Tuesday, December 26, 2023

50 Years Ago: Some Facts About the Dock Strike - Hypocritical Attitude of Labour Spokesmen (1995)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

A great deal of cant has been spoken and written about the dockers’ “unofficial" strike which ended on November 5th, but with the threat that they will come out again if the negotiations now resumed do not give them satisfaction. The line taken by the daily Press and by the spokesmen of the Labour Government has been that there can be no recognition of “unofficial” action not endorsed by the central executives of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and the other unions involved. The pious attitude of the newspapers would be more convincing if there was the slightest reason to believe that they would have given their support if the strike had been official—but experience shows that if it had they would have opposed it just the same . . .

Those who fancy that employment by the State or by a public utility corporation is the solution of the workers’ problems should think over the action of the P.L.A. when its workers came out on strike. “A notice warning Port of London permanent labourers that they would be ‘deemed to have left the service of the Authority without notice' if they did not return to work . . . was posted outside the Royal Albert Dock yesterday.” —(Daily Herald, 13th October, 1945.)

Capitalism runs true to form even if a Labour Government chooses to pretend that it is different because it now runs under different colours!

[From editorial in Socialist Standard, December 1945]

World View: The Blind Lead the Blind (1995)

From the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 16 October, the largest single gathering of black people in history took place in Washington DC. Over 400,000 mainly black males had travelled the length and breadth of the United States to throng the Mall from the Washington Memorial to Capitol Hill at the bequest of Louis Farrakhan, leader of the black separatist organisation The Nation of Islam.

The event had been widely publicised as the “Million Man March" and billed as a "Holy Day of Atonement, Reconciliation and Restoration”. In brief, African-American males—for women, Latinos and Asians had not been invited—were being called upon to apologise to their wives (68 percent of whom are single parents) for the errors of their ways, to reconcile themselves to the "fact" that black males alone are responsible for the drugs and crime that plagues their communities, and to renew their covenant with God and one another.

In his two-and-a-half-hour long speech to the crowd. Farrakhan urged those present to recognise "wrongs done" and to “make amends", to apologise for offending "against the creator", to take "personal responsibility" for their “own circumstances" and to "go home and join some church, mosque or synagogue".

Nowhere did Farrakhan make the link between drug abuse, crime, poverty and capitalism. If anything, his plea for self-atonement and for black men to admit they are their own worst enemies only confounded elsewhere the arguments of white supremacists that black men are sub-human.

Furthermore, his speech suggested that the social ills he elaborated on afflicted only black people, when, in fact, poverty and its manifestations respect no colour in the US, as many white families can be found living a slum existence at the bottom of the social ladder.

Manning Marable, writing about the "Million Man March” for the Guardian, said as much when he pointed out that "the single most important reality of American society in the 90s is the polarisation of classes, the unprecedented rise in income and profits among a small minority of American households, and the expansion of social misery, falling incomes and inequality for the majority” (16 October).

Had Farrakhan made a similar observation, and revealed that between 1980 and 1992, for instance, the real average income for the lowest 25 percent of US families fell from $12,359 to $11.530, and that during the same period the real average income for the 25 percent at the top of the social ladder rose from $78,884 to $91,369, then he would have made a statement that might have convinced a wider audience.

Farrakhan, however, was not out to confront the capitalist system. His Nation of Islam organisation actually advocates a form of “petty capitalism”. What he did do was help re-emphasise some of the prejudices that have helped keep capitalism in the ascendancy. Farrakhan, for example, is a fervent opponent of gay and lesbian rights and condemns demands by black women’s groups for full equality, social empowerment and reproductive rights. A few days prior to his "Holy Day" he even told one TV interviewer that jews were “bloodsuckers" who had exploited blacks and that Judaism was a “gutter religion”.

The "real evil" he sees as "white supremacy”, and it is as a buffer to this that he founded the Nation of Islam, a 1.5 million strong organisation that preaches a gospel of separatism and racial pride. Its ideological essence argues Marable is “black nationalism, the rejection of white institutions and multiracial alliances".

While it is perhaps true that the black American underclass “represents . . . one of the most thoroughly atomised societies that has existed”, as Francis Fukuyama states in his recent work Trust The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, such an obscene grievance will never be challenged by inward-looking solutions such as self-atonement and the establishment of a “nation within a nation", "a domestic colony within the capitalist US" (to borrow Marable's words).

The task for black males in the US is no more to enlist in some black separatist group than it is for black women to "stay at home and pray with the children", as Farrakhan suggested.

Impoverished and oppressed
The fact of the matter is that there are as many impoverished and oppressed white Americans as their black counterparts. And there is more that unites the two as exploited workers, existing as a single class, with the same basic needs and desires, than can ever divide them along racial or cultural lines.

Furthermore, contrary to Farrakhan's ideas, it is a basic socialist principle that human behaviour is determined by the social system people are conditioned to live in. Crime and drug abuse is the individual's response to a life of alienation and inequality and will only disappear when the present social system is overthrown, not when black males join "churches, mosques and synagogues".

That black people are twice as likely as white people to be unemployed in the US, and three times as likely to be on welfare, says far less than Marable’s revelation that in 1993, the top one percent of all income earners in the US had a greater combined net wealth than the bottom 95 percent (New Statesman and Society, 27 October). The latter is indeed a greater indictment on the capitalist system than the former.
John Bissett

Capitalism and the Illusion of Freedom (1995)

From the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
The right to vote may be taken for granted by many workers today but it should never be forgotten that we had to struggle for it in the past
In Britain ideas concerning freedom, liberty and democracy can be traced all back to the 17th century. Between the 1640s and 1688 the propertied classes struggled to free themselves from the economic constraints imposed upon them by an absolutist monarchy.

The English Civil War was a class war and despite the rhetoric of the leaders of the parliamentary army that they were fighting for the liberty of the individual against an unjust government their major purpose was to establish a measure of self-government for the propertied classes. It was the men of property who gained new freedoms in the 17th century . Christopher Hill states what these freedoms were and who most of them were at the expense of:
“The men of property won freedom freedom from arbitrary taxation and arbitrary arrest, freedom from religious prosecution, freedom to control the destinies of their country through their elected representatives, freedom to buy and sell. They also won freedom to evict copyholders and cottagers, to tyrannise over their villages, to hire unprotected labour in the open market ” (The Century of Restoration 1603-1714, p. 265).
The mass of the population failed to make any gains either political or economic. The Duke of Albermarle is quoted as saying that “the poorer and meaner people have not interest in the commonweal but the use of breath".

The capitalist class, their representatives and spokesmen in the 17th and 18th centuries at least made no pretence of applying liberty, freedom and the right to elect governments to the mass of the population. These rights were restricted to property-owners and a conscious link was recognised between property and the role of government. John Locke, for example, argued that the executive would forfeit its rights if it endangered the stability of property, for its very existence rested on its role to maintain property.

Glorious for some
The reforming political grouping of the late 17th and early 18th centuries was the Whigs, in opposition to the Tory ideology which argued for a monarchy standing above the law. The Whigs wanted government under the Rule of Law by a parliament consisting of Monarchy, Lords and Commons. They were not democrats and did not advocate political democracy for the mass of the population.

After the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, and the receding of the threat of an absolutist monarchy, the Whigs became less reforming. When confronted by the idea of an extension of the political franchise to the so-called lower classes the Whigs were quite clear as to who they considered had the right to decide on who formed die government: those who owned freehold property. Thus one Whig argued: “It is owned that all governments are made by man and ought to be made by those men who are owners of the territory over which the government extends. It must likewise be confessed that the FREEHOLDERS of England are the owners of the English territory, and therefore have a natural right to erect what government they please ” (Quoted in H.T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property, pp. 86- 90).

By the late 18th century', and following the French Revolution, the property-owning class showed what they thought of democratic movements. Both inside and outside parliament many favoured the imposition of repressive measures to prevent the spread of radical ideas. Several showed their contempt for ideas concerning the sovereignty of the people. Edmund Burke argued:
“The sovereignty of the people was the most false, wicked, and mischievous doctrine that ever could be preached to them . . .  The moment that equality and the sovereignty of the people was adopted as the rule of government, property would be at an end, and religion, morality and law, which grew out of property would fall with it."
The useful majority in society had a long time to wait before their struggle for democratic rights would make some progress. Until 1867 in fact, when the Reform Act added 400,000 borough voters nearly doubling the borough franchise (but women, paupers and farm labourers were still denied the vote).

Safe to extend the vote
The question is why was it at this point that the franchise was extended to a large section of the working class? The early part of the 19th century had seen militant working class agitation both industrially and politically. This period saw the Luddite risings and mass demonstrations seeking political reform, including the famous Peterloo massacre of 1819. Following several unsuccessful strikes by various groups of workers in the 1820s the idea of general unions also began to gain ground.

The failure of the 1832 Reform Act to give the working class the vote added further momentum to ideas about general militant industrial organisation. This movement culminated with the formation in 1834 of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. For Bronterre O’Brien the aim of general unions was to bring about: 
"an entire change in society—a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing order of the world. The working classes aspire to be at the top instead of at the bottom of society—or rather that there should be no top or bottom at all."
The 1830s also saw the development of the largest and most important working class political movement up till then. Chartism. However the defeat of Chartism in the 1840s signalled the incorporation of militant organisation into the mainstream labour movement which was itself being integrated into capitalist society.

Thus the 1850s saw the development of the so-called “New Model Unions”, more centralised, bureaucratic and more eager to protect their funds than to engage in militant action. By the 1860s the leaders of several of these trade unions had set themselves up at the head of the movement. This group, known as the “Junta”, sought acceptance for the trade unions into the capitalist order. In 1862 they formed the Manhood Suffrage and Vote by Ballot Association declaring: 
“Let our advocacy be firm, intelligent and persistent, not a sowing of the seeds of discord, but a promotion of the growth of union; not an exciting of class against class; but an endeavour to extend the welfare of all."
Therefore by 1867 the extension of the franchise to sections of the working class was no longer fraught with danger. In fact with fresh agitation breaking out in 1866 for parliamentary reform many members of the ruling class felt that denying the working class the franchise was providing workers with an issue to unite around. A further consideration was that granting the franchise to a section only of the working class would divide and weaken them.

Real democracy
Political democracy and the law developed from the seventeenth century according to the needs of a property and developing market economy. In other words, they developed in line with the interests of the property-owning class and had nothing to do with anything like the moral superiority of democracy over dictatorship.

The extension of the vote to the working class was not “given” but was won by years of struggle. It was conceded, even if only partially, only at a point when it would probably have been more dangerous for the ruling class to continue to deny it and at a time when large sections of the working class had been integrated into capitalist society.

Extending the vote to workers under capitalism is not the same thing as establishing real democracy. Meaningful democracy in a world where the means of producing and distributing the things we need to live are owned and controlled by a tiny minority is at best a sick joke. Real democracy under capitalism is an illusion. The limited democracy we do have can however be used as a tool to bring about a worldwide system where the Earth’s resources are owned and controlled by its inhabitants. When that goal is achieved, and only when it is achieved, can we start to talk about living in a true democracy.
Ray Carr

Letter: Actions speak louder than words (1995)

Letter to the Editors from the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

Whilst agreeing with some of your reply to Tom Paine (October Socialist Standard), I also have some rather serious reservations/questions.

I accept that a socialist majority is vital for the establishment of socialism but do you feel that a socialist majority of seats in Parliament will invoke a reaction from the ruling classes along the lines of: “Oh dear, the majority wants socialism and despite the fact that this involves the loss of our power and property we’d better go quietly"? I think not, for to assume the ruling classes will not use any means available (in the case probably violence and oppression on a colossal scale) to protect their class interests is not only extremely naive, but lethal. Whilst despising violence myself, I refuse to delude myself into thinking it will not be part and parcel of a truly revolutionary change: of course it will; in self-defence if nothing else.

Secondly, by playing bourgeois politicians at their own game and standing for election. are you not merely doing what supposedly revolutionary groups have tried in the past and failed? If we accept, as Marx stated, that bourgeois democracy is the means by which the ruling class maintains its position of dominance, then by subscribing to it we merely legitimise it and fatally compromise ourselves to a game which they are far better at playing.

Thirdly, what of the repercussions of a socialist majority in Parliament? Will we not see the seizure and control of the State machinery and, as has happened for time immemorial, the replacement of one set of leaders by another with all the coercive power of the state at their disposal? (this happens whether you claim to be a vanguard or not: I’ve spoken to SWP members who claim their party doesn’t intend to "lead” the revolution!)

Fourthly, if we also accept that the political superstructure is not really where power lies anyway, why would a socialist majority in Parliament actually facilitate in any way the coming of socialism (apart from “representing" people who should really be acting for themselves)? Do you really feel an Act of Parliament could inaugurate our socialist society?

Your reply to Tom Paine also demonstrates considerable ignorance of what is deemed the “Green Movement". To characterise green activists en masse as people who want to reopen footpaths is one of many ridiculous distortions which demonstrate this clearly. Admittedly some Green activists are naive and unclear about why environmental destruction takes place but these people should not be dismissed out of hand for this; surely they can be “educated"? Many others do perceive underlying factors and see their struggle against one manifestation of these factors as demonstrating opposition to the system in its entirety. The Direct Action movement in Britain now is not a "palliative” but a movement which scares the Establishment to its very core— and rightly so. This is your "DIY revolution": people organising themselves at grass roots level to take back control of their lives and this is the means by which socialism (and I fully agree with your definition of it) will come about: not by elite majorities in bourgeois Parliaments.

What the vast majority of those involved in Direct Action (be it anti-Roads campaigns or whatever) and progressive forms of non-exploitative production do is give an example of how people can organise together to achieve their aims in contrast to the divisive and destructive nature of capitalism. This is surely a phenomenally more potent force for convincing people of the validity and practicality, as well as vital necessity of socialism than theorising and the odd leafleting session. (The SPGB has been around since 1904; I only heard about its existence last week!)

Actions really do speak louder than words and I am disappointed that the SPGB seems to adopt a highly blinkered and reactionary (not to mention sickeningly arrogant) view of what many deem highly important developments. Interaction and exchange of ideas between socialist and Environmental groups can only serve the positive end of educating and informing both sides. Sectarianism, as has been aptly demonstrated by you, is ignorance. It is also weakness.
R. Sydney, 

Your two criticisms of us contradict each other. First, you say that the capitalist class are so powerful that they would be able to unleash violence on a colossal scale against a clear majority decision to establish socialism. On the other hand, you say that they will give in to pressure from weak grassroots groups who are not united in organisation and have not shown that they represent the majority view. Which is it, then, are they all-powerful or are they amenable to pressure from below?

Under modern industrial conditions, where the actual work involved in running both production and administration (and, for that matter, the armed forces) is entirely performed by people paid a wage or salary to do so, the ruling class is dependent for the continuation of its rule on the acceptance of this rule by the useful majority in society.

They don't rule by brute force but with the consent (unfortunately) of the majority. What maintains capitalism in existence is not the power of the armed forces at the disposal of the capitalist state, but the ideas—the pro-capitalist ideas about needing rulers, governments. countries, armies, money, wages, profits, and so on—held by the majority of the population.

This is why we say that those who want socialism should concentrate on the battle of ideas, on combating capitalist ideologies and spreading socialist ideas. In our view, this is a much more effective way of undermining capitalism than your suggestion of supporting single-issue piecemeal struggles. It hurts capitalism where it matters—in the ideas that sustain it—while what you propose isn't even effective on its own terms. When have any direct action protests ever stopped a road under construction from being built?

Once we, the useful majority, withdraw our consent to capitalist rule it cannot continue, and the question then arises: what is the best way for the socialist majority to proceed so as to ensure that the by then inevitable change-over from capitalism to socialism takes place as peaceably as possible? It is in this context that our advocacy of contesting elections and sending mandated socialist delegates into Parliament and other bodies should be seen. Incidentally, we are not absolute pacifists. If a pro-capitalist minority were to take up arms to try to resist the majority's wish to establish socialism, the majority would be fully entitled to use force against them, if necessary as a last resort

Marx (since you mention him) also supported sending socialist delegates to Parliament urging workers to convert universal suffrage "from the instrument of fraud that it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation". So, he for one saw no contradiction between analysing the democratic state as the ideal political form for capitalist class rule and urging the working class to organise to win control of it. Nor did he share your view that this would merely lead to a change of rulers rather than to a classless society.

In our view, he was right and you are wrong. It is true that all examples up to now of supposedly revolutionary groups winning control of power (whether by armed insurrection or through the ballot box) have resulted in the imposition of new sets of leaders. This is for the obvious reason that there was no majority desire to establish socialism on the part of the workers. There was no conscious effort on their part to change society—only to ameliorate the immediate problems of the day. and trusting in leaders to do it for them.

We agree with you: socialism won’t come through the action of "elite majorities in bourgeois parliaments”; it will only come through the mass democratic action of a socialist-minded majority amongst the population generally, of which the socialist majority in Parliament will be a mere reflection. But you haven't answered the question of what you think this majority, once it has come into existence, should then do.

We say it should do the obvious: use the electoral system which is the historically-evolved (partly due to pressure on the ruling class from below, incidentally) and socially-accepted means for registering what actually is the majority view and for giving that majority the political authority to put their view into practice.

Ignoring parliament would be an option, but not one that would minimise the risks of violence. But why take this risky and more roundabout about way when a more direct and less risky one exists? You tell us.

Letter: Why all this disagreement? (1995)

Letter to the Editors from the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

I read Allan Goldsmith’s report of the SWP public meeting in Chelmsford (October Socialist Standard).

In spite of years of becoming hardened to the senseless divisions among professing socialists, I am still capable of descending into a gloom of disappointment bordering on despair whenever yet another manifestation of what is the greatest strength of the capitalists is arraigned for all the world to see.

The capitalists, whose ethos is competition and conflict, display solidarity in defence of their system to the point of recruiting the working class to their cause to fight their battles for them. Professing socialists, whose ethos is co-operation and interdependence, make a virtue out of division by inflating tactical issues in displays of doctrinal infallibility.

In my article which I was privileged to have printed in the July Socialist Standard, I said:
'The achievement of socialism is the responsibility of all who take up the cause irrespective of which organisation, if any, they identify with. Socialism is no longer a luxury which can occupy our intellects in interminable arguments about strategies for achieving it to the exclusion of events unfolding around us. Socialism has become an urgent necessity. To hand over the world’s economy to the business elites to exploit for profit, by collusion or default, is a recipe for social and environmental disaster. If socialism is denied for lack of the will to unite, it will amount to a criminal act of betrayal of the working class.”
I said it to your readers and I would say the same to Tony Cliff and have often done so to SWP members.

Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that the working class came to "want and understand socialism". Can anyone really believe that the ensuing transformation could proceed with total unanimity where no differences would arise to be tested by discussion and debate, without controversy, without strongly held conflicting opinions to be resolved? Of course not. Would that be that, then? Would we say that we could not agree amongst ourselves and hand it all back? Of course not. We would have to display the will to overcome differences or disintegrate.

Human beings are not endowed with flawless strains of reason, logic and wisdom at birth. These qualities have to be learned by every generation by interaction. Doctrines of certainty produce only paralysis of thought and irrational acts by people anchored in their own obstinacy. The matter is not one of being "right” or "wrong” or of keeping faith with whatever flag you have nailed to the mast. No one is discredited by testing their beliefs or ideas and being ready to modify them by persuasion. My own belief in socialism has often been tested by a challenge to others to "talk me out of it”, and I have not yet been on the losing end of an argument with the capitalists nor ever expect to. But in engaging capitalists and professing socialists alike, there is much in the detail which advances my understanding and reinforces me in the view that with a will to achieving socialist unity, it can be done.

Subordinate issues should not overshadow the super-ordinate goal of realising socialist society. Whether Tony Cliff "tells the workers to vote Labour to beat the Tories" is irrelevant to them. They do it or not, anyway. What the "workers" find implausible is this advice being given by a party which uses as much newsprint condemning Labour's capitalism as it does attacking the Tories, yet makes no effort to present an alternative manifesto to the people by which they can register their support for socialism. As I have often been told in discussion with SWP members, it has more to do with the practical problem of installing large numbers of candidates and draining their funds and placing their capacity to publish and campaign at risk than any outright rejection of entering the electoral arena. I agree with Cliff that a socialist society is something that will not be realised until "many years in the future".

I also agree that "the Tories are the enemy” but so do the Liberal Democrats. So do we all. It is more important what defeats the Tories. Winning an election against the Conservative Party has never ushered in socialism. All the achievements of previous Labour governments this century have been either partially or wholly destroyed by Thatcher or Major. If Blair wins the next election, it will be on the basis of “giving the other lot a go" and not because the British people have changed their minds about capitalism. It will not even be a Scandinavian-style commitment to redistribution through the taxation system. The Tory Party, the "enemy", will be out of office but their ideas will prevail because their ideas will not have been defeated, only their personnel.

The defeat of capitalism can only come about by a commitment to socialism by the people. I am all for "teach, teach, teach” and Cliff shot himself in the foot by his disparaging remarks about the Socialist Party. But unless our message is presented widely and confidently by a united movement of socialists who are prepared to demonstrate the will and the maturity to rise above subordinate matters which can be discussed and debated, and focus their eyes on the super- ordinate goal of defeating capitalism, Tony Cliff will wait forever to have "socialism here and now”.

Professing socialists perpetuating a culture of competition amongst themselves contradict everything they claim to stand for by doing so. If professing socialists cannot achieve unity amongst themselves, why should anybody believe that a socialist society will be anything other than a chaotic shambles doomed to disintegration?
Peter Nielsen, 

Our differences with at least the leaders of the SWP are rather more than tactical. They see themselves as leaders, as the General Staff of the Revolution, and advocate a party organised on non-democratic lines, whereas we regard following leaders as disastrous and insist that the movement for socialism must, as a matter of principle, be thoroughly democratic both in its internal organisation and in the methods it employs. Socialism is a democratic society. Quite a different proposition from rule by a vanguard party.

The Coming General Election (1995)

Party News from the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

We are considering contesting 5 seats in the coming general election, which has to take place before April 1997. These will be in Glasgow, Edinburgh. Newcastle, Manchester and London.

This will be the first time that the Socialist Party will have contested more than two seats in a general election and will be preceded by a campaign of leafleting and contesting any local elections in the areas concerned, beginning now.

All this will of course cost money. We have estimated that we need £15,000 to mount a credible campaign in the five constituencies. At the moment we have £1,854 in our election fund. So we need another £13,000 or so.

If you want to help make the voice of socialism heard in the next election please send any contribution to: The Election Fund, 52 Clapham High St, London SW4.7UN. (Cheques and postal orders should be made payable to "The Socialist Party of Great Britain".)