Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Leaders and the Led by Rosa Luxemburg (1937)

From the January 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard

(Taken from an article in the Neue Zeit, year XII (1903-1904), No. 2.)

Goethe's “odious majority,” composed of several vigorous spell-binders, a few scoundrels ready to adapt themselves to any cause or programme, a number of weak souls ever-ready to be assimilated, and the great mass “trotting behind without having the least idea what it wants—the characterisation that the bourgeois pen-pushers would like to fasten to the Socialist mass—is no more or less than the classic formula for “majorities” of the parties of the bourgeoisie.

In all the class struggles of the past, waged in the interest of minorities, and in which, as Marx said, “development was brought about in opposition to the great mass of the people,” an essential condition of action was the ignorance of the mass concerning the real aim, the material content and the limits of the movement. This difference between the “leaders” and the “led ” was the specific historical basis underlying the “directing role” assumed by the “educated bourgeoisie.” A natural complement to the role played by the bourgeois “ leaders” was the part of the ”followers” left to the mass.

But already, in 1845, Marx noted that, “with the increasing depth of historic action grows the volume of the mass engaged in this action.” The class struggle waged by the proletariat is the "deepest” of all historic actions that have taken place up to now. It takes in all the lower sections of the people. For the first time since the beginning of class society it corresponds to the interests of the people itself.

That is why the understanding by the mass of its tasks and instruments is an indispensable condition for Socialist revolutionary action—just as formerly the ignorance of the mass was an indispensable condition for the revolutionary action of the ruling classes.

As a result, the difference between “leaders” and the "majority trotting along behind” is abolished (in the Socialist movement). The relation between the mass and the leaders is destroyed. The only function left to the supposed "guides” of the social-democracy is that of explaining to the mass the historic mission of the latter. The authority and influence of such “leaders” grows in proportion to the work of education of this kind accomplished by them. Their prestige and influence increases only in the measure that they, the so-called leaders, destroy the condition that was formerly the basis for every function of leaders: the blindness of the mass. Their influence grows in the measure that they strip themselves of their rôle as leaders, in the measure that they make the mass self-directing and they themselves become no more than the executive organs of the self-conscious action of the mass.

Undoubtedly, the transformation of the mass into a sure, conscious, lucid “self-leader”—the fusion of science and the working-class dreamt of by Lassalle—can only be a dialectic process, as the working-class movement absorbs uninterruptedly new proletarian elements as well as fugitives from other sections of society.

Nevertheless, such is and such will be the dominant tendency of the Socialist movement: the abolition of the relation that is the historic basis of all class domination.

(Translated by “ G.” and published in the International Review, September-October, 1936.)

Is politics a racket? (1957)

A Short Story from the September 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

He assures me with expansive worldliness that he is not interested in politics, and continues to instruct me that “. . .  it’s a dirty business . . .  a racket!” So he is not interested in what my dictionary tells me is “the science of government” With great temerity I inquire whether or not he casts his vote at elections. Yes, he votes at elections. Why? Well, according to him, there is a principle involved: “. . . The right to vote! Lose that and where will you be? ” He launches into a diatribe about Hitlers and Stalins, and tells me about totalitarianism, finishing, as he began, with: “Lose the right to vote, and where will you be? ”

In order to ascertain where we will be if we lose the right to vote, I wish to know where we are now: this I convey to him.

His rhetoric overwhelms me, and his knowledge of history . . .! With calculated erudition he turns the pages of the past, telling graphically of the struggles of our forbears to win for us (“the common people") the right to choose our own form of government; he reminds me that “universal suffrage” is the strongest weapon in the arsenal of “the people.” He leaves no gainsaying the truth of his instruction—truly have our forefathers won for us out of their blood, sweat and tears a great thing: the right to choose for ourselves, in defiance of any oligarchy, how we shall run our world.

He rests after this, and I take advantage of his silence to ask a few more questions. I confess first that he has proven his point, but that in so doing raises the gravest suspicion that we, “the common people,” are ill-deserving the prize our forefathers paid so dearly for; that in fact we are downright unworthy of our democratic heritage, using it as we do. Did not he himself declare politics to be “a racket”? What names should we apply to ourselves, we who permit the bright path to freedom, so hardly won for us by those who went before, to become the toll-road of racketeers?

Misuse of the Vote
We have the power to control our own destinies, and how have we used this power? Have we not poverty —oh yes. organised and catalogued in the bureaus of a “welfare state,” but still poverty? Do we not still fear the boss will sack us, and us with next year's wages mortgaged for this year’s necessities? Are we oblivious to the fact that we possess the measure of full employment; we do only because we make weapons of the most staggering potency with which to destroy one another? Is this the way we control our own destinies?

We have partly succeeded in relegating Nature to the role of the servant; invented the most complicated devices to ease our toils; developed the most intricate electronic marvels capable of working out formulae at the press of a button that would normally require weeks of concentration by an army of mathematicians. We have conquered the gods and devils of our forefathers; are capable of providing a plethora of all the things needed by humanity; we CAN control our destinies, and yet we permit an archaic condition of social relationships to maintain conditions of want, misery and destruction. We are asked to fight totalitarianism which denies us the right to vote and choose our way of life: yet, given that right, we allow this terrible economic despotism to prevail!

He looks dejected. Lamely he agrees that this is the terrible truth—in fact, he assures me it is things being as I claim they are that forces on him the conviction that politics are a swindle: he had always been aware that the Tories and the Liberals could do nothing about this sort of thing, but the Labour Party ...? They had PLEDGED themselves to destroy these evils, yet when they got the political reins the old Band Wagon just acquired new faces and rumbled on as before.

They don’t love the Tories
It would appear, according to him, that there is just nothing we can do about it. With a knowledge of events that belies his alleged disinterest he illustrates for me the dismal failure of the Labour Party in their efforts to change the lot of the worker. Interpreting a gesture from me as an attempt to interject on behalf of that Party, he anticipates with: "And don’t tell me they didn’t get a chance; the people may not be very politically conscious, but they are not so stupid as not to know when they ARE well off—if they were why’d they sack the Labour Party? Don’t tell me it was out of sentiment for the Tories!”

This, of course, is logic with a vengeance; no hairsplitting, nor playing with dubious statistics: the workers withdrew their allegiance from the Labour Party at the polls, in spite of the fact that that Party was allegedly the Party of Peace, Prosperity and Plenty. Either Labour had not delivered the goods, or the mass of the people had gone mad. On reflection it does seem peculiar— rather like the organised workers consciously and voluntarily cutting their living standards for the poor rich!

I have not told him yet that I do not support the Labour Party, and I am very happy that I do not, for I am a poor hand at political apologetics!

And he knows about the Communist Party too. As he indicts he seems to postulate my support for that which is indicted: accusingly he asks me why he should struggle to bring the British "Commies" to power. (Not knowing aught of political alchemy, I am incapable of giving, in the language of serious discussion, a reply.) He speaks of prison-type social security and the probable fate of bell-ringing shop stewards under a Soviet system.

And now again this pessimism pervades his talk: the utter futility of politics, the uselessness of trying. The sombre philosophy of disinterest—and despair.
I inquire whether or not society can afford the luxury of disinterest. If he was a fire-fighter whose fire-fighting activities had been unsuccessful in the past, could he morally justify this as a reason for refusing to deal with his next fire? Would not the unsuccessful fireman, troubled by his lack of success, demand of himself a complete re-approachment to the whole question of HIS UNDERSTANDING of the nature of fire and, accordingly, of the most successful method of combating it?

Angrily he accuses me of considering him an utter fool. I am insinuating, he accuses, that he does not understand that the poverty of the overwhelming mass of the people, the soul-destroying insecurity with which we are faced, and the horror of stock-piled H-bombs arise from the existence in the world of a system of economic organisation that has long since outlived its usefulness- Capitalism.

Social Ownership
Hopefully I suggest that if Capitalism, with its private ownership of the machinery of wealth production is the basic cause of our problems, then is not the solution to be found in a system where these means of production are owned by society as a whole? No. I do not mean nationalisation. I reply to the unspoken criticism that shows in his eyes; I mean exactly what the word “owned” means, when not used in its political context by Labour or Communist politicians. Owned by the people in a way similar to that in which the family unit own a chair or the food in the cupboard—to be used by all in accordance with their self-determined needs, and abused by none. Poverty would be eliminated, for in such a society the keystone of production would be the satisfaction of human needs. Wages would cease to exist, for the old capitalist relationship of owner buying the labour-power of workers would no longer obtain: and since there would be no competition between rival groups of trade-seeking capitalists for markets, trade routes, sources of raw materials or cheap labour, workers would no longer be called upon to indulge mass murder on the battlefields of the world, and our H-bombs could take their rightful place (rendered duly harmless) in the museums of the world, with the other barbarous weapons of class-society.

Has he not said that the right to vote is the right to choose for ourselves the manner in which we shall run our world? It is exactly that right! We have wrung from the hands of the Master class a blank cheque on which we can write: "Socialism” and achieve a sane world! What stays our hands? Apathy, ignorance, and the confusion created by reformist political parties, like the Labour and Communist Parties, who tell us we should devote our lives to struggling for the apple, when we can win the orchard with less trouble!

*      *      *

He is a cautious man and is not yet convinced that the way of the Socialist Party is the only way forward for the working class; but now he is asking questions! We welcome questions, for we are not a Party of sheep being led into the pens of confusion and disillusionment by "leaders.” We welcome questions because we are confident that if our fellow-workers face up to the reality of existence under Capitalism, made even more terrible today by the threat of atomic war, and "plague” us with questions, they, too, will join us in the struggle and bring nearer the dawn of Socialism.
               Richard Montague




Inquest on the last Labour government (1972)

Book Review from the July 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

Labour and Inequality. Sixteen Fabian essays. Edited by Peter Townsend and Nicholas Bosanquet. Hardback £3.50, Paperback £2.20.

There have been four periods of Labour government in this country—1923-4, 1929-31, 1945-51, and 1964-70.

Each one has ended with internal dissension and disappointment, and rejection by the electorate, and each has been followed by inquests to find out what went wrong and proposals to do better next time. For some groups in the Labour Party the explanation is always the simple one that they had the wrong leader. This book does not belong in that category. It is a detailed examination by sixteen “experts”, often a highly complicated technical examination, of Labour government policies in different fields, the effects of those policies and in general their failure to produce the results expected. The essays are grouped under three main headings: The Social Services; Inequality in Income, Wealth and Status; and Human Rights and Social Planning.

The editors admit that this book will not bring much joy to members of the Labour Party:-
In many ways this is a critical book. While noting the achievements, most of the authors have failed to find evidence of marked changes in the direction of fulfilling socialist objectives. Their analyses present a gloomy picture. They confirm the inability of the government to use its power on behalf of the weaker members of the community.
Of course when the authors write of the Labour Party’s “socialist objectives” they do not at all mean the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism. What they have in mind is broadly the promise to eliminate extreme poverty and secure a greater degree of equality which featured in the Labour Party’s declaration of policy adopted forty four years ago (Labour and the New Social Order, 1918).

That 1918 declaration is of particular interest because it placed on record the Labour Party’s determination to deal with the inequality of wealth ownership. It referred to “the one-tenth of the population which owns nine-tenths of the riches of the United Kingdom”, and promised a "revolution in national finance” to remedy it. The present book examines what the last Labour government did about wealth ownership. The author is Michael Meacher, member of Parliament for Oldham West and formerly lecturer in social administration at York University and the LSE.

He quotes what he says has been a widely accepted estimate of less unequal wealth ownership, and refers to the belief that inequality is on the decline, commenting "Both assumptions are open to extreme doubt”.

He examines several calculations of wealth ownership and argues that they are seriously inaccurate because, among other reasons, they do not allow for the extensive evasion of estate duties payable on death—“Capital has not been taxed away, it has been hidden away”.

Of various methods of estimating the degree of inequality of ownership he thinks that used by the Economist is “perhaps more reliable”. This estimate, related to the year 1959-60, showed one per cent of taxpayers owning 40 per cent of total wealth, two per cent owning 55 per cent, and seven per cent owning 84 per cent. “Indeed the richest tenth of one per cent was actually found to own 13 per cent of total wealth, a sum of £7,033 millions, representing an average fortune of rather over one-third of a million each”.

While not in exactly the same form as the 1918 figures it is clear that little if any change has occurred in half a century and Meacher doubts if any change is going on now.

Two indications of the uselessness of Labour attempts to improve capitalism are mentioned in the book: male unemployment doubled under the last Labour government and in April 1970 5 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women had earnings under £15 per week.

The book quotes from a statement made in 1934 by the late Professor Tawney about “the degeneration of Socialist parties on assuming office” (by “Socialist” he of course meant Labour). He meant their failure to carry out their declared intentions. About the same time the leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, in his book The Will and the Way to Socialism, claimed that the Labour Party believed in “the abolition of classes and in an equalitarian society”. He explained clearly what he meant by equality. Under Labour government there would be “no little cottages and no large private houses. All would be reasonably well housed” and there would, for example, be no government subsidising of “luxury living for millionaires” because there would be no millionaires.

Attlee was Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, and Wilson from 1964 to 1970. Attlee’s pledge should be read in comparison with what the present authors have to say about housing and the inequality of wealth.
Edgar Hardcastle

Marx's vision of the future (1983)

From the September 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Below we print a letter published in the Belfast Sunday News in reply to an article by Belfast city councillor Paddy Devlin in his weekly column.

Over the last hundred years the ideas of Karl Marx have been distorted and confused, both by those who claim to have put his theories into practice in their police state dictatorships and by those who see visions of that old anti-Marxist, Stalin, every time they attempt to criticise the views of Marx.

It is quite understandable that most workers who live in countries which do not claim to be Marxist look at the state capitalism of the so- called “Marxist world" and conclude that if that’s liberation, then its achievement would not be worth the effort.

To dismiss Marxism on the grounds that it has been tried and failed is to misunderstand the revolutionary message of Marx which, as Paddy Devlin states correctly, is to be found in his conception of history. For Marx, history is a process in which humans actively create their own conditions, doing so, at all times, within the limitations which existing economic conditions make possible. History is not given to us, like a mystery gift from above, but is made by us. History is not simply a story of the past, but a vision of the future. All historians before Marx — and too many since — believed than humans were the subjects of history, often going under the alias of God or The Invisible Hand: Marx recognised that humanity would only be liberated when it used its ability to comprehend and design history.

The revolutionary point in Marxism is its proposition that mass human consciousness (our ability to think, plan and fashion our own behaviour) can transform society. Revolution, in the Marxist sense, as opposed to the anachronistic idea of barricade insurrection, can only be enacted by those who reject being the victims of history — the millions in the dole queues, the inhabitants of the slums, those who feel threatened by the bullet or the bomb, the wage slaves who are forced to spend most of their lives creating profits for the capitalist owners of industry: it is when such people, who constitute a majority of the world population, decide to take society and make it into their own that history becomes an active, revolutionary product.

It must be apparent that there is a fundamental difference between the revolutionary conception of history advanced by Marxists and the ideologies which dominated the so-called Marxist revolutions in Russia and China. There is a diametrical opposition between Marx’s view that working class emancipation must be the democratic act of the vast majority of workers and the view of Lenin, the architect of the Bolshevik seizure of power, whose elitist view was that it would take five hundred years for the workers to be educated to understand the need for socialism, and in the meantime it was up to leaders to create history “on the workers’ behalf’. The Leninist Left has about as much confidence in the ability of workers to determine our own futures and run our own lives as Mrs Thatcher does: they are in the leadership business, calling upon their human flock to follow' them on a mystery tour into a future which looks more and more like the present the closer you get to it.

It is its call to conscious action which makes Marxism more than an academic conception of history, to be debated by those who are lost in the study of the past. It is precisely this active, vital feature of Marx’s materialist conception of history which Paddy Devlin excludes from his explanation; to do so is like trying to analyse road transport without any reference to the existence of the drivers.

Paddy Devlin’s picture of Marxism is a mechanistic one of society automatically passing through stages — of change without changers and revolutions without revolutionaries. Is this because his enthusiasm for Marxism collapses when the need for majority working class consciousness and democratic political action becomes the inevitable practical consequence of the theoretical validity of Marxist history? Could it be that Paddy Devlin, like so many others on the Left, regards the prospect of the revolution, which he theoretically recognises the need for, as being beyond the grasp of other workers?

It is not worth taking up Paddy Devlin’s claim that "the introduction of comprehensive social services and full employment by Labour" have weakened the Marxist case; to my knowledge there has never been a Labour government which has created full employment and neither can their second-rate state charity be described as comprehensive social service.

The evidence that there is still a need for Marxism is that we are living in an age of mass social discontent.
STEVE COLEMAN 
Socialist Party of Gt. Britain

Published in the Belfast newspaper, The Sunday News on 19 June.

Party News: Trip to Belfast (1983)

From the September 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

A report on a visit to a recent weekend education conference run by the World Socialist Party of Ireland.

With only 30 minutes left in which to cover 25 miles, hopes of catching the 1500 ferry from Holyhead were fading fast. We had been travelling 6½ hours; London was 250 miles behind us. Fate had, however, dealt the same blow to our comrades travelling separately in another vehicle. The Islington delegation had missed the boat. A further departure was due at 1715 on a different shipping line, but our tickets were non-transferrable, so we were unable to sail before 0300 the following morning.

The following afternoon, just across the Northern Ireland border, a young man was hitch-hiking to Belfast; of course, we invited him to join us. He got more than a lift, since by the time we reached our destination he had been well introduced to the principles of revolutionary socialism. Having greeted our comrades in Belfast, we prepared for the first evening of the conference. The Ulster People’s College is a richly decorated Victorian house in South Belfast. It was commented that Marx might have had a “buckle in his eye” to have seen workers enter such a place without at least tipping their hats. Inside, the lecture room was dominated by a beautifully made plaque proclaiming the socialist message: One World, One People.

The opening lecture was on The Socialist Alternative, which stimulated much discussion. Disappointingly, there had been no response from about twenty Leftist organisations who had been invited to attend a Challenge to the Left held the following morning, in which a panel of speakers argued that the Left has impeded the road to socialism. Then there was a lecture given on The Materialist Conception of History. This was particularly well attended (over 40 were there), partly due to a letter we had published the week before in the local paper, the Sunday News [LINK HERE]. One of the highlights of the weekend was a stimulating lecture delivered by a Belfast member, on the socialist analysis of Irish history. There were also talks on the politics of Reformism, and the economics of the recession.

On the last day of the school, a period was set aside for general discussion. This opportunity was used to plan future activities for the Belfast Branch of the WSPI, which has now been revived after more than a decade of difficulties arising out of the violent conflicts of the city. The Socialist Party of Ireland was formed by the joining together of Belfast and Dublin socialist groups in 1950. Its name was changed to the World Socialist Party in 1958, to avoid confusion with nationalist and reformist groups mis-using the term socialist. During the sixties, the Belfast branch fought elections for the City Council and the Stormont parliament. In the early seventies the Head Office was severely damaged by a bombing and then looted and vandalised by the “security” forces. It became impossible to find suitable premises and meetings had to be held in members’ homes until recently, when the Belfast and Armagh branches of the Party reorganised and a regular meeting place has been obtained.

After the weekend conference ended, we were taken on a tour of the troubled areas of the city. Contrary to the picture received through the British media, the violence is limited on the whole to the most impoverished areas. The recession has also played its part in reducing whole districts to bleak, sparse wastelands. The only significant difference between the Catholic slums of the Falls Road and the Protestant slums of the Shankill was in the graffiti that lines their walls.

Crossing the border on our return journey, we were stopped and questioned. We explained that we stood for the abolition of wage-labour and of the profit system. A line of traffic built up behind as we argued this out, and the onlooking soldiers started to fidget impatiently with their machine-guns. The guard finally said that he was happy as he was — checking cars all day for incendiaries, with the permanent risk of being shot, and living on his meagre income.

Lunch on the boat back was appropriately run on free access; after paying £4 each customers can eat as much as they want. Obviously it had been calculated that people would not be able to eat more than £4 worth. So much for the capitalist claim that with free access people would never stop eating. Then, stopping at a telephone box just outside Bangor, we found that a pile of leaflets had been left, against the privatisation of Telecom. It was not long before a socialist response was added, establishing this as our first propaganda and information centre of the area. . . . The red sunset cast its long shadow over the Welsh mountains and we knew that wage-slavery would recommence in a few hours. Visiting our comrades in Belfast had been a brief but beneficial exercise, confirming that socialism is not a mythical beast confined to one part of the world; everywhere capitalism exists and is a breeding ground for socialism.
Ian Churchlow

A Communist Leader and the Right to Strike (1937)

From the July 1937 issue of the Socialist Standard

What appears to be an amazingly retrograde step in the history of trade-union agreements is reported in the Manchester Guardian for March 1st, 1937. In anticipation that the agreement would be referred to in Labour and Communist newspapers earlier, comment here has been deferred until now. No reference to it has appeared, or—to be pedantically correct—has been noticed.

The South Wales Miners’ Federation staged a “stay-in” strike at the pits of the Bedwas Navigation Colliery Company in order to force the company to recognise the Federation. For many years the company recognised only the Miners’ Industrial Union, an offshoot of the Nottinghamshire “Spencer Union.” After the intervention of the Mines Department, the Bedwas management agreed on a ballot, which was overwhelmingly in favour of the Federation. As a condition for agreeing to the ballot the Bedwas Company obtained from the Miners' Federation an agreement which, to put it very mildly, is unique in being the opposite of everything considered to be sound trade-union tactics.

The Manchester Guardian quotes as follows from one clause in the agreement: —
The parties signatory hereto and the workmen undertake that no restriction of effort or strike action of any kind shall take place, nor shall any stoppage of the colliery be brought about by them under any circumstances whatsoever, provided that any and every dispute which may arise is dealt with in the manner provided in the foregoing (i.e., clause 13), and that the ultimate decision is accepted and applied by the company.
The same clause says:—
It is mutually agreed that the dismissal of any workman or workmen guilty of a breach of this agreement shall not be regarded as victimisation, but as a protective measure to safeguard the colliery and the general body of workmen from the action of irresponsible individuals. Provided, however, that the question of whether a workman is guilty as alleged may be dealt with in accordance with clause 13 hereof. To this end the workmen are assured of the assistance of the colliery company in fostering complete cooperation between the employers and the workmen engaged at this colliery.
It will be seen to be full of dangerous implications, though that clause in its practical application might be modified by clause 13, which is referred to twice. We reproduce the Guardian's Labour correspondent's summary of this clause:—
COMPULSORY ARBITRATION.
Clause 13, which lays down the conciliation procedure for the pit, is also interesting. There is to be a pit committee composed only of workmen at the colliery. The duties of miners' agent under the agreement are to be undertaken by Mr. A. L. Horner. The duty is assigned to him, apparently, in an individual capacity and is not dependent on his tenure of office as president of the Miners' Federation. If a dispute occurs it must be first discussed between the workmen and the management, then by the pit committee and the manager; if still unsettled, the facts must be reported in writing to the colliery agent and the miners' agent. If the two agents fail to agree, then— still failing settlement the aforesaid miners' agent shall have the right to communicate and endeavour to settle the matter with the company’s consulting engineer or other accredited representative of the owners, and failing a satisfactory agreement the matter in dispute shall be forthwith referred to an arbitrator to be agreed on, or, failing agreement, to be appointed by a statutory body, and his decision shall be final and binding on all parties to the dispute.
Note how the last word is with an independent arbitrator, whose decision is binding on all parties. If this is not giving up the right to strike then what is! This agreement lasts until September, 1941, until which time “ there shall be no stoppage."

If agreements like this are going to be made the existence of trade unions would seem illogical. It certainly appears that the Miners' Federation thinks so. For, read this clause in the agreement:
“The Miners' Federation and the signatories hereto jointly and severally agree not to interfere with the management of this colliery directly or indirectly or to refer to it in any way in their discussions with outside parties."
Embodied in the agreement are “guarantees and assurances required by the company" which were given to it by the Miners' Federation. Under these the Federation undertakes “not to support the claim of any man not now employed at the colliery." That seems to be anticipating awkward claims for compensation from miners unable to work through sickness or injury.

Another provision in the agreement says double shifts “shall be worked when and where required by the company, and the company shall, at their own discretion, be at liberty to introduce machinery and any method of working, notwithstanding that the same may involve a change in the then existing system of working."

The important question of pay raised by either party “must be dealt with between the company and the workman." Failing agreement in that manner, the procedure is to be in accordance with the treacherous “clause 13."

This slipshod agreement, which, with great imagination, at best could be described as compromising and dangerous, which so shocked even the Liberal Manchester Guardian that it headlined it “Right to Strike Given Up," was signed by Arthur Horner, Communist President of the South Wales Miners' Federation. The howls of execration which would have gushed from the Communist Press had A. J. Cook or J. H. Thomas or E. Bevin signed away the powers of bargaining to an independent “arbitrator appointed by a statutory body," whose decision should be binding, can be well imagined. Is this an example of the Communists’ claim that they lead the day-to-day struggles of the workers to drive home their revolutionary lessons?

If it is, then it is hoped that Mr. Horner signs a few more agreements like it and gets himself signed out of trade union leadership for good.
Harry Waite


South Wales miners (1981)

Book Review from the November 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Fed by Hywell Francis and David Smith. Lawrence and Wishart. £5.50

This book is not so much “a history of the South Wales miners in the twentieth century”, as its subtitle claims, as a chronicle of the so-called Communist Party in relation to the South Wales Miners Federation (to give “the Fed” its full title) in the 1930s. To give the authors their due though, while exaggerating the role and influence of the CP and its front organisations like the Minority Movement and the National Unemployed Workers Movement, they do treat the more embarrassing episodes for them—the period when the SWMF was denounced as “social fascist”, the zig-zags of the CP at the beginning of the last war and its anti-strike stance from 1941 to 1946 in a more or less objective fashion.

The SWMF had been formed in 1898 and was part of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB). By the end of the first world war it had built itself up into a very strong position. The owners, however, were determined to regain the initiative and break the power of the union. It was their lock-out of the miners for refusing to accept a worsening of conditions (lower wages and longer hours) that led to the brief General Strike in May 1926. Betrayed by the weak-kneed leaders of the TUC, the miners heroically held out for a further seven months but in the end were forced back to work on the terms originally offered by the employers. The history of “the Fed” in the 1930s is the history of its struggle to rebuild its strength.

At the beginning it was very much an uphill fight. With unemployment among miners in South Wales at 35 per cent at the end of 1931 and at 42.6 per cent a year later, the SWMF was in a very weak bargaining position to put it mildly, but its unity was also under attack. At the end of 1926 a new “non-political” union (in fact led by Tory working-men types and encouraged by the owners) called the South Wales Miners Industrial Union had been set up and from 1929 till the end of 1931 the CP was also anti-SWMF though in South Wales they did not go so far as in Scotland, where they set up a rival “revolutionary” union (the United Mineworkers of Scotland). In Wales the CP confined itself to setting up pit “committees of action” to challenge the official SWMF Lodge committees.

The SWMIU really was the “scab-union” and the SWMF denounced it as such. Whenever the SWMF called a strike the employers called in blacklegs recruited by the MIU and then signed an agreement with them instead of the SWMF. They were able to get away with this because of the massive unemployment which existed at the time In a sense the MIU was a sort of trade union but one which, although serving the minimum interest of its members in finding them a job, was undermining the interests of the South Wales miners as a whole by selling the commodity “miners’ labour-power” too cheaply.

The high degree of trade union consciousness (nothing more) reached by the South Wales miners during this period is exemplified in the following reminiscence of Arthur Horner, the leading CP figure among the South Wales miners, who became President of the SWMF in 1936 and in 1946 General Secretary of the NUM as a whole. In becoming President of the SWMF Horner established a tradition that survives to this day—that one or other of the South Wales officials should be a CPer. In a radio broadcast on his retirement Horner reminisced:
I was selling something—labour power, and they had to buy it. I was selling a perishable commodity—it had to work or it had to die. And the coal owners couldn’t remain the coalowners unless they bought what I had to sell. That’s the real underlying purpose of 100% membership of the Union. It is to prevent the employers being able to buy in a market outside of your control. And labour power is as much a commodity as cabbages or potatoes, and very much of a resemblance to it because if it isn’t disposed of it will rot. Well, they used to fight their battle—I never depended on their goodwill. I had no social relations with them at all. I never had anything to do with them outside the meetings, and in the meetings themselves it was a very impersonal matter. And we depended on the outcome of the negotiations and that depended in its turn on the relative strengths. I never had any illusion that we’d get anything out of the owners because of kindness of heart—I knew that we’d get what we were strong enough to take.
In its campaign for 100 per cent Union membership in the 1930s the SWMF was faced with a real dilemma since the economic circumstances made it inevitable that some miners had to be unemployed. The SWMF had to decide whether to try to recruit MIU members into the SWMF or to concentrate on getting back the jobs of their members which MIU members had taken. In the end they chose the former.

The MIU had two strongholds, with 100 per cent compulsory membership imposed by the employers, Bedwas and Taff Merthyr. The SWMF tactic was to recruit members at these pits and then, when they felt they had the majority with them, threaten a strike. This was the position reached at Bedwas in 1936 (from which the SWMF had been driven out after a strike in 1933). The owners eventually agreed to negotiate but the terms agreed were very harsh, so harsh in fact that considerable embarrassment was caused to the CP. For Horner put his signature to an agreement which was virtually the same as had previously existed between the employers and the MIU, including giving up the right to strike for the period of the agreement, five years!

In addition, a ballot was to be held among Bedwas workers as to which union should represent them: in order to have a chance of winning this the SWMF had to make it clear that it was not asking for their old members to be reinstated (it was in fact selling them down the river). The SWMF won the ballot, but the controversy over the agreement, both inside and outside the SWMF, was intense. The Socialist Standard was among those who questioned Horner’s signing away of the right to strike (see “A Communist and the Right to Strike”, July 1937, and the subsequent correspondence). Horner justified the agreement on the ground that the important point was that the SWMF' had won recognition in place of the MIU and that the no-strike clause was the price that had to be paid for this important step towards 100 per cent trade unionism.

A similar agreement was signed, no strike clause and all, at Taff Merthyr in 1937—except that the MIU won the subsequent ballot, even if only by 5 votes. But by now the employers were coming round to the conclusion that maintaining an organisation like the MIU was not worth the trouble and that they would have to deal with the SWMF and them alone. The MIU merged with the SWMF in 1938-9 and disappeared from the scene. By the outbreak of the war the SWMF was back where it had been before 1926: the sole seller of the commodity miners’ labour-power in South Wales. In 1942 the employers agreed to 100 per cent union membership with automatic deduction of dues from wages, which has applied in South Wales ever since.

As, to their credit. Francis and Smith don’t attempt to hide, after supporting the war when it broke out the CP changed its line abruptly a week or so later to denouncing the war as “imperialist” . . . until the German invasion of Russia on 21 July 1941 when, overnight, the war became a “people’s war”. The SWMF called a special conference in March 1940 to discuss its attitude to the war. Two motions were before the conference: one pro-war, the other describing it as “being waged for imperialist aims and not for the defence of democracy against fascism”. The pro-war resolution was carried, but only by a 3-1 majority (1940 to 607 on a card vote). It would be nice to think that a quarter of the South Wales miners took up an anti-war position in 1940, but this vote was really only a measure of the strength of the CP in the lodges. An individual ballot would have given a much larger, probably an overwhelming, majority in favour of the war.

After July 1941 the SWMF leadership was solidly united in favour of the war which Horner even described as “the highest form of class struggle” (p. 396). In 1942 he was denouncing absenteeism, thundering that those concerned “must be dealt with ruthlessly and be treated as enemies of the miners and a menace to the country” (p. 402) and. as late as September 1945, was exhorting miners to become “Stakhanovites” (p. 431).

Despite this, and despite the fact that striking was illegal, strikes still occurred: “between September 1939 and October 1944 there were 514 stoppages, mostly of short duration, in the South Wales coalfield” (p. 398). Some men were even sent to prison in 1943 for going slow; they served their sentences despite sporadic sympathetic strikes. In 1943 at another lodge the men voted 2 to 1 to stay out on strike despite the personal intervention of Horner who “said it was the first time in twenty-five years that he had been turned down by a mass meeting” (p. 407). But the biggest war-time strike, which also spread to Scotland and Yorkshire, took place in 1944 to protest against an inadequate wage award; at one time almost the whole coalfield was out. The EC of the SWMF opposed all these strikes denouncing “pit consciousness” and “sectionalism”. No doubt these were elements in the strikes and they are indeed dangers from a trade union point of view, but they should be denounced from the point of view of the need for a more general class consciousness rather than, as was the case here, from that of the capitalist “national interest”.

On 1 January 1945 the MFGB became the National Union of Mineworkers and the SWMF its South Wales Area. When the coal mines were nationalised exactly two years later the South Wales miners shared in the general euphoria, perhaps more so because it meant the demise of the old owners (as managers of the industry, not as capitalists, it should be added, as they were generously compensated; the hated Powell Duffryn company still exists) rather than out of enthusiasm for nationalisation as such. Socialists said at the time that this was just a changeover from private to state capitalism but it was not until the 1970s that the miners’ leaders themselves began to use the term “state capitalism” in relation to the NCB (see for instance the statement on page 457 by Dai Francis—the father of one of the authors—who was General Secretary of the South Wales Area of the NUM from 1963 to 1976).

The real problem in relation to the South Wales miners is not why they should have acquired a high degree of trade union consciousness (that’s easily understandable in view of their experiences) but why so many of them should have been attracted, or rather diverted, by the myth that Stalin’s Russia was a Workers’ Paradise when it was clear even in the 1930s that this was not the case. Why were the Horners, the Paynters and the others duped in this way and eventually led to subordinate the interests of the working class to those of state capitalist Russia? Perhaps this is a measure of the extent to which the Russian Revolution put the clock back as far as the advance of socialist understanding is concerned.
Adam Buick

A Parasite on Parasites (2016)

The Cooking the Books column from the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Harry Hyams, who died in December, was one of the ‘unacceptable faces of capitalism’ in the 1970s, though the then Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath had coined the term in relation to another ruthless capitalist. Hyams’ notoriety was based on what he did with Centre Point, for a while the tallest building in London, as described by his obituary in the Times (22 December):
‘Centre Point was completed in 1966 at a cost of £5.5 million. However, within seven years and still without tenants, its value was estimated at £20 million. In an era of rapidly rising rents, it was worth more as an unoccupied asset.’
A deliberately kept empty 33 storey building in central London was seen as a provocation at a time when the television film Cathy Come Home, first broadcast in 1966, had highlighted the growing problem of homelessness.
Strictly speaking, it wasn’t the value of the building itself that went up but that of the land on which it was situated, a prime spot in central London on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. In fact, from a Marxian point of view, value is not the right word at all. Land, not being the product of human labour, has no value, only a price which depends solely on demand. The price of land is calculated as the rent it is likely to bring in over a period of 20 or 25 years, expressed as a capital sum. No doubt the construction of Centre Point cost £5.5 million but, once built, its value as a product of labour would have begun to deteriorate. The increase to £20 million reflected the demand for the spot of land Hyams monopolised.
Of course – like the price of a house you continue to live in – this was only a notional figure unless the building was actually let (or sold), as it eventually was. But where would the extra £14.5 million have come from? Some would have been due to inflation but the rest would have been pure gain, money for nothing. To get it Hyams didn’t have to do anything – didn’t have to invest any money, didn’t have to employ any workers, didn’t have to sell what they produced – just sit back and watch the law of supply and demand work in relation to a building in a prime spot.
Land monopolists are in a position to hold capitalists who want to use it to ransom, obliging them to share with them a part of the surplus value they extract from their workers. Which is what Hyams did and was the source of his gain. He was a parasite on parasites.
The clamour that ‘something should be done about it’ went up. A Tory cabinet minister denounced what Hyams was doing as an ‘incredible scandal’ and a tax on empty office buildings was imposed. This is still in force but, according to Jim Armitage, the City Editor of the London Evening Standard (21 December), has had some equally ‘scandalous’ side-effects:
‘Developers with empty blocks demolish them to avoid paying the tax. Others delay the final touches on building work to stop the vacancy clock starting. More still use their empty buildings as storage depots, moving boxes of files from one building to another every three months to satisfy the taxman properties are occupied.’
Trying to patch-up capitalism is a thankless task. No sooner is one tear repaired than another appears, often, as here, the result of the previous repair.
Centre Point is now used for housing – but only for the rich who can afford the luxury apartments it has been converted into.