Gregor’s response to my article is a welcome contribution to the debate on how we respond to the recession on the industrial front. I feel however Gregor misses an old point Marx made when developing his own philosophy of revolution – that the ‘philosophers have interpreted the world, in various ways. The point however is to change it’. In that sense my article was not only an assessment of the current situation but an argument of what should be done to change it.First a point on method. Gregor cites the need for a materialist analysis but he seems to use the old categories developed by the late Tony Cliff of the SWP, that of the “upturn” or “downturn”, whilst also accusing me of being of the same stable of the SWP in misreading that we are now in an upturn. In my opinion these categories are unhelpful, and have little in common with Marx’s dialectic of negativity, the notion that forward movement emerges from the negation of obstacles. It is not the embrace of what is, but its negation, that spurs development; not the acceptance of the given, but its critique, that is the path to emancipation. With the categories of downturn and upturn – development is walled off, a situation does not contain the potential to be transformed into its opposite. During the “downturn” in the 1980s, as conceived by Cliff, there was only the overarching defeat and we should cut our cloth accordingly – of course the notion of the upturn is accompanied by a corresponding gushing disorientation. These categories have more in common with manic depression than Marxism.
In fact even during an employer’s offensive there is the potential of its dialectical negation – working class victory. Thus during the last “downturn” its theorists, demeaning the possibility of victory, found themselves at odds with reality during the Great Miners’ Strike, which contained the potential to turn the tide in our favour against Thatcher. Gregor has some similarity with the downturn mentality in his critique, putting a great deal of emphasis on the limitations of the workers’ struggles and the features carried over from the period before the current capitalist crisis.
This new phase which we have now entered has contradictions, particularly arising from the legacy of the previous decades. We have the problem of the current weight of a conservative labour bureaucracy, and that those workers’ actions which have sprung up, both the spontaneous and organised, remain largely sectional and fragmented struggles. It has also been argued before in The Commune that workers display a contradiction in a recession: that whilst some will be prepared to resist others are reluctant due to fear of job loss etc.
Whilst accepting these problems communists need to recognise we are in a new phase of class struggle, to see the struggle as a whole – one which has two sides. That means not only seeing our own difficulties but weighing it up against the immense difficulties of the ruling class. The period which saw a partial recovery of capital from the structural crisis which began in the mid-1970s has hit the rocks, the ruling class is vulnerable in its efforts to restructure in response to the crisis. In this new phase there also arises the dialectical opposite in the form of new expressions of resistance. I contend that the two sets of construction workers’ strikes and the workplace occupations are important sign of such new forms of resistance.
With the exception of the earlier wildcats in the Royal Mail there has been nothing similar for decades: in terms of factory occupations there has been nothing similar since the Caterpillar occupation in 1986. These disputes are of course specific to their workplaces and industry but that is the same with any industrial action in its beginning, the construction strikes should not be underestimated in terms of breaking the mould – this is an industry in which assertive trade unionism has been curtailed for years by the employers, union collusion and corruption. It is because these occupations and wild cats do break the mould that they stand out large: it is not the job of communists to put them down. Whilst having a sober analysis, it is our job to point out their wider significance, how they can become less sectional, how self-organisation can be developed and what potential there exists for generalisation.
In my article and others in The Commune we have never projected such ideas without recognition of the obstacles to be overcome such as the need to re-build and re-organise workplace organisations, the regeneration of the confidence to act independently of the law and the bureaucrats. However I disagree with Gregor that the current situation precludes the possibility of action spreading from one group of workers to another: historical experience shows the left again and again being taken by surprise by workers’ action from below, pushing ahead of its own low expectations.