Monthly Archives: April 2013

On not blogging, blogging and the SWP crisis…


Four weeks ago, I wrote a short piece explaining that I would start to put on this blog a series of posts, taken originally from my Facebook page, in which I would comment on the SWP crisis and the light it has shone on the ways in which my party has drifted into some pretty strange ways of doing politics. I needed to reappraise things a while; or, as I said then, “Reason”.

This was never the ideal place to post those thoughts; this is supposed to be a running blog. Even four weeks ago, when I began reposting articles here, I was thinking of returning sooner rather than later, to the blog’s original mix of running and politics …

Well, now seems as good a time as any to resume. My plan now is (for a period of time) to restore this blog to its original mix. I won’t stop posting about the party crisis, but it won’t be my only theme.

Normal service resumes tomorrow.

Calling any socialists with 1-2 hours spare time on their hands


Would you be interested in helping to put together a book celebrating Dave Widgery’s journalism?

A group of Widgery’s friends, family and admirers are collecting Dave’s articles, with the view to bringing them out in a fresh collection. We have about 60 pieces that we would like to use. They have all been scanned in a pdf format. Unfortunately, few of the scans are of sufficient quality so that we could just paste them into a fresh file. Many were printed in magazines of the 1960s, in black ink on all sorts of colour backgrounds. All need re-typing, some need data entry almost from scratch

Would you be interested in helping to type them up? We can’t offer anything more by way of compensation than the buzz of immediate access to some of the most compelling writing of the recent British left. We would also ask – if you did want to get involved – that you respected “movement copyright” (“copyleft”?) and didn’t repost the articles anywhere, at least not until they were in print in the book. If you are interested, send me a message at davidkrenton [at]

UPDATE (2 May 2013) Thanks to everyone for the fantastic response to my original post; I’ve been bowled over by how many people have come forward with offers of help. Just to say that I have now divided up the articles for circulation and they should be going out (fingers crossed) this afternoon. There are enough volunteer typists, and all the articles I’ve got are taken. In due course I may need extra people either as a) reserves (in case anyone finds that the work is more-time consuming than they’d hoped and has to back out) or b) as proof-readers rather than typists. But, for the moment, there is no need at all for anyone else to volunteer.

Lukacs and the Pretenders


I had Stalinism to contend with; what was your excuse?

If there is any writer who sums up in one life all the contradictions of twentieth century Europe it is Georg Lukács. Born in Hungary in 1885, he gathered around himself a literary circle of poets, playwrights and musicians, fusing in their lives and works the militant philosophical elitism of Nietszche with a vague social idealism. Counting among his friends Thomas Mann, Max Weber, Béla Bartók and other future “great names” of interwar European culture, Lukács was converted to Communism in double-quick time in November 1918, that is, after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia but just three months before the “united front” 133-day Red (Socialist and Communist) government in Hungary. Lukács served it as the Commissar for public education. On the defeat of this “Hungarian Soviet”, Lukács was exiled first to Vienna and then ultimately Stalin’s Russia. Lukács’ 1923 philosophical masterpiece History and Class Consciousness (HCC) provided a Hegelian re-reading of Marx, and in particular of Marx’s theory of “commodity fetishism” (i.e. alienation). This part of it was vindicated, at the level of theory, by the ten-year later publication of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, texts Lukács could never have read or heard of, but the core ideas of which Lukács effectively “imagined” into being even before their actual discovery. Disowned by the leaders of the emergent Stalinist state under Bolshevisation, Lukács in turn repudiated his own writing as ultra-left. For the next thirty years, he wrote a series of hack works, arguing that the philosophical ideals which had inspired him in his own youth were a series of infections, by which the entire European mind had been overcome with the disease of fascism. Lukács was brought into the Nagy government in 1956, becoming a reluctant leader of the Hungarian revolt against Stalinism. This final, and uncharacteristic, act of bravery was punished with house arrest, a period of exile and lengthy isolation on his return. Lukács died of lung cancer in Budapest in 1971.

The Lukács who has come back into vogue in recent years is not the Lukács of History and Class Consciousness, but the Lukács who on Lenin’s death published in February 1924, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of his Thought. The beauty of this pamphlet, for those inclined to what Hal Draper called “Socialism from above”, is that it provides a perfect justification for a party which can do anything, led by a caste of intellectuals who are philosophically incapable of ever being wrong. It bears, in other words, the moment of its birth; at the exact point when “Leninism” was degenerating into “Stalinism”.

Lukács’s Lenin opens with a judgment of Lenin’s greatness: Marxism has produced “geniuses”, Lukács argues, and it has produced “mediocre scholars”. Marx was one of the former because he had the ability to think away from the world he know (the English factory system) and predict from it the global future of capitalism. Lenin stands in the same position, Lukács continues, because he grasped that the revolution was approaching. Lenin, Lukács writes, dedicated his life to the idea of the “actuality of revolution”, i.e. the idea that the working class globally had reached a sufficient stage of historical maturity so that “revolution is already on its agenda”.

Now, it is only polite, at a funeral, to say a few kind words about the person who has died. Lukács could not be criticised for praising Lenin on his death. Marx was, on any meaningful scale, a “great” socialist; and Lukács sets out the right test of his genius. But when people are directed towards his pamphlet today, this is not done altogether innocently. They are invited to follow a similar psychological exercise themselves. “Greatness”, any contemporary reader will have picked up is reserved for freelance commentators on Russia Today. Since most of us can only aspire to such an elevated stage, our residual greatness can consist in no more than sitting peacefully while the Leader speaks, and applauding at their  pauses. What is missing is a theory in which knowledge can be developed collectively, in which Marx’s theory of proletarian revolution was shaped by Silesian weavers, Mancunian Chartists or Paris communards. Meanwhile the declaration, seven years after October, that revolution was already on “its” (i.e. the working class’ agenda) must have made compelling reading in its time. Today, it conceals rather than opening up the awkward questions of i) whether the working-class was objectively ready to lead all of humanity (i.e. the debate between the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks and Trotsky), and ii) whether this readiness was a temporary or a permanent condition.

The third section of Lukacs’ Lenin, is devoted to the wisdom of the political party. Here, as in History and Class Consciousness, the party is portrayed as the carrier of the historical interests of the entire working class, a mission which could not be trusted to the class itself. Now, we could have an interesting discussion about whether this really was Lenin’s theory, or whether in so far as Lenin said anything like this, he was merely following the orthodoxy approach of pre-war social democracy (this in essence is Lars Lih’s argument). But where Lukács goes unquestionably further than Lenin is in saying that class consciousness has to be protected not merely from most workers, but even from most members of the revolutionary party. Far too many workers, he argues, want a middle-class (“petty bourgeois”) lifestyle, or would like to have plum jobs working full-time as trade unionists, or would be willing to make the wrong compromise with the bourgeoisie. “Theoretical clarity, corresponding agitation and propaganda by conscious revolutionary groups are not enough by themselves against this danger. For these conflicts of interest express themselves in ways which remain concealed from the workers for a long time; so much so that even their own ideological spokesmen [i.e. the members of the party] sometimes have no idea that they have themselves already forsaken the interests of the class as a whole.”

Lukács’ solution is “the strictest selection of party members on the basis of their proletarian class-consciousness”. IE you could not have a revolutionary party unless it made a policy, and not any policy but the “strictest” policy, of allowing membership only to those who agree with every one of its ideas. But if it is not the class, and it is not the party; who then represents the historic interests of the working-class? Lukács says, in effect, the leadership of the party: only those with “the ability to foresee the approaching revolution.” We find again the same problem of historical knowledge as before. If you have spent your life, as Lukács had until that point, never working, but waiting for several years in the hope of eventually securing your own Professorial appointment, it is easy to assume that all “knowledge” is like academic knowledge in the humanities, i.e. it is produced by original philosophers in brilliant isolation from their contemporaries, seeing the future more clearly than anyone else, thinking and writing by themselves.

In a Marxist party, it is possible to imagine that the only theoretical contributions that anyone is capable of making are “perspectives”, i.e. great global documents stitching together the latest developments from revolutions in one continent to the next “united front” conference in London. A faction which failed to produce a global perspective of life, the universe and everything, would (on this definition) be politically indefensible, whatever else had brought it into being, for it would have failed to match up to the Philosopher’s vision of himself and his project. Once you start down the path of assuming that only those who have the ability to foresee the revolution are the holders of the historic interests of the working class then by definition not merely most of the class, but nearly all of the party (i.e. all those who have a job, who do not spend their days fantasising that the Financial Times gives them a dialectical insight into capitalism’s deepest secrets) had better be quiet. We will not foresee the revolution; there is no role for us.

What do you mean; you gave Owen Jones the 3pm speaking slot?

Lukács describes the democratic deficit of life under capitalism (“the undialectical concept of the majority”), without showing any enthusiasm at all for spelling out how socialism might actually become more democratic than the society it had defeated. We can forgive the lacuna; the Soviet leaders were always likely to be Lukács’s most careful readers. What positive conception could Lukács have given of democracy in the actual conditions of the degeneration of 1917?

Lukács tells his readers that “Leadership over the non-proletarian intermediate strata in the proletarian state is … materially, quite different from leadership over them in the bourgeois state. There is also an essential formal difference: the proletarian state is the first class state in history which acknowledges quite openly and un-hypocritically that it is a class state, a repressive apparatus, and an instrument of class struggle. This relentless honesty and lack of hypocrisy is what makes a real understanding between the proletariat and the other social strata possible in the first place.” This conviction that a repressive apparatus is a perpetual necessity (this is in peacetime, we should recall, three years after the Civil War had ended) makes Lukács a very different socialist from, for example, Victor Serge, for whom repression might be necessary, but only if it was capable of justification on a strictly lapse-by-lapse basis.

The sixth and final section, “revolutionary realpolitik, opens with a critique of reformist social democracy. Lukács accuses parliamentary socialism of bad faith, of losing sight of its original goal of transformation and becoming lost in “everyday questions”, and of filling the gap between its promises and its action by a Utopianism, which anyone can recognise as dishonest. Not so Lenin, Lukács argues, who rejected all Utopianism for a relentless “realpolitik”, a constant focus on the “steps” that would enable workers to ascend from capitalism to socialism.

This method of constant “concrete analysis”, Lukács admits, is a process that is likely to give rise to “compromise” (at this point, it is worth grasping that the Bolshevik revolution’s economic programme in 1924 was still the NEP, a “compromise” with the peasantry”, made after the Civil War, which was won in part through a series of compromises with Tsarist generals, and treaties with imperialist states, at Brest-Litovsk, Rapallo, etc, the revolution itself was in a state of compromise, not creating a Utopia but struggling desperately to survive).

“When defining the concept of compromise,” Lukács writes, “any suggestion that it is a question of knack, of cleverness, of an astute fraud, must be rejected. ‘We must,’ said Lenin, ‘decisively reject those who think that politics consists of little tricks, sometimes bordering on deceit. Classes cannot be deceived.’” This is one of those paradoxical passages which seems right when you first read it but in the context of the text, and in the context of Lukács life, in fact provides something different from its surface meaning.

It is useful to go back a little in time. Published after he became a Bolshevik in November 1918, but written in the last few weeks before he joined the Communist Party, Lukács last non-Marxist journalism, “Bolshevism as a Moral Problem”, had confronted this same question previously: “Bolshevism”, he then wrote, “rests on the metaphysical notion that good can come from evil. That it is possible, as Razumkin says in Crime and Punishment, to lie our way to truth. This writer cannot share this faith, and hence, sees an insoluble moral dilemma at the root of Bolshevism.”

Now that was Lukács in 1918; he clearly did not hold quite the same position in 1924 (otherwise he would not have been a member of the Communist Party). He was struggling with the same problem admittedly, but doesn’t that one quotation from Lenin cut through the problem at a stroke, doesn’t it show that Lukács’ Lenin recognised that an immoral act produces immoral effects, and therefore that socialism would be accomplished through solidarity rather than deceit?

One difficulty is that those who met Lukács learned from him that he was not at all satisfied that Lenin’s prohibition on deceit in fact solved the “Moral Problem” he had identified in 1918. Here is Serge’s account of their discussions in exile: “Georg Lukács … once remarked to me, “Marxists know that dirty little tricks can be performed with impunity when great deeds are being achieved; the error of some comrades is to suppose that one can produce great results simply through the performance of dirty little tricks …”

And Serge again: “Lukács was a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx and Freud, and possessing a free-ranging and rigorous mind. He was engaged in writing a number of outstanding books that were never to see the light of day. In him I saw a first-class brain that could have endowed Communism with a true intellectual greatness if it had developed as a social movement instead of degenerating into a movement in solidarity with an authoritarian power. Lukács’ thinking led him to a totalitarian vision of Marxism within which he united all aspects of human life; his theory of the Party could be taken as superb or disastrous depending on the circumstances…” (Memoirs of a revolutionary, 2012 edn, pp 218, 20).

The best evidence of course is the totality of Lukács’ pamphlet. By emphasising the centralised, selective, top-down notion of a party; by opposing the majoritarian instinct of bourgeois democracy and preferring to them the elitist conception of a party led by full-timers, substituting themselves for the rest of the party and of the class; by emphasising the moral utility of compromise (i.e. of an action in which there is by definition at least some tension with the supposed principles of the party making the compromise), what Lukács is arguing for is a conception of politics where compromises are general, not merely a necessary way of doing politics, but the highest form of Marxism, “The dialectically correct fusion of the general and the specific, the recognition of the general (in the sense of general historical tendencies) in the specific (in the concrete situation), and the resulting concretization of theory.”

From Lenin, Lukács does not take the short motto “do not lie to the class”, but the opposite conclusion, that by definition, classes cannot be deceived, and therefore any statement to the class, irrespective of its content, cannot be a lie.

There is of course a grandeur to Lukács tragedy. The pre-Marxist Lukács was capable of inspiring friendship in extraordinary people. On three occasion above all, during the Hungarian Soviet of 1919, in rediscovering Marx’s theory of alienation, and in siding with the uprising of 1956, he was more right than most of us will ever have the chance to be. His friend Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, published in the same year as Lukács’ Lenin, uses him as the basis of the central character “Naphtha”, a Jesuit priest and an arch immoralist, who is also a Communist, a supporter of the labour theory of value, and an advocate of the abolition of all classes. Lukács, who always denied any similarity between Naphtha and himself, dubbed the character a “fascist”, and the term is not altogether inapt. Mann’s is an extraordinary book that pre-empts in art both Nazism and Stalinism.

In a 1965 essay, Alasdair Macintyre of the International Socialists, like Lukács a philosopher, but also then the editor of the magazine International Socialism (i.e. a Marxist committed to the very different project of socialism from below), sought to explain why it was that Lukács was unable to acknowledge himself in Naphtha: “The manifestly desperate character of Naphtha’s project corresponds to the latently desperate character of Lukács’ own enterprise. What is desperate and neurotic, of course, is not Lukács’ Communism or his wish to resolve with the contradictions of theory with the conceptual scheme of a new form of social life; it is his impatience with history, with the slow pace of social development. This he himself was to recognise, but his recognition of this impatience was turned into an acceptance of the subintellectual world of Stalinist materialism and thereby into a disowning of both the origin and meaning of his own enterprise.” (Blackledge and Davidson, eds, Alasdair Macintyre’s Engagement with Marxism, p 326).

This emphasis on the uselessness of get-rich quick schemes is helpful. It points to the very slow political perspectives of the old IS at its most creative (equipped as Macintyre and others were with Kidron’s Permanent Arms Economy, which, in its earliest formulations, put off the actuality of revolution for several decades).

It reminds us of the essential futility of any argument that the government, or capitalism, will be toppled if only the next conference is very big. (What after all if the conference is no bigger than the last; does that mean humanity is doomed for ever?) It points the way also to understanding why it is that Lukács’ Lenin, despite its flaws, never goes away. The same people who collapsed the branches in favour of the movement; who defeated the mood for direct action in the anti-war movement in favour of repetitive marches; who did their best to drive dissidents out of the movement – are still “in charge”. Their pond may be smaller, but they still rule it. And even the places that they have left still bear their imprint. The speakers still need a philosophy to justify their position. It is this characteristic of this pamphlet – Lukács political servility – which makes it so amenable to those who would practise top-down politics in our time.

[originally posted here]

What would I like to see in Marxist writing about women’s liberation?


1 I’d like to see a proper treatment of Engels. I don’t believe that there is any purpose to reading him “defensively”, i.e. using him as a timeless authority, who is by definition correct just because of his close working relationship with Marx. Ultimately, the test of Engels’ brilliance as a historian of pre-class societies h…as to be what anthropologists and archaeologists find in the evidence (once we have stripped out any biases in their interpretation), rather than what Engels guessed from the best pre-historical evidence of more than 100 years ago. If I was going to list the characteristics which made early people “human” I would focus on tool-making rather than meat-eating which was crucial for the most right-wing, and dated, archaeologists of the 1960s. Any discussion of Vogel should try to acknowledge that she is matching the best bits of Engels to the method of Marx’s Capital. Vogel was not trying to depoliticise and diminish Engels, she was doing the opposite.

2 For over a century, Marxists have portrayed the family as key to women’s oppression. Here again we can learn from Vogel, who is very clear (the key is the differential expectation of women’s work in childrearing, which structures occupational segregation, unequal pay, different expectations as to who will initiate sex, sexual stereotyping, sexual imagery, etc etc). Marxists need to do more than merely acknowledge that the family is changing, we need to grasp how it is changing under “neo-liberal austerity capitalism”. In the same way that Soviet-era state capitalism resulted in lots of marriage, little divorce and medals for motherhood, our present mini-epoch of capitalism produces a different kind of family: a relative separation of sex and child-rearing (which goes arm in arm with sexual choice, including the vast increase in the number of people publicly identifying themselves as LGBT), a rapid increase in the number of both the people in relationships outside marriage and (fewer people spot this) the number of people outside relationships at all, the use of benefits to subsidise working class families (the budget for benefits to working people, of greatest value to those with children, outspends benefits to the unemployed by something like 20 to 1), and the removal of benefits (eg the housing tax cap) being of greatest threat to people living in families with children.

3 It’s not enough to say that the solution to women’s oppression is for women to join the workplace and go on strike. This misses out the continuing capacity for men and women to be divided in the workplace. A single episode illustrates this: the equal pay crisis and the local government and health union’s mishandling of it over the last decade – resulting in tens of thousands of tribunal equal pay cases a year, many of them brought (and this should shock any of us out of any political complacency) … against unions, for signing off discriminatory pay deals. It also misses out the problems of trade unionism in an epoch of (relatively) low strikes. We’re not talking about the “schools of socialism” that Marx and Engels hoped for. Not at the moment, not until they move – and any useful Marxist contribution need to start thinking honestly about how we can get them to. Right now, unions are much more defensive organisations, with low participation rates (especially among women), at several stages from revolution. Suggesting that strikes will solve everything also misses out the capacity for women (and men) to organise as workers outside the workplace – eg in fighting the bedroom tax. IE in contrast to those whose short answer to women’s oppression is “syndicalism”, when what we really need is “political class struggle” (i.e. both of political trade unionism -and- working-class struggle outside work).

[Original thread on Facebook here and here]

How things were; how they should have been


“It was a solemn moment at Millennium House (as the main square of the Canary Wharf complex had been renamed when roofed over after the Second Great insurrection of 1998). The delegate from the Seattle Convention of the Western Republics, Citizen Prairie Gates, had just finished speaking of the historical links between the American Revolution and the new Republican Federation of North East European Islands. ‘We in Amerika, in honouring the spirit of Tom Paine, send greetings to the descendants of Citizen Connolly, Citizen Larkin and Citizen Pankhurst. We remember the British cotton workers who supported the struggle against slavery and we salute the inventors of regicide, hunger strikes, civil disobdience, and the reggae-punk fusion.’…”

“In fact, the Harold Wilson-King Charles National Government’s final collapse was not in revulsion at the hated Lord Hattersley’s brutal repression (rioters had their hands cut off by privatised surgeons. The real damage was done by the Swuppies, an elite cadre of disgruntled City dealers who had joined the SWP and spent their time sabotaging what was left of the international stock market by making loans and siphoning payments into workers’ groups. Curiously the Swuppies, while intensely loyal to the general line of SWP philosopher Tony Cliff, also claimed loyalty to the cosmic re-embodiment of the Levellers…”

David Widgery again (from ‘World turned upside down’, published in the Guardian in November 1991)

Waiting for the great leap forward


Despite the crisis in the SWP; Socialist Worker still publishes interesting articles. One which struck me was Simon Basketter’s ‘How close are the unions to calling a general strike?’ ( Together with Solomon Hughes (now writing for Private Eye and the Morning Star) and Esme Choonara, Simon is one of the best journalists to have written for Socialist Worker since Paul Foot’s death. In the past he has written well on blacklisting ( In contrast to the very general pieces aimed at people coming into contact with the left for the first time, which make up too much of SW’s output (and indeed of The Socialist, its nearest direct competitor), Simon’s articles are usually well-informed and revealing.

The focus of his article is on the developments since the TUC’s decision at its 2012 Congress, to consider the practicalities of a General Strike against austerity. Unions views on the proposal were summarised in a private report which some kindly source leaked to SW. Simon doubts it will happen: “without determined pressure from below, they’re not about to encourage the sort of resistance that can win”. According to him, Unite wants there to be a 24-hour political strike against austerity but sees a need to prepare the ground for it further. Its response, he summarises, as “yes but not yet”. As for Unison, it reports that its “members’ taste for and willingness to engage in industrial action is falling … union membership numbers, and density, are falling as the cuts bite.” As you go through the union movement, the numbers of unions unequivocally in favour of action seems to be very few.

Simon cites Unison’s view that a successful general strike could only be the culmination of a serious campaign across unions and communities. The people making this point are at the heads of the union movement, and despite having every opportunity, have done previous little to usher a mass, grassroots campaign into being. But if we could ignore the source, focus on the argument rather than its maker, surely it is right that the desire for a general strike has to come organically, from below. It should be the end, not the beginning.

A bureaucratic general strike, called at the urging of a few generals without popular demands for it, would leave precious little in its wake. Many years ago, Tony Cliff, the founder of today’s SWP, made the point that routinist general strikes, controlled rigidly from above (including Sweden in 1909, Belgium in 1913 and, arguably, even Britain in 1926), weakened and did not strengthen the movement which took part in them:

Simon’s piece ends with the date of the TUC’s next meeting, 24 April. The National Shops Stewards Committee, a Socialist Party-led campaign, has gone further, calling a lobby of the TUC meeting. I have no problems with that call, will argue for its support within the movement and, only provided that I am not at court, I will be at that event myself. Union branches which are active recruit more people than those which are quiet; and what is true at the base of the movement is equally true when you think of the movement as a whole. But, we have been here before, haven’t we? The revolutionary left were the most determined supporters of the pensions strikes of 2011 and 2012, dubbing them “Our day to smash the Tories” ( As we all know, rather than the strike galvanising action at the base, a one day strike here was followed by a second day there, the gaps between the strikes grew longer rather than shorter, and a cautious, bureaucratic campaign became weaker the longer it went on.

If I was still a branch secretary, the action I would hoping to see would not be a national general strike, not now, not with the present balance of forces, but a strike in one workplace or industry which had the potential to raise intense feelings of solidarity, either because of the workers involved (eg nurses, firefighters) or because of the issue (something that goes to the heart of the austerity agenda). “Patco” or “1984-5” in reverse would be fantastic; but, as a more modest ask, something like “Besna plus” would be a healthier, sustainable next step.

In the recent SWP crisis, many people in the faction were critical of the SWP’s industrial perspectives, which broadly seem to be to make a long-term alliance with sections of the trade union leaderships, chiefly the leaderships of the PCS civil servants’ union and the National Union of Teachers, in the hope that by inviting them to our events, giving them prime speaking roles, they will have a closer connection with left-wingers in the union movement, and it will be pulled, progressively, into calling more strikes, or even general strikes, which will in turn break the psychological weakness (“lack of confidence”) which holds back rank and file activists from striking. The SWP’s main industrial campaign “Unite the Resistance”, is thus characterised – at the most charitably – as presently a National Minority Movement Mark II, intended to give rise to a future Rank and File Campaign.

Several voices associated with the faction complained that in party publications it is always assumed that almost the entire working class is still organised in trade unions (only around 1 in 4 UK workers works in a workplaces with a recognised union, compared 4 out of 5 before 1979). It was complained that we have made no reckoning with the disappearance of unions from the sectors which generate the most wealth (banking, finance) or from the sectors of the economy which recruit young people (cultural production, and all sorts of businesses, even those as mundane as high street shops, associated with it).

Simon has a sceptical intelligence and you can see in his piece flashes of greater honesty than the party usually allows. As for the two unions which are supposed to be carrying the hopes of the entire working class in their shoulders – Simon portrays the former as hopelessly tied by its alliance with its fellow, more right-wing, teaching union, the NASUWT. “The NUT said it is for action and it looks forward to talking about it. The NASUWT is against it and looks forward to talking about it.” PCS, with RMT and the FBU, belongs within a section near the very end of his article, devoted to the verbal militancy of the “smaller left unions”.

There is a point here, of greater significance than he gives it. Many SWP authors who write about unions imagine that the most important group of activists in Britain have something like the following personal history. They were recruited into the union movement between 1980 and 1985, they studied at university, taking not one but two degrees (a teaching or social work qualification, a masters in journalism, a PhD…). They started their working lives in the public sector and through good fortune and occupancy of “core” public sector roles (i.e. by being University Readers rather than University cleaners; or by being council Housing Officers rather than council security guards) they have avoided outsourcing. Sticking with the left and with the trade unions through a series of defeats, the activists have been “battled-hardened” against others in generation who took private sector jobs, promotions, or benefitted from council house off sell-offs, low-level tax avoidance, etc. They now hold lay positions from which only retirement or death could prise them.

This layer dominates the discussion of “working-class” politics within the SWP. We have never integrated into our thinking the different pressures there are now on workers (directly responsible in increasing numbers for either childcare or adult care) compared to the militants of the 1970s, who were men, living in a world where women’s working was the exception in all age groups save those under 30.

Even our most recent attempt to write about women’s politics theoretically – Sheila McGregor’s recent piece for the International Socialism Journal (, while celebrating women’s increasing presence in the workplace and acknowledging that women are much more likely to work part-time than men, is blithe to the contradictions of these processes, the downgrading of “women’s work” into a low-status, low-paid niche, and the inevitable next step, the crisis that the health and council worker unions have had over the past 10 years in negotiating pay deals which do not merely institutionalise unequal pay, with too many “bending the stick” towards promoting better-paid male members of the union over worse paid women ( Men’s and women’s mutual solidarity in the workplace is, in other words, something to be constantly fought for, rather than something to be assumed.

In particular, Mcregor relies on recent, successful, meetings of the NUT union as a sign that when workers struggle, they unite. But teachers are an atypical group of workers, is that very large numbers of them are engaged in similar contracts: typically working full-time, on collectively (nationally) negotiated contracts, etc. The private sector workforce looks less and less like a staff common room.

People who have similar collective experiences write for our publications; when we write about the trade union movement, we are writing about people who – we assume – look, think and sound, like senior public sector trade unionists. In the recent party crisis a disproportionate role was played by trade unionists in their 50s. In any healthy organisation, a layer of this sort would be worried by its looming retirement. One reason this thought has not occurred to our comrades is that a union activist aged 52 or 54 in the PCS feels “young”; as the trade unionists with whom they ally or argue will be the same age as them or even older. At one point, this generation will hit 65, and then, as has happened to previous left generations (in particular, the industrial cadre of the old Communist Party in around 1979: 35 years or so after had first been recruited) they will vanish leaving no successor generation.

How far this generation is representative of union activists, or the working class in its majority experiences is questionable. When you ask people in this country what is the best single marker of class, the most common answer they give you is education. On this test, the group in a minority within a minority (only 20% of adults in Britain hold any degree at all; fewer still have one and a professional qualification). It is a public sector layer, whereas less than one in four workers is employed in the public sector. “Core” public sector workers, like these, having final salary pensions arguably have as much in common with MPs and bankers as they do with the 9 out of 10 workers who rely on private pensions or no pensions save the state pension. It is a layer whose day to day experiences at work are professional and either didactic (teachers) or even disciplinary (benefits staff, social workers, the council housing officers who will make the decisions as to who to evict under the bedroom tax).

There is a common SWP speech which goes something like the following: “class in Britain is changing. Just look at me, I’m a university lecturer / a teacher / a senior civil servant. Forty years ago, people like me thought they were middle class. Now we go on strike just as often as anybody.” The average bus driver or building worker or nurse who hears that speech may think “Welcome to the working class, brother” (the hope of the speaker is that this will be the response). But the listener may just as well think “You’re a teacher. You don’t look or sound to me like a worker but like a downwardly mobile member of the middle class. I’ll listen to without malice, but you don’t have the same experiences as I do.”

I’m not saying any of this in order to denigrate the left in general or my comrades in particular. I’m just trying to spell out some reasons why we would need a deep draft of humility even if it wasn’t for the recent crisis, and to spell out some of the ways in which more honest and deeper theorising could lead us to notice other kinds of working class experiences, and make the left open to a much wider set of people than it is at present. There are, after all, lots of interesting things happening within the trade union’ movement, from which we could be learning. They include the recreation of rank and file trade unionism where particular circumstances have made it possible (especially in construction), new forms of trade unionism based on signing people up to unions in general rather than a particular union membership scheme (see for example the recent pop-up union at Sussex university, which in turn reminds me of older examples of this, such as Battersea and Wandsworth’s regional organising, funded by their previous success with the Workers’ Beer Company), the use of festivals and marches to create a community consciousness of class, far wider than trade union membership in the locality (the popularity of Tolpuddle and Durham Miners Gala). They include, and this is a more complex model, which needs careful accounting, GMB and Unite’s experiments with “leverage” and political campaigning to win industrial struggles.

Meanwhile, if only we were capable of seeing working-class people as united by more than just work (eg common experiences of housing, benefits, etc), we might have a theory which was capable of explaining why it is we should take part in the bedroom tax protests, and where they fit in Marx’s schema of working-class emanicaption.

Spread class experience beyond white collar unions to “work” in general (speed-up, self-exploitation, the rise of bogus self-employment and its relationship to benefits), and beyond work to workers’ common experiences of housing, education, the family etc – and we might yet find ourselves with a plan to get from the “here” which is a cycle of defeats under capitalism to the “there” which is a movement and a class with momentum behind us again. Simon’s passing specticism, in other words, might help us to find a little political wisdom…

[originally published on Facebook; thread here]

A new blog: Eve Unbound


In order to stop this blog becoming totally distracted from its original purpose; I have set up a new blog Eve Unbound: Sexual Harassment, Law Politics and the Left. I hope the first post gives a good indication of its future contents. As ever, guests posts are welcome.

I still have a few more “SWP” posts in the pipeline, on other topics, which will continue to appear here. In due course, maybe by early May, I guess this blog will be back to its previous incarnation – as a platform for engaged discussion of the relationship between politics and running. Till then new readers: welcome! I hope you stick around…