Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lessons from the past and present (1982)

Editorial from the September 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

The stubbornly high level of unemployment is producing a wealth of material for the use of economic and financial "experts" in comparing the present to the last time the total of jobless workers reached such heights. Even better, for the reminiscent journalist in need of a newsline, is the fact that it happened half a century ago—in 1932, when the post-1914-18 slumps were at their peak.

These comparisons usually overlook the period in between, when there was comparatively full employment—particularly from 1945 until the mid ’60s. Those were the days when Keynesian theories were supposed to have triumphed, when the economists and politicians claimed to be able to hold unemployment at bay by such measures as varying the rate of taxation—which, they assumed, was a controlling mechanism. If any of these measures were ever criticised in detail, it was usually enough for the politicians to threaten to discard the controls, which would inexorably bring back the misery of the 30s.

Now the Keynesian policies have been shown up in all their impotence. Unemployment remains high in spite of all the economists and financial wizards can do. The recession—world wide—is immune to all the curses, cajoling and incantations of the medicine men of modern capitalism. Indeed, in their more sombre moments (which nowadays means most of the time) those same experts will admit that the outlook is for the slump to continue, even to worsen, and for unemployment to increase. Workers who are sacked when they are in their forties and fifties, we are being told, may have to compose their minds to never being employed again. Those years the experts spent with their text-books, their lecturers and their calculators have left them as innocent of an understanding of capitalism as when they started out.

But are there comparisons between the present and the 30s and if so how valid are they? What contribution can they make to an understanding of society? As we pointed out last month, it is misleading to compare just the bald figures for unemployment. This game of doctoring statistics is played by politicians of all parties in their efforts to pick up the votes of the uninformed. The game takes no account of the fact that the level of unemployment has a specially awful significance for the working class, who depend for their livelihood on the sale of their labour power. It adds to the pressure in our daily survival struggle and debilitates our efforts to defend our living standards— as the railway workers have recently experienced.

This provides one valid comparison with the past. The period after the First World War was marked by some epic working class struggles against the pressures from the employers, as the world economy slithered into recession. Many of those battles ended in defeat for the workers; they were perhaps quickly humiliated, or like the miners after the General Strike, starved into a bitter defeat. In those days, as at present, workers who were trying to defend their living standards were castigated by the gutter journalists as wreckers, idlers and subversives.

As the ruling class felt their strength. the screw was tightened still further. Workers who were barely surviving on unemployment pay had what were called their ‘benefits' (a prime example of the political misuse of language) cut. In 1982 unemployed workers have waiting for them the ‘safety net' of Supplementary Benefit, which they receive after passing through an extremely humiliating experience. One of the ‘safety nets' of the 30s was the Unemployed Assistance Board, whose representatives were liable to advise workers to lighten their poverty by selling their furniture, cutlery and so on. The 30s, like the 80s, were times of exceptionally blatant degradation for the working class.

Yet through all this the political party which openly and arrogantly proclaimed its support for capitalism maintained its popularity. The Conservatives came through the 30s strong and united, apparently entrenched in power for ever. At election time, the workers gave them a hearty vote of confidence. The Labour Party was in disarray, with many of its leaders departed into a coalition with the Tories and the Liberals. There is a similar situation now, as an influential faction in the Labour Party runs for what they hope will be the cover of the Social Democratic Party, leaving the rest to contemplate an eternity in the political junk room.

If there are comparisons which can usefully be made over the past fifty years, they can be explained by the fact that this social system does not basically change. Capitalism in the 80s is the same society as it was in the days of Baldwin and Macdonald. It is similarly anarchic. It produces the same desperate, devastating problems. Its leaders are as impotent now as they were in 1932.

The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that, unless something is done to change this state of affairs, our successors in 2032 will be making similar comparisons, and reaching the same depressing opinion. In fact, capitalism cannot change. When it produces a war, or famine, or mass unemployment, it is not behaving in a wayward fashion but exactly in character. There can be no escape from the results of the system, in 1932 or in 1982, short of abolishing capitalism itself.

That is the crucial issue, the lesson to be gained from looking back over the past half-century. At present the working class absorb a staggering amount of punishment from the workings of capitalism and they dumbly accept that this must always be. But the future is in our hands. We have the power world wide to end capitalism and all its problems. We can have a world of common ownership and free access—a world of abundance and harmonious cooperation. If there is one lesson the past fifty years has for the working class it is of the urgent need for the new social system— socialism.

Organise—without leaders (1992)

Cartoon by Peter Rigg.
From the October 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

The TUC met in Blackpool in early September amid a continuing decline in trade union membership. Membership reached a peak in 1979 when overall—TUC and non-TUC unions—it stood at 13,446,000, a density of 58 percent of the working population. Membership of unions affiliated to the TUC amounted to 11,731,399 if the electricians, who were expelled in 1988, are excluded. According to the Department of Employment Gazette (April 1992) overall membership of trade unions stood at 9,947,000 in 1990. This meant that the proportion of workers organized in unions had declined to 43.9 percent. TUC membership at the end of 1991 had declined to 7,757,000, a fall of almost 4 million compared with the 1979 figure (Labour Research, August 1992).

The point can be made that union membership tends to decline when unemployment is on the rise, as it has been in the last two years. However this will not do as an explanation for the decline in membership over the last 13 years. Unemployment has of course had a negative effect on membership in the last couple of years. However, even when unemployment was falling between 1986 and 1989 membership continued to decline. Quite clearly there are other problems such as a longer-term change in employment patterns. The areas of the economy which are witnessing a growth of employment arc those which lack a tradition of strong union organization whereas those sectors which have had that tradition are in many cases areas of declining employment. Therefore, the theory which states that union membership will grow when unemployment starts to fall again must be regarded as dubious.

Nothing from Labour
To pin hopes of a recovery on the trade union leadership is likely to lead to despair. Ever since the election of the Conservative Party in 1979, union leaders have based most of their hopes on the future election of a Labour government. When this failed in 1983 they bowed their heads in disbelief and sat back for another four years. In 1987 the Labour Party once again failed to gain a mandate to attempt to run the wages system more effectively than the Conservatives. With yet another failure this year, it might have been thought that lessons might have been learnt. Nothing of the sort. Most recently, union leaders concerned themselves with the completely irrelevant business of who would lead the Labour Party, quite possibly into a further, record-breaking, fifth defeat in a row.

What needs to be done is to rebuild trade-union organization from the base. The basis of strong trade unionism is effective local and workplace organization with active rank and file participation and direct election and control over local representatives. It seems clear that in many industries and workplaces this organization needs rebuilding whilst in others it needs establishing for the first time. From this base more effective links would need to be built between workers in different workplaces, companies and industries. Such effective organization cannot be built from the top downwards but needs to be established by workers themselves. Effective trade-union organization has to be based on workers self-organization: a self-organization based on the understanding that the interests of employers as buyers of labour power and workers as the sellers of that commodity are antagonistic.

Quite clearly a leadership with strong links with a party which aims at running capitalism and which all too often puts forward the view that the interests of employees and employers are identical cannot be relied upon to build industrial organisations based on working-class interests. This policy of class collaboration reached its disgusting height at this year's TUC when the Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry was invited to address the delegates. The CBI Director-General certainly had a better notion of the interests of his class than most union leaders, calling as he did for lower wage increases.

As usual with capitalism the class who produce all the wealth and receive in return only enough to keep us in working order have to bear the brunt of the downturn in the capitalist economy. We have to suffer for the shortcomings of their system. Whilst socialists might have several disagreements with the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill he [has], at least, had the guts and common sense to lead his members out of the hall when the representative of the class enemy began his speech. This policy of so-called “Social Partnership” must be rigorously opposed by all trade unionists with any understanding of the class nature of present-day world-wide society.

The policy of some unions of seeking to build their organizations by selling themselves to employers on the basis of how friendly they are to the aims of those employers can receive nothing but hostility. The sole purpose of a union is to organize workers to defend and promote their interests, not to increase their numerical strength by selling themselves to employers on the basis of no-strike deals, selling hard-won workers’ rights down the river or any other acts of class collaboration.

Workers need a political party to build a democratic movement designed to oppose and end a system based on the exploitation of the majority by the minority. Likewise, we need a strong industrial movement to defend ourselves so long as the system of capitalism remains. The socialist message to workers who may despair at the state of working class organisation at the present time echoes that of the IWW activist Joe Hill "Don’t mourn, organize”.
Ray Carr

A Few Words on "Mine" and "Thine." (1922)

From the April 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many years ago, many thousands of years ago, when a man was hungry he took what he required and nobody interfered. Travellers' records are full of strange accounts of the native who, when on a long journey, walks into any hut met on the way, takes his fill from the pot on the fire, and takes himself off without anyone (except the civilised traveller) questioning his right to do so.

To-day, in any civilised country, if a hungry man takes what he requires (takes and holds!) he will be thrown into prison for taking what does not belong to him.

What a long and tortuous period of development lies between these two social stages! And yet how simple and natural and reasonable it appears to take and eat when one is hungry.

Why does the wielder of the baton stand between the hungry man and the food he requires? Because the hungry man would take what is not his to take—ah! there’s the rub!

The problem that would puzzle a savage is—Why does food, one of man’s principal requirements, become somebody’s property; or why do things in general belong to particular sets of people, as, for example, ease and luxury to the masters, work and poverty to the workers? Why do mine and thine play such important parts in present-day affairs?

When a worker chances to put such questions he is belaboured with ponderous statements about foreign trade, supply and demand, wages of abstinence, cost of production, and hundreds of other things which he is solemnly assured are far above his capacity to understand and must be left to be worked out and settled by fat-headed highbrows whose sole aim in life is to attend to the well-being of the worker.

And yet it is really all very simple at the bottom. Thousands of Johns and Micks and Sams and Fritzs are all toiling in mines and factories, on the railways and on the seas, to obtain, fashion, and transport the things man requires in order to live. But these obtainers, fashioners, and transporters must not take the smallest fraction of their product, but must pass over all they produce to a set of idlers. This set of idlers only return to the producers what will keep some of the latter alive, fit to work, and reproduce their kind. Why? Because many, many years ago the forerunners of the present set of idlers obtained, by various means, the right to privately own the land and practically all that is on and in the land —in a word, private ownership of the means of production. And this latter state of affairs still exists because the average worker accepts it as something divinely given or a law of nature

Science, though aided with microscope and telescope, has been unable to find any divine law-giver or any room for his operations. Nature is bountiful and gives to no individual the right to privately monopolise anything. Man builds up these rights and man can abolish them.

The idle class are able to monopolise the wealth produced by the millions of toilers because the toilers accept as eternal the manmade laws of mine and thine.

Just as the air is free to all, so will the products of man’s toil be free to all when the producer wishes it, as the means to accomplish this wish are at hand.

Delve deeply into this matter, fellow-worker; do not leave it to your self-appointed guides and guardians. It is your problem, and in its solution lies your social salvation.