Issue 241 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Rover workers can bite back
I was made redundant eight years ago by what used to be a large engineering plant in Croydon, south London. The AEEU leadership failed to lead any kind of fightback to save our jobs. Consequently the initial trickle of redundancies finally turned into a flood, which ended with the complete decimation of the factory.
Despite being a qualified mechanical engineer, since I lost my job I have been unable to find anything but low paid, casual and temporary work. The decline in manufacturing industry and the rise of flexible working practices mean there are no other jobs available.
I have also suffered prolonged periods of unemployment and homelessness, and spent time in hospital with depression. Those of us who have become victims of the failings of the free market are blamed for our own unemployment, branded as 'workshy' and forced into Employment Zones so that the fat cats can extract further profit from us! But it is not the unemployed who lay off thousands of workers--it is the bosses who are to blame.
They stole eight years of my life because they put profit before people, but this waste was needless. I was proud to be on the massive demonstration in support of Rover workers in Birmingham on 1 April. It was fantastic to see so many workers standing together against multinational capital and New Labour. However, at the final rally one thing in particular stood out for me--that despite the fighting spirit of the workers there was very little fight in the speeches of the bureaucrats. Bill Morris gave a near word for word recital of the speech he delivered to the Liverpool dockers, and we all know what Morris did to them!
It is clear that if the 1 April demonstration is not to be merely Rover's death march the fightback is going to have to come from the rank and file. The threat of up to 50,000 jobs in the West Midlands is drastic, and it has to be met by drastic action. I urge all Longbridge workers to use every weapon at your disposal. It will take factory occupations and solidarity strikes to defeat the fat cats of BMW and Alchemy. Tony Blair must be forced to nationalise now, seizing BMW's assets in the process.
The union bureaucracy will no doubt oppose you for 'rocking the boat' by such action, but don't listen--it's not their jobs and families' lives under threat. As the Clyde Workers' Committee formulated in 1915, 'We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.'
If you fight, the solidarity will be forthcoming--1 April proves this. An occupation at Longbridge would strike a real chord with workers throughout the country--most of whom are sick of the bosses and New Labour. You would have a realistic chance of winning! Whatever you do, fight, because the alternative is grim!
While people were angry with BMW, we know in the West Midlands that Cadbury's and other multinationals behave in the same way. People happily took our placards arguing for nationalisation, occupation and a fightback. On the demonstration itself a further 300 Rover workers signed a petition for the joint shop stewards committee to call a mass meeting of Rover workers.
The trade union leaders and Richard Burden, the local Labour MP, received a cold response when they talked of good redundancy payments, whereas workers applauded local historian Carl Chinn, who argued we should surround Longbridge if management tried to move the new Mini out. Banners read 'Don't you dare, Tony Blair'.
The response of the comrades and supporters in Birmingham district has been fantastic. We have put ourselves at the heart of an argument against New Labour and the trade union leaders who follow them. We say our lives are more important than multinational profits, and we elected New Labour to make a difference. What is clear is that if Rover workers do occupy their factory millions of workers will back them.
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Lindsey German's article on New Labour was extremely apposite.
There is no doubt that this is a 'turning point', and, from my own experience as a Labour Party branch secretary and union activist, I have never seen such a change in a relatively short period. It is absolutely shaking and I feel it in the street every day. There is a huge swing against Blair and his ilk.
However, it is not that we Labour leftists are 'unable to envisage life outside' Labour that holds us back.Why should we abandon the labour movement which we have helped build? Give it to Mandelson and Brown? Or what? Give it to Ali G?
As far as 'breaking' with Labour goes, in fact many of us work with people in other socialist groups--have done for years--from the Anti Nazi League, to, more recently, campaigns against imperialist intervention in the Balkans.
Don't forget most of us live in places where there is no London Socialist Alliance and many (well, some) of our Labour councillors are working class and socialists.
Branch secretary, Town and Saint Margaret's branch, Ipswich Labour Party; chair, T&G 1/460
Dave Renton's claim that Edward Thompson's Marxism is to be preferred to that of Geoffrey de Ste Croix (April SR) is mistaken.
In his obituary for Ste Croix Callinicos clearly distinguishes between the two historians on the basis of how far Marxist theory informs their work, not their level of political activity or the extent of their popularity. Ste Croix's rigorous conceptualisation of class as an objective situation links directly back to Marx's own work (and presents the theory in a far more systematic way than Marx ever did). No one doubts the importance of how class is experienced (although not all experiences have the same significance), but this has nothing whatsoever to do with how it is defined. Thompson's own attempt to do so, notably in the preface to The Making of the English Working Class, is entirely subjective and, as such, is far closer to the notion of 'status' employed by the doyen of bourgeois sociology, Max Weber, than to Marx.
Nor is it true that Ste Croix neglects experience, in any case. The reader comes away from The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World with a rich array of insights into the life-world of both the exploiting and exploited classes in Greek and Roman society. The difference between Ste Croix and Thompson is that, in the case of the first, his insights are produced as a result of his Marxist method. In the case of the second, they are produced in spite of his rejection of it.
It is not necessary to be a Marxist to produce important historical work, and this is the case with Thompson, for although he is explicitly informed by a socialist identification with the oppressed and exploited, there is little that is distinctively Marxist about the theoretical framework which he uses. This is frustrating, because the one occasion where he did attempt to marry his own historical knowledge with an explicit Marxist theoretical position resulted in 'The Peculiarities of the English', one of the greatest historical essays written in Britain since the Second World War.
Ultimately no theory, not even Marxism, can guarantee that good history is written--it is also necessary do the work of research and writing on which it depends. But if people are prepared to do that work a correct theoretical starting point is more likely to lead to the production of good history than a wrong one. Thompson's individual talents took him very far without a firm theoretical basis but, given the absence of those talents among most of his followers (Peter Linebaugh is the exception), his influence has been catastrophic. Ste Croix, on the other hand, has left not only a powerful account of class at one particular moment in historical time, but accompanied it with a clarification of the concept which has extended the explanatory power of Marxist theory.
The political fallout and inspiration from Seattle continues. When the Los Angeles Weekly (24 March) writes that 'casual observers might write off Seattle as one of those unavoidable but inconsequential social hiccups that periodically interrupt the placid status quo. But they do so at their own peril', you know something has shaken the ruling class.
The article goes on to argue that Seattle has become a 'watershed' in American politics just like 1968 for a previous generation. Former Texas State Commissioner Jim Hightower admitted that 'Seattle is only the beginning'. He is dead right. Seattle has already given birth to 'A16' or 'Seattle East' protests against the World Bank and IMF, and reinvigorated hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of labour, student and environmental activists around the world.
Whilst Seattle was a 'revolt of the globalised,' it is only part of a global picture and was preceded by hundreds of new struggles the world over. Recently in India hundreds of rural workers and peasants burned the camps where Monsanto was experimenting with transgenetic cotton, while thousands more took over the facilities of Cargill, one of the world's biggest multinational corporations. Such protests are becoming increasingly common and are part of the ongoing process of global resistance to international capitalism.
Despite 20 years of neo-liberalism, and attacks on the living standards and organisations of the working class internationally, we have not been defeated--bloodied yes, defeated no--and recruitment to the ranks of the army of gravediggers of capitalism grows bigger by the day. Whilst we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us we must not repeat their mistakes. There are no short cuts to progress and the reawakening of working class movements, and our ability to inflict terminal damage on the ruling class is not a forgone conclusion. We must be organised, and we must not be afraid to argue that, whilst anyone who is anti-capitalist is on our side, it is only the power of the working class organised at the heart of the beast, in factories, offices, mines and farms, that has the potential power to halt the forward march of capital.
Seattle and the like are why, despite proclamations to the contrary, I sense that ruling classes across the world are worried, and no wonder! With the collapse of the Asian miracle economies two years ago, a revival of the US labour movement, and a general shift to the left in Europe accompanied by widening faultlines in the mantra of the 'Third Way', it is not a time to be glum, but a time to dust off the Marxist classics and polish your marching boots.
Personally I found Hurricane a bit of a disappointment. I followed the case very closely, noticed some inaccuracies and believe that it would have been a lot better had they just filmed Carter's autobiography The Sixteenth Round.
I also think that Pat Stack's knowledge could do with some improvement. Rubin Carter was never world champion--at the time of his arrest he was no longer even a rated contender. The racist cop Della Pesca didn't exist--there were a whole lot of police, some in high places, who had it in for him. The sentences passed on Rubin and his friend were respectively three consecutive and three concurrent life sentences, not life without parole. And the scenes involving the prison guard occupied some 12 years, not 30. Oh--the police were hounding Rubin Carter years before Ali spoke out on Vietnam.
Despite its other strengths, Paul Kellogg's review of the book Engels After Marx (April SR) was a little disappointing. His endorsement of S H Rigby's analysis of the relationship between Marx and Engels might not have been quite so ringing had he first read Rigby's book Engels and the Formation of Marxism. There Rigby advanced similar claims in more detail--only this time as part of an attack on historical materialism. Rigby was able to do this by defending the traditional identification of dialectical with historical materialism. Hence if Marx and Engels were in agreement here, as Rigby argued, then so much the worse for historical materialism.
There are few (if any) clear indications in Marx's own writings that he agreed with Engels' philosophical theory. Hence the weaknesses that afflict Engels' ideas have no effect on historical materialism.
Paul also criticised Terrel Carver both for contradicting this received view and for producing no substantiating evidence. However, even a cursory reading of Carver's writings shows that this is not so. Supporters of Engels' speculations might find this evidence unwelcome, but it nontheless exists.
Engels was a great revolutionary but, alas, a less convincing philosopher. It would be unwise, therefore, if we persisted in allowing his hastily composed, idealist musings to cripple Marxist thought any longer. A hundred or so years of this is quite enough.
Whilst I agree entirely with Julie Waterson's scathing review of A Natural History of Rape (April SR), it is let down by an inaccurate reference to Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene. It is not true that Dawkins's book is a biological justification of capitalist greed, as the review claims.
The main theme of the book is how common cooperation is in nature, and how it is mutually beneficial to the species involved. The final chapter then goes on to talk about how humans, as conscious beings, are able to create a morality that goes beyond individualistic greed. Certainly there are many points on which to disagree with Dawkins, but to call him a capitalist apologist is very misleading.