And again on Lindsey

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Portavogie is not what you’d call a very progressive place. Even in the early stages of the peace process, the villagers were inordinately proud of not having a single Catholic living there. Today, on the other hand, the majority of workers on the Portavogie fishing fleet are migrant workers, mostly East Europeans but including some thirty Filipinos. Due to some visa restriction, the Filipino trawlermen may not lodge on land but have to sleep on their boats. The locals are campaigning to get this changed. In a time when economic crisis is likely to stoke racism, it’s a little heartwarming story.

In a related note, the Lindsey strike has ended in a small victory for the workers, with the employment of some one hundred local workers on the construction contract in question, without this being at the expense of the Italian and Portuguese workers already in situ. I think this is probably the best outcome available. And, after all, it’s not like we see victories very often. Never underestimate the value of even a small one.

There have been a couple of aspects thrown up by this that I want to take a bit of a look at. The first is the question of protectionism, which Brown and Mandelson have had such a bee in their bonnet about. (By contrast with Alan Johnson, who didn’t endear himself to me as a union bureaucrat but who does actually realise that sometimes workers have legitimate grievances.) Actually, I don’t have a problem in principle with a little protectionism. One of the left’s big beefs with the European Single Market was opposition to open tendering for public services, and the enshrinement thereof in European law. And, if we were going to be consistent advocates of the global village, on what basis would we oppose the European Commission’s regular attempts to destroy Irish agriculture?

In fact, everybody is pretty realpolitik on this issue, but most people just don’t like to admit it. The free traders in government are all in favour of the free movement of capital, but, largely for electoral reasons, oppose the free movement of labour. One of the endearing things about the Economist is that, being in favour of genuinely open borders, it likes to twit the political class about this. On the other hand, the socialists also have an inbuilt contradiction in favouring the free movement of labour in the form of abolishing immigration controls, while wanting to restrict the movement of capital. Since movements of labour generally follow movements of capital, you’ve got some tensions either way.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the left again. There’s a basic issue in Marxism over the respective roles of conscious programme and spontaneous struggle. To put it another way, there is a particular elitist type of Marxism, usually rooted in a one-sided reading of What Is To Be Done?, that lays its main stress on the role of intellectuals in bringing socialist consciousness to the workers from the outside. You get a lot of this in Lukács, and you used to in Norman Geras, which might explain something about Normski’s latter-day Decency. On the other hand, there’s that side of the Marxist tradition, often associated with people like Luxemburg, or less consistently with Lenin’s stance after 1905, or with Draper or James amongst others, that stresses the spontaneous tendencies towards socialism of a working class in struggle. This is a gross simplification of course, and you have to talk at greater length of what you mean by spontaneity – the pseudo-spontaneism of James in particular is long overdue a deconstruction – but it’s a real tension.

One thing I found fascinating about the left’s responses to the Lindsey strike was that a clear dividing line arose, but with some people in juxtapositions that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from their formal politics. Basically, I would moot that you had a more ideological or propagandist corner (the SWP, Socialist Resistance, the AWL) for whom the BJ4BW slogan and the implications thereof were the key thing, as against a more workerist corner (the Socialist Party, George Galloway, the Morning Star) who weren’t thrilled about the slogan, but who laid more stress on the class dynamic behind the strike. Of course, you did have extreme positions, with Workers Power condemning the action outright as a reactionary nationalist strike, and on the other hand Arthur Scargill finding nothing wrong with the slogan whatsoever. But these absurdities are easily explained. Arthur is working from a paradigm of the British manual working class in the 1950s, while Workers Power are working from… well, some sort of total idealist disconnect from empirical reality, though I’m glad to see their capacity for sub-Maoist gobbledegook remains undiminished.

But between these extremes, there is quite a lot of ambiguity and overlap. The view I arrived at was one that critical support for the strike was necessary, and it was vital to muck in there and try to turn things around politically, steering the politics of the thing away from the potentially ugly aspects of the nationalist slogan. In this respect, I think the Socialist Party played a blinder. And actually, since they were lucky enough to have a couple of people on the ground, there was nothing else they could do – had their members taken an abstentionist line or even opposed the strike, they would have found it far more difficult to get a hearing. And it’s not least thanks to them that, as the demands were concretised, they took on a form that made the strike much more supportable by socialists.

Which is not to say that the flip side, the nationalist undercurrent, was not there. There were, I think, three aspects to this. There were some workers who, with a microphone or a reporter’s notepad thrust in front of them, expressed themselves in a not very intelligent way. There was the media’s determination to make this a race issue. And there was the right wing, notably the BNP, also trying to make this a race issue. It was heartening that this diminished as time went on, with the shop stewards changing the tone of their statements and the fash being chased off the picket line. The modulated line of the AWL at least shows they caught onto this dynamic even though, like most far left groups, they aren’t very good at admitting their position changed.

So I do think that it was necessary, particularly at the beginning of the strike, to point out the dangers. I don’t criticise the left groups who did so. Nor do I criticise the individuals who did so – I place particular weight on Madam Miaow, who has a track record of flagging up things that the white blokes on the left don’t pay enough attention to. These were things that needed to be said.

I have been scratching my head a little at the position of the SWP. I know that the original, quite abstract, statement was not universally popular with the party’s trade union cadre, and I expected that to be softened, although probably without acknowledgement. But this week’s coverage in SW marks, if anything, a hardening. Well, it’s not perhaps what we might have seen if John (“It’s British workers that count”) Rees was still at the helm, and for that we should be grateful. But all the same, it’s a bit puzzling when you remember that Cliff used to be the great promoter of spontaneity (just not within the ranks of the party) and was frankly contemptuous of formal programmatic statements. Whether he would have put quite so much weight on the slogan is doubtful.

I think there are a couple of elements to this. One is that for the last dozen years or so, the SWP had been operating a super-optimistic perspective. This has stubbed its toe on events, and is further discredited by its close association with the Rees-German camarilla. The culture of stick-bending being as entrenched as it is in the SWP, some people will take this to mean a return to the downturn and propagandism. There’s also the economic crisis, which, although the party has quietly dumped Cliff’s “30s in slow motion” perspective, will inevitably lead to a revival in catastrophology. This (along with the Respect and SSP splits) has led to a stress on the rivers of blood dividing reformists from revolutionaries, and a return to the “expose and denounce” school of dealing with official labour movement figures, except for Mark Serwotka who has the advantage of being a close personal friend of Martin Smith. (By contrast, the SP, which has a much more sectarian formal position, is a good bit more pragmatic in its practice.) There’s also the assumption that, if the BNP leaflet a picket line, workers will find the playing of the race card irresistible. One would hope Lindsey had put that one to bed. This will take a while to work out. There is of course an inbuilt tension between propagandism and catastrophology, and while Gerry Healy successfully combined the two for years, I think this will be resolved a bit quicker.

By the way, this is quite important, and I really hope the different sections of the left can draw up some honest balance sheets. We can expect some much uglier stuff round the corner, and this could be a very important learning experience.

13 Comments

  1. Andy Newman said,

    February 6, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Good stuff.

    i would add a few points.

    I think you over intelectualise the reasoning why the part of the left that supporte the strikes did so – to a certain degree this was based on just having better informtion about what was going on; and a pragmatic understanding that trade unions are made up of the working class with its existing level of consciousness. To that degree Eduard Bernstein is more relevant than Hal Draper!

    Secondly, some of those who opposed the strikes are those who have a poorly understood understanding of national consciousness – for example beleiving that national consciusness directly competes or crowds out class consciousness. It is no suprise to me that the CPB, and SP, who have a more pragmatic understanding about national consciousness (though not necessarily how t relates ot national oppression) didn’t immeditaley think it was the triumph of the Third Reich just because a working class person described themselves as British.

    And there is also a question of the SWP being bounced by its bloggers. This is an interesting paradox, that for many people – including some key industrial militants – what richard seymour and his mates say simply is the public face of the SWP. (BTW, John G argued consistent good sense on lenin’s tomb.) This is exagerated stil further that some of the false friends of the SWP who comment so agressivley on Socialist Unity ((which is read suprisingly widely in the official movement) give a very bad impression of the SWP.

    I was talking to one GMB official today who thought that the SWP has set themselves back a generation in terms of infleunce in our union over the last week. Add to this the ridiculous antics of the Amicus Gen Sec election, and their industrial policy is all over the shop.

  2. Phil said,

    February 6, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    I think there’s an element of idealism, in the philosophical sense, in some of the comments from people who were sceptical about the strike (and a lot of the comment from the minority who opposed it outright). They say “British”, we say “we don’t say ‘British’, we’re internationalists” and the debate stops there – or else spirals off into endless catastrophising speculation about what you might end up committing yourself to if you didn’t oppose any use of the word ‘British’. It’s a ‘battle of ideas’ thing, I guess. By contrast, when I read Phil BC’s report on the first walkout, I had to read it through twice before I spotted what he thought the problem area might be – I immediately identified with workers getting shafted and walking out, and completely discounted the fact that they were calling themselves ‘British’ while doing so.

    But I agree that it was necessary, particularly at the beginning of the strike, to point out the dangers. I think in my immediate reaction I called the class dynamic of the strike correctly, but there was an element of idealism (in the non-philosophical sense) about it too – workers can walk out while carrying Union Jacks, & over time the Union Jack element of the strike could have got more significant. Thankfully it didn’t.

    Mind you (on the third hand), I’m aware that we haven’t yet seen the terms of the final settlement – Michael Rosen could yet have the last laugh.

  3. Andy Newman said,

    February 6, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Ok

    in a nutshell the deal is;

    100 extra unionised jobs to be created
    Total to end the segregation of the labour force on national lines
    All labour to be paid UK (NAECI rates) rates – under supervision of the unions

    The upshot of which si that the Italaisns and Porttugese will get a pay rise, and will no longer be bussed in and out seperately.

    There is a longer article assessing this by Neil cafferkey being published on SU blog at 12;00 noon tomorrow.

  4. Harrods is boycotting Britain said,

    February 6, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Splinty you’re right to warn of the risk of “uglier stuff” round the corner and Phil also to speak of the “final settlement” yet to be seen.

    Evidently, different parts of the tarde union movement are going to take this victory as a sign that the strikers’ tactics should be emulated. Some people will look to the involvement of stewards and networking across sites – the rank-and-file dynamic – and say that’s the thing to copy.

    Others will see the slogans and the way the strikers drew on nationalism to win support and embarrass the govement. Which face of the protest comes to be remembered for won’t be decided at Lindsey but will depend on what people argue when the issues come up on other sites – as they will.

    The history of the workers movement is filled with people drawing left-wing conclusions from right-wing movements (and vice versa); one of the first worker’s memoirs published in Britain (Alfred Williams, “Life in a Railway Factory”) ascribes the success of the Labour Party after 1918 to the success in an earlier period of Joe Chamberlain’s populist imperialism – at least Chamberlain spoke to workers, and it got them thinking. And fortunately the Tories weren’t able to sustain that foothold.

    Then again Williams worked in Swindon, and maybe there’s something in the water that helps people to flip from jingo to socialist – or the other way.

    Nationalism isn’t racism.
    One strike drawing on British nationalism isn’t the same as the strikes we used to have to in the 1950s (Bristol, Wolverhampton) to keep black workers of the buses.
    One protest isn’t a nationalist campaign.
    Reserving jobs for British workers is different from trying to get Italisn workers removed from a job
    And trying to have people excluded from a job isn’t the same as trying to exclude them from your neighbourhood.

    But…

  5. Mike said,

    February 6, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    There is more similarity between the positions of say the SP (CWI) and the SWP than might be acknowledged by some. But not because the former group are more ‘workerist’ than the latter more ‘propagandist’ group.

    In fact historically the SWP belongs to a tradition, that is to say the IS Tradition, that prioritised workers self activity at the workplace over and above the Militants loyalty to the official structures of the Labour Movement. One can but hope thqt with the current review of its internal functioning and politics that this authentically revolutionary viewpoint will be rediscovered and renewed by the SWP.

    As for the SP (CWI) it is not true that they adopted the views they did out of ‘workerism’ it is more the case that they did so because their ‘Trotskyism’ remains deeply marked by their tailing of the current consciousness of workers. That is to say at heart this tendency continues to adhere to the unbroken thread of Labourism in both their union work and their attempt to revive Labourism through their puppet group the CNWP.

  6. Phil said,

    February 6, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Total to end the segregation of the labour force on national lines

    There’s an aspect of the conditions at Lindsey which didn’t get as much attention as it could have.

    Sounds like a pretty good deal.

  7. Ciarán said,

    February 7, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Portavogie is not what you’d call a very progressive place. […]The locals are campaigning to get this changed. In a time when economic crisis is likely to stoke racism, it’s a little heartwarming story.

    How much of that do you think is due to a genuine anti-racist sentiment and how much would it be a case of “There’s money in them thar Filipinos”?

  8. Gerry Downing said,

    February 7, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Mike is undoubtedly correct, there is a move to the left by the SWP, in response, I would say due to the enormous discontent in their ranks to the debacle that was Respect and George Galloway. One might say that centrists they are and they will swing back to the right again in due course but that would be to miss the point. They are taking a principled stand now, they must be supported and encouraged in that and the membership must demand more participation in the political direction of the group, more ‘democratic’ centralism and less ‘bureaucratic’ centralism. The ranks of revolutionary socialism are thin enough on the ground, there are still major problems with the SWP both in Ireland (what about the Jimmy Kelly, for F-sake?, no hesitation in supporting the SP there) and in Britain, many SWPers are far too compliant with the TU bureaucracy. And a real commitment to a rank-and-file movement in the unions, independent of the bureaucracy, but without the dreadful syndicalism of the old IS R and F would be a real step forward. You can have a ‘workerism’ that does not openly capitulate to the bureaucracy but ignores them entirely, does not put any demands on them and does not stand against them in elections on a militant programme. The IWW and other anarchists have this ‘base union’ counterposition, which does entrench the position of the bureaucracy by ignoring the official structures entirely. And remember the IS were close to the anarchists in those days, and that milieu is growing again, it requires a principled relationship not accepting their anarchist, localist politics.

  9. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 7, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Well, I don’t think the Paisleyite fishermen of Portavogie have suddenly become right-on advocates of anti-racism. But they do know their industry couldn’t function without the migrant workers. If self-interest pushes them in a progressive direction for once, I’m not about to complain.

  10. yourcousin said,

    February 7, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    The IWW and other anarchists have this ‘base union’ counterposition, which does entrench the position of the bureaucracy by ignoring the official structures entirely

    Gerry,
    I find this hard to believe being that the IWW is its own union which does its own organizing. Now certainly there are dual carders (such as myself) who attempt to bring real unionism back onto the jobsite, but that’s hardly the same thing as what you are trying to ascribe to us.

  11. Gerry Downing said,

    February 7, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Well the IWW is a union that is really a political anarcho-syndicalist party, or, or the other hand, an anarcho-syndicalist party that is really a union. And the Brits tend to be a bit better than the Yanks because at least they recognise the unresolved contradiction and orientate to the existing union structures by dual unionism. Given the relative weakness of the US TUs it is still possible there to hold the contradictions separate, if that is the correct dialectical way of formulating it.

  12. yourcousin said,

    February 7, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Gerry,
    If you want British section of the AIT then you can go here. The IWW is not anarcho-syndicalist, no matter how much you (and others on both sides of that debate) would like to be and is not affiliated with the AIT. Historically and right now the IWW organizes its own shops with members exclusively aligned with the IWW. It does not condone or encourage its members to get involved with business unions though it allow members of business unions to join. Now those dual carders can of their own initiative participate in the business of said unions to their heart’s content as long as their actions don’t violate the constitution of the IWW. They can even and have been known to been elected to positions of local office within their business unions.

    What you are talking about is some sort of articulated policy/strategy of involvement within business unions and then ascribing that policy to the IWW. I am here to tell you right now that no such policy exists. Simply put, you are talking out of your ass and I’m calling bullshit, if that is the correct dialectical way of formulating it.

  13. Gerry Downing said,

    February 12, 2009 at 9:33 am

    I returned to my job as a London busdriver last Tuesday after a five week illness and enquired how the drivers felt about Bj4Bw? The replies were unprintable and the anger against Unite for promoting this slogan was very strong. Of course none of the drivers were ‘British’ (there are only about a half dozen British drivers out of 250 drivers in our garage). So they were just victims of media propaganda, didn’t understand the building trade etc? And the Poles, some quite pro-management ones I spoke to, were among the angriest. Maybe some SP members should take the British working class in its diversity and the need to conduct the class struggle in unity.
    And is it not hilarious no to see John Haylett’s and the Morning Star unceremoniously dumping the SP because it is backing Gerry Hicks whose crime was to criticise the ‘leadership; whilst supporting the strike (see Monday’s MS). The MS are now giving their unalloyed backing to Simpson against Hicks as the wait for it…..the ‘left-progressive candidate!!! A few weeks ago he was an absolute right wing traitor but in the meantime he backed the Bj4Bw strike and SPONSORED THE MORNING STAR AS THE DAILY PAPER OF THE LEFT. Poor old Bill Mullins, after quoting the MS line so religiously during the affair to be stabbed in the back line this – never trust a Stalinist, particularly if you call yourself a Trotskyist, however spuriously. And where does it all leave the prospects for the new united Unite Broad Left which was conceived as led by Woodley, the left winger against Simpson, the right winger with the support of the SP AND the SWP? The world really has changed after these strikes.


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