letter to the commune – a view from the periphery

A comrade from York writes

I have read recent issues of The Commune with excitement, interest and a degree of scepticism. My comments reflect, on the one hand the continuing influence of ‘Solidarity for Workers’ Power‘ in the 60s on my political ideas and, on the other, my desire to see some vehicle in the here and now through which I might express a sense of class solidarity and purpose.

They also reflect the material position of class struggle in this locality – isolated, defensive, fragmentary and unsure of itself. They express an aspiration for something better, more energising, courageous and collective. They imagine something communist, in the best sense of that word, beyond the present sense of powerlessness and alienation. They represent a rejection of the fossilised remnants of the left and parallel much of what is contained in The Commune’s statement of aims and principles, especially the desire to renew the communist project – as Solidarity sought to do fifty years ago.

I am now retired, having been successively bank clerk, student, teacher, Post Office clerk, Royal Mail projects manager and an assistant archivist in a national museum. At all times I have tried to do the best I could to support myself and dependents as circumstances and opportunities presented themselves, which is what working-class people (as opposed to professional revolutionaries) do. Throughout I have always believed a better world was possible and struggled to find an outlet for that belief. Fundamentally I believe that capitalism does not work and will always shift between times of crisis and times of relative stabilisation, and always at the cost of those who depend on their labour power for their living. Only the latter have the means with which to change this world and (potentially) the interest to do so.

My levels of optimism have fluctuated wildly over the past fifty years. The prevailing state of class struggle has influenced that. A major problem has been the need to compromise by working through local groups and organisations that did not exactly match my basic principles, but represented the best that was around (including the YCL, SLL, SWP and syndicalist groups). Most of these proved alienating in their behaviours and their politics. In all honesty, I have also been careful to avoid making myself an easy target of employers and therefore unable to meet my primary commitments to dependents. I have not been involved in anything more than workplace activity since 2003. I have been stirred back into finding a new expression of my beliefs by the present economic and political crisis, which I believe may also presage a rising awareness of wider social alienation.

There were moments in my last job when I felt that something positive might be stirring. Even before the latest economic crisis, management were undermining working conditions, by means of restructuring and regrading exercises and by divisive ploys in pay negotiations. They were helped by a number of factors. The staff were split between two unions, one representing mostly the lower paid and the other the ‘professional’ staff – PCS and Prospect respectively, neither of which was able to recruit a majority. Many if not most staff were not unionised. Staff were also split between two types of contract, with one on civil service terms of employment and the other less secure. The union branch in both cases was centred on London, leaving members in constituent museums at York, Swindon and Bradford at one remove and unable to organize independently.

As management tried to impose its will there was initially some resistance, especially to the imposition of performance related pay and its associated bureaucracy. Unfortunately the divisions mentioned above made co-ordinating resistance extremely difficult, and were not helped by the presence of significant numbers of volunteers, some of whom were enthusiastic in scabbing. Strikes were largely symbolic, one-day stunts designed to ‘strengthen the hand of negotiators’, as were follow up actions like working to contract. A change of union negotiator in the middle of one such conflict caused a breakdown in communication between centre and periphery, leaving staff disorientated and eventually demoralised. When calls for further action in a subsequent year came along, the moment of resistance had passed. Attendance at meetings was pitiful, there was no longer a willingness to lose pay through ineffectual one day strikes. Individuals like myself were powerless to stop the drift. When the economic crisis hit, along with the scandals about MP expenses and bankers’ bonuses, far from re-energising resistance, the gap between the minority prepared to fight and the rest became an unbridgeable gulf. The majority of staff quickly swallowed the idea that all public service workers must tighten their belts in the interests of the wider economy, a reflection both of their own sense of powerlessness and a mistaken loyalty to the ‘public interest’ common among public service workers.

Such experience leaves me with more questions than answers. How do we get past trade union structures that have become a brake on grassroots activism? How do we overcome the the problems of sectionalism, grading, locality and the like? How do we take action in the wider locality in the face of the inevitable influence of the old fossils? How do we get to a point where we can effectively counter the dominant bourgeois ideology? How do we create opportunities for people from all walks of life (workers, pensioners, welfare recipients, unemployed) to support each other, debate and discuss freely and organize afresh?

I am encouraged that The Commune seems to represent a current of people asking questions like this and determined to go beyond the sterile sectarianism of existing leftist groups. But I am still left with the basic question – how do I proceed, here and now, in this locality, given these circumstances and my own isolation? How do I make this part of a wider project of communist regeneration when that project itself is so scattered and fragmented and, as yet, there is no real and widespread movement within the working-class? Whatever is done nationally in the way of creating a forum for debate or some sort of federation, as individuals we have to act locally without that luxury and we need support, advice and solidarity. Otherwise those of us who are not ‘professional revolutionaries’ will take the sensible decision that the risks are not worth the potential returns and will keep our heads down and survive as best we can on our personal resources.

Martin Bashforth

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