Friday, 20 August 2010

The Lessons of UCS - Part 1

Guerilla War

The death of former Communist Scottish Union militant, Jimmy Reid, who led the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, in 1971, has led to a useful revisiting of the dispute, and the lessons that flowed from it. There are some useful lessons to be drawn both from what was successful in the dispute, and what was not. For those socialists trapped in a Trade Union, Economistic ideology – including some who claim to be Marxists – the lesson is as one of them put it, “But most of all, Reid and what he represented, should be be remembered because he is a symbol of the truth that with rank and file support, we can beat the bosses....Reid and his comrades not only forced the reversal of the Heath government’s decision to close the yards, but to this day two out of the three yards remain open;” Denham. At a superficial level, of course, this is true, but Marxists are not interested in superficial truths.

What is the real truth about this success? Does it mean that Marx was wrong when he said that taken on the whole workers could NOT win such struggles? In “Value, Price and Profit” Marx wrote,

“I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. ... the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market.”

Marx, Value, Price and Profit

Or that Engels was wrong when he similarly wrote,

“The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation. In a commercial crisis the Union itself must reduce wages or dissolve wholly; and in a time of considerable increase in the demand for labour, it cannot fix the rate of wages higher than would be reached spontaneously by the competition of the capitalists among themselves.”

Engels Condition of The working Class in England p243

And, Marx went on to comment,

“Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”

Of course, neither Marx nor Engels were saying that, in any individual case, a group of workers could NOT win, but that is trivial. The point they were making was substantial. As Engels points out even these individual victories were not typical, but were “isolated victories” that merely interrupted “a long series of defeats”, but as Marx makes clear even the victories were not really victories. They were only in 99 cases out of 100 stopping the workers wages from falling below the Value of Labour Power, and as Engels elaborates, ultimately, the working of the Capitalist Market, of the demand and supply for Labour Power would have ultimately effected the same result. Further, Marx says, that if workers pushed wages above that level it would be only a temporary victory. In the above passage he sets out the means by which Capital, would claw that victory back. Capital would slow down the process of accumulation, it would invest elsewhere – which is even more significant in a globalised economy – it would find ways of introducing speed-up, it would introduce new labour-saving equipment, and so on, all of which would have the consequence of reducing the demand for labour-power, and with the level of wages.

So does the experience of UCS prove Marx and Engels wrong? Well, firstly, as stated above, Marx and Engels never said that workers could never win such individual battles, the guerilla struggles, as Marx describes them. They only said that such victories are very untypical. Isn't the truth that UCS was precisely the exception that proves the rule? I think it is clear that it is. Marxism is a science, and generally speaking, the scientific method requires that we base ourselves on what is typical, not what is a Black Swan event. We cannot base our tactics and strategy on the one occasion when a particular struggle “succeeds”, rather than the 99 that do not.

UCS occurred at the beginning of the 1970's, a period when the Long Wave Boom was coming to an end, and when Capital was being forced to fight in a way that, the easier profits environment, of the previous quarter century, had meant they could avoid, but when also the strength and confidence of the working-class, built up over that period, was at its height; a fact reflected in the defeat of Heath by the Miners in 1974. But, even in the 1970's there were more defeats than victories, even when a powerful, united rank and file, mass movement was mobilised, such as at Grunwicks. And the defeats of the 1970's, were nothing compared to those of the 1980's, again despite, if anything, even more powerful mobilisations than had succeeded in the 1960's and 70's. In fact, as some Marxist economists have pointed out, the “victories” of the 1960's, and 1970's, were precisely the kinds of victories that Marx and Engels describe as being purely of a negative kind. They did not advance the position of workers, but merely stopped Capital from implementing new strategies to raise labour productivity, that maintained old working practices etc. As Ben Fine commented, in an article in Capital & Class 13, the extent to which that was successful, compared to say West Germany, it was also responsible for the slower growth in the UK, the lower rate of Capital Accumulation, and consequently the lower living standards of British workers. Which is, of course, precisely the point that Marx and Engels had been making. And that same process was also behind the more vicious attack on British workers, their organisations, their pay and conditions, and the sweeping away of many of those old practices by Thatcher, and a new generation of thuggish management. The home of many of those old practices in Fleet Street, was, emblematically, also the ground on which that new thuggish management in the form of Eddie Shah, Rupert Murdoch and others were most decisive in doing exactly what Marx had said they would do. They introduced all of that new technology that Marx described, which deskilled the jobs which gave workers a basis to positively affect demand and supply. They set up new plant in areas where they could recruit the non-unionised, unskilled labour that could now operate this equipment.

Forward To Part 2

No comments: