Reform or Revolution by William Bowles

Bookmark and Share

By William Bowles
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
19 October 2009

Note: replaced text with revised edition on Oct. 22, 2009

It’s really time I started writing more about the country I live in, the country of my birth, the UK, a country that has the oldest, the most cunning, the most duplicitous (not to mention the most mendacious) of all ruling classes. After all, they’ve been at it for five hundred years, finally being forced to come up with what they like to call parliamentary democracy over a century ago, but just how democratic is it? And can we really expect real change to come about through a system as corrupt and sclerotic as ‘parliamentary democracy’?

Parliamentary democracy is a closed system, literally owned by the two main political parties who work in intimate cooperation with the state bureaucracy to maintain the status quo. For proof of this we need only look at the panic caused by the ‘expenses’ scandal and how the political class, fearful of any challenge to its hegemony has fought tool and nail, left and right to defend their privilege to spend our money as they please.

How they have managed to do this should be important to us and especially the confidence trick called Parliament. It is a system that has, for around a century, played the central role in the preservation of capitalism, in reality a private game with the political class being the players, the judges and the rule makers. In other words, a fix and a fix carried out, no less, with the complicity of organized labour.

We, the public, play our part by voting (or not) to maintain the ‘game’, getting bounced back and forth between two sides of same coin. But clearly the ‘game’ would seem to have run its course which, with all the talk of the state’s ‘lack of legitimacy’, is reflected in the falling number of those who bother to vote or take part in any kind of political activity. Even the Labour Party’s own membership has dwindled to a fraction of its size since ‘New’ Labour came to power (before coming to power in 1997 the Labour Party had over half a million members).

The worst thing about this scenario is that, aside from the Anarchists, the left has attempted to join in the ‘game’ for the past century and more, with predictable results. We only need to look at the ‘left’ in Parliament to see the truth, for no matter how left they are outside of Parliament, inside, they too have to play the ‘game’, effectively emasculating themselves in the process. If they don’t, the results are predictable, for example, when George Galloway spoke out about the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, he was very quickly ejected from the ‘game’. Just how seductive the ‘game’ is can be illustrated by Galloway’s claim, via the Respect Party, that part of Respect’s objective was to restore the Labour Party to its former, pre-Blairite reformist glory.

The exclusion of the real left from the political process by the Labour Party and its complicit trade unions goes back decades, illustrated by the endless disbanding and reforming of the Labour Party Young Socialists every time it moved to the real left. Also, the fact that under the Labour Party’s ‘bans and proscriptions’, all attempts by the left within the Labour Party to seek common cause (and vice versa) with real progressives meant certain expulsion from the Party. True to its Cold War legacy Red-baiting was and remains Labour’s methodology.

The trade unions are in the same fix, having handed over their power to the ‘party of labour’ long ago. Interestingly, William Morris’s ‘News From Nowhere’ predicted this outcome in 1895 after the path of attempting to ‘reform’ capitalism won the day.

The end result is plain to see: a disenfranchised and alienated population, and with only a fraction of the workforce in trade unions (in the 1950s around 50% were unionized), most don’t even get a look-see into the ‘game’ unless some scandal is exposed. Add to this a corrupt, incompetent and murderous political class, revealed in all its sordid details over the twelve years of Labour rule. Is it any wonder that the state ‘lacks legitimacy’?

So what’s the reason for this pathetic state of affairs? In a word: reformism, the idea that capitalism can be ‘reformed’ to more resemble socialism (capitalism with a human face?), a process that reached its zenith with the post-war Labour government and even then the nationalization of key sectors of the economy came about firstly because British capitalism was bankrupt. Secondly, it was under pressure from a working class who did not want to see a return to a reactionary and backward pre-war Britain. Things had to change but, how much? And, what kind of change?

The post-war Labour government was elected on a wave of progressive ideas following the defeat of Fascism: the National Health Service (the Tories realizing that a complicit population was essential to the survival of capitalism, had already created a new standardized national ‘education’ system), transport and energy were nationalized, a massive house building programme was initiated, Keynesian capitalism was born (even in the early 1960s many British homes had neither an indoor toilet or even a proper bathroom, let alone adequate heating).

So all the while the Labour Party (and successive Labour governments) were proclaiming socialism, in reality they were, not only, propping up domestic capitalism, worse still, their foreign policy was avowedly anti-communist and imperialist/colonialist! So those on the left who claim that ‘New’ Labour has somehow strayed from the path of righteousness need to brush up on their history. Britain’s African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean colonies got the same treatment from Labour as they did from the Tories; the same, racist and imperialist policies were enacted (if ever there was proof of just how the ideology of racism works when utilized by the state this is it) and nothing has changed eg, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, China, Russia, in fact any country that doesn’t buy into Western ‘democracy’ gets the ‘treatment’.

This is the terrible trajectory of reformism. It explains in part at least, why the left is so marginalized in British political life by what is, in effect, an unholy alliance between organized labour and its alleged voice, the Labour Party and their master, Capital.

But how to break this impasse? Over the past one hundred-plus years the British left has ‘evolved’ as an integral (if ineffectual) component of the reformist model with organized labour, led by a revolutionary party, viewed as the main vehicle for bringing about an end to capitalism through the ballot, a policy that obviously has not worked. Instead, the trade unions became an elitist battleground between left and right with corrupt practices on both sides. The ‘rank and file’ membership were relegated to mere onlookers whilst the labour elite slugged it out, with the left inevitably losing.

The end of the industrial working class

The end of the Keynesian model of capitalism in the 1970s with the birth of so-called neo-liberalism should surely have been a wake-up call for the left. Instead, it retreated in disarray, eventually fragmenting into small pieces, especially after the destruction of the largest and most powerful of unions, the miners by the Thatcher government (the opening shot in the deindustrialization of the UK). Instead we have witnessed the same entrenched left ‘leadership’ pushing the same failed reformist policies, the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ as the British Communist Party called it.

The central question for the left is: what is to replace organized industrial labour, after all wasn’t it organized labour that was to lead the revolution? In order to try and answer this question, we need to recognize that, whilst capitalism has transformed itself, largely by exporting manufacturing to our former colonies and, in the process, destroying the organized industrial working class, the left simply hasn’t got it. Instead, it insists on fighting a battle long lost and with ‘tools’ that no longer exist.

What used to be the organized industrial working class is now a shadow of its former self, worse still the creation of a so-called service-based economy, composed largely of non-union labour, much of it part-time. It is fragmented and lacks voice. It’s here that the trade union movement reveals its real nature: where are the campaigns to unionize the unorganized if only to strengthen the power of the central union bureaucracy, the TUC?.

The only potential rising force in society, the so-called middle class, is barely even recognized as being a part of the working class by the left (we really need to question the use of the term middle class). Yet the economy is now managed by the ‘middle class’, a situation the ruling elite are only too aware of. The state is the single biggest employer and not coincidentally. The biggest unions are all mostly public employee unions, but these unions are split along ‘middle’- working class lines.

In the private sector, with ascendancy of the financial services sector, marketing and distribution, especially of ‘virtual’ products, the capitalist economy is now in the hands of the managers and technicians, the so-called middle class. Just look at the chaos unleashed by paying young university whizz kids to play with the numbers in the futures markets, it’s all a big game to them.

Britain is once more a Merchant’s economy with ‘wealth’ being generated, not by the production of real and useful products and services, but by manipulating numbers on a gigantic, global scale and doing all of it in real time. The amount of money in private hands dwarfs the amount that the state messes about with as the UK’s £20 billion public debt. The US’s now (officially) $1.3 trillion debt demonstrates, after all, the state borrows it from the private sector (after the banks et al have ripped off their profits they get by charging interest on the money printed by the state that they then lend out to customers). It’s a marvellous system, ingenious even, but utterly irrational, designed to do only one thing, produce a profit for the shareholders in the shortest possible time.

This is the setting, so for example, truly revolutionary trade unions would be demanding that running financial services like this is irrational, immoral, unstable and destructive, in other words, against the public’s interest. So here’s an alternative way of managing the economy, if for no other reason than to protect the interests of its members. But, for as long as the trade unions are in bed with the political class, such outcomes are just fantasies.

Instead, we get the following collaboration between the union hierarchy and the government!

“BBC Newsnight on Thursday revealed a leaked confidential document spilling the beans on a Royal Mail plan to impose cuts, provoke a strike and smash the union. This blows a hole in their spin over the past couple of weeks about an uncooperative union!


“The embarrassing bit was when the Newsnight presenter repeatedly asked Billy [Hayes, postal workers’ union] how he felt about the CWU giving £7 million since 2001 to Labour to have it plotting against it, and did he support the 98% of London postal workers who had voted to break from Labour? Labour-lovin’ Billy ducked it several times before lamely saying the party wasn’t the same as the government.” — “Royal Mail secret plot with ‘the Shareholder’”

How can a trade union represent the interests of its members when its leadership are funding the very government that’s trying to destroy it? This is the insane end-product of reformism, where workers fund a government via their trade unions that is a wholy owned subsidiary of capital.


Buddhagem Speaks with Noam Chomsky on May Day, 2009: Labor history and anarchism

9 thoughts on “Reform or Revolution by William Bowles

  1. Pingback: Reform or Revolution continued… By William Bowles « Dandelion Salad

  2. Pingback: A Postal Strike In Britain Is The War At Home By John Pilger « Dandelion Salad

  3. Thought-provoking article William.

    ‘…truly revolutionary trade unions would be demanding that running financial services like this is irrational, immoral, unstable and destructive, in other words, against the public’s interest, so here’s an alternative way of managing the economy, if for no other reason than to protect the interests of its members’.

    Isn’t proposing ‘an alternative way of managing the economy’ the role of a political party? As opposed to a union that is.

    I was under the impression that one of the mistakes that Scargill made was precisely his desire to expand his union’s power in this way, and over-reached.

    I agree 100% that we need a fundamental shift in how we run our economy, to one that is sustainable and doesn’t leave increasingly scarce crumbs for the working/middle classes to fight over whilst the rich build bigger walls around their bolt-holes.

    I’m just not sure that unions are the vehicle for such a change. The middle-class that would have to be engaged in the private sector have seen/heard of their corruption and lack of bargaining power and would want no part of that. To these people unions are out of touch with and a ‘polluted brand’.

    I’m increasingly worried that the only thing that will force such a shift is the total collapse of our existing model.

    • Hi Paul,

      You say

      “’…truly revolutionary trade unions would be demanding that running financial services like this is irrational, immoral, unstable and destructive, in other words, against the public’s interest, so here’s an alternative way of managing the economy, if for no other reason than to protect the interests of its members’.

      “Isn’t proposing ‘an alternative way of managing the economy’ the role of a political party? As opposed to a union that is.”

      Yes, absolutely! The history of trade union organizations turning into political parties is disastrous (Zimbabwe comes to mind). However, I didn’t say that they should become political parties. I suppose I was trying to illustrate the fact that once communities (and this includes trade unions) no longer control the political institutions that allegedly represent them, then we get to where we are right now and I gave the postal workers union the CWU as an example.

      UPDATE: Apparently, the management of Royal Mail sent out a memo to its ‘white collar’ workers, its managers, who belong to another union, UNITE, ordering them to work during the upcoming (like tomorrow), 2-day strike. Predictably, the union (and its lawyers, told the management to fuck off.

      You say

      “I was under the impression that one of the mistakes that Scargill made was precisely his desire to expand his union’s power in this way, and over-reached.”

      I think Scargill, in spite of his egalitarian inclinations, was a creature of the very institutions that have got us into the mess we’re in. Over-reached? Look, he was up against not only the overwhelming power of the state, the miners were overwhelmed by a complicit corporate and state media. There was only one conclusion for and precisely the reasons I attempted to state in the original piece. There was no solidarity, the TUC let them down, other unions let them down, and this on top of the fact that they obviously screwed up sometimes, and surely that’s to be expected over a nationwide and protracted conflict.

      I’m not trying to make excuses for Scargill, I just think it was a foregone conclusion that the state would win. It was capital on the offensive and labour was weak.

      • Thanks William.

        I haven’t thought about unions in quite a while.

        I was chatting earlier to my Dad about all this. He used to work for the heavily unionised British Rail, and his (also BR) Dad was a drinking buddy and regular STUC conference guest of Mick McGaghy (who had distinct strike policy disagreements with Scargill).

        As a child of Thatcher, I used to have some rip-roaring debates with my Grandad – especially given the arrogance, corruption of general uselessness of the trade unions I experienced as an electrical apprentice in a Dockyard in the 80’s.

        Anyhow, enough reflections on my youth.

        The point I think I’m attempting to make, and this is perhaps supported by the reported (ideology & guilt-free) avalance of applications for Royal Mail ‘temporary workers’, is that those who believe that organised labour can materially change the dynamics of our current economic system have a VERY large hill with nettles, midgies and narly overhangs ahead of them.

        But given that the economic divide between the haves and have-nots will undoubtably continue to grow, the question remains: what’s the alternative?

        Maybe the guy who threw the brick threw Sir Fred’s window was a harbinger of things to come…

        • Well, yes, who will take on the role of revolution? I kinda suggested that it’s up to what we like to call the middle class, though I think this moniker has to be dropped. The ‘middle class’ is effectively the new working class and as the MoD suggested in a paper, it’s more than likely that once the effects of the crisis really bite, the real danger is some kind of alliance between the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘middle class’. After all, these are managers and technicians of modern capitalism, it can’t function without their direct complicity as the example of ‘white collar’ postal workers demonstrates.

          The real issue is: who or what will lead them? With a left whose thinking is still stuck in an industrial Britain that no longer exists? I think not.


        • I’d love to read that MoD paper Bill. Do you have a link?

          I’ve long-thought that the ‘middle-class’ is the new working class. I suspect it suits them (including me if I’m honest) to think that way. Class remains a powerful force in the UK, and class mobility is a powerful subconcious drive for many.

          But perhaps this is where the opportunity lies.

          ‘Middle-class’ is an increasingly ill-defined and amorphous term, and many of the inhabitants of this group are almost as financially insecure as the ‘have-nots’ (indeed the have-nots may have nothing, but a big chunk of the middle-class have less than nothing – big debt).

          Perhaps something can be done to speed up the coalition of both these groups. I have no idea how they would then weild political power, but nature always finds a way.

          If you accept such a premise, I’d welcome your contribution to this thought experiment.

          Coalition-building requires a new meme. A meme that is inclusive of both groups. A meme that spawns a new coalition identity and a platform for the sharing of authentic stories and experiences that resonate with the humanity and belief in fairness & justice within both groups. A meme that breaks down the existing ‘snobbery’ and ‘reverse-snobbery’ barriers between these groups.

          Starting point: ’21st Century Serfs’.


  4. Global unions? Yes, why not? The last attempt (that I know of) to conduct Europe-wide action occurred in the early 70s with workers from Pirelli attempting to coordinate strikes across Europe. However, the problems with integrating workers’ actions across national frontiers are immense without a Europe-wide revolutionary movement. But one lives in hope.


Comments are closed.