Millions of people would be forgiven for thinking that the illegal blacklisting of over 3,000 construction workers has suddenly been discovered.
Yet it has been the worst-kept secret for over two decades that those who spoke up with concerns for health and safety on construction sites or defended wages and conditions were punished and denied employment. Brave people paid a heavy price, as each year, each month, each day brought more discrimination - more lives were being wrecked, houses lost to repossession, stress induced ill health, heart attacks and even worse.
It was more than three years ago, in 2009, when the information commissioner’s office (ICO) raided the offices of the Consultancy Association and found the illegal records of files kept on 3,200 workers. Ian Kerr was fined a paltry £5,000 for storing information contrary to the Data Protection Act. To add insult to injury, the fine was paid not by Mr Kerr, but by the employers who had enlisted his services. Then last year, before he met with his untimely death, Ian Kerr ‘spilled the beans’ when he gave evidence to the Scottish Select Committee.
Jerry Hicks, who is on the illegal blacklist, says: “I know there are those that liken this to the ‘phone-hacking’ scandal, but I believe this has more similarities to the Jimmy Savile scandal. How many institutions knew or suspected? How many employers outside of the contributors knew? How many MPs suspected or knew? How many union officials suspected or knew and perhaps benefited? What and how much did the police know?”
Why the lack of effective action? Why has it been left to the determined struggle of the Blacklisting Support Group, along with some very courageous people already on the list, to expose the abuses and attempt to redress the wrongs and bring those responsible to book? As a spokesperson for the ICO rightly pointed out in response to today’s outcry from trade union leaders, “Where were the unions three years ago?”
Jerry Hicks, the only challenger in the current election for Unite general secretary, said: “The union had the perfect opportunity to confront blacklisting employers. The Olympics could have, should have been the time and the vehicle to take on and defeat the blacklist. It would have propelled the abuse into the national news. It was an opportunity lost.”
Back in 2010, Jerry was among those protesting at the Olympic site over workers failing to find employment there. At the same time, trade union leaders at the TUC conference only a mile away made speeches about the need for ‘civil unrest’, yet not one of them came to the protest.
It would seem that some bandstanding is going on here. After all, who spoke out the loudest or even at all during those long grim years? Labour in office? Unite’s leadership? Jerry Hicks pointed out: “Two years ago, during the last election for the top job in the UK’s biggest union, I was the only one of four candidates that made blacklisting in construction an issue and promised to redress the wrongs - both in my campaign and election address. Mr McCluskey and Ms Cartmail - also candidates - chose not to mention it. They obviously had other priorities. Perhaps for them it has only just become a national scandal.”
Now there is another election on for Unite’s general secretary, having been called ‘out of the blue’, brought forward three years and fast-tracked. To many it seemed as though it would go uncontested, allowing McCluskey to extend his term of office without actually going to the members. But Jerry is well on the way to securing the 50 branch nominations required to force the ballot of 1.5 million members.
He said: “There are two candidates: one on the blacklist who has always spoken out and acted against it; and one who decides to shout about it now it has hit the headlines. In life everything is about timing. I have my views as to why Mr McCluskey has chosen now, but I leave it to you to draw your own conclusion.”
Jerry Hicks added: “Labour ‘shadow business minister’ Chukka Umunna is now calling for an investigation into allegations that firms involved in major projects, including the Olympics and Crossrail, blacklisted workers. Great! But why wait until in opposition? What did Labour do during its three terms and 13 years in government? As every year went by, demands for justice went unanswered, while trade unions poured money into their coffers.”
Len McCluskey calls for a “Leveson-style enquiry”, which is correct, but also an easy demand now that it has already hit the headlines. Why didn’t the Unite leadership maximise the opportunities that previously came their way to highlight the abuse? Assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, who openly supports Len McCluskey in his election campaign, described the 40 or so guilty firms as “an industry in denial, failing even to apologise”. She is right.
However, it’s not just employers that Unite officials can be hard on. In 2011, when eight construction companies gave notice of unilateral withdrawal from a national agreement, 500 Unite electricians took matters into their own hands, met, agreed and embarked on a year-long campaign of protests and unofficial actions, which proved to be a very successful strategy. Official backing did eventually come - better late than never. But Unite’s initial response to this campaign beggars belief.
In an email to Gail Cartmail copied to every Unite construction official and some staff, the national officer for construction, Bernard McAuley, spewed bile against those very same members of the union, describing them as a “cancerous group”, “opportunists”, “mindless individuals” and mentioned Jerry Hicks by name. Jerry challenged this outrageous diatribe and its wide circulation. No formal apology or condemnation ever came - and both officials are still responsible for ‘looking after’ construction members. It is easy to see how, by design or carelessness, names can appear on blacklists.
Legal action is being taken on behalf of a number of construction workers, who are seeking compensation for having their names on the blacklist. But shamefully this, the only major court case, is a private case brought by the workers themselves and not funded by Unite. It has been left to the good offices of Guney, Clark and Ryan to take legal action on behalf of the construction workers.
Just as the blacklist was more than just rumoured for years, so was the possible involvement of some union officials in supplying information to the consultancy agency. A Leveson-style enquiry that Len McCluskey now calls for, may embarrassingly establish whether union officials have been involved when, in the past, internal union investigations have failed to find sufficient evidence.
Jerry Hicks said: “In life, chances to really make a difference come and go. The Vestas occupation on the Isle of Wight was one. It was wasted - I believe the best chance to save the Remploy factories would have been protests and occupations during the Paralympics, but that chance went begging. There will be other chances to fight injustice and the Con-Dem cuts, but who will recognise them and act and who will inspire people to believe that big victories are possible?”
No to cuts
Over 20,000 marched through Lewisham on Saturday in a demonstration clearly enjoying the overwhelming support of the local community against the threat to Lewisham hospital.
With the South London Healthcare Trust now in administration, cuts have been proposed that include the scrapping of the hospital’s accident and emergency department and the downgrading of its maternity ward. The ‘special administrator’ appointed, Mathew Kershaw, produced a report outlining further cuts and privatisations at other hospitals in south London and the fight against attacks on local health services has attracted widespread coverage.
On a national level, the damage wreaked on the NHS as a result of private finance initiatives is now being used as justification for the current reforms. Debt-laden trusts are subject to restructuring and severe cuts and in parallel the role of private capital is ever growing. The march was a clear indication of the scale of the opposition to all this.
However, whilst demonstrations can be incredibly useful political tools, they are limited in what they can achieve. The government fully intends to push on with its ‘reforms’, showing complete disregard for their unpopularity. There have been calls from many corners of the left for a coordinated and sustained campaign by the unions and local anti-cuts groups to halt them and there can be no question that tenacious resistance is required in the face of such attacks.
But we must be honest that there can be no indefinite defence of ‘what exists’ or a return to what existed. Communists should be careful to avoid imbuing this struggle with nostalgia and assert that a return to the welfarist post-war settlement in present-day conditions is impossible (and undesirable). The current reforms should be viewed as part of a trend within contemporary capitalism towards greater involvement of business in public services; as part of the increasingly important economic role of healthcare companies in western economies; and as part of the strategy of the capitalist class to make the working class majority pay for the economic crisis.
In other words, they are inextricably linked to capitalism in its current form and require a revolutionary alternative to fight them. The argument for a democratic, socialist public health system based on meeting people’s needs, unfettered by managerial bureaucracy and the logic of capital, must be raised alongside the call for a democratic alternative to capitalism.
No to cuts
No to cuts
As many on the left are aware, there is a crisis of leadership within the Socialist Workers Party, but they continue to think they can force unity on their members. Whilst I take no issue with Alex Callinicos’s criticisms on, say, the Labour Party or Occupy, in his latest piece, I do take issue with what he says will arise if the opposition succeeds in establishing a “different model involving a much looser and weaker leadership, internal debate that continually reopens decisions already made, and permanent factions.” If this succeeded, claims Callinicos, the SWP would become a much smaller and less effective organisation, unable to help build broader movements [read: opportunist attachment to movements]” (‘Is Leninism finished?’ Socialist Review January 2013).
This is clearly aimed at those of us who are now rebelling, many of whom were also in the Democratic Opposition. But the problem is that our organisation has barely grown at all. Is the SWP currently effective? Despite the dissolving of factions after conferences, it is now in a deeper crisis without a “clear direction”. The fact is that resentment in the ‘party’ are not going to disappear just because factions are forced to dissolve due to the undemocratic constitution. The right to form factions, free of being accused of setting one up in secret, and for as long as necessary, is an essential part of resolving differences positively in order to achieve real unity. Yet instead of resolution we get forced dissolution. In other words, the leadership is seeking to resolve differences negatively through its bureaucratic constitutional rules on factions and arbitrary deadlines for a recall conference.
That the SWP leadership believes that faction-forming will lead to a smaller party belies the fact that some comrades have already left, including Tom Walker, who previously worked on the paper. This is a crisis of their own making, not one of oppositional forces. It means that it is more necessary than ever to make an accountable leadership and membership rights a priority. This includes the right to form factions, the right to elect and recall organisers/full-timers (including the central committee and national committee), and to make the CC subordinate to the NC.
Jack Conrad regrets in the CPGB podcast on ‘SWP rebellion and feminism’ that he has “not heard of any feminist movement raising radical demands for working class women”. If that is true, how thorough was his research? There exist socialist and Marxists feminisms, to name but two schools which speak of class almost incessantly. Even the post-Marxist cultural studies variety cannot do without taking into account ‘class’ - or whatever it thinks constitutes class - as a key analytic component.
Now, you may argue this is all unnecessary, that it isn’t going anywhere, even that it’s harmful - and there are some good reasons to do so. But in order to criticise anything you need to at least be aware of its developments since the turn of the 20th century. To dismiss present-day feminism based on what you know about the Suffragettes is a bit like dismissing Lenin based on your knowledge of Fourier.
I do not agree with much of what the various feminisms have to say - least of all the ‘Women always speak the truth (except when they disagree with me)’ variety espoused by regular Weekly Worker letter-writer Heather Downs. Furthermore, I believe that much of what is known as ‘gender studies’ is profoundly hostile to sexual impulse and desire, which it attempts to squeeze into politically correct shapes. Its proponents say that sexuality is of the mind, yet in reality they prove themselves to be as hostile to the mind as they are to sexuality. Their totalising responses to complex questions, not to mention their aggressive moralising, are poison to critical thinking.
Nonetheless, I find it hard to believe that no worthwhile conclusions can be drawn from the women’s lib experience of the 1960s-70s, or that the vast body of literature that emerged on its back is devoid of any useful insights. Jack Conrad says that these days most feminism is restricted to academia. So what? The same was true of psychoanalysis, yet the best Marxists - including Trotsky - did their damnedest to acquaint themselves with the theories of Freud (who was not known as a supporter of the proletarian struggle).
As has been stated elsewhere, second-wave feminism stepped in where the organised left had failed. Where Marxist groups accommodated feminist and other identity-centred groups, they compartmentalised them without attempting as much as a critical exchange. When the left rid itself of these groups, this occurred in a no less shallow fashion. The result is that we really do not have a lot to say about more recent developments in sex and gender relations. Is it absolutely out of the question that we might benefit from some of the knowledge accumulated in these movements?
We need to educate ourselves about all currents of emancipatory as well as pseudo-emancipatory thought - if only, as Lenin would put it, to find the kernel of the truth that the opponent is working with. To merely attack a caricature is to liken ourselves to the caricature our opponents draw of us: that of the historical re-enactment society that is not interested in applying Marxism as a tool to analyse the present.
The decision by the Con-Dem government to deploy over 300 troops to Mali and west Africa has been roundly condemned by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Britain has decided to support what can only be described as a ‘new scramble for Africa’.
This represents an escalation of Britain’s military involvement in the region and shows nothing has been learnt from the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It beggars belief that western governments are still pursuing the same policies and are prepared to spread the war on terror to a new continent. The consequences will be the same - more acts of terror against British and western people in retaliation, and massive casualties in west Africa. Foreign wars bring nothing but suffering, destruction and instability.
Steven Johnston once more criticises the Socialist Party of Great Britain (Letters, January 24). Alas, it is not the SPGB that accuses ‘the pupil’ of failure, but those who wish to substitute a party leadership - the teacher - for the working class - the pupil. Throughout our history we have adhered to Joseph Dietzgen’s dictum: “If a worker wants to take part in the self-emancipation of his class, the basic requirement is that he should cease allowing others to teach him and should set about teaching himself.”
When it comes to our and the left’s mutually derisible election results, he certainly has not heeded facts and figures and, as a ‘real man’, he should end this childish game of who pisses the highest when it comes to voting numbers before he embarrasses himself even more.
Steven should also be aware that, because the SPGB do not present the electorate with a list of proposals to reform capitalism, nor offer some charismatic personality as a candidate, but instead stand solely on the maximum programme of socialism, every vote for ourselves is a vote for socialism and not for piecemeal palliatives or a particular politician offered up as vote-catching bait. It is the false promise of mostly unachievable policies that voters have seen through.
The time for socialism will be right when the majority of people understand, desire and organise for such a society and not until. Surely that has been the most important lesson of history we have learned from bitter and painful experience. Socialism cannot be imposed. Nor can variants of capitalism be indefinitely camouflaged as socialism.
I had always understood the Trotskyist dogma was that the change which occurred in Russia in 1928 was essentially a political one - the final defeat of the Left Opposition and their expulsion from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the deportation of Trotsky himself to exile in Russian central Asia.
It is true that there was a change of economic policy in 1928: the end of encouraging small-scale private capitalist enterprise under state control and moves to suppress the private capitalist class (Nepmen and Kulaks) that had emerged under it - a change of policy which the Left Opposition had itself urged. But that’s all it was: a change of economic policy, not the “fundamental socio-economic change” that Moshé Machover claims (Letters, January 24).
There was no change in the management of industries in the state sector nor in the treatment of the workers employed in it, who remained wage-workers paid money for the sale of their labour-power and without even elementary trade union rights - a sector which Zinoviev (but not Trotsky) had described in 1925 as ‘state capitalism’.
I can’t see how the end of the New Economic Policy - with no change in the state sector - represented a change from what Moshé Machover calls “a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state” (incidentally, a definition of a political regime) into a new class society. Either Russia after 1928 was still a ‘deformed workers’ state’ (as Trotsky held) or Russia before as well as after 1928 was a class society (whether state capitalism or some new class society).
Once again, David Ellis manages to read what I have written as the complete opposite of what it actually says (Letters, January 24). That is where he does not simply accuse me of saying things I never said at all!
For example, he says I described his call for the sharing out of work, and the provision of everyone, no matter how much work was undertaken, as “a capitulation to bourgeois right”. I did no such thing. What I said was that in the absence of a revolutionary situation, where workers were able to implement direct workers’ control in the workplace, there was no way such a demand could be implemented. As Trotsky points out, there is no reason the bosses or their state would voluntarily implement such a demand, and any workers’ control would simply be a deal between the bosses and the trade union bureaucrats. It is either a reformist demand for such collusion against the workers or else it is pissing in the wind - what Marx called “revolutionary phrase-mongering”.
Ellis then says that I am “especially anxious to tell us that the workers’ state will not be able to pay a living wage”. But again I said no such thing. What wages a workers’ state would be able to pay would depend on the circumstances it found itself in. A workers’ state, after all, presumes that we have not yet reached even the first stage of communism. It assumes that this state is still in existence because it needs to suppress the bourgeoisie’s attempts at restoration either from at home or abroad.
Given the conditions it found itself in, the workers’ state in Russia in 1917 could provide workers with nothing approaching a living wage, for example. But, if we are talking not about a workers’ state, but a society, as Marx was describing, in the first stage of communism, then I would expect, as did Marx, not only that such a society would be able to pay a ‘living wage’, but that it would be in the process of abolishing the wages system. I would assume that the standard of living within such a society would be considerably higher than it is for workers now. But, as Marx points out, such a society could not pay workers the full fruits of their labour, as the Lassalleans believed, because for a start there are all those deductions from that product, which such a society needs to deduct, before any such distribution to workers can occur.
More importantly, the point that Marx is making is that even at this first stage of communism, such a society cannot distribute these products on the basis of need, precisely because it will not have developed the productive forces enough to achieve that.
Given that Marx believed that even a society at the first stage of communism could not distribute its products on the basis of need, and could only achieve this when it reached the higher stage, it is incredible that David Ellis believes that capitalism can. If that is the case, it rather undermines the basis for struggling for socialism. Why bother if, according to David Ellis, we can inscribe on the banner of modern capitalism the slogan, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’?
What is more, Marx believed that this would be possible only when cooperative labour had raised productivity to heights impossible today. Yet David Ellis believes that current capitalism can not only provide a living wage, but can provide for workers on the basis of their needs irrespective of how little work is actually done. If little work is done, then few products are produced. How exactly he believes you distribute products that no one has produced, he doesn’t tell us.
James Turley (‘The antinomies of Georg Lukács’, January 24) upholds Althusser against Lukács and so goes for a certain New Left doxa, while claiming that the New Left was essentially Lukácsian. Indeed, this is the ‘materialism versus idealism’ dispute, as filtered through the New Left, such that the Lacanian-Heideggerian trajectory of Althusser, Foucault et al becomes what stands for ‘materialism’, and the Marxist-Hegelian Frankfurt school trajectory becomes ‘idealism’.
This involves some very distorting flattening of the issues, but suffice it to say that such postmodernist ‘materialism’ is to be found in the pseudo-Nietzschean/Heideggerian ontology (‘logic of [material] being’ and its supposed ‘revelations’) contra Hegelianism. This is the present ‘common sense’ that Turley expresses, and why he then must read Lukács as self-contradictory in certain ways. Lukács’s early Marxist works were only ever obscure to the New Left and so prone to bowdlerisation, and have only become more so since.
It is noteworthy that, in Turley’s view, the only positive claim one is left with regarding Lukács is that, beyond a commendable “revolutionary élan”, Lukács is good in his criticism of “Kant, Fichte and Hegel” (in the section, ‘Antinomies of bourgeois thought’ - part 2 of the ‘Reification’ essay in History and class consciousness).
But Turley thinks that the limits of Lukács’s ‘materialism’, and hence of his ‘Marxism’, are with regard to how he conceives of the empirical experience of the working class in capitalism. This involves, according to Turley, a “short circuit”, in which the “confrontation and struggle of employee with employer” is “already socialism”, whereas Turley thinks that this neglects political mediations, in an “ultra-left” manner. But, while in Turley’s characterisation it could, in fact it doesn’t. Lukács was addressing how it was precisely in the struggle for proletarian socialism, in the era of the high point of Second International Marxism, that the problem of ‘reification’ manifested itself. For Lukács, ‘reification’ meant Bebel’s and Kautsky’s SPD, in theory and practice.
What makes Lukács’s early 1920s works so difficult to read today is that we lack Lukács’s object of critique. So his arguments become objectless and seem ‘speculative’ in the worst sense. We do not have the high Second International in crisis 1914-19 but something much worse in our political reality today. This makes it difficult to grasp Lukács’s arguments.
In fact, Lukács was engaged in the self-critique of the crisis of Marxism in the collapse of the Second International and in the difficulties of reformulating Marxism as revolutionary politics by Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, and their comrades in the Third International. But their failure was not due to an error in thinking supposedly condensed in Lukács. We lack the basis for the immanence of Lukács’s critique of the newly formed Third International, why Lukács thought he was making a vital contribution to addressing the political problems of his time. And so Lukács’s work appears as an ‘intellectual’ exercise in the most limited sense. But this merely projects the potential limitations of our own reading today onto the text, bereft of its original concrete context, the comparably high level of political disputes within the fledgling Third International 1919-22.
Ultimately, Turley cannot go beyond Lukács’s own later self-criticism of History and class consciousness, in that Lukács had tried, mistakenly, to ‘out-Hegel Hegel’. Hence, Turley cannot go beyond Lukács’s own capitulation to Stalinism, as the ‘material reality’ to which theory must supposedly discipline and subordinate itself. In this view, Lukács’s own later repudiation of his earlier work seems justified, but this is the justification of what happened to Marxism as ‘critical theory’ as a function of Stalinism. It became intolerable. To save his skin, Lukács had to change his mind. But the real alternative was to try to change the world, whose failure Stalinism both expressed and reinforced.
The question is, what happens to Marxism as critical theory when evacuated of its object of critique, when divorced from political practice? It disintegrates. But this was not due to the “antinomies of Lukács”, but rather the degradation and liquidation of Marxism, and the resulting regression of history. The self-critique of Marxism - its ‘Hegelian self-consciousness’ - cannot make sense when there is no Marxism politically.