Tag Archives: trade unions

Wolff in Sheep’s Clothing

by Anne Archist, who apologises for the terrible pun in the title.

Lately I’ve been following Professor Richard D. Wolff’s “online classes” on Marxian economics (I’d recommend that people who follow The Great Unrest should skip over the “intensive introduction” course, because the applied course basically covers the same things anyway, and unless you’ve never encountered Marxist thought before, you’ll probably find he moves slowly a lot of the time even in the latter course).

He’s an interesting figure, and probably one of a handful of Marxists in history to have been educated at Harvard, Stanford and Yale (although he says his teachers, with the exception of one Marxist, never had any interest in or knowledge of Marx’s ideas, and that he essentially studied Marx in his own time). Wolff makes several points that set him apart from standard ‘Marxist’ academics – some of which are more significant or original than others – which I’ll summarise and address here; please do look into his work if you’re interested in hearing his own words or taking the ideas further. A side note: apparently his interpretation of Marx comes via Reading Capital – a book which is only partially available in English, though Wolff is fluent in French, so may have read the original – and many of the following ideas may therefore have come from Althusser or his students, for all I know.

Labour-Centric Analysis

The major point of departure that separates Wolff from a lot of other Marxist theorists or Marxian-influenced economists is that he conceives of class in terms of relations to surplus-labour rather than relations to the means of production. Rather than building up an analysis which includes concepts like the social relations to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, he uses an arguably simpler conceptualisation: “‘productive’ labour is required to live but it also produces a surplus; in our society many people carry out ‘productive’ labour but do not distribute the surplus themselves, allowing those who do distribute it to appropriate a portion of it for themselves without carrying out any labour”.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a strange and idiosyncratic way of explaining classical Marxist economic theory (particularly the critique of ‘bourgeois economics’ in Capital). After thinking about it some more and seeing how the analysis was applied, I realised that it actually has some major conceptual differences (even if they can be shown only to be differences of emphasis or explaining the same thing in different terms, which I’m not sure of). For instance, Marx’s theory of exploitation is generally taken to rest on the labour theory of value, whereas Wolff’s version of exploitation doesn’t even seem to require asking the question of what causes things to have the value they do; this question was a concern for bourgeois economics but shouldn’t necessarily be one for someone criticising capitalism (remember: Capital was Marx’s critique of already-existing economics, not a critique of capitalism).

Another example: the concept of economic democracy is quite widespread among socialists (to the point that Peter Tatchell, who nowadays tends to steer clear of socialistic language, issued a call for economic democracy), but the link between it and the labour-theory-of-value construction of Marxist theory has often been tenuous or indirect; the steps from demands about the distribution of property to demands about economic decision-making processes have rarely been well articulated. Wolff’s presentation of Marx’s argument makes this immediate and obvious – economic democracy is equivalent to the demand that the surplus should be distributed by those who produce it, an issue directly addressed by Wolff’s notion of class.

Exploitation and Surplus Production

According to Wolff, exploitation is merely what happens when one person labours so as to produce a surplus – that is, produces more than the labourer needs to sustain themselves – enough, in fact, to sustain other people too – and someone else appropriates and distributes that surplus rather than the worker distributing it themselves. Exploitation, then, is not about someone receiving more than they have contributed, as Roemer would have it (Roemer has offered different definitions of exploitation, but at least one of them amounts to “consuming more than you produce”). This is important because it heads off a serious problem with Roemer-style definitions, which is that they identify children, disabled people, pensioners and others who do not work as exploiters; on the contrary, Wolff identifies them neither as exploiters nor as exploited.

On Wolff’s view of things, these people are allocated (and consume) a portion of the surplus, but the important factor is not that they are consuming it but that someone else is allocating it. This seems to fit with a relatively superficial and intuitive exploration of human emotional and moral reaction – namely, we begrudge people who take things (that we have not offered) from us and give them to others, even if we believe that the others receiving them should have them. An example: If you were planning on buying someone a book as a present and someone else stole some of your money, bought the book with it, and then gave it to the person, you would be justifiably upset and morally offended by the thief’s behaviour, even though the endgame is the same.

Another advantage of this way of looking at things is that it illustrates an important continuity between capitalists and government officials which is often assumed by Marxists but rarely explained; both take part in the appropriation and distribution of surplus they have not themselves produced. Capitalists appropriate surplus in the form of profit (in fact, capitalists can appropriate surplus without making any profit, since  on Wolff’s view surplus must also be used to pay for ‘unproductive’ labour such as that performed by security guards), and the government (at all levels) makes decisions about taxation and spending which represent a further form of appropriated surplus. The state retains a unique position within the economy, however, in that it is capable of extracting surplus from more than just workers within capitalist relations – as well as ‘productive’ employed workers, it also claims taxes from capitalists, self-employed workers, ‘unproductive’ employed workers, etc.

The Feudal Home

Following on from the above points, Wolff also identifies husbands in the traditional family structure as exploiters within the home (whether or not they are exploited outside the home). Production takes place within the home as well as outside it (for instance, the wife transforms raw food into cooked food), and the wife produces a surplus for the husband (she cooks dinner for both of them, not just herself).  Specifically, he argues that the class structure within the traditional family household is essentially a feudal one, for two reasons.

Firstly,  the wife is not owned by the husband like a slave, does not contract her labour for pay like a capitalist worker, and does not distribute the surplus herself as in the communist and ancient modes. Wolff seems to function on the assumption that there are only five modes of production, so if you eliminate four then whatever you are analysing must be the fifth. Secondly, the marriage ceremony is apparently itself derived from a feudal ceremony in which the serf and the lord pledged to ‘love, honour and obey’ one another (I haven’t been able to verify this, and would be interested to see a source and read more).

Now, personally I’m not entirely convinced by this. That one ceremony grew out of another is an interesting and potentially informative historical fact, but it certainly doesn’t establish that both ceremonies establish the same ‘surplus relations’ (if you’re not convinced by that, consider the fact that Wolff has to refer specifically to “traditional” marriage because other modes of production exist within married households – therefore the exact same ceremony can be used to set up multiple different class structures). As for the other reason Wolff gives, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there can only be the five modes of production that Marx discusses, and even if you do so, you could eliminate feudalism first on the basis that the woman is not ‘tied to the house’, or something similar, and therefore conclude by elimination that it was another mode of production.

The Revolution on the Home Front

I don’t have a concrete suggestion at the moment for what kind of class structure we should consider traditional families to have, but it seems to me that it may be more enlightening to identify it as a patriarchal mode distinct from the others, as some socialist-feminists such as Delphy have done. At any rate we can conclude that the family unit, though it operates in a society we consider to be ‘capitalist’, actually traditionally operates according to another economic model (and very rarely, if ever, operates according to the capitalist one – modern exceptions generally operate on the communist or ‘ancient’ modes). What is of great historical importance regarding this analysis, as far as Wolff is concerned, is not necessarily what the mode of production within the family should be called, but rather that it has changed and is continuing to change.

The ‘traditional’ marriage or family was much more common two centuries ago (though other forms existed even then), but the USA (and many countries) has seen a solid and consistent decline in the number of people living under this kind of arrangement for the last half-century. Some of this has been in the form of rising demands for sharing the burden of housework within marriages, but it has also taken the form of rising numbers of ‘single-person families’, groups of friends sharing houses (and the housework), etc.

In addition to this change, the labour force and the person-hours at the command of the market has swelled with increasing numbers of women who traditionally would not have worked, or would have worked less, or would have been self-employed, etc – this has taken place over a longer period, of course, and is perhaps more of a varied and complex picture, but it is a real change nonetheless. Wolff argues that these changes are important historical shifts – a class revolution, according to Marxian analysis – that have passed the left by, and that the political fallout of this is that the (religious) right have seized on them and used the negative aspects (like increasing levels of social alienation and isolation, or women’s low pay and harassment at work) to push their own agendas.

Immediate Alternatives

What should the left be doing? Wolff is less precise on this point, as are so many academics. His strong point is analysing what has happened and what is happening, not what should happen next. Nevertheless he has some comments on this topic, which tend to contradict or bypass much accepted Marxist doctrine; rather than dealing with demands on the state and suchlike, he harkens back to early socialist and classical Marxist ideas.

The first suggestion is that the left should aim to make explicit to people the class shift that has taken place within the home, and that Marxist theory can understand both what was going on before and what happened to get to where we are now (and perhaps why it happened); this, he argues, would put us in a much stronger position to argue to working women that they should oppose exploitation (in the Wolffian sense) on the job as well as in the home. This would raise class consciousness and have a kind of detoxifying effect concerning people’s fears around Marxist theory and concepts like class struggle or revolution.

Wolff’s other major suggestion is that the left should take a more sustained and pro-active interest in cooperatives (and presumably communes). Rather than seeing a society which has an essentially monolithic capitalist culture and structure, he sees a world in which many class relations co-exist, intertwine, intermingle and contradict either other (such as the working-class husband who is an exploiter at home despite being exploited on the job); therefore he places less of an emphasis on ‘overthrowing’ or ‘abolishing’ capitalism in the sense that is common in the Marxist left today. This also links back to some criticisms he makes of Marxist figureheads such as Lenin and Trotsky with regard to their Marxian economic analysis, which he considers to have been poor at best due to their failure to properly change relations to the surplus (he considers the USSR to have been a kind of state capitalism because the state extracted and distributed surplus in basically the same way as private capitalists do).

A specific consequence of this is that he considers it a high priority to relate to forms of producing (at home and at work, presumably) which avoid the extraction and distribution of the surplus by another party or a minority of producers. His proposals are vague at best, and shouldn’t be taken as a solid political programme, but he seems to suggest that socialists and the labour movement should get behind cooperative enterprises partially for obvious reasons that this would be free of exploitation and show that it is possible to produce without capitalist arrangements and so forth.

An interesting elaboration on his thoughts on cooperatives involves an argument that attributes at least a portion of capitalist hegemony to the extraction of the surplus; specifically, if private companies can extract a surplus from their labourers and accumulate vast amounts of wealth in this way, they gain more control over the media, political campaigns, lobbying, etc. If, on the other hand, workers enter into cooperative enterprises and deny capitalists this surplus, that surplus stays within the working class, both diminishing the wealth available to the capitalists to carry out a programme of class struggle against workers and increasing the wealth available to the workers to carry out a programme of class struggle against capitalists.

Conclusion

In short, Wolff has some original ideas, an interesting spin on old ideas and some interesting analysis gained by applying old methods to current and historical events. I’d recommend that people interested in Marxist class analysis, whether or not you are a Marxist yourself, take a look at him and his interpretation of Marx. It’s certainly made me re-think my understanding of Marxian economics and given me a useful new tool to my belt of Marxian interpretations, analyses and concepts.

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A Referendum Retrospective

by Anne Archist

The overall result isn’t in yet, but it looks like the no campaign are on course for a 70/30 split victory in yesterday’s referendum. Whatever the exact result, FPTP has definitely taken the day. A substantial majority against AV will secure the tory inclination to spin this as an endorsement of the current system, and to refuse further attempts at reform. The libdems, judging by the local election results and recent polls, are more than decimated and will be in no position to put pressure on anyone for electoral reform agreements; presumably this leaves our only hope of achieving PR in the short term with Labour, among whom there seems to be considerable division on the issue (unlike the libdems), with the LRC seemingly supporting FPTP rather than just opposing AV in the referendum (they repeated false claims by ASLEF that AV “gives some people more votes than others” and their statement generally had the tone of a group quite happy with the status quo, thankyouverymuch).

What can we learn from the referendum, in retrospect? Firstly, the result was probably significantly influenced by utter lies like claims that AV would cost £250m or violate the principle of “one person, one vote”. Secondly, the hypocrisy has been staggering. Labour and the tories both use AV to select their leader, and front-benchers of both parties, as well as some rank and file members of Labour and the vast majority of tory members, supported the no campaign. There’s nothing inherently hypocritical about supporting different voting systems in different contexts, but to do so on the basis that the system is inherently unfair and undemocratic because it gives some people more votes than others (as Cameron and others did) is completely inconsistent.

It’s particularly worrying that the LRC waxed lyrical about “one person, one vote”, given that Labour not only uses AV to elect the leader, but also uses electoral colleges which absolutely uncontroversially do violate that principle (in contrast to AV, which preserves it). There was less objectionable no campaigning from other sources like the RMT – while they also elect their leader by AV, their reasoning was that the referendum was a “distraction”, not that AV was fundamentally unfair. The AWL, CPB, and some others on the left will be celebrating a victory (of sorts!) tonight, but we’ve yet to see whether the reasoning behind their no vote will be borne out in practice – we can assess the help or hindrance this result gives to the cause of PR, and the damage it does to the coalition, but it’s beyond me as to how we’d establish claims that AV would have returned worse governments and so on.

We’ll never know for sure which arguments held most weight with the public, but it certainly seems hard to believe that the poll reflects a fully and honestly informed electorate. If, indeed, about 70% of the public back FPTP purely on the basis that it avoids coalitions and results in strong governments (which as far as I can see was the only argument in favour of FPTP that survives even superficial rational scrutiny), we might as well pack up and hand the country over to the tories and the NF.

Admittedly, there is a generational gap in polls; though PR looks to be even further on the back-burner now, we may see more people becoming comfortable with preferential voting systems over the next decade or two. Interestingly, this may be at least in part due to Labour policies, but not ones to do with constitutional or electoral reform; I’m thinking of their considerable emphasis on more young people going to university, and their devolution of powers.

Regarding the university issue, I’m not saying this because a population with a higher percentage of graduates is better educated and therefore better able to understand the issues – in fact, I doubt this is true except for a very few subjects like economics or maths. The reason that more people going to university could be making a difference is that universities tend to use AV to elect students’ union officers; the more graduates there are in a population, the more people we can expect to have already used AV and therefore got over the barrier of understanding how to mark the ballot correctly, roughly how the votes will be counted, etc. Devolution, of course, has given people in some parts of the UK a chance to get their head around using things other than pure FPTP, particularly in Northern Ireland, where STV is used (more or less identical from the voter’s point of view to AV).

The coming weeks and months should give us a clue as to whether PR will remain a live debate or evaporate into the murky politico shadows it crept from just a few months ago and once again evoke ‘Public Relations’ for most of the electorate. Certainly the former won’t happen on its own – it’s now the responsibility of those on the left that argued for a no-to-AV-yes-to-PR vote to lead  an energetic display of campaigning and debate that will make it impossible for electoral reform to be forgotten amongst the cuts (however much this might piss off Bob Crow), and to give a sharp rebuke to those elements that aligned with them for more conservative reasons, like the LRC.

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Some thoughts on effective unionism (I)

Why going on strike is as effective as it ever was

by Edd Mustill

This article takes up some of the post-March 26th discussions on this blog. It is the first of a series of posts about trade unionism, what it is and what it should be. This post is written by way of an introduction.

The idea that “these days” people are less powerful as workers than they are as consumers, service users, students, citizens, or actors in “civil society” (whatever that is) is, I think, common among people who are generally left-wing.

This is reflected in the idea that unions are just a constituent part of a broad anti-cuts or anti-government alliance, and that industrial activism is just another form of protest or “resistance.”

I think there are a number of assumptions underlying this attitude:

The unions are intrinsically weak because they haven’t done anything for a long time

I’m not going to go into economics here. Workers’ Liberty have recently attempted to briefly deal with this attitude here.

I’ll just add that, historically speaking, there have been long stretches when the unions have been relatively dormant in Britain. The 1860s-1880s, 1940s-1950s, 1990s-now, and so on.

The TUC is the same thing as “the unions”

Because the March 26th demo was called by the TUC, articles that appeared since then (my own included) have sometimes used “TUC” as shorthand for the trade union movement. This isn’t the case. In fact, far from the TUC being more than the sum of its parts, at the moment, arguably, the opposite is true.

The nature and historical role of the TUC is a topic for another post, but what I will say here is that it is an umbrella (or shell!) organisation. Local trades councils are not like branches of the TUC. Member unions conduct their own affairs and have their own policies.

Incidentally, the slogan “TUC call a general strike” is not helpful in this regard because it assumes the TUC is something more than it is. Whether the General Council could even “call” a general strike is debatable. Certainly it’d be breaking some laws. Should we be making a central plank of our strategy the idea that the most moderate sections of the movement should break the law en masse, when even the most militant have so far not shown much appetite to do so? But as we know, the general strike debate is a whole kettle of fish by itself.

So, when people say things like the TUC is too slow, too moderate, and so on, they are right. But just saying that risks glossing over the fact that there are ongoing battles within the TUC’s member unions over tactics and strategy. Even at leadership level, there is a notable gap between those pushing openly for united industrial action, like Mark Serwotka of the PCS, and those who can’t even pronounce the words “industrial action,” like Dave Prentis of Unison.

People don’t work in large workplaces that make class consciousness come naturally

There’s a bit of a myth that, when Britain had a big industrial workforce, everyone worked in huge factories employing thousands of people, where a strike could easily paralyse production to a colossal degree.

Most industrial workers worked in small workshops rather than huge complexes. Today, we have our own huge workplaces everywhere. Town halls each employ hundreds of people. How many thousands of staff are on the books at every big hospital and university? What about airports? And big call centres on “industrial estates”?

The problem is that workers in all these places are divided by profession and grade, which means that, more often than not, they are divided into different unions. Lecturers will be in the UCU, other staff could be in Unison, Unite, or the GMB.

But even where workers are in the same union, the law enforces division. Perhaps the current British Airways dispute could have been won at a much earlier stage through extending the strike to other sections of the workforce, like Heathrow baggage handlers who have something of a tradition of sympathy action. This would probably have been illegal, but it could have been successful.

So there are big workplaces where class solidarity could be fostered, but organisation within them is often uneven and fragmented. More on these problems in the next post in this series.

Service workers are more easily replaceable than industrial workers, so it’s much harder for them to strike effectively

There is another myth here, albeit one that has more truth to it. There were and are, of course, many skilled workers in heavy industry. But such industries have always relied on semi-skilled workers and labourers just as much in order to function. Organising people like this has usually been the source of the most radical forms of unionism.

The most famous of the general unions which changed the face of unionism a century ago was the Dockers’ Union. Their success was based on organising workers who actually faced some of the same conditions that most young workers face now. Irregular hours, not knowing what shifts you’re going to work until the day you have to work them, little or nothing in the way of pensions or sick pay, sacking at a moments’ notice… all these are familiar to people working in the service industry today.

Any workers we think of as having had stable work patterns, strong organisations, good pay and benefits, began as precarious, super-exploited workers. The miners are the most obvious example.

So it’s not impossible to organise service workers, it’s just difficult. But the fact that they are untouched by the rather sterilising experience of bureaucratic unionism can open up opportunities for radical unionists. Again, more on these problems will come in a future post.

Strikes are just another form of protest

For many years, the vast majority of strikes have been 24-hour, perhaps 48-hour affairs. Strikes of this nature are essentially protests. They will have a minimal economic impact even if they are solid, because bosses can plan around them, get people to work overtime in the weeks before and after, and so on.

One of the first strikes I ever raised money for was a strike of bus drivers in South Yorkshire. The strike was all-out, and won after about three weeks. Public support by no means fell away during that time.

It was effective because the company in question, First, ran the vast majority of the bus routes in the area, so they stood to lose a lot of profit and alternative transport was more or less non-existent.

Too often strikes are just seen as a way of keeping a dispute rumbling until the inevitable defeat, or compromise in favour of the bosses. What needs to be rediscovered and rebuilt is a culture of actually striking to win.

Everything gets made in other countries, all we do is buy it

Well, we do still “make things,” goods and services, commodities, in Britain. But it helps anyway to think of production lines as international.

Say, for example, there is a textile workers’ strike in Bangladesh. The clothes being made are bound for high street stores in dozens of countries, including here. Perhaps, for whatever reasons, the strike does not succeed in totally shutting down production. While the employers can get some goods out to sell anywhere in the world, the strike is undermined.

Workers in the retail industry in Britain find themselves at the end of chains of production that could have passed through several countries. Any broken link in this chain can potentially stop it completely, including at the point of sale.

A strike in the shops selling the clothes would be a thousand times more effective than an appeal for a consumer boycott, if only because a relatively small number of people need to be up for it. A picket line can keep a shop closed day after day in a way that a UK Uncut-style bail-in can do for an afternoon.

So that’s just a sketch of some of the reasons why I think we should be seriously engaging in discussions about how to mount effective industrial action.

The main problem is not that striking doesn’t work. The main problem is that strikes rarely seem to be conducted as a fight to win. Everything I’ve touched on here will be elaborated in future articles, so if you’re interested, keep checking the site in between all the hilarious comedy gold we’ve been churning out recently.

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Break these walls down: Some thoughts on the way forward

by Liam McNulty

Taking up from where Edd left off in his discussion of the relationship between UK Uncut, trade unionism and the shoppers of Oxford Street, it seems clear that if the government is to be defeated the gaps between different sectors of the anti-cuts movement and between the movement and the hitherto passive members of the public need to be bridged.

It has been a cliché since the late 1970s to speak of the forward march of labour halted but one does not have to look too far to see mass action by trade unions gaining results, significant despite their limitations.  Action by unions and students temporarily halted the First Employment Contract in France and though the French trade union movement has a more militant tradition, let it not be forgotten that union density across the channel is much lower than in the United Kingdom (Table 3).  It is possible that the French trade unions punch above their weight, drawing in wider layers of society.  More on this below.

Nevertheless, the patterns of labour organisation have changed, perhaps irreversibly, since the late 70s and the onset of deindustrialisation.  These ONS statistics are slightly out of date but they are a testament to several fundamental changes.  Firstly, union density is higher for women than for men (undermining the lazy media image of Teamster-style union ‘thugs’).  Secondly, this suggests a bias towards the public rather than the private sector, a trend corroborated by the relatively high incidents of union density in Northern Ireland (39.7%) and the north-east of England (38.9%).  Thirdly, ‘more than a third of employees aged 35 and over were union members, compared with a quarter of those aged between 25 and 34.’

This raises problems for the trade union movement but it also gives some reasons to be hopeful.  Both good and bad is the strength of public sector trade unionism.  The cuts in places such as Northern Ireland are primarily aimed at public sector jobs, which threatens ruin for hundreds of thousands.  On the other hand, when whole families are included it brings in potentially millions of people who will be sympathetic to militant action to protect what is amongst the last bastions of trade union strength and a source of employment for whole areas of the United Kingdom.  More worryingly, however, is the prospect, as in Ireland, of the ruling class playing the public versus private card in order to divide the workforce.  The narrative of ‘gold-plated public sector pensions’ serves to cover the complete failure of the private sector to deliver a basic standard of living by stirring up resentment at the public sector’s modest pension entitlements.  This must be challenged.

The main source of weakness for the trade union movement, however, is its failure to sufficiently organise in the private sector and amongst young workers.  The private sector brings with it problems such as casualised employment, agency contracts, and outsourcing.  These problems are most pronounced for young workers, a contingent under-represented in trade unions.  One reason for this is clearly the break in tradition caused by the disruption to traditional patterns of employment in reasons once dominant by single industries, such as steel in Sheffield or shipbuilding in Belfast.  Moreover, privatisation and outsourcing has done a lot to fragment the workforce and mitigates against collective class consciousness.  At a rally during the UCU strike, one comrade related a story from Thursday morning’s picket line, unfavourably contrasting the picket-crossing private couriers in the near empty vans with the CWU member in the full Royal Mail van who remained loyal to basic ideals of solidarity.

What activist group such as UK Uncut have done is to involve lots of young people in forms of militant protest for the first time; young people who may be students or unemployed, perhaps working in sectors of the economy that are largely unorganised or who have not for various reasons felt attracted to trade unionism.  The UK Uncut maxim that ‘if the economy disrupts us, we must disrupt the economy’ has a lot of truth to it. Nevertheless, it may be unfashionable to say so but disrupting shoppers on a Saturday afternoon is not going to challenge capitalism any more than peasant riots against the gabelle salt tax threatened French absolutism.  If the RMT shut down the tube network, however, the impact on Topshop turnover will be felt; if workers occupy a factory and seize the means of production then they strike a much more high-impact blow.

This is not to say, of course, that disrupting the sphere of commodity circulation and raising consciousness of corporate greed is pointless.  Not at all.  Indeed, both a strike and smashing symbolic targets involve people combating the reifying logic of capitalism by stepping outside the roles predetermined for them by the dominant economic system, whether as consumers or workers.  Both are acts of conscious subjects engaged in political activity.  However, we must realistically assess where the locus of economic power rests.  A thousand broken windows will still not equal the disruption if the country’s workforce bring the economy to a halt. I say this not because I’m a dull Marxist for whom fun is forbidden, or because I have a metaphysical predisposition towards the idea that the working class is the most powerful agent of change.  Rather, it is because the organised workers’ movement still, despite its diminution and limitations, represents the largest cohesive collective agent in society.  Of this there can be no doubt.

Alas, haven’t I spent the first part of this article bemoaning the lack of private sector union organisation and the under-representation of young workers in the trade union movement? Yes, and this is where I think a common praxis between the trade union movement and other sections of the anti-cuts movement is important.  It is a truism that successful trade union struggles build confidence and membership- just look at the RMT.  It is also the case, however, that anti-union laws and lower trade union density have made spectacular victories in this country less common.  On the part of the unions, more has to be done to engage with young workers and organise marginalised sectors of the workforce, especially in the service sector (bars, shops etc).  The General Unions of the late nineteenth century came to prominence off the back of illegal and militant struggles yet the very general unions such as the GMB today recoil from anything like the tactics which brought them into being in the first place.

There needs to be a convergence between those young people who are attracted to disrupting Oxford Street and the union members who remained on the march.  This requires direct activists joining trade unions, suggesting militant tactics at branch level and pushing from below at rank-and-file level.  We must break down the dichotomy between dull, legalistic trade unionism on the one hand and direct action on the other.  As Edd writes below, sabotage, machine-breaking and others forms of disruptive activity are not alien to the trade union movement, they are integral to its history.  There have already been incidents such as when CWU members blockaded the streets of London and some reps threatened occupations of sorting offices facing closure.  We have also recently seen factory occupations at Vestas and Ford-Visteon.

The anti-cuts movement needs to become like an octopus, with one body and many limbs linking together activists, community groups and organised workers in common struggle.  This requires militant trade unionists to be less like the dour-faced CGT stewards separating Parisian workers from the students of ’68 and more like the radical CNT members whose strikes in Barcelona involved whole communities through food protests, student pickets and confrontations with state power; it also requires groups such as UK Uncut to engage more with trade unions and concentrate less on secretive stunts.  The movement in the UK is on a scale not seen for years and it would be idiotic to squander the creativity and ingenuity of new forms of protest.  Rather, we must harness our collective forces and wage struggle against the government on every conceivable level.

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Anarchism and Marxism: A discussion

by Anne Archist

The following is a very rough transcript of a discussion. I’ve tried to reproduce it as accurately as possible but some sections may be missing and I may have made mistakes at some point along the way. I gave the Anarchism section of the talk, while the Marxism section was given by Daniel Morley. I apologise in particular if I have misrepresented Daniel’s comments in any way. The debate that followed from the floor veered all over the place and plenty of it was off-topic. I haven’t included my contributions to that debate because I couldn’t write and speak at the same time.

Anarchism

The first thing I want to say is that I will be “taking sides”, and specifically I’m going to nail my colours to the mast and say that I’m not interested in any form of Anarchism that is friendly to capitalism. I’m not just fixing definitions to suit myself here; ‘anarchist’ is a label applied to many theories, but this doesn’t show that they share a common theoretical basis. I could argue at length about how so-called “anarcho”-capitalism and social anarchism have nothing in common but this is the Marxist Discussion Group, not the Adam Smith Institute, so I’ll leave it at that and hope that people are satisfied.

I want to start out by giving a brief history of anarchist thought, and though I won’t have time to go into everything, I’m going to focus on a few historically contentious discussions in ways that will hopefully undermine some of the myths spread about anarchists. My view is that anarchists and Marxists have more in common than is generally recognised, and I hope this discussion can help to break down some of the stereotypes and barriers between our traditions.

Much as Marxism was preceded by utopian, idealist and religious socialism of various forms, anarchism’s roots stretch back to Greek and Eastern philosophy. It’s generally considered to have become recognisable in its modern form in the writings of William Godwin, though he apparently drifted away from communism – later editions of ‘Political Justice’ were heavily edited. The first person to self-describe as an anarchist is Proudhon, and the key historical anarchist theorists from today’s point of view are probably Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman and Rocker.

Anarchism became an important organised political movement as a faction of the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, founded in 1866. They preferred terms like “federalist” to describe their politics, and were led by Bakunin, though Kropotkin did join the International for a short period. Debates between this trend and the Marxists reached a head at the Hague Congress of 1872, and leading anarchists including Bakunin were expelled.

I want to clear up a few myths about anarchist theory. Despite its predecessors, modern anarchism rests on the same philosophical basis as Marxism – materialism. Bakunin said this in the clearest possible terms: “Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists are right.” As for economic analysis, it is often suggested that anarchists have none, or more precisely that they have none of their own. Firstly, I’m not entirely sure why Marxists would consider it a criticism to point out that anarchists agree with the Marxist economic analysis.

Secondly, the idea that they have none at all is quickly disproven by the fact that Bakunin translated Marx’s magnum opus, ‘Capital’, into Russian (to the surprise of Marx, who overestimated the Russian working class’ backwardness); an abridged translation was published in Italian by an anarchist as well. Do we just have to admit we pinched Marx’s ideas, then? Well, no – Marx was heavily influence by Proudhon early in his career, whose book ‘What Is Property?’ was apparently the text that convinced Marx private property must be abolished. Anarchism and Marxism’s contributions to materialist analysis and anti-capitalist economics are intertwined. They form historically and conceptually inseparable parts of a whole – remove Proudhon’s ideas from Marx and you’re left with an economics not far off Adam Smith.

Don’t take it from me, though: “This work became possible only owing to the work of Proudhon himself”, say Marx and Engels in ‘The Holy Family’. They continue later: “Proudhon makes a critical investigation – the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation – of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible.”

Proudhon’s economic theory was limited, but this is understandable given his historical circumstances; he was not a communist, preferring market-based forms of socialism that he believed could usurp capitalism through the development of co-operative industry funded through mutual free credit. This was called mutualism. The idea was – roughly speaking, since I’ve not really read any Proudhon first-hand – that workers could set up banks, creating money to fund the establishment of cooperatives and other workers’ organisations that would compete with the state and capitalist enterprises. A kind of economic dual-power would come about and then capitalism would be surpassed as the collectives would perform better on the market (due to the fact that they were under the control of the people who knew best how to run them, they re-invested money back into the business rather than cream it off in profits, they sold at a lower price, etc).

Later anarchists – those in the First International, for instance – largely sided with Marx’s economic analysis as he moved away from its Proudhonist origins. Bakunin argued that the working class should use a “revolutionary general strike” as the death blow to capitalism, seize the means of production, owning and controlling them collectively. It’s worth spending some time on this question under the current circumstances. In fact, the anarchists were advocating the general strike – and trying to turn it into reality – at a time when Engels was decrying it as unnecessary at best. At worst it was impossible, and most likely it would not result in revolution even if it could be carried out since it targeted individual bourgeois in their roles as employers, rather than the instrument of their class organised as such – the state.

Bakunin’s “federalist” inclinations led him to hold that the question of remuneration for labour was a matter to be decided by individual communities. The question of ownership was settled, but the question of distribution was a subject for experimentation; communities might choose markets with local currency, some form of labour-note based rationing, etc. This theory is generally referred to as anarcho-collectivism, or just collectivism, though distinctions are rarely drawn accurately or consistently from here on in and the term has also been applied to other socialist theories.

Some anarchists consider Bakunin’s ideas as a transitional state that will give way to full communism while others consider it an end in itself (since freedom of migration would allow people to choose which distributive system to live under, etc). Rocker suggests that the economic objectives of mutualism, collectivism, communism, and so on should be considered merely educated guesses at the best way of ensuring a free society, and says that people will likely experiment with different distributive methods.

As I said, the distinctions get less clear from this point, but Kropotkin says: “For the day on which old institutions will fall under the proletarian axe, voices will cry out: “Bread, shelter, ease for all!” And those voices will be listened to… we shall build in the name of Communism and Anarchy.” His point is that basic necessities should immediately be distributed along communist principles and be available to all without any distributive barrier. The key difference, then, is that they are willing to take sides in the debate about distribution – unsurprisingly, these people are called anarchist (or anarcho-) communists.

Kropotkin’s later thought also hinted towards aspects of syndicalism (which is not a specifically anarchist theory but anarcho-syndicalism, the anarchist version, is most common these days). He edited the passage I quoted earlier, to replace the slogan “in demolishing we shall build” with “in building we shall demolish”. This reflected what he felt were lessons learnt from the course of struggle – that simply overturning the status quo without any idea of what should follow it would leave the door open to a restoral of bourgeois order (or perhaps worse).

The syndicalist idea, like mutualism, is a strategy rather than a distributive principle.  It says that some form of industrial union organising can be used in place of a political party in the traditional sense in order to bring about revolution. Syndicalists generally conceive of their task as building organisation in industry either through federating and coordinating pre-existing unions, setting up independent revolutionary unions, or otherwise strengthening the working class’ level of economically-based organisation.

This would then allow them to wage class war using primarily economic weapons such as the strike, and to eventually use general strikes and the seizure of the means of production by force if necessary to effect collectivisation. It’s a common misconception that anarchists, syndicalists, and particularly anarcho-syndicalists, reject political struggle per se, and think that revolution will somehow come about through the economistic development of trade union consciousness.

Rocker, who is often credited as the major anarcho-syndicalist theorist, said: “If Anarcho-Syndicalism nevertheless rejects the participation in the present national parliaments, it is not because they have no sympathy with political struggles in general, but because its adherents are of the opinion that this form of activity is the very weakest and most helpless form of the political struggle for the workers…  Their method is that of direct action in both the economic and political struggle of the time. By direct action they mean every method of the immediate struggle by the workers against economic and political oppression. ”

Rocker goes on to talk about just a few methods of direct action, but makes it clear there are more. The tactic that best represents the relation between economics and politics is probably the social strike; this a strike undertaken with the interests of the whole community in mind, which may include demands such as the lowering of food prices or rent, the provision of services and welfare through employers’ acknowledgement of a “social responsibility”, etc. Similarly, the general strike was used as a weapon by the Chartists in their campaign for enfranchisement – this would presumably be a form of ‘social general strike’.

So that’s a potted history of anarchist theory – there’s a lot more I could go into but I obviously don’t have the time. I hope it’s dispelled a few myths about anarchism: that anarchists don’t have any economic analysis or that they merely piggy-back on Marxism’s in a way that demonstrates a lack of theoretical completeness; that anarchists are idealists, don’t recognise the importance of class struggle, or don’t base themselves in the working class; that anarchists have commonly advocated unrealistic spontaneity or that their strategic and tactical understanding can be reduced to wishful thinking; that anarchists are opposed to organisation; and so forth.

It’s a common misconception on the part of anarchists that Marxists all want to take state power, in their own name and for their own nefarious ends, introducing something akin to the USSR. This is, of course, totally false – take, for instance, the International Communist Group, who say “the revolutionary dictatorship of our class will abolish the state”. On the other hand, it’s a common misconception on the part of Marxists that anarchists all want to live an individualistic utopian existence of utter freedom. This is just as false – Bakunin talks about “the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic” as “the system of Anarchism.”

So how do I think we should conceptualise the relationship between Marxism and anarchism? Well, I think that there is probably a wider gap between the extremes of those calling themselves Marxists than there is between the average materialist anarchist and the average Trotskyist. We need to pay attention to what people actually think, concretely and specifically, rather than what language they use to describe their ideas. I’d suggest that the types of anarchism I’ve discussed are probably best understood as contributions to the Marxist tradition – historically, philosophically, economically, etc. Obviously though, I’d also go so far as to say that at certain historical periods anarchists have been ahead of more orthodox or mainstream Marxists and that this contribution has been a vital factor in driving Marxism forward.

Marxism

Marxism and anarchism obviously have a lot in common – they’re both theories that are against all forms of oppression and inequality, and they both aim to create a stateless and classless society in the long run. I think that the Marxist understanding of class society and the state are key to understanding the world around us. They are a theoretical focus that provides us with a guide to action; we can learn things about how to deal with them from the way we analyse and critique them. The first question we should ask is: “what are the origins and effects of oppression?” The history of human society has more or less been a list of oppression in varying different forms. Even today we are still surrounded by inequality – why is this, and why is it allowed to go on when it could be addressed so easily? So many people live below the poverty line while a relatively small number of people own vast fortunes that could easily provide for these people’s needs. Why isn’t this done?

The first antagonism was between man and nature. Human beings are poorly adapted to their environment – we can’t fly, we don’t have poisonous stings, etc. On the other hand, we are dependent on nature for our survival, since it ultimately provides our food, shelter, clothing, and so on. This is the first law of society – that we have to struggle against nature to fulfil our needs. We are materially conditioned by nature, not born free; the idea of people being totally “free” in a state of nature is a myth, because they can never be free from the demands of survival. This leads to a struggle to improve the forces of production in order to improve the conditions of existence.

How did the first state arise? Initially there was no need for a state, no state apparatus. Society was, however, divided into different groups such as tribes; these groups competed against each other in order to control resources, using trade, violence, intimidation, and so on. The struggle was both over nature’s bounty and over the subjugation of others’ labour power in the form of slavery. Often people ask about the nature of the link between this slavery and the establishment of state machinery – did classes come first and necessitate the creation of a state, or did the state come first and facilitate the subjugation of minorities into a different class? This isn’t really important. What matters is that when you strip power of its economic basis it becomes devoid of meaning, it becomes literally incomprehensible. What is the meaning of power free from exploitation of labour, control of resources, etc? Oppressing others for the sake of it is meaningless.

It follows from this that the state is not just an arbitrary evil that we can do away with once we realise its nature. It performs a certain social function – serving class interests – and it preserves the prevailing form of class rule. Marxists think that the proletarian state works in the same way – it defends the revolution by suppressing other classes. Even some anarchists would agree with this in a sense. So why did the state maintain itself historically in situations like in the USSR? What was the economic basis for this?

The USSR couldn’t produce sufficiently. The state can only be done away with once work is no longer a burden, which is brought about by the shortening of the work day due to increased employment and productivity. This allows people to take part in running their own affairs and therefore does away with the need for such centralisation and specialisation of administering society. The division of labour between mental and manual can’t just be wished away, it’s based on class inequality. Kropotkin feared that intellectuals and technicians would form a new ruling class – the division of labour provided the basis for a further class divide. Marxists, on the other hand, would identify this as a symptom of class society instead; it can be done away with as class divides are done away with.

Workers’ control failed in Russia because of the objective conditions, not because of the divide between mental and manual labour creating a new class. The workers weren’t capable of organising production properly and began to collectively exploit each other by charging high prices to other factories for their products. So is federalism or localism an answer, as a way of reducing the complexity of organising production (since each collective would only need to deal with local affairs, etc)? No, in fact the opposite. Russian workers couldn’t handle production because Russia was small and isolated – they needed to rely on a world division of labour.

[Something I didn’t really catch about medieval communes]

Potential exists to raise the standard of living internationally because of capitalism’s development of the productive forces and the process of globalisation. Today we are living in an epoch of revolution – there have been waves of unrest across the Middle East, inspired perhaps by the UK and Greece and so on. We are looking at an emerging world fightback.

Discussion.

T: You spoke about anarchism and Marxism being loose categorisations in terms of theory – I was wondering whether you could talk about the differences in praxis?

D: I think the role of party leadership is to popularise, preserve and develop theory and ideas. This is Marx did. Between the crisis periods he didn’t slog away inside pre-existing parties, he concentrated on developing theory that workers could draw on when they began to organise as a class. The chief problem of any revolutionary party is that there isn’t a revolution most of the time.

D2: The relationship of activists/revolutionaries to the working class is crucial. The other day I saw UKUncut walking through Boots, making a load of noise and so on… They alienated the workers there – I heard the workers complaining about them – and they didn’t really achieve anything. I would say to them that I agree with their aims, but I think they’d achieve a lot more if they went about it by speaking to the workers, making sure that they understand the situation, and encouraging and helping them to organise, because ultimately they’re the ones with the power in this situation. I think there’s a real divide between this – I think it’s called propaganda of the deed – kind of tactic, and the ideas of unionisation, organisation, etc.

L: I think it goes to show how loosely people use the terms these days that UKUncut could be called anarchists, I mean, they’re just not. The term propaganda of the deed comes from the sort of individual terrorism that some anarchists carried out at the end of the 19th century, but even at that time there were other anarchists who were in the International and organising in unions and so on. It’s an outdated idea – nobody really believes in it as a strategy any more – and it doesn’t reflect the greater part of the history of anarchism. It’s not something that has really been endorsed anarchists in the 20th century onwards.

D: This kind of individualism in tactics is based on objective factors like low levels of class struggle; it’s not something that inevitably stems from any theory, and it’s a pitfall that’s common to many theories, so you have groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany or the Brigate Rosse in Italy who were ostensibly Marxist groups that followed the same kind of individualistic, conspiratorial terrorist tactics rather than class struggle.  People respond to the objective circumstances they find themselves in and it’s often tempting to think that there is some kind of short-cut to revolution or class-consciousness when you’re in a lull period.

D2: You’re right about the term ‘anarchism’ losing its hard edge. I think maybe a more accurate term to describe these groups would be ‘autonomist’? I just worry that there’s a kind of logical escalation from these sort of publicity stunt tactics to terrorism and violence; they might think “oh well we did this and it didn’t work, so maybe we should try something more extreme, something that’s going to have a more direct effect or get more attention”.

T: I think the problem with trying to forego a party is that it puts the onus on the individual to do everything themselves – if you’re not in an organisation you have to try to educate yourself and so on. And maybe there’s an extent to which people who aren’t in parties treat the whole movement as a party of sorts, so instead of developing ideas and bouncing them off members of the same group, they throw them out to the movement as a whole, and so on…

X: What do people think about the election of Ed Miliband with the unions’ support? Does this provide some kind of possibility for change – I mean, he’s not been very militant so far but maybe knowing that he’s relying on the unions’ backing will motivate him to action.

H: If Ed Miliband was going to do anything, I think he would have done it by now, to be honest. I mean, he’s pretty shit.

X: I was just wondering whether maybe the economic situation made him more timid than he might otherwise be, it’s a difficult situation to be in as a leader.

H: Well, if anything the economic situation gives him more leeway, it should allow him to be more confident because everyone’s so pissed off with the tories.

D2: We have to understand the election of Ed Miliband is part of a dialectical process. He represents a move away from Blairism; the Blairites were literally weeping when it was announced that he had won the election, because they know that it represented a change of direction to some extent. If we keep applying pressure to them then we can force people in positions of leadership to step up to the plate.

D: We shouldn’t be too interested in the personality traits of this or that leader. As Marxists we base ourselves in the working class and the movement, not the figurehead that represents it in Parliament. The election of Ed does demonstrate the strength of the grassroots movement in Labour though – the unions could effectively control Labour if they wanted to, but they’re not exercising that power in a militant way and they won’t do unless their members push them to. Sadly there was no real left candidate in the election – that would have been John McDonnell, but the bureaucracy prevented him from standing – so we’ve got to put demands on the leaders to push them in that direction. Ed should have supported the student demos and he should not just march with us on the 26th but should be at the head of the march, leading it.

M: We shouldn’t underestimate the influence a mass movement can have on the leadership. Look at Chavez, he started off as (D: a follower of Tony Blair)… Yeah, but the movement pushed him to the left.

Y: As Marxists, why are we even talking about change through democratic means? Why are we even discussing the Labour Party, they’re not Marxist, they’re not Socialist and they won’t deliver Socialism. That’s not how it works, we believe in revolution, right?

A: We’re not talking about Labour getting into power to represent us, we’re talking about using Labour to build a mass movement. They are a mass organisation that we can intervene in as part of building the movement for that revolution.

Y: But why Labour? Surely there are better mass organisations?

T: There’s obviously lots of debate over the issue of Labour between Marxists, but ultimately parliament isn’t negligible. The Italian Communist Party for instance came out of the reformist Italian Socialist Party… There is potential to build something better out of it.

A: What better basis is there? I don’t see one. I mean, you can start to ask why should we still be based in the working class – some people influenced by Marxism did this, like Foucault and the Frankfurt School – but if you think the working class are the revolutionary agent then you need to base yourself in its mass organisations.

Y: But I think our key aim is to dispel false consciousness. The most important thing we can do is to make people aware of the extent of exploitation and oppression. They don’t realise how exploited they are, and they don’t realise the limitations of the Labour Party and so on. I worry that this sort of thing just reinforces these illusions.

L: Well, on the point of the Italian Communist Party and so on – building revolutionary parties out of reformist ones – they weren’t built in a party like Labour, and neither were the KPD. They aimed to pull people out of the reformist parties to build a mass movement outside them; that’s not what most socialists do with Labour. They try to fight through it and turn it into something it’s not.

D2: The only other mass party that has been to the left of Labour is the Communist Party, and their membership has fallen massively. Labour is the natural party of the working class. It’s just ultra-leftist and sectarian to try to set up a new party outside of the existing mass party of the class.

L: But wasn’t that exactly what the Third International did? And what about Die Linke in Germany? They’ve been successful following this tactic. I think there is a danger of perpetuating illusions in Labour by remaining in there long-term.

T: We shouldn’t concentrate on the snail’s-pace progress in Labour. We should look to students’ unions and trade unions. It’s dangerous to refuse to work through parliament, because people do actually have a lot of illusions in the real world. They look to parliament, they want to be represented in there. We have to work with people as they are but try to get them out of Labour in the long term.

D: Marx, interestingly, said that the working class could come to power through parliament in Britain. It’s not about putting pressure on the leaders to do this or do that; it’s about building a labour movement. There is no other organisation that can play the same role. How do you build a new mass party? It won’t be us here in this room that do it – it will be the working class. We should participate in the struggle through Labour to gain the ear of the working class. I disagree with the person that spoke before about our task being to dispel false consciousness; the working class don’t suffer from false consciousness, they know that politicians don’t do anything to help them, they know their job is shit and their boss is better off than them for no good reason. They just think that the existing structures serve them better compared to any other option they can see right now. There isn’t real mass participation in Labour, but this is just reflective of the low ebb of class struggle in general. There’s also no real participation in the unions for instance.

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Filed under History, Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

Should we be calling for a general strike?

by Edd Mustill

At the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) conference a few weeks ago, one of the most interesting debates was around whether or not we should, at this point, call for a general strike in Britain as part of a strategy for defeating cuts. It was the first time in a long time that I changed my mind numerous times during the course of a political discussion. I ended up abstaining (cop-out, I know).

The idea of a general strike is being pushed strongly by Workers’ Power and the Socialist Workers’ Party, and less so by the Socialist Party. The cuts are a general attack on the working class that require a general response, which, so the argument goes, logically leads us to conclude that a call for a general strike is necessarily the correct call to be making.

There have been one or two general strikes in British history; the 1926 strike is indisputable, some say the Chartist “Sacred Month” in 1842 constituted a general strike as well. On other occasions, general strikes have been threatened or nearly materialised, such as in 1919 or 1972.

To drop a dead Russian into my article… Trotsky said that “a general strike, particularly in the old capitalist countries, requires a painstaking Marxist account of all the concrete circumstances.” What is needed to make the slogan of a general strike any less empty than raising the slogan “revolution now”?

A few months ago Charlie Kimber (now National Secretary of the SWP) argued in Socialist Worker that the demand for a general strike is made possible because the rhetoric of trade union leaders shifts leftwards. We can start talking about it when they do, or at least when they talk about the fact that they’re not talking about it. Apparently the need for a general strike is implicitly raised by the union leaders themselves. Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party (SP) puts across a similar argument, saying that the TUC’s pledge for co-ordinated strike action has “unconsciously raised” within the working class the idea of a general strike.

According to these arguments, the ability of the workers’ movement to actually carry out a successful general strike is not a major factor. For some in the SWP the fact that people are, apparently, really angry, is enough proof that a general strike would be pulled off if one were called.

But what sort of general strike are people usually talking about? Most calls for a general strike focus on a 24-hour stoppage, such as has frequently occurred in Greece recently. Hannah Sell has pointed out that numerous 24-hour general strikes in countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy have failed to defeat austerity policies.

1926 - the right model?

The idea of such “warning strikes” is to increase the confidence of the working class. According to the SP, they are to form part of a programme where everything acts as a springboard to something else. So a chain of action develops which looks something like: local protests > a national march > a one-day public sector strike > a one-day general strike > an indefinite revolutionary general strike(?)

The first round of industrial action here, a public sector general strike, could effectively happen legally by different unions balloting separately and co-ordinating their strikes to take place on the same day.

There is a problem though. A one-day “general strike” is not really a general strike. Would this sort of “general strike” pose the question of power in the way that all classical general strikes supposedly do? No. No-one will seriously question where power lies in society just because the TUC, for example, tells them not to go into work on May 1st, especially if they know they will be back in work on May 2nd.

Socialist Worker on September 28th defined a general strike as “when all workers walk out on the same day,” but actually it is much more than that. Real general strikes are called as open ended actions, but cannot last indefinitely (people need to eat). So they raise the question of how to organise society in a different way, without the bosses. This began to happen, for example, in France in 1968. For a revolutionary general strike to be successful, the workers’ movement needs to be capable of rising to these challenges.

We are in a situation where even the more militant unions are finding it very difficult to win clear-cut victories. Witness the RMT in the London Underground dispute over job losses, and the FBU’s long-term battle over changes to shift patterns, for example.

What would a clear-cut victory for a One Day General Strike be? The government abandons its cuts programme? The government collapses? Or we have a successful staging post from which to launch the next, Two Day, General Strike…?

Spain 2010 - set piece?

For unions to be in a position to win serious disputes, we need seriously organised rank-and-file networks that can direct these disputes. Raising a general strike in the manner popular on the British left can lead to the faintly ridiculous spectacle of someone like NUS president Aaron Porter signing a petition in favour of a general strike, on the same demonstration that he is chased off by a militant section of his own union’s membership.

Set-piece strikes will not roll back the government’s programme or force their resignation. Jeremy Drinkall of Workers’ Power (WP) argues: “The events in Tunisia show how to bring down a government – just the threat of a general strike sent dictator Ben Ali fleeing the country. That’s why the Con Dems are so keen to avoid one.”

Perhaps in Tunisia the threat of a general strike toppled Ben Ali, but in Egypt the reality of what was effectively a general strike last week failed to bring down Mubarak.

In the last few days, the Egyptian working class has muscled its way even into the Western media explicitly, because strike action appears to be spreading. We could reasonably suggest that a sort of mass strike process has been going on in Egypt since the Mahalla textile strike in 2006.

A century ago Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet, The Mass Strike, attempting to analyse the strike wave in Russia leading up to the 1905 revolution, and the prospects for something similar occurring elsewhere. In it she makes a distinction (at least in English translations) between the general strike as an event and the mass strike as a process. A general strike refers to an all-grades strike in a particular industry, or a general stoppage in a geographical area like a town or city.

The mass strike can last months or years, it can contain within it victories and defeats. It can explode in one industry even as it dies down in another. Within it, political and economic questions are inseparable:

“It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now it is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing set of phenomena.”

Sounds remarkably like Egypt to me. So, simplifying things a lot, we can see the effectiveness of the mass strike in Egypt as against the impotence of the set-piece “general strike” in Greece.

I’m not necessarily saying take the general strike off the table altogether. At NCAFC conference, WP comrades made the very reasonable point that if we as revolutionaries don’t raise it, it won’t get raised. But we always have a responsibility to explain properly what our slogans mean. What sort of thing do we want to see? A series of show-piece strikes, or the situation that Luxemburg describes above?

Let’s take a small scale example. The BA cabin crew dispute has taken the form of a series of set-piece strikes, which are now fighting only for the restoration of working conditions that were taken away as a result of the first strikes. It has lasted well over a year, with large gaps between action, rather than escalation. An alternative proposal would be, for example, to broaden the strike out across the industry, where there is a tradition of unofficial action among some baggage handlers (see the Gate Gourmet dispute of 2005). We need to build rank-and-file networks, and popularise militant forms of industrial action like this. These are the sorts of actions that can create the conditions in which a real general strike could be successful.

It is worth mentioning that any action in Britain even remotely like what has happened in Egypt – political strikes, wildcat strikes, work-ins – would be illegal because of our anti-union laws, so were it to take place it would take on a political character because it would bring the working class directly up against bourgeois law. Egypt shows that fighting political and economic battles cannot be separated. A lazy call for a legalistic general strike risks artificially separating them, not to mention making the TUC General Council and union leaderships into something they are not (i.e. radical).

I’m still willing to be convinced that there are ways in which the general strike slogan could be raised right now that make sense. But I think we should prioritise rank-and-file organisation, and the broadening out of disputes at the grassroots through militant action, before we hold our breath for the TUC to deliver the goods.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Industrial Relations, Political Strategy

The February Theses

by Anne Archist


Newsnight Economics Editor Paul Mason (allegedly a former member of Workers’ Power, though I don’t know if this is true or not) has written 20 theses on the current situation, particularly regarding anti-austerity dissent in Europe and the revolutionary upsurge in the Middle East. He specifically asked for comments and replies on twitter, so I’m here to remind him to be careful what he wishes for…

 

1. At the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future…

Is there? “It all” here refers not only to the student protests in this country, and the wider anti-cuts movement, but also anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere in Europe and even the rebellions spreading across the Middle East. Can we put all of these down to the “graduate with no future”? I think not – my experience of the anti-cuts movement in this country is that it is largely composed of activists, students and trade unionists. Only some of these students have “no future” (yes, some people who do have secure futures are capable of dissent too!) and only some of them are in higher education.

2. …with access to social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and eg Yfrog so they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyrrany [sic].

True to an extent, but it is important to bear in mind the descriptive and potentially momentary nature of this. The fact that people are using the internet a lot doesn’t imply that people ought to rely on it; there is massive potential for these sorts of coordination to be hampered or prevented altogether if it becomes really necessary (apparently the USA are working on an internet kill switch that would allow the president to unplug the country on a whim).

3. Therefore truth moves faster than lies, and propaganda becomes flammable.

There’s no reason to assume that truth moves faster than lies through social networks!

4. They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies: Labourism, Islamism, Fianna Fail Catholicism etc… in fact hermetic ideologies of all forms are rejected.

Au contraire – membership has risen for Labour and far left groups, and I’ve been in contact with sixth formers keen to learn more about Marxism and Anarchism, for instance.

5. Women very numerous as the backbone of movements. After twenty years of modernised labour markets and higher-education access the “archetypal” protest leader, organizer, facilitator, spokesperson now is an educated young woman.

To put this down to the development of modernised markets undermines the hard work that has been done throughout the history of social struggles to improve the lot of women within them. Would “modernised labour markets and higher education access” have ensured the same result without the input of socialist-feminists taking male leaders to task, the active and conscious selection of women as spokespersons for campaigns, the use of women’s caucuses in trade unions, etc? Most groups purposely and self-consciously deal with gender issues within the campaign, and to put the observation of women organisers/etc down to economic factors is to do a political disservice to these groups and to the hard work of women within them. Women had to fight for the position they are now beginning to occupy, and it’s by no means assured or entirely equal!

6. Horizontalism has become endemic because technology makes it easy: it kills vertical hierarchies spontaneously, whereas before – and the quintessential experience of the 20th century – was the killing of dissent within movements, the channeling of movements and their bureaucratisaton.

Perhaps Mason means something specific by ‘vertical’ hierarchies (are there such things as horizontal hierarchies?), but hierarchies of sorts certainly persist in the face of technology. They may be different kinds of hierarchies (those who have a smartphone vs those who don’t), and they may in fact be even less appealing ones. This is the sort of point made well in the classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness. At least a democratic hierarchy allows us to choose and change who is at the top; emergent accidental hierarchies may be decided by factors like income, etc.

7. Memes: “A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.” (Wikipedia) – so what happens is that ideas arise, are very quickly “market tested” and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory (see Richard Dawkins, 1976) seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes.

I don’t have anything to add here…

8. They all seem to know each other: not only is the network more powerful than the hierarchy – but the ad-hoc network has become easier to form. So if you “follow” somebody from the UCL occupation on Twitter, as I have done, you can easily run into a radical blogger from Egypt, or a lecturer in peaceful resistance in California who mainly does work on Burma so then there are the Burmese tweets to follow. During the early 20th century people would ride hanging on the undersides of train carriages across borders just to make links like these.

Again, though, this idea of ‘networks’ can be dangerous if it leads to the formation of cabals that are unaccountable, personality cults, etc.

9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess [sic] – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

People get unhappy when the economy turns to shit – nothing too surprising there.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I’m not entirely sure what this is about – how is it “compounded”? Maybe I just don’t understand what’s being said here.

11.To amplify: I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

But a revolution of poor lawyers produces a social order organised for rich lawyers – the French revolution was an essentially bourgeois revolution, this is no surprise. Unrest in the Middle East, China, etc may lead to a revolution of poor lawyers that throws off political repression and so forth (and this is by no means inevitable). More economically developed, liberal-democratic states are already organised for rich lawyers, however…

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

Well, this in itself is making very few claims – in what sense is the intelligentsia predominant? What has the relationship changed from and to? I’m not convinced that the claims it does make are true – the intelligentsia seems to have little to do with anything when it comes to the politics of the street that are emerging.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he [sic] old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

This is a pedantic point, but it’s not a loss of fear if they’re young radicals that weren’t involved in social movements like this before, because they never had occasion to fear in the first place. Taking a day off from protesting (and occupying) is not as easy as it may seem – certainly you won’t get people threatening to break your legs, but you might reasonably expect peer pressure, guilt, and so forth. On the other hand, it may be true that the struggle these days is being fought in a more ‘tactical’ hit-and-run fashion. The question remains whether this is merely a transitory phenomenon or whether we are in a new era of struggle; soon we should be seeing a lot more industrial action, and we’ll see how comfortable people feel from having a day off then…

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

This isn’t to do with the changed nature of class relations within the movement or anything of the sort. The core activists of most campaigns do tend to overlap, and they always have done historically. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Socialist groups in the 60s in the USA would have had a place in the civil rights/black power struggle, the women’s liberation movement, the unions, community groups, the anti-vietnam protests, etc.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.

This is an interesting observation from an academic point of view, but I doubt as to whether it tells us much about the nature of the movements we’re examining.

16.There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change. Egypt is proving to be a worked example of this: though it is highly likely things will spiral out of control, post Mubarak – as in all the colour revolutons [sic] – the dire warnings of the US right that this will lead to Islamism are a “meme” that has not taken off. In fact you could make an interesting study of how the meme starts, blossoms and fades away over the space of 12 days. To be clear: I am not saying they are wrong – only that the fear of an Islamist takeover in Egypt has not been strong enough to swing the US presidency or the media behind Mubarak.

I don’t have anything to add here either.

17. It is – with international pressure and some powerful NGOs – possible to bring down a repressive government without having to spend years in the jungle as a guerilla, or years in the urban underground: instead the oppositional youth – both in the west in repressive regimes like Tunisia/Egypt, and above all in China – live in a virtual undergrowth online and through digital comms networks. The internet is not key here – it is for example the things people swap by text message, the music they swap with each other etc: the hidden meanings in graffiti, street art etc which those in authority fail to spot.

This is romanticising protest aesthetics as if they were a source of political power in themselves – to paraphrase Mason, “they use graffiti” is missing the point of what they use it for. Furthermore, it’s always been possible to bring down a government without spending years in the jungle – “international pressure and some powerful NGOs” is not the way to do it, however. The Russian February Revolution was the work of the women proletarians and the product of bread queues. International pressure generally comes to nought unless it consists of foreign interference; Egyptians don’t want the US to replace Mubarak with a CIA-approved puppet, they want to force him out and decide what follows.

18. People have a better understanding of power. The activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri, but the ideas therein have become mimetic: young people believe the issues are no longer class and economics but simply power: they are clever to the point of expertise in knowing how to mess up hierarchies and see the various “revolutions” in their own lives as part of an “exodus” from oppression, not – as previous generations did – as a “diversion into the personal”. While Foucault could tell Gilles Deleuze: “We had to wait until the nineteenth century before we began to understand the nature of exploitation, and to this day, we have yet to fully comprehend the nature of power”,- that’s probably changed.

Again, this is part of the Laurie Penny narrative according to which young people have no truck with old-fashioned notions that social workers and billionaire property tycoons have conflicting class interests. This isn’t representative of the consciousness I encounter in the movement, however.

19. As the algebraic sum of all these factors it feels like the protest “meme” that is sweeping the world – if that premise is indeed true – is profoundly less radical on economics than the one that swept the world in the 1910s and 1920s; they don’t seek a total overturn: they seek a moderation of excesses. However on politics the common theme is the dissolution of centralized power and the demand for “autonomy” and personal freedom in addition to formal democracy and an end to corrupt, family based power-elites.

The task of socialists, of course, will be to reverse this, as it has always been!

20. Technology has – in many ways, from the contraceptive pill to the iPod, the blog and the CCTV camera – expanded the space and power of the individual.

Expanded the space of the individual? At this point Mason seems to be getting a little too keen on Foucault. It’s interesting that he mentions CCTV cameras as if they expand the power of protesters; this thesis forgets that for every blog there is now a tank, for every smartphone there is now a wiretap, for every soundsystem there is now a Forward Intelligence Team.

 

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