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.