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Education for the Class Struggle

Class Consciousness Project

Nov 17, 2023

I have been in and around trade unions all my life, first joining when I was working in meat processing plant at 18 years old. It wasn’t until I was 34 that I actually popped my head above the parapet and became a rep myself. I had attended branch meetings as an activist and had helped a few friends over the years who were shop stewards, but you don’t really understand what being a workplace representative is like until you have a go yourself.

My entrance into being a rep was something of a baptism of fire for myself and my comrade, who became a rep around the same time as I did. Neither of us had been reps before and we were creating a whole new bargaining group from an office-based workforce who had been ignored by the main body of the unionised workers on the port in which we worked. We were fortunate enough that there was a dispute in our workplace which had angered our colleagues, so we were able to get a 100% unionised workforce straight away.

Perhaps I’ll go into why another time. There are many events that happened in my four years tenure as a rep that I will probably talk about in the future.

Anyone who’s been a rep will know it can be a bit of an old boy’s club, making it difficult for new reps, especially for ourselves who for some reason were mistrusted by the rest of the branch, so it was on the job training with little support. Sink or swim, we had to have a go ourselves. When the union offered training, I nearly bit their hand off! I had taken courses on the roles of workplace and Health & Safety rep, so instantly I took every course possible; from mental health and stress to pensions and the needed workplace rep stages 1-4 courses. Unfortunately, we were on the arse-end of the Covid restrictions, so all our courses were done via Zoom. It was handy for me personally because I could stay home with the family, but being removed from the classroom destroyed a lot of the interaction between us and, on one specific occasion, I believe that that interaction was massively needed.

As you will know, my politics are based around class, as I believe a trade union should be. If you travel down the road of class politics, if you are truly serious about it, you should eventually find yourself becoming a communist like myself. Obviously trade unions are not overtly communist, in fact, many are overtly anti-communist, but they are part of the class struggle as they represent the working class, so any education that is being given to representatives should have a solid base in working class politics. Trade unionism is a very important to the class struggle and education is a much-needed tool in the arsenal of any rep or activist.

My first venture into trade union education was anything but about class struggle. I won’t mention any names for obvious reasons, so the two main protagonists in this story will be called ‘Lecturer’ and ‘Student A’.

The course was a weeklong, 9-5 via Zoom. On my course there were a few different trade unionists I would bump into now and again. Two that stuck out in my mind were an older Scottish fella who had the drawl of an old Labour leftist and a younger Scouse lad who came across as having very similar politics to my own. The rest of the group were regular reps – all good-natured and obviously wanting to learn how to better serve their bargaining groups.

The week went well, but there was an obvious clash in politics between the students and the lecturer. Student A would often chime in on discussions with rhetoric that would happily nestle between Starmer and Sunak, but he would often caveat his points by saying he was a ‘democratic socialist’, whatever that means. His voiced opinions often betrayed his real views.

At the time, Prince Phillip’s racist patter must have been in the news, because the conversation turned to the Monarchy. The Lecturer turned out to be a rabid royalist, even quoting Prince Phillip as an advocate of “normal” (the term working class was never used) people.

Through the entirety of the course, there were several instances like this. Anecdotes about university leftists and more liberal-minded culture battles such as trans rights or feminism, both ideologies deployed by the ruling class to subvert class-based politics. The penultimate section of the course was title “modern day slavery”, which was essentially a vehement attack on successful socialist countries such as China and the DPRK (aka North Korea). There were also discussions on the problems on the African continent, including Libya, without a single mention of modern-day colonialism, US imperialism’s destruction of Libya or that the actions of the west led to the collapse of the state and real modern slave markets in the country. Libya was a successful socialist country until the rape and pillage of the west.

Included in the discussion about China was, according to Lecturer, the view that Chinese workers worked in slavery-like conditions, with little to no rights. This lecturer mentioned a story of notes being found in products from Chinese factories appealing to those moral consumers of the west to save them from their servitude. These Hollywood-style stories are always laughable. It reminds me of the US puppet Yeonmi Park’s proclamation on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast that people in North Korea have to get out and push their own trains! Apparently Koreans in the DPRK not only having a more vibrant class awareness, but also superhuman strength!

When Student A decided to share stories of a Chinese friend of his, this also shown a real lack of awareness. Student’s Chinese friend had apparently argued with him about the Communist Party of China. He had told Student that he believed in the party and what they were doing for the Chinese people and China as a nation. Student’s response was that “It shows how brainwashed Chinese people are that they actually believe in Chinese communism.” Student A seemed blissfully unaware of his own ignorance and his arrogance to believe that anyone who held a view contrary to his own must have been brainwashed.

After this course, I attended several more courses with different tutors. Two tutors stood out who actually seemed to be trying to be trying to push the courses into the field of class politics, but the courses themselves were designed around restricting the education of students to becoming nothing more than case workers for the employers: A de facto Human Resources department for employers.

Modern trade union courses are not designed to create class warriors, and when you couple them with the politics of participants like Lecturer and Student, it feels like a conscious effort to depoliticise workplace reps, mainly because it is. The trade union movement’s activist layer, which includes reps, becomes nothing more than a conveyor belt of vapid councillors and MPs into the Labour Party, who lack a class-based political education are easily whipped into accepting their party’s anti-worker rhetoric.

If we are to transform the working class into the revolutionary agent, we need to start with political education that moves past fighting for marginal pay increases or ticking a particular box on election day. Class awareness and revolutionary theory is the most powerful weapon a worker has to change his circumstances. Once a worker understands the contradictions that exist within capitalism and, critically, why they exist, he will begin to understand how to fight back. This is why this education is so hard to come by, even in trade unions, as their bureaucratic structures are committed only to the continuance of British capitalism in order to maintain their privileged status, as Daniel De Leon called them, “Capital’s labour lieutenants”.  

As Lenin once said “Without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.”

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