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Pit Sense – or No Sense?

September 2, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 15 (Autumn 1995)

Book review of D. Douglass, Pit Sense versus the State: A history of militant miners in the Doncaster area (London: Phoenix Press, 1993)

This thin volume unfortunately does not live up to its title. Most of the book is a recital of union resolutions and a commentary on the activities of Doncaster miners in the N.U.M. during the 1984/85 national strike. For those not familiar with the mining industry or the structure and functioning of the N.U.M. it is also quite difficult to follow, lacking as it does a preliminary chronology of the strike or annotated diagram of the N. U. M.’s organisational structure.

Indeed the purpose behind the writing of this book is difficult to fathom until you reach the last 3 short chapters which are largely a duplication of material previously published in the pamphlet ‘Refracted Perspective’. It then becomes apparent that it is an attempt to provide some documentary evidence in support of Douglass’ defence of trade unionism and the N.U.M. in particular against criticism by revolutionaries. Basically he believes that “unofficial” action is parallel to and supportive of “officiaI” union action, rather than the beginning of a move outise and against the unions, as we believe. Partly this is done by falsely amalgamating the views of the “left” (particularly the trotskyists) with those of genuine revolutionaries. Douglass makes a reasonable job of exposing the left’s contradictory and arrogant attitude towards workers in struggle but his position in the N.U.M prevents him from dealing adequately with revolutionary criticism.

A reasonable demolition job on Douglass’s arguments has already been done in the Wildcat pamphlet “outside and against the unions“. and against the unions”. Other useful material on this debate can also be found in “Echanges” (from BP241, 75866 PARIS CEDEX 18, FRANCE in English and French). We don’t intend to repeat all these arguments ‘here but a few points are worth making.

In saying that trade unions and trade unionism are a barrier to the successful extension and development of the class struggle we are not saying that unions will never support or even organise industrial action.

Firstly, the trade union officials if they are to maintain their role as the workers’ ‘representatives’ and junior partners in the management of capitalism must be able to demonstrate their control of their ‘constituency’. This means that in the face of militancy amongst their members’ action’ of some kind has to be proposed – but the purpose of the action is to maintain their control not promote the workers’ interests.

Secondly, capitalism is made up of numerous sectional interests. The ruling class is only united when faced with a potentially revolutionary opposition In normal circumstances different sections of the ruling class are at each others throats. Different sections will be on top at different times. It is quite possible for trade union officials or a particular group of trade union officials to have to fight for their interests or even their survival within capitalism. That may even require wheeling in their members to do battle on their behalf. In some cases, and we suggest this applied to the miners and the NUM in 1984/5, both the workers and the union officials and their organisation can be under threat at the same time. In this situation understanding the different interests of each when both are involved in a ‘life or death’ struggle is much more difficult, but none-the-Iess necessary. The old adage that “our enemies’ enemies are not necessarily our friends” is worth remembering.

Thirdly, whilst we think it is necessary in any major struggle for workers to move outside the union framework, this process can often happen in practice, in only a halting and partial way. It is up to revolutionaries to encourage this process not try to tie it back into the union framework as Douglass wants to.

And lastly it is true to say that there are many aspects to the nature of the British coal mining industry and its relationship to miners and the union which make the case of the NUM not entirely typical of British and other unions. Douglass continually makes the mistake of generalising from the experience of the NUM rather than looking at the actual experience of other workers and the unions they belong to.

All in all we have to say that the writing of this book was a wasted opportunity.

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What’s Wrong With Anti-Racism

September 1, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 15 (Summer 1994)

Subversion is not anti-racist because “we are all human beings” or “we all have the same colour blood” or “we should all be able to live together, respecting each others different cultures, religions. colour. etc”. Subversion is anti-racist because racism is one of the ideological tools used by our rulers to keep the international working class divided and unaware of the thing which binds all the worlds workers together the fact that we are the working class: that we must sell our labour power to survive: that we are wage slaves.

Racism has been used to justify genocide and slavery in the past but now it is used to help keep class consciousness at bay. Instead of seeing the world as being made up of bosses and workers we are meant to see it filled up with “foreigners”. We are meant to see all the people who live in France as one group, instead of as it really is: a small group of exploiters and the mass of exploited, just as it is in Britain. Just as we are encouraged to identity with the very same scum who rip us off, make us work. sack us, send us to war, we are also encouraged to identity “foreign” workers with the very scumbags who rip them off. We are meant to blame migrant workers for local unemployment. We are meant to fear everyone in Japan or Germany because they are surely conspiring to wreck “our economy”, aren’t they?

Divided and ruled

Just as racism in its basic forms helps dilute and divert working class consciousness so does the “anti-racist” formula: “we are all human beings”. This sort of argument tries to say that “we” are an in it together, “we” means bosses and workers, the leaders and the led, the powerful and the powerless. Once again we (the working class) are supposed to identity with our exploiters (the bosses/bourgeoisie) and THEIR murdering economy, capitalism. This use of the word “we” to describe all humans is a clever way of denying class, notice how Greenies say that “we” have ruined the planet. Are they stupid? Do they really think that all humans are to blame, all the masses of people who have been thrown off the land, all the masses of proletarians who have starved, been killed by poverty, forced to work like slaves all their lives? Anyone with half an ounce of sense can see that the great majority of the worlds population has never had any control over even their own lives let alone the actions of those people who live on our backs. Anyone who uses the word “we” to describe every person in the world either has no idea that there is an exploiting class and an exploited class, or wants to have at least some say in the ordering about and bleeding dry of the working class. And this is certainly the aim of left-wingers who say “we an all human beings”, as well as the “green” movement.

Pro-capitalist anti-racism

The anti-racism of the Labour movement is pro-capitalism anti-racism, you won’t catch the leader of the TUC saying that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to keep the international working class divided. The leader of the TUC will say that racism is a cancer that divides society, and that it is stirred up by right wing elements. Yes, racism may be stirred up by capitalism’s right wing defenders, but society is already divided into classes – only a defender of capitalism and the present order of things could call racism a threat to society. There is NOTHING about this society worth defending but it is essential for workers to fight racism in the working class as part of the struggle to raise class consciousness and unite against capitalism. While the Labour Movement might defend a “black” member of the boss class who is under racist attack, we could not. What we would do is use the incident to point out the fact that racism is a tool of the ruling class to keep us confused and in our place, but we could never defend this “black” boss or her/his “right” to trade, give orders, make profits. etc. – if we defended the rights of anyone to lord it over us we would be anti-working class.


What is race anyway?

At the beginning of this article an example of racism was given which involved only attitudes between France and Britain. Some people might say that this is not racism because the “white” French and the British are of the same “race”, they might call it “chauvinism” instead. The people who argue this obviously think that there are real biological differences between people in the world, they would categorise all people with a similar skin colour into a specific racial type (African, Eurasian etc.) therefore arguing that “racism” can only happen between these different coloured groups and that only “chauvinism” can happen between people of different countries but who share the same colour. Other people argue that racism can only be defined in terms of a “dominant country” exploiting a “minor country”, or the legacy of this exploitation. Thus British, “white” people can only be racist to people from all its ex-colonies, although in effect they really mean anyone in those countries that Britain is perceived to be superior to. In this philosophy people from the ex-colonies cannot be racist towards “white” British people, what whites might perceive as racism (e g., “fuck off you “white” bastard”) is, in fact, anti-imperialism!

Class

It’s not worth trying to find your way around the torturous and inane logic of the proponents of the ideas described above. If we want to understand what racism really has to do with our daily lives, what the reality of it is, then we must look at it from a class perspective. We must understand who actually benefits from it and why it is an enemy of class struggle. Never mind all the dubious philosophical ins and outs of it racism sets workers against workers and obscures who our real enemies are – the manipulators and benefactors of a divided and confused working class.

Papist Plots and Anti-Semitism

If you want any proof of the good work racism has done for the bosses you only have to take a cursory glance through history. In the 1840’s and ’50’s the Tory Party began a campaign against Irish workers in Britain in order to divide the Chartist Movement. Tory henchmen carried out several atrocities against workers in the North and West, which were blamed on Irish workers. Meanwhile the ruling class tried to whip up fear of “Papist Plots” and migrant labour taking work from “the English”. While the specific incidents have been forgotten the effects of this campaign to divide the working class are still evident in England. It’s no coincidence that anti-Semitism began to be encouraged in Germany after World War One. Things had to be done to fragment a proletariat that had created a revolution in 1919 and might try again in the new economic depression of the 1920’s. It was funny how a couple of years ago we heard lots about strikes in the new “unified” Germany but now most of the news concerns the “rising tide of racism”. It has proved very handy for the German Labour Movement and the bosses in general to be able to urge workers to see “society” under threat from nazi types. It’s a brutal way of diverting a rising class combativity, and i who benefits? The bosses of course.

Recession

In general, it seems, we are likely to see more racism when the economy is in “recession” and when it seems likely that workers might fight back. Since the Trafalgar Square riot and the defeat of the Poll Tax we have seen a marked rise in actual racist attacks, media coverage and the Labour Movement getting back on the anti-racist bandwagon. Is it a coincidence?

Today racism does have fairly deep roots in the working class but racism and nationalism tend to be pushed aside
during rising class struggle. What we must ask ourselves is who would benfit from a dissipation of the spirit of rebellion that was brought on by the Poll Tax? Certainly the bosses and certainly the Labour Movement, of which even the left wing (Militant) crapped themselves because of the riot. Instead of it getting out of hand, thinking that if we i beat the Poll Tax we could beat other things, instead of escalating the class struggle, it’s much better for us to worry about rising nazism and go on well-policed and harmless marches, where we can hear our Labour Movement leaders going on about the “threat i to society” posed by racism. But they don’t really want racism to go away, just as they don’t want capitalism, oppression and wage slavery to go away either. And racism is so useful to world capitalism that only a fool could believe that they’d let it disappear. Racism can only be defeated in struggle and only the destruction of global capitalism and the creation of true human community will put it to rest forever, because no longer will it serve any use.

Opportunity Knocks

It will be argued, of course, that things like Equal Opportunities [specifically, the Commission for Racial Equality, 1976] have done a lot to erode racist attitudes and allow “black” workers, as well as women and the disabled, to “do well” in the workplace. In fact bosses in large companies (including local councils, Royal Mail, etc.) see Equal Opportunities as a numbers game.

Managers are given targets for the percentage of “black” workers they should employ and if they achieve these targets they look much better to their superiors. It goes something like this: the Government realises that “‘black” people need to be better integrated into the workforce (why does the State like “black” police officers?), so they set up things like the Commission for Racial Equality, which, very handily, makes the Government look like it disagrees with racism;

Employers are then encouraged to set up an Equal Opportunities policy, being persuaded that they don’t really want to look like an old fashioned racist and sexist company, do they? And anyway, local councils and Government might not buy products and services from companies that don’t pursue Equal Opportunities, they’ve got the “black”, women and disabled vote to think of, after all. And so managers recruit more “under-represented” people, not because anyone in this whole chain is actually anti-racist but simply because everyone in the chain is looking after their own interests (i.e. their profits or power).

We mustn’t let ourselves get caught up in their game. The very least that Equal Opportunities might have done for “black” workers in Britain is have made it easier to get a job now. But even this is not true, is it? There is a far greater percentage of “black” people unemployed than “white” people, let’s face it, it was easier for “black” people to get work in the 1950’s, when there was no such thing as Equal Opportunities!

The capitalists are playing games with us, “Black” workers are supposed to defend a “society” that has Equal Opportunities written into law. A society that says it is anti-racist, and yet “black” workers are worse off now than they were 20 or 30 years ago (as all workers are, of course), and for all this Equal Opportunities bullshit we now have another “rising tide of racism”. Racism and “anti-racism”: for our rulers both are tricks to keep us under the heel.

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Beyond Rank and Vile Trade Unionism

September 1, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 14 (Spring 1994)

First it is necessary to spell out what we do not mean – that is the myth of a ‘rank and file’ straining at the leash, only held back by a cunning and devious trade union bureaucratised leadership. Today it is obvious such a movement does not exist, but it is doubtful if in reality this ever was the case except for a brief period after the First World War. There have been rank and file groupings in many industries and unions, but except for isolated instances and in very specific circumstances they have not challenged the outlook or mentality of conventional trade unionism. So first we have to establish to some extent what constitutes a genuine challenge to existing trade unionism rather than merely a ‘loyal opposition’ to existing workers organisations. (In this regard we do not refer merely to the existing trade unions – but to the whole outlook and philosophy of what is known as ‘ the Labour Movement’.)

Today our contention is that what passes for the ‘Labour Movement’ is entirely reactionary. We do not mourn its passing, but wish to point out the necessity of recognising this reality. Everything that has in the past been presented as the socialist project is now revealed as part of capitalism’s management of its crisis. All that has hitherto been assumed as being in the workers interests – the welfare state, post war consensus politics, the commitment to ‘full employment’ is now revealed as merely the result of the old movements’ politics to tie us more closely to the system.

As such it must be rejected.
Workers Movement versus the Movement of the Workers.

Now this might seem a rather pessimistic conclusion, but we believe it is as well to start off from a realistic appreciation of the situation so that anyone proposing either to start a ‘rank and file ‘ grouping or faced with one already in existence can begin to arrive at some kind of analysis of what they are doing. In our experience there has been and is far too much uncritical action simply for actions sake. We want to avoid the situation where militants end up isolated, left only to protest futilely at the latest ‘betrayal’ or even worse in the name of some mythical ‘unity’ obliged to present the latest stitch up between management and unions as some kind of ‘victory’. Much of the present disorientation amongst the working class is not the result of the ‘Thatcher revolution’ (which we are convinced will soon be revealed as nothing of the sort,) but of the fact that a sea change has taken place in politics internationally and the old certainties (held in place by the Cold War) have gone. The traditional institutions that the working class looked to for help in times past, principally the Unions and the Labour Party, are now revealed for what they are pillars of the system and defenders of the status quo.

We propose to look at ‘rank and file’ groups under five main headings which although they are treated separately here for the purposes of analysis are in fact inter-dependent and inter-related. It is our view that we are working towards a coherent outlook, and one of the main purposes of attending this conference is not only to broaden and deepen our own understanding but to see if what we have worked out strikes a chord with other participants or even if someone else has arrived at a better understanding than ourselves. However it would not be correct to give the impression necessarily that we are prepared to give up on what we have fought so hard to understand. For instance our understanding of the place of trade unions in capitalist society or the role of the Labour Party is not something we are prepared to compromise.

That being said our five headings are as follows:-

* The Distinction between Minority and Mass (or majority organisations)

* A ‘rank and file’ populism against the development of a coherent political understanding and outlook (or reformism versus revolution)

* The relationship between rank and file organisations and the existing trade union structure

* The question of the creation of permanent institutions of a rank and file nature.

* The relationship (if any) of rank and file movements to political parties

(i) The distinction between minority and mass organisations.

In modern capitalist society mass organisations of a genuinely representative type no longer exist. It is inconceivable that we will witness a rebirth of trade unions as mass organisations. It would be as well to remember that the original founding of trade unions in this country was by minorities of skilled craftsmen. Mass unionism is very much a product of modern society and modern unions owe their structure and organisation to the post Second World War consensus which is now breaking” up.

In this situation it would be as well for rank and file movements to recognise their necessarilv minority character, rather than pretending to speak for the amorphous mass of workers. If this is the case then they have no need to hold back or pretend that initially at least they are anything other than political organisations pursuing a particular programme. It therefore makes no sense to hide this political character, rather it should be openly acknowledged. Moreover it is our view that such movements will be obliged to take on an increasingly social dimension. It is no longer possible to maintain the old social-democratic split between ‘political’ and economic’ questions on which the Labour Party was founded.

This leads us directly on to our second heading concerning the question of populism versus a coherent political outlook.

(ii) Reform versus Revolution

In the past we have had cause to question what we termed ‘money militancy’. By this we meant that whatever reforms we won in terms of money or working conditions, of necessity, such ‘victories’ always turned out to be short lived. Inflation always ate away at our gains. We always found ourselves in a minority shouting about a ‘betrayal’ – but if the union demands £10 should a revolutionary policy be to demand £20? Today although it is possible that a new wages movement might emerge, we doubt that it could achieve even the modest gains which were so easily wiped away in the 70s. So around what practical programme could a rank and file movement emerge?

Today the system itself constantly proposes reforms with which it hopes to draw in any opposition, so what attitude should a rank and file movement take to this process. Our answer to this is to reject the whole project for reforming the system and to argue for its abolition. This is not to dismiss anyone who finds themselves drawn into existing organisations – it is above all a practical question. In the past socialist groupings had to come to practical decisions on this point. The pre First World War SLP actually forbad its members from taking up union positions – again this leads us directly onto our next point, the relationship of any rank and file movement to the existing trade unions.

(iii) ‘Rank and File’ and the existing Trade Unions

It should be fairly clear by now that we see no role for the trade unions in any future stuggle. We do not want to make a fetish of this, it obviousy’ depends on circumstances. But even where a movement utilises the existing union base machinery (for example combine committees, or local area committees) and it is looked on favourably by the local trade union bureaucracy (as regards funds, premises, printing facilities and so on) at crucial moments (that is the only ones that matter) this dependence will be the undoing of the movement. A classic example of this was the London Busmen’s Combined Committee broken by Bevin and the TGWU in 1937.

Not only therefore do we see no positive role for the trade unions, hut we believe of necessity that any rank and file movement can only emerge in opposition to them. This has been the experience abroad and especially we believe in Italy with the COBAS movement. Indeed in our opinion it is a good sign of the health of such a movement to see how much opposition from the existing unions it inspires. It also follows therefore that all attempts at democratising the unions or pressurising union leaderships to take action are futile and a waste of time and indeed positively reactionary.

(iv) Permanent Organisation?

We have shown how it is impossible for new mass organisations to emerge except at times of exceptional crisis (indeed one of the ways you know you are in a crisis is the practical question of the emergence of such institutions). In our view it would be a mistake to try and artificially prolong the life of such organisations outside periods of struggle by making them permanent. If we accept that movements ebb and flow, that disputes are going to be resolved on whatever terms at least temporarily, then the need for a fighting organisation fades away. Any attempt to artificially prolong it risks ossifying it at best and at worst turning it into a fully fledged capitalist organisation (by obliging it to maintain itself with finance, permanent staff or the usual risk with working class organisations – the treasurer runs of with the funds).

Prior to the dockers attempts to take over (by joining ‘en masse’) the ‘blue’ union (NASD) in the 1950s, rank and tile organisation was kept alive as a political idea not by any organisational device. It was only the fact that some dockers influenced by Trotskyism wanted to take over a union (and ultimately to have some influence over the Labour Party itself) that made them believe that they could ‘take shelter’ under the umbrella of the NASD.

(v) Relationship to Politics Parties

If you’re not part of the solution then you must be part of the problem!

We have said already that any rank and file movement is by its nature the organisation of a political minority. How then does it differ from any one of the different Leftist groups which are also political minorities?

Only in the ways we which we have already outlined. We have already stated our views on the old ‘Labour Movement’, and as there are not many leftist groups which would subscribe to them so they are almost automatically excluded.

If only life were so simple!

Apart from those movements which are merely fronts for already established parties – a genuine rank and file movement would begin by trying to outgrow its sectional roots, by breaking out of the limitations that capitalist society imposes on it and become social in character. Other political groupings, who of course it is impossible to exclude from such a development either help or hinder such a process.

Graham

Burnsall Strike: with friends like these, who needs enemies?

August 31, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 13 (Summer 1993)

For over a year the strikers at Burnsall Ltd in Smethwick, where the conditions workers have to bear are appalling even by capitalist standards, have had to contend with the double enemy of the boss and the unions.

The GMB, to which the strikers “belong”, has been sabotaging their strike in the time-honoured fashion. It has now plunged the dagger deep into the workers backs and called off the strike.

Despite this, and despite serious intimidation by the GMB to make the strikers comply, it seems they are determined to continue their fight.

What they need is support from other workers.

The only way forward for workers in struggle is to link up, and gain the active support of more and more workers. The bosses and unions, despite their charades, are in the last analysis united against the working class and we must be united against them, and not be taken in by the unions pretence at being on our side. This is true in all strikes and all struggles.

The case of the Burnsall strike, however, reveals another false friend of the workers – left-wing groupings with their own political agenda to superimpose on the strike.

DIVIDE AND RULE

The Manchester Burnsall Strikers’ Support Group has produced several leaflets which have been portraying this strike as a black issue (most of the strikers being Asian women) rather than a workers’ issue. For instance their leaflets have slogans such as “Black Workers Fighting Back” and “Black Workers Demand JUSTICE” (sic); one of the leaflets relates that on one occasion “the strikers were attacked by three white scab workers from the factory”. As though the fact that the scabs were white, rather than the fact that they were scabs (or indeed racists) was the problem. An approach such as this “support group” is taking is practically calculated to strengthen “racial” divisions and hatred between workers.

If it needs saying, let us say it again – the working class can only free itself from present day slavery by uniting as a class, all workers together, black and white, male and female, whatever the divisions our rulers use to keep us weak. The dead end of “racial” or national identity will only lead workers to perdition, as it has always done in the past (e.g. the anti-colonial movements which have given the workers nothing but more of the same). Only realising our identity as workers with a common interest world-wide, against all capitalist factions, will lead us to victory.

Groups like the Manchester Burnsall Strikers “Support” Group should be roundly condemned Their politics are a lethal poison for workers and for the cause of liberation of the whole working class.

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Solidarnosc ~ Trade Unionism in Poland

August 31, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 14 (Spring 1994)

The 1980 workers’ uprising in Poland was not the first time the working class there had fought back against state capitalism. ln 1956, 1970 and 1976 workers had taken to the streets when the state had tried to impose cuts in their standard of living by raising food prices.

The strength of the working class was such that, despite severe repression, in each case the state gave in. These uprisings underlined the fact that there was a line beyond which the state could not go at that time. They also meant that the state was forced to constantly rethink its strategies for increasing the competitiveness of Polish capital. The state’s solution to the 1970 revolt was to try to modernise the economy by importing western capital and technology. This was to be paid for by exploiting the peasantry in order to subsidise the money wages of the workers with cheap food After 1976 the idea of autonomy for enterprise management was introduced. This was to prove crucial in the early stages of 1980.

Despite their best efforts, the Polish state built up a huge debt to western banks by 1980 – approximately $28 billion. It’s response was to try to cut the subsidies to workers and on June 30th announced a “reorganisation of meat distribution”, which meant a 60% increase in the price of meat.

The working class responded with a wave of strikes effecting factories in Ursus (tractors), Huta Warzawa (steel), Poznan (metallurgy), Tczew (transmissions), Mielec (aviation) and Swidnica (aviation).

The party’s response was to try to negotiate locally. They couldn’t risk losing the goodwill of the West, nor risk a major disruption of production which would endanger its ability to service the massive foreign debt. The policy of local enterprise autonomy made this policy easier to put into practice The hope was that it would keep workers divided. The result was the exact opposite. Workers in other plants saw their fellows winning demands and immediately went on strike themselves’ They took the opportunity to elect strike committees and organise themselves. By July 15th there were 50 strikes going on. Two days later the city of Lublin, with a population of 300,000 started a general strike.

Even at this stage there was a major change with previous uprisings. In earlier years workers had taken to the streets, this time they remained in their workplaces to avoid being gunned down. They remained where they were strong and united.

The strike wave continued until early August. At this point the state decided on a new approach. If the carrot had failed, now they would go back to trying the stick. The problem they faced was in finding who to repress. These strikes were examples of workers organising themselves. There were no obvious leaders who had instigated it, nor easy targets to pick on. There were underground groups and “free trade unionists”, but they had not played a central role in the struggle up to this point. Failing anyone else to repress, the state turned on these people.

Repression started on August 11th when a bin man was arrested for 9 hours. Two days later, 3 Lenin Shipyard workers connected with underground unions were arrested. Up to this point, Gdansk, Sopot and Gdnyia (the centres of the shipbuilding industry) had been mostly quiet. The result was a general strike that spread rapidly from shipyard to city. A strike committee of 10 was elected (including Lech Walesa who had climbed over the wall when the strike broke out) which was soon joined by 100 delegates from other departments. They published a list of demands, some of which were economic, some political.

By 18th August 100 enterprises in a 100km area around Gdansk were on strike. An inter factory strike committee (the MKS) was set up with two delegates from each factory on strike. The MKS controlled the entire region and resolved all problems of food and transportation.

MKS were set up in Szczecin and the Silesian mines. The strike wave had spread all over Poland, accompanied by self-organisation of the working class that was challenging the authority of the state in a way that had never happened before in Poland or most of Europe. But it also contained the seeds of its own destruction. Soon the strike wave was to be hijacked by those with quite specific objectives that turned out to be against those of the workers.


ENTER THE KOR.

The repression that followed 1976 led a group of intellectuals to set up a Committee for defence Against Repression, the KOR. This was to provide legal defence for those in need and material support for families. It was to become an important centre of opposition to the Communist Party (PUWP). It was soon joined by supporters of free trade unions. The political objectives of the KOR and the free unions were to Iiberalise the Polish state and to make Polish capital more competitive. These objectives can be summed up by quoting from the founding charter of underground unions in Northern Poland drawn up in April 1978. It stated:

“Only free unions and associations can save the state. since only democratisation can lead to the integration of the interests and the will of the citizen and the interests and power of the state.”

Lech Walesa was one of the signatories of this charter.

Supporters of KOR had a lot of respect in Poland. They endured state repression and carried on their work. There is no denying that they were brave men and women. It is right to deny that their objectives coincided with the needs of the working class.

They had little role in the early days of the uprising. Ironically it was the state which turned them into its leaders. Looking for someone to pick on, it was supporters of KOR that they found. This reinforced the idea that they were the state’s strongest opponents, so workers looking for new ideas increasingly turned to them for leadership. Thus it was that Walesa got elected to the strike committee at Gdansk. even though he did not work in the shipyard he represented. Other oppositionists became members of the MKS Praesidium on the basis of their being experienced negotiators.

NEGOTIATIONS

The original demands of the Gdansk strikers were as political as they were economic. They contained all sorts of mystifications about democracy, free elections and judicial independence, but nonetheless their central thrust was simple – to get rid of the Communist regime in Poland. This terrified the oppositionists. Bogdan Borusewicz, a leader of KOR in Gdansk said “Asking for pluralist electionss is maximalism. If the Parry gave in, Moscow would intervene. There must be no demands which either force the government to resort to violence or lead to its collapse. It was the ending of censorship that led to intervention in Prague. We must leave them some exits.” By the time the demands had been finalised, the KOR had got their way. The state would be allowed a way out.

The government realised that it had to negotiate On September I st the Gdansk Accords were signed. Lech Walesa immediately called for a return to work. He said: “The strike is over. We did not get everything we wanted, but we did get all that was possible in the current situation. We will win the rest later because now we have the essentials: the right to strike and independent unions.”

Kuron, an important KOR leader, said “The unions ought to be partners in the administration, protectors of the workers. “

Work resumed. The MKS at Gdnask and Szcezin formed themselves into branches of Solidarnosc. By the end of the month it represented 90% of the workers in Poland.

UNION AGAINST THE WORKERS

Wałęsa

What was really amazing was just how quickly Solidarnosc began to act like established trade unions in the West. Its leaders quickly get themselves into positions of being intermediaries between the workers and the state. In the guise of “representing” the working class they went around stopping strikes, toning down wage and other demands in the interests of “national unity”. As early as September 16th, Solidarnosc in Gdansk warned against wildcat strikes – even though it was these same strikes that had started the uprising just two months before!

The Gdansk Accords had left unsettled the workers economic demands. Very important amongst these was the right to not work on Saturdays. There were many strikes in the winter of 1980-81 over this. The Solidarity National Coordinating Committee issued a statement on January 28th asking branches not to call any more strikes. Walesa said: “The situation is dangerous. We need national unity. To achieve it, we, government and workers, ought to seek a common path: we should unite in the country’s interests. We extend out hand to the government.”

The government again tried repression as a tactic. After a particularly nasty incident at Bydgoszcz in March, Solidarity was forced to do something when some of its organisers were beaten up by the militia. They called for a token 2 hour work stoppage. When the government refused to yield, Solidarnosc called for a general strike on March 31. In the best tradition of union bosses, Walesa negotiated with the state, got a few minor concessions
and called the strike off, without consulting anyone.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. Faced with pressure from the working class, Solidarnosc called for token strikes, did deals and called off strikes. A common spectacle was Walesa flying round the country in a government helicopter telling workers to go back to work.

However, the strikes continued. October and November 1981 saw the beginning of street demonstrations which the union could not control. By the middle of November there were more than 400,000 wildcat strikers in Poland.

After its September and October Congress, Solidarnosc started to make political demands of the state. It wanted to move towards Poland becoming a western style democracy, so it could operate as a western style trade union. Having lost much of their political control over their members, Solidarnosc’s leaders hoped that such reforms would enable them to regain it.

The state could not permit such a challenge to its authority. Solidarnosc was useful when it could control the working class. Faced with a working class outside its control the state called upon the Polish military to take over and reestablish order. In 1980 the military, faced with a united and confident working class, and trusting in the Party’s ability to rule, had been unwilling and unable to do this. Fourteen month’s of Solidarnosc’s malign influence had undermined the unity of the working class, at the same time as the Party had lost its legitimacy and ability to govern. The army took over in the first military coup in a state capitalist country. Workers fought back but were put down ruthlessly by the army. Many were given long prison sentences, others killed. Walesa was put into “preventative custody”. Clearly he was not someone who should he dealt with too harshly. Maybe they saw him as a person they would need to deal with in the future.

HOW DID IT ALL HAPPEN?

It is too easy to look at the Polish uprising as being a simple case of good workers against bad bureaucrats. We have tried to show that the aims and activities of Walesa, the Solidarnosc bureaucracy and the KOR were against the interests of the working class. They were able to substitute their own agenda for that of the working class. What we have not tried to show is that the working class were champing at the bit for revolution in 1980 and only held back by the bureaucrats. Such a view, favoured by many, pays no regard to reality.

The uprising was a result of the self-organisation of the working class. It wasn’t the result of any planning by underground bodies. The initial objectives of the working class were economic, but we have seen how many workers had political objectives which included getting rid of the Stalinist state.

However, most workers saw Solidarnosc as being their own creation. Even after a year of backstabbing, Solidamosc had a membership comprising 90% of the Polish working class. There was a very real tension between the centre and the branches, with rank and file members pushing demands forward, fighting for them and then the centre acting to diffuse the situation. Within the branches there was still a healthy tendency to struggle which had not at this stage succumbed to the ideology of trade unionism. It was the failure of the bureaucrats to gain control of the branches that led the army to seize control in the end.

It is hardly surprising that for many workers Solidarnosc was a creation they supported. For years they had been fighting against the Polish state. Each time they rose up their gains were snatched back. They were looking for something that would guarantee their gains. Because they knew no different, they believed that free unions were the answer. What they had in mind was the kind of idealised conception of unions that keeps workers supporting them throughout the world.

If workers here, who have years of experience of sell-outs still support the unions, is it surprising that Polish workers should see them as an advance?

Further, Polish workers knew that they were on their own. There were no similar actions in other parts of the Soviet bloc, and especially no similar activity in the USSR itself. They knew that if they pushed too far the result could only be Soviet intervention and massacre. This situation was made worse by a strong nationalist tendency which saw the situation as being a purely “Polish” one. Active revolutionaries would have tried to spread the struggle as internationally as possible.

LESSONS

Any attempt by workers to set up permanent organisations to negotiate with the state and employers will eventually go the same way as Solidarnosc. Trying to fulfil that role immediately raises questions of reaching compromises, doing deals, seeing the other side’s point of view. For workers that means accepting speed ups, productivity deals, lower living standards, job cuts and so on. It means accepting the boss’s right· to own and control the means of production.

The logic of class struggle is the opposite of this. It questions the right of the boss to manage and ultimately brings into question who controls society. It is clear to us that the only way forward for our class is to get rid of the whole buying and selling system and the state and bosses who go with it.

Despite the failure of the workers in Poland, despite their setting up of Solidarnosc, their uprising shows us many positive things.

It shows us that even in the most unlikely of situations, up against ruthless enemies, the working class is capable of fighting hard and taking on the enemy. The way they organised themselves, in their strike committees and the ways their delegates reported their deliberations were an example for others.
It shows the limits of struggles within national borders and the need to spread the struggle internationally. When our class is united and the struggle is international, there is nothing that can not be accomplished.

Timex Strike ~ Time For A Change

August 30, 2010 1 comment

From Subversion, No. 13 (Summer 1993)

The courageous resistance of 343 Timex strikers in Dundee to massive cuts in their wages and conditions and the subsequent threat to close the factory has been well documented else where.

They, along with other smaller groups of workers such as those at “Burnsalls” and “Middlebrook Mushrooms” have demonstrated a long overdue militant determination to stand up against the bosses ever increasing demands for cuts in our standard of living and the preservation of their profits.

But courage and militancy on their own aren’t enough to win this kind of dispute in the current world economic crisis. If they were, then much stronger groups such as the printers, seafarers and miners would not be in the disarray they are today.

Although Timex strikers rejected the attempts of national union ‘leaders’ to negotiate shabby deals with their bosses, they were content, initially, to leave the wider struggle, away from the workplace and the locality, to what they felt was ‘their’ union.

The support for regular mass pickets from workers in Dundee and elsewhere in Scotland and England was indeed impressive and achieved some notable, if passing, victories. But those of us with longer memories couldn’t help but listen to the echoes of previous failed disputes, like Grunwicks in London, which relied heavily on picketing as a solution. The calls for “consumers” to boycott Timex products, however valid, also has worrying echoes in the Seamen’s Unions efforts to derail the Channel Ferry strikes.

Timex workers recognised the need for ‘solidarity’, as other workers recognised the important knock on effect of a victory for the Timex workers on their own disputes. Support in the form of union resolutions, donations, demonstrations and attendance at pickets has been forthcoming.

What has been missing is the active solidarity involved in spreading the strike, not only to other workers in the multi-national of which Timex is just part, but across both industrial and geographical boundaries. The development of common actions, with common demands, directly under the control of those involved.

This isn’t just the responsibility of Timex workers but something which we all need to take on board.

In the current situation ‘isolation’ means defeat and leaving things in the hands of the union, much less the political parties of all hues means isolation.

Timex workers have begun to organise themselves to seek active solidarity from others both in the multinational and locally. This may prove to be too little, too late, but the fight certainly isn’t over yet.

Whatever the outcome we should take heart from the determination and courage of our class brothers and sisters at Timex and learn both from the positive and negative lessons of this strike in the struggles to come.

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Bollocks to Clause Four

August 30, 2010 6 comments

From Subversion, No. 16 (Spring 1996)

The Miners lead the way

Miners triumphantly return to Tower Colliery after the miners strikes of 1984/5

What a sight, 239 miners, relatives and their supporters marching up the hill singing triumphantly (in Welsh), the Internationale and the Red Flag, as Tower Colliery was re-opened under employee ownership’ . . . just as their predecessors had in 1947, when the coal mines were nationalised! Each miner had invested £8,000 of redundancy money and in addition collectively taken on huge additional debts to launch this new venture.

Tyrone O’Sullivan – NUM official, a driving force behind the buyout and now personnel director (no change there really!) said of all this, in confused comment to the press:

‘. . . yesterday was a triumph for a different kind of socialism and for a fight back against old-fashioned state capitalism’

‘. . .this is what I call real nationalisation’

‘Making a profit has never been a problem for socialists. . . here we’ve got equal shares.’

Ann Clwyd, Labour MP, added for good measure:

‘It’s not the Union Jack that’s going to be raised over this pit but the Welsh dragon.’

So there you have it. The ‘new venture’ is ‘real socialism’ not ‘state capitalism’, but also at the same time it is ‘real nationalisation’. It also apparently combines the best spirit of both workers’ internationalism and Welsh nationalism’

One of the miners on the other hand (not one of the new directors) had a more pragmatic view:

‘I don’t really feel I’m an owner of the pit I don’t see myself as a capitalist but as a lucky man who can go back to work at last after nine months.’

Well fair enough – but for how long? At Monktonhall colliery a good deal further along the road with its own employee buyout they’ve just gone on a wildcat strike in a dispute very reminiscent of the old NCB days.

Miners leaving Tower Colliery after their final shift in 2008

What’s it all about then?

Certainly nationalisation either as part of the so-called ‘mixed economy’ or in its recently deceased full-blown form in Russia and Eastern Europe, has been no friend of the working class. It can as O’Sullivan initially suggested best be described as (one form of) ‘state capitalism’, with all the usual trappings of money, markets, wages, profits and hierarchy.

Of course, O’Sullivan and his ilk fought to save nationalisation despite this, because they had a niche within the old system to protect. The revelation that it was really a load of crap only came after the battle had been lost and he’d got himself a new niche in the workers’ company.

Nationalisation of the coal mines and other key industries in the past had its role to play, but for capitalism not the workers. As Victor Keegan, a supporter of past nationalisation put it:

‘. . . because public ownership provided a humane and efficient umbrella for the rundown of the mines that would have been impossible to achieve with the old owners.’

Well. we’re not sure redundant miners and their families would agree with the ‘humane’ pan of that, but you get the drift.

Apart from anything else, nationalisation in Britain involved generously buying out the old owners, largely with government bonds on which the state continued to pay interest. So profits in the re-structured industry went into the state coffers and then out again to the capitalists the state borrowed from. The new coal industry also continued to provide a secure source of power to the rest of capitalist industry in the postwar period and released capital investment for the reconstruction of other sectors of the economy.

So-called revolutionaries like Militant and the SWP of course saw through this and demanded ‘nationalisation without compensation’. The fact is this would prove disastrous if carried out by an isolated national government, as a result of market isolation and military intervention. In the case of Russia where the state nationalised industry already taken over by the workers or abandoned by its capitalist owners, the party bureaucracy simply substituted itself for the old bosses at the expense of the workers and then sent them off to fight a war on their behalf.

Mr. Blair and the Modernisers

When you think about it, that nice Mr Blair is right – nationalisation is out of date. It served its purpose (for capitalism) in the past, but in a world of major economic power blocs, like the European Union, NAFTA and APEC etc, spanning many countries, and with industry hungry for huge sums of capital investment beyond the scope of nationally-based organisations to provide, nationalisation is a hindrance to the expansion of capital.

There’s another problem though. Nationalisation ( or public ownership, if you prefer) whether by the central or local state (sometimes called municipalisation) was dead useful to capitalism to get its own way, while kidding workers that they were on the way to socialism, or at least a ‘fairer’ society. Tories as much as Labour recognised the value of this. There was pretty much a consensus between them in post-war Britain, backed up by the common assumptions of Keynesian economics philosophy.

Now they need to perform the same sort of trick without nationalisation, which is where the Tories “people’s capitalism’ and the Labour Party’s redefinition of socialism and the debate on Clause 4 come in. We are witnessing the emergence of a new consensus.

The New Fool’s Gold


We now find the Labour Party very interested in promoting employee ownership schemes. For inspiration, they are looking to the widespread systems of co-operative ownership in Europe, particularly in the agricultural sector, the employee ownership of industry in the USA (like TWA and North West Airlines) where some 10, 000 companies are at least partially owned by those who work in them and even to some older established systems in this country like the consumer Co-operative Society and the John Lewis Partnership. Other ideas about worker share options and worker directors are also being explored.

It’s a short step from this to suggesting, as Andrew Bennett MP and the Guardian’s Victor Keegan do that workers’ investment in pension funds and more directly in the likes of British Gas etc. is already well on the way to some new form of social ownership.

Stephen Pollard, head of research for the Fabian Society (didn’t they have something to do with the original clause 4?!) now says that, on paper at least, Britain already has ‘common ownership’ via the Pension and Insurance Fund Industry. Socialism really has come ‘like a thief in the night’ after all! Of course for Daily Mirror pensioners the thief wasn’t ‘socialism’ but Robert Maxwell.

Andrew Bennett, who by the way thinks it’s a mistake to re-write clause 4, has already re-written it in his own mind by referring to ‘. . . shared ownerships’ of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ in line with the new philosophy.

Turning in his Grave

Peter Hain MP, being a bit more of an intellectual, tried his hand at providing a few historical precedents in support of the new approach when he says:

‘An alternative libertarian socialism, embracing figures as diverse as William Morris, Tom Mann, Robert Owen and Noam Chomsky, stresses decentralised control, with decision making in the hands of producers and consumers.’

Though his real reason for opposing nationalisation is the more mundane one of its ‘costing too much.’

Hain obviously isn’t a Radio 4 listener, otherwise he would have heard the serialisation of William Morris‘ ‘News from Nowhere’ in which the view of Socialism as a moneyless, wageless, marketless society of free access is made quite clear. In this story of a futuristic society, the Houses of Parliament are put to good use as a store for manure. So in one sense at least things are the same – the contents of that place still stink!

Ownership and Control

Apparently behind Hain’s support for New Labour’s ideas is his belief that ‘control is as important as ownership’ (in fact he opposes one to the other). But this differentiation only makes sense if ‘ownership’ is perceived in a purely formal or legalistic sense. In the real world, ownership can only be defined in terms of control. Private ownership means exclusive control of something by a private individual, group or section of society to the exclusion of all others.

In Russia for instance. where the state used to own most industry and agriculture, the ‘people’ were legally the owners, but it was the bureaucracy which had exclusive control of the means of production and therefore they who in PRACTICE owned the means of production.

Equally, a workers co-op whilst instituting common ownership amongst its members (if we ignore for the moment the rights of its creditors), is a form of private ownership as against the rest of society.

So long as the relationship between workers co-ops (or any other forms of worker controlled units) is governed by money and the market or indeed by any means of equal EXCHANGE, then so long will people as a whole fail to exert conscious social control over society as a whole. So long as production remains primarily geared towards exchange on the market rather than towards directly satisfying peoples self-expressed needs them ‘common ownership of the means of production and distribution’ will not have been achieved.

Furthermore, in time, the pressures of production for the market inevitably take their toll of any innovative attempts at equality within individual co-ops or other similar set-ups.

As an aside, you’ll note that we don’t talk about common ownership of the ‘means of exchange’ since as you have probably already gathered we consider this to be a totally contradictory statement. You can’t exchange that which is held in common or the products of that held in common.

Thus, Clause 4 is in both theory and practice a statement of state capitalist aims and has nothing to do with socialism in its original sense. Labour’s ‘new’ ideas are a just a mixture of traditional and worker-administered forms of capitalism regulated by the state. Just a different form of state capitalism really!

Just remember, painting America’s TWA airline red didn’t make it part of a communist transport system!