Issue 276 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Getting the balance right
Martin Smith ('Proud to be awkward', June SR) says that 'rebuilding grassroots networks' is the key to revitalising the unions. But what sort of networks are these and what is their strategy in the unions? Martin is basically waxing lyrical about the 'rank and file' groups that the SWP has launched in the Post Office, the rail industry and the FBU. To talk about these (Post Worker, Across the Tracks and Red Watch) as 'rank and file organisations' is disingenuous. These are SWP organisations.
Martin repeats a consistent line of the SWP on the trade unions. The union leaders 'balance' between the workers and the ruling class. The key task of the left, therefore, is to build sufficient rank and file pressure to 'force them to fight'. In my view the SWP gets this wrong. The key to 'rank and file' organisation is fourfold--the organisation of activists around a perspective:
(1) Based on the struggle for the independent interests of the working class. This requires a conscious struggle to break the unions from the 'social partnership' approach which dominates them.
(2) For democratising the unions, for membership control of them.
(3) For transforming them into organisations which, whilst they fight for the everyday interests of their members, recognise that their struggle is against capitalism and for a new society.
(4) That sees unions as organisations which fight for the broadest interests of the working class and oppressed as a whole, opposing all sectional and narrow self interests.
It is the absence of a perspective for breaking the grip of the bureaucracy on our organisations which has led, at least in part, to a reliance on electoralism, of winning positions within the bureaucracy.
The unions are as strong as the consciousness and level of organisation of their members. Martin is right that we cannot just rely on left leaders, even if they are genuine in what they say, as opposed to left-talking bureaucrats opportunistically adapting what they say for the sake of the best electoral advantage. Pressuring leaders to act, important as it is, is insufficient. Leaders can act and talk left in order to derail the membership.
Fighting to replace existing leaders with more militant representatives of the membership is an important task. But the strength of the unions depends on organisation in the workplaces. How grassroots networks are organised may vary from union to union. But they need to be broad-based organisations which are not dominated by a single political organisation.
The article about how prospective trade union leaders need to distance themselves from New Labour was informative, although not altogether surprising in today's political climate (The Walrus, June SR).
Yet it would be wrong for readers to get the impression that this might be a fleeting aberration within trade unionism, allowing the cosy relationship with Labour to return. As someone who has been directly involved in trade union education for many years, I can testify that there is a sea change of attitudes going on.
Back in the 1980s, even the most mild-mannered criticism of Labour would be shot down with comments like 'we've got to keep our heads down', 'wait for the next election'. By contrast, now I just sit there and wait for the magic word to set off the blue touchpaper. It's only five letters and you spell it 'B L A I R'.
But it is on the question of an alternative to New Labour that doubts still appear to exist. Notwithstanding the growth of the Socialist Alliance, and the fact that people are now clearly aware of its existence, some are still stuck at the 'I'm not bothering to vote next time' position. This is an understandable reaction to the disgrace that now occupies the centre of British politics, and people cannot be blamed for it. Where Socialist Alliances have operated in a welcoming and positive manner, taking up many issues both locally and nationally that New Labour has ditched, they have been successful. In the very small number of cases where they've been dogged by stupid sectarianism, they haven't.
So ordinary trade union reps have moved significantly, and they certainly wouldn't be doing it with such confidence unless it was reflected among the people they represent at work. So the message is clear, and the audience is there. Involve it, or it might, in time, move on.
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I wouldn't expect Chris Nineham to agree with my politics, but I would expect him to properly read and assimilate the books he reviews.
In the case of the review of my book One No, Many Yeses (June SR) he doesn't appear to have done so. I'd like to put the record straight for others.
Just a few examples: How Nineham can claim that 'it feels like [the book] ends with the Genoa protests in 2001' when it contains an entire chapter on the World Social Forum in January 2002 and ends on a list of imperial and corporate stitch-ups from November 2002 is beyond me. Similarly, his claim that 'Kingsnorth barely considers the way the movement has responded to the attack on the World Trade Centre' is bizarre, as the book spends half a chapter considering how the international Peoples' Global Action meeting that took place a week after the 11 September attacks did just that.
These errors, and others that I don't have room to quote are relatively small, though, compared to Nineham's central claim: my apparent 'belief' that this movement's 'strength comes from its refusal to openly challenge the centres of capitalist power'. Nineham is apparently unable to understand that this movement is doing just this, with great success; just not in a way that fits comfortably within the confines of his political dogma. Far from being a collection of disorganised localisers who need organising and centralising (presumably by him) this movement, as the book makes very clear, is a way of working out new approaches to 'dissolving capitalism', precisely because it has concluded that the old ones--the ones that Nineham is still wedded to--don't work.
Nineham sums the issue up himself, in his last paragraph. What, he asks, should be done about state power, elections, imperialism and coalitions? 'The idea of a movement today which doesn't have these strategic political discussions is a daydream,' he says. Quite right. The entire book is just such a discussion, and the last chapter is specifically devoted to radical suggestions for long-term change at national, local and international level. Nineham's real gripe is that he doesn't agree with these ideas, and so he responds by pretending they don't exist. By doing so, ironically, he justifies the book's criticism of his party and its politics.
I fear for the sanity of Joseph Choonara when he sees 'sheer beauty' in an 'extremely violent film' like Matrix Reloaded (June SR).
Such dumbing-down of aesthetic sensibility is a triumph for the corporate sledgehammer that has so bedazzled him.
For all the technical, genre-bending promise of The Matrix, Reloaded marks a regression, especially in its production design.
Most disappointingly, as proved by the reviewer's comments, the star of the show is the violence--interminable and asinine. Now, the general rule about fictional violence is that anything goes as long as it's done by the forces of 'good'--the army, police, neo-Nazi vigilantes, rogue cops--but 'controversial' if meted out by upstart revolutionaries, or kids, or aliens. Subversive violence is tolerated if it is funny--Chaplin tricking a cop, Kevin outwitting the burglars in Home Alone--but scandalous if not.
The trouble here is that with so much narrative muddle and shallow sermonising going on it's impossible to tell, or care about, in whose instrumental favour the set-pieces are being fought. Therefore we are left simply to boggle at the spectacle of frenzied, convoluted versions of some 'shoot-em-up' computer game. And that is the target audience--the teen male geek--despite a plethora of black and/or female characters suggesting a wider wish-list of attention.
Maybe there is some social significance in a popular movie franchise which seems to articulate a zeitgeist of disenfranchised masses losing control over their political leaders, which could be where The Matrix explicitly takes us in the final section, enticingly labelled 'Revolutions'. But that is a case of generously accentuating the positive.
Meanwhile, I remain uneasy with the very notion that an 'extremely violent film' image can ever be beautiful, let alone the comic-strip vacuity on show in Matrix Reloaded. Martin Scorsese, for example, has done a lot to aestheticise cruelty and violence. I'm afraid that the ideological work imagery done like this is to make news clips of inmates at Guantanomo Bay, or the slapping around of ungrateful Iraqis, just that bit more acceptable. It is a long-term process of brutalisation favourable to capitalist exploitation of our every dream, thought and deed.
In his article on the Second World War (May SR), Chris Bambery makes the argument that Churchill's policy of defending the empire meant countries like Australia were 'exposed' to a 'Japanese attack'.
However, it is an important socialist argument in Australia to say Japan was not going to attack because it was not capable of doing so.
Japan's victories meant it was overstretched. Rupert Lockwood wrote in War on the Waterfront, 'In decisive talks in Tokyo, the Japanese army pointed out that Australia was twice the size of occupied China. Conquest would demand diversion of the main naval forces at Japan's disposal; the US navy had shown it was far from finished and could block supply lines, and the army could not provide 12 infantry divisions felt necessary, nor were the required 1,500,000 tons of shipping available.' John Dower in War Without Mercy shows how racist sentiment saw US and Australian troops take less Japanese POWs than would be usual.
Chris Bambery mentions the US atomic bombing of Japan, but a war crime on a similar scale was the incendiary bombing of Tokyo.
The right in Australia campaigns for Japan to 'apologise' for the war, which it did in 1959. And it goes on about the threat of invasion, which even an army officer in 1957 when going through Japanese records concluded was not possible.
Graeme Kemp and Alan Woodward (letters, May SR) rightly want a society in which workers' councils represent the workers, not act as transmission belts for a party dictatorship.
They correctly point out that under Stalinism there were no genuine soviets, no workers' democracy. But in fighting against Stalinism, in Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1980-81, workers built mass democratic organisations that made a start at mobilising the creative energies of all the poor and oppressed, who for the first time began to imagine a new society, that only they should and could build. In this sense, the Hungarian workers' councils and Poland's Solidarnosc were a thousand times closer to the spirit of Leninism than the state capitalist tyrants who ruled in the name of Lenin.
There were not well established revolutionary parties with deep roots in those societies. And in Indonesia, Serbia and Argentina today such parties are also lacking. However, in every real uprising of the oppressed, those in revolt spontaneously attempt to organise democratically. And in those organisations, some people will see the possibility and necessity of a new world, of smashing the rule of the billionaires and replacing it with the rule of the billions.
Those people are the nucleus of a revolutionary socialist party, without which revolt against capitalism will not succeed in ending it once and for all. The crucial question is, do they know it? This is why the SWP puts such emphasis on building such parties around the world.
The workers' councils must release the creativity of the poorest and lowest layers, of all the oppressed. Once freed by victory in one country, however, we can only remain free through victory in many countries. Then no workers' party would be able to dictate to us, and there would be no reason to. This is what did not happen in Russia. But without a party like the one that Lenin built, the first steps to liberation, the revolution in the first few countries, will not happen.
In response to Jim Wolfreys' article (June SR) there was one area where the BNP expected to make 'multiple gains' in this year's local elections and that was Sunderland. It stood in all 25 of the seats that were up for election. One tenth of all its candidates were in this one town.
It's easy to see why the city was a target for the Nazis. Since the closure of the mines and the shipyards, there have been few new full-time jobs. Meanwhile, Labour has been in power for decades, without ever delivering the changes that local people want.
Yet despite these advantages, and despite winning up to 28 percent of the vote in last year's elections, the BNP couldn't get any of its candidates through. Why not? The first obstacle was a solid anti-racist campaign. Key wards were leafleted with anti-fascist papers and flyers. Several key shop stewards from the mines and the yards took part in the campaign.
A number of local celebrities spoke out against the BNP, including the former athlete Steve Cram and Sunderland FC Chairman Bob Murray. When BNP leader Nick Griffin attempted to speak in Sunderland on 23 April, the building was surrounded by a hostile crowd of 60 anti-fascists. As a result Griffin had to be sneaked in through a back door.
The second obstacle was the weakness of local fascist organisation. At the same meeting where Griffin spoke, the BNP was able to turn out just 30 or so people from all over the north east. This number included football hooligans and a few members of the public, but not even all its own candidates. The BNP vote was worryingly high - but the far right's organisation remains thin.
The key question facing the left, after the successes we had in organising against the war, is now this: can the new generation of activists stop the BNP?