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Once More on the Great Dock Strike

MARTIN SULLIVAN ("Labour History: Engels versus the SWP", What Next? No.17) takes issue with John Charlton’s attempt, in his recently published book "It Just Went Like Tinder", to suggest other perspectives, outcomes and possibilities for the Great London Dockers’ Strike of 1889.

Much of what Sullivan writes is a summary of existing orthodoxy on the question. Namely, that a general strike to win the dockers’ demands was out of the question. Secondly, that the weakness of the labour movement meant that the eventual outcome was about the best that could have been expected. And, thirdly, that the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a switch from industrial to political agitation, was not just the only really logical development from the strike, but also a very positive one.

Sullivan rather gilds the lily by going on to suggest that John Charlton’s argument, that there may be more to know about the dock strike than this, is really based on a desire to provide history to fit the current perspectives of the SWP, rather than making any serious historical point.

Here I disagree with Sullivan. I should declare an interest straight away. I have talked to John Charlton about his research, and have on occasion provided a platform for him to try out related ideas. The scale of research that Charlton has done is not entirely clear from the book. Here he is concerned to make a wider political argument, with which Sullivan disagrees. Nevertheless the evidence that Charlton has amassed does provide a serious basis for his argument.

I don’t know the full details of the research by any means, but I do know that there is considerable evidence of strike action breaking out across a swathe of London, often apparently independently of the dockers’ move to the idea of a general strike. To actually establish details of the various strikes is quite a labour since they were not reported except in local papers which need to be viewed in local archives or in the British Library at Colindale. There is also evidence of strike action at the same time elsewhere in Britain.

Now of course this, what we may call for the moment "spontaneous", move towards a general strike was not necessarily a correct move or one that would have led to success. Engels may well have been right in his assessment, although one doubts that he had access to details of the scale of the movement that Charlton has uncovered. However, what Charlton has found deserves far more serious consideration that Sullivan allows for.

Of course, much of "It Just Went Like Tinder" is really about trying to grasp what the real factors and activists were behind the apparently spontaneous strike wave. Charlton has not fully found the answers here, and I suspect that it would take many more years of painstaking research to piece together the networks of activists which were in place, having been developing since the 1870s, and which allowed the strike to spread irrespective of what the leaders of the dockers such as Mann and Tillett did or did not do.

Sullivan claims that this is the "crucial period" in the development of the British labour movement because it saw the qualitative leap forward of the formation of an independent working class political party, the ILP. I agree this was a leap forward, but it was a contradictory one. The turn to politics was born out of the defeat of industrial struggle and a narrowing of perspectives about what could be done to change society. This is probably my crucial difference with Sullivan. He sees the formation of the ILP as a widening of perspectives, and those involved in strike and union activity as narrow syndicalists. The point that Charlton is making, and with which I agree, is that the perspective of this latter group was not simply parliamentary reform but getting rid of capitalism. Of course, once the moment had subsided the perspectives of the syndicalists narrowed again. This is familiar territory – "up like a rocket and down like a stick", as Tony Cliff used to say about such people. But this should not take away from the importance of the moment.

And it is here that I find Sullivan’s piece at its most disappointing. Charlton is moving beyond his historical base and trying to examine what the conditions for such explosions of militancy are. Work has been done in this area by social movement theorists such as Sidney Tarrow that Sullivan appears ignorant of. If socialists should always expect the unexpected, then it still helps if we can know a bit more about the conditions in which the unexpected arises. Sullivan shows an unwillingness to embrace any idea of historical counter-factualism – the "what if" question. I am wary of this myself since it can lead to looking at history through rose tinted spectacles. Used properly, however, it provides a valuable perspective and some feeling of history as a disputed process where the outcome is nowhere near as inevitable as Sullivan and his certainties might like it to be.

Keith Flett

Audrey Wise: Some Further Comments

THE CAMPAIGN Group of Labour MPs will be the worse for the loss of Audrey Wise, one of its most consistently principled members, who stayed on the left of the Party over a period when there has been wave after wave of defections. Perhaps I could add some further comments to Claire Wadey’s tribute ("Audrey Wise, 1932-2000") in the last issue of What Next?

In the early 1950s, Audrey was active around the successful left wing paper Socialist Outlook and worked in the office where it was produced. When the group that published the paper split in response to the political fight that arose within the Fourth International, she supported the faction around John Lawrence who sided with Michel Pablo. Lawrence would end up following the logical route of Pablo’s theses, into the Communist Party, before fading out of politics. But Audrey had barely started out on her involvement in the fight against the Party’s right wing, and was to become a prominent member of the class struggle wing of the Labour Party that arose in the 1970s.

Therefore Audrey was involved in both the major left wing trends to emerge since World War II – Bevanism and Bennism. The struggle around Outlook and then Tribune in the ’50s, and the various components of the left in the late ’70s/early ’80s, such as the Campaign For Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), are full of lessons for Marxists, especially regarding the united front tactic. Even just from her participation in these two movements, we would need to recognise that despite differences on certain issues which What Next? readers may have had with Audrey (and indeed with both Bevan’s and Benn’s concepts of socialism and how it could be achieved), she is someone who was undoubtedly part of our struggle. I think it would also be fair to say that on a number of issues she took a more principled and consistent position than some sections of the "Marxist" left.

Like many of the more far-sighted elements who were part of the Labour left that emerged in this period, she avoided the mistake of seeing democracy merely as matter of standing in elections and was aware of the limitations of the British parliamentary system. She was able to understand that if Labour didn’t take action against the ruling class, they would not be able to implement the programme developed in the early ’70s. Speaking at an Institute for Workers’ Control conference in April 1973, as Labour’s candidate for Coventry South West, she drew the conclusion that Labour needed to take on capitalism or capitalism would take on Labour. This was a conclusion thousands more would draw in the next decade as a result of the betrayals of the 1974-9 governments.

The experience of a pro-capitalist Labour government only confirmed the need for industrial/workers’ democracy and Audrey continued to associate with Ken Coates’ Institute. (Indeed, she was still on the editorial board of Spokesman journal with Ken Coates when she died.) Another side of this fight by class struggle forces against the Labour leadership’s capitulation to capitalism was the struggle for democracy in the Party – Audrey was a founding member of CLPD, which was at the forefront of the struggle for mandatory re-selection that shook the Labour establishment.

Unlike many others, starting with the abstainers such as Kinnock in 1981, Audrey didn’t defect, but fought on. She remained a keen supporter of CND and a consistent "Bennite". It is the politics of this current on a number of questions (such as nuclear disarmament and working class democracy) which explains the need for the Tory press to attack her, as Claire describes in her tribute, even after her death.

Audrey continued to be involved with left forces such as CLPD and the Campaign Group of MPs. In parliament (where she represented Preston from 1987) she spoke up for all the oppressed groups in society and particularly in support of women’s rights. In 1991 she became president of the shopworkers’ union USDAW against the wishes of the union establishment – in this sense she emphasised the need for a struggle in both the unions and the Party.

She also opposed the imperialist wars in the Gulf and last year in the Balkans, showing that she was part of the "Bennite" left that had been least effected by the right’s offensive after the collapse of the USSR. One of her most impressive stands in Parliament was her amendment to the 1997 bill that cut lone parent benefit – it led to a back-bench rebellion and heralded the beginning of the end of the Blairite honeymoon. Right until the end, her support for the Grassroots Alliance and her principled stand on Ken Livingstone’s campaign for London mayor showed that she understood the importance of organising opposition to the "Project".

Those who announce the "end of history" would no doubt like to erase the memory of fighters like Audrey Wise. They, and those in the Labour Party who think socialism is a thing of the past and want to return to 19th century Liberalism, should realise that thousands will defend the socialist beliefs that inspired Audrey: "The Labour Party belongs to those who have sweated." The best tribute we can pay to her is to fight on, and make sure that what she stood for isn’t forgotten.

Matthew Willgress

Prospects for the Socialist Alliances

DAVE OSLER’S article ("Smaller Goldfish, Bigger Bowl: Prospects for the London Socialist Alliance") in What Next? No.17 deals with the particular situation in the London Socialist Alliance (LSA), rather than with the prospects for the Socialist Alliance (SA) movement as a whole. However, it is useful to look at his critique of the LSA and relate it to a broader context. There is no doubt that the general election will be a major test for the Socialist Alliance project and that the Alliances are going to have to change radically to meet this challenge.

Comrade Osler is quite right to argue for professionalism as a first step. The most glaring omission from his article, however, is the lack of discussion about the national network, which is where, first and foremost, we should be insisting on professionalism. The features of the LSA that the comrade criticises are characteristic of the SA movement as a whole and have a distinct source. They are the result of the "bottom-up" approach that has been adopted by the Alliances – an approach which is encouraged by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who for the moment are the majority group within the Alliances and consequently the de facto leadership.

This results in an organisational unevenness across the country that produces at times bizarre results. For example, in Cambridgeshire the SA meets weekly, whereas the regional body has not held a meeting since October. This mode of organisation is all the more inexcusable because it comes from those who profess loyalty to Bolshevik organisational methods. Thus we have the bureaucratic, economistic left importing its own organisational failings and repeating them on a higher level, not a particularly pretty sight.

In order to achieve greater professionalism it is necessary to adopt a more "top-down" approach to organisation. This reversal of course is now essential for the Alliances if they want to mount a serious intervention at the general election. The creation of the national executive should be an opportunity to take further steps in that direction.

What is needed is not just an office for the London Socialist Alliance, but a national office in London for the Alliances (though this of course does not in the slightest rule out the LSA having its own separate office). The choice of London would be important because it is where the constituent organisations have their national headquarters, and because it is also, coincidentally, the capital.

The main opposition to establishing London as the centre of the Socialist Alliance project tends to come from the more localist elements of the Alliances. This is now at the heart of the conflict within the Alliance project – between localism and federalism on the one side and centralism on the other. It boils down to a conflict between those who essentially want to liquidate the Alliance movement into local groups, or perhaps preserve it in a "network" form, and those want to strengthen and centralise it on a nation-wide basis in order to advance the project towards a Party. (This project would also include the Scottish Socialist Party, which contains its own internal tensions between a nationalist wing and those committed to preserving workers’ unity.)

Comrade Osler is wrong when he advocates a "federalist character" for the Alliance. He must be well aware that this puts him in the company of the Socialist Party in England and Wales (SPEW) who are also calling for this type of federalist relationship. He must be equally aware of the damage that the sectarian antics of the SPEW leadership are doing to the Alliances. Their call for federalism is motivated by the SPEW’s petty self-interest and a narrow perspective which see its much beloved "mass workers’ party" as basically being viable only with the SPEW at the core. The comrade is of course not in the same category. However, he wants a structure that allows "revolutionary and reformist tendencies to work together within a democratic framework". He fails to understand that this does not automatically mean federalism – indeed, a genuinely democratic centralist regime allows for exactly what the comrade desires for the Alliance.

Dave Osler’s argument is obviously contradictory. First he argues for what appears to be a raft of measures that would suggest further centralism, such as an office with staff, and then the comrade flips over into federalism – something which can only entail looser organisation. He goes on to argue for an "independent existence" for this body, yet the only way to constitute an independent existence is through centralism, not federalism. The fact of the matter is that the Alliances at the present time exist on a federal level, that is, there are no clearly defined relationships between bodies, and those that there are clearly represent a case of bottom-up dependency.

The task of tackling the local Alliances and trimming their power is a crucial one. The fact that localism is the dominant trend within the Alliances will hamper us greatly in the coming general election campaign.

The creation of effective structures and mechanisms would mean, for example, that purely local membership should be abolished by making membership of the national body automatic when you join an affiliated local Alliance. Membership fees should be pooled nationally, thus curtailing the financial autonomy of the local Alliances. This move would also benefit the smaller local Alliances, as the national body would be in a much better position to give assistance to those who required it. The establishment of "fighting funds", nationally as well as locally, should be a priority. And, finally, all this will require a body of full-time staff, which should be made up of the full-timers from the organisations involved and any other comrades who the executive committee should wish to appoint. This body of staff should be constituted for the election only, though it is highly likely that it will be required in a reduced form after the election.

It has to be said that Dave Osler’s organisational views are compatible with the type of organisation that he is advocating, i.e. a centrist formation. But this too is fundamentally flawed. The purpose is not just to "bring the class struggle left under a common roof". The purpose is to unify the revolutionary left first and foremost – and that is the actual living reality of the Alliances at the present time. The Marxist left forms the vast majority of the "class struggle left". The question then is: should we liquidate our politics just to woo reformists? The answer is clearly no. 95% of the Alliance members are members of groups that are self-proclaimed Marxists and revolutionaries. Given that relationship of forces, where is the logic in the 95% bowing to the other 5%?

The proposal to build a non-revolutionary party is also predicated on the blatant falsehood that reformists won’t work with revolutionaries who act as such, and can never be won to revolutionary politics. The only possible explanation for Dave Osler’s position is that the comrade views reformist consciousness as a necessary stage the working class will have to pass through before it become revolutionary. But there is no such necessary stage – consciousness is an unfolding and changing process and is not composed of fixed and predetermined stages. We cannot base ourselves on what may or may not occur; we must base ourselves on what our politics and our principles are. The difference is between trying to build on a base of sand or a base of concrete.

In fact a genuinely democratic centralist party allowing for full discussion and dissent will provide a forum in which those comrades who are reformists can argue their politics while participating in the struggle towards democratically agreed aims. The reality is that reformism is dead as a viable political project, as is shown by the unfolding events in the Labour Party, and we as revolutionaries are not in the business of providing reformism with a new political vehicle to realise its objectives.

Dave Osler disdains the fact that most of the talk within the Alliances is over whether or not to adopt a revolutionary programme. This is in fact an essential debate and it relates directly to the organisational question. A mechanical separation of the two is false – the programme and organisational perspectives of political tendencies are intrinsically linked. Therefore you have the CPGB [Weekly Worker – ed], who as well as advocating greater centralism advocate as a part of that the fight for a democratic centralist Party formation, and you have the SPEW, who advocate a "new mass workers’ party" of a reformist type, and federalism.

There is thus a clear link between the call for federalism and a false position on what programme and political character the new formation will have. The perspectives of centralism and of a revolutionary party are the ones that point the way forward for the Socialist Alliances and towards a positive resolution of the crisis of the left.

Darrell Goodliffe
CPGB and Socialist Alliance supporter

Lambertism: The Story Continues

WE ARE two English-speaking comrades who live in Paris and are supporters of the Fourth International, the organisation that your recent correspondents all call the "Lambertists". We prefer "the Fourth International", but for the sake of argument we will use your term, and refer to ourselves as Lambertists.

One of our comrades was recently in your country and picked up some copies of your journal, and so we are responding to the articles in them. We are not speaking on behalf of the Fourth International, but it would be fair to say that what we write reflects their opinions.

Over the years since the dissolution of the Socialist Labour Group – our former section in your country – into the United Secretariat (USFI), by Mike Phipps and his cronies, much garbage has been written about us without response. The only real defence of us came in one of the issues of your journal, by our comrade John Archer ("A View of the Journal", What Next? No.3). And there was another contribution by someone calling himself Frank Wainwright ("Towards an Assessment of Lambertism", What Next? No.14). This was real tongue-in-cheek stuff, though. A bit like the kind of support that a rope gives a hanged man. As, whoever your correspondent was, Frank Wainwright is a name that one of our leading comrades, Daniel Gluckstein, uses in some of his writings.

There are many, including those comrades who hide in the pages of your press behind false names and pseudonyms, who would harangue us and do us down. They demand that we debate with them. But how do you debate with a shadow?

There are also those in the USFI, including the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), and your correspondent Andrew Coates (who we know is not pseudonymous), who carp and bay for such a debate. We will answer them.

The LCR paper Rouge and Andrew Coates ("Lambertism and the French Left", What Next? No.17) denounce us in the form of allegations about the so-called gangster activities of our members and former members (even though we cannot be held responsible for those who have left our ranks, as Coates seems to think we can). A letter appeared anonymously in Rouge last year entitled "OCI: School of Gangster Activities". In it the author says:

"The media have widely carried the information that the looters of the MNEF [a French students’ mutual fund – ed] belonged in the past to the Trotskyist current. But something remains unexplained (and I would like to find an answer in Rouge). What is the link between the political practices of the CCI/PT [the Lambertists – ed] and the financial gangster activities of its former leaders? What affair in which these ‘Trotskyist’ bandits took part could surface tomorrow? Is the MNEF affair only the first of a series of large-scale financial swindles? Must the political tradition of Lambert’s followers be considered as lost to the struggle for emancipation?"

How can one debate with people who indulge in this type of slander?

After that, need anyone really ask who uses Stalinist methods? Did not Stalin himself set the example? During the so-called "Moscow Trials", which exterminated the Bolshevik leaders of the revolution, Stalin declared at a meeting of the Central Committee of the CPSU: "Trotskyism is not today a political tendency in the working class, but a gang without principles or ideology. The error of our party comrades is that they did not even acknowledge that the Trotskyists have for a long time ceased to hold an ideology, and even before that became highway robbers."

Slander replaces politics. The LCR, like certain writers in Britain, have recommended a book by one Christophe Bourseiller. The book, entitled The Mysterious Mr Blondel, has already been mentioned by Wainwright in your pages. What has Bourseiller to contribute? "It was believed for decades", he writes, "that the insult ’Hitlero-Trotskyite’ had no foundation, that it came from pure and simple slander, from the imaginative ravings of the Moscow propagandists. And yet, beyond the toing and froing, the hatred and intolerance, it could seem that a real ’Hitlero-Trotskyite’ current for a while gave meaning to the campaigns of the French Communist Party."

What are the politics of those who ask us to debate with them? Once again in Rouge, we read, on the subject of East Timor: "Here at last, the independence of East Timor is recognised even by the most hostile governments. The new administration of the UN in East Timor possesses broad civil, military, legislative and judicial powers."

The only problem is that East Timor has been devastated from end to end – a fine example of the development of the productive forces! What "debate" could there possibly between the Fourth International and those who concede the liberation of the peoples to the United Nations?

Finally, before we finish, a word about Julien Dray and his associates. Andrew Coates accuses us of attacking Dray, who he claims is an honest socialist. Mr Coates writes affectionately about Dray and defends his Gauche Socialiste current, who have supposedly "had some modest success in reviving the cause of socialism within the Parti Socialiste". Huh?

Dray and his associate Filoche are members of a group within the Socialist Party which supports the government (and which is also a Zionist current). Filoche spoke at the recent party congress. Like all his comrades, he had not a word to say in condemnation of the anti-worker policies of the Jospin government, a government that has managed to destroy several important positions of the working class. Filoche even saluted once again the misnamed "35 hours" law, which has been the main means for the government and the bosses to impose widespread flexibility in the workplaces, freeze wages, etc.

This discussion in the pages of your journal should cease. [I find myself in sympathy with the comrades on this point – ed.] It was begun by a former associate of the Fourth International, Mike Calvert, now a renegade from Trotskyism, writing under an assumed name that he knew would harm us. John Archer was right not to associate himself with such an enterprise. Militant cadres have better things to do than indulge the fantasies of Michael Calvert and the other renegades and enemies of the Fourth International. We hope this will be an end to it.

As Trotsky once observed on the passing over of a militant to the enemy camp, we note his contribution and his betrayal, now let us move on to more serious business.

Martine and Stephanie
Supporters of the Fourth International in Paris