Bert Ramelson, Communists and Labour in England. A reply to Lol Franek.

051d42c2-7d6c-4ee2-9d2f-df48a8988827by London Clay

“Jeremy Corbyn is himself a representative of these contradictions. In the last two years he has refused to be engaged on labour council cuts, shared platforms with known rape apologists, and been accused of unacceptable compromise on such key issues as Zionism, immigration, and policing. He has however ignited a passion for his politics and persona that no one else in recent history has been able to do. Though the voluntarist far left and the ultra left have both tried to pull this movement in different ways, they have both largely failed in this regard. This not only speaks to their historic failure, to the emptiness of their pretensions to representing a “vanguard”, but is a sign that something else is emerging which threatens to supersede them, to succeed where they have failed, to cast them into the overflowing dustbin of the failures of the British left.”

While it is true that something else is rising to replace the tawdry sects, it is equally unfortunately true that no such equivalent can exist without and above the Labour Party. Nor should it exist without and above the Labour Party.

Later in the recent contribution on the Red Century blog from which the above extract has been plucked, the writer, Lol Franek, makes the point that the movement in Britain is quite unprepared for the onset of the coming financial catastrophe. This is correct. Interest rates are at 0.25% in order to protect an equity-driven mortgage-based micro-economy sustaining the pension pots of a whole generation of proletarians by transforming them into bit-part landlords oppressing the generation below them with ever expanding rents. Interest rates cannot realistically be pushed any lower. Somehow however, the imminent mortality of this system is obvious to none. It is the “keep calm and carry on” effect, that Teresa May is doing her best to preserve.

In this atmosphere of unparalleled economic weakness and instability, Teresa May presents herself as “strong and stable” to a now more openly conservative proletariat than has existed since before Thatcher. Short of excessive electoral efforts on the part of our activists, and perhaps a miracle or two, this essentially conservative working class will return a resounding Tory majority.

The conservative proletariat is, strangely not conservative so much out of a desire to defend its privilege, but rather from a desire to regain it. Its wages have fallen 10% in the previous ten years, its public assets are now largely owned by the taxpayers of foreign countries. It is a proletariat that is “labour aristocratic” in its mentality, while its condition is ever reduced to that of the poor man of Western Europe. In its refusal to accept that it lives no longer in a Britain of the pre-Suez Crisis era, it bets its retirement plans on Brexit. It perhaps voted Labour once, then UKIP, now Tory, as it hopes against hope that everything will be fine in the “strong and stable” hands of a ruling party that can continue to find ever smaller decimal points to shave off the national interest rate.

Communists and the labour movement

May is not wrong to empathise strength and stability over any actually beneficent policy. The masses want strong leadership in times that they do not understand and cannot predict. Labour, meanwhile, has spent two years disgracing itself in the eyes of the masses as its neoliberal wing has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the alliance of social democrats, trade union bureaucrats and institutional communists represented by the Corbyn leadership. From the ashes of the calamity of a May victory, will rise a Labour Party that, shorn of some number of its rightwing MPs, will be much reduced in influence, but will nevertheless be far closer to existing as a true party of labour, taking its policy cue from the much-maligned trade unions.

At its helm however, this time round, will be the product of Ramelson’s Century: the mafia of communists and ex-communists that for decades have moved slowly into this position at the helm of the labour aristocracy, such that it exists. Bert Ramelson was the CPGB’s Industrial Organiser for most of the 20th century. He is accredited not only with the invention of the flying picket, but with the transformation of the Yorkshire National Union of Miners from a rightwing, labour aristocratic body into the fighting vanguard of the working class that nearly brought down Thatcher in 1984-85. Previously, Ramelson had played probably the singularly most important role in the collapse of the Heath government in 1974, such as it was effected by the CP’s tremendous organisation in the engineering unions.

Bert Ramelson’s idea was Lenin’s idea. Merge the idea of communism with the proletariat; merge the Communist Party with the proletarian party. In other words, work towards overturning the Labour ban on affiliation of the CP, thenceforth to affiliate, such that Communists might exercise open and formal influence in the Labour Party. Now what is required is a Communist Party to merge with it, the foundation of which will necessarily involve the process of more clearly defining who is and who is no longer a communist, such that the lines have become somewhat blurred in the generation that has passed since Ramelson’s death, the collapse of the USSR and of the CPGB.

Communists and the proletariat

The likely outcome of this General Election will be a Tory government that moves quickly to ban transport strikes. This move will drive a dagger into the heart of Britain’s “last fighting union”, the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT). Such as the average train guard already earns something in the region of the relatively modest sum of £2000pcm pre-tax, now their earnings and job security will be so radically reduced as to bring them in line with the broader mass of the emiserated, impoverished, petty-bourgeois, Americanised proletariat. The cumulative effect will be every ultraleftist’s wet dream of the death of the labour aristocracy, the last organised – and fighting – section of the British working class.

Lenin argued that we communists must be “tribunes of the people”. That is, leaders in relation to all classes of the oppressed majority, seeking to forge from them the kind of united front that is capable of leading a national movement, and ultimately a social revolution. The December 2010 students represented to a certain degree the movement of one of those classes, the August 2011 rioters represented the movement of another class, the Corbyn movement, in its turn, represents the movement of another class.

Each of these classes – or, more accurately, sub-classes of the broader proletariat – is to a greater or lesser extent petty-bourgeois in its relation to other sub-classes. This is the nature of class society in the declined state of the oldest imperialist power in the world. The trade unionist becomes a landlord, who oppresses the hipster, who drives the plebeian from out of his urban home. The plebeian oppresses the taxpayer, and to the extent that he is able to get ahead in life, becomes one himself, becomes then perhaps a trade unionist, a landlord, and has hipster children.

Expressed in another way, the trade unionist may, by and large be better off than either hipster or plebeian, but then he is by definition, organised, through his trade union, and empowered thereby by his collective strength. Hipster and plebeian, to the extent that either is organised, do not possess the collective strength of the trade unionist, and can do little in pursuit of improvement but to aspire to the trade unionist’s status. As trade unions become weaker and weaker with each successive neoliberal administration, so too are they levelled down with hipster and plebeian, with all brought together in miserable union, and pursuit of a political answer to their woes.

We can either mope about this situation, attach ourselves to sectional interests and join the demoralised rat race of the sectarians, or we can live up to the great honour that befalls us, of building a real movement for communism in this oldest of imperialist powers, with its most sophisticated systems of control, as perfected by the near uninterrupted 1000-year Reich of its ruling class. The only way we will do this is by achieving the union of at least these three sub-classes with one another, and with the republican and national movements in the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. In this way, we will consciously redefine the English proletarian identity in the post-Thatcher period, just as our predecessors did in the time of the Chartists, from the inspiration of modest Protestant radicalism. However, this time, if we are any use in answering the call of history, the proletarian identity will be significantly less distinguishable from communism.

This means forming a Communist Party that rebuilds on its position of influence in the trade unions and the Labour Party, but that has its own independent source of funding, and an independent means of permeating the other sub-classes. This will almost certainly involve an independent origin, but an eventual coming to terms with what remains of the old CP. The task of the next generation will be not only to build that party, but to build it to the effect that it merges ever closer with what remains of the party of labour, eventually to affiliate to Labour, to exercise formal control over it, and finally to realise the goal of the communists of being the hegemonic force in the organised working class.

Compromise: its muddy glory

In the section quoted above, Lol Franek makes reference to some of the compromises of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It is worth correcting the idea that his sharing a platform with the Socialist Workers’ Party was a personal compromise as such; Corbyn is old friends with some of the SWP leadership and will doubtless have taken their side in the dispute that split that organisation in 2012. Whether it was a compromise of the movement is another matter, but if you get into bed with Trotskyists, you can expect to be dusted with the flecks of their disgraces.

Corbyn did, however, compromise his personal, pro-Palestinian beliefs by appeasing the various pro-Israel lobbies in the party. This was, however, at a time when the same pro-Israel lobbies were deliberately attempting to foment a national crisis around anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, in order to weaken its standing in the polls. We have to hope that in, future, a more serious communist opposition than currently exists, is not itself faced with such a battle for political hegemony over the working class that Corbyn has faced. That would, however, be a deeply naive, somewhat forlorn hope.

Thirdly, Corbyn did not refuse to engage with Labour council cuts, he stated very clearly, from the early doors of his regime, that he was opposed to the setting of illegal “needs” budgets by local authorities, such that the only possible outcome of a needs budget is the seizure of control of the local authority by the state.

That is a compromise, but an historic one, based on the strength of our organisation. Political power, in the Labour Party, lies in the possession of its parliamentary safe seats. If you want a shout at being an MP, the current balance of power requires that you have been a local councillor first.

Tory austerity has played the great gag of understanding this contradiction in our movement, using it to see the left savaging itself for 7 years as though it were reduced to a sack of rats. Most of those rats have since been consumed by the largest rodent of our compromise, such that only one or two, tiny, unbloodied morsels survive by basically leaching off the blood of the giant. They survive only because of an integral ideological hostility to the organised working class, and a subsequent singular inability to have any orientation whatsoever to the Labour Party, except to feed from its cancerous issue to temporarily boost their own demoralised ranks.

Meanwhile, the big, bloody red rat has taken over at least one local authority, and has used its cunning to devise a new strategy for the construction of the first batch of social housing exempt from right-to-buy legislation for the best part of half a century.

Where hundreds of communists, ex-communists and social democrats choose to take up positions as Labour councillors in the coming months, the ultraleft will wildly wave their skinny arms and shout squeaky-voiced about being Marxist-Leninists. Actual communists will use the position of the left in local government to cut dirty deals that help us build communist institutions, that help us find and fund venues for our boxing clubs and music venues to our food banks and meeting rooms and offices. We’ll build trade unions and other mass organisations with the power to force budget shifts from Parliament, or rather, to eventually supplant Parliament itself. Meanwhile, all true ultralefts will hold protest after powerless protest, exhausting all the enthusiasm of their troops, and driving them anyway all either into retirement or into the welcoming arms of our party.

While Lol Franek’s article does well to attempt to bridge the gap between those communists inside the labour movement and those without it, we must be careful not to do so at the expense of reason and experience, lest we end up, like the ultraleft, to profess our desire to lead, whilst being not yet prepared to do so. To paraphrase Christ (to whose unmaterialistic communism the ultraleft can surely relate), the ultraleft will always be with us. And so they will, just like the poor, to the extent that we are incapable of really achieving socialism; by the socialist power of our socialist institutions.

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