Industry matters: Trade unionism and opportunist social chauvinism

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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One of the difficulties in writing for a bi-monthly paper such as ours is the fact that there is always something happening just as the paper goes to print and time and space doesn’t allow for the new material. We therefore make no apology for devoting this issue’s industrial column to an issue that may seem like old news, but that is nonetheless of vital importance to the working class and oppressed peoples at home and abroad.

With the above in mind, let the reader cast his/her mind back to 30 September 2004 and the Labour Party conference. From a trade unionist point of view, this was certainly a day that history should not forget – it was the day that the trade union movement in Britain voted for the continued occupation of Iraq.

The Morning Star of 1 October 2004 reported that “furious peace campaigners accused the Blair administration of crushing democratic debate over Iraq after a sudden union decision to support the government policy on continuing the occupation”. Furthermore, “activists alleged that new Labour had pushed the leaders of Unison, T&G, GMB and Amicus into helping to kill off a motion demanding a firm date for the early withdrawal of troops”. Whilst the report obviously follows the Morning Star line that the Labour Party has been taken over by the Blair clique and that this clique could and should be toppled to allow for one with more ‘left’ ‘policies’, it doesn’t anywhere give us a clue as to how the leaders of these unions were “pushed” or how the “sudden union decision to support the government” came about.

It is not surprising that the Morning Star gives no concrete analysis of the situation, for if we are to search for the correct analysis, we have to study the history of the movement; we have to understand why these union leaders voted against the wishes of their own members; we have to understand why they slavishly follow this government even when the outcome is the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis through sanctions and war; we have to understand why these trade union leaders will do anything to perpetuate this imperialist system at the expense of the vast majority of workers worldwide.

The answer to our questions will be found if we develop our understanding of the words ‘opportunism’ and ‘imperialism’.

Roots of opportunism

Lenin, describing imperialism as “monopoly capitalism”, explains that: “A handful of wealthy countries … have developed monopoly to vast proportions, they obtain superprofits running into hundreds, if not thousands, of millions, they ‘ride on the backs’ of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in other countries and fight among themselves for the division of the particularly rich, particularly fat and particularly easy spoils.” (Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, 1916)

Lenin goes on to explain that: “The bourgeoisie of an imperialist ‘Great’ Power can economically bribe the upper strata of ‘its’ workers by spending on this a hundred million or so francs a year, for its superprofits most likely amount to about a thousand million” (Ibid), thereby revealing the economic roots of opportunism in the working class movements of the imperialist countries,

The slavish support shown by trade union leaders toward the government is not confusion or the act of a few wicked individuals. It is the political expression of the alliance between the privileged workers and the capitalist class – between the labour aristocracy and the imperialist bourgeoisie. The trade union leadership supports the government because the government is looking after its interests, both politically and economically. If British imperialism is successful in its bid to control a substantial portion of Iraq’s resources and markets, the labour aristocracy will directly benefit from a few crumbs. Incidentally, inasmuch as some social-democrats do oppose the war, it is for the same reason that large parts of the bourgeoisie oppose it, ie, that Britain is almost certainly going to lose!

Lenin adds further that opportunism leads to social chauvinism (socialism in words and chauvinism/racism in deeds, ie, ‘socialists’ who are in favour of defending their ‘own’ imperialists during an imperialist war.) “In the conditions of war … opportunism leads to social chauvinism. The idea of class collaboration is opportunism’s main feature.” (The Collapse of the Second International, 1915)

Thus we find in that short sentence the answer we require. The very reason why the trade unions supported the government in continuing the occupation of Iraq was that it was in their own class interests to do so.

Woodley – shameless defence of the occupation

Now our learned critics will no doubt argue that Lenin’s words were from a bygone era; that the world has changed. In order not to let our critics accuse us of ‘dabbling in history’, let Tony Woodley, General Secretary of the T&G, take up the story in his own words:

“So I would like to spell out where the T&G stands on this issue [the occupation of Iraq]. At the TUC we joined every other affiliate in backing a motion calling for the ‘speedy withdrawal’ of our troops from Iraq, alongside supporting Iraqi trade unions in their work. At the Labour Party conference, we faced a more complicated situation. There was a choice between a blatantly pro-government resolution, a statement from the party executive outlining a rather vague and conditional timetable for troop withdrawal and a constituency resolution asking for an early date to be set for troop withdrawal. In the event, most unions helped secure the withdrawal of the first, unacceptable, resolution, voted for the executive statement and against the last resolution after the mover decided not to accept its remission, which would have been our preference. I will not weary readers with the whole story, because, for me, our voting decisions were influenced by one factor above all others – the representations made to us by the spokesman for the Iraqi trade unions. I make no apology for listening to the representations of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in Brighton. Our traditions of solidarity and internationalism could not let us do otherwise. And let me make it clear that as far as the T&G was concerned, it was clear advice from Abdullah Muhsin which tipped the balance. He made a compelling case about the disasters which might follow if the troops withdrew before the Iraqi trade union movement felt that their country was secure.” (‘Unity essential to the anti-war struggle’, Morning Star, 26 October 2004)

Well, what does one say to that? Should we laugh or cry at the absurdity of the logic?

Woodley’s assertion that “our tradition of solidarity and internationalism could not let us do otherwise” is breathtaking. What internationalism? The only internationalism that can be shown to the people of Iraq is to support the resistance and demand a complete withdrawal of all troops.

Let us not be fooled by his choice of terminology – when he says “internationalism”, it isn’t socialist internationalism he means. Woodley then plays the Pontius Pilate routine of ‘washing his hands’ of the whole episode by stating that “it was clear advice from Abdullah Mushin which tipped the balance”, adding that the Iraqi stooge “made a compelling case about the disasters that might follow” a troop withdrawal.

Disasters that would follow! Are we supposed to believe that the continued occupation will bring humanitarian assistance? The imperialist armies have so far brought about the deaths of an estimated 100,000 civilians, so to claim that it is a lesser of two evils is a bare-faced lie. Woodley continues by saying: “so I am happy with how the T&G voted and I am confident that we deserted neither our proud traditions nor our conference policy in doing so”. We suspect the innocent victims of this murderous imperialist campaign might not share Woodley’s happiness at the British labour movement’s complicity in their continued oppression.

Warming to his Pontius Pilate role, Woodley goes on to claim that: “The entire trade union movement is committed to the earliest withdrawal of our troops. The only debate is exactly when. Certainly, when we voted at the Labour conference, we were not voting for the redeployment of the Black Watch into the most dangerous areas of Iraq.” He ends the article with the following nauseating platitudes: “For me it is quite simple. We cannot have progress without peace. We will not have peace without a powerful peace movement. Let’s stick together.”

So we need unity and a powerful peace movement? But Mr Woodley, where were you when 2m people marched in London against the war? Do you not pay attention to your members’ opposition to the war? Are you living on another planet? (Don’t answer that we already know the answer.) You have stuck to your ‘principles’ of remaining welded to the imperialists who are continuing this slaughter; you have stuck firmly to your social chauvinist way of representing the capitalist against the worker.

Whether Woodley is so stupid as to be unaware of the role he is playing, we care not one jot. As Lenin wrote in 1920: “As far as the individual is concerned, there is a very great difference between a man whose weakness of character makes him a traitor and one who is a deliberate, calculating traitor; but in politics there is no such difference, because politics involves the actual fate of millions of people, and it makes, no difference whether the millions of workers and poor peasants are betrayed by those who are trailers from weakness of character or by those whose treachery pursues selfish aims.” (Collected Works, Vol 30)

The foregoing not only demonstrates the opportunism within a section of the working class movement but also highlights the political bankruptcy of supporting Labour. Workers with any amount of class-consciousness have no choice but to leave the Labour Party. They have no choice but to bring to account these treacherous leaders who help commit crimes against the international working class. They have no choice but to join the struggle at home against imperialism, to support the struggle of the millions of oppressed around the globe, and to fight against the opportunism that exists within the British working class movement.

We in the CPGB-ML consider that those who accept, and especially those who voted for, the continued occupation and slaughter of people in Iraq are as culpable as those who carry it out.

For a more detailed explanation of imperialism and opportunism, see Social Democracy, The Enemy Within and Imperialism – Decadent, Parasitic, Moribund Capitalism, both by Harpal Brar.