WeeklyWorker

05.06.2014
It should be ours

Countering illusions

During the 20th anniversary of the miner's Great Strike, we have been reprinting articles from The Leninist, forerunner of the paper you're reading now

The Leninist of July 1984 extended its coverage of the miners’ Great Strike, picking up on two themes that were to be important lines of political demarcation over the coming months of struggle.

First, within the Communist Party of Great Britain, there was the decision of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Poland to continue the export of coal to Britain during the strike, effectively scabbing on the miners. At the time, comrades around The Leninist - the forerunner of today’s Weekly Worker - shared with what could be broadly defined as the pro-Soviet left opposition in the party a commitment to defence of ‘socialist’ states such as Poland. This partisan attitude led us to support the suppression of the pro-capitalist movement, Solidarność, for example. However, unlike others in this wing of the CPGB, we also considered it incumbent on us as ‘defencists’ to voice “our profound criticisms of the leadership of the [Polish Stalinist party] for allowing the situation in Poland to drift to the brink of counterrevolution”.1

The line on nationalised industries in the Frank Grafton article below also marked The Leninist tendency out from both the other factions in the CPGB and the dominant trends within the wider movement.2 Undoubtedly, the illusions in nationalised industries were not simply held by the likes of the CPGB opportunists cited below, but by many militant workers, including miners.3 The article could perhaps be criticised for a little one-sidedness - the post-1945 concessions were not simply a result of high capital outlay costs or, in the case of the welfare state, “a reform” that the ruling class could “well afford during the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s”. They were also a result of the strength of the working class and the widespread perception that a viable alternative to capitalism was possible.

However, the illusions that comrade Grafton highlights were undoubtedly a weakness in the strike and contributed to the sectionalism that made winning solidarity action from other workers - as well as unity amongst the miners themselves - that much harder.

Is it our industry?

Lenin once wrote in an article entitled ‘Economic and political strikes’: “The stronger the onslaught of the workers, the greater their achievements in improving their standard of living. The ‘sympathy of society’ and better conditions of life are both results of a high degree of development of the struggle. Whereas the liberals (and the liquidators) tell the workers, you are strong when you have the sympathy of ‘society’, the Marxist tells the workers something different: namely, you have the sympathy of ‘society’ when you are strong.”4

This axiom is still pertinent today in relation to the opportunists in our own party, who have made concerted attempts to tone down the class nature of the present miners’ strike with the intent of assuaging ‘public opinion’. Intrinsic to this strategy has been the appeal to patriotic sentiment, which the Morning Star editorial made with reference to “Communitiesin struggle”,5 emphasising support for the strike by local business people in the mining areas, and which comrade Gordon McLennan made more overtly when he declared: “A victory for the miners will be a victory for the British people. To help the miners is to help Britain.”6

The central tenet of the opportunists’ propaganda around the miners’ strike, however, is the idea that the coal industry is a national asset, in the sense that it is nationalised and therefore supposedly belongs to the British people, that it is the property of the working class, that it is ‘our’ industry. The opportunists thereby project the Tories’ plan to rationalise and to privatise the coal industry as an act of unpatriotic “madness”, to which they pose the alternative of “... a firm energy base and major resource for rejuvenating British industry, laying sound foundations for the redevelopment of our wasted manufacturing industries”.7

To simply castigate the Tories and McGregor8 as “mad” is bad enough in that it hides their true motives as being the profit motive of capitalism. But to pose the task to workers of ‘saving’ British industry from these ‘unpatriotic’ butchers without making the defence of living standards our immediate priority and the seizure of state power as our ultimate aim is even worse - is in fact treachery - because it sacrifices the class interests of the workers for the benefit of saving British capitalist industry.

Nationalisation

Let us see where patriotism and staying loyal to ‘their’ industry has got the miners since it became nationalised in 1947.

The issue of pit closures and redundancies did not just emerge recently, but has been a continuous process since the National Coal Board was set up. In fact, the worst cuts were made during the boom years of the 1950s and 60s. From a level of employing over 700,000 miners in over 900 collieries, the NCB rationalised the industry down to the present level of 185,000 miners employed in just 176 pits. Far from simply being the handiwork of only Tory governments, it was the Labour administration of Harold Wilson which oversaw the closure of 191 pits during the period 1965-70, making even the McGregor plan for a further 70 pit closures over the next five years (according to NUM calculations) almost pale by comparison. Furthermore, the miners’ union did not oppose this loss of over a half million jobs and was unable to prevent the decline of miners’ wages in comparison with other sectors of workers, until it waged militant and uncompromising struggles in 1972 and 1974.

The coal industry, like all other nationalised industries, was not taken over by the state with the intention of running it in the interests of the British people, or of the working class employed in that industry. The intention of the capitalist class was, of course, to run an industry, which because of very high capital outlay costs had become inefficient and unprofitable under private ownership, but which still provided a necessary resource, and service to the rest of the capitalist economy.

The degree to which high capital investment with relatively little return is a feature of production industry in the state sector is shown by the census of production figures for 1981. Of all industries, including manufacturing, mineral extraction, construction, gas, water and electricity, only 15% of both employment and gross output is accounted for by the state sector, yet its share of net capital expenditure (meaning plant, machinery, vehicles and new buildings) amounts to a staggering 38%! It is the attempt to reduce the collective burden of these costs for the capitalist class which has conditioned the long-term strategy of increasing efficiency through increased productivity and which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of jobs being lost in all nationalised enterprises during the past 20 years, including over 300,000 in British Rail and nearly 200,000 in British Steel.

Very little resistance to these drastic cuts has been put up by the trade unions, precisely because of the pervading attitudes in the labour movement, which defend the logic of improving ‘our’ industry’s profitability and efficiency above the interest of defending our jobs and living standards. The opportunists in our party (and reformists in general) further justify this position by peddling the illusion that socialism can be built from within capitalist society by reforms, whilst the capitalist state remains intact, and that, moreover, nationalised industries and services represent ‘islands of socialism’, which will grow and eventually envelop society as a whole. The past 40 years show us, however, despite the naive mythology surrounding the Attlee government,9 that nationalisation has been utilised by the capitalist class and implemented by both Labour and Tory parties as a manifestation of state monopoly capitalism, and in the case of the welfare state, as a reform intended to ameliorate class antagonisms, which capitalism could well afford during the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s, but is increasingly unable to do now.

The Eurocommunists and the Morning Star have taken yet another qualitative step in their historic slide to the right in their attitude towards nationalised industries, even when compared to the already revoltingly reformist British road to socialism.10 At least in the latter we find formal acknowledgement of the capitalist state’s role as being in the interests of monopoly capitalism, although this is still conditioned by the assumption that the state sector is ‘naturally’ non-capitalist with the casual passing remark that: “There is constant pressure to subordinate the public sector and make it serve the interests of the private sector” - as if this had not been the intention all along.

But now, any differentiation between ‘capitalist nationalisation’ and ‘socialist nationalisation’ is totally obscured by the opportunists’ scramble to capture the mantle of true patriotism. The coal industry is no longer part of state monopoly capitalism, but is simply ‘our’ industry. The cause of socialism is pushed even further into the background, as the task of saving British - not only nationalised, but British - industry becomes ever more pressingly urgent.

Treachery

For anybody acquainted with the history of the international labour and socialist movement, this development is nothing new, for it is a sign that the growing crisis of capitalism is forcing opportunism to complete its passage into the camp of the bourgeoisie in the guise of social-chauvinism and open class treachery. The fact that Chater and McLennan11 are following in the footsteps of Hyndman and Kautsky does not make the liquidation of the Communist Party any less tragic and certainly not a farce. It is a very serious threat, which all pro-party communists must organise against in a disciplined rebellion to overthrow the Eurocommunist leadership.

To defeat opportunism it is imperative we counter the reformist argument that Britain’s economic decline is due to incompetent management and incorrect governmental policies,against which the Alternative Economic Strategy is posed as a solution.12 It is because Britain is an imperialist country and is driven by the demand for profit above all else that billions of pounds of capital are exported in search of more intensely exploited labour in Latin America and the far east. This is not simply a ‘policy’ of capitalism which can be reversed, any more than increasing industrial productivity with machines can be historically reversed. Parasitism and decay are fundamental features of imperialism and cannot be overcome except through the overthrow of the system itself.

The reformist solution offered by the AES, of ‘workers’ democracy’ (where trade unions share the responsibility of implementing, management decisions for increasing profitability), of planning agreements and of import controls (through which workers in Britain are diverted from confronting capitalism at home, as the true cause of job losses and low wages, to blaming other workers in Japan and South Korea) is more a means of harnessing the cooperation of the organised working class in promoting Britain’s competitiveness with other capitalist (and socialist) countries. In this respect the class-collaborationism during World War II in this country, when even the Communist Party supported cooperation with the capitalists at every level - from shop floor to the corridors of Whitehall - is the real blueprint for the architects of the AES.

With over three million workers already on the dole and the attempt by the Tory government in the current miners’ strike to open the way forward for a brutal offensive against trade unionism and living standards in general, the question still arises, however: how can the working class combat this rising capitalist onslaught?

The workers’ experience of nationalisation under capitalism has shown that this is not the answer to saving jobs and maintaining wage levels by itself, and is definitely nothing to do with building socialism. But it does have an advantage in one respect. In the face of an industry going bankrupt, as happened with Rolls Royce and shipbuilding, it forces the capitalist class as a whole to take responsibility for its continuation. It provides a focal point, and an increasingly political focal point, around which workers can wage a struggle for the government of the day to guarantee jobs and wages.

The success of this still rests with the strength and determination of the workers, however. It is in this context that we support continued state responsibility for industries and services such as national health, which are under threat of privatisation. Privatisation can only mean one thing - even greater cuts in the pursuit of productivity and profitability and even greater pressure to drive down wages. Our only consideration in defending nationalisation here is the defence of jobs, living standards and the free availability of welfare services for all workers.

Demands

A positive development to the limited gains and excessive losses wrought by state intervention in industry over the past 15 years has been the response of rank-and-file trade union organisations. Critical reports, such as those by the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards combine13 and trades councils in Newcastle, Coventry, Liverpool and north Tyneside, are still limited in that they propose a more left version of the AES still tied to the fortunes of a Labour government, but they raise the important demand of “Production for social needs, not profits”. This must be our starting point, for then our demands of the system are based on working class interests and not what capitalism can afford.

A second positive development has been the attempts by workers to implement workers’ control in order to combat closures and redundancies, such as the numerous occupations throughout the 1970s, of which the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in was the most celebrated example.14 The important point is not whether such experiments end in nationalisation, a private takeover or the setting up of a cooperative, all of which can be accommodated within the capitalist system and do not necessarily challenge it. The important point is that the issue of workers’ control and the setting up of factory committees (which transcend shop stewards’ committees in that they strive to represent all unionised and non-unionised workers) begin to challenge the capitalists’ control of working conditions and production. This can become the basis of a spreading political movement, as was the case in Russia in 1917 and to a lesser extent in Britain during 1917-21, when the local shop stewards in Scotland set up bodies like the Clyde Workers’ Committee with the following declared objectives:

1. To obtain an ever-increasing control over workshop conditions.

2. To regulate the terms upon which the workers shall be employed.

3. To organise the workers upon a class basis and to maintain the class struggle, until the overthrow of the wages system, the freedom of the workers and the establishment of industrial democracy have been obtained.

We might add that such workers’ control should apply to both nationalised and privately owned industry.

Yet workers’ control should not be construed to mean building socialism in the factories and the localities now.It must be seen as a demand around which the working class can begin to demand of capitalism what it needs, begin to challenge the system and go beyond it.Ultimately, even this is not enough, for a positive answer to the question, ‘Is it our industry?’, is not determined by nationalisation or even workers’ control of industry. The determining factor is whether the working class has state power.

Notes

1. The Leninist July 1984, editorial.

2. See also the ‘Three cardinal sins of opportunism’, reprinted in Weekly Worker March 14.

3. Specifically in the miners’ industry, the 1974 ‘Plan for coal’ that linked miners’ livelihoods to the profitability of ‘their’ industry.

4. VI Lenin CW Vol 18, p85, Moscow 1977.

5. Morning Star May 21 1984.

6. Morning Star May 19 1984.

7. Morning Star editorial, May 24 1984.

8. Ian MacGregor was appointed chairman of the National Coal Board by Margaret Thatcher in 1983 to carry on the work he began in British Steel - remorseless closures and redundancies. The NCB was created by the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act in 1946 to run the nationalised mining industry.

9. Ken Loach, for example, describes the “central idea” of the post-1945 reforms as “common ownership, where production and services were to benefit all”. He goes on: “We had won the war together, together we could win the peace. If we could plan to wage military campaigns, could we not plan to build houses, create a health service, transport system and to make goods that we needed for reconstruction?” (www.thespiritof45.com/All-About-Ken-Loach).

10. The British road to socialism was the reformist programme of the CPGB from 1951 to the party’s formal dissolution in 1991.

11. Tony Chater was the editor of the Morning Star who, in 1983, described the CPGB as an “outside body”, thereby becoming a (deeply uninspiring) focal point for an unprincipled rebellion by the left of the Communist Party. The factions that then coalesced around Chater became the Communist Campaign Group, and subsequently the Communist Party of Britain. Gordon McLennan (1924-2011) was the right-opportunist general secretary of the CPGB from 1975 to 1990.

12. The AES was developed by the ‘official’ CPGB and conceived in close collaboration with its left Labour allies. It was a classic example of Keynesian-inspired nationalist reformism, which, given the needs of the times, had on occasion to be dressed up as a “revolutionary strategy”.

13. In 1976 workers at the Lucas Aerospace Company in Britain set out to defeat the bosses’ plans to axe jobs. They produced their own alternative “corporate plan” for the company’s future. In doing so they attacked some of the underlying priorities of capitalism. Their proposals were radical, arguing for an end to the wasteful production of military goods and for people’s needs to be put before the owners’ profits.

14. In June 1971, when the loss-making Upper Clyde Shipbuilders went into receivership, the union - led by CPGB members - responded with a ‘work-in’ rather than a strike. The action lasted until October 1972 and forced a climbdown from Tory prime minister Edward Heath, with the Clyde shipyards receiving £101 million in public support over the next three years.