Monday, December 8, 2014

Part of the union (1995)

Book Review from the April 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Radical Aristocrats: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s by Ken Fuller (Lawrence & Wishart.)

One of the myths about the Socialist Party, perpetuated mainly by historians sympathetic to the Labour Party or the now-defunct Communist Party, is that we are opposed to trade union activity (see review of Ernie Roberts's book p21). But the fact is that there are few unions, in the London area at least, whose history would not have to include, if only in a footnote, a reference to the role played by Socialist Party members. 

The London busworkers are a case in point. SPGB members played so prominent a role here that in this fascinating and readable book even a sympathiser of the defunct Communist Party such as Ken Fuller has had to face what for him must have been an unpalatable fact.

In 1913 previously existing unions for busmen and cabdrivers (who were in a similar position through having to hold a licence to do their jobs) amalgamated to found the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers (LPU). This was a militant union whose constitution allowed the members a large degree of control over policy (officials and organisers were subject to regular election and re-election, and all members had a right to attend the meetings of the union's Executive Committee). A number of SPGB members were active in this union, including the E. Fairbrother mentioned by Fuller of pages 39 and 40 (he had been a founder member of the SPGB) and George Bellingham, who served on the LPU  executive for a while and was also one of its organisers till it amalgamated with the other unions in 1921 to form the Transport and General Workers Union (Socialist Standard, June 1938).

The London busworkers, as the title of Fuller's book indicates, were a relatively privileged group within the working class, enjoying more job security and higher wages than most other workers. The TGWU's policy was to bring its other members, tramworkers for instance, up to their level, even if tis meant not using the busworkers' full strength to get the best deal possible for busworkers.

Under these circumstances tensions developed between the busworkers and the TGWU leadership. A Busmen's Rank and File Movement (RFM) was formed in 1932, mainly on the initiative of Communist Party members (whose anti-"reformist"-union line had been changed by Moscow earlier that year); mainly but not exclusively since the man who was elected chairman was Frank Snelling, described by Fuller as "a member of the anti-Communist Socialist Party of Great Britain"  (p. 111).

Within the TGWU the London busmen had an elected Central Bus Committee. In the 1933 elections the RFM assumed control of this body. Snelling became the chairman, a post he occupied until after the 1937 Coronation bus strike, which was defeated largely due to the strikers being stabbed in the back by the TGWU leader Ernest Bevin.

The result was the demise of the RFM and, in 1938, the formation of a breakaway union, the National Passenger Workers Union, by some of the non-CP members of the old RFM and Central Bus Commitee (CP members were under instructions to stay in the TGWU). Snelling became one of the officials of this union which survived until after the war when it was squeezed out by a closed-shop agreement between the TGWU and the London Passenger Transport Board.

The NPWU revived the old LPU practice of electing officials and organisers - in contrast to the TGWU where they were, and still are, appointed from above - and adopted a non-political stance (i.e. didn't support the Labour Party). In 1943 it was to be denounced by the Communist Party as "a hotbed of every kind of anti-working class politics - SPGB members (who believe the fight for Socialism is hopeless till every worker is a 'Marxist'), ILP-ers, Trotskyists" (Socialist Standard, August 1943).

The existence of this breakaway union posed a bit of a dilemma for the Socialist Party and in June 1938 a meeting was organised by our Lewisham branch in which two busworker members, Snelling and Bill Waters (who had chosen to stay in the TGWU) debated the issue. The debate was attended by many local busworkers and was reported in the local press (Fuller, pages 166-7). The position eventually adopted was that SPGB members were left to decide for themselves which particular union they joined.

Both Snelling and Waters reappear after the war. Snelling as the national organiser of another breakway from the TGWU, the National Union of Port Workers (Socialist Standard, October 1946) and Waters as a founding member of an unofficial busworkers' journal The Platform that appeared between 1950 and 1967 (see Fuller, page 199). Waters was also a regular writer in the Socialist Standard on busworkers' problems (his February 1949 article is quoted by Fuller).

The Platform was edited, under the name George Moore, by George Renshaw who before the war had been the London Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party but who by this time had left the CP; Waters, in fact, went on record as stating that Renshaw was a sympathiser of the Socialist Party (Socialist Standard, June 1968).
Adam Buick

Confusion About Class (2013)

From the February 2013 issue of the Socialist Standard
Gorän Therborn, Professor of Sociology at Cambridge University, is known for his writings on 'post-Marxism,' notably his 1980 book, The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology, where he reflects on the writings of Louis Althusser, and then describes the 'ideological constitution of classes' and the relationships between ideology, political power and social change.
In his 25-page essay, Class in the 21st Century (New Left Review 78, Nov/Dec 2012), Therborn describes the twentieth century as ‘clearly the age of the working class,’ stating that ‘working people who lacked property became a major and sustained political force’ but ‘the working-class century no doubt ended in defeat, disillusion and disenchantment, it also left behind enduring achievements’.
From a Marxist perspective, this survey of the twentieth century is open to criticism. Primarily, the fact remains that the capitalist class in the West were never removed from political power. In Russia, China, and Cuba, a Leninist 'vanguard' party bureaucratic class operated a state capitalist system of production and the working class continued to have their surplus value stolen from them. Reforms in the West to capitalism in the 20th century that could be said to have benefited the working class like the introduction of the Welfare State in Britain are also open to question. So-called 'achievements' like full employment, economic policies in the Keynesian mould adopted after 1945, state capitalist 'nationalisations' of major industries, legislation to protect collective bargaining and industrial action have all been reversed after world capitalist production went into crisis in the 1970s and the global capitalist class adopted a more unfettered form of capitalism in order to shore up profits.
Therborn discusses the working class and political power in the context of capitalist society but never acknowledges the need for the ‘overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, and conquest of political power by the proletariat’. There is no talk of abolishing capitalism, ending the wages system and transforming world capitalist society into global socialism.
He writes of the ‘Social Democratic labour movement’, ‘the reformist wing of 20th century labour’, ‘modern, centre-left social democracy’ and ‘Communist parties or their descendants’ as the sources of the 'achievements' of the past and claims that they have left ‘progressive legacies’ for the 21st century. Therborn feels ‘whatever may be said about the ruthless authoritarianism of its leaders, the Communist movement produced an extraordinary number of self-sacrificing, dedicated militants in every corner of the world. Their adulation of Stalin or Mao was wrong-headed, but very often they were the best - sometimes the only – friends of the poor and the downtrodden. This everyday commitment demands the respect of all progressives’.
That's as may be, but Therborn admires leftist leaders and organisations such as Castro, Chavez, and ‘Morales and his coca growers with a spine of disciplined cadres’. He appears committed to a belief in leftist political organisation and leadership as formulated by Lenin. Therborn writes that ‘the October Revolution provided a model of political organisation’. Lenin wrote ‘that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness’, and argued that class-consciousness had to be brought to the working class ‘from without’ by professional revolutionaries organised as a vanguard leading the working class to ‘socialism’. Therborn does not speak of socialism; it is always about reforms in the interests of the working class in capitalism. One is again reminded of Lenin who argued that 'socialism' is a transitional society between capitalism and full communism in which ‘there still remains the need for a state’ and a money economy. Lenin emphasised the concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ which would become the 'dictatorship of the Party over the proletariat'. According to Lenin: ‘It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois right, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!’ The theory of ‘socialism’ as a transitional society is an apology for state capitalism.
Therborn writes that ‘the persistence of Communist-led states after 1989-91 means that a socialist option remains open to some degree’ which clearly establishes that Therborn believes China under Mao was a 'socialist' society.
Leftist and Leninist political parties and governments have not abolished capitalism, do not promote socialism and do not agree that ‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’. Therborn believes that in Latin America ‘socialism is on the agenda’ with ‘left-of-centre governments’ but Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela are 'state capitalist' economies.
Therborn sees the 21st century as heralding ‘the return of class as an ever-more powerful determinant of inequality,’ but Marxists argue that class never went away. He points correctly to the development of capitalism in China, India and Brazil as being of importance and that ‘the emergence of a powerful movement based on this proletariat would have a tremendous impact,’ although he concludes that a ‘political transformation spearheaded by working-class parties seems even more improbable – whether they are reformist or revolutionary in character’. But Therborn does say that ‘For a new left to have true global significance, deeper roots will have to be dug in Asia.’
Therborn says ‘the liberal media looks to an ascendant middle class as the vanguard of democratic reform’. He believes that the 21st century will be ‘the age of the global middle class. The workers of the last century are banished from memory; a project of universal emancipation led by the proletariat is replaced by universal aspiration to middle-class status’.  Progress, he thinks ‘is likely to be driven by the hopes and resentments of the middle class’ and ‘workers and the popular classes in all their diversity – the plebeians, rather than the proletariat’. Here, Therborn appears to be using definitions of social class from Ancient Rome: the plebeians were a class below the patrician landowners but above the 'capite censi' of the proletariat, and so they are akin to a modern 'middle class' or petty bourgeoisie. But later Therborn confusingly distinguishes between ‘the new middle class, or the plebeian masses’. He sees that in ‘a confrontation between the rich and the rest, with the middle class playing an important role among the latter’.
Marxists argue that the 'middle class' is part of the proletariat, the working class, ‘who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live’. The 'middle class' are excluded from ownership of the means of production, sell their mental power, and so form part of the working class too.
The world in the 21st century needs global socialism which is ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.
Steve Clayton

Material World: Dying to Migrate (2014)

The Material World Column from the December 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Migrants, hoping to find a better life, face death during various stages of their journey, and with destination in sight, face the possibility of being picked up by border guards, detained indefinitely and in most cases deported back to their homeland. Those lucky enough to avoid death or capture then enter into a world of uncertainty, where they are likely to work in low-wage labour, forming an under-class of Europe and North America. People who have risked everything to escape the dire life that they were born into will not be dissuaded by the threat of death or detention and deportation.

It is only going to get worse as the effects of climate change are already impacting upon the growing migration trends. 2.8 million people are struggling to feed themselves in a drought-prone area shared by Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, according to the UN World Food Programme. The Red Cross said some 571,710 people were affected by the drought in Honduras and that '...families are selling their belongings and livestock to secure food for survival, while others are migrating to escape the effects of the drought.' Researchers believe drought, amplified by deforestation, was a key factor in the collapse of the Mayan empire around 950 C.E.

When the UK Government announced they will not support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, responded:
‘Governments that do not support the search and rescue efforts have reduced themselves to the same level as the smugglers. They are preying on the precariousness of the migrants and asylum seekers, robbing them of their dignity and playing with their lives.'
He went on to say: 'Migrants are human beings and just like the rest of us they too have rights. They too have the right to live and thrive. To bank on the rise in the number of dead migrants to act as deterrence for future migrants and asylum seekers is appalling. It’s like saying, let them die because this is a good deterrence.'

He cast doubt upon its deterrence 'Sealing international borders is impossible, and migrants will continue arriving despite all efforts to stop them, at a terrible cost in lives and suffering.' (, 31 October).

This view has been supported by Italy’s Admiral Filippo Foffi who dismissed the idea that having a rescue system ‘Mare Nostrum’ for migrants in place has created a pull factor: 'If someone is talking about pull factors, he simply doesn’t know what he is speaking about,' he said, adding that that many refugees’ journeys start more than three months before they make it to the shores of Libya and northern Africa with the majority enduring hardships that meant an estimated half die before reaching the coast (Guardian, 29 October).

America’s war on illegal immigration with its higher, longer fences and intensified border patrol surveillance merely provides business for the people smugglers. Peter Andreas in his 2001 study, 'Border Games', pointed out that reliance on human traffickers emerged only in response to the US government’s border build-up in the 1990s, and not a product of porous borders where people would just walk across on their own and not bother with procuring the services of a smuggler. In 2005, Phil Marshall and Susu Thatunon on the basis of their extensive study of anti-trafficking experience in the six-nation SE-Asia region explained 'tighter border controls exacerbate trafficking...' (Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered).

No matter their reason for leaving the country of their birth, as an asylum seeker or as an economic refugee, record numbers are dying in this process. Yet their deaths and desperation receive muted responses from the politicians who prefer to whinge about how migrants are scrounging from the welfare state, despite the fact that the vast majority of people move home to work and not claim benefits.

For millennia there were no borders, nor countries or nationalities - people wandered freely over the planet. Who are we, each one of us, if not a mongrel species of mixed ethnicities? It's long past time to recognise our common heritage globally and work for a world shared in common. The rich, including African oligarchs, can as always live anywhere they choose (Guardian, 26 October).