Issue 261 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
'People think that going on strike is fun'
The central plank of Tony Blair's justification for his attack on public services is that privatisation is more efficient. Yet as the experience of Railtrack has shown, and as was reported by Judith Orr last month (February SR), this is not true. Today there is a sense on the railways that the Blair bubble has burst. This is seen not just in the fact that left winger Bob Crow has been elected as leader of the RMT, but also in the new mood of bitterness. Years of frustration among drivers on South West Trains led to them taking strike action. Now in the TSSA union we are finding there are similar signs of militancy--booking office staff on Arriva Northern are now being balloted in conjunction with RMT members. This is a major shift for a union that has a less than militant history.
This militancy is being fuelled not from left wing leaders but from the lessons of privatisation. When I was a rep for technical staff in the days of British Rail disputes were rare. Now we find we have to fight a continuous war with management, who constantly attempt to undermine our conditions. The behaviour of the bosses in the privatised industry compels workers to fight back or be walked over.
Also the privatised railway is massively inefficient. At no stage is common sense engineering allowed to be the prime factor in determining the planning of replacement and repair of railway infrastructure. Competing contractual interests ensure delay, confusion and mistakes. In addition the legalistic contractual responsibilities become the key focus for each company. This produces a thriving environment for consultants, accountants and lawyers. Safety, we are told, is the prime objective. But in practice tons of paper is produced between different competing companies, and the training and recruitment of engineering staff is sacrificed. It is no exaggeration to say that the cost of engineering work on the privatised railway is quadruple what it was when the industry was publicly owned.
With the National Air Traffic Control System now following Railtrack towards bankruptcy, it is beyond belief that the government are even considering privatising the tube and the post. Little wonder some trade unionists are beginning to look for a political voice other than Labour.
Chris Bambery's article about the revolt against Blair could not be more timely (February SR). Every day Blair's crisis gets deeper. His 'wreckers' speech unleashed enormous anger across the working class. Another pointer is pay. Not since the 1970s have we seen the kind of strike activity breaking out among journalists as we have today. Four local newspaper chapels have now voted for strike ballots. This comes just two weeks after the pay victory at the Bradford Telegraph and Argus Group after only one half-day strike, and one of these chapels is not even recognised. The fight is being led by young, and in many cases trainee, journalists--just as it was in the 1970s when NUJ members were forced onto the picket lines. This dispute comes only a few weeks after the victory at West Ferry printers in London--the first victory since Wapping. One managing director was heard to say, 'People think that going on strike is fun.'
On top of this radicalisation is the issue of the war. This is not isolated from other issues facing Blair. The rise of the anti-capitalist movement has meant that links are being made between different issues. The support for the rail strikes has given a renewed confidence to all those fighting privatisation. The opportunities for building among the rank and file are also strengthened by the election of left wing candidates to the leadership of major unions.
We do have a way to go but confidence among the working class is returning. When that happens the question of where the unions' political money goes is crucial. More than a few workers now agree that if Labour's not going to do anything for us then we'll have to do it ourselves. The forthcoming Socialist Alliance conference fits this mood perfectly. This could be the biggest rank and file conference since the 1970s. Socialists have to move quickly to build on the growing discontent with New Labour.
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The launch of the European Network for Peace And Human Rights took place at the end of January in the European Parliament in Brussels.
There was wide representation of socialists from across Europe, with visitors from the Middle East and North America. Indeed, the thirst for information exchange and bridge building was clear from the large number of activists attending the 'linking the issues' workshop. The other two workshops were on the war on Afghanistan and its aftermath, and the US plans for National Missile Defence, 'Son of Star Wars'.
The final communique included the following: 'We are in a situation where the greatest military and economic power on earth has declared war on its enemies as it perceives them. This it has done with the support of most European governments. We express our profound sympathy for all victims of terrorism, including state terror. But war cannot be the way to defeat terror. The US has shown itself ready to unleash the most prodigious weapons of destruction against human beings and their means of livelihood. It is extending its power from land, sea and air into space and information to achieve what its commanders call "full spectrum dominance", at the same time that it pressures others to support its actions. We refuse to do that, and call upon our fellow Europeans to join with us in our refusal to become accomplices in such a development.'
A small working committee has been formed which will prepare the way for a liaison committee. The latter will be looking to organising a major conference, with Europeans from east to west, and in the meantime to be working closely with activists in the US and on dialogue meetings with representatives from South Asia and the Middle East.
For further information contact Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, Russell House, Bulwell Lane, Nottingham NG6 OBT
In his review of Alfred Rosmer's book Trotsky and the Origins of Trotskyism (February SR), John Molyneux says the argument about Zinoviev's role in the Comintern is 'obscure', and that Stalinism is explained by 'objective factors'.
Certainly the rise of Stalin was not just the defeat of 'good' individuals by 'bad'. But the isolation of Russia was not inevitable--it was caused by the failure of the Comintern, and here Zinoviev's role was important. There are two examples of this.
At the second congress (1920) there were a number of delegates from anarchist and syndicalist backgrounds. Lenin and Trotsky welcomed them, stressing unity in action. Zinoviev addressed them in terms that were patronising, sectarian and insulting. The debate is quite relevant to tactics in the anti-capitalist movement today.
Also in the early 1920s Zinoviev tried to 'Bolshevise' the parties of the Comintern. This meant imposing a single model of the 'Leninist' party. This was a myth--as Tony Cliff shows in his book Lenin. There were at least seven different versions of Bolshevism, according to circumstances. In his final speech to the Comintern Lenin attacked this nonsense and told foreign Communists to think for themselves--again very relevant to current discussions on organisation.
Individuals matter, and tactics and organisation matter. That is why revolutionaries must study history, even the apparently obscure point.
I was interested to read the review by Diana Swingler of Jane Jordan's biography of Josephine Butler (February SR). The Contagious Diseases Acts have rightly become notorious for the regime of harassment and abuse which they introduced in the mid-19th century, not only for women working as prostitutes but for working class women in general. Certainly Josephine Butler was the key figure in the cross-class campaign which eventually led to their repeal. I wonder, however, whether Jane Jordan's biography has anything to say about what happened after their repeal?
The Contagious Diseases Acts were suspended in 1883 and repealed in 1886. But in 1885 a new Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed on the back of sensational press reports about juvenile prostitution, which led to shortlived agitation and an enormous demonstration in London. On the back of this agitation, the new law entrenched police powers to close down brothels and punish soliciting. It also criminalised male homosexuality (rather than specific acts) for the first time and raised the age of consent to 16. It was pivotal in creating an official approach to prostitution which survived well into the 20th century. The law was the crowning glory of the Victorian social purity movement, which essentially set out to suppress all public expression of 'vice' and 'immorality' by using the full weight of the police and the law against prostitution, while 'saving' the fallen women by retraining them as domestic servants!
It still seems shocking today that Josephine Butler was a supporter of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. In terms of her political development Butler's life is a story of two parts--the heroic Christian feminist opponent of the Contagious Diseases Acts who ended up in an alliance with the reactionaries of the social purity movement.
For socialists and feminists today I think there are a couple of lessons. Firstly, we should be extremely suspicious when talk about 'protection' of the vulnerable is used to argue for sweeping powers to the police, Secondly, if the ideological basis of a social movement is contradictory it will at some point face a stark choice about its direction. For some, opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts was based on opposition to the oppression of working class women. For others it grew out of an opposition to 'the state regulation of vice'. The latter position could easily develop into support for the state repression of vice--whatever the consequences for the prostitutes themselves. This is precisely what happened in the 1880s and the tragedy of Butler is that the limitations of her liberal and Christian worldview led her into going along with it.
All this may seem a long way from the situation facing us today but it does offer a historical warning of what can happen if revolutionary socialists do not try to actively shape the ideological aspect of social movements and create as strong and influential a socialist component as possible.
John Molyneux's attempt to explain the popularity of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings from a left perspective is, I think, a little dubious (Letters, February SR).
Firstly, it isn't necessary to seek out a left wing justification for why some on the left might enjoy a work of fiction. If a novel is well written, engages you with the characters and draws you into its story, then surely this is justification enough. Secondly, Molyneux's thesis of a critique of capitalism, arising from the contrast with a 'feudal communism', doesn't fit this novel. Tolkien's model is not feudalism as such, but the myths and stories of the Middle Ages, indulging in all the respect for heroic royalty which come with them.
The inspiration for his invented creatures, the Hobbits, is middle class suburban Britain. They are conservative, suspicious of change and adventure, they crave respectability, and they love their home comforts and possessions. This is hardly a model of even a 'feudal communism', and certainly there is no emphasis on the dignity of peasant labour, characteristic of some Romantic literature which harks back to feudalism as a response to industrial capitalism.
However, it is worth considering why this novel has proven to be so popular. My own view is that it is a Second World War story displaced to the realms of magic and mythology. Tolkien's tale of the reluctant hero suddenly drawn into a global struggle of good against evil reflects the official presentation of the Second World War still familiar to us today. The sense of menace and threat, especially in the first book of the trilogy, surely reflects the anxiety of the liberal world faced with the military successes of the Nazis.
Tolkien was able to combine some aspects of the mythology and circumstances of the Second World War, a period he lived through, with the legendary world of chivalry and magic, a subject he knew a lot about as an English scholar.
No matter how fantastic the subject matter, a writer needs to convince the reader that the world being described is real and persuade us to 'willingly suspend our disbelief'. Tolkien's ability to do this, coupled with a story which has a real (if distorted) resonance in the popular psyche, goes some way to explaining why his novel has been so popular.
Mike Gonzalez implies that the recent production of Channel 4's Shackleton gives the eponymous hero too much of a positive makeover when he should have been reviled for being just another ghastly member of the ruling class (February SR). He also points out that the portrayal of the 'stroppy Scot' McNish who flirted with insubordination on numerous occasions was the voice of the working class raging against the ruling class, namely Shackleton.
As a socialist I found both the film and recent documentary very reliable, giving Shackleton the altruistic, passionate character that proved to be at odds with the class of which he was part. I also found McNish not a brave, honourable motivator of men, but a self centred fool who'd have returned to South Georgia not with a full boat and everyone intact (Shackleton's triumph) but a raft of ideas and 23 subsequent funerals to attend.
If I'd found myself in Antartica in 1914 I'd have listened to the guy who was interested in the cooperative instead of the individual, and that, I'm afraid, was Ernest Shackleton.
J S Gillett