Waiting for the great leap forward

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Despite the crisis in the SWP; Socialist Worker still publishes interesting articles. One which struck me was Simon Basketter’s ‘How close are the unions to calling a general strike?’ (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=30958) Together with Solomon Hughes (now writing for Private Eye and the Morning Star) and Esme Choonara, Simon is one of the best journalists to have written for Socialist Worker since Paul Foot’s death. In the past he has written well on blacklisting (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=27224). In contrast to the very general pieces aimed at people coming into contact with the left for the first time, which make up too much of SW’s output (and indeed of The Socialist, its nearest direct competitor), Simon’s articles are usually well-informed and revealing.

The focus of his article is on the developments since the TUC’s decision at its 2012 Congress, to consider the practicalities of a General Strike against austerity. Unions views on the proposal were summarised in a private report which some kindly source leaked to SW. Simon doubts it will happen: “without determined pressure from below, they’re not about to encourage the sort of resistance that can win”. According to him, Unite wants there to be a 24-hour political strike against austerity but sees a need to prepare the ground for it further. Its response, he summarises, as “yes but not yet”. As for Unison, it reports that its “members’ taste for and willingness to engage in industrial action is falling … union membership numbers, and density, are falling as the cuts bite.” As you go through the union movement, the numbers of unions unequivocally in favour of action seems to be very few.

Simon cites Unison’s view that a successful general strike could only be the culmination of a serious campaign across unions and communities. The people making this point are at the heads of the union movement, and despite having every opportunity, have done previous little to usher a mass, grassroots campaign into being. But if we could ignore the source, focus on the argument rather than its maker, surely it is right that the desire for a general strike has to come organically, from below. It should be the end, not the beginning.

A bureaucratic general strike, called at the urging of a few generals without popular demands for it, would leave precious little in its wake. Many years ago, Tony Cliff, the founder of today’s SWP, made the point that routinist general strikes, controlled rigidly from above (including Sweden in 1909, Belgium in 1913 and, arguably, even Britain in 1926), weakened and did not strengthen the movement which took part in them: http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1985/patterns/part1.htm.

Simon’s piece ends with the date of the TUC’s next meeting, 24 April. The National Shops Stewards Committee, a Socialist Party-led campaign, has gone further, calling a lobby of the TUC meeting. I have no problems with that call, will argue for its support within the movement and, only provided that I am not at court, I will be at that event myself. Union branches which are active recruit more people than those which are quiet; and what is true at the base of the movement is equally true when you think of the movement as a whole. But, we have been here before, haven’t we? The revolutionary left were the most determined supporters of the pensions strikes of 2011 and 2012, dubbing them “Our day to smash the Tories” (http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=26509). As we all know, rather than the strike galvanising action at the base, a one day strike here was followed by a second day there, the gaps between the strikes grew longer rather than shorter, and a cautious, bureaucratic campaign became weaker the longer it went on.

If I was still a branch secretary, the action I would hoping to see would not be a national general strike, not now, not with the present balance of forces, but a strike in one workplace or industry which had the potential to raise intense feelings of solidarity, either because of the workers involved (eg nurses, firefighters) or because of the issue (something that goes to the heart of the austerity agenda). “Patco” or “1984-5” in reverse would be fantastic; but, as a more modest ask, something like “Besna plus” would be a healthier, sustainable next step.

In the recent SWP crisis, many people in the faction were critical of the SWP’s industrial perspectives, which broadly seem to be to make a long-term alliance with sections of the trade union leaderships, chiefly the leaderships of the PCS civil servants’ union and the National Union of Teachers, in the hope that by inviting them to our events, giving them prime speaking roles, they will have a closer connection with left-wingers in the union movement, and it will be pulled, progressively, into calling more strikes, or even general strikes, which will in turn break the psychological weakness (“lack of confidence”) which holds back rank and file activists from striking. The SWP’s main industrial campaign “Unite the Resistance”, is thus characterised – at the most charitably – as presently a National Minority Movement Mark II, intended to give rise to a future Rank and File Campaign.

Several voices associated with the faction complained that in party publications it is always assumed that almost the entire working class is still organised in trade unions (only around 1 in 4 UK workers works in a workplaces with a recognised union, compared 4 out of 5 before 1979). It was complained that we have made no reckoning with the disappearance of unions from the sectors which generate the most wealth (banking, finance) or from the sectors of the economy which recruit young people (cultural production, and all sorts of businesses, even those as mundane as high street shops, associated with it).

Simon has a sceptical intelligence and you can see in his piece flashes of greater honesty than the party usually allows. As for the two unions which are supposed to be carrying the hopes of the entire working class in their shoulders – Simon portrays the former as hopelessly tied by its alliance with its fellow, more right-wing, teaching union, the NASUWT. “The NUT said it is for action and it looks forward to talking about it. The NASUWT is against it and looks forward to talking about it.” PCS, with RMT and the FBU, belongs within a section near the very end of his article, devoted to the verbal militancy of the “smaller left unions”.

There is a point here, of greater significance than he gives it. Many SWP authors who write about unions imagine that the most important group of activists in Britain have something like the following personal history. They were recruited into the union movement between 1980 and 1985, they studied at university, taking not one but two degrees (a teaching or social work qualification, a masters in journalism, a PhD…). They started their working lives in the public sector and through good fortune and occupancy of “core” public sector roles (i.e. by being University Readers rather than University cleaners; or by being council Housing Officers rather than council security guards) they have avoided outsourcing. Sticking with the left and with the trade unions through a series of defeats, the activists have been “battled-hardened” against others in generation who took private sector jobs, promotions, or benefitted from council house off sell-offs, low-level tax avoidance, etc. They now hold lay positions from which only retirement or death could prise them.

This layer dominates the discussion of “working-class” politics within the SWP. We have never integrated into our thinking the different pressures there are now on workers (directly responsible in increasing numbers for either childcare or adult care) compared to the militants of the 1970s, who were men, living in a world where women’s working was the exception in all age groups save those under 30.

Even our most recent attempt to write about women’s politics theoretically – Sheila McGregor’s recent piece for the International Socialism Journal (http://isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=885&issue=138), while celebrating women’s increasing presence in the workplace and acknowledging that women are much more likely to work part-time than men, is blithe to the contradictions of these processes, the downgrading of “women’s work” into a low-status, low-paid niche, and the inevitable next step, the crisis that the health and council worker unions have had over the past 10 years in negotiating pay deals which do not merely institutionalise unequal pay, with too many “bending the stick” towards promoting better-paid male members of the union over worse paid women (http://www.struckout.co.uk/when-workers-sue-their-own-union-round-two/). Men’s and women’s mutual solidarity in the workplace is, in other words, something to be constantly fought for, rather than something to be assumed.

In particular, Mcregor relies on recent, successful, meetings of the NUT union as a sign that when workers struggle, they unite. But teachers are an atypical group of workers, is that very large numbers of them are engaged in similar contracts: typically working full-time, on collectively (nationally) negotiated contracts, etc. The private sector workforce looks less and less like a staff common room.

People who have similar collective experiences write for our publications; when we write about the trade union movement, we are writing about people who – we assume – look, think and sound, like senior public sector trade unionists. In the recent party crisis a disproportionate role was played by trade unionists in their 50s. In any healthy organisation, a layer of this sort would be worried by its looming retirement. One reason this thought has not occurred to our comrades is that a union activist aged 52 or 54 in the PCS feels “young”; as the trade unionists with whom they ally or argue will be the same age as them or even older. At one point, this generation will hit 65, and then, as has happened to previous left generations (in particular, the industrial cadre of the old Communist Party in around 1979: 35 years or so after had first been recruited) they will vanish leaving no successor generation.

How far this generation is representative of union activists, or the working class in its majority experiences is questionable. When you ask people in this country what is the best single marker of class, the most common answer they give you is education. On this test, the group in a minority within a minority (only 20% of adults in Britain hold any degree at all; fewer still have one and a professional qualification). It is a public sector layer, whereas less than one in four workers is employed in the public sector. “Core” public sector workers, like these, having final salary pensions arguably have as much in common with MPs and bankers as they do with the 9 out of 10 workers who rely on private pensions or no pensions save the state pension. It is a layer whose day to day experiences at work are professional and either didactic (teachers) or even disciplinary (benefits staff, social workers, the council housing officers who will make the decisions as to who to evict under the bedroom tax).

There is a common SWP speech which goes something like the following: “class in Britain is changing. Just look at me, I’m a university lecturer / a teacher / a senior civil servant. Forty years ago, people like me thought they were middle class. Now we go on strike just as often as anybody.” The average bus driver or building worker or nurse who hears that speech may think “Welcome to the working class, brother” (the hope of the speaker is that this will be the response). But the listener may just as well think “You’re a teacher. You don’t look or sound to me like a worker but like a downwardly mobile member of the middle class. I’ll listen to without malice, but you don’t have the same experiences as I do.”

I’m not saying any of this in order to denigrate the left in general or my comrades in particular. I’m just trying to spell out some reasons why we would need a deep draft of humility even if it wasn’t for the recent crisis, and to spell out some of the ways in which more honest and deeper theorising could lead us to notice other kinds of working class experiences, and make the left open to a much wider set of people than it is at present. There are, after all, lots of interesting things happening within the trade union’ movement, from which we could be learning. They include the recreation of rank and file trade unionism where particular circumstances have made it possible (especially in construction), new forms of trade unionism based on signing people up to unions in general rather than a particular union membership scheme (see for example the recent pop-up union at Sussex university, which in turn reminds me of older examples of this, such as Battersea and Wandsworth’s regional organising, funded by their previous success with the Workers’ Beer Company), the use of festivals and marches to create a community consciousness of class, far wider than trade union membership in the locality (the popularity of Tolpuddle and Durham Miners Gala). They include, and this is a more complex model, which needs careful accounting, GMB and Unite’s experiments with “leverage” and political campaigning to win industrial struggles.

Meanwhile, if only we were capable of seeing working-class people as united by more than just work (eg common experiences of housing, benefits, etc), we might have a theory which was capable of explaining why it is we should take part in the bedroom tax protests, and where they fit in Marx’s schema of working-class emanicaption.

Spread class experience beyond white collar unions to “work” in general (speed-up, self-exploitation, the rise of bogus self-employment and its relationship to benefits), and beyond work to workers’ common experiences of housing, education, the family etc – and we might yet find ourselves with a plan to get from the “here” which is a cycle of defeats under capitalism to the “there” which is a movement and a class with momentum behind us again. Simon’s passing specticism, in other words, might help us to find a little political wisdom…

[originally published on Facebook; thread here]

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3 responses »

  1. Very interesting and the sort of stuff the party should be talking about . Shame the heat generated by the recent unpleasantness has made that impossible .

  2. I’m not Facebook connected to you David, so I thought I’d leave a reply here, even though I suspect it means that my reply is sent into the wilderness somewhat. Firstly, it is excellent to hear that these debates were being had among the faction comrades. I heard very little about general political perspectives or industrial perspectives specifically from comrades I know who were in the faction, even though this is precisely the kind of debate the party needs.

    The meat of your article is fascinating and I think broadly correct. My problem with it is that it looks more like sociology than politics. That is, you have given an account of the occupational and technical composition of the British working class, without, as far as I can see, drawing any concrete political conclusions from it. That seems to be to important since one could accept your sociology and your account of the deficiencies of contemporary trade unionism, but still accept that the party is correct to ‘focus’ its energies on workers organised in the public sector. That is, one does not discredit the party’s industrial perspective simply by pointing out that it’s “partial”, that is misses people out and so on. We do not have the capacity to do everything at once, the choice of where our energies are invested is a political one derived from a theoretical perspective.

    While we can’t deny the facts about the changing nature of the working class, particularly the lack of workplace organisation among great swathes of it, the real issue seems to me to revolve around our response to these pressures. Many people no longer in the party like to use the sociology you’ve mentioned as if the political consequences of it were somehow “obvious”. The problem is that they’re not.

    You mention young people in the culture industry or in retail and this is of course an increasingly sizeable section of the working class. But the question of whether they are “important” is a political question. Most proletarian in Marx’s day were, as he knew full well, domestic servants – that is, people unlikely for a variety of reasons to be drawn into the trade union movement. Does Marx’s focus on the early trade union movement “sectional”? It is not enough simply to point out that the working class has changed, unless we think we can come up with a political strategy more suitable that will be ultimately more effective in creating the kind of movement we need.

    And this is hardly new territory: there are countless examples from here and abroad of attempts to organise the type of workers you mention, many led by anarchist unions, that have had some success, but nothing sustained or sizeable.

    The question for revolutionary socialists is not *only* what does the working class look like, but how can the working class change the world. It seems to me that as a beginning to the answer of the latter question, we should look at the working class not at its weakest point, but at its strongest. The strategy of a revolutionary party committed to working class politics cannot be determined by the weakest elements of the class. (I do not intend any moral analysis here, I included myself in this ‘weakest’ element).

    If you look at the political convulsions most associated with the ‘unorganized’ sections of the class (the student revolts, the riots, Occupy and so on), they share a pattern: explosive beginnings followed by atrophy and then decline, leading to demoralization and state violence/repression. It seems to me that if we are really to ‘bend the stick’ and move away from the “old public sector workers” towards these other sections, we need to go in eyes open to the dangers. For my part, I think it would be a mistake.

  3. “I heard very little about general political perspectives or industrial perspectives specifically from comrades I know who were in the faction, even though this is precisely the kind of debate the party needs.”

    No one argues politics in the SWP, they just call their opponents Creeping Feminists and expel them. There’s very little chance to discuss union policy when you’re being attacked by a nest of loonies.

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