20 May 2023
Your recent article “May Day and the need for Marxist leadership” (Socialist Appeal, 27 April) sparked our interest. In it, you explain how “the key question confronting the working class in this epoch” is “the absence of a revolutionary leadership, capable of seeing the struggle through to the end”. You also explain that the problem with the UCU and CWU “flows from the reformist outlook of the union leaders” who “believe in the potential for class peace and compromise between the bosses and workers”. You note that in the history of workers’ struggles, “what they have consistently lacked, with the exception of Russian workers in October 1917, is a revolutionary leadership at their head” and that such a leadership “must be constructed in advance of the titanic events that impend”. We could not agree more.
What sparked our interest is not so much the validity of these words but how much they stand in total contradiction with the orientation and practice of Socialist Appeal in the trade unions. In particular, the work of Arsalan Ghani and your other supporters in Unite consists of uncritically campaigning for Sharon Graham. They run on her slate and defend her leadership, with Ghani going so far as to declare: “We need to ensure that we build on our wins and grow our union by electing an EC that shares Sharon’s vision for Unite” (Socialist Appeal, 11 January). This is completely opportunist and a betrayal of Marxist principles.
Sharon Graham is a product and integral part of the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy. Like all the other bureaucrats, she cancelled strikes when the Queen died, in reverence to Her Majesty. Unite might have called on NHS staff to reject the rotten pay offer in March accepted by other unions, but throughout the strike wave Graham has conducted strikes with the same methods, the same losing strategy and the same pro-capitalist programme as the rest of the union bureaucrats.
Your main argument to defend your campaign for Graham has been that she is a step to the left compared to the former McCluskey bureaucratic clique. You even declare that McCluskey’s United Left faction represented “the past period of class conciliation in the union” (Socialist Appeal, 30 March), ie, Graham supposedly represents a break from class conciliation. This is a total whitewash. Graham is a reformist trade unionist, a fact your own members do not even dispute. This means that she, too, believes in class conciliation and leads the class struggle accordingly — just like the UCU and CWU leaders.
By presenting McCluskey and his followers as the sole representatives of class conciliation, you are simply fuelling the illusion that Graham’s “militant” reformist trade unionism defends the interests of the working class. Class conciliation and reformism are inseparable. If reformists could reject class conciliation, then workers would have no need for Marxist leadership. Thus, your view that revolutionaries must support Graham because she is a step to the left is based on a repudiation of the need for communist leadership of the proletariat.
In fact, there is no qualitative difference between Graham and McCluskey. Graham’s more militant rhetoric and increased strike actions are not the result of any sort of political break from the old bureaucracy but a reflection of the discontent at the base of Unite. Instead of using this discontent to expose how all variants of reformism are a dead end in the fight for “jobs, pay and conditions”, Socialist Appeal simply lends its support to one clique of reformist bureaucrats against the other.
There is one important difference between Sharon Graham and other “left” union bureaucrats: Graham does not bother with the traditional left Labourite pacifism and is an unashamed supporter of British imperialism. Following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Graham mobilised Unite dock workers at Ellesmere Port in refusing to unload a tanker transporting Russian oil, in a move to force the Tories to impose tougher sanctions on Russia. A few days later, Unite published a statement calling for “effective and immediate sanctions to be placed on the Russian economy” (“Statement on Ukraine crisis”, 10 March 2022, unitetheunion.org). We have not seen a single word on this in the pages of Socialist Appeal. Furthermore, at the last TUC Congress, Unite supported a motion proposed by the GMB calling on the British government to increase its defence spending, invoking the need to militarily support Ukraine against Russia.
Because Socialist Appeal campaigns for one of the most pro-imperialist trade union bureaucrats in Britain, all your claims to be against arms shipments to Ukraine, against sanctions on Russia, against NATO and against imperialism are empty words. You hail Sharon’s “vision” for Unite and support “the transformation of the union that has taken place under Sharon Graham” (Socialist Appeal, 30 March). That “transformation” includes her efforts to align Unite behind the interests of British imperialism and her mobilisation of workers for this reactionary aim. In fact, you are only providing a “Marxist” cover for this social-chauvinism.
Supporting “left” bureaucrats seems to be your modus operandi. Your article titled “RMT Network Rail workers win—but the struggle continues” (Socialist Appeal, 22 March) hails a below-inflation pay deal as a “victory” and attributes this in part to the “militant, class-based language by our general secretary, Mick Lynch”! This is nothing but crawling in front of the RMT bureaucrats.
The task of revolutionaries in the trade unions is to fight for a communist leadership against all wings of the trade union bureaucracy. In Unite, this means combating the old bureaucracy and Sharon Graham, by revealing to workers how her reformist and pro-imperialist programme is in contradiction with their interests and showing them that only a revolutionary programme and leadership can advance their interests. But instead, Socialist Appeal is playing the role of lackey for Graham, building a reformist obstacle to cohering a Marxist leadership.
During World War I, Lenin waged a struggle to the death against those “Marxists” like Karl Kautsky who, while preaching the virtues of socialism and Marxist leadership, maintained unity with the openly pro-imperialist social-chauvinists. He wrote: “Unity with the social-chauvinists means unity with one’s ‘own’ national bourgeoisie, which exploits other nations; it means splitting the international proletariat” (“Opportunism and the collapse of the Second International”, January 1916, translated from German). These words aptly describe the reactionary content of Socialist Appeal’s bloc with Sharon Graham: 21st century Kautskyism.
The building of a revolutionary leadership of the proletariat can only come about through a break with the social-chauvinist, reformist and centrist misleaders of the working class. This split might not always be immediately possible, as Lenin notes, but the actions of the vanguard are revolutionary only insofar as they advance such a split. Socialist Appeal, by building unity with pro-imperialist and reformist bureaucrats and propping up their authority in the workers movement, is working against this break, repudiating Leninism and playing a treacherous role.
So we say to Socialist Appeal: you can either be Leninist or maintain unity with Sharon Graham, but you cannot do both.