Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Right kind of snow, wrong kind of strikes

I am sure there is a point that socialists in Britain could make regarding the way in which when we are hit by a sudden fall of snow as we have been that the whole transport network should not come to an almost total halt. And I am sure a critique of privatisation would be part of this, as would the point that under socialism, I am sure that we would have plenty of snowploughs etc lying around. But as someone called Snowball, it is worth noting that if it is going to snow, this definitely is the kind of snow you want - it is solid and heavy enough for kids to make snowmen, snowwomen and yes, snowballs. We haven't had 'the right kind of snow' in Britain for ages, and I thought global warming might mean we would never again have this kind of snow again - which shows how little I know about global warming and its consequences.

Unfortunately, Britain has also been hit over the last week by 'the wrong kind of strikes' - ie. not strikes against the power of capital or even against a particular multinational or national capitalist enterprise - but a strike against er, other workers. Genius. In other European countries the economic crisis is seeing general strikes and very high levels of class struggle break out (for example in Greece and France), while in Iceland workers have helped to bring down a government.

Yet in Britain, a section of the organised working class movement has decided that they are not going to take direct action in the face of the jobs massacre targetted at those responsible for the jobs massacre - ie those bosses wielding the knife - but against er, other European workers simply on the basis of their foreign nationality. You get a sense they are the 'wrong kind of strikes' because a) they have got massive media coverage and b) the media coverage is on the whole fair to the strikers.

It is important for socialists to understand why this has happened - and what we can try to do about it. The reasons why it has happened it seems to me are, firstly - the fact that New Labour has played the 'race and nation' card consistently since being in power and even more since the economic crisis began. I commented on Brown's 2007 speech where he called for 'British jobs for British workers' at the time, and also his 2008 speech where he called for 'A New British Century'. It is also worth recalling in this instance Brown's Immigration Minister Phil Woolas's recent comments about 'It's been too easy to get into this country in the past and it's going to get harder'. When racist scapegoating of migrant and foreign workers comes from the very top of the body politic, it is only a matter of time before the poison is seen as legitimate and spreads.

The second reason why these latest strikes have happened is because of the craven and cowardly nature of the British trade union bureaucracy in the face of the jobs massacre. The top of the official trade union movement have not even so far come together to organise one national demonstration to fight for the right to work - let alone led any other form of action. In part, this is because they don't want to rock the boat for Brown. However, in part they are prepared to back the recent strikes because they accept the strategy of protectionism and think the idea of a fight for 'British' workers' jobs is a good one.

What should socialists response to these strikes be? There are obviously a lot of contradictions at work here (was it Lenin or Trotsky who said 'every strike, rebellion and protest may not destroy the state, but it bears the germ of revolution'?) - and many of those striking will not be racists but simply concerned about fighting for their jobs and showing solidarity with other workers fighting for their jobs. We should not therefore join in with the Tories and New Labour in denouncing workers taking strike action. Our role should be to try and put socialist solutions to the capitalist crisis to the workers' taking such action, and try to challenge the racism and nationalism implicit in the strike. In 1968, when Enoch Powell made his racist 'Rivers of Blood' speech, socialists in Britain were confronted with a similar (if not quite so extreme) situation. As Simon Basketter notes, 'after [Powell's] speech racists took comfort, gained in confidence and pulled the political climate to the right – opening up the door to more racism from the state and the establishment. That is a cycle which continues until it is challenged.

While some dockers did march in support of Powell, the racism that Powell fuelled in the docks did not go unconfronted. The late Terry Barrett was a London docker active in the International Socialists, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party.

Together with a small group of socialists and others opposed to racism, he tried to dissuade dockers from marching by distributing a leaflet that read:

'Who is Enoch Powell? He is a right wing Tory opportunist who will stop at nothing to help his party and his class. He is a director of the vast National Discount Company (assets £224 million) which pays him a salary bigger than the £3,500 a year he gets as an MP. He lives in fashionable Belgravia and writes Greek verse. What does he believe in? Higher unemployment. He has consistently advocated a national average of 3 percent unemployed. Cuts in social services. He wants higher health charges, less council houses, charges for state education and lower unemployment pay. Mass sackings in the docks. Again and again he has argued that the docks are ‘grossly overmanned’.'

The current situation is not as bad as that - but if such socialist arguments are not put forward and basic class politics are not injected urgently into the body politic by the trade union movement, then the current political vacuum in Britain will instead be filled with such racist 'solutions' to the crisis akin to Powellism - that blame the victims of the capitalist system - other workers - for the crisis rather than those - overlords of international capital like bankers and politicians like Brown (loyal servants of international capital) - who are responsible for the crisis in the first place.

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