Chris Kane replies to Gregor Gall’s critique of his article in issue 5 of The Commune.
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.
One thought on “again on ‘revive flying pickets and spread the actions’”
Any assessment of the significance of events in the class struggle must necessarily be provisional. The proof of their significance is determined not by intellectual analysis but by what happens in their wake. Chris says that Gregor seems to think in categories such as “upturn” and “downturn”, but there is nothing as far as I can see that indicates as much in his piece. It is not a question of “putting them (the construction workers strikes) down”. Both Chris and Gregor have welcomed their action. An assessment of their significance is a question of judgement, which can only be tested out by events.
Chris somewhat paradoxically says we have to find a means of spreading “the spontaneous actions that are arising”. If they are spontaneous then you can’t spread them; it is an elemental action that grips people who may not consciously understand what they are doing but feel the need to do it. Spreading action requires organisation. We would have to examine in detail (and this requires talking to the workers involved) the action which did spread. I doubt the degree to which it was spontaneous, or at least mostly spontaneous, because there was a shop stewards organisation behind it. Organisation and consistent preparation most often lies behind action which may appear to be spontaneous.
So far as breaking the law is concerned, it is worth remembering that the shop stewards who organised the action at LOR formally resigned their positions so that UNITE could be said not to be organising the action. An unofficial organising committee was elected to run the dispute. Whatever criticisms might be made of UNITE as far as I am aware they did not repudiate the action.
Chris refers to the London Underground situation where he says that “the union leader refused to defy the anti-union laws”. This shows a lack of understanding of the functioning of the RMT. The union leader in question is presumably Bob Crow. However, control of industrial action is in the hands of the lay member elected full-time Executive Committee (elected for 3 years and then they return to their job), on which full-time officers do not have a vote.
Chris says that “if the RMT had similarly defied the law at this time and struck we would have witnessed a wave in the capital city which could have put workers resistance on a new scale”. This is pure supposition for which Chris provides no evidence whatsoever.
The secret of breaking the anti-union legislation, of course, is to do it and get away with it. Whether you can depends upon the concrete circumstances. Why were the workers involved in the LOR dispute able to do that? Precisely because the government and the employers decided that to use legal action risked exacerbating the situation and spreading the action. It was the degree of solidarity action around the country which was crucial. There may have been an element of spontaneity in this, though there was surely organisation as well which prepared the way.
Acting outside the employment law is not a principle. You need an assessment of the material circumstances and the balance of power between employers and employees. It has to have deep rooted support amongst the mass of the membership.
So far as “Marx’s dialectic of negativity” is concerned, appeals to “marxist method” of this sort, are of little value. Having originally come into politics in Gerry Healey’s SLL I am sceptical about “dialectics” which can be of the crude and mechanistic variety. It is true that history teaches us that there can be rapid changes in the class struggle. It is also true that a generation of activists which has gone through 20 or more miserable years in which defeat followed defeat, can be ‘caught out’ by events. But real life is incredibly complex and multi-faceted rather than a wooden ‘conflict of opposites’.
I don’t read Gregor’s piece as saying that the current situation “precludes the possibility of action spreading from one group of workers to another”. In any case saying that such a possibility does exist tells us nothing of substance. It is the outcome of events which matters.
What was the significance of the engineering construction strikes and of the Visteon occupations? LOR showed the power of solidarity action. It showed the importance of rank and file organisation rooted amongst union members. It showed the potenial ability of workers to act successfully in breach of anti-union legislation, provided that solidarity action is spread sufficiently to make the employers and the government blink, for fear of spreading the action further by using the law against it.
In the case of the Visteon occupations, whilst the action was welcome, its aims were limited to the demand that the workers’ contracts be honoured – the ‘same as Ford’ ones. This it won, though it appears that the workers have not secured their pensions. This is not a criticism of the workers, but an attempt to make an objective assessment of what the action represented and its limits. But the action very favourably contrasts with the example of the passivity with which the closure of the Woolworth’s distribution depots was received.
There does appear to have been some discussion amongst the Enfield workforce about alternative products but it did not develop to the point where there was a serious practical discussion of it.
Finally, on the question of ‘downturns’ and ‘upturns’. The SWP’s concept of the ‘downturn’ was not just a wrong estimation of the situation in the class struggle. It also served the function of providing the political basis on which they wound up their ‘rank and file groups’, which were supposedly united fronts. It is arguable that the purpose of this ‘theory’ was to facilitate this move. Whilst their argument was that a ‘downturn’ precluded the organisation of ‘rank and file goups’ they chose to wind them up rather than allow them to be under the control of the activists involved rather than creatures of their ‘party’.
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