An essay by Sheila Cohen. It is offered as a response to the question set by the Daniel Singer Foundation: “Given the devastating effects of the present crisis on working people, what proposals for radical reform can be raised which are both practical to the vast majority while moving us towards the goal of socialism?”
The current global crisis of capitalism makes the task set by the Daniel Singer Millenium Prize Foundation look relatively straightforward. Immediate proposals for radical reform would clearly include the demand that Western governments everywhere take over the banks and use the resulting trillions to fund health care, re-establish humane and affordable housing, rebuild education at every level, provide humane child- and elder-care, not to mention ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and rescuing the devastation to humanity represented in Haiti, Somalia, and other disasters of the “developing” world. Such proposals would certainly be radical, relevant to the vast majority of the human race and, if granted, enough of a blow to global capital to knock it off its pedestal more conclusively than Saddam Hussein.
But practical? The problems scarcely need spelling out. Governments, as currently constituted in the dominant capitalist countries, have shown pretty conclusively that they do not respond to proposals, demands, campaigns – even monster protests like the millions-strong anti-war marches in 2003. True, Thatcher yielded to the anti-poll tax riots in 1990… But, in ideological years, this happened centuries ago. As Daniel Singer himself noted in his final call to arms, “The ideological task is…immense, because we have gone so far backwards that sometimes one has the impression of starting all over from scratch” (Singer 1999, p264). And not only, of course, the ideological task; the political, strategic and material task of toppling an immense, homogeneous, complacent colossus from its plinth. Capitalists and their governments learn constantly, ruthlessly, how to resist pressure for their demise. Socialists, it seems, do not.
So perhaps, instead of trying to reach for the stars, or at least what one socialist group used to call the “commanding heights”, one should look to a more modest set of radical proposals. Many of these are united in what has been called a “Third Way” offering an alternative to both red-in-the-claw capitalism and bureaucratised “state socialism”. Some aspects of this perspective centre on forms of workers’ control, or perhaps the more modest expression “employee participation”. Others invoke the non-profit or “social enterprise” sector.
Enthusiastically endorsed by Tony Blair’s ideas guru Anthony Giddens, such proposals have in fact found ready acceptance among the powers-that-be. During the recent UK election campaign, all three major parties waxed lyrical over the “employee co-partnership” arrangements at John Lewis, a popular chain of department stores. Such unanimity among thieves is itself a bad sign, confirmed by the fact that the salary of basic John Lewis assistants is a paltry £6.30-7.00 an hour, despite their much-vaunted “profit-sharing” bonuses. In other words, the dynamics of profitability remain firmly in place, with ever-increasing intensification of labour – here enshrined in a performance-related pay scheme – a further dimension.
From his perch on the cusp of the New Millenium, Daniel Singer himself confirms the sceptical perspective Marxists are forced to take on any “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism. One of the more radical exponents of this tendency, Andre Gorz, is criticised for “giv[ing] the impression that capitalism will just tiptoe off the stage”, while to Marcuse’s “outcasts and outsiders” who believed that their 1960s communes would multiply until they painlessly “submerged” the capitalist system, Singer snorts, “Alas, the walls of that Jericho will not be brought down by moral trumpets”. Challenging arguments put forward by a keen advocate of the non-profit sector, our critic concludes “…the real puzzle is why should business, big or small, accept additional taxes and subsidize a sector much wider than what is needed to have a ‘reserve army of labour’, thus boosting the general level of wages?” (Singer 1999, pp173-4)
The issue lies in that succinct “why should”. Why should capital in fact do anything that threatens its profitability, since profitability is the lifeblood of even the most “socially conscious” entrepreneur? The current argument fully endorses such intelligent cynicism. But where to look next?
Moving us towards socialism…
Perhaps a way out can be sought through a historic perspective on the dynamic of pressing demands on capitalism; one which defines such demands as “transitional”. The author of the concept of transitional demands is, of course, Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky not in his passionate 1905 phase but late, tired and not a little delusional, hectoring his troops with invocations of “The Death Agony of Capitalism” (Trotsky 1964).
Nevertheless, the concept of demands which not only involve opposition to capitalism but a mechanism of sorts for pushing forward the fight against that system is intriguing. Demands for what? Luckily, Trotsky provides a list. Calls for the construction of public works, full employment and “decent conditions for all” are more specifically posed through “the slogan of a sliding scale of working hours” and the related suggestion that “wages…would follow the movement of prices” (Trotsky 1964 pp11-12, emphasis in original). The two latter demands are specifically “transitional” because their internal logic and process itself advances the objective sought. Thus a shorter working week for employed workers would potentially, of course, create the need for more labour. A similar “sliding scale” of wages would ensure that workers did not suffer the effects of inflation and were therefore able to ensure comparatively “decent conditions” for themselves.
Yet despite their ultra-revolutionary origin, both these demands, particularly the former, have at certain points been “granted” under capitalism. Trade unions have long been critical of overtime, and particularly in the 1980s and ‘90s, many organised workers in the industrialised countries went further and raised the demand for a 30- or 35-hour week. As shown below, the devil, so to speak, was in the detail; but the fact is that this transitional demand was “won” within capitalism without, as history gloomily indicates, realising Trotsky’s conception of a kind of moving staircase to socialism.
Somewhat more bizarrely, the notion of a sliding scale of wages has also been implemented under capitalism – by a staunch representative of capital in the form of “Grocer Heath” (as Private Eye nicknamed him), the toothy Tory who governed Britain from 1970 to early ’74. Heath introduced “Threshold Agreements”, described as “index-linked” by reference to the Retail Price Index, as part of his attempt at – pay restraint. During Parliamentary Questions in July 1973, Heath replied to the question “Will…the Government insist upon the trade unions accepting threshold agreements as a precedent to any further talks?” that “Threshold agreements should become part of Stage 3 [incomes policy].”
The apparent use of the identical principle embodied in Trotsky’s “sliding scale of wages” as a condition for entering into talks with trade union leaders, clearly with the hope that such talks would ensure pay restraint, can only be explained by the fact that inflation was then relatively low. Not surprisingly, threshold agreements were dropped like a brick under the Labour government of 1974 as prices soared into double digits. Nevertheless, the point stands that Conservative politicians have introduced policies advocated by a leading revolutionary as containing the dynamic potential for social transformation. On the evidence, transitional demands per se are not guarantors of revolutionary struggle, let alone victory.
The case of the shorter working week is perhaps clearer. As indicated above, struggles for just such a demand were widespread in Western Europe during the last decades of the 20th century, when the kind of idealism contained in proposals for workers’ plans, workers’ co-ops, etc (Wainwright and Elliott 1982) had not yet been eliminated from the movement. Yet the fact that these struggles were actually successful in introducing a shorter working week should not blind us to the practical outcome. As one steward from a Ford plant in Germany described the successful outcome of their strike over the issue in 1985: “The working week will [now] be 38.5 hours in the engineering industry. The demand was for 35 hours, and this was the compromise after a six week strike…We have made a successful first step into reducing working time. The disadvantage of the new agreement is that we have had to make concessions to the employers as regards so-called flexibilisation of working time…[and] management is exercising more and more pressure on workers…” (Ford UK Convenors’ Committee, 1985).
In France and Britain, too, “flexibilisation” was introduced to tighten the screw of reduced working time far enough to ensure that in fact the goal of increased employment need not, and has not, been met. As one British engineering worker admitted, after triumphantly announcing the reduction of their working week to 37 hours, “…there must be a catch. And the catch, at least so far, lies in the words ‘no-costs basis’…What [that] means, in practice, is increased productivity and flexibility” (Gollop 1990).
“This was syndicalism…”
Here, again, we come to the nub of the problem. Without some form of sustained militancy, of ongoing struggle against capital’s incessant demand for the extraction of ever-increasing surplus value, whatever demands can be wrung by an initial show of such resistance will be undermined, eroded and finally made worthless by the capitalist juggernaut’s inexorable movement “forward” in its own interests.
To point this out is not to criticise workers who, in the case of enlightened struggles like that for the 35-hour week, are probably some of the bravest fighters for their class and certainly in the vanguard of the ongoing struggle against capitalism. It is to identify a far more fundamental issue in the dynamics of such struggles: the dominance of reformist ideology and accommodation with capital within working-class activity. Linked to this question is a key distinction between relatively formal and institutionalised struggles like those described above and the far sharper, more subversive, labour-process-based forms of revolt (Atzeni 2010) which spark the real challenge to capitalism.
To explore this further, we return to Singer’s meditation on the new millennium, in which he describes the 1995 strikes in France as an example of a “potential battleground” in Western Europe. While Singer is concerned mainly to draw a historical contrast with the May events of 1968, he also, significantly, entitles his chapter “French Winter of Discontent” (Singer 1999 pp129-149). Whether intentionally or not, this title invokes a comparison with the 1978-9 strike wave in Britain which more famously generated that Shakespearian metaphor. Yet an exploration of the UK strike explosion reveals crucial differences between Singer’s relatively moderate “winter”, and the rather more riotous events of the late 70s, which featured forms of dual power and soviet-style organisation.
First and most significantly, the 1995 strikes involved only the public sector. Comparing them to 1968, Singer notes, “This time, the awakening was brought about by the stoppage of transport. The factories kept on producing” (p139). Although the Winter of Discontent is commonly thought of as a public sector dispute, it began as a wave of strikes in the private sector launched by a 9-week all-out stoppage throughout the Ford motor company in the UK which drove a “coach and horses” through the Labour government’s 5% pay freeze. Bakers, British Oxygen workers, oil tanker drivers and truckers followed. Secondly, although much of the action in the UK was official, its extent and trajectory went well beyond conventional modes of industrial action.
The horrified reaction of the labour movement leadership to the strike wave was summed up in the Labour prime minister Callaghan’s protest that ‘the industrial actions which left the dead unburied and the sick out of hospital were not…examples of trade union activity … real trade unions should only be equated with officialdom’. TUC leader Len Murray was ‘near to despair: this was not trade unionism, this was “syndicalism”’. Yet stentorian condemnations did nothing to stem the quasi-revolutionary dynamic. Not only ‘syndicalism’, but elements of ‘dual power’ began to characterize the dispute: ‘Within a short time strike committees were deciding what moved in and out of many of the ports and factories. Passes were issued for essential materials … but supplies for industry were halted … In some cases strike committees controlled the public services of whole cities.’
Echoing the ‘dual power’ theme, Thatcher records in her memoirs that ‘the Labour government had handed over the running of the country to local committees of trade unionists’. Her fellow Tory James Prior complained that Britain was now being run by ‘little Soviets’ – local strike committees of lorry drivers, train drivers and public sector groups. Denis Healey, Labour’s Chancellor, recorded that ‘Each night the television screens carried film of bearded men in duffel coats huddled around braziers. Nervous viewers thought the revolution had come’ (quoted in Cohen 2006).
A recent history of these events (Beckett 2009) includes a fascinating account of one redoubt of struggle in the more obscure reaches of the north country, the East Yorkshire “flatlands” near Hull. Here, for five weeks in early 1979, as part of the national lorry-drivers’ strike, “the economy of Hull was effectively run by a ‘dispensation committee’ of shop stewards…that commentators on the left and the right compared to the revolutionary Soviets of 1917.” This far from revolutionary historian comments: “Hull, in short, was the Winter of Discontent at its most all-encompassing and alarming; and also, perhaps, at its most exhilarating” (p485).
May 1968, with its mass strikes and occupations, also raised far more potently the spectre of revolution – the insurrectionary action which strikes real fear into the heart of the ruling class, as witnessed by de Gaulle’s hurried departure – than anything remotely suggested by the warm-hearted, generous, essentially moderate events of 1995. The point here is not that anarchy, ruthlessness and violence are necessarily right in themselves – although seizure of bourgeois property and sources of profit by the workers who create them must surely be applauded by any right-minded socialist. It is that only such actions can get anywhere near knocking the immensely powerful, complacent and endlessly resourceful ruling class off its perch.
“The world turned inside out…”
It may well be argued that the 1995 protests, and similar actions in Western Europe against the impact of neo-liberalism, are more “political”, and thus more promising, than the materially-motivated explosions of the late 1960s and 1970s. While the instrumental motivation behind the Winter of Discontent led of its own logic to organisation and activity far more subversive of capitalism than the most “radical” of political demands, what lay behind these actions and forms of organisation was indeed not revolutionary politics but the simple logic of class-based “economism”. As a leading activist in the Hull episode put it, “We’d had three years of pay restraint, and people had got fed up of it. You’d…see the gaffer go off home in his nice car, to his detached house in the country…And you said: ‘We want a bit of that’.” As Beckett comments, “Britain might have been at its most egalitarian in the late seventies, but for the discontented truck drivers…it was not nearly egalitarian enough” (p486).
Yet despite, in this activist’s words, “the political consciousness of the average lorry driver [being] zero”, he and his fellow-workers “became part of something that would have large political consequences…[their eventual strike] had an almost millenarian quality that went beyond politics – or at least beyond electoral and party politics.” As their shop steward recalled: “We stopped everything. The employers were so humiliated…It was the world turned inside out.” (pp488-9).
‘Have you weighed the consequences?’
And yet, and yet…Despite the more class-based and effective character of such at “economistic” struggles, they too failed in the end to vanquish the capitalist demon and, even given the widespread acceptance of that goal in the 1968 May events, achieve social transformation. What are the enemies of these processes? What prevents this victory of the many over the few, this inspiring festival of the oppressed, from leading to its logical destination, social transformation in the interests of the vast majority? A glance at one vivid history, that of the “Pentonville Five”, suggests an answer.
These five dockworker shop stewards were imprisoned in London’s Pentonville prison in July 1972 for transgressing the terms of the Heath government’s Industrial Relations Act. The stewards and their members had been picketing a container depot at Tilbury docks to prevent its lorries from entering the docks and undermining their employment. The Act had outlawed such “secondary” picketing, and after an initial skirmish in which the union hierarchy was blamed rather than its representatives, the five London stewards were arrested.
This event unleashed a massive convulsion within the British trade union movement. Between 22 July, when the Pentonville Five were imprisoned, and 1 August, when they were released, at least 170,000 workers came out in their support. Engineering workers, printers, bus drivers, carworkers, building workers, miners, workers in London’s wholesale markets, and, significantly, the container drivers who only a few days before had been pitted against the striking dockers, joined the huge march of workers which surged towards the embattled castle of Pentonville. News images show turbanned Sikh workers grinning broadly on either side of a placard reading ‘Five Trade Unionists Are Inside: Why Aren’t You Out?’; marching workers shouting ‘We are the working class’; the seething of the crowds around the freed dockers as each was lifted shoulder-high and the whole mass of workers exploded in victory. A previously unheard-of ‘Official Solicitor’ had miraculously appeared to secure the Pentonville Five’s release.
The pride and confidence of organised, united workers who had defeated a government in less time and with more force than any ‘constitutional’ action could dream of still emanates from these now decades-old images. As one printing worker put it, “You felt it had proved something, you could do anything if you like. You could sense the power of the working class, you had seen it in action, and you felt you could only go forward from there…People began to think of how working class power can change things” (quoted in Darlington and Lyddon 2001, p174, emphasis in original).
It is this incomparable power, based in the logical dominance of labour over capital once labour refuses to enter into the bargain, which is pinpointed here as the key component of working-class victories of this kind. To massively over-simplify Marx, there are two aspects to the power and potentially revolutionary role of the proletariat: its numbers and its social function. The question to be asked, therefore, in this as in the struggles examined above, is why “working class power” did not, in this example, go on to “change things”.
The sad end to this particular story can be summed up in a few significant sentences. Despite their stunning victory, the dockers of course had not won their war. The day after the release of the Pentonville Five, activists voted to strike again in resistance to a government report, accepted by the union leadership, which they saw as inadequate for preserving their jobs. Picketing and arrests continued. However, without support from the union’s “left-wing” general secretary, Jack Jones, who refused to call for still-legal solidarity action from lorry drivers or railway workers, the strikes lacked the power of Pentonville; despite the best efforts of the rank and file, they were called off after three weeks. Key to the snatching of this defeat from the jaws of victory was the role of the Communist Party, dominant in the National Port Shop Stewards’ Committee, which had now begun its policy of enlisting support from left MPs and trade union leaders like Jones (Darlington and Lyddon pp176-7).
Here, in a poignant nutshell, we have the history of how not to win the revolution. The equivalent and far more disastrous role of the CP in the May 1968 events is of course documented by Singer (1970) in his classic account of the period. The irony that crucial elements of working-class militancy and intransigence can be undermined by just those working-class “leaders” allegedly most committed to the overthrow of capitalism is only too evident; but this, of course, is just the political tip of the iceberg. In that supremely revolutionary year of 1919, British prime minister Lloyd George was able to undermine the potentially mighty Triple Alliance between rail, mining and transport unions by pointing out the “constitutional” consequences of their proposed joint action:
“Gentlemen, you have fashioned…a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that…we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon…If you carry out your strike, then you will defeat us. But…have you weighed the consequences? The strike…will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the State which is stronger than the State itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the State itself…Gentlemen, have you considered, and…are you ready?”
“From that moment on,” said one of the union leaders, “we were beaten and we knew we were” (quoted in Rosenberg 1985).
Expressive or Instrumental?
How to undermine reformism from left and right? This contribution argues that the essential perspective is one emphasising not content but process; the crucial dynamic not that of “programme” but of process. For much of its existence under the shadow of capitalism, the political left has been preoccupied with demands and programmes, policies and proposals. What remains often unrecognised is that many of these proposals per se are more or less acceptable to the mass of society, certainly in western Europe and to a surprising extent in America.
To give an example from the latter realm of “false consciousness”, one comparative study of workers and radicals in the US (Croteau 1995) found that workers agreed with almost all the radicals’ demands on such issues as war, the environment, etc; the difference was that they did not see how these demands could be achieved. The study makes an important distinction between the “expressive” and “instrumental” orientations of these two groups. While radicals achieved solace from the experience of “movement” struggles per se, for workers the essential issue was not the demands, but how they would be achieved. Their reigning attitude was one of fatalism, a “Yes, but what can you do?” approach.
Interestingly, in the argument of another notable American writer, “demands” as such tend to shrink into the background when workers are most fully mobilised. As Brecher (1997) puts it, disputes spurred by specific material issues …in ‘normal times’ represent the tip of an ‘iceberg’ of underlying class conflict which emerges as generalised class struggle gains momentum; in such circumstances, it can be said that often ‘the issue is not the issue’ ”(pp 278, 282). In other words, workers’ underlying experience of exploitation and oppression engenders an ongoing resentment and class anger which rises to the surface and becomes generalised in situations of overt conflict. It is in this context of mobilisation that workers are most open to radical ideas and revolutionary theories; and, fortuitously, their own class power renders them far more potent in fighting for these.
Movement not Party
To summarise, what is being suggested here is a kind of turning on its head of the traditional radical approach to political advance. Rather than formulating radical demands and programmes and raising them with an (unresponsive) ruling class, the process can begin with the already-existing “practical activity” of the working class.
However low the level of class struggle at any time – and 2010 has so far seen no repetition of the 1910-14 “Great Unrest” in Britain – it is undeniable that capitalism continually and inevitably generates conflict at the workforce via the very dynamics of the generation of surplus value. A focus on the current lacklustre level of workplace resistance may seem a long way from any transformational process; yet the historic unpredictability of waves of working-class struggle makes the task of building a fully class-conscious leadership within the working class before the next upsurge all the more critical.
What is lacking at present is any sustained link between theoretically sophisticated, committed leftists and the vital dynamic of already-existing resistance which, however “economistic” its immediate motives, contains the seeds and indeed often the immediate realisation of crucial socialist principles such as equity and direct democracy. Over the history of working-class struggle, such sustained workplace-based activity has created a key layer of class-conscious activists whose commitment is sustained even in “thin times” like the present. Here, at last, is a role for mainstream intellectuals, as Gramsci called class-oriented revolutionaries by contrast to these “organic” worker intellectuals embedded in the class itself; to build from the ground up a consciousness of the full political and transformational potential of everyday resistance.
How to go about linking theory with practice, Marxists with intellectuals? Clearly, according to Leninist conceptions of the vanguard, the answer would be “the revolutionary party”. Yet, while Bolshevism was undeniably a vital factor in organising for the Russian revolution, today’s circumstances make the simple concept of “the party” moribund, especially given the spread of increasingly destructive forms of sectarianism in that party’s name.
The way forward suggested here is not one that has been clearly articulated on the left, but it can be glimpsed by studying some previous formations such as the early Minority Movement and Trade Union Education League, the Muste-ites during the 1930s US upheavals, and non-party groupings such as the International Socialists between the late 1960s and early 1970s, when “The role of the revolutionary organisation was to initiate and service activity, to help develop the sort of programme that would help the workers concerned to build their own strategy for advance. It would be transitional…” (Higgins 1997, p88). Within this perspective, a revolutionary organisation is a grouping of class-conscious socialists whose practice consists not in building the party itself, but in building the movement.
From Radical to Revolutionary…
In this sense, the most radical proposal Singer’s audience can make is to itself. Rather than urging capitalism to look to its laurels, the left should perhaps look to its own – and not in the direction of formulating ever more comprehensive and indeed radical lists of proposals, but, simply and far more radically, in the direction of the working class.
Most of those inspired by the writings of Daniel Singer would think of themselves as some variety of Marxist. It is all the more curious, then, that amongst the intellectual and political left the issue of working class resistance and organisation is placed so far down the list of priorities. As Draper (1979) points out, in their own time Marx and Engels were almost completely isolated in paying any attention to trade unionism. While socialists of today have been obliged to recognise the importance of trade unions through their established role in capitalist society, it remains generally the case that action by workplace-based trade unionists is either overlooked or dismissed as “non-political”. Yet, whatever the original intentions of its participants, working-class resistance can be, as indicated in the examples above, profoundly political in its potential for rocking capitalism on its heels – even when it involves the most ideologically colonised of working-class strata. When police and prison officers, for example, took strike action in 1919, “The country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since” to quote the ever-wily Lloyd George.
So what is the problem? The problem, of course, is that the impulse to resist is constantly subverted, fragmented, undermined and overthrown by just the absence of an overarching socialist consciousness of which so many socialists complain. But the answer to the problem is not to ignore or condemn workers’ economistic struggles. It is, instead, to fuse the insights of Marxism with the self-activity of the working class in a process of theoretical practice which can sustain, develop and build on these struggles.
Ironically, this is not a difficult task. My own experiences as the editor of a rank and file newspaper in Britain, and the success in the US of the Labor Notes and Teamsters for a Democratic Union projects (Moody 1997) are concrete examples of the political significance – and relative ease – of building non-aligned activist-based networks with the potential of building an in-class rank and file leadership ready, as argued previously, for the next upsurge.
This essay has tilted dangerously from the “radical” to the revolutionary, perhaps not in accord with the direction intended by the Singer Foundation. But it is difficult to imagine how any of the colossal problems facing humanity in the 21st century can be overcome by anything other than an overthrow of the economic and political system which creates them. To argue this may seem utopian. But, as suggested above, the method of activating this process is the reverse of utopianism; it is to base socialist activity and praxis firmly at the root of the struggles against capital which take place, daily and ineradicably, within the existing, and potentially immensely powerful, working class movement.
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