Solidarity and the Dialectics of Defeat - past and present


By Christopher Ford

Hobgoblin 3 2001

"There is no denying that bourgeois society has for the second time experienced its 16th century, a 16th century which, I hope, will sound its death knell just as the first ushered it into the world. The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and the production based on that market". Karl Marx 1858

From our 21st century vantage point, can we find common ground with Marx's observation on the new stage of globalisation reached with the surge of glabolaised capitalism in the second half of the 19th century? Now as then confronts a barrier under the sign: there is no alternative. It is not coincidental that such mind forged manacles emerge so forcefully in periods which have seen movements arise that have challenged the course being taken by the existing order. The great demonstration at Seattle in Novemebr 1999 signalled a fresh impetus from an array of movements and communities of resistance.

Within days of the May Day 2000 events the Greater London Authority elections saw discontent with Blair find expression through the election of Ken Livingstone as Mayor. As well as the manifestations of anti-capitalism on the streets of Millau, Washington, Los Angeles and Prague, there have also been mass strikes, which have also rocked capital, from China to Norway. These new passions and new forces are a welcome relief after a decade of the proclaimed death of socialism and counter-growth of 'Third Way' and post-modernist influences.

Yet amidst the enthusiasm, there is amongst militants some dangerous illusions. The Socialist Workers Party and its international affiliates for example, inform us that "there is no better time to be a socialist" whilst parading (peacefully) around in Prague with their archaic Bolshevik slogans, completely oblivious to the Czech proletariat's experience of Stalinism. Theirs is the rhetorical response of those who pay lip service to the concept of the proletariat as subject of history, but who in practice replace it with that of the vanguard party. Their enthusiasm for the historic moment has more to do with the selfish ambitions of a particular socialist sect than what is actually historic. The historic moment demands thinking creative human beings engaged in the creation of our own freedom. The existence of global capital is a barrier to freedom does not absolve us from the need to scrutinise what has arisen against it or, more precisely, in response to it.

As the experience of the many unfinished revolutions of the last century shows, the recognition of a new phenomenon - "globalisation" in this case - does not automatically open new paths to freedom. Reading some literature you could be led to believe we have a new capitalism and that the movement of labour has been successfully obliterated by "turbo-capitalism" - indicated starkly by the long decline in union membership and industrial actions. Nevertheless, it remains an essentiality of capital that it actually brings workers together in the workplaces; whether under the old or new old hierarchies of control workers still co-operate to produce the goods and services. And out of this co-operation trade union organisation has continued to survive and organise on new ground.

When Marx wrote of a 'new 16th century' there were barely 250,000 trade unionists in Britain, 100 years later there were 10 million; and 150 years later there are still over 7 million, with 164 million globally. The immense speed of changes brought about by greater global organisation and integration poses an immense challenge and tremendous opportunity to labour. Despite all the capitalist offensives, the ability of workers to defend their organisations and forge new ones has not been universally broken. But any such "optimism" will be ill founded - and corrupted with leftist sentimentality and nostalgia - unless the response of labour to global capital does not separate the problem of "organisation" from that of the new ideas needed to overcome the rule of capital. Capital and Labour:

Conciliation and Class Struggle

What marks the labour movement in the period of the "internet revolution" isn't just the abandonment of any concept of an alternative to bourgeois society (confirmed by TUC President John Monks when he said, in the language of the Third Way "Philosophic conservatism", that the "debate on the centre-left is no longer about socialism versus capitalism, it's about different kinds of capitalism"). The movement has also abandoned the previous working class programs for "industrial democracy" and other radical reforms in the relations between capital and labour.

After the retrogression of the 80s and 90s, what is offered instead is 'Social Partnership' between those with power and those without it. The advocates of social partnership between capital and labour claim that the very existence of global capital is justification enough. But the Third Way belief that we are in the midst of a new industrial revolution is not some blinding revelation arrived at the "End of History"; it has historic roots in the first industrial revolution. In the 1830s, when the Whig (Liberal) government tried to replace parish relief for the poor with universalised workhousing, the first national workers movement - the Chartists - besieged the British State. As the London Chartist, Julian Harney argued: "It is not any amelioration of the condition of the most miserable that will satisfy us; it is justice to all we demand. It is not the mere improvement of the social life of our class that we seek; but the abolition of classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions that divide the human race into princes and paupers, landlords and labourer's, masters and slaves. It is not patching and cobbling of the present system we aspire to accomplish; but the annihilation of that system, and the substitution in its stead of an order of things in which all shall labour and enjoy, and the happiness of each guarantee the welfare of the entire community". Harney socialist views (160 years ago!) were not, of course, universally accepted within Chartism. His moderate Birmingham rival, Thomas Atwood, put forward 'social partnership' even then: "The interests of masters and men are in fact one. If the masters flourish, the men are certain to flourish with them; if the masters suffer difficulties, their difficulties must shortly affect the workmen in a threefold degree. The Masters therefore ought to take their workmen by the hand and knock at the gates of government and demand the redress of their common grievances".

By the 1850's the revolutionary challenge of Chartism was defeated as capital entered its second 16th century, expanding in all directions. The period of retrogression which followed also saw the 'partnerhip' ideas gain hegemony in the movement. Listen to one union leader, T. J. Dunning in his 1860 Trade Unions and Strikes: their Philosophy and Intention:

"Applying this to the employer and employed, it is of the highest importance that there should be a good understanding between them; that neither should vex or offend the other…. We have before said that the true state of employer and employed is that of amity, and that they are the truest friends. Each should consider this state their true relation and consider its interruption the greatest of calamities."

There were no shortages of "interruptions" in the early 1860s. Marx however, recognised, in his report to International Working Men's Association, meeting at Geneva Congress in 1866, that the unions had become too "exclusively bent upon local and immediate struggles with capital" and "kept too much aloof from general social and political movements" - and this in a period of actual advance in working class organisation, with trades councils emerging directly out of strike committees. The fact was that labour's fights with capital were restricted within the confines of industry; and opportunism of an aristocracy of labour based on imperialist wealth curtailed and regressed the revolution of ideas.

When new moves were made to finally win the vote for the working class, it was not on the principles of Chartist militancy, but pacifist reformism. The myth of'pure and simple' trade unionism and moderate reformism being capable of winning real gains for the workers as a class is hardly borne out by experience. In the period of militant actions in the decade preceding Thatcher's election in 1979, we can see that there were real gains, such as the Health & Safety at Work Act, Race Relations Act, Sex Discrimination Act, and aspirations for workers self-government in industry. But the final wave of a-political militancy in the 'Winter of Discontent' led not to mass socialist consciousness but to the election of Thatcher, the split in the Labour Party and the "New Realism" of the TUC. Such was the legacy of the severing off of socialist, anti-capitalist politics from 'union struggles'. Uniting the old and creating the new.

There is a message to today's generation in Marx's survey of how in the years of retrogression following the defeats of 1848-51 the bourgeoisie had "unmanned the English working classes, and broke their faith in their own cause". Emigration had led to an "irreparable void in the ranks of the British proletariat" and all "the efforts made at keeping up or remodelling, the Chartist movement, failed signally…If then there had been no solidarity of action between the British and the continental working classes, there was, at all events, a solidarity of defeat".

As the unions began to grow in the 1860s so too did an awareness of the direct connection between international activity and immediate interests of the working class, reinforced by the problem of immigrant labour being used to break strikes. Enough of the internationalist legacy of Chartism was retained to find expression in a movement of solidarity with the abolitionist cause in the American Civil War and the Polish rising for independence in 1863. It was support for the Poles, which brought together English and French trades unionists at St.Martins Hall in London to found the IWMA in 1864. But again principles of working class independence were counter-posed by a different view of the relationship between amelioration and emancipation. Some union leaders, such as Robert Applegarth, still saw political power as reversing the "excessive" power of one class and winning the "full confidence of our employers". With conflict frozen social welfare would prevail. But what prevailed for Marx was written by him into the rules of the IWMA: that the struggle for emancipation meant, "for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule".

Furthermore it was emancipation which was the "great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means". Workers had to be "united in combination and led by knowledge". This is an important reminder to those who today seek quick fix solutions in organisational questions alone. Marx emphasised that the thread of internationalism, which ran through the revival of the British working class movement, could not be taken for granted.

"The present revival of the working classes in the most industrious countries of Europe, while it raises a new hope, gives solemn warning against a relapse into the old errors and calls for immediate combination of the still disconnected movements".

Relapse is precisely what happened after the disintegration of the IWMA with the defeat of the Paris Commune. Marx's 1874 Critique of the Gotha Programme saw the "revisionists" as not only being in "opposition to the Communist Manifesto" but also "all earlier socialism" in that they "conceived the workers movement from the narrowest national standpoint"; and he added that "In fact the internationalism of the programme stands even infinitely below that of the Free Trade Party".

The contempory relevance of Marx's insights was apparent in the dispute at the BMW's Rover plant at Birmingham. This saw a section of the English working class, traditionally amongst the vanguard and previously part of nationalised industry, organise the 'Save Rover' demonstration in Birmingham, with massive support from the general public and the rank and file of the labour movement. It was however, another lost opportunity. The union leadership did not turn to international labour by seeking the support of German BMW workers; rather, in the words of Bill Morris of the TGWU, "For us, the initials BMW must mean British manufacturing workers"!

The union leaders fell behind a buy out by rival British capitalist John Towers and signed up to fresh job cuts, 'flexibility' etc. etc The irony of the national chauvinism that permeats the policy of partnership between capital and labour is that it is the policy of the capitalist bloc know as the European Union. Organisational 'Form' The events around the Rover/BMW dispute pose some important questions to those who wish to fight global capital, highlighting the need to combine the disconnected radical and labour movements.

The South African Marxist, Neville Alexander, in looking beyond the party form has posed the idea of re-composition along the lines of the IWMA, which is an interesting alternative perspective to that of the trotskyists, who argue that the vanguard party of the early 20th century solved the 'organisational problem' for all time. But it is worth recalling what Marx said in the 'Critique of the Gotha Programme':

"The international activity of the working classes does not an any way depend on the existence of the International Working Men's Association. This was the first attempt to create a central organ for that activity; and attempt which was a lasting success on account of the impulse which it gave but which was no longer realisable in its first historical form after the fall of the Paris Commune".

When Belgian socialists attempted to refound the IWMA in 1880 Marx opposed them:

"Doctrinaire anticipations of the programme of action for revolution in the future divert us from the struggle of the present…It is my conviction that the critical juncture for a new International Workingmen's Association has not yet arrived, and for that reason I regard all workers congresses, particularly socialists congresses, in so far as they are not related to the immediate given conditions, in this or that particular nation, not merely useless but harmful. They will always fade away in stale, generalised banalities".

Again returning to today, workers own activity shows that their internationalism does not depend on any fixed organisational form. For example there has been in contrast to Rover, successful cross-border labour actions on the continent. What came to the fore at Rover was not only the organisational inadequacy of the labour movement but also of leftist ideas as well - the "stale, generalised banalities" may fade, but they also come back in new guises. Forgetting the experience of state-capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe, which called themselves communist, those who reduced state-capitalism to a Russian question and not a new stage of world capitalism have played down the question of the State as an instrument of class-rule. Whilst in the existing public sector there is a willingness to resist the retrogressive effects of outsourcing and Public Finance Initiatives, there was little indication of a willingness of the Rover workers to fight for a restoration of state ownership (although a motion calling for public ownership was passed by the West Midlands Regional Council of MSF, this did nothing to inspire rank and file resistance at shop-floor level).

The negative response of the workers to the statism of the Left is itself a measure of the duality in workers own resistance to this form of capital; the workers actions were based on their knowledge and experience of what life was like in a nationalised plant, by the crisis in the which industry showed the impotence of the national state in the face of global capital. New Labour's policy towards Rover was simply a caricature of the free trade advocates of the mid-19th century. Tony Blair, rather than appeal to the old ideals of social planning and nationhood, offered the management-speak of the "new economy": "governments in the past, of both major political parties, have been drawn towards rescuing a company in difficulties. We see our role now as helping to equip people and business for the new economy - as encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship."

In a new book On The Edge edited by the Third Way philosophers Will Hutton and Anthony Giddens, Robert Kutter says:

"The world's top corporations are now engaged in a bout of unprecedented global merger, acquisition and concentration. They have become not only centres of concentrated economic and financial power; they have become the bearers of the prevailing laissez-faire, globalist ideology. As their economic power grows, so does their political and intellectual reach, at the expense of the nation state that once balanced private economic power with public purposes and national stabilisation policies. The very economic success of global corporations is taken as proof that their world- view has to be correct: that global laissez-faire is the optimal way to organise a modern economy".

But state-capitalism and corporate globalisation are not opposites. There is not an industrialised country on the planet, which is not characterised by one form or another of state planning or intervention. Despite Blair's repudiation of calls for re-nationalisation, a generous £152 million in state aid to BMW was offered. The problem isn't that Kutter's beloved bourgeois governments are being "enfeebled", but that the enfeebling of labour and the Left by illusions in state-ownership only weakens the challenges to the power of global capital. Social Partnership claims to offer mediation between the hostile forces of capital and labour with reconciliation to the benefit of all, but as Marx put it philosophically, in opposition to Hegel:

"This system of mediation can also arise when a man wishes to thrash his opponent but must at the same time protect him against other enemies so that his dual role prevents him from carrying out his original intention. It is remarkable that Hegel could have reduced this absurd process of mediation to its abstract, logical and hence ultimate undistorted form, while at the same time enthroning it as the speculative mystery of logic, as the scheme of reason, the rational mode of deduction par excellence. Real extremes cannot be mediated precisely because they are real extremes. Nor do they require mediation for their natures are wholly opposed."

Giddens and Hutton say that Marx has been proved wrong because "capitalism has buried the working class" and they argue that the leftist-inspired "growing backlash against the anonymous forces of capitalism" is simply in a futile search for new ideas. "….there is no alternative blue print to hand. Global socialism is an exploded and defunct concept…The task, surely, in the absence of alternatives, is to keep the current system going and improve it. It is all we have; it is both a source of creativity and global enrichment but equally it faces risks from all sides that need to be confronted and managed". These advocates of "beyond left and right" call for a new internationalism which simultaneously abandons looking beyond global capital itself. But their Third Way philosophy envisions labour in virtual Stalinist fashion as the role of "one of the building blocks in the creation of a new global civil society".

A concept of a society erected over humanity is set as the object for the new subjective challenges to global capital:

"A start has to be made in fashioning a philosophy that can underpin globalization which is not neo-liberal but no less importantly represents a clear rupture with the old framework of nation-states or of a utopian internationalism that rested on extending socialism on the globe. The philosophy to hand in our view, is an internationalist third way, blending more effective economic and social democratic values, passionate belief in democracy and an intense concern with human rights".

The "Left alternative" to this is based on a return to "fighting unions" - which may well be a necessary truth but it is quite inadequate as a response today's global capital. As the Marxist-Humanist. Raya Dunayevskaya, warned: "For the Movement to limit its attack on capitalism by talking only about the oppression of labour without focusing on the equally integral dialectic of liberation, is to miss the proletarian totality. That is to say, the proletariat as Reason as well as muscle, as form of revolt from below which is that new beginning which determines the end." To restrict ourselves to organisation and tactics, not subject to a universal goal of a new society, is to remain on the same ground as the philosophic conservatives.

What is lacking in the unions is any discussion on how a totally new kind of labour might replace global capital. New Labour, new struggles after Seattle. In any case, the myth that partnership is disciplining labour and reducing resistance to new flexible practices is contradicted by the latest Trade Unions Trends Survey. Just as the TUC launched the Partnership Institute their own report showed that the number of strike ballots doubled last year with unions carrying out 983 ballots compared to 464 the previous year. It also reveals that 95% of ballot's result in a vote in favour of strike action with 141,000 workers involved in actions. This increased combatitivity shows that beneath the bureaucracies of capital and labour the rank and file workers and shop-floor union reps have more confidence in themselves than we are led to believe especially by the radical intellectuals. Most importantly there has been organising and struggles in the 21st century sweatshops, the call centres, and in the service sector and the knowledge industry. Union membership overall has been rising for the first time since 1979. 600 campaigns for union recognition are currently underway, covering 500,000 workers. These new moves involve increasing numbers of women, Black workers, immigrants and youth. This re-assertion of labour poses questions as to where the movement from practice is heading; and as to how this new combativeness relates not only to the retrogressive ideas around us but importantly to the anti-capitalist movement. The form of the anti-capitalist movement has been one of a series of mass protests focused on the central organs of global capital such as the IMF or WTO.

The Battles of Seattle and Prague have grown to symbolise the anger of a new generation over the state of the world today. The question is whether or not such demonstrative acts can generate and give expression to a new movement against the rule of capital itself. The May Day 2000 events in London also showed what was missing. There was no recreation of the universality that took place around the Liverpool Dockers dispute with the support of Reclaim the Streets. The effort by the London Region of the RMT with the demonstration against tube privatisation was a pale shade of Seattle. It is not enough to blame the labour bureaucrats for this. The reality is that just as much of the problem is with the theory and practice of the self-appointed "autonomist" and Anarchist leadership of the anti-capitalist actions.

There is a strong similarity to the "happenings" organised by the Polish surrealists (the 'Orange Alternative') in the 1980's under the communist regime. The 'happenings' helped break the fear of open protest after Martial Law but themselves became a limitation in the quest for universality. Just as the vanguardists have fetishised the "Party" and subsumed the subject within it, some of the anti-capitalist happenings have done the same with the "Carnival". Lev Levidow, at the last Conference of Socialist Economists, indulged in some rewriting of history in to justify his sectarianism towards organised labour: "At Hillingdon Hospital, after unionised Asian workers refused to sign a new contract from an employment agency, they were replaced by cheaper, non-union staff on short-term contracts. Initially UNISON attempted to discourage picketing; eventually it recommended that the strikers accept redundancy payments, ceased official support, and even tried to expel the recalcitrant strikers from union membership. UNISON and management found a common interest in 'normalising relations', i.e. Formalising the new-style casualised terms of employment". Contrast this view with that of strike leader Malkiat Bilku that: "The fight in the union is just beginning…Our victory shows that it is possible to win. If we few can beat a big company like Granada on our own, imagine what a union with 1.3 million members could do". Levidow's alternative is an ultimatum that: "Labour internationalism cannot be simply equated with international links among trade unions. Trade unions face either a choice: either encourage broader resistance networks and share authority with them, or else co-operate with management to attack that resistance - i.e., to legitimise and manage flexpliotation". But this formulation says nothing of the dualities in the movement, of conflicting ideas, leaders and rank and file. None of this is accounted for when "resistance networks" and trade union class collaboration are posed as absolute opposites.

As Seattle and Prague showed there is also class collaboration in the "resistance networks". The party that dare not speak its name. Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Programme advocated an "agreement for action against the common enemy", rather than the retrogression of an unprincipled hash as happened at the Gotha unity conference of the German left. Today, the new stage of cognition has found a shift on the traditional left, one reason for this being a self-realisation, as the Weekly Worker noted, that "there is not a housing estate in London where the revolutionary left has a base" (and there are very few union branches in which the left has more than formal or token influence). The Left has tried to regain influence with the formation of the London "Socialist Alliance" and similar bodies across England, which has implicitly, though perhaps only for tactical reasons, presented a 'non-sectarian' alternative to the one-faction vanguard party, which Tony Cliff left us as the 'latest model'.

Whilst it is a positive move that the far-left is co-operating, and sections of the unions have moved away from New Labour in the direction of the Alliances, it is nevertheless a fact that beyond standing in elections they agree on very little and the unity is very limited. Firstly there is little or no discussion on ideas over and above issue of amelioration they can unite around. Again Marx's phrase about "stale, generalised banalities" springs to mind. Banalities versus Philosophy Hegel expressed the problem of posing the particular and the universal within the whole when he wrote: "When one understands by the universal, that which is common to several individuals, one is starting from the indifferent subsistence of these individuals and confounding the immediacy of being with the determination of the Notion. The lowest possible conception of the universal in its connection with the individual is this external relation of it as a merely a common element" The particular, in this case the LSA, is unable in itself to fully express the universal that the historic moment demands because there is a contradiction between the form and the content of the new initiatives on the left.

Predominantly the the various factions that make up the content of the LSA desire 'at the end of the day' a vanguard party, dominated by a single faction through "democratic centralism". Precisely for this reason, the vanguard party, whether in a reformist or revolutionary guise as fixed particular, cannot open the way to the actuality of the universal. Chris Harman of the SWP argues that the experience of the anti-capitalists protests demonstrates that "the movement will reach a point when it begins to fragment unless activists find a way of going beyond symbolism. It means, in other words, beginning to build revolutionary organisations among the world's workers". The important word is "among" as opposed to of. Contrast this view to Marx's opinion that it was the business of the IWMA to "combine and generalise the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever".

As late as 1880, in the Program of Workers Party in France, Marx defined its worth in the following way: "this very brief document in its economic section consists solely of demands that actually have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself. There is in addition an introductory passage where the communist goal is defined in a few lines". Marx was scathing with his French supporters who attacked this program as "revolutionary phrase-mongering". He refused to erect a wall between the fight for amelioration and emancipation of "all human beings". In Philosophy and Revolution Raya Dunayevskaya wrote that "No new stage of cognition is born out of thin air. It can be born only out of praxis. When workers are ready for a new plunge to freedom, that is when we reach also a new stage of cognition".

It could now be credibly argued we are on the verge of such an historic moment and that the movement from practice is crying out for universality, to move from the 'solidarity of defeat' to 'solidarity for freedom'; thus breaking out of this period of retrogression, with its parallels with the period following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions. The response to global capital requires not simply breaking down obstacles such as the proponents of 'no alternative' - to either a global capital or a global vanguard. Solidarity for freedom is about human beings actively changing this world and the creation of a new humanist society. Without that that object being restored and its full meaning addressed all responses to global capital will be inadequate.

The dialectics of liberation from global capital is a struggle not simply of breaking down obstacles to "Universalism, i.e., freedom" as Hegel described, but of the "negation of the negation", solidarity for freedom to achieve the actuality of a new humanist society. Such is the total uprooting of this class ridden, sexist exploitative society required, that the very form must itself be truly universal in order to open the way to this actuality. #