The old new

Submitted by AWL on 9 June, 2015 - 4:42

Unlike many who emphasise the novelty of any given period, and insist that some innovative new approach must be adopted, John Cunningham (“It is not ‘business as usual for the left”, Solidarity 366, 3 June 2015) at least has the honesty to admit that he doesn’t know what that new approach is. “I take no pleasure from the comments I make here”, John says, “as I have no alternative to offer.” Honest, but nevertheless frustrating.

If John believe socialists must undertake a “radical rethink of just about everything”, it’s no good just saying so. He has a responsibility to at least make some broad sketches, even if he doesn’t have a fully-formed “alternative to offer”.

Reading between the lines of John’s letter, and his recent articles in Solidarity on the “Universal Basic Income”, one can infer that the “everything” which John believes needs a “radical rethink” includes the idea that the workplace is structurally privileged as a site of struggle — that it is, in other words, the place where capitalism most essentially “happens”.

“We are now in a post-industrial era”, John says. “Heavy industry” has “almost totally collapsed”. Has it, John? Well, it depends on one’s definition, I suppose, but the last time I looked there were plenty of mines and big factories left in the world. I doubt whether the Marikana miners in South Africa (whose struggles you, as an ex-miner and an experienced campaigner for solidarity with mineworkers’ struggles around the world, will undboutedly be well aware of), or the Foxconn manufacturing workers in China feel themselves to be especially “post-industrial”. Even here in Britain, are our call centres “post-industrial”?

Are Amazon’s warehouses “post-industrial”? Does not, in fact, even a large university or hospital have rather a lot in common with an old-fashioned industrial complex? Agency working, casualisation, and precarity have disrupted and to some extent atomised the relationship of workers to their work, and to each other. But while those things are now more common, they are not entirely new.

The essential point here is that it was never the “heaviness” or otherwise of industry, the size of workplaces or the type of work, or the stability or otherwise of workers’ contracts, that made workplaces, and organisations based on them, the key terrain for socialist organisation. It is the wage relation, and the fact that capitalism functions by extracting value from that relation. Until that changes, until capitalism finds some other way of creating value than through human labour, workplaces, work, and workers will be the paramount for socialists.

John also charges me with failing to take stock of the crisis of official social democracy, the death of which his letter proclaims in much the same way as various leftist analysts have proclaimed it at almost any time over the past fifty years. I am under no illusions whatsoever that the current organisational infrastructure of British social democracy is stable, and fully accept that the (always contradictory) structures through which organised labour in Britain has historically intervened in politics (i.e., the Labour Party) may be about the break up in one way or another. In fact, I said explicitly: “it is not our job to defend the structural integrity of the existing Labour Party for its own sake.”

It should also be noted that the Labour Party has gained 20,000 members since the election, but I accept that, with the current balance of forces, a fracture of some kind may be more likely than any straightforward “revival”.

Whether socialists should welcome or cheerlead that break up, given that it is taking place not under the pressure of a revolutionary (or even of a more combative reformist) alternative, but rather in conditions of defeat, decline, and the growth of nationalism on both the left and the right, is another matter. (I would hesitate, however, before rushing into comparisons with Greece and warning of “Pasokification”. The landscapes and histories of the Greek and British labour movements are too different to expect analogous processes.

The accusation that Solidarity is “peculiarly detached from […] important developments in the rest of Europe” is particularly bizarre given that we are the only far-left newspaper in Britain to have carried consistent in-depth coverage of political developments in Greece, including interviews with a wide range of Greek revolutionaries.)

I also reject the idea that my article, and Workers’ Liberty’s perspectives in general, constitute a pious exhortation to “step up the fight”. Yes, I believe the fight should be stepped up. The point is: what fight? In fact, much of what we have to say about what the left, and the broader labour movement, should do is precisely not that it should carry on with what’s it doing, only harder and better. My article, and Workers’ Liberty’s work, aim to focus on what should be done differently — for example, a bolder approach to political programme and a focus on the struggles of unorganised and migrant workers (often in precisely the precarious and so-called “post-industrial” workplaces and sectors John urges us to take greater account of).

In the years since the global economic crisis, Workers’ Liberty has placed particular emphasis on studying the period of labour-movement recomposition and renewal from the late 1800s to the 1910s — the periods of “New Unionism” and the subsequent “Great Unrest”, in which the modern labour movement, and indeed the Labour Party, were forged.

We think these periods have much in common with our own, including in many of the ways John emphasises (the proliferation of precarious forms of work involving workers marginalised or ignored by the old labour movement). We believe that many of the “new” approaches required now are in fact an “old new” — approaches that were innovated in the period of “New Unionism” and shortly after, but have since been forgotten.

We do not see our politics as what some in the history of Marxist have called an “invariant doctrine”. No perspective or theory should be sacred or beyond rejection or change if it no longer measures up to reality. In a sense we should be in a permanent state of “radical rethink”, constantly testing our ideas against real-world class struggle, refining and reshaping them.

But nothing John says about our allegedly “post-industrial world”, the proliferation of zero-hours contracts, or the alleged death of social democracy, convinces me that the foundations of our approach are no longer applicable.