I thought I would offer readers of the Weekly Worker some impressions from my involvement in the dispute between the shadowy body which goes by the name of Universities UK and the Universities and College Union. As Kevin Bean has pointed out (‘Wave of radicalism’, March 1), the levels of militancy, determination and creativity seen in this strike are simply unprecedented in terms of the history of the UCU.
There have been some tremendous scenes from up and down the country - colourful and vibrant picket lines, mass branch meetings, demonstrations, student occupations, teach-ins, sit-ins and a plethora of witty placards and hastily assembled banners (“Foucault off UUK”, “On your Marx to defend pensions” and so on). Thousands have joined the UCU within the past few weeks and the confidence of the pickets is unmistakeable.
While the proposals to slash pensions are certainly draconian, my impression from talking to fellow strikers is that this issue was merely the catalyst for the current explosion, which flows from far more deep-seated concerns about workloads exceeding contracted hours (or at least for that ‘lucky’ half of teaching staff who actually have a contract); an utter lack of control over the running of the workplace; an increasingly precarious, casually employed workforce; insufficient time for genuine research and a burgeoning, extremely well remunerated management layer, which is entirely divorced from any teaching or research and which relies on bafflingly Kafkaesque shenanigans in order to pursue the neoliberal dream of ‘competitiveness’ and attaining a good score in the university league tables. This anger at the gradual marketisation of academia and its logic-defying consequences has been brewing for years. And tremendous solidarity is coming from the students too.
This is particularly significant. UUK probably wagered that, in these times when the student-lecturer relationship is being redesigned to resemble that between a ‘service provider’ and a ‘consumer’, the students would put enormous pressure on their lecturers for lost teaching time (after all, two semesters of teaching are costing a home student upward of nine grand a year!). But instead the students’ anger - whether in the form of letters to the vice-chancellor or in the occupation of university finance departments - has been directed towards management itself. At a time when the pampered, jet-setting lifestyles of university tops are coming under increasing media scrutiny (as evidenced in the recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme), students are beginning to see that the extortionate fees they are charged are simply not finding reflection in the quality of teaching conditions and resources. After all, for every shiny new, multi-million pound building and ‘Porn Star Martini’ ordered by a vice-chancellor in 5-star hotels in Asia, there is an underresourced library, a terribly overstretched workforce and ‘efficiency savings’ (cuts in finances to particular departments, passed off as new and exciting cross-departmental, initiatives with multidisciplinary approaches). In this sense, the majority of students appear to realise that the struggle of their lecturers is part of the same agenda that has seen tuition fees soar.
Perhaps having got a little too used to the good old days before this landmark dispute, management at several universities initially tried to dock the pay of teaching staff taking “action short of a strike” (ie, working only to contract), on the grounds that this would - quite logically - mean refusing to reschedule classes which had been cancelled on strike days. But, in the face of the pressure from students and alumni donors, management soon rowed back on this - now a whole host of university VCs have been forced to agree to spread wage deductions across four months, to spend the money not paid in wages on important student-welfare initiatives and so on. Indeed, with several VCs beginning to query the entire approach of UUK in this stand-off, the question of who this body actually represents in the current negotiations becomes increasingly pertinent.
Despite these and other such victorious skirmishes with the employer, the evening of Tuesday March 13 led to a rather bizarre and worrying situation for UCU members. As we geared up for another picket on the Wednesday morning, news came through of a ‘landmark deal’ between UUK and the UCU under the mediation of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas). My reaction when this news came through was naively positive - I expected that, in light of the strike’s success, the pensions onslaught had been avoided, that the dodgy mathematics of UUK on pensions had been undermined and we could return to teaching with a victory under our belt.
But a cursory glance soon dispelled this view: the deal being offered was an utter joke - pensions were now to fall by an estimated 35% (instead of the 40% cut originally proposed), we were still being asked to pay more for less, and management would ‘encourage’ those who had been on strike to … reschedule classes, despite many university bosses conceding that this was unacceptable! On social media and on the picket lines the following morning, colleagues were simply baffled by the fact that the UCU negotiators could go along with this - let alone pass it off as an ‘agreement’ before even consulting the members. Was it some kind of clever bargaining trick deployed in the dark arts of industrial negotiations? Or a way of testing the resolve of the members in the face of an intransigent employer?
Well, it seems that UCU president Sally Hunt really was of the view that reducing a 40% cut to our pensions by 5% was a good deal. She said: “We felt we had reached a point where the employers had gone as far as they were prepared to go. We wanted members to see the progress and branches to make a decision.”
Emergency UCU branch meetings took place straight away and motions were passed rejecting the deal. The hashtag #nocapitulation quickly made it onto the top 10 most popular topics worldwide on Twitter. At my university over 350 members turned up to the meeting to reject the deal unanimously. We then poured onto the university concourse for an impromptu demo in an eerily empty campus, chanting, “What deal? No deal!”
At a meeting of the UCU’s higher education committee on the same day, not a single delegate from the 60 striking branches voted in favour of the proposed agreement - all of them told Sally Hunt in detail what their members thought of this rotten offer, and it was soundly rejected. I am far from an expert in industrial relations, but it would seem to me that it is quite some time since the actions of a union leadership which is in the process of selling out its members have been so speedily defeated by rank-and-file members. Yet another sign that what we are witnessing is certainly not ‘business as usual’.
In an action that continues to throw up surprises and confound expectations, it is difficult to say what will come next. Most universities are now only a week away from the Easter holidays, and UUK will certainly be hoping that the break will serve to demobilise the strike, with the annual ritual of essay marking, examinations and huge backloads of pastoral and support work looming ever larger on the horizon. More action is planned (including the possibility of refusing to mark exams and so on) and it is vital that the union continues to recruit and organise for a tough battle ahead.
Contrary to the expectations of UUK, university management and perhaps even the odd leftwing lecturer, one thing has certainly become clear: this strike is not simply a run-of-the-mill trade union dispute, but appears to be assuming a strategic importance in the battle for the soul of higher education in this country.
I take issue with the final part of Jack Conrad’s article, ‘Against a second referendum’ (March 8).
Here he links the question of opposing referendums to two things which have bedevilled the history of the revolutionary movement. Firstly, in 1921-23 the early Communist International got the balance between the minimum and maximum programmes wrong, because it wrongly assumed that “the revolution was an immediate prospect”. That led to the “fiasco” of the German revolution in 1923, which soon found itself isolated and was smashed.
Secondly, in 1938 Trotsky also miscalculated the ‘next period’, when he presented the Transitional programme to the founding congress of the Fourth International, vis-à-vis his conviction that capitalism was undergoing its “final death agony” and that therefore the world revolution would triumph in the next few years.
Jack implies that there was no such revolutionary situation, whereas I would argue that there was indeed a situation of war and revolution between 1944 and 1945 - especially in countries like Italy and Greece, not forgetting the Balkans, China and Vietnam; except that the revolution was derailed or confined to national liberation struggles, given the fact that the masses throughout the world were still in the grip of Stalinism and social democracy. Without the Stalinist counterrevolution post-1924, the latter would not have lasted as long as it has. Therefore, things might have turned out differently.
Jack follows this up by attacking the post-1945 ‘transitional method’ adopted by the “Trotskyites” as “an attempt to trick the working class into taking power by defending existing constitutional arrangements and narrowly focusing on everyday economic demands”. On this latter point, he fails to see a possible link between transitional demands, such as the call for a sliding scale of wages or a shortening of the working day, and the “call for a workers’ government and workers’ control over production”, depending on the level of the class struggle. (A shorter working day with no loss of pay is very relevant to today’s conditions.) As far as I can recall, in Britain, circa 1972, when the dockers were imprisoned and even the TUC contemplated calling a general strike, the International Marxist Group (for all its later sins) did make this link in its agitational work. I was living in Glasgow at the time and know only too well that it was impossible to do any political work in the Clyde shipyards or the coalfields, etc, because they were under the control of the Stalinists - ie, the old CPGB - who wanted no such thing!
But I agree with Jack when he infers that revolutionaries must eschew an abstract method in favour of a concrete approach to events. The latter not only change over time, but the parlous situation which the working class finds itself in today is not just a replay of past defeats, because capitalism itself is in decline. The organised working class is much reduced, its consciousness is lower, etc. Therefore, if a crisis like 1972 arose in the near future, it would be difficult to raise demands such as a general strike for a “workers’ government”, etc. In this regard, Trotsky is finally being proved right about his conviction of capitalism undergoing its “final death agony”, even if this decline did not follow in a straight line and is taking longer than he envisaged. This was partly due to the destruction of the forces and relations of production during World War II, which led to the long post-war boom. But now, in the age of neoliberalism and a systemic crisis of the system, things look decidedly different. It follows that we cannot approach programmatic questions in an abstract manner.
In this regard, Jack is wrong to lump together the post-1945 Trotskyists as a homogenous mass. Similarly, there are many individual Trotskyists today, such as myself, who strongly object to being tarred with the same brush as the degenerate Trotskyist grouplets. Sadly, they are all that remains of the Fourth International. The point here is that all revolutionary groups and individuals are confronted with the same challenge: the fact that we need to understand we are now living in a period of capitalist decline; therefore, how should we adapt to this? By so doing, we need to be critical of past mistakes, in terms of an understanding of the political conjuncture, as well as getting the balance right, vis-à-vis the minimum/maximum programme. So there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater - ie, Trotsky’s Transitional programme.
This is despite the fact that, in 1938, Trotsky got the next period completely wrong, because he had no way of knowing that Stalinism would be able to survive an imperialist war, let alone maintain its grip on the world working class for the next few decades. Therefore, in those places where the masses did rise up in 1944-45, the revolution was crushed; thus the question of world revolution was removed from the historical agenda for the time being. Nevertheless, in his section on ‘The minimum programme and the TP’, Trotsky is correct when he says that the task of revolutionaries “consists in overcoming the contradiction between the maturity of the objective revolutionary conditions and the immaturity of the proletariat and its vanguard”. Therefore, they must “help the masses in [their] daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist programme of the revolution.” Hence, the need for a “system of transitional demands”.
Consider the section on ‘The picket line - defence guards - workers’ militia - the arming of the proletariat’. This section reflects Trotsky’s revolutionary approach to the question in opposition to Stalinism and reformism, albeit concretely - ie, in the context of the workers’ struggles over wages and conditions that were going on in the USA at the time: “[Here] even during ‘peaceful’ times, the bourgeoisie maintains militarised battalions of scabs and privately armed thugs in factories ... The politicians of the Second and Third Internationals, as well as the bureaucrats in the trade unions, consciously close their eyes to the bourgeoisie’s private army; otherwise they could not preserve their alliance with it for even 24 hours. The reformists systematically implant in the minds of the workers the notion that the sacredness of democracy is best guaranteed when the bourgeoisie is armed to the teeth and the workers are unarmed.
“The duty of the Fourth International is to put an end to such slavish politics once and for all … Only armed workers’ detachments, who feel the support of tens of millions of toilers behind them, can successfully prevail against fascist bands … In connection with every strike and street demonstration, it is imperative to propagate the necessity of creating workers’ groups for self-defence. It is necessary to write this slogan into the programme of the revolutionary wing of the trade unions … beginning with youth groups for self-defence, to drill and acquaint them with the use of firearms.”
This is linked to a later section, wherein the question of the struggle against imperialism is raised. Here Trotsky includes slogans which could be adapted to today’s conditions, when and where appropriate: “Not an armaments programme, but a programme of useful public works … Military training and arming of workers and farmers under the direct control of workers’ and farmers’ committees … Military schools for the training of commanders among the workers, chosen by workers’ organisations.” This last point is important, because, as Jack correctly says, we need to organise “an independent working class challenge to the existing constitutional order”.
The question cannot be addressed abstractly by deferring to the “existing constitutional arrangements” - eg, the second amendment of the United States’ constitution: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” We have to bear in mind the fact that today the capitalist system is in decline, economically, ideologically and socially.
Therefore, we are living in a society which is much more atomised and alienated than it was in 1938. Today we have more and more individuals who are seriously disturbed psychologically and who are likely to behave in a violently anti-social way. Yet, in the US, there are still no checks on a person’s suitability to own a firearm. Therefore, even psychotics have the right to purchase an assault rifle, which is designed for killing as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. (Hence, it has become the weapon of choice for school shooters!).
Thus, when we consider the question of workers’ militias, we have to take the question of capitalist decline into account as well. We cannot simply fetishise existing constitutional rights, such as the second amendment. This is not just an example of tail-ending; it is also unrealistic, as well as a foolish position for revolutionaries to take.
Last Saturday I spoke at the Radical Independence Conference in Edinburgh in favour of ‘Scottish Ratification Referendum 2018’ (or before March 2019) and I subsequently had a chance to read Jack Conrad’s timely article. We couldn’t be farther apart.
The very words, ‘ScotRatRef18’ are anathema for Jack. He has no sympathy for ‘Scotland’, because it is nationalist and not British. He fails to recognise the ratification process for the anti-working class Tory Brexit. He claims that for communists a ‘referendum’ is beyond the pale, perhaps because he fears working class people voting on political matters will only end badly.
Scotland voted by 62% to remain in the European Union. This, of course, has no political meaning for the British. Pretend it never happened and roll your British tanks over it, as if it is not there. The Scottish people have no right to self-determination and ‘British exit’ reminds the forgetful. Don’t forget Northern Ireland either.
There is no article 50 in the British unionist constitution, as anti-unionists in England keep reminding everybody. As Queen Anne said in 1707, this Act of Union is forever. There is no legal way out of it. It is true Cameron gambled that he could defeat the rise of Scottish democracy by allowing the 2014 referendum. He won, only just, and kept his job. But not before he had made the present queen more than a little anxious for her throne.
After the defeat of 2014 the idea of a second independence referendum (Indie Ref 2) is for the birds. I have taken to calling it ‘IndieRef34’, sadly, as I am unlikely to be around in 2034 to join in. There is no way after Brexit that the British crown will allow Scotland to have another indie ref for at least 20 years.
Yet Scottish self-determination remains a live issue because of Brexit. Now the issue is whether Scotland can be forced out of the EU against its democratic vote to remain. Even an intelligent unionist can realise that if Brexit ends badly there will be a permanent inbuilt grievance that the rights of the Scottish people were trampled underfoot by English votes, combined with the political force of the British crown.
Of course, there is a ratification process for the EU treaty. There are only three candidates - the British crown (ministers, etc), the ‘crown in parliament’ (Westminster) or the people through a referendum. If Jack rules out the latter, then in the real world he is choosing by default the crown or Westminster. This is why ScotRatRef18 is not simply a Scottish issue, but a UK-wide RatRef issue.
I should add for clarity that I do not support the slogan of a ‘second referendum’, since it implies repeating the first one. It is a dangerous obfuscation, which will only benefit Ukip and the far right by alienating that section of the English and Welsh working class who were misled into voting to leave. I agree with Jack there should be no truck whatsoever with the nasty, vile and disgusting second EU referendum.
The last point refers to Jack’s principled objection to referenda as such. His method is to counterpose the ideal of socialist democracy to the dirty business of bourgeoisie democracy. Once the proletariat is in power, there will be no need for general elections or referenda because life will be permanent voting every day. Set against the real capitalist world we live in, socialism has no need for any kind of bourgeois voting, from dodgy elections to dickey referenda. The ‘case’ for boycotting is not confined to referenda.
Workers demand wage increases in the fight against poverty pay. Without real democracy, workers demand the right to vote on this, that and the next thing. Nowadays when the council decides to bulldoze your estate and build mansions for absent Russian oligarchs, it has become fashionable to demand mini-referenda on the council plans. Is there no end to it all?
Why should working class people, the ignorant mob and their friends, the great unwashed masses, be allowed to interfere in the royal prerogatives of crown and parliament? Why should they be allowed to vote for or against the Tories dirty little Brexit deal? If Cameron had taken Kautsky more seriously we wouldn’t be in this Brexit mess in the first place and he would still be prime minister!
In her report of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy annual general meeting, Carla Roberts writes of the emergency motion moved by Christine Shawcroft which sought to remove Pete Willsman as CLPD secretary: “The motion was ruled out of order (on the basis that it was ‘not an emergency’), but it took a vote that needed two recounts before that decision was accepted.”
I don’t know if Carla and I were at the same meeting, but as chair of the morning session I didn’t rule the motion out of order. There was doubt about its status as an emergency, because it sought to reopen nominations well after the closing date. Nevertheless, I took a vote on whether it should be accepted as an emergency, which in the circumstances I took to be the most democratic method of resolving the issue.
Yes, there were recounts, because the tellers’ figures didn’t agree. I am sure that you will agree that this is also the most democratic method of resolving voting numbers. Once the numbers agreed, and a majority didn’t accept that it was a genuine emergency, the motion fell. That may not have pleased the Weekly Worker supporters who were handing out the motion at the door (and so had sight of it before I did), but that’s democracy.
What on earth is Gerry Downing on about (Letters, March 8)? His letter consists mostly of quotes - either from myself of from the Morning Star - which apparently show that I am “third-campist”, because I had advocated “the independence of the working class” in South Africa. He also comments that “those who are not able to defend old gains will never make new ones”.
When I received his letter for publication, I replied asking him to elaborate his position, but he did not respond. So we are all left guessing about the identity of the two main camps in South Africa and why, it seems, we must take the side of one of them rather than that of the working class. Nor do we know which particular “gains” he thinks are under threat and which of them I am failing to defend.
I am pretty sure comrade Downing does not think that the reintroduction of apartheid is on the cards, so perhaps the very existence of the African National Congress as a liberation movement is what he is talking about. He reminds us that Socialist Fight was opposed to the removal of Jacob Zuma as ANC leader and state president, so maybe it is the Zuma leadership itself which symbolised those “gains” - even though comrade Downing seems to agree that “Zuma was an exceedingly corrupt individual”.
It is also puzzling that he regards the replacement of Zuma by Cyril Ramaphosa as a significant defeat. In reality Ramaphosa represents a form of continuity - he was, for the most part, Zuma’s loyal deputy president (of the ANC from 2012; of South Africa from 2014). It is true that Ramaphosa is an ultra-rich capitalist, but Zuma is hardly a humble working class partisan. Yes, Ramaphosa was directly involved in the 2012 Marikana massacre of 34 miners, but it was Zuma’s own office which was ultimately responsible for arming the police with lethal weapons and ensuring they were used.
Can I point out that the call for “the independence of the working class” is actually linked directly to the “concrete steps to take next”. Surely it is obvious that the working class needs its own party - one that is not tied hand and foot to the ANC popular front. We should insist that working class formations like the South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions break with the pro-capitalist ANC - not side with the old guard as the ‘lesser evil’.
Jim Cook objects, as do the other two letter-writers in last week’s paper, to the Marxist theory of the state being applied to explain the persistent witch-hunting of anyone who condemns Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians (Letters, March 8).
Cook thinks it is no big deal if Zionist Jews are disproportionately represented in the ruling class of imperialist countries, since Hindu Indians and overseas Chinese are overrepresented in some ruling classes also. But this is a cultural quirk of little significance, as neither India nor China are built entirely on land stolen from another people, and overseas/expat bourgeois from these countries do not have any equivalent ideology of exile, homecoming and refuge that justifies active support from overseas for such expropriation of another people.
However, there is none so blasé as Peter Manson in dismissing significant facts. He challenged me to give a list of imperialist bourgeois politicians who had had their careers damaged or destroyed, or attempted to be so, by the activities of the Israel lobby. I gave him eight examples, but that is not enough for Manson: he wants on-the-record quotes from prominent “Jewish individuals” for all of them. But all these cases involve an activity that is considered reprehensible even in bourgeois politics: ‘dirty tricks’, and even more contentious, a minority trying to coerce part of the majority using such methods.
The CPGB and its fellow travellers have not come close to refuting the contention that our understanding is an application of the Marxist theory of the state. Instead of coming up with an alternative interpretation of the evidence, that they do not deny exists, consistent with the Marxist theory of the state, they either attack Marx’s theory itself implicitly (Moshé Machover) or play silly games with evidence (Manson). They still cannot refute the point that in proscribing our view, they proscribed orthodox Marxist views from ‘Labour Against the Witchhunt’ (sic!).
Consider this, if you will. In a distinctly honourable as well as admirably democratic manner, the Weekly Worker provides Jim Cook of Reading with access to its pages, allocating top slot to his letter, where it fully it deserves to be. In the very same edition, the paper continues with strings of empty and cyclical debate - as is a core topic of that very same letter. The words ‘bizarre’ and ‘unfathomable’ jump to mind, alongside a sense of utter despair!
Add to this scenario the fact that several other published contributions have made similar criticisms to those offered by Jim Cook, and the only conclusion worth drawing must be this: enough of the ideologically ‘correct’ talk, enough of that self-justifying, old-school mentality.
It’s clear that an element of the paper’s readership is looking to see growth. Put quite simply, the time has come for the Weekly Worker/CPGB to upgrade their thinking. Maybe now is that perfect time for an opening up of windows and then a throwing back of shutters, so as to allow in some reinvigorating air. To allow that fresh mentality to blow through all theories, policies and practices.
This is how things sit with some of your freethinking, fair-minded as well as fundamentally supportive readers. With those who are solidly communistic and therefore always asking questions - but never turncoats or ever traitors to our general cause.