Monthly Archives: May 2013

‘Democracy in a small party’ reconsidered


A few weeks ago, I set out, in a list form, some minimum conditions which make a party worth calling “democratic”. Events in recent weeks have encouraged me to expand on the list.

1) The determined obsolescence of leadership roles

When I first wrote this, I had in mind two things: leadership as a concept and the possession of leadership roles. On the first of them, something that stymies politics in our age is the sense that all the parties are led by people from the same class, the same universities, with interchangeable politics. It feels like “they” as a class are the only ones allowed to speak and they make all the decisions. Left-wing organisations should not fall into the same trap, and should not adapt to the long-term aspects of neo-liberalism that are causing all sorts of associations (not just parties but trade unions, churches, charities etc) to decline. Politics in any healthy group has to be done by as many of the members as possible. Unless a group’s “activity” is done by its members (and not by full-timers) its democracy will wither.

The other dynamic I had in mind was that healthy groups encourage turnover in leadership roles. We can all think of left-wing parties dominated by single individuals who have been in (sometimes the same) leadership roles for more than 30 years. It is the political equivalent of what people in the unions used to called Convenor’s Disease, i.e. the assumption that only you as an individual can play X role, causes you to actually do everything in your power to stop anyone else playing that role. We don’t have Convenor’s Disease any more because the unions which used to practise it were smashed, the brittleness of their collective leaderships being a (small) part of the reason for their defeat.

This is something which most healthy organisations on the left have grasped intuitively. If you looked at old copies of the International Socialism journal, it is striking how quickly comrades were brought on to the editorial board, and (usually without rancour) eased out, and (often) brought back again. Leadership turnover is usually a sign of health.

Since then, I’ve been struck by the capacity of at least some groups on the left to grasp this point in practice. For example, I’ve been impressed by the way in which Left Unity, a campaign which had been going only for a few weeks, recently ran an election process for its National Co-ordinating Committee which resulted in the removal of an absolute majority of the members of its previous, interim steering committee (compare the lists at and If you make elections meaningful, if you keep roles turning over, people notice, and think better of your group.

2) Having the politics to comprehend which decisions are suitable for majority decisions and which are not

During the recent crisis in the SWP, some comrades showed a tendency to say that democracy means doing whatever the majority calls for, even if that majority, on inspection, turns out to be less than half of the people in the room when the decision was taken. It is sheer, activist good sense that such a position works, or doesn’t work, according to the decision that is being taken. If you have a group which has a very strong tradition of discussion and debate, with majorities regularly overturned, leaderships pulled in and out, and despite these shifts of opinion, a group strong enough to survive – then yes, of course, vote on everything and whoever gets 51% will win. It really is that simple. But there are other sorts of organisations (most unions have become like this in recent years) where almost every conference vote is uncontroversial, and almost everything is passed by a 90%+ majority.

You have to ask if the leadership of such a union, or a party, has a minimum sense of its own need for survival. If it does, then it will treat even a 20% vote against the leadership for what it is – a serious break from that party’s history, tantamount to a vote of censure. And if an organisation goes from a voting history of 100-0, 100-0, 100-0, to suddenly (on the most important decision of its life) a 52-48 split; no leadership worthy of survival would consider that mandate sufficient. It is too narrow; it reflects such a deep unease that the group’s very survival is jeopardised.

3) Avoiding front-ism

Beneath the original version of the piece, I said that I was baffled by the idea, once pervasive on parts of the left and still maintained by certain enthusiasts, that a party’s activity should take place primarily outside itself, in “united fronts” (typically just party fronts), inside which socialist are supposed to be having a battle of ideas with others to the right. This might be an appropriate strategic focus for an organisation with tens of thousands of active members in active contest with the Labour Party for leadership of the unions, the co-operatives, the tenants associations … but nothing on the present left is of that size. Instead we get what George Galloway once called a “Russian doll” style of organisation, with two or three individuals setting out to win first “their” party (CF) then “their” united front (COR) then the other mass movements to build large public meetings (PA) at which the original two or three instigators of the idea will have, no doubt, plum speaking roles. The greater the gap between the apparent size of the front and the actual narrowness of the decision-making group, the less space there will be for anyone else to make any decisions.

Those very same champions of top-down leadership have since published an article defending their method: “The essence of the People’s Assembly is the notion that broad working class unity is of fundamental importance if we are to defeat the government. We have the numbers on our side, but we need organisation to turn that into a social force to be reckoned with. There will always be differences of opinion – and it is necessary to air and debate those differences – but they should not be a barrier to united action. Above all, we need to combine the size and organisational capacities of the trade unions with the numerous disparate campaigns involving single-issue activists, disabled people, students, pensioners and more.”

“Doing this effectively requires the support and active participation of national organisations, especially but not exclusively the unions, to create an inclusive framework which can involve the diverse range of people in our movement. If this is what some activists mean when they refer to doing things ‘from above’ then so be it: organisation ‘from above’ i.e. involving national organisations, is exactly what we need as a means for involving the maximum social forces and delivering the largest-scale action imaginable. There is no juxtaposition between ‘above’ and ‘below’, between the support of national leaders and organisations and, on the other hand, grassroots participation.” (

Yes, of course, there is no juxtaposition only so long as you have a theory which steadfastly refuses to admit what everyone else can see plainly for themselves.

The negotiations in the PA do not take place between heroically democratic but ill-organised single-issue activists and the trade union movement; they take place rather between one or two full-time appointees of one union in particular (standing in, as the bureaucratic model allows, for the union’s members, and for the unions generally) and the full-time personnel of one very small Marxist group (employed ostensibly by other, movement campaigns), standing (only in their imagination) for all the social forces of grassroots democracy in society.

It is important to understand the direction of my critique. I am not repeating the standard near-anarchist argument that wonderful democrats and class-fighters become contaminated by their relationship with the horribly undemocratic institutions of the trade union movement. I am suggesting rather that the partial but bureaucratic democracy of the right-wing of the trade union movement is in every ways preferable to the arrogant figures, with barely any organic connection to the movement at all, who pretend to stand for its “Marxist wing”.

4) Full exchange of information / 5) Maximising opportunities to contribute

If, to take but one example, a group keeps financial records but does not publish them, then by definition the majority of its members are excluded from involvement in decisions about funding. They simply have to take it for granted that the leadership is making the right decisions about meetings, publications, and everything else. Groups which exclude the majority from decision-making will inevitably make mistakes. Good ideas won’t be passed upwards. The organisation will feel as if it has a cynical attitude: in its public life, it champions socialism, democracy and the wisdom of crowds. If, privately, it does none of those things – people will see its members as frauds.

It is interesting to see how other groups have started to grasp this basic principle. The International Socialism Network, for example, now publishes detailed minutes describing the group’s tactics, its finances, its internal conflicts. I don’t doubt that a particular line in its last minutes won the IS N another a further generation of recruits.

Those  in parties whose Steering Committee’s minutes are collected, word-processed and photocopied for the participants, but never published or shared among the membership, can but lament for this degree of openness.

Police and Thieves


This video is dedicated to all the comrades, from whatever tradition (or part of a tradition) they come, who were at Sheffield this evening, as described by one participant:

“About 60 anti fascists on the Unite against Fascism demo (called only a couple of hours ago) in Sheffield this evening, turning away 12 Nazi EDL members. Well done everyone. No Pasaran!”

[first posted here:

International Socialists (IS)


Continuation of the Socialist Review group who regrouped as International Socialists in 1962 with about 250 members. Main recruiting field was young people in YS and CND. Produced International Socialism, edited by Mike Kidron, advancing a classical Marxist critique of many Trotskyist orthodoxies and developing Marxist economic analysis. Ran a monthly industrial paper, Labour Worker, based on supporters’ groups and calling for support for unofficial strikes and outright opposition to incomes policy. Stressed self-activity and spontaneous shop-floor revolt, and critical of orthodox Trotskyism’s self-importance and leadership fetish. Dominant force in the Labour Party Young Socialists’ paper Young Guard, recruiting groups of apprentices in Glasgow and Birmingham en bloc.

Ceased systemmatic work inside the adult Labour Party by 1965, mainly active independently in local struggles over redundancy, victimisation and racialism. Although it began organized rank-and-file work in NUT in 1965, set up the SSDC in January 1966 and led the LSE student occupations, its first mass campaigning was in the London rent strikes of 1968-9 and in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign.

Moved from a federalist national structure in 1968 with about 800 members, spurred by the May events and after two special conferences and five separate factions. In 1968-1970 it executed ‘The Turn to the Class’, aimed at utilizing the entire group’s resources to establishing a substantial industrial base, through the systemmatic sales of two booklets, ‘Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards’ and ‘Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them’, the production of regular factory bulletins using information from sympathisers within plants, and the establishment with other socialists of democratic rank-and-file papers for particular industries. Profited from the communist Party’s unwillingness to take initiatives and lack of enthusiasm for those they took. Associated Pluto Press.

The largest of the far-left groupings with 3,000 members evenly distributed between industrial workers and white-collar workers, students, teachers and housewives. Tend to regard themselves as a development of the Leninist tradition rather than as Trotskyists. Known for their members’ sense of humour except when people laugh at them.

from Dave Widgery, ‘The Left in Britain’ (1976)

Back to class


This article will argue for a different way of doing industrial politics, based on acknowledging three key problems facing the whole working class, namely: (i) the decreasing proportion of the workforce with union membership; (ii) the growth of what used to be called “atypical” working but is now usually termed “precariousness”; and (iii) the reduction in the number of trade union reps and their increasing age.

Through this piece, I switch between three different ways of talking about class: class experience, class feeling, and class consciousness. Class experience is the totality of experiences which causes people to feel that they have interests in common with others. Something which many Marxists have been too slow to grasp is that, while experience in the workplace may be necessary to the formation of working-class consciousness, it can never be sufficient. For when people are united only by their experiences of work, the forms of consciousness they adopt are likely to be sectional (as in the many unofficial, sectional strikes of the 1950s and 1960s) or occupational. The latter can be extremely militant (as in the slogan of 1984-1985: “the Miners united will never be defeated”) but it is not quite the same thing as class consciousness, which is about seeing all workers as your brothers and sisters. It follows that if you are looking to find the people who are going to be the most militant champions of workplace self-activity in future, perhaps paradoxically, you just as likely to find them in other forms of working-class protest, whether against benefit cuts or hospital closures, as you are within the present ranks of the public sector unions. Class consciousness is formed by experiences of housing and education, etc., not only work.

Class feeling describes the sense of shared interests that people acquire on the basis of these shared experiences: a feeling which of course can be partial, incomplete or contradictory. Periods of high unemployment are often characterised by a bitter, sullen anger which lacks a means of expression. The Great Depression which began in 1929 led to an enormous reserve of anger, which shaped British politics for the next 16 years, right up to and including Labour’s election victory in 1945. But the increase in unemployment reduced workers’ confidence to strike – in each of 1934, 1935 and 1936 there were fewer than 2 million strike days, down from 160 million in 1926. There was class feeling, of course, during the Depression but it lacked a practical effect. There was class feeling without class consciousness

Class consciousness is what happens when experience acts on workers’ feelings to produce a practical result. This might be a workplace strike, or a rent strike, or protests against evictions. Class consciousness only exists where it expresses itself through activity. Marx described class consciousness in The Poverty of Philosophy as an outcome of “economic conditions [which] had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests” [i.e. class experience]. “This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself” [i.e. there was class feeling but no consciousness]. “In the struggle”, he continued, “this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself.” (

The common sense of our time is that not merely that there is no class consciousness but even that class experience is a historical phenomenon. Nine years ago, one of the International Socialism Journal’s former editors, Nigel Harris, wrote an obituary for Duncan Hallas, a former leader of the SWP, in which Harris suggested that the entire left had failed to grasp that there was no longer a working class, and that the shared experiences which used to make class a reality had all since been consigned to the past.

“Duncan was born in 1925”, Harris wrote, “perhaps of Irish mining stock. It was a different world in which the material reality of the nineteenth-century working class and its localities – the great working-class districts and slums of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, East London – still existed: Welsh mining villages, back-to-backs in northern mill towns, steel mills, giant factories and docklands … The wireless was brand new and still rare. There were no fridges, no television, no computers or credit cards, few telephones or bathrooms, outside lavatories were still the norm. It had become a world of seemingly perpetual war between countries and classes. Above all, the working class was a massive and palpable reality; its armies, organised in giant unions, seemed a force so great and growing, they could never be defeated. Their sheer massiveness was mirrored in giant places of work, and the institutions of the state – they seemed solid, immovable, eternal.” (

As a piece of literature, this was beautiful, evocative writing. But as a piece of contemporary analysis, it rested on a series of juxtapositions which do not stand up to close scrutiny. Workers in 1925, it is suggested, were united by their experience of insecure and unsanitary (“slum”) housing as if poor housing is no longer a feature of our lives. Yet insecurity of tenure and high rents are just as much of an issue now as they were eighty years ago.

Workers lacked fridges and televisions in 1925, just as fifty years before wrist-watches had been a luxury. This is true, but even as long ago as 1939 most homes had radio, most working-class children could get to see the cinema which was if anything relatively cheaper (at less than a shilling a ticket) than it is now. Class experience didn’t stop of a sudden in 1966, when millions of homes in Britain acquired a television set. The numbers of workers employed in the industries Harris portrays as central to the “massiveness” of working-class experience, i.e. textile, steel, dock work, were not huge: at 300,000, 30,000, and 270,000 people respectively in the 1931 census. Compare the 2.3 million people in Britain who worked in manufacturing in 2011, the 1.3 million in transport, or the one million or so who work just in call centres.

Workers’ experiences in the workplace and outside remain sufficiently similar to explain why it is that (as many articles in the ISJ have pointed out over the years) the number of people describing themselves in surveys as working class is no less than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Class experience and feeling have not diminished; the problem is rather a lack of class consciousness.

To understand why there is a problem of consciousness, it not enough to talk about the political strategies of capital. Ever since capitalism took root there have people who were determined to break what they saw as the power of labour, and politicians ready to ally with them. What is more important to ask why these strategies worked, when countless previous strategies with a similar purpose (eg in Britain, the plans of the Heath government) failed.

Comrades in the IS tradition have ascribes the very low level of strikes in Britain in recent years to a combination of lack of confidence and restraint by trade union leaders. We have tended to treat any objective weaknesses of the working class (eg precariousness) as the product rather than a cause of defeat. But the greatest of the set-piece defeats in recent British industrial history (the sequestration of the miners’ funds in 1985) happened 28 years ago, more than half the average working lifetime. If the problems were only ones of consciousness, we would have got over them by now.

A more useful answer might go something like the following: at each moment in the history of capitalism, there have been waves of technological innovation which have reshaped the entire labour market, by changing the lives of key groups of workers, whose industrial situation capitalism has since generalised. Frederick Engels’ 1844 book The Condition of the Working Class in England, defines the working class, by its relationship to technology. It “was called into existence through the introduction of machinery … The first proletarians belonged to manufacture and were begotten directly through it.” ( For Engels, the most important kinds of technology were those in the then-dominant factory system (especially cotton manufacture). The point was not necessarily that there were huge numbers of people in Britain working in factories in 1844 (in absolute terms, there were significantly fewer factory workers in Britain than there are today), but that the labour supervision made possible by the factory system was going to be generalised. Chartism (a political campaign, whose primary form was mass meetings rather than strikes) was the clearest expression of their growing class consciousness.

In the 1880s, this generation of workers had ceased to be at the forefront of industrial developments. More important were the huge numbers of unskilled workers (miners, dock workers, etc) who dug or transported the coal which powered the “carboniferous capitalist” industrial economy. These workers first come to the fore during the New Unionism of 1889-90.

The transition from “factory capitalism” to capital accumulation through the intense exploitation of semi-skilled or unskilled labour was but the first of several transitions: from the heavy industry of the 1880s to the light industry (engineering and car manufacture) which dominated the economy of the 1950s and 1960s and to the service-based economy of the present day.

Described like this, what is important about neo-liberalism is not so much that the Thatcher government closed the mines, the steel plants, the docks, etc. but what happened next. Part of the answer is that new employment opportunities eventually came, but they did so at first in areas of the country with relatively low levels of unionisation, and in the circumstances of organised labour’s recent defeat. Job opportunities were at their best in towns like Reading or Swindon with relatively weak union traditions, and their least in Liverpool and Glasgow, etc. Then, there were conscious policies of excluding trade unionists, and of recruiting new entrants to the labour market (eg the young, married women). Plus of course, whole new generations of companies and technologies have been the fastest recruiters; and they have generally been anti- or at least non-union from the outset.

The subsequent period of neo-liberalism’s political hegemony has disrupted an entire cycle by which you would otherwise have expected groups of workers (such as nurses, call-centre workers, drivers delivering consumer goods on behalf on supermarkets and online retailers) to have become by now the new faces of industrial militancy in Britain.

Various workplace dynamics have accompanied the neo-liberal hegemony. From the perspective of the working class a whole, these are simultaneously “problems” (they are some of our side’s key weaknesses); conversely, if we are going to confront them and change the narrative of working class defeat, at some point we will have to start seeing them as organising “opportunities”. What is being proposed here in effect is a strategic orientation which takes into account where the most important battles are going to take place, not necessarily the easiest to win, but the ones that will make the most difference.

  1. Target workplaces, and maintain a relationship with them

A first weakness facing the working class is the demise of trade union density (i.e. the number of trade union members, absolutely, and their numbers relative to the size of the workforce as a whole) and coverage (i.e. the incidence of trade union recognition, especially in workplaces where only a minority of workers are members of a union). Both the number of trade union members and of course the number of strikes are falling. Trade union membership is becoming rarer, only one in six private sector workers in Britain are trade union members, and around half of all workers in the British economy have never been a union member.

Of course, at least theoretically it would be possible for trade unions to overcome low density by (as they have, as in France or Germany) making the best of a favourable legislative climate, in which the general right to vote for representation is extended beyond the number of union members into the workplace, so that even non-members can elect militant union reps.

New Labour’s introduction of a statutory process to obtain union recognition in 2000 was half-hearted, and has been largely ineffective, with only around 50 union branches a year obtaining recognition through the statutory process. The result is that only a third of all workers have their pay and conditions are determined by collective agreement. A half of all UK employees are in a workplace where no union is active in any way at all.

If socialists are going to be part of changing that experience, then we should be thinking about the sorts of workplaces where it would be possible for unions to recruit large numbers of workers relatively quickly.

One obvious determinant would be size: one of the largest workforces in London is Heathrow, for example, with 75,000 workers directly employed, and another 40,000 at least working on jobs dependent on them. If you look at workplaces in terms of their capacity to dominate a local area, it is just obvious that a lengthy strike involving groups of workers at Heathrow would be likely to have a greater effect in terms of winning support among other workers and creating an mood of class consciousness than any strike, no matter how militant, involving but a single primary school.

In France, the Trotskyist party Lutte Ouvrière, with whom the SWP briefly had in the early 1970s cordial relations, established itself through a series of practical activities including standing in parliamentary elections, holding a large, annual festival which has been popular well outside their ranks, and by each branch selling their publications weekly outside the largest workplace in their area, the sales backed up by a weekly newsletter, often well-informed, describing the latest twist and turns of union-management battles in the workplace. Part of what defined this practice was its routine nature; to get the information to make the newsletters work, LO needed to have many contacts in the workplace, and to get them, it had to maintain the sales over many years. This is a method the SWP copied, for just about 12 months, in 1995-6, before moving on to other, more exciting campaigns.

This was one of those occasions in the party’s history where Cliff’s abiding legacy (our capacity to move, quickly, in the direction of whatever we think will be the next exciting campaign) may not have done us too many favours. If the party is ever again going to have industrial roots, above all in the private sector workplaces where unions are presently weak, we may well find that we need to revisit this same approach of more patient, targeted, industrial work.

  1. Set out to win class consciousness in the “border” between secure and precarious employment

Another part of what has enabled neo-liberalism to succeed has been its attrition of the employment form. Out of a total workforce of just under 30 million people, 1.6 million people are now on temporary contracts, 8.0 million work part-time, and 4.2 million people are self-employed. These figures have all gone up during the recession (by around 13%, 6%, and 10% respectively); but not only recently, all have been rising consistently over the past 30 years. This experience is far from unique to Britain; where if anything the class has been able to defend more of the 1950s-era model of secure full-time employment than has been protected in Egypt or South Africa or elsewhere.

If a worker is employed on a part-time contact, they do not cease to be a worker. Many of the contractual forms of the old occupations of a century or so ago were highly precarious: dockers, chosen daily by their employer, miners, on year-long contracts (“the bond”) which were far more about establishing their duties to the employer than any entitlement to work.

But workers on zero hours contracts or in self-employment can find it much harder to organise. A good example of an industry where the hollowing out of employment impacts on workers’ organising opportunities is construction, where UCATT estimates that around half of all workers (c400,000 people) are falsely designated as self-employed. Self-employment makes it harder to organise because it divides up even very large construction projects into multiple discrete units each having formally a separate employer and pits isolated groups of workers against very small employers with no capital savings. Construction has one of the most impressive rank and file networks to be found anywhere in private industry just now, but some of the best-known battles of recent years have been about winning recognition for groups of 20 or 30 union members at a time. These are far from the “solid, immovable, eternal” masses which Nigel Harris found in labour’s distant past.

Set-piece strikes by public sector workers against government cuts are unlikely to halt the spread of precarious working. The experiences of the workers involved in these strikes (usually university graduates, predominantly on full-time, permanent contracts, with final salary pension schemes and a high level of union density) separate them from precarious workers. Even in the parts of the public sector which are both characterised by regular strikes and high levels of precarious working (eg universities, where over half of all teaching staff in many institutions are on hourly-paid contracts), what tends to happen is that strikes are conducted by the full-time workers, and the casual staff (not least because they are mostly not union members) play little or no part. If university strikes generally fail to result in the unionisation of casual teaching staff, there is no reason to think that they will result in the greater recruitment to unions of other workers outside the campus gates, casual security guards, or drivers, etc. And the difficulties are still sharper once you start thinking of the working class as essentially just a collection of journalists, civil servants and primary school teachers. These are the most left-wing unions; they are not the class itself. Neither are they the types of workers who are likely to win the attention or support of (say) call centre workers.

If socialists were serious about tackling precariousness, we probably would not start with the lowest-paid and least secure workers (who by definition, are going to be among the hardest to organise and to keep organised), but nor would we begin with workers in the most secure, public sector jobs. Surely, what we would be looking for is groups of workers who share the right mix of experiences with precarious workers, so that their strikes could engender a dynamics of class feeling, and then of class consciousness. For example, if you wanted to get strikes by private sector cleaners, not a bad place to begin would be groups of workers like London Underground cleaners, who although precarious, work in proximity to other, secure and highly-unionised workers. If you wanted to get strikes among call centre workers in the private sector, you might look for call centre workers employed by government departments, who have the advantage of proximity, this time, with well-organised PCS grades.

I am certainly not suggesting that members of the SWP have kept aloof from these two groups, the campaigns of each of which have been covered by Socialist Worker; and there was a Call Centre Worker magazine which was published intermittently for a couple of years until 2010. But we have tended to focus the efforts of our full-time apparatus rather on the most secure public sector workers. A mere numerical assessment of the number of leaflets we produce each month would show that we are consistent only about different kinds of workers, chiefly in the unions where we have greatest “influence” with the leadership (i.e. NUT, PCS, UCU). For decades, we have not had a plan for contributing to the organising of precarious workers.

  1. Develop the next generation of union activists

A third weakness of the working class in general and the trade unions in particular has been the tendency for the number of trade union reps to shrink, in tandem with the declining number of trade union members, and for the age of trade union representatives to rise.

There are presently a little under 200,000 trade union reps in Britain. Union representatives tend to be male (56 per cent are male), surprisingly old (78 per cent are 40 or over, and the average age is 46) and employed on secure contracts (92 per cent are full time employees). In addition, black workers are under-represented: 4% are black compared to the overall black and minority ethnic population of around 16% (this is especially troubling when you recall that black people are statistically more likely to be trade union members).

Any Marxist party worthy of the name should be asking itself anxiously whether it merely reflects these dynamics of segregation, or whether it is challenging them, in particular by training a new generation of reps.

Certainly, at every stage when the left has grown noticeably, this has tended to be reflected in a recruitment of new generations of shop stewards and workplace activists. This happened with the rise of syndicalism in 1910-1914 and 1916-1919, with the wartime growth of the Communist Party of Great Britain (with the CP actively encouraging its members to become union reps in post-war industry) and again for the IS and others after 1970.

All these parties held specific training events aimed at new reps; often they were livelier than anything which the unions could match.

The regrowth of the left should result in greater numbers of working-class activists, including union activists (if not, why do we recruit people to left-wing parties?). But this least likely to happen in a party which flatters and always pushes forward long-standing trade union reps in their fifties over the future reps who are now in their twenties; or one which seems capable of imagining working class protest only in terms of victories by the existing trade unions which young workers have fewer and fewer opportunities to join; or one which increasingly limits its analysis of trade unionism to the “left” public sector unions which are less and less typical of the union movement as a whole.

What might an upturn look like?

At some point there will again be a rapid revival of trade unionism in Britain. When it comes, it will certainly not look like the industrial protests of the early 1970s (as these took place in industries which had behind them the immediate memory of 15 years of repeated, local, sectional, strike activity); nor, in all likelihood, will it resemble the postwar, quasi-insurrectionary strikes of 1919 (in which a significant role was played by groups of workers who had been made almost un-dismissable by their importance to the war economy); or the Great Unrest of 1910-1914 (which saw the rejuvenation of networks of trade union activists, shaped by a previous wave of mass strikes, followed by relative quiet for just a bit less than two decades). The next economic upturn may look quite a lot like New Unionism, when the “old”, skilled unions which had dominated the TUC for 20 years (eg the engineers) played little part, while the newest and most militant part was played by workers in industries which were previously considered un-organisable because of their economic precariousness (ie dockers, gas workers). New Unionism took place after a period of five or six years in which Britain’s first socialist party the SDF had organised, sustainedly, among the unemployed. And a disproportionate part was played by socialists who had recently been recruited to the SDF and were influenced by it. For the dockers and the gas-workers, imagine call centre workers, the drivers who deliver online purchases, workers in the huge out-of-town retail factories; they are our generation’s potential equivalents.

But if that sort of upturn is going to happen, the best preparation for it would be a wholescale junking of the present industrial perspectives of the left; a move away from the public sector towards the private, the targeting of workplaces, and a deliberate searching for groups of workers who are located at the crucial boundary between security and precariousness. In a society where four-fifths of adults did not go to university, you cannot base a strategy for working-class self-emancipation simply on recruiting students and hoping they go into the graduate unions. Where you do this, it leads to a serious misunderstanding both of the main currents of trade unionism, and of the main dynamics of working class life itself. Changing this deeply-ingrained habit will take time, and can only happen by a subtle reallocation of priorities, by the identification of opportunities, and the patient cultivation of key workplaces and working-class activists.

If any readers are serious about helping the British left get back to what was once assumed to be its defining purpose, it is worth recognising that any serious trade union work just takes lots and lots of time. It is all about identifying the space which is right for you, and then working there consistently, whether that is as a rep, or as someone standing outside the workplace with some leaflets and a collecting tin. There are no short cuts.

[first published here:; much influenced by the contributions to a discussion here:

Trotskyist miler of 2013*


This is to advertise that on Sunday 26 May, probably at around 9.30-10 am, at St James’ Park, a group of runners (all members of the SWP or the International Socialism Network) will be running, competitively, to determine which of us had the right perspective over the last six months. My fellow runners will be John Game, Sam Jam, Mark Bergfeld, Robin Burrett, Alexis Wearmouth and Ian Stone.

The organisers describe the event, rather grandly as the “Senior British Athletics 1 Mile Road Championships”. Sadly the race is sponsored by a company which exists in order to take money out of the NHS, but I am sure that we could combine running with some modest “ad-busting” (if any readers have any practical ideas as to how to do this, please share them with me)

More details here:

*(The title, I admit, probably sounds a bit dry. I have also been lobbying for “Nietszchean Leadership Superhero of all time”, although sadly I gather this is copyright to the Counterfire group…)

Socialist morality, a contradiction in terms?


The strangest election statement I have ever read was written in the midst of my party’s recent difficulties. “Elect me to special conference”, this personal manifesto read, “and I will vote against all politics of pre-figurativism”.

The thinking is more coherent, although not more benign, than it sounds. It goes something like the following: where Marxists have historically distinguished ourselves from reformist socialists to our right and anarchists to our left is by our belief in the necessity for breaking the state through revolution. Several varieties of anarchism, in particular, maintain that it is possible to “pre-figure” a future, free society by voluntarily adopting free human relationships now. So, to demonstrate the possibility of liberty, we should occupy disused banks etc, running them in a sustainable and co-operative manner. “Marxists”, whoever they or we may be, apparently distinguish ourselves from such anarchists, sadly recognising that a line of tents cannot guard our future. Without a prior social revolution, the tents will be inhabited by people copying the many oppressive practices of ages.

The accusation which my fellow comrade was impliedly making against me, and against my fellow candidates from the party’s then opposition, was that in seeking to insist on any kind of sexual morality, we were trying to impose on people the sorts of value judgments which could be possible only under socialism.

I will acknowledge a germ of truth to this position. The mere experience of life teaches that the people who begin by occupying banks end up having to impose a coherent opinion on an unwilling minority, whether they are fellow demonstrators, or thieves seeking to make off with the lead from the banks’ rooves. If the co-operative is a business it has to compete; even if it is not, its occupants must first of all be fed, clothed, etc, and this all takes money. Somehow capitalist relations sneak back in.

We cannot create all of socialism while ignoring the state. But a one-sided refusal to be ethical cannot “solve” the problems of real life. It is equally true that any socialist project based on violence, sustained deceit, or relationships of crude domination would quickly make itself unpalatable to the very people who were supposed to carry it out. The positive insight “real liberation requires a prior transformation in all our economic, social and political lives” leaves the remaining double negative: but an organisation whose members cannot behave will not produce anything which lasts.

During the winters of the Russian Revolution, socialists protested (I am told) naked, against shame. I only hope that they had fires, furs, and vodka to warm themselves afterwards. This is the sort of moral utopianism we need. The committed rejection of pre-figurativism reflects counter-revolutionary, not revolutionary politics.

For so very many years, my comrades have solved our moral difficulties by a kind of strange, practical thinking, in which moral judgments are made, but never acknowledged. This formal rejection of morality as “bourgeois” co-habits with a quite different, applied ethics, which pulls in a radically different direction.

Not everyone agrees with me. Here for example is one moral authority: “Had Lenin sought to offer a sustained ethical defense of the October revolution he would almost certainly have relied on the arguments of the kind used by Trotsky in Their Morals and Ours (1938). Here Trotsky defends a kind of consequentialism, arguing that, ‘from the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of humanity over nature and to the abolition of one the power of one person over another.’”

This is in fact a wretched description of the moral universe in which most socialist operate. We instead have a partly code-based morality; in which acts may be wrong, irrespective of their outcomes. Thus:
• Any socialist leadership worthy of the name would not set out to lie to their members about the size of their party;
• A socialist party would not accept a cheque from an individual who is a prominent and unapologetic racist; and
• An individual socialist would not threaten or beat another socialist, not even if provoked.

The reason these acts are wrong – any socialist will recognise – is that they are the sorts of acts, whether of greater or lesser pettiness or malice, that degrade the people who do them. Cultures of deceit or internal violence, once practised, are not easily disdained. The method might bring some temporary gains; lasting results will not come from them. Or if they did, they would subtly alter the project itself, in the spirit of that Lukacs quote I have used elsewhere recently: ““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 …”

Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours is not simply consequentialist. Along with the passages just cited there are also passages which indicate his superior moral understanding that the method of an act and its outcome are interconnected. The very quote from it, which I have just cited, comes within a section headed, “Dialectic Interdependence of End and Means”, and alongside passages such as this:

“The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers’ leaders, fabricating legends, staging false trials, in a word, doing what the Stalinists do. These means can serve only one end: lengthening the domination of a clique already condemned by history. But they cannot serve to liberate the masses.” (

A Lenin who had not grasped this – in his day-to-day relationships with his fellow socialists, during and beyond exile – would not have written re-read Hegel, could not have written State and Revolution, would not have begun his last, failed battle with Stalin (

A final point: I will be accused, I do not doubt, of portraying morality as a series of timeless concepts, un-rooted in real struggle. Actually, the notion of socialist morality that I am stating here is one which goes back deep in the International Socialist tradition, as far ago as the days when Cliff and his co-thinkers where mapping a notion of socialist practice at odds with the practices of their larger rivals on the socialist left, in particular the SLL and the New Left.

When “IS” was just getting going, the key reading was Notes from the Moral Wilderness, an essay previously published by a recent recruit, Alasdair MacIntyre. This is how he set out the moral project of socialism:

“As against the Stalinist it is an assertion of moral absolutes; as against the liberal critic of Stalinism it is an assertion of desire and of history” …

“The liberal sees himself as choosing his values. The Marxist sees himself as discovering them. He discovers them as he rediscovers fundamental human desire; this is a discovery he can only make in company with others. The ideal of human solidarity, expressed in the working-class movement, only has point because of the fact of human solidarity which comes to light in the discovery of what we want. So the Marxist never speaks morally just for himself. He speaks in the name of whole historical development, in the name of a human nature which is violated by exploitation and its accompanying evils” …

“To speak for human possibility as it emerges, to speak for our shared desires, this is to speak for an absolute. There are things you can do which deny your common humanity with others as effectively as if you were a liberal. It is for this reason that the Marxist condemn the H-Bomb. Anyone who would use this has contracted out of common humanity. So with the denial of racial equality, so with the rigged trial…”

MacIntyre’s essay is now online. I would encourage everyone who can to read it: and

It is part of our shared inheritance; we would all be fools to forget it.

(Originally published here:


Sport: better watched or done?


We know what capitalism has in mind for the future of sport; we can see the neo-liberal vision every day of our lives. Sport is increasingly defined as an activity which only the most unusual people can do, whether millionaire footballers or superhero Paralympians. Sport must be as competitive as the market, with which it is increasingly intertwined. Activities such as gymnastics, dance, walking, which humans have done together collectively for countless millennia, can find a limited place in the sporting world but only where they are done in a spirit of competition.

The increasing rigours of work in an age of austerity mean that the vast majority of people are too time-poor to do anything with sport but watch it. Indeed, we watch sport from further and further away. Here, as so often, football shows the way to all other sports. Watch old photographs of the crowd at the Hillsborough FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989 and you will see something as distant to our time as Richard Arkwright’s spinning machine which launched the Industrial Revolution: namely a football crowd predominantly composed of people in their early 20s or younger (37 of the 96 dead were teenagers). In the modern Premiership of £2000 per year season tickets, few workers under 30 can afford to get in. The average spectator watching Premiership football live is in their mid-40s. Younger supporters make do, not with watching games live in the flesh but watching them on television, not on free-to-view programmes but on satellite channels, not on ordinary subscriptions but on pay-to-view tariffs. Supporters are driven to scouring the internet for clips of goals, mere fragments of games.

No sport is exempt from this dynamic of holding the spectator at further and further remove from the action. Live Test cricket is banished to satellite, so are the various Cricket World Cups. Watch the footage of West Indies’ victory at the 1975 World Cup Final at Lords and you will see an audience, young, mixed in terms of both race and gender, responding jubilantly to every boundary. You will not see the young or the poor at the 2013 Ashes, not when ticket prices start at £80 per head.

For football in particular this banishing of the spectator is extraordinarily self-defeating. Take away the intense passion of its supporters and football would be just another sport, as well-paid and as culturally significant as handball or darts.

Force people physically away from live sport, and their ability to grasp it is diminished. Their perspective is narrowed and flattened. In the women’s 800 metres finals at the Olympics, the consensus of those who commentated on the event was that Caster Semenya could and would have won gold if only she had started her final sprint 50 metres beforehand. It was the judgment of people who followed the event on a screen, focussing (as the camera does) on the action at the head of a race, not on those – like Semenya – struggling at the halfway point to keep up with the early leaders.

Watching live sport gives invariably a broader canvas, a better chance than technology ever allows to peer back from the moment, to view the whole, to see the runs at the side of the action, to grasp tactics and the personality of all the players. Of course, a minority of sports are hard to grasp live (cycle touring, I am told, is a case in point). The problem of late capitalism is its refusal to allow both a broad perspective and the intimate view that you can only get in the flesh.

The taming and corporatisation of sport has enabled a certain kind of journalism and academic writing to flourish in which it is perfectly legitimate to analyse sport as a variety of business, going deeper than the performance of individual players to analysing the accounting profit on player sales, relative wages of rival clubs expressed as a proportion of business turnover etc, the metrics in short which explain not the outcome of a game but of an entire season. Even the Financial Times now has its own sports columnists, such as Simon Kuper, advising a mid-Atlantic audience on the viability of the various Anglo-US sports franchises. The Guardian employs its own counterparts, such as David Conn, to cast a more sceptical eye over the companies’ accounts.

A socialist analysis of sport worthy of the name cannot begin and end with the visual spectacle of performance; it must absorb the insights of those interested in the workings of business and go beyond even them. It must dig deeper.

Anyone interested in the story of football should have a consciousness of the dramatic importation of the visual symbols of contemporary football support (i.e. banners, team scarves, hats) and its sounds (not songs but chants) in double-quick time at the start of the early 1960s, alongside other traditions which now belong only to history (e.g. swaying from side to side by thousands on the terraces). Among the best source material is the BBC’s Panorama film of the Anfield Kop in 1964 complete with interviews with fans explaining why they were “fanatic” about their team.

There could be no sufficient history of (for example) the Hillsborough disaster which did not take at least some account of the supporters’ position in the context of both the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985, which outlawed causing or permitting alcohol to be carried on coaches or trains, being drunk in a sports ground, taking alcohol into a sports ground, and possession of fireworks at a sports ground and the policy obsession of the Thatcher government with compulsory identification cards for football spectators which formed a kind of “bridge” between the desire of senior South Yorkshire police officers to shield their force from criticism and the willingness of the Sun newspaper to lie about the dead.

As ever, the need to understand both performer and spectator applies not merely to football but also to other sports. Left-wing cricket writers have usually been most enthusiastic about the form of five-day Test cricket, a kind of sport which has the capacity to give intense meaning to passages of play lasting barely a few seconds. Yet in CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary, the beating heart of English cricket was said to be league cricket, a one-day, limited over format, aesthetically bereft of Test cricket’s more careful pace, but within which the proletarian crowd was a much greater force in shaping the total scene.

In more recent times, the true state of British athletics is best illustrated not by the crowds that turned out for the Olympics or the Paralympics, but the half-empty stadium for the British Olympic trials in Birmingham just five weeks before. This was the second most important athletics meeting in Britain for decades, far cheaper to enter than the Olympics themselves, and with large numbers of global celebrities to watch as well as cameos from UK athletes including Mo Farah. Athletics had a real and sustainable mass following in 1980s Britain which it lacks today. This is one reason why the supposed Olympic “legacy” of mass participation will prove a mirage.

The socialist vision for sport goes deeper even than the joining up (important though that is) of what happens on and immediately around the field of contest. Part of Marx’s vision of socialist society was a world in which any person could in one day successively hunt, fish, shepherd animals and write philosophy. There are at least two parts to this vision: a first in which occupational categories have been smashed to bits and anyone can do anything, plus a second (logically prior to this) in which the knowledge on which any occupation rests has been shared universally.

Applying the same principles to sport would mean that anybody could have access to any sporting competition. Of course, something a bit like this happens even now, as during those barely watched 2012 Olympic trials where the 50 year old athlete Roald Bradstock threw 72.78m in the javelin, enough to some second, and taking him closer to an Olympic place than at time since his previous Olympic selection 24 years before. Bradstock is now the holder of the certified world record for the over-50 javelin, a fitting finale to a life spent claiming unofficial records, for throwing iPods, boiled eggs, golf balls, telephones and dead fish.

Bradstock’s journey may not have been consistently serious but it reminds us that one obstacle to a world of genuine sporting choice is the need of sports businesses to arbitrarily limit the range of activities which can be considered sport. The Workers Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s included performances of poetry and song, mass hikes, chess games, lectures and art, group gymnastics, and countless ways of being physically active that required little if any competition.

From the perspective of the future, a major unachieved “prize” to which all of humanity tends is the liberation of the working day. The cheapening of information technology has fuelled, over the past three decades, the most extraordinary increase in the collective productive capacity of all humanity. Computerisation and miniaturisation are meta-technologies; almost everything that people do has been made more efficient. Yet this new industrial revolution has been used nowhere to reduce the time that people spend on repetitive or menial tasks, instead we see their continuous re-entrenchment. The total number of hours worked by the average person is rising simultaneously in China, Iran, the US, and in every country in between. Meanwhile, the global speed-up is not altogether without purpose; in the US, the income of the richest 1% rose by 275% between 1979 and 2007 (the income of the poorest 20% rose, over the same period, by merely 18%).

There should be no distinction between “work” and “art”, “culture”, “leisure” or “sport”. There should be no reason why any one of us at 2pm of an afternoon should be incapable of going on any day for a cycle, a run or a swim. The person who exercises is a person recharged. They are more creative as a result.

What holds back this re-integration of mind and body is capitalism’s subordination of everything to profit and the principle which follows from it that no worker can be trusted to use their time intelligently but must always be managed by another person. But if work really was something that could be done in a few hours of concentration and if sport, along with art and music, was allowed to fill those vacant hours, how much richer the lives of all of us would be. This, ultimately is the socialist vision of sport, a world in which anyone really could do anything.