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The Socialist Party of Great Britain Polemic - Opposition to Democratic Reform Movements

During the 1980's the Socialist Party of Great Britain opposed Solidarity on the grounds that the organisation, while claiming to be a trade union, was, in fact, a political organisation whose interests were diametrically opposed to the working class.
Our position was vindicated by the subsequent formation of Solidarity as a government and its leader, Lech Welesa, as President of Poland. Political changes in Eastern Europe during the 1980's were not a surprise to the S.P.G.B. since we had long pointed out that one- Party dictatorships were an impediment upon capitalism because they did not allow for the free movement of capital and the airing of various economic and political interests within the capitalist class.

The process has not stopped. Cuba, Vietnam, and China will be forced to follow the same route as Eastern Europe with capitalists and their politicians trying to gain support from the working class in these capitalist countries to further the general or particular interest of private property ownership. That is why the lessons of Solidarity must be learnt. Wherever the working class finds itself it must keep its own interests distinct from those of the capitalist class and its political agents and pursue the Socialist object within a principled Socialist Party. The lure of abstracts rights and freedoms along with the promise of social reforms must be resisted in favour of class identity, class organisation and class purpose.

A faction within the S.P.G.B. disagreed with this sound analysis and gave their support to Solidarity in a leaflet and in an article in the pages of the SOCIALIST STANDARD. Camden and North West Branches repudiated both the leaflet and the article by publishing a circular to the Executive Committee on the 18th February 1982 and another, more detailed circular, on the 15th September 1990. Both circulars are being published as a historical record of the stand taken by principled socialists and as a reminder to the working class of one of the central reasons why the Socialist Party of Great Britain had to be reconstituted in June 1991: "…to wage war against all political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist…" (Clause 8: DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES).

Circular 1

To the Executive Committee. 18 February 1982

Comrades

With regard to the Solidarity leaflet 8 February 1982 , Camden Branch considers that the situation in Poland should have been set in historical perspective as an instance of the class struggle normal in all countries as workers try to organise in unions to resist exploitation; rather than explaining it in terms of Polish debts. Nor do we see the point of resurrecting old and irrelevant material about Lenin, Zinoviev and Trotsky.

Although the passage on Page 64 of the pamphlet "QUESTIONS OF THE DAY" dealt with less developed countries it depicted a situation very much like that in Poland. Its reference to the necessity for a socialist party to "involve opposition to all other parties" is relevant in all situations.

The leaflet treats Solidarity as if it were simply a trade union fitting into the passage in "QUESTIONS OF THE DAY" which reads:

"The workers…besides trying to organise into a socialist Party ought also to struggle to get the freedom to organise into trade unions and win elementary political rights".

Although Solidarity registered as a trade union, and includes some straight-forward trade union activities related to the struggle of wage and salary earners against their employers, it had gone far outside that sphere in its demand for "the reform of the economic and political system in Poland". A TIMES correspondent in Warsaw, who followed its development, noted "its rapid emergence as a de facto political opposition", and said -

"It is not really a trade union. It is, in its own words, a social movement" (TIMES 14 December 1981).

Mr. Denis MacShane, an official of the International Metalworkers Federation, in his book "SOLIDARITY:POLAND'S INDEPENDENT TRADE UNION", does indeed claim that it is "a genuine trade union movement", like the British trade union movement, but he only reaches this conclusion by defining "genuine trade union movement" in a way that we should find quite unacceptable.

He claims, for example, that it represents 80% of the population of Poland, including the peasants, and that "Solidarity can no more opt out of the political development of Poland than the British trade unions can avoid being involved in the Labour Party".

He claims that Solidarity's involvement with "food distribution, price levels, allocation of funds to build new hospitals, or to criticise managerial inefficiency or corruption and demand that security police buildings are converted for use as kindergartens", shows that it is like the British trade union movement and is therefore a genuine trade union.

In saying that the S.P.G.B. urges the formation of a socialist party in Poland and "to this end…offers support to our fellow workers in Poland", the leaflet, to make the Party's position clear, ought to have stated that, in the Polish context, this means that a Socialist Party in Poland would be opposed, not only to the Polish Communist Party, Peasants Party and Democratic Party but also to Solidarity in its role of political party.

We also note the potentially dangerous international situation arising from Solidarity's appeal to Western governments for help.

Circular 2

15th September 1990.

ABOUT THE POLISH POLITICAL ORGANISATION, SOLIDARITY

1. CAMDEN BRANCH RESOLUTION, AUGUST 1990.

Camden Branch calls on the executive committee to repudiate past statements made in the name of the Party, in direct conflict with the Declaration of Principles, expressing approval and support for the capitalist political organisation, Solidarity, which now constitutes the government of Poland; for example the statement in the leaflet "Solidarity…and the crisis of Polish State Capitalism" which reads:

"by their principled and democratic actions, the workers in Solidarity have won the admiration and support of Socialists".

NOTE this leaflet, published in December 1981, was reproduced as an article in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, January 1982, with only minor alterations.

The leaflet and the article both described Solidarity as a "working class organisation".

2. The claim that Solidarity was a trade union

(a) It was the practice in some quarters to call Solidarity a trade union. For example the SOCIALIST STANDARD, November 1981:- "Solidarity is not a revolutionary organisation. It is a trade union whose role is to defend workers' interests within the wages system".

A manifesto issued by a group of "Solidarity activists" which was published in the DAILY MAIL (5th January 1982) described it as "a 10 million strong union", supported "by a vast majority of the nation".

3. Solidarity was always a political organisation

(a) A TIMES correspondent in Poland (14th December 1981) said:

"Solidarity was registered as an independent trade union on November 10th 1980. But it is not really a trade union. It is in its own words "a social movement".

(b) Another TIMES correspondent in Poland (TIMES 8th January 1982) referred to, "the growing strength of Solidarity, and its emergence as a de facto political organisation".

(c) And the SOCIALIST STANDARD, December 1982, stated that their leader Lech Walesa, had been, "unable to prevent it developing into a political opposition".

4. Solidarity membership

If Solidarity had been a trade union its membership would have been wage and salary earners and it would not have engaged in pressing their claims in respect of wages and conditions of work, against their employers.

But according to the SOCIALIST STANDARD (December 1982) Solidarity's membership "includes almost all sections of the population including 'intellectuals', shopkeepers, farmers and students. Its demands were mostly Labour Party- type reforms. While some of these were of a Welfare-State nature, others were for economic reforms in the 'national interest'".

These farmers own three-quarters of the land in Poland (SOCIALIST STANDARD April 1981). What interest would they have in joining Solidarity if it had been a trade union of wage earners?

If Solidarity had been a trade union it would not have had anything like 10 million members and would not have been backed "by the vast majority of the nation".

5. Some other statements about Solidarity in the SOCIALIST STANDARD

(a) The following appeared in the SOCIALIST STANDARD January 1981.

"In an interview in the GUARDIAN (3rd November 1980) "Eva, a leading dissident intellectual, was asked what sort of society does Solidarity really want? Eva hesitated. "I suppose people differ, but very few of us would be called Socialists at all. In theory we would not mind having capitalism back -not on the American pattern but like Sweden or Denmark".

(b) "The union which these workers established…(Solidarity) was a well-organised and democratic union of workers who deserve the support and admiration of the workers of the world" (SOCIALIST STANDARD April 1981)

(c) "Some of the Polish rebels have naively assumed that they are living in a socialist society and that their troubles would be over if they could transform Poland into a western-style capitalist state" (April 1981 SOCIALIST STANDARD).

6.Question and answer in the SOCIALIST STANDARD December 1980

A correspondent wrote to the Socialist Standard asking about the party's attitude to non-socialist organisations.

"But supposing there was a chance that a limited democracy (as we have in our country) could be brought about in Russia, through pressure from other non-socialist groups -whether they be humanist, civil rights, left wing, religious or whatever -what would be your position? Support or not".

In their reply the Editors wrote:

"What is happening in Poland, for example, will happen sooner or later in other state capitalist countries. We must support such efforts by workers because they are the first step towards securing democratic rights".

7. What the reply ought to have said

(a) The Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain affirms in Clause 7 that the Party seeking working class emancipation "must be hostile to every other party". And in Clause 8 the Party's determination "to wage war against all other political parties whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist".

(b)The reply to the correspondent, in accordance with our Declaration of Principles ought to have informed him that we always call upon workers wherever they may be, to seek to form a Socialist party with Principles along the lines of our own. And that such a Party in Poland or in any other country would declare its total opposition to such capitalist organisations as Solidarity.

(c)The Editors' justification for committing the party to support for such non-socialist political movements, i.e. that they "are a first step towards securing democratic rights", is historically baseless.

Under the compelling pressure of the class-struggle inherent within capitalism, the working class have always responded with action of some kind. They have never waited for "legal permission".

Trade unions existed and functioned in this country long before they were given limited legal status in 1824 (see pamphlet TRADE UNIONS Page 16). Illegal strikes have been a continuing feature of trade union history. And though workers did not get the vote until 1867 and 1884 they were carrying on political and other activities, some of them specifically illegal, long before these Reform Acts.

In his book "THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS", E. P. Thompson wrote:-

"When every caution has been made, the outstanding fact of the period between 1790 and 1830 is the formation of the "working class"…By 1832 there were strongly based and self-conscious working class institutions -trade unions, friendly societies, educational and religious movements, political organisations, periodicals and working class intellectual traditions, working class community patterns, and a working class structure of feeling" (pages 212-3)

NOTE Camden Branch wrote to the Executive Committee about that reply published in the SOCIALIST STANDARD, in a letter dated 18th February 1982.

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