Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Digging our own grave?
Reading Lindsey German's very informative article 'Manufacturing a Crisis' (January SR) would leave most manufacturing workers with more questions than answers. While correctly criticising the union leadership for lacking the backbone to organise a defence of jobs, Lindsey also provides them with the arguments to justify their position. Firstly restructuring is inevitable, and secondly there is no need to worry because the working class will re-emerge in alternative industries like IT, supermarket warehouses and call centres. So, while capitalism creates its own gravedigger, the location and depth of the grave may vary depending on the combined and uneven development of global capitalism and the related class struggle.
True as this may be, it does not help those of us working in British manufacturing. Restructuring is continual under capitalism and gathers pace when there is overproduction, as with the car industry, and/or recession. Most western countries do attempt to smooth this process, however, by protecting and subsidising core industries, while attempting to focus education and training on the emerging technologies. So while Sunderland rejoices at the prospect of building the Nissan Micra, 120 workers at Peterlee see their jobs on that car transferred to a French supplier at the behest of Renault (Nissan's joint owner). The DTI helps fund a Polish delegation to the West Midlands to encourage UK manufacturers to source in central Europe, where labour is cheaper.
Yes, manufacturing is still a vital part of the British economy, but it will continue to decline as the world becomes the workshop and the multinationals focus on producing in developing markets with faster growth (India, China, etc). It is vital that we provide arguments for workers that help them to understand and gain some control over this process. We want the decent, well paid, well organised and skilled jobs that engineering has provided in the past, and we need to have a say in the transition to new types of jobs.
Lindsey highlights the fact that the new jobs are mostly lower paid and lower skilled. But the income gap between rich and poor is widening once again, a lower percentage of men are in work, and an increasing number of couples need to work to survive in the most expensive European country outside Scandinavia. Fifteen percent of days lost through sickness are now because of stress, and trade unions, while finally recruiting more members, are structurally withering in most workplaces as collectivism and socialism become dirty words, and the Third Way and 'partnership' blind alleys remain in vogue. This does not mean that we retreat into pessimism, as there is much to celebrate in the anti-capitalist mood, but it does require us to be much sharper politically and not delude ourselves that the working class will automatically be regenerated.
We need to be clear that we will not suffer as UK plc blunders through restructuring in the global market. Regardless of whether the jobs we defend are 'economic' or 'useful', until there is a comparable alternative provided we should call for political solutions. Remember the old Lucas Combine arguments about alternative production. Surely the chaos on our railways and the wealth of redundant engineering skills in the auto industry can be combined to provide a solution for both? This requires a high level of politics because it is unlikely we will win on economic arguments alone. It usually is cheaper to make it abroad.
Today in areas like Tyneside which have a history of 'traditional' working class jobs, we see the highest concentrations of call centre and finance sector jobs. But these workers can be organised and go on strike.
Public sector workers also have clout. Action by postal, health and council workers could help to build working class combativity. And strikes on the tube or in the health service against privatisation have massive political implications.
While manufacturing has declined, it is still a key section of the economy. But a fight to save jobs in any sector is now more political, raises questions about the society we live in and what the alternatives are.
We welcome letters and contributions on all issues raised in Socialist Review. Please keep your contributions as short as possible, typed, double spaced if you can, and on one side of paper only.
It's a pity about Ian Birchall. In the January issue of your very informative journal, following his stimulating December piece, 'Revolution? You Must Be Crazy!', he, like so many of the far left, continues to bash the old Communist Party of Great Britain.
Comrade Birchall should admit that he is either ignorant or deliberately lying when he writes that the CPGB 'had no alternative vision of socialism to counterpose to Labour's'.
In fact, Labour had no vision of socialism, as anyone reading Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism, its postwar 'bible', will discover, whereas every edition of the Communist Party's The British Road to Socialism spelt out clearly the basics of the new society that I hope we are all now working for. Indeed, one of my enduring memories is of Phil Piratin urging a meeting of activists in his parliamentary election campaign in 1950-51 'to keep the vision of socialism before the people'.
I fear that this continued bashing is all sour grapes because the CP became the only significant non-Labour party of the left in Britain in the 20th century.
That was because--and I write as a former member of the Communist Party for over 50 years--together with putting forward the vision of socialism, we endeavoured to be honest and realistic, and win people over, not attempt to impose our ideology on them. And we always listened to and tried to learn from them, something others have yet to discipline themselves to do.
With the threat of a major world slump before us, it is essential to be honest in the heavy task of trying to weld a unity of the left in Britain.
South East London
Having read Iain McKay's letter defending anarchism (January SR) and re-read Pat Stack's article (November SR), I'm now even more convinced of the validity of Pat's arguments.
The nub of the issue in this debate seems to consist of disagreement over two fundamental notions argued by those of us in the revolutionary Marxist tradition which are rejected by those in the anarchist tradition. The first of these is the claim that a democratic centralist revolutionary party is necessary for a successful socialist revolution. The second concerns the state--both the nature of the state in capitalist society and the necessity for a workers' state arising from a socialist revolution.
The question of revolutionary organisation relates to what anarchists see as the inherent elitism and centralism of a vanguard Marxist party. They prefer federalism as an organisational principle both in terms of post-revolutionary society, and in terms of political organisation in the here and now. I used to think so too. Then I began to ask myself how revolutionaries, practically and in the real world, could organise themselves and intervene in a united and effective way in the ongoing class battles inside capitalism. Recognising the political unevenness that exists within the working class, how can an organisation operate to win greater influence inside the class?
To answer that question it was essential to recognise that the revolutionary party is a fundamentally different animal from post-revolutionary socialist society. It's not the blueprint for that society. It has a job to do which can be simply stated--it must develop itself so that it becomes the revolutionary political and organisational leadership in the working class, enabling the class to seize power from the capitalist class. It therefore must be able to learn from the class when it moves forward. It has to openly discuss its strategies and tactics, but to be effective it also has to act in a self disciplined and united way--it has to have an element of centralism as well as democratic discussion and debate.
The second issue is that of the state. Anarchists seem to characterise the role of the state as being to exclude the mass of people from taking part in decision-making processes in society. But this underplays the fundamental class role of the capitalist state, which is to maximise capital accumulation. Its key role is to maintain the ownership of the means of production in the hands of the tiny capitalist class by any means at its disposal.
Anarchists counterpose the argument that we need to fight a centralised capitalist state by using democratic centralist organisation with the claim that we Marxists are 'fighting fire with fire'. But what if, as I believe, democratic centralism is the only form of organisation that has any hope of success? (And after all, isn't fire sometimes used to fight fire? Don't firefighters sometimes use controlled fire to stop forest fires?) Failure to use the only form of revolutionary organisation that has worked in the past seems to me to inevitably condemn future revolutions to failure, rather than to having a fighting chance of success. To regard any hint of centralism in revolutionary organisation as being bourgeois is a political misjudgement because it would condemn our side to ultimate political impotence. To argue that to defeat a centralised system you need decentralised organisation (for example, via the internet) flies in the face of reality and history.
Finally, after a successful revolution, do anarchists imagine that the capitalist class internationally will just give up and go away, or that all the requirements for democratic production, distribution and exchange of goods and services, and the creation of a classless society will simply 'emerge'? Mass action will have destroyed the old state--the army, police, prisons, parliament, the rule of the bosses--but until the successful internationalisation of the revolution the threat of counter-revolution would be there, and would require both local and national structures, under the control of the mass of the working class--in other words, some form of workers' state.
Mike Gonzalez (January SR) produces an effective critique of the politics of consumption as provided by the rise of the shopping mall. It is privatised space where commercial interests monitor us and the environment for private profit. However, Gonzalez's argument is one-dimensional and gives ground, perhaps unintentionally, to those whose idea of the perfect society is the small corner shop and the craft producer.
I have nothing against either, but we do need to recognise that there are other aspects to the question for socialists. For example, many of the larger shops in shopping malls will be unionised workplaces, and these can sometimes be amongst the bigger and better organised workplaces in some areas. The workers there have real power to threaten the interests of capital and in doing so challenge the existing politics of consumption
I haven't yet read The Triple Helix by Richard Lewontin, as reviewed by John Parrington, (January SR) but it appears to offer a way out of the highly misleading genes- environment dichotomy. Lewontin is correct in saying that no computer could 'compute an organism' from its DNA sequence. But what if the computer was also fed with a complete description of the organism's environment? It still couldn't be done, because the chaotic accumulation of interactions over time generates an increasingly autonomous third element in the equation, 'the organism itself' (John Parrington's phrase).
Just one of the factors that enthusiasts for the Human Genome Project ignore is the path between genotype and phenotype. Yet even fairly simple creatures have complex internal chemical environments that modulate the ongoing effect of genes. Over time, behaviour becomes a two-way interaction between the individual organism itself and the current environment--while the effects of the genes fade into history.
In simple creatures this process is limited. But in humans it is the dominant feature. The result is consciousness, within which decisions are made under two kinds of pressures--those that come from the social environment and those from the internal environment of accumulated past decisions. Except in cases of genetic aberration, the effect of the genes on decisions is negligible. When it comes to socially and politically significant behaviours, the effect of genes is zilch.
The three-way model that Lewontin's title suggests makes it easier to unravel the so called paradox of free will, see through the sleight of hand involved in reductionism, and expose the genetic pseudo-science of the past 20 years.
Last December there was a European Union heads of government conference in Nice. Blair returned from the conference claiming a great British victory in securing an opt-out from EU tax and social security. These levels are decided elsewhere in the EU by Qualified Majority Voting.
As some of the rest of you may have wondered what it all meant, I looked up some salient figures. The only possible conclusion is that the opt-out is good news for the rich and corporations (who will continue to pay the lowest top rate taxes in the EU), and for employers whose contributions to National Insurance are almost the lowest in the EU.
The news is not so good for the elderly, of course, whose pensions depend on National Insurance contributions, nor for ordinary people who need a properly funded NHS.
Mind you there were some decent people in Nice at the time. They took part in a massive demonstration outside the conference to protest at the attempts to cut welfare state expenditure and privatise everything in sight across the EU.