Pep talk

A few comments on the CPGB’s Draft programme and some more general observations. First, the section on ‘Socialism and democracy’: Where the hell are the soviets? You know - a system of elected local councils cascading up to a general country-wide representative council - delegates recallable by the ‘lower’ delegating body at any time. A bottom-up representative structure to replace the gas house otherwise know as parliament. Maybe this was just an oversight, but it’s a pretty big one.

Also in this section - I know it may seem like a minor issue but it is symptomatic of deeper problem - it would be a good idea to drop the term ‘petty bourgeoisie’. It was originally a corruption of the French expression petit bourgeois, which, of course, just means ‘small business owner/operator’. Besides being archaic and out of touch with some of the people you are trying to talk to, the use of the term ‘petty’ is a deliberate put-down and serves no good purpose.

While you’re at it, try working out a bottom-up system for the party itself. There was a reason why the Bolshevik Party fell victim to bureaucratic corruption in the period after the conquest of power in the 1920s and 30s. It is useless to blame external factors for the total destruction of the party. Nor does it serve to target personalities. From the onset of World War I, Stalin, Trotsky and even Lenin were, in many ways, projectiles in the grip of forces they had little control over. The foundations for the conquest of power in an extreme crisis were outlined by Lenin and laid down by the party - largely steered by him - between 1902 and 1914. But there was no preparation for the administration of state power. If you read What is to be done? carefully, you will see that the goal at that time was basically a radical ‘bourgeois’ democracy - what we would later call a social democratic regime - like Sweden’s.

The defeats of the 20s, 30s and 40s have never been properly analysed. Nor for that matter has the debacle of 1914 been properly explained. The left seems only to be able to repeat the same formulas over and over in spite of what clearly is a disastrous record.

It seems to me that in all Bolshevik and pseudo-Bolshevik organisations we are looking at a structure that was not fundamentally different from the ideal liberal representative democracy. One where the representatives are ‘empowered’ to carry out their ‘mandate’ for a fixed period of time. A true communist organisation requires a system that always keeps the membership in control, no matter what the external circumstances are. Some adaptation of the soviet principle to the party needs to be examined.

Finally, in general, it looks like you are basically talking to each other - the ‘broad’ Marxist left. Try to cut down on the jargon. Take some of the hoary old chestnuts and see if there aren’t more modern versions of them that still carry the same scientific content. Then start swapping them out. This is another reason why the revolutionary movement and left in general seem to have gone downhill more or less constantly.

Pep talk
Pep talk

Name handicap

The name of your party immediately made me think that yours was a Stalinist tradition - something that you should consider seriously. That is the reason that the Socialist Workers Party calls itself socialist rather than communist: they don’t want death by association with what the general public are automatically going to think of as the discredited politics of Stalinism, the loss of the civil war in Spain, gulags and all the rest.

I read your paper with interest - one notes that the letters pages are very extensive and there is less actual news than in the SWP newspaper, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that you probably have very few journalists and scant resources.

The death of what I consider to be the real socialist tradition - ie, that of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Kollontai and comrades such as John Reed and Victor Serge - will come about if the current sectarian situation persists. If you and I can amicably communicate ideas with each other without getting into factional fighting, then I see no reason why the CPGB and SWP can’t have an entente.

I agree with Peter Manson that Olivier Besancenot is a serious breath of fresh air (‘Besancenot - go beyond outdated national borders’, October 6) - as I believe you are - and I wish you the best of luck in the future.

Name handicap
Name handicap


I am getting increasingly puzzled by Heather Downs (Letters, September 29).

The ‘McClintock effect’ is the scientific name for the finding that, under certain circumstances, human female menstrual cycles can become synchronised with one another. Many studies have confirmed that this can happen to a limited extent where women enjoy sufficient day-to-day contact and solidarity with one another. For example, a careful study of Bedouin women living in intimate contact and cooperating on a daily basis found a significant degree of menstrual synchrony. Other studies conducted under different circumstances have found no such effect, as might have been expected.

More important is the fact that all female mammals, not just humans, have the biological capacity to increase or decrease the level of synchrony/asynchrony according to local circumstances and their own reproductive needs. It would be utterly extraordinary if human females were the one species genetically incapable of doing any of this.

Of course, not all mammals synchronise using the moon as their external clock. More frequently, they use the sun - in which case we refer to ‘breeding seasonality’. In the case of evolving Homo sapiens, evidently, female solidarity was at times unusually strong and capable of exploiting the light/dark rhythms of both sun and moon. Try living on the African savanna without taking account of the moon: chances are you’ll be a lion’s supper in no time!

Anyway, how else should we explain the fact that the average human menstrual cycle length is 29.5 days? That shouldn’t be taken for granted. Chimpanzees, for example, have a cycle length of 36 days. In the case of bonobos, it’s 40 days. Humans are unusual in having a menstrual cycle of that length - something which becomes especially striking when considered in conjunction with the fact that pregnancy in humans lasts (again on average) exactly nine times 29.5.

29.5 days is precisely the time it takes for the moon to pass through its phases, as seen from the earth. It’s what we would predict if evolving human females had become specifically adapted for synchrony using the moon as their clock. ‘It’s just a coincidence,’ the men in white coats will say. Of course, it could be just a coincidence - I admit that. But why not explore whether there might be a scientific reason?

As any naturalist will tell you, reproductive synchrony allows a group of females to maximise access to the locally available males. In other words, it’s a way of avoiding getting monopolised alongside other females in some alpha male’s private harem. Synchrony can never be perfect. But the greater the degree of synchrony, the harder it is for the dominant male to stay in power.

Predictably enough, Heather Downs doesn’t like any of this. For some reason, she doesn’t like synchrony at all, invoking “several studies which do not support that possibility”. I am sure comrade Downs could also find “several studies” which go on to conclude that women’s solidarity in general is biologically impossible, contrary to human nature and anyway a threat to civilisation as we know it.


Not going away

In reply to Arthur Bough (Letters, October 6), let me simply restate what are, to us in the National Union of Mineworkers, basic facts.

‘Surplus’ capacity was only ‘surplus’, given certain factors. For example, the selling price of coal, which I have laboured to explain to Arthur in our recent correspondence, although the cheapest in the world at the point of production, was weighed down by the lowest subsidy in the world. None of the pits highlighted as ‘marginal’ and ‘unprofitable’ were that, if one applied the subsidy and support level offered throughout the rest of the coal-producing world. It was certainly not because we had too many mines and miners, but simply the wrong government energy policy. This is before we even got into areas such as early retirement, shorter shifts or working weeks, all of which would have reduced the so-called surplus.

Arthur tells us that “141 out of 198 collieries made a financial loss”, but “loss” is determined not by some universal economic ledger, but by the policies above. There are also strong arguments about social benefits of a high-wage industry generating low-priced fuel to power stations and industry which are not counted in this myopic analysis of ‘the price of coal’.

We did not accept the nebulous concept of ‘profit and loss’ applied to the nationalised coal industry. We demanded that the national asset of coal be mined as a socially useful product. In 1984-85 we refused to accept the monolithic rules of Thatcher’s market or being thrown into some dog-eat-dog world, where colliery competed with colliery for an ever smaller bone. It was this challenge of values which marked the higher political terms of this struggle from purely ‘trade union’ struggle.

Pits closed under Wilson in the 1960s simply because he was driven by the idea of a massive nuclear alternative. There was no iron law of economy, as Arthur constantly seems to argue.

Turning to the post-1985 situation, we won most of the disputes which swept the coalfields in response to new management disciplines and agendas - for example, disputes about who should work where. Most importantly, after a 78% ‘yes’ vote in a national ballot for industrial action and after weeks of unlawful picketing and strikes across Yorkshire, miners forced the withdrawal of the national disciplinary code. There was industrial action on securing the re-employment of many of the sacked miners (though by no means all), halting the imposition of non-union contracts and forcing the near total unionisation of private contract firms. Arthur doesn’t understand the period between 1985 and the final solution of John Major to finish with the industry almost entirely.

Arthur doesn’t understand workers’ control in the mining industry. Cavilling, job controls, resistance to supervision, control of overtime, etc, have developed independently of any indulgence by Victorian coal owners or nationalisation boards. His arguments that improvements in safety were linked to the development of modern mining techniques and not to nationalisation and the lowering of the individual profit motive - and also that this happened in private mines in other parts of the world - simply cannot be proved. Tonne for tonne, man for man, there is no comparison.

But I am not arguing that nationalisation, such as we experienced it, was some cherry on a stick or what we demanded; only that it had been infinitely better for the welfare of the miners and their families than the blood-sucking coal owners before or since. The question relates not to the form of ownership, but to the power of the workers and their ability to intervene, challenge and change systems and technologies. In Britain, nationalisation was linked to high union engagement and workers’ intervention, but it is possible, as in the case of Iraq or China, for this not to be so.

The NUM has never had “a purely trade unionist position” on coal or on BAe. BAe ought to be nationalised under workers’ management, with a crash alternative product restructuring with no loss of jobs or wages. The country still needs ships, planes, trains, buses and a million and one other things that I am quite certain BAe could design and build. We are not confined to trade union consciousness and workers’ class-consciousness is not confined by struggles within trade unions. This is simply a self-serving myth of the vanguardists and party builders.

David Walters, for his part, states: “Coal kills and kills more than any other form of energy ever known to have been developed” (Letters, October 6).

Well, yes, until the post-war development of nuclear energy and since Roman times at least, coal was the only source of energy, unless you seriously want to compare deaths and injuries from water wheels and oxen. The oil industry came in with the birth of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century but, let’s be right, coal was power for most of our developed existence.

So, set against the last 2,000-plus years and a comparison with other sources of power and energy developed over the last 70 years, David is clearly right. The miners and their families know that better than anyone. Our struggle since the time of the first miners’ unions has been to secure safer working conditions and safer utility of coal power for the miners and consumers of coal.

The struggle for clean-coal technology was not “invented by the US coal industry in 1987” at all, and David should perhaps do a little more research before making such a daft statement. The NUM was among the forerunners of campaigns for clean air and anti-pollution schemes in the post-war period. Research establishments were developed at a number of colliery sites, Grimethorpe being the most successful and well-funded (mainly by Scandinavian countries concerned with acid rain) from the 1960s. Other plants experimented with the fluid bed power generator - a scheme which burned tiny amounts of coal dust and gave off infinitesimal amounts of CO2.

Mining communities developed joint fuel and power systems, which minimised duplication of excess coal burning by using a central communal boiler, which heated homes, hospitals and schools set to thermostats, and reduced amounts of CO2 and pollution radically. Labour councils in mining communities were developing these in their new estates, linking old folks’ houses, nurseries, hospitals, schools and libraries with one central boiler, usually burning smokeless coal.

The NUM was, along with Greenpeace, the co-founder of Energy 2000 at the end of the 1970s, an organisation which aimed at the strict control of open-cast mining, the securing of clean-coal technology, no new nukes and research into alternative sources of power. However, Thatcher pulled the plug on all clean-coal technology schemes and let them collapse - Thatcher and Major refused our demands to fit pollution wipers on all coal power stations, which would have radically reduced pollution.

At present the most efficient clean-coal power station in the world is being constructed at my old colliery, Hatfield Main in Doncaster. It will produce power with no CO2 emissions and 90% reduction of any other associated emissions. The power station, as a by-product, will produce hydrogen, which the company planned to give free to the council to power clean buses and trains. It is a prototype for the most efficient coal-power generation in the world, but is in the hands of private capitalists and speculators, who cannot be trusted to see this scheme through once the European subsidies dry up.

But the point is, none of this is “sleight of hand”. China is sadly not the “most serious” about clean-coal technology, at least not if by that we mean using the most efficient form of technology. Neither to date is the USA, because they see this 100% extraction of CO2 system as too expensive and are looking at much poorer, less efficient, but cheaper schemes.

One would have thought the so-called greens would throw their weight into demanding the application of this technology rather than pointlessly demanding the end of coal production. Power on a world scale is 60% supplied by coal; nuclear accounts for something like 8%. There are hundreds of years of coal reserves, in many countries basically untouched.

Coal will be mined and burned. How it is done and at what cost in human and pollution terms are the issues we must realistically challenge. The NUM is categorically against the kind of strip-mining operation imposed upon the coal communities in the USA. This is the most anti-social and destructive form of mining in the world and what makes it worse is the lack of any responsibility to recover the decimated and desecrated lands and peoples. That is the fault of this particular mining method and the political system which allows it to go unchallenged. But you will never win the support of the American unions by decrying all coal mining of any sort.

The degree to which coal power and mining is dangerous and anti-social is directly related to the class struggle and the power exercised by the working class and miners as an advanced sector of it: the death and injury rate increases in direct proportion to our loss of control.

Uranium miners are known to be among the most numerous victims of any mining operation. Common sense will tell you they face exactly the same kinds of death and injury as coal miners, and exactly the same conditions producing lung diseases, but additionally they have a devastating propensity to lung cancer caused by the radon gas which lives in the rock, far more than any other form of mining respiratory disease.

Dave is right, though: this direct underground mining of uranium is now giving way to open cast, because deposits are running out. The side-benefit of this is to reduce the number of deep miners and lower the proportion of men per tonne extracted. The downside is that open-cast work then exposes a massive area of land to radon gas and pollution, and puts at risk far wider proportions of the population.

David is fooling no-one by suggesting that nuclear power is safer than coal. Nuclear has only been a source of power effectively since the 1960s - ie, 50 years. How many disasters have we witnessed, killing how many people? Nuclear power rests upon military capacity; it wouldn’t exist as an energy source if it wasn’t for that fact. Iran, which is sitting on vast quantities of oil - and incidentally massive, untouched virgin coal seams sufficient to keep the country powered for thousands of years - wants to develop nuclear power for military purposes. We cannot look at the ‘nuclear option’ without looking at this central factor.

Finally, and most importantly, while a slag heap might to non-mining eyes look grim, let me tell you that we collected blackberries on the tip, sledged down it in winter and had sex in the long grass at its summit. A radioactive pile of nuclear waste, which will sit there threatening us for half a million years, will never be so benign or accommodating.

David may have convinced himself that the debate is only about nuclear and windmills, but that’s because he and his comrades in the green movement are talking to themselves. Coal production worldwide is rising; new coal mines are sprouting like daisies, as are coal-powered stations. If we are serious about pollution and greener energy, we have to direct ourselves at cleaning up the greatest energy provider, not wishing it away. It just isn’t going away.

Not going away
Not going away

Not credible

I’m sorry, but Dave Douglass’s latest letter on Jarrow is pretty pointless (October 6). It’s not surprising that the comrade cannot be ‘bothered’ to reply to my critical article on the politics of the 1936 Jarrow march (‘They obeyed the rules’, September 29).

In his letters contributing to this debate (September 1, September 22, October 6), I am yet to come across the “contrary facts” he claims he has that might prove his contention that the march was “not some anti-leftist diversion”. Indeed, when I have cited facts such as the exclusion of communists and supporters of the militant National Unemployed Workers Movement from the march, Dave claims not to have been aware of this - although, for my part, I don’t know of any serious study of the action that doesn’t talk about it.

The comrade again complains that I quote “wholesale” from Matt Perry’s The Jarrow crusade. Now, I’m not sure what particular political axe comrade Douglass has to grind with Perry, but I note he is not above quoting the man himself when he views the author as bolstering his case. In any case, this is not generally a reputable polemical method - it’s a sort of guilt by association that blurs rather than clarifies key issues. For instance, in the article Dave cannot “bother” to reply to, I quote a number of times from The slump by J Stevenson and C Cook, even reproducing their general political assessment of Jarrow as a respectable, anti-communist action that “became a folk legend because they obeyed the rules”.

Now, these two ‘revisionist’ historians - as the health warning reads that I slapped on them in that article - think this is a good thing. I, unsurprisingly, don’t. But the real nature of Jarrow 1936 is something that people from across a broad political spectrum can recognise, even if they draw diametrically opposite conclusions from it.

But this book is also useful in giving an insight into the contemporary thinking of the ruling class about Jarrow. I have no reason not to accept the findings of Dave’s original research that in “mass assemblies of the unemployed workers [in Jarrow] the first proposals had been to march to London with guns and grenades in their pockets, gathering an army of armed workers on the way” (Letters, September 1) - given the general tenor of the time and the mass influence of the communist-led NUWM, this is quite possible. But the notion that there was anything of this gutsy militancy in the Jarrow march itself by the time it set off - with its non-political, sectional, Jarrow-specific demands, its ban on communists, the favourable special branch reports as it progressed down the country, the recommendation that these “orderly” marchers be invited to tea in the House of Commons with the purpose of “encouraging and placating them”, or the Jarrow men themselves “cheering lustily” as King Edward VIII passed down the Mall (instead of taking aim and firing, had the ethos of the early meetings that Dave cites prevailed, perhaps) - is simply not credible.

Lastly, in his characteristically vivid prose, Dave gives us an inspiring picture of Jarrow 2011 as it sets out from the town on October 1. Far from being peeved that Youth Fight for Jobs - a front group of the Socialist Party in England and Wales - didn’t begin their slog down the country under what Dave dubs my “infallible communist leadership” (ahem), I think this is excellent. I remind the comrade that, despite our criticisms of the general politics of SPEW and the opportunist bid it has made to claim the heritage of Jarrow 1936, I underlined that the action “deserves the support of all working class activists” and wished “the comrades of the YFJ success on their march” (‘They obeyed the rules’, September 29).

Not credible
Not credible


Having recently moved to Sheffield, I attended my first meeting of the Sheffield Anti-Cuts Alliance (SACA) on October 11. I was left somewhat underwhelmed, to put it mildly.

Only 22 people made the monthly ‘open’ meeting of the steering committee - almost exclusively members of the revolutionary left. There were half a dozen or so members of the SWP, with a couple each from the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain (funnily enough, it is listed as “The Communist Party” on the SACA website). Chair Martin Mayer is a member of the Labour Representation Committee and sits on the national executive of Unite and there were also a couple of other members of the local trades union council present.

Anybody can attend and speak at these monthly meetings, but only delegates of affiliated organisations have a vote. This is the only SACA forum where ‘normal’ people can actively get involved. There have been a number of irregular public meetings, but at these contributions from the floor are normally restricted to two or three minutes. In addition, there are separate meetings of the officers group.

So you would expect that these monthly open meetings are not bogged down with organisational issues (which surely should be discussed amongst the officers), but debate where the alliance is going, what policies it should develop in order to defeat the cuts, how it should engage with Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors, etc.

But not so. In effect, I felt like I landed in the middle of a zoo, where male gorillas are engaged in some chest-beating stand-off. Or peacocks shoving their fans into each other’s faces. You get the flawed picture, I hope. SPEW was gushing about their Jarrow march. The SWP was gushing about the ‘Unite The Resistance’ rally on November 19. The AWL was gushing about a meeting of union activists involved in the November 30 strike.

There were some bizarre wars of words over rather trivial issues: the AWL’s Rosie Huzzard got told off by a number of SWP members for calling the activists meeting a “strike committee” - it can only be a “strike support committee”, because the individual unions themselves organise the committees. This took about five minutes. The SWP and a couple of members of the trades council then fought over who had organised more buses to bring people from Sheffield to the demonstration against the Tory conference on October 2. Another 10 minutes of my life wasted. Then there was a lengthy debate around stalls, which concluded in a decision that we should have them when enough people are available to run them. Fifteen minutes down the toilet.

This behaviour was even more puzzling, as there weren’t actually any ‘normal’ (ie, non-affiliated) people around to ‘impress’ by this behaviour. But it probably explains why there weren’t any. I am told that when SACA was set up, these meetings were at least twice as big and actually quite vibrant.

Now, however, they are quite a sad reflection of the state of the left. There is a lot of hostility and almost no cooperation between the different organisations involved. It seems they’re mainly using SACA to promote their own campaigns.

Because so much time was wasted on hearing these so-called “reports”, the meeting did not actually get to what could have been slightly more interesting agenda points: there was supposed to be a discussion item on the ‘way forward’ for SACA and a supportable proposal to call for a national anti-cuts conference “bringing together all anti-cuts organisations, trade unions and other interested and affected parties to discuss the way forward”.

In hindsight, it seems quite possible that SWP members in the room wasted time on purpose to avoid such discussion. At the end of the 90-minute meeting, I voiced my frustration with proceedings and suggested that the next meeting should discuss strategy as its first item. Also, I proposed that future meetings of SACA should actually start with a political opening and a discussion (maybe restricted to 45 minutes) as a way to draw in more people. The SWP members in the room got very agitated about this and started to shout “No way!”, but there was no time to discuss this further.

I was approached by AWL members afterwards who told me they had previously tried to make the meetings more political, but were blocked by the SWP. Clearly, this is a discussion that needs to be had again. We are in the middle of the biggest crisis of capitalism and yet the left wastes its time with this incredible sectarianism.

I wonder if other comrades in different cities have better experiences to report? Surely, it can’t be this bad everywhere?