|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 209 June 2017
Bob Crow’s legacy
Let me start this response to Peter Taaffe’s review of my biography of Bob Crow by saying I appreciate the space given over in Socialism Today (No.208, May 2017) to undertake that task. Peter’s review has been the most extensive of any that has emerged in the left and socialist press of the biography.
Even though the RMT is a small, specialist transport union, we can agree at the outset that Bob Crow has been, for the left, one of the most important union leaders for a generation. Thus, a fitting part of his legacy is for the radical and revolutionary left to seek to understand his strengths and weaknesses, as well as his achievements and accomplishments, both as an individual and as part of a collective leadership of a collective organisation.
This was what I sought to do in the biography so that lessons could be learnt. In particular, I focused upon seeking to understand the conditions and processes by which the figure of Bob Crow emerged. I used the troika of his personality, his politics and the potential power of his members to do this. Therefore, I asked the questions: why was there only one ‘Bob Crow’ and not many more? - to get at what was distinctive and special about him; why did Bob Crow rather than anyone else come to dominate the left?; and why was he able to connect with members in such a strong and vibrant way as a transformational leader?
In asking these questions, I made it clear that Bob Crow had a number of personal traits that allowed him to be bold, resilient and self-confident. He applied these traits to the functions of leadership in a way that was guided by his politics, and operationalised through mobilisation of RMT members.
Taking a wider definition of leadership than simply general secretaries, my underlying reason for asking these questions was to get at the issues of social reproduction. Namely: (i) where do left leaders come from, do they emerge organically or can they be produced? (ii) what are the social processes that bring this about? (iii) why is it that some leaders sustain themselves while others fall by the wayside?
Arguably, issues of leadership are more important now because the grassroots of unions and the left are denuded compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Leadership provides for one of the ways in which followers can be created and mobilised. Whilst it is not my role to pre-empt critique of my biography of him, reviewers should, I think, ponder whether this three-fold framework adequately explains why one individual was able to make a contribution well beyond that of most other union leaders.
Turning to the Socialist Party, there were 23 mentions of it, 27 of The Socialist, and four of Socialism Today, as well as various references to leading figures in the Socialist Party. This was more than for any other left party. The reason the Socialist Party was not included in the list of acronyms was simply because it is not usually referred to as ‘the SP’ or ‘SPEW’. Of course, Peter is perfectly at liberty to contest my analysis of the outcomes of Socialist Party activity as they pertained to Bob Crow and the RMT. I certainly have no ‘prejudice towards the Socialist Party’. Rather, I have a mixture of admiration and critical appraisal (as I do for other parties of the left).
So it cannot be said that I sought to downplay the Socialist Party’s role. Consequently, I illustrated Bob Crow’s search for a new socialist party by looking at his engagement with the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party, as well as his key involvement in NO2EU and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). Throughout the biography, I consistently covered Bob Crow’s unwillingness to give up on creating a new mass socialist party. Peter is wrong to say I underplayed this. However, I take on board his point that Bob Crow’s views were in a state of development.
Peter engages in sleight of hand when he says that official RMT cooperation was "not surprising[ly]" not gained for the biography "in view of the distortions and criticisms of Bob Crow’s real views". The RMT did not cooperate because it was asked not to by Bob Crow’s partner. The RMT would have had to have a crystal ball to know what I would write three years before I wrote it.
A large part of Peter’s review was not about Bob Crow per se but about analysing the conditions under which he operated, especially after 2010. That is wholly proper in any attempt to assess his influence and legacy. We clearly have different perspectives about what was possible in that time. Indeed, Peter then provides the reasons why more was not possible in terms of the TUC and left-led unions. I would add that the weakness of the grassroots meant it was not in a position to act independently of these leaderships (if it so wished).
But rather than rehash my argument in the book, let me comment on the challenge for the left that lies behind these differing perspectives. The role of the radical and revolutionary in times of lowered working-class class consciousness is to help reawaken that consciousness (along with the confidence to act) through ideas and activity. But in seeking to necessarily inspire and motivate workers in general into undertaking combative class action, not only is anger insufficient in itself but ideas for action must be appropriate and sensitively put so that they become credible to wider layers. If they are too far advanced, the danger is they lack purchase with these layers. It is this tension between agency and environment that is being played out here.
If I believed there was incontrovertible evidence to show that ‘optimism of the will’ amongst activists of the left could create a favourable, historic tipping point in contemporary class struggle, then I would take Peter’s allegation that I am a pessimist on board. But I do not believe this is the case at present or any time recently. That is not say to I do not think there may be times ahead when this could be the case.
Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Bradford