a new society. Nonetheless, under the hammer blows of capitalist crisis, working-class understanding of the nature of society is increasing.

Work in the trade unions!

The pandemic laid bare for many workers – including some of the lowest paid and most oppressed – that it was them, and not the bosses or the government, who are the key to keeping society running.

At the same time – faced with being told to risk their health, and later being told by their employers that they would have to pay for the pandemic with cuts to their wages and conditions – growing numbers looked towards collective action for the first time and therefore turned to the trade unions. In 2020 the proportion of workers with trade union membership increased for the fourth year in a row, with growth concentrated in the public sector where more than half of workers are trade union members. It remained much lower in the private sector but there was still a marked increase in the number of militant and determined strikes.

In 2021 the trade unions had 6.5 million members in Britain. Trade unions are the base organisations of working-class defence. Trotsky, writing in the Transitional Programme in 1938, made the point that, “Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 percent of the working class, and, at that, predominantly the more skilled and better-paid layers.” This did not lead him to underestimate the vital importance of revolutionaries working in the existing trade unions, fighting to “strengthen them and raising their spirit of militancy”. He raised, however, that – at moments of high struggle – it would be necessary to form ad hoc strike committees and factory committees involving the whole workforce, not only trade union members.

In Britain in the post-war period this idea was less relevant, as trade union membership was over 50% of the workforce and the shop stewards combine committees played, in essence, the same role as the factory committees Trotsky argued for, including exercising elements of dual power in the workplaces. The workers through these organisations exercised the right to veto management decisions, sometimes controlling the right of hiring and firing, and the amount of overtime worked, for example. Today, however, with 23.7% of the workforce unionised, the situation is more like that envisaged by Trotsky. Mass factory or workplace committees therefore could be thrown up in future struggles, as could attempts to found new trade unions on a bigger scale than has so far taken place.

At this stage, however, the main response of workers looking for a means to fight back collectively has been to become involved in the existing trade unions, as the best available means to fight back. During the pandemic for example, at one stage 400,000 workers attended an online meeting of the education workers union, the NEU, in order to discuss the fight for health and safety in the workplace. The vast majority of them had never attended a union meeting before, but saw it as the only effective means to force the government to retreat.

Of course, many obstacles exist to workers becoming active in the trade unions. A trade union is more attractive if its leadership is prepared to fight for its members, but – for example – during the pandemic the majority of national trade union leaders fell into line behind the government rather than offering a militant defence of members’ health and safety, pay and conditions. They did so under the banner of a supposed common ‘national interest’. As the Socialist Party warned, and the Tories handling of the pandemic made clear, in reality there is no single national interest but very different class interests.

In general, the tops of the trade unions are dominated by right-wing leaders, who often see their role as ‘concession bargaining’ – negotiating the scale of the defeat – rather than leading militant struggle. They are surrounded by an unelected officialdom – a bureaucracy – often highly paid and unaccountable to trade union members.

The solution is not to condemn or ignore the trade union movement, but to understand – as those who joined the trade unions during the pandemic did – their enormous potential power and therefore wage a struggle to transform the unions into fighting, democratic bodies. The Socialist Party works to build our base in the trade unions, and to collaborate with others, around a programme for the transformation of the trade union movement. We fight for trade unions that are independent of the capitalist state, with members having democratic control over their own policies, constitutions and democratic procedures. We call for all trade union officials to be regularly elected, subject to recall by their members and paid a worker’s wage.

The Socialist Party plays a key role in building the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN), founded by the transport workers’ union, the RMT, and bringing together rank-and-file trade unionists from across the movement. We also campaign to get leaders elected who can play a role building a fighting trade union movement, and in recent years have had elected members of eight trade union national executives, and many hundreds of workplace reps and union branch secretaries. In 2021 in Northern Ireland, a member of our sister section was elected as general secretary of NIPSA, the biggest public sector trade union there. Even as a small minority in the trade unions, by fighting intransigently for a clear programme we can sometimes make a decisive difference to struggles that develop. Over the coming period, with stormy struggles developing, it is urgent that fighting, socialist trade unionism is strengthened in the movement in order to be able to make a decisive difference.

At each stage the Socialist Party puts forward a fighting programme for the immediate issues facing trade unionists. Which demands are foremost varies, of course, depending on the concrete situation. During the pandemic, for example, the fight for adequate health and safety measures was inevitably central for many workers, whereas when it receded the fight over jobs and pay took centre stage. Now the campaign for the trade union movement to build for coordinated action against post-Covid austerity and to break the public sector pay cap has come to the fore.

The basic trade union premise that ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ has to be refought for. When the government or bosses set out to try and defeat any group of workers – such as the looming attacks on the rail unions – the whole movement has to come to their defence.

The Socialist Party stands for the repeal of all the undemocratic, anti-trade union laws which have created a situation where fear of legal action has resulted in the unions self-policing themselves, blocking effective national strike action. While defying the anti-trade union laws cannot be done lightly, without weighing up the relative balance of forces and possible consequences, they cannot be allowed to block effective action. Coordinated and well-prepared strike action would be able to defeat both the Tories and their repressive anti-trade union laws, which unfortunately the trade union leaders allowed to pass with only token resistance.

New struggles for the ‘new normal’

Running through every struggle is the battle for trade union control over decisions in the workplace, to maximise the elements of workers’ control and take as much power as possible from the bosses. While winning widespread workers’ control is only possible under conditions of intense class war, as a step towards the revolutionary nationalisation of industry, increased trade union strength can force the bosses to concede elements of it. During the pandemic a number of struggles took place in which workers were able to establish trade unions – rather than bosses – deciding what constituted a safe workplace.

Similar struggles will be required post-pandemic. Take, for example, the thorny issue of homeworking, which has affected a section of mainly office workers during and after the pandemic. The employers do not have a uniform position on it, other than making sure any change in working conditions allows them to maximise their profits. Some, therefore, are keen to move to greater homeworking, because it can save on the cost of premises and can actually increase the levels of exploitation of the workforce. Surveys have shown that homeworkers work an average of an extra 25% a week, usually without any extra pay, and sometimes even with pay cuts. It also potentially makes union organisation harder, as workers are isolated at home. Other employers prefer to get workers back into the workplace, on the basis that it allows them to pile on the pressure more effectively.

What position does the Socialist Party argue that the trade union movement should take? Firstly there should be no enforced change in working arrangements. Any decisions should be under the democratic control of the trade unions in the workplace, with the maximum possible freedom for workers to decide where they work from. Where workers are based in the workplace, trade unions should decide what health and safety measures are necessary, but this also applies to homeworking. Employers providing adequate equipment for workers at home, and no extension of working hours, should be prerequisites. So should facilities for regular trade union meetings inside working hours, in order to counter the potentially isolating effect of homeworking.

The ‘new normal’ for the young

The pandemic has had its biggest impact on the future of young people. In June 2021, before the end of the furlough scheme, 13.2% of young people were officially unemployed, but with many more economically inactive. And the numbers of unemployed were far higher among some sections, with almost 40% of young black people unemployed. Even where young people are in work they are more likely to be suffering underemployment and casual insecure work.

The Socialist Party stands for a trade union struggle to fight for young people’s future. Most do not currently understand the role of trade unions, because they’ve never had the opportunity to see it. In 2019 only 4.4% of trade union members were between 18 and 24, whereas 40% were 50 or older. Generally, young workers are concentrated in largely non-unionised service and retail sectors. The Socialist Party fully supports the relaunch of the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign as an important part of attracting young people to the workers’ movement, and demanding that the trade unions launch a serious struggle for high-quality training and jobs for the next generation. All training schemes should be on union rates of pay, with high-quality training and a guaranteed job at the end.

One hundred years ago the trade union movement was fighting for a living wage and a maximum working day of eight hours. Today the battle has to be fought again. The average working week in Britain is 41 hours, with 12% of workers slaving for more than 50 hours a week to make ends meet. Meanwhile others, including many young people, are left unemployed or trying to survive on just a few hours work. The Socialist Party stands for sharing out the work – with a maximum working week of 32 hours with no loss of pay – so that everyone has the right to full-time work on a living wage, but no one should slave every hour to make enough to live on. This – combined with a major programme of increased public services – could eliminate unemployment and underemployment.

Racism and sexism in the ‘new normal’

The pandemic shone a spotlight on all forms of inequality in capitalist society. Death rates were consistently highest in the most poverty-stricken, overcrowded communities, which were also the communities where frontline workers are more likely to live. This meant that the poorest sections of the working class suffered most, within which black and Asian workers are disproportionately concentrated. As a result black men were more than four times as likely to die from Covid as white men, for example. The prevalence of police harassment against BAME groups was also highlighted during the pandemic; they were almost 50% more likely to be arrested under coronavirus laws than white people. The magnificent Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 showed the appetite for a movement to fight racism. The Socialist Party fights for the building of such a movement, on a mass democratic basis. We call for the workers’ movement to make the fight against racism a central part of its programme, not just words but in action.

The pandemic also highlighted the oppression that all women, particularly working-class women, continue to suffer. Women were more likely to lose their jobs or have their hours cut during the pandemic. They also took the brunt of the burden of added childcare and home schooling, when schools closed for long periods. Women also suffered a second pandemic, as intimate partner violence rocketed. On average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner. In the first Covid lockdown this horrific figure more than doubled. Sexual harassment has also increased. Post-pandemic austerity means not only further cuts to jobs and wages but also further cuts to the services women rely on, including support services for women who have suffered or are suffering violence.

The Socialist Party fights for the trade unions to take up a whole raft of demands that will be crucial to the struggle for women’s rights in the post-pandemic period, including free high-quality childcare, access for all to flexible working hours that put the needs of workers first, a massive expansion of public services including specialist services for women fleeing violence, and for a mass council house building programme to provide high-quality housing for all who need it.

What We Stand For – Part Four: The need for a political voice for the working class