Monday, September 12, 2016

Strikes: the Socialist Viewpoint (1978)

From the January 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Because the Christmas holidays compel us to go to press early with this issue, the above articles were written at the beginning of December.

The Firemen

The Firemen’s strike which started in November provides an outstanding example of how capitalism regards the working class. The firemen, who had never gone on strike before, had a long-standing grievance over pay. Their demand was for a 30 per cent. increase. The Government’s response was that it would not agree to any rise of more than 10 per cent, in the “public sector” of employment; although rises in industry go above this figure, and though wages are now running substantially behind prices.

From the beginning of the strike, the principal question raised was the moral one: were not the strikers acting without conscience towards their fellow men? Firemen were repeatedly asked by radio and television interviewers to envisage children and old people in blazing buildings. Soldiers were hastily organized to use military fire-fighting equipment. When deaths did take place in fires, they were reported on the front pages of the papers.

This humane aspect is readily taken up as a weapon by the capitalist class and its government. Nurses, teachers, doctors and other workers who perform vital services always have put in front of them the consequences if they strike. The argument must be (and is) heeded; but it would sound better if it were not connected with our rulers’ desire for cheapness. And if they themselves put other people’s lives before their own profit and security. An illustrative comparison is the decision of governments not to “give in” to ransom-demanding hi-jackers, i.e. their preparedness to let any plane-load of people be killed rather than to suffer a political disadvantage.

Who has put lives at risk in the firemen’s strike: the firemen—or is it the Government? Callaghan’s stated concern was that one concession would pave the way for others and undermine the "pay policy.” The unstated part was that this could lead to the Labour Party losing political power. While this consideration over-rules the merits of the firemen’s case, it should be pointed out that it is not “life” in general that is jeopardized by the situation: it is working-class life. The fire-prone areas are industrial districts and close-packed housing in Glasgow, East London, etc., not where the well-to-do have their residences. The latter can, in any case, retire to their cottages in the country where the part-time fire brigades are outside the dispute.

All workers should see the cynicism of the ruling class in this matter. As employees, they have to struggle against pressure on their living standards; as the working class at large, they are the victims of every “situation” and crisis in capitalism—and then told it is their greed and lack of moral fibre that is to blame.
Robert Barltrop

Bitter end at Grunwick

The Grunwick strike was called off after more than a year of agitation because the strike committee decided "that there is no point in further mass picketing, and there is little hope of any other tactics bringing victory” (The Times, 29th November 1977). “Victory” meant reinstatement of the eighty strikers and union recognition in the Grunwick factory.

Thus ends a sad episode in working-class struggles. Its history was described in last month’s Socialist Standard; it is to be hoped that some lessons at least will be learned from it. The Times report said: “The strikers feel that the union is not on their side.” It would be better put that the union mismanaged the whole thing from the start, and ended having spent (according to the Financial Times, 8th November 1977) approximately a quarter of a million pounds of funds to no purpose.

In front of everything else, strikes practically never achieve their objectives when they are prolonged. Effective action is short and sharp; since the aim is to disable the employer, the most effective strike of all is the one which never takes place, i.e. the strikers’ demand is met because the employer is anxious that production shall not be held up. If this is unpredictable, the unions should (as Marx advised them to) test the situation. But when employers show that they are prepared to resist indefinitely, the unions should recognize that they have virtually no hope of winning. Grunwick demonstrates this.

Second, the strike must be united. A ballot of all the members or employees should be the condition for its taking place, and also a ballot on returning to work. Only a section of the Grunwick workers took part in the dispute, and the basis of the strike was weakened correspondingly. It was hoped that workers in other unions could be persuaded to cut off services such as electricity and postal deliveries (post office workers did so for a time). This again should be more than a hope. It should rest on a voted-upon decision by the other unions to act in sympathy, and should take into account the possibility of action by the government.

The performances of Labour MPs and left demonstrators, striving to make political capital out of the Grunwick dispute, were wholly discreditable. They distorted the issues, alienated public sympathy, and contributed to the eventual demoralization which an unsuccessful prolonged strike produces. We sympathize with the strikers whose action began as a revolt against the contemptible Grunwick employer Ward. They may have learned things about trade-union organization, and about wage-labour and capital.
Robert Barltrop

Seeing Red (1990)

Book Review from the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Seeing Red—Being Green. The Life and Times of a Southern Rebel. By Denis Hill. Iconoclast Press. £8.95.

This is a disappointing book. The advance publicity suggested it would be arguing a case for socialists supporting the Green Party, but it turns out to be a wordy (nearly 600 pages) autobiography of a former member of the Communist Party (left 1969) and Secretary of Brighton Trades Council (1960-1974) who, sadly, expresses views that can only be described as racist.

At one point Hill does write: “I do not myself think that we can achieve a truly equal and just society until we have abolished the wage-system altogether. This implies the abolition of money itself, for it is the existence of these token vouchers which distorts everyone's thoughts and values". But this is marred, indeed completely negated, by a passage in the following paragraph about the need to form “a classless national community . . . based on the original Anglo-Saxon/Celtic stock" and references to “our country’s racial stock” having been diluted by mass immigration and turned into a “hybrid mixture of non-European races". Hill now supports the Green Party but we can't believe that such views will be any more acceptable to them than they are to us.
Adam Buick

Against apartheid (1990)

Book Review from the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Subverting Apartheid: Education, Information and Culture under Emergency Rule. By Jim Corrigall, Elaine Unterhalter and Gillian Slovo. International Defence & Aid Fund for Southern Africa, 1990. £2.

In a world of objectionable regimes South Africa is in the forefront of those states in which the blatant repression of the majority population is systematically pursued. Any publication that aims to present the facts about South Africa necessarily involves a catalogue of horror. Subverting Apartheid by a group of anti-apartheid militants is no exception to this rule.

It examines the effects on the media, education and culture of Emergency Rule introduced in June 1986 and only recently relaxed and provides detailed evidence of the extent to which the apartheid regime attempted to justify and maintain its position at whatever cost to the majority. The period of Emergency Rule magnified the measures that the state was prepared to undertake in an already repressive regime This study is largely descriptive in presenting information about repression in South Africa even if it was written before the release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC, but it also pinpoints the failure of the state apparatus to stifle unrest and resistance.

The other concern of the study is to draw attention to those groups and individuals pursuing what it calls "the goal of national liberation, creation of a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa". The attempt to suppress what the Pretoria government viewed as revolutionary movements by a counter-revolutionary strategy did not succeed:
In spite of inflicting thousands of deaths and detaining and arresting tens of thousands, it was clear that the forces of democratic resistance were not crushed or demobilised, but adapted to the conditions of extreme repression.
It is this failure to subvert resistance that is a positive aspect of a period and place in history often associated with the purely negative. It enables the reader to find some relief from the evidence of over 5.000 deaths since 1984, of the 40,000 people who were detained without trial, and of the host of regulations restricting the activities of anyone who sought to oppose apartheid.

There is a tremendous resilience which adapts to such nightmare conditions and perpetuates the struggle against repression even in areas specifically targeted by the total might of the state apparatus. Given the restrictions imposed on informa

tion emerging from South africa, this study provides valuable evidence of what actually took place. It also helps counter some of the propaganda of the South African Department of Information whose budget for 1988-89 was R31,600,000.

Questions can, and should, be raised about the nature of the society being pursued under the guise of "national liberation", particularly as it assumes that non-racial democracy in South Africa would eradicate exploitation and oppression. What cannot be underestimated, however, is the irrepressibility, organisational abilities and adaptability of individuals and groups surviving and putting forward ideas under the most horrendous conditions. South Africa may be a byword for repression but it should also be recognised as a symbol of the resilience and resistance of the repressed.
Philip Bentley

Between the Lines: Power Play (1990)

The Between the Lines column from the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

People with not very much to do at noon each day tune into Channel 4 and watch The Parliament Programme. It used to be a bit dull, filled mainly with actionless-packed shots of the House of Lords (a yawn an hour) and talk about the exciting events taking place in the lower chamber. These days the programme is not just a bit dull, but dullness unrestrained, with lengthy recordings of the Commons at work. This "work" takes two main forms: there are the big shows where the two chief dinosaurs shout names at each other across the room, while backbenchers make animal noises: and there are the fringe shows—which is what goes on most of the time—where the chamber is as empty as the bars are full and a few unknown losers sit around trying to make the poll tax or Scottish water supplies sound interesting.

In the big shows there are set postures which regular viewers of The Parliament Programme have come to expect. There is Kinnock's effort to sound like Thatcher and Thatcher's effort to to sound like Churchill, the Speaker's effort to sound like a real man even though he has on a wig. and Jeremy Corbyn's effort to sound like Fidel Castro, even though he is a pathetic reformist twit. MPs seem greatly concerned to know what Thatcher is doing today. One day she will tell them that she is devoting every spare hour to the efficient legalised robbery of the working class. Paddy Ashdown speaks every so often to let everyone know that he is still there, dead centre, dead boring and with the deadest of prospects.

The Parliament Programme not only records these mind-numbing scenes of debates between those who support capitalism and those who support capitalism (with occasional interruptions from those who support capitalism), but it also invites the mind-numbers into the studio to analyse what they have been saying. It is like watching Neighbours and then inviting Melvyn Bragg to host a studio debate on the dramatic merits of each episode.

Let's face it: people who enter parliament on a capitalist ticket do so with the intention of re-arranging the furniture in a museum which should long ago have been demolished. What have workers to gain from listening to their political justifications for such futile game-playing? For example, on The Parliament Programme today (8 March) there was an interview with Graham Bright, a Tory MP for Luton, who is dedicating his energies to passing a reform which will make it more difficult for acid-house parties to be organised. The merits or demerits of his stupid law are of no interest to this writer; what is of interest is that here is a man who has been elected by tens of thousands of workers who naively imagined that making Mr Bright an MP would make their lives better. Far from this being the case, he seeks to conserve a social order which treats workers with contempt, while using his limited powers of oratory to waste parliamentary time complaining that the proles are dancing too much.

It used to be argued every so often that all of this parliamentary pomposity was a reflexion of the male egos dominating the Westminster gentleman's club. Now that a female presides over the show the argument is put less often. If she has proved little else. Margaret Thatcher has shown that you do not need to wear trousers to be a callous political opportunist.

Forty Minutes (BBC2. 1 March. 9.30pm) told the story of three Tory women who were trying to be nominated as candidates for the safe Conservative seat of High Peak in South Yorkshire. The good bit of the programme was that none of them won. The bad bit was watching them trying to win. Asked whether they supported capital punishment (strangling by the state) there was not the hint of a blush as one of the smiling opportunists affirmed her full support (as if there is such a thing as partial support for hanging). In the end the Tory-women hopefuls were rejected in favour of a chap who looked like a parson who had presided at too many funerals. The pro-hanging hopeful said that she would live to fight another day. Of course, the Guildford Four would not have been able to enjoy that opportunity if she had her way.
Steve Coleman

Anyone for change? (1990)

From the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

The dramatic social and political upheavals in Eastern Europe led to almost daily images of public demonstrations and popular uprisings against long-established dictatorial state regimes. Coming as it did over the Christmas period, the fall of the tyrant Ceausescu in Rumania presented the western news media with a golden opportunity to make the most of a normally slack period for hard news. We were told repeatedly that "democracy" was breaking out all over Eastern Europe; that workers there were finally tasting "freedom", and that "communism" was literally falling apart. The same newshounds were far less vocal in explaining what these terms meant, and why the changes in countries such as Rumania. Hungary. Czechoslovakia and East Germany had occurred.

The Socialist Party has a very clear and practical conception of what is meant by socialism or communism; to us, both these terms mean the same thing and have nothing whatsoever in common with what are called socialist governments, countries or states. By socialism we mean a fundamental change in the economic basis of society, that is, the way in which the members of society are organised to produce and distribute the things they need to exist. It means a world-wide social system where the entire productive and distributive resources of the planet are commonly owned, consciously controlled and democratically operated by the world community as a whole. It means a society where social wealth is produced solely to meet the needs of the community, on the basis of free and equal access by all, without money or any other medium of exchange taking place.

Class Ownership
This outline contrasts sharply with the present world social order of capitalism, which grew historically out of previous social systems and now dominates the world. Its underlying features are the class ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution by a small minority of people in all countries of the world, and the exclusion of the great majority of people from any significant ownership and control of these means. Having little or no resources at their disposal, the working class majority are forced by economic necessity to sell their working abilities to the capitalist minority in order to live. Wealth produced by the workers takes the form of commodities which are sold on a competitive market with a view to profit for the capitalists. In return for selling their labour power—which itself becomes a commodity—workers receive payment in the form of wages or salaries. However, in the process of production generally, these payments represent less than the value which the workers as a class create, and the difference between them is surplus value, which the capitalists repeatedly accumulate and which is the source of their monetary profit, realised through sales.

So capitalism is a class-divided, profit-generating system governed by impersonal market forces and not the needs of the human community. The useful, producing majority are in a subordinate position of wage slavery, whilst the useless, non-producing minority enjoy a privileged unearned income from their economic exploitation of the workers. The capitalists wield power through their control of governments, together with the legal and military might of the state machine. This apparatus ensures that, firstly, workers are legally robbed when they produce wealth and, secondly, it conditions them by force and ideological persuasion to accept these social arrangements as necessary, inevitable and. indeed, natural.

Since its formation the Socialist Party has consistently opposed the profit system, no matter how its supporters or apologists have tried to disguise it as something else. In this country and the United States of America, for example, the classic free market form of capitalism developed. with the ownership and control of resources in the hands of predominantly private shareholders holding legal property rights backed up by the state. In Russia, starting with the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, another form of capitalism came into being: the state-managed variety. This soon spread to most of Eastern Europe and as far afield as Cuba and China. The rulers of these countries, using the rhetoric of Marxism and the theories of Lenin, labelled these countries communist or socialist, but in reality they were state-capitalist systems of class monopoly and control, where the state itself was the collective employer of wage labour. A minority of top officials in these '‘communist’’ parties personified the capitalist class: they directed the production of goods and services which did not belong to the "people" but were sold within a buying and selling framework. The majority of people were excluded from access to this wealth, and like their counterparts in the ‘free" west could only buy back what their wage rations would allow. The Socialist Party is just as hostile to this arrangement of social affairs as we are to the supposedly liberal free market with which we are only too familiar.

Reforms No Solution
Because it is not primarily geared to satisfying people's needs but with producing saleable commodities, capitalism inevitably generates insoluble social problems, like starvation, homelessness and war. the latter being the outcome of competitive economic rivalry between capitalist states over trade routes, raw materials and sources of profitable investment. For the working class this means lives of relative poverty, fear, insecurity and frustration, arising out of our alienation from real social power and control over our lives.

Socialists argue that these problems cannot be reformed away, as the various conventional political parties continually advocate. Whether capitalism is run by those on the right, left or centre, the problems arise directly from production for sale and profit, and will only disappear when workers in a majority become conscious of their class interests and abolish capitalism.

It is workers who keep capitalism in being through their misguided support for its political representatives, including the many misnamed socialist and communist parties which have done so much to obscure and distort the concept of socialism. Part of the ideology of capitalism is that society cannot function without government and leaders, and that workers at election times can register their votes to put into power the political party of their choice. In the state capitalist countries, workers do not possess this much vaunted "democratic freedom" to swap their political leaders around, even though this right would still leave them in the position of being wage-slaves.

When a majority of the world's workers understand what socialism is and want it, they can organise themselves to take the necessary democratic political action to abolish the capital/wage-labour relationship and bring in common ownership of all resources, democratic control by the majority, and production solely for use in accordance with their self-defined needs.

Socialism is an exciting vision of a world freed from artificial, market-based restrictions which will allow human beings to live in peace with each other. With the problems of social living solved, we will be able to determine for ourselves the kind of relationships and lifestyles most suited to our changed conditions, relationships not imposed from above but freely chosen by ourselves.

So the real choice facing workers all over the world is not between private and state capitalism but between production for profit and production directly for need. The scale and growth of modern technological developments make socialism a practical possibility now. and not some distant utopian fantasy—the missing element is the political awareness of the majority. The real utopian fantasy is capitalism working without its inherent problems, and we therefore urge you to consider seriously the revolutionary socialist alternative which has never been tried anywhere. Join us and help to make it a reality.
Valentine McEntee

Exhibition Review: 'The Lost Boys' (2016)

Exhibition Review from the September 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
John Parr was killed on 21 August 1914 in Belgium, and was the first British soldier killed by enemy action in World War One. He was only seventeen, and presumably had lied about his age in order to enlist when he joined the Middlesex Regiment in 1912. The lower age limit for service in the British Army was nineteen, but in reality an estimated quarter of a million underage soldiers fought in the First World War. Recruiters were not always as insistent as they might have been on verifying people’s ages, especially after the war had begun, and in fact often encouraged volunteers to be less than truthful about their age.
A small but informative exhibition ‘The Lost Boys’ has been on display in the library of Manchester Metropolitan University. It does not in fact contain a vast amount of material relating to underage soldiers, though an accompanying leaflet is helpful, but features a lot of other memorabilia, and related ceramics created by students from Stoke-on-Trent and surrounding areas. Two ‘potters battalions’ were raised by a descendant of the founder of the Wedgwood company. Some ceramic figures commemorate the football matches between soldiers from the two sides on the Western Front that took place on Christmas Day 1914 during an unofficial truce.
One display case features books aimed at young people that romanticise the war. Sample titles are With Haig on the Somme and Under French’s Command (the latter authored by ‘Captain Brereton’). Four lithographic prints by Muirhead Bone, the first official British war artist, illustrate the destruction visited on many French and Belgian towns.
Nowadays the British Army’s minimum recruitment age is just sixteen, though soldiers have to be eighteen before they can serve in operations; this was changed after seventeen-year-olds had fought in the Gulf War and Kosovo. Some people have objected to such a low recruitment age, but Tim Collins, an Iraq War commander, wrote, ‘If we stopped recruiting bright 16 and 17-year-olds, we would destroy the opportunities currently afforded to these young people’ (Mail Online 19 May 2013). This means the opportunity to kill and be killed for the ruling class, just as a century ago. 
Paul Bennett