Power in a union

Issue: 157

Martin Pitt and Anne Kenefeck

A review of Gregor Gall, Bob Crow: Socialist, Leader, Fighter: A Political Biography (Manchester University Press, 2017), £20.

In a period of retreat and demoralisation for the trade union movement, Bob Crow and the RMT union he led have been remarkable in bucking the trend and giving the left hope. His untimely death at the age of 52 in March 2014 was a cause of great sadness to hundreds of thousands of people wanting a better world; hundreds lined the route of his funeral cortège and there was applause at the cemetery gates as it entered.

This new biography of Crow by Professor Gregor Gall aims both to document his life and struggles and also to make a critical Marxist analysis of his beliefs and practice. On the first count, readers of this journal will find much of interest in this closely detailed narrative. Gall neatly presents Crow’s early life in poverty and the unshakeable class consciousness, learned from his Communist Party father, he retained all his life. He also describes Crow’s rise to prominence in the union, the industrial struggles and the RMT break with the Labour Party in 2004. He highlights Crow’s disgust with New Labour and its pro-austerity, pro-big business and pro-war agenda and its refusal to renationalise the railways, or repeal the anti trade union laws.

The book reveals that behind Crow’s bluff, belligerent and unyielding persona was a very shrewd, skilful, subtle and effective operator both inside the union and on the wider left. While taking a direct hand in progressing the union’s finances, recruitment and member representation, Crow also worked constructively with the Stop the War Coalition, the Communist Party, Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, No2EU, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and TUSC (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition). Crow’s view was that a new party to the left of Labour was required and he used all his skill, ingenuity and energy to try to bring this about. Gall speculates on whether Crow would have supported Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but readers of this journal will be in no doubt.

On the second count, however, readers here may be disappointed in a “political biography” that claims to employ a “critical Marxist approach”. Regrettably, Crow’s own political views on some issues were naïve and contradictory. For example, while believing MP’s wages should be increased, Crow seems to show little sympathy for benefit claimants on his street when he says, “I’m the only person in my road paying the rent—everyone else is on social… Who really is the mug?” (p139). He supported capital punishment and commented that bailing out the banks by British and American governments in the aftermath of the 2007-8 crisis showed “socialism was alive and well”. He thought Cuba a healthy example of socialism and he regretted that, but for just a little more democracy, the USSR would not have fallen. But for all this, Gall’s only critical analysis is of Crow’s concept of social class, and nothing else. For the rest he merely comments, “He was not a writer of any depth”.

Actually, there are problems with Gall’s own scientific Marxism. Despite being a former adherent to the theory of state capitalism, he appears to show sympathy with Crow: “Although he recognised that Soviet state socialism was far from perfect…he nevertheless”, etc. Again, Gall’s explanation for the failure of Socialist Alliance, the Respect Party and TUSC to become mass parties was just “the hegemony of neoliberalism”, rather than workers’ adherence to Labourism. Gall also criticises the theory that the union bureaucracy is a conservative layer lying between the two major classes. He references Ralph Darlington’s 2014 article in this journal (International Socialism 142) as a recent exposition of this theory but says that the existence of left wing trade union leaders such as Crow, Scargill and PCS leader Mark Serwotka provide a challenge to the theory (which is on a par with saying gravity doesn’t exist because things sometimes go up). The whole history of, even left wing, trade union bureaucracy proves its essential conservatism, particularly in times of severe crisis.

Crow called himself a socialist and at times even a Marxist, but in his practice, as the author underlines, he was highly pragmatic and worked very much within the bounds set by capitalism. He would never instigate a break with the anti-union laws, for example, or even push the limits of what was acceptable to management. He consistently called off strikes to comply with injunctions or even just to reach an agreement. “I’m all in favour of cooperating with management,” he would say. The almost unanimous view of the rail bosses, says Gall, was “You could always cut a deal with Bob”. Again here, Gall merely reports Crow’s politics and pragmatism without comment.

Nevertheless the book shows that under Crow’s stewardship the RMT became a fighting union, defending and making substantial gains for its members. He was an outspoken champion against inequality, war, austerity and racism. Inevitably, this, together with his use of working class power to force as much from the bosses as possible, made him a hate figure for the Tories, the media and the wider establishment. Readers will find the pace of the book slows to a crawl at times, as when the author records the dates, lengths and nature of disputes in fine detail, or just simply quotes too many examples in making his point. But hopefully these reservations won’t mar their enjoyment of a well-researched book or their appreciation of a truly remarkable trade union leader and class fighter.

Martin Pitt is a long-term SWP party branch activist in West London and Convenor of West London Stand Up to Racism.

Anne Kenefeck is a long-term SWP branch activist.