Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, The General Strike of 1926

The events of the 1926 British General Strike aren’t an issue for abstract historical discussion; they are, more importantly, an example of one of the most intense periods of industrial trade union militancy on these isles.

As the authors of this examination of the “Days of Hope” put it, “The key question for Marxists is how to relate to the working class. In countries where the workers are organisd in unions, this question then takes the form of how should Marxists approach trade unionists and their struggles”.

Rather than concentrate simply on the events of the strike, Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein start by examining both the Marxist approach to trade unions and the political forces in Britain in the first quarter of the last century.

Their starting point is how limited the Marxist understanding of developed trade unions was at that time. The leading revolutionary thinkers were concentrated in Russia at the time, and there, the slow development of the working class and the illegality of much of its organisations meant that trade unions had little impact on the revolutionary struggle. This in turn meant that leading thinkers in the revolutionary international badly underestimated aspects of trade unionism, leading to many militants in Britain over estimating their influence in the working class, or putting hope in left-wing trade union leaders.

The role of the trade union leaders was to prove crucial in the 1926 strike. At the time, the “triple alliance” of unions in transport and mining were a major industrial force. They’d had the government over a barrel in the near-revolutionary period after the first world war, yet, during the nine days of strike, many of them did their best to limit the strike to their best ability.

The authors examine how trade union bureaucrats form a separate class, the “bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society – the employers and the workers.” Since they belong to neither camp, the bureaucracy has a “vital interest not to push the collaborations with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent”.

Vacilating between the bosses and the workers, the union fulltimers, both leftwing and rightwing end up desperate to avoid breaking the status quo, even if it means selling the struggles of their members out.

During the general strike, millions of workers took enthusiastic action in support of the strike, yet the union leaders did everything they could to avoid that action either spreading, or taking more militant forms. They encouraged church attendance rather than mass picketing, passivity and friendly relations with the police rather than attempting to stop the government’s organised scabbing operations. Before the strike they did little to prepare their members and during the strike they issued contradictory and confusing instructions.

Though the official histories of the events would tell us that the TUC though that the strikers were wavering, Cliff and Gluckstein show how, in fact more and more workers were preparing to take action and that in many cases the action was developing down more radical directions.

The eventual sell out of the strike lead directly to the isolation of the coal miners (who were locked out by their bosses) and the demoralisation of a trade union movement for twenty years. Here, there is an interesting parallel with the state of trade unionism since the Thatcher years.

The authors conclusion is two fold. The first is that an independent revolutionary socialist organisation is needed to help lead workers struggles, that isn’t confused by its links to either the trade union bureaucracy or the Labour Party. The second is that this socialist party needs to have as one of its most important pre-occupations, the building of a strong rank and file movement of trade unionists, confident to follow the bureaucracy when they fight in the interests of the workers, but prepared to confront and side-step those bureaucrats when they are attempting to sell things out.

It’s a historic task, as important today as it was in the past. As the slogan says, “those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.”

Unfortunately Cliff and Gluckstein's book is out of print, but a short pamphlet covering many of the ideas and the background outlined above is available from Bookmarks here.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Monthly Review - Ecology, Moment of Truth

I don’t normally carry reviews of journals that I read on this blog, as they don’t really fit the general theme of the site. However the July/August edition of the Monthly Review magazine is simply to important to not record here.

The general theme of this journal’s edition is “Ecology, moment of truth” and in a number of articles, the editors have put together a coherent argument about the centrality of capitalism to the current environmental crisis. There are a couple of general articles that do this, revisiting some of the work that John Bellamy Foster has examined in other books and articles. Several other articles look at more nuanced aspects of the debates – one examining the economics of biofuels (Fred Magdoff) and a fascinating article looking at the problems related to the degradation of Marine ecosystems (Brett Clark & Rebecca Clausen).

There is an excellent article refuting the arguments of the climate change deniers, written by John Farley in response to articles made by journalist Alexander Cockburn. This article is well worth reading, it concludes that while it is important that science is constantly scrutinised, “it is also important to recognize a truth when it has been established…. and to do something about [global warming], while there is still time.”

Other articles examine the “Politics of Large Dams” in India – some 40 million people have been forced from their homes since 1947 in that country and at least 36 “major” dams are planned, though they bring many problems, as well as offering few solutions.

John Bellamy Foster’s article on “Peak Oil and Energy Imperialism” locates the problems of the environment on the centrality of fossil fuels to capitalism and argues for an alternative to capitalism as a solution to long-term ecological problems.

In fact this is the theme of most of the articles – that on Marine eco-systems making some of the points excellently. The intensive production techniques used by modern industrial fishing doesn’t simply deplete whole species, but it impacts on fish that feed on these creatures and those that they feed on in turn. This destablises the whole oceanic eco-system.

Attempts to solve the problem by reducing the consumption of one or other fish, either lead to other animals being hunted to extinction or often, don’t solve the problem because of new imbalances in the eco-system. These problems then link in to other environmental concerns such as the damage to coral reefs by global warming.

Capitalism’s attempts to fix the problem only displace it. Factory farming of salmon for instance requires “four pounds of fishmeal to produce every one pound of salmon” – “aquaculture” thus shifts the problem of fishing onto other wild species elsewhere in the oceans.

While I might have some disagreements with slight nuances of the arguments presented here, I found that all the articles had something to offer Marxists and radicals grappling with the issues thrown up by the environmental crisis. You can read the articles online at Monthly Reviews website, or order the journal here if you want to support the journal.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Tim Butcher - Blood River

When I first looked at this book, I thought that it was a classic case of a journalist with a bit of knowledge about one part of the world, concocting an excuse to write a book about it. However, it does seem, that Tim Butcher's fascination with the Congo river and the country that surrounds it is absolutely genuine. As a journalist on the Daily Telegraph he takes the incredibly dangerous decision to follow in the footsteps of an earlier writer for that journal, Henry Stanley.

Stanley of course, famously found David Livingstone and made his fame bringing the story back to the world of the White European. Slightly less famously, Stanley then set in motion the processes that would allow many of those same white Europeans to take control of, and make fortunes from the people, country and mineral wealth of the Congo.

The Congo suffered greatly when the Europeans finally relinquished control. Butcher tells the story of the countries decline as it's initial post-colonial state was quickly consumed by coups, war and bloodletting. At the heart of much of this was the areas mineral wealth, desired by both superpowers. The Congo never really ceased to be anything but a pawn of outside interests, and the country that Butcher decides to cross is far from safe terrain for outsiders. In places the UN maintain a token presence, as do various NGOs, but this poor, internally divided country is difficult to travel in.

What I like about Tim Butcher's writing is that he starts from the fascinating history of the country and its people. He is openly honest when he views the relics of colonial rule and wonders how it is a country can regress so rapidly. He doesn't fall into the trap of thinking that Colonial rule was necessarily a better time, though he meets many who do think this.

But as he drives across former major roads and finds them little more than paths in the jungle, sees once mighty ships rusting on the shore, or sees railway stations were no train has arrived for years, he finds himself wondering why it is some former colonies threw off their masters and found fortune and others didn't. (I suspect that answer is that places like the Congo never really escaped the era of Colonial Rule and the Imperialism that followed it - the mineral wealth under the ground was too important, then and now).

He recognises though that the Congo had it worst;

"Those sniffy British Colonial types might not like to admit it but the Congo represents the quintessence of the entire continent's colonial experience. It might be extreme and it might be shocking, but what happened in the Congo is nothing but colonialism in its purest basest form."

His journey is full of fascinating people many of whom have little to give, but offer all the help they can. Often they do so with no thought of reward, though most of them clearly think he is insane for attempting the trek. His record of the history of the place, the damage done since independence and the exploitation taking place by major multinationals that leaves no wealth for the inhabitants today is an excellent introduction to this part of the world.

Related Reviews

Pakenham - The Scramble For Africa