As capitalism descends deeper into crisis, the ruling class are getting more aggressive in their efforts to push the burdens of the slump onto workers’ backs. In these circumstances, the working class needs to be hard-headed about (a) just what they are fighting for, and (b) what grounds there are for confidence that their struggles will meet with success.
It would be comforting simply to hail the militancy of the striking construction workers, whose recent bold initiative in taking unofficial action over jobs has put the bosses and the government on the back foot, as winning a decisive victory for the British working class – comforting, but wrong.
It would be comforting to pretend that the battle lines coincided neatly with the struggle of labour against capital, and that the strikers and unions involved were free from the taint of “British jobs for British workers” chauvinism – comforting, but wrong.
It would be comforting to nod along with the New Communist Party’s line in the New Worker of 13th February 2009, under a headline blaring “Victory in Lindsey dispute”. How cosy it would be to nod sagely as Derek Simpson of Unite tells us that the Lindsey deal “establishes the principle of fair access for UK workers”, as the first stage in the battle against “employers who are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on construction projects”. How comforting it would be to pretend that the crucial issue confronting workers is not the failure of capitalism to guarantee employment to all workers but the failure of government to reserve a quota of the dwindling jobs pool for British workers.
In short, it would be far more comfortable all round to believe that workers really do now have the opportunity to unite behind the existing trade union leadership, guided by the political perspectives offered by the “left” of the Labour party and their sundry hangers-on, and that the only racist blot on the horizon is the fascist posturing of the British Nationalist Party (BNP) on the far fringes of “respectable” political life. Such illusions must indeed be comforting – but are completely false.
The BNP feeds off the racial prejudice sown amongst workers over a very long period by a labour aristocracy which has been specially groomed for this task by their imperialist masters. The natural habitat of this privileged layer of workers has throughout been the Labour party and the TUC which that party dominates. The emergence of “New” Labour has simply exposed the essentially bourgeois orientation of the party, now largely stripped of the protective colouration once provided by its proletarian membership.
The purpose of sowing racism amongst workers has been to divide and weaken organised labour. In the 19th century the scapegoat was the “Irish navvy”. In the 1930s it was primarily the “wandering Jew”, in the 1960s it was the West Indian and in the 1980s it was the “Paki”. Right now the scapegoats include migrant workers from Eastern Europe (their former socialist homelands now enduring capitalist meltdown), refugees from underdevelopment and war (both a consequence of imperialism), and just about anyone who is, or might conceivably be mistaken for, a Muslim.
This divide-and-rule use of racism is not just some random tactic happened upon by imperialism. By keeping the labour movement tied to the neo-colonial oppression meted out by the ruling class, the imperialist Labour party stands on guard on the exploiters’ behalf, ever ready to undermine the anti-capitalist efforts of the proletariat.
In the course of the latest “British Jobs for British Workers” furore, the bourgeois propaganda campaign has continued to play out through a very familiar division of labour. Whilst the angry victims of unemployment are persuaded to wrap themselves in the Union Jack and demand a “fair deal for Brits”, the “great and good” of the “left” Labour establishment present themselves as the guard dogs of “respectable” politics. On the one hand these gentry strive to pen the “wildcats” back within the legal pale, on the other they pretend to identify the BNP as the sole chauvinist threat.
By posturing as defenders of democracy against the BNP, apologists for the Labour party seek in practice to bind workers yet tighter to social democracy – the real pimp for fascism. Job done, these hypocrites can wash their own hands of any responsibility for the chauvinist panic they have helped to unleash, leaving it to the hysterical tabloids to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s in this cautionary tale of “dirty foreigners stealing our jobs”.
Meanwhile, of course, the Labour party in government is free to go on building concentration camps for asylum seekers and their children, implementing racist immigration controls, criminalising trade union resistance and stacking ever higher the “anti-terror” legislation – purportedly against “Muslim terrorists”, but in reality a gun aimed at the working class if and when it decides to kick off. BNP, eat your heart out! With social democratic friends like this, who needs fascist enemies?
So what does “victory” look like in these times of crisis, and what does “defeat” look like? “Victory” may be claimed when a deal is cut with management whereby the workforce agrees to stomach a wage cut or short-time working in exchange for a promise of no more redundancies – yet. Or “victory” may be a deal cut with management to guarantee a quota of “British” jobs. However, jobs “defended” by such means can only demoralise the work force, pit one group of workers against another – and in any case pave the way for further retrenchment and defeats. To trumpet such deals as “victories” can bring only false comfort to workers in struggle, ill preparing them for yet tougher battles still to come.
The TUC and “left” Labour riposte runs as follows:
1. The recession is inevitable. If it’s anybody’s fault it’s the bankers, so we need a few heads to roll and a bit more regulation.
2. The best “we” can all do is sit it out and share the pain out a bit more “fairly”, helped along by a dose of Keynesian anaesthesia.
3. Anyway better times are round the corner, and it’s probably time we stopped “our” spendthrift ways and welcome a brave new world of virtuous austerity, ushering in a “greener” Britain.
By this logic, workers need to demand a “fair” distribution of wage cuts (you shave off a percentage of your fat cat bonus and we’ll swallow deteriorating pay and conditions) and a “fair” distribution of the rapidly diminishing jobs supply (with first place in the queue reserved for white British – otherwise the BNP will get in!).
The crisis is indeed inevitable – that much they have got right. But the scale of the crisis is at least on a par with the two great crises of the 20th century, each of which convulsed world society, spawning wars and revolutions. What workers need to be hearing is not soothing advice on how to collaborate with capitalism so that “we British” can weather the storm together. What workers need to hear is the truth: that their class interests are in open and direct contradiction with those of the exploiters; that organisation is the only weapon the proletariat possesses in its fight against capitalism; that everything which disunites workers also blunts that weapon of organisation; that complicity with oppression abroad and racism at home are the single most potent threat to the unity of the working class; and that the single most important task with which imperialism entrusts its social democratic gendarmes is to enforce that complicity upon the British working class.
So what does “victory” or “defeat” look like in these crisis days? To trample over the union-bashing laws, say “sod the ballot” and walk off the job – that is a most welcome proof of the continued fighting spirit of the working class. But to walk off the job and into the arms of the chauvinist TUC and Labour party – that is to court the most dangerous political setbacks for the whole class.
Victory must increasingly be measured in terms of the political gains workers win for themselves. Victory must be measured by how far workers can get out from under the disorganising influence of social democracy, how far workers can draw on their reserves of class militancy to challenge capitalism itself. Along this path, many tactics and many forms of organisation may present themselves. The workers in Waterford and elsewhere have refreshed memories on the potential of the occupation and work-in as tactics in the class war. Sooner than accept the capitalist’s plaint – “the order book is empty chaps, what can I do about it?” – the workers can demonstrate that it is the commodity market that is satiated, not the consumption needs of those who labour.
Attempts to rebuild militant organisation within the unions through initiatives like the National Shop Stewards Network – itself a logical development of the RMT’s own organisational break with Labour – will only thrive to the degree that they are able to cut loose from the false comfort offered by the “old hands” of “left” Labour and get serious about uniting the class to challenge the whole system of wage slavery.
As the working class learns to break the link with the Labour party, there are excellent reasons for anticipating a victorious outcome for its struggles. It is this message, not the false comfort offered by the “left” Labour swamp, which should command the attention of class-conscious workers.