Midwives of the transformation

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1889

Marxism begins in winter 1847-8 with the changes that Marx made to Engels’ Principles of Communism, in the drafting of the Communist Manifesto. Up to this point, both writers had agreed that socialism could be achieved through a proletarian revolution. Engels’ Principles sets out why the working class had been chosen: “the further [capitalism] advances, the more new labor-saving machines are invented, the greater is the pressure exercised by big industry on wages, which … sink to their minimum and therewith render the condition of the proletariat increasingly unbearable”. Marx had written along similar lines in 1843, and you can find the same idea in the Manifesto, “The modern labourer … instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”

In the Manifesto, interlaced beside this older idea and going beyond it, was the beginning of a different understanding.  “The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class”, Marx wrote, “is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour.” The street artists of May 1968 were to state the same idea more succinctly: “your boss needs you; you don’t need him”.

“Wage-labour”, the Manifesto continues, “rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by … revolutionary combination, due to association.” It was not the decline of the working class into poverty that would pave the way to triumph but its organisational ascent.

Three years before the Parisian general strike, the activist historian EP Thompson reflected on what the proletariat had achieved in 120 years of struggle: “The workers, having failed to overthrow capitalist society, proceeded to warren it from end to end … [through] the characteristic class institutions of the Labour Movement … [the] trade unions, trades, councils, TUC, co-ops and the rest … This was the direction was that taken and, beneath, all differences in ideological expression, much the same kind of imbrication of working-class organizations in the status quo will be found in all advanced capitalist nations.”

For over a century, Marxism derived its appeal from what was seen to be its founders’ accurate prediction that the workers would rise and limit the power of capital.

Revolutionary politics has lost credibility in an epoch of workers’ defeats. Strike days have fallen from 10-20 million per year in the early 1970s to 440,000 in 2013. In 1974 around 8/10 UK workers were covered by collective bargaining, it is now under 3/10.

With workers’ losing, the rich have felt no limit in advancing their own interests. In the US, the top 0.1% now holds around 25% of private wealth. In a typical UK business in 2000, the top managers earned 47 times the lowest-paid worker. The ratio is now 1:120.

We too often see labour’s backwards step in activist terms – the defeated strikes of the 1980s had a momentum of their own. Workers organisations have spawned bureaucratic leaderships more fearful of outright victories than they are of partial defeats (we risk forgetting how much greater were the assets held by the unions of 40 years ago)

An alternative way to read the past forty years would be to say that through two centuries the working class has been renewed as changes in the organising technologies of any one decade brought new groups of workers into the centre of working class life.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, the technology which most other businesses wanted to was the cotton factory. The face of labour was the mill workers who struck during the Chartist General Strike of 1842. The car factories of the interwar years made Fordist methods of management general. Part of the Fordist template was a hostility to unions; the move to keep the car factories union-free was broken by the sit-down strikes of 1934. It was the same in the 1960s with the adoption of union methods by low-paid employees of the state – in schools, local government and hospitals.

This pattern of new industrial techniques enabling new generations of workers to move from the periphery to the centre of working class experience continued until the 1980s.

New technologies have since tended to atomise workers’ cultural and social life, while the number of junior managers has proliferated.

Yet despite the present neo-liberal hegemony, the victory of capital could only ever be temporary. The greater the extent that the lives of the wealth spiral away from everyone else’s, the easier it must be for workers again to see them as their clear enemies, and therefore for this stalled cycled of working-class renewal to begin again.

The command techniques of high Stalinism will not attract the generations who have grown up the other side of digital media, with its constant (if unsatisfying) allure of choice.

Nor does it help to say that the working-class is now too divided for anyone on the left to represent a significant fraction of the class, but, that weakness aside, we must retain the ambition to build (in some, better-organised future) “a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party”.

A better alternative would be to look to the parts of the class which are making that same journey that others made before from the margins to the centre of working-class life.

A century ago it was the dockers, today it will be fast-food workers, or any one of the millions working on zero-hours or hourly-paid contracts who could – if only they were organised – establish guaranteed hours on a living wage.

Socialists should be among them, not as the oppressed’s tribunes (we no longer have to assume that anyone needs a representative to speak on their behalf) rather as midwives of the transformation from a present where socialism is off the agenda altogether to one where it is again conceivable.

125 years ago this year, two of the largest unions in Britain were built from campaigns on the London docks and at the Beckton gas workers. The leader of the Beckton workers, Will Thorne worked with another socialist outside his workplace, Eleanor Marx. She taught him to read; the union invited her on to its executive (the only non-gas worker allowed) as its first treasurer.

After the New Unionism of 1889 began, she spoke tirelessly to let other workers know what the strikers had achieved and why they should copy them, “We have not come to do the work of political parties”, she would say, “but we have come here in the cause of labour, in its own defence, to demand its own rights”.

Organisations which grew until they counted members in the millions were built on the message that the strikes of 1889 proved that casualised workers could win.

Before it happens, socialists should be the people with a vision of the upturn of the future. Once it has begun socialists should be those who spread the news of its happening as widely as we can. This is the only way to make any ambition for a working class party meaningful again.

Running the Oxford half

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On Sunday, I ran in the Oxford half-marathon. Let me start with two quick complaints. First, why do organisers only ever seem to start these faces at 9 or 9.30 in the morning? There were about 4,500 finishers, including runners from London (at least one in the red and yellow Serpentine running vest), Sheffield and all over Southern England. The first London-Oxford train on a Sunday does not even get in till 9:13 in the morning, leaving no time for a race starting 17 minutes later deep in East Oxford. The organisation of the event mandated runners to spend the evening before in Oxford – whereas if they had started it just an hour later, there would not be the same pressure.

Second, couldn’t organisers make a little bit more effect to check that the mile markers correspond to the correct distances? At the Richmond half marathon, three weeks ago, the organisers put out mile markers at about half of the milepoints; some were long, some were short, and for anyone relying on the mile markers for their pacing (which included me) they were barely better than useless. Oxford was better in that every mile along our route had a marker of some sort or another, but a number were out by around 300 metres or so, starting with the first two (which were too close to the start) and the third (which was about a mile and a half after the second). I know that these days many runners have GPS watches so it shouldn’t matter if the markers are a bit out, but the watches often don’t connect at all or not at the start, leaving the wearers dependent on the markers they can see.

That said, it was a lovely route, with a modest climb of just about 50 feet out of Cowley and towards the Iffley Road near the start, then long periods of descent. In the middle, we ran a lap of the Iffley Road track where Roger Bannister once broke the four minute barrier, we then had a couple of miles running along the Thames. Although I lived in Oxford for four years in my 20s, I had never explored the river south of the Plain, and I reminded myself that this was a stretch of the Thames where my father once spent some of the best days of his life. There were live bands in Iffley, and at Magdalen roundabout, and very large number of local people turned out to cheer us on.

Experimenting with running the first half of the race at about 30 seconds per mile faster than I had run Richmond, I tired (of course) in the second half of the race and in the final third was just about “holding on” with miles of 7:30 or so. But the music kept me going, as did the variety of the running.  The friend I was running with found a different motivation: a runner next to her told his companion that he was going to be a UKIP council candidate – her fastest mile was the last, which she ran to make sure he could not overtake her.

Roger Bannister began the race with a short speech telling us that there were 200,000 people running half marathons that day; a small reminder of the very large numbers of people who run every weekend. It is a social movement, not just a sport.

Answering Ukip

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How can you solve a problem like Heywood and Middleton? The fear in Labour circles is not caused by the Clacton result, which both main parties had long given up as a lost cause but by Heywood where Ukip had been a 20-1 longshot with the bookies until just a week ago. An immediate response has been to criticise Labour for failing to “campaign” around immigration, ie for failing to argue, like Ukip, that its candidate’s principal task in Westminster would be to demand policies to reduce the number of migrants to the UK.

The way migration functions, in the mind of a Ukip voter or those who are now calling for a Ukip of the Labour right, is like a distorting mirror in which you can see a person’s knees and neck but hardly anything of the rest of their body. If in 2015 not a single migrant entered Britain, wages and benefits would not rise, nor would the coalition cease to cut pension and services. The policy of the state would still be to warren the public services with a thousand privatisations. There is not some magic year (1960 perhaps? combining the the security of the postwar boom with an equilibrium between those nostalgic for the nuclear family and the rest of us who have run from it) to which Britain could be returned if only there were no ads for Polish builders in the newsagents.

At least when Ukip promises an exit from the EU there is a logical end-point. It would theoretically be possible for the UK to do just that and then you could pause and evaluate sensibly: we have done it. Were we right? But there is no end point in anti-immigrant politics, no moment of “accomplishment”.

It is the nature of anti-immigration politics that even to call only for a pause is to demand that some people are sent “back”. End, as Labour once did, the rights of foreign born but British educated doctors to work after finishing their studies in the UK, and inevitably people who were in the country then (as students) would have to leave (when they finished). But people who come to study also live, work, settle and have children.

When we talk about people coming to Britain we think of them (us!) arriving in waves: Saxons, Danes, Normans, the Empire Windrush generation. If you dig beneath a city you will see the remains of hundreds of years of human habitation squashed down upon each other in narrow wooden and brick layers. But migration happens neither in waves nor layers: a typical London child might have a father whose parents first crossed the borders as long as 50 or 500 years ago and a mother who was not born here and whose immigration status was uncertain until recently. Take the one migrant away and three lives are diminished. Take the migrant away and even an “indigenous” citizen must leave with her.

Mere observation teaches that the parties which promise ethnic welfarism as a strategy supposedly to delay cuts and privatisation are also the parties least enthusiastic about welfare or workplace rights and keenest about school and hospital privatisation.

So if Labour wants to stop UKIP, its present debate has to shift from one in which the two loudest groups are those saying “steal Ukip’s clothes” and “don’t panic”. The former mis-identify Ukip’s present ascendancy. It is not a party of the dispossessed; it is not an SNP south of the border. Rather it faces Labour as a real and urgent threat of a different origin – a return of Tory working class voting, liberated from the terrible stigma of the Tories’ association with the the employment-cleansing that befell industrial Britain under Thatcher. The latter meanwhile are only half-right: Labour will be weakened if immigration dominates the political conversation and the Labour Party is mute or acquiescent. The Left does indeed have something which it must say, and that is to defend the right to cross borders.

To Labour’s left, there are tasks to escape from habits which are as stale as a milk which has turned brown.

One is the idea that Ukip is a party pregnant with the threat of fascism. No: it is a party of economic neoliberals with a different (eulogistic rather than hostile) relationship to the centres of ruling class power. Even the way it does anti-immigration is different from the ways in which the fascist right does elsewhere in Europe. Ukip does not call for repatriation; in Clacton, Carswell (an ideological libertarian of the right) was rhetorically pro-immigration in repeated contrast to the people voting for him. The problem with Ukip’s anti-immigrant politics lies not in the coherence with which it demands an all-white Britain but the determination and militancy with which it says “something must be done”, when that “something” cannot be achieved without making many thousands suffer.

The key task of the moment is not to isolate Ukip from the other parties (painting its politics worse and theirs better); nor is it to reposition the left as yet another adversary of the enormous, general sentiment that the old ways of doing politics have passed their time and something new must be found.

The benign point of political organisation will be reached when activists can show that the working class is reconstituting itself and that people who are presently on the periphery (because they are migrant workers, because they are on precarious contracts) are remaking forms of organisation in the way that the New Unionism of the 1880s pointed the way to the pensions and proto-welfare state that were introduced in the early 1900s. If we can achieve that then we will have a message of hope to argue back against Ukip’s vision in which the deckchairs in first class must be swapped around but the workers and the poor are still sailing the Titanic.

Remembering the function of fascism

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A review of Mark Hayes, The Ideology of Fascism and the Far-Right (Red Quill Books, £14.50)

This is an important book which has not yet had the attention it deserves. Mark Hayes’ purpose is to write against an academic consensus which increasingly tends to separate the actions of fascism (i.e. what fascist parties did in history) from the analysis of fascism by political scientists. Amongst the former, there is (at least in Britain and the US) as much of an anti-fascist consensus as there has ever been. Within political science by contrast, there is a tendency to treat fascism as a set of ideas isolated from their consequences.

The first part of Hayes’ book explores the ideological components of fascism; the first chapter insists on fascism’s essential irrationality. Deeply rooted in the collective psyche of post-1918 Europe were desires to escape from a world of rationality, to return to what were said to be deeper instincts of lust, wilfulness and discipline. Thus when talking about fascism’s ideas (nationalism, authoritarian leadership, anti-communism, racism, etc), a writer cannot simply repeated fascist commonplaces (such as the common slogan: “fascism equals nationalism plus socialism” or “fascism is neither right nor left”) but understand that the terms within the equation have taken on a charged and different content. Fascists did not share the same political vocabulary opponents, or, to the limited extent that they did, they took the terms and gave them a new meaning.

The remainder of this part of Hayes’ book is in effect a thematic history of fascism showing how that ideology’s themes worked themselves out in practice. So, Hayes’ detailed account of fascist racism includes a description of Italian war crimes in Eritrea and Somaliland as well as the growing anti-Semitism (after an initial ambivalence) of Mussolini’s regime. The section on the racism of the Nazis concludes, of course, with the Holocaust. Hayes sets out the virtues of Kershaw’s synthesis of functional and intentional explanations for the Final Solution, before seeming to come down marginally in favour of the intentionalists: “Nazi ideology and the notion of socio-biological racism was (is), quite simply, lethal … There was an inexorable, sequential logic at work here, from abstract theoretical disquisition to death camp.”

The second part of Hayes’ book is devoted to British fascism, and while much of the material on pre-1979 fascism is familiar, Hayes account of the factional intrigues within the post-1979 National Front, and from there through “Rights for Whites” to Nick Griffin’s decisions first to join the BNP and then stand for its leadership, is more specific and compelling than anything else I have read on this period.

A third section returns to the mistakes of much contemporary writing about generic fascism. Hayes’ message, stated in its simplest form, is that fascism has a social function: it was and is “a right-wing counter-revolutionary ideology”, which served in a term of revolutionary upheavals to reestablish the rule of the dominant social elites. If this approach risks being labelled Marxist, Hayes accepts the tag: “The Marxist analysis certainly retains considerable heuristic value. Using an undogmatic and critical application of Marxist principles it is possible to arrive at a theory which is rooted in the analysis of social forces, acknowledges the reality of economic power and evaluates the nature of the historical process in the material world – yet is flexible enough to accommodate all that is of value in other interpretations.”

Some minor criticisms could be made. Hayes himself is a former supporter of Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), and argues very briefly in the final pages of his book that in an era of neo-liberal hegemony and declining trade union membership AFA was an important instance not just of successful anti-fascism but also of the engagement and mobilisation of working class people. I have argued elsewhere that a positive balance sheet could be drawn up with regards to several previous waves of anti-fascist activism: by the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s, by the 43 Group in 1945-1951, and by the Communists in the 1930s. It is a shame that the parts of Hayes’ book which are devoted to British fascism before 1979 do not also show how fascist tactics have been repeatedly  changed out of all recognition in response to anti-fascist campaigns.

At the level of the greatest abstraction, I think Hayes takes a wrong turn in formally emphasising fascist “function” without giving equal weight to fascist methods of organisation. David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and their many predecessors have wanted to bolster the rule of existing social elites. The point at which fascists diverged from them was in the leadership principle, their use of security teams (or in the case of the British Union of Fascists, a private army in embryo), and their willingness to use extra Parliamentary methods including a presence in the streets as the means to achieve their end. The context in which anti-fascism has historically operated has been set by the contradictions between fascist goals and fascist methods. That is why, for example, Communist tactics at Olympia in 1934 were effective, because they brought out – before Mosley’s Conservative audience – the reality that behind the high-seeming appeals to civic patriotism the fascists practised the method of the iron fist.

I am not sure whether Hayes sees the present period as one in which fascists could grow – there are a number of passages where he talks about what fascism “was/is”. If, as I suspect, he thinks we are still, to an extent, in an age pregnant with fascism, then I would have like to have seen that argued directly.

That said, I found myself agreeing with more of this book than anything similar to it published in the last decade. I enjoyed it and I hope it receives the widest possible readership.

On having two enemies

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Richard is right, and not for the first time: if the British left was serious about the message of “Arm the Kurds”, then it would be the wrong slogan. It would concede to our rulers or to the Turkish state a right to intervene, when there have been too many interventions already. ISIS is the child of the broken promises made by the US to the Anbar Awakening Council at the time of AQI’s defeat in 2006-7. The best sign that a US presence will not help is the evident glee with which Isis is begging for troops to be sent. Their films make this clear; made for a Western audience, they promise an infinite succession of high profile casualties, each one making our leaders look worse, with only one solution – the killings will stop, if only the troops are sent. Isis well understands that nothing would do more to bolster its status in the Arab world than if it were to find itself toe-to-toe with American forces in Iraq and Syria.

And yet, if the alternative to “Arm the Kurds” is “Don’t Bomb Iraq”, then this slogan is actually worse. It plays to a story about the left in which we never directly promote workers’ struggles, women’s rights, but always proceed sideways, crab-like, thinking to ourselves, “Who are the Americans supporting? We must, by definition, be against them.” The Kurdish militia fighting in Kobane are not hardened PKK veterans drawing on a 20-year history of struggle with the Turkish state. They are hastily assembled militia, comprising women in equal numbers and authority to men, brought together by a loose identification with a Kurdish nationalist politics that is infused with elements of secularism and socialism. They have not chosen to take up arms and do not glorify violence. Save for the choice that has been forced upon them – resist or be killed – they are in no essential way different from the local committees that we saw in Egypt during the Arab spring defending towns from Mubarak’s attempted counter-revolution.

Ranged against them is a campaign which makes a glorification of death. There have of course been people before who used violence, including killing, as a form of propaganda. But the anarchists of pre-1914 France blew up politicians or bosses, not aid workers. It was the same – in all essentials – in Ireland, in Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. The left has no obligation to indulge or prettify ISIS. We know that among those volunteering to fight in Iraq and Syria are hundreds of people from Britain and the US. Sometimes, a mere fluke of happenstance distinguishes the people who decided to join the left on anti-war demos from those who have taken a different, worse path.  And so we have a responsibility, while opposing our own rulers and the US, also to repeat certain basic messages – that a society which glorifies in the subjugation of women is a society in which far more than half of the people are going to be unfree. Richard is right, we cannot say “arm the Kurds”, but we can say that – politically, morally, with all the limited solidarity we can legitimately give – we are with the people of Kobane now.