Lenin’s famous pamphlet ‘What is to be done?’ was written in 1901 and addressed in part, the issue of the political versus the economic struggle socialists have to engage in (not that the two can be separated) in order to get rid of capitalism.
To avoid misunderstanding, we must point out that here, and throughout this pamphlet, by economic struggle, we imply (in keeping with the accepted usage among us) the “practical economic struggle”, which Engels…described as “resistance to the capitalists”, and which in free countries is known as the organised-labour syndical, or trade union struggle. — Lenin, ‘What is to be done?‘
There are of course fundamental differences between Russia prior to 1917 and the situation here in the UK and these differences need to be taken onboard. And to add to the difficulty of our situation, there is no effective left to speak of here in the UK, underground or otherwise, merely the remnants of remnants. Nevertheless, the fundamental divide on the Left remains the same, namely whether to ‘reform’ capitalism or to try and overthrow it?
The left of course, are fond of quoting from the masters, often elevating their words onto some kind of religious level. But there is no doubt, that individuals like Lenin were not only remarkable practical politicians, able to accurately gage events as they happened and respond, but they were also theoreticians, analyzing the economic forces as they related to political outcomes.
The irony of ‘What is to be done?’ is not lost on me as it articulates a view of capitalism, at that point allegedly entering its highest stage that Lenin called Imperialism, only to see it delayed by the Russian Revolution until 1991! The importance of this cannot be over-estimated.
So now we know exactly what Lenin was writing about, this is what capitalism in its highest stage (I use the word loosely) looks like. Unbridled and unfettered by any political or social constraints, the damn thing is now a menace to all life on the planet. It’s like a runaway disease. This is why the coming struggle to rein in the servants of capital is the most critical one any of us will ever experience in our lifetimes, and all the more reason why it’s important to understand what forces are opposed to the attacks on our rights, chief amongst them right now are the trade unions, given that we have no political voice of our own.
Currently, the only effective force in the country that can mount any kind of opposition to the attacks on our social capital is a much defanged trade union movement. But what are the chances of the organized labour movement leading a successful opposition to this, most likely the last gasp of a bankrupt capitalism before total barbarism descends on us all? So far the signs are not good.
The history of the Labour Party is the history of the trade union movement. The Labour Party was the political expression of the trade union movement designed to advance and protect workers rights through the parliamentary process. But by the 1920s, the idea of a Labour Party leading a socialist revolution, from within as it were, was already a distant memory. And in any case, organized labour is only a fraction of the working population, can we assume they speak for all who labour?
Thus the idea of trade unions leading a revolution is pretty much a non-starter, though of course they can and should participate in the process of social transformation. But devoid of a left that could lead a challenge to the rule of capital, who do we turn to? Forget a revolution, who do we turn to in order to defeat the Tory/Lib-Dem attacks on what’s left of the gains we have made?
In my previous piece I made mention of the pathetic role of the trade union movement in challenging the Tory/Lib-Dem’s avowed intention to destroy what’s left of our social infrastructure (let alone its capitulation to thirteen years of Labour rule). Well it seems now that at least two major trade unions have stated publicly that they intend to challenge the cuts but how is not being spelt out beyond vague generalities and the possibility of coordinated strike action at some unspecified point in the future.
This from a BBC story on the annual Trades Union Council (TUC) general meeting currently in session,
“Delegates debated a motion calling for the TUC’s general council to “support and co-ordinate campaigning and joint union industrial action, nationally and locally, in opposition to attacks on jobs, pensions, pay or public services”. It could lead to strikes if the cuts are not scaled back.
“The motion rejected the idea that cuts were necessary to pay for the deficit and said they were a “savage and opportunistic attack on public services” which “goes far further than even the dark days of Thatcher”.”
The piece continued,
“TUC general secretary Mr Barber told delegates: “These are not temporary cuts, but a permanent rollback of public services and the welfare state. Not so much an economic necessity as a political project driven by an ideological clamour for a minimal state.
“”What they take apart now could take generations to rebuild. Decent public services are the glue that holds a civilised society together and we diminish them at our peril. Cut services, put jobs in peril and increase inequality, that’s the way to make Britain a darker, brutish, more frightening place.””
There was one dissenting voice on the motion by the leader of Airline Pilots Association who “said it might be seen as an “open goal” for the government, and warned some union colleagues were “getting the tone wrong” in resisting every cut and they had to get the message out beyond unions to the wider community”, whatever that means.
Further on in the piece we get to the heart of the trade union movement’s dilemma,
“”Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ (RMT) leader Bob Crow has called for a campaign of “civil disobedience” but Mr Barber [Gen.sec of the TUC] told the BBC he thought that was “counter-productive”.
“”Instead he said he favoured “a broad-based campaign… to look to harness public opinion behind the case for a different approach to managing our economy.””
“Unite, the UK’s biggest union, says it wants a “robust campaign” to protect public services, while the GMB argues that three-quarters of a million jobs could be at risk.
“The RMT accuses ministers of launching “all-out class warfare”.” — ‘Unions support joint industrial action over cuts‘, BBC News Website, 13 September, 2010
The closest the trade unions come to producing an alternative is Barber’s call for “a different approach to managing our economy” but clearly this doesn’t mean changing the economic basis of production but of managing the existing one more effectively. Hah! Been there, done that! This is what Economism is all about.
For the past forty years working people and its many political and social expressions have been on the defensive. Successive governments have, since the days of Thatcher mounted all out attacks on workers’s rights, civil liberties, the corporatization of the political process and now the final nail in the social coffin, the complete dismantling of everything that we have built since 1945.
But the trade union movement’s call for “a broad-based campaign… to look to harness public opinion behind the case for a different approach to managing our economy” reveals just how fragmented our social/political fabric has become. This (incipient) struggle is not simply about unions defending their members’ rights, it’s about all of us.
In the light of Barber’s remarks it’s worth reprinting part of the introduction to ‘What is to be done?, in the section entitled ‘Trade-Unionist Politics And Social-Democratic Politics’ as it illustrates the gulf that exists between workers and the political process here in the UK,
“As soon as the [Russian] workers realised that the Social-Democratic study circles desired to, and could, supply them with a new kind of leaflet that told the whole truth about their miserable existence, about their unbearably hard toil, and their lack of rights, they began to send in, actually flood us with, correspondence from the factories and workshops. This “exposure literature” created a tremendous sensation, not only in the particular factory exposed in the given leaflet, but in all the factories to which news of the, revealed facts spread. And since the poverty and want among the workers in the various enterprises and in the various trades are much the same, the “truth about the life of the workers” stirred everyone. Even among the most backward workers, a veritable passion arose to “get into print” — a noble passion for this rudimentary form of war against the whole of the present social system which is based upon robbery and oppression.” — ‘A. Political Agitation And Its Restriction By the Economists‘
It seems incredible that more than one hundred years after these words were penned, workers then were more sussed, more aware of their potential power to change things than we are today. And what does this tell us about our current plight?
Ok, our material conditions are immeasurably better than those of pre-revolutionary Russian workers but that’s not the point. The point is that after one hundred years of a reformist left political movement our awareness of our situation has been gutted of content, of history and explains why Barber deems it necessary to create a “broad-based campaign… to look to harness public opinion behind the case for a different approach to managing our economy.”
Are we not all workers? Will not the attempts to roll back history affect all of us? Why is it necessary for the leader of the trade union movement to talk of “harness[ing] public opinion” as if organized workers are not part of the public, don’t possess opinions, get sick, send their kids to school and so forth?
Thirteen years of a corporately-controlled Labour government have completed our political emasculation started under the Thatcher government. It’s ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to our rulers no matter how they dress it up with Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ BS or whatever PR stunt his minders come up with.
We are being told that is necessary to liquidate around £150 billion of state assets directly to pay off the ‘deficit’, and that’s aside from the ‘spinoff’ of lost jobs and business and who knows how much that adds up to, let alone the social costs? What the government is planning to do, if we don’t stop them, is to decimate our social infrastructure and privatize whatever remains.
However, unlike the Crash of ’29, the causes of which were effectively hidden from the public at large, this time it’s blindingly obvious that the cause is not some kind of ‘act of nature’ or the result of some fraudsters and their Ponzi schemes but that crises of this nature are intrinsic to capitalism when left to its own devices. That’s why working peoples’ political aspirations are so important, they are the only lever that we possess. It’s what 1945 was all about in spite of its limitations!
But surely by now it’s obvious that there can be no return to the postwar labour/capital consensus or social contract as it is called, this is why Barber’s call for a different way of managing the economy is just pure nonsense. There can be no going back, only forward—from living in a world dominated entirely by capital in its worst and most non-productive, parasitical form, finance—on to a collectively owned and managed, and importantly sustainable economy. There is simply no alternative unless that is, you want to live in a world of endless war, poverty and crises.
Reforms were made following the collapse of 1929 which were then successively jettisoned following the ascendency of the so-called neo-liberal agenda. The ‘market’, that alleged ‘great leveller’, would sort things out, we were promised. ‘Trickle-down’ theory and a bunch of other rubbish and of course the demise of the ‘Red Menace’ meant that we could look forward to world entirely dominated by capital and the ‘free market’. In fact as we can see from the perilous state of the world, it’s Social Darwinism where only the most avaricious predators survive. A world dominated by capital is a world of endless wars and increasing misery for ever-increasing millions of people.
The fact remains that we live in world controlled effectively by a handful of giant corporations whose survival depends on maintaining a state of continued crisis. So powerful are they through the lobbies they maintain as well as the revolving door relationship between capital and the political classes, that they now control the major economies of the world.
But it appears that the leadership of the major trade unions are still living in a world that no longer exists. A world of factories and real production where mass production was connected directly to mass employment and thus to mass consumption, a world that was wiped out in the 1980s in the UK.
Instead, we ended up with an expanded middle class fueled by (not so) cheap credit accompanied by a widening gap between rich and poor. When Labour took power in 1997 they were riding on the crest of the ‘globalization’ wave, that in reality was nothing more than a gigantic speculative bubble that now spanned the globe.
I think it’s worth considering what fueled this process, namely the IT revolution consisting of supply chains, vertical and horizontal integration that was accompanied by a spree of buyouts, acquisitions and ‘convergence’ that accelerated the revolution in production that came with the IT revolution.
But instead of utilizing these new technologies to produce a more rational and sustainable economy, on the one hand they harnessed it to deindustrialize the former industrial economies by globalizing production and on the other to invent new ways of making money via futures, hedge funds and the like, all now possible under a deregulated and financialized global economy where in this brave new world of ‘virtual wealth’ anything was possible.
So for some, the good times rolled! Until that is the bubble burst and ended thirteen years of Labour government. New Labour was dead in the water, mirroring in a strange way the ending of nineteen years of Tory rule that preceded it.