Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Why We Need A Tomb Of The Unknown Worker

On Friday, we will be provided with a potent symbol of National Unity, as two rich people get married, amidst miles of patriotic bunting, and endless TV coverage emphasising the lineage, going back centuries of British Royalty. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued that one of the progressive functions of Capitalism was to remove all national differences, and to act as a means of breaking down all national barriers, and national particularism.
At the same time, it created a working-class, whose interests stretched across borders, leading to the idea that the working-class has no country. After two World Wars, in which workers volunteered in their millions to fight for “their” country, and died in their millions too, after numerous other smaller Wars, in which there has been no problem finding enough workers to go to fight for the interests of “their” country, it is clear that Nationalism has a powerful hold, certainly a more powerful hold over workers than Socialism.

Part of the reason for that is that Socialists have not provided workers with very good solutions to their immediate problems. On the one hand, the Reformists have focussed on providing solutions to immediate problems only in so far as those solutions are compatible with the needs of Capital. Frequently, that has meant, as now, that rather than them providing workers with a solution to a problem caused by Capital, they instead find themselves providing a solution to a problem of Capital, at the expense of workers.
And, of course, in doing so, by limiting any solutions to only those acceptable to Capital, they reinforce the idea of National Interest, by perpetuating the idea that there is a common national interest between workers and Capital. On the other hand, the revolutionaries show little interest at all in providing any practical solutions to workers immediate problems. To the extent they offer any solutions they are geared not to the interests of the workers, but more to the interests of the revolutionaries themselves. Marx and Engels had pointed out the danger of “Economism”, the idea that workers interests could be advanced by addressing issues of the distribution or redistribution of income.
It didn't matter whether that redistribution came as a result of militant strike action, or redistributive tax policies. The fact was that it could never work, because Capital has the whip hand, and the needs of Capital Accumulation would always mean that any redistribution was minimal and short-lived. If higher wages or higher taxes reduced the profits available to Capital for Accumulation, Capital would simply respond by slowing down that Accumulation. The result would be higher unemployment, falling wages and rising profits. In a globalised world economy, the potential for Capital to do that by simply transferring to another country is a hundred times greater today than in Marx's time.

But, the revolutionary sects continue to focus their attention on the idea of such industrial militancy, proposing strike action for almost every situation, and mislead the workers into believing that such action can provide them with a solution to their problems. In doing so they reinforce the idea of Nationalism, because such Trade Union politics convey the idea that the interests of workers and Capital are reconcilable, and that it is just a matter of a squabble over the size of share of a national cake. The sects do this, because experience has shown them that during such strikes they have a potential to recruit the odd new member. Their activity is geared to this party-building rather than providing workers with any real solutions to their problems. Moreover, in the last thirty years, these sects have moved to occupy the ground previously the preserve of the left reformists.
The only other solution to workers they provide besides the idea of industrial action, is the idea previously purveyed by the Fabians, that of State Capitalism, by which workers exchange exploitation by relatively weak private capitalists, for more effective exploitation at the hands of a more powerful Capitalist State. Such solutions have been discredited in the eyes of tens of millions of workers as a result of their experience both as workers in, and consumers of State Capitalism. But, the sects continue to offer up these failed solutions to workers. Its little wonder workers look to other sets of ideas.

But, the strength of Nationalism, as an ideology, is not wholly due to the incompetence of the Left in providing solutions for workers. The reality is that as Marx and Engels set out in their theory of Historical Materialism, ideas are a function of material conditions, of lived experience. And part of that lived experience is itself conditioned by the world we find ourselves in, including the sets of ideas, and rituals handed down from previous generations that make up what can only ever be a 'national' culture.
That is not to say that this 'national' culture does not change over time, clearly it does, but it does so slowly, and still retains that characteristic of being 'national' and therefore something that binds together people in a powerful way not only because it appeals to a shared material condition – a material condition of all being in the same boat, surrounded by external threats – but also because, it appeals to powerful emotional levers based upon family and kinship that extend far more readily into the idea of shared nationality than they do to ideas of shared class interest.

And, of course, the very working of Capitalism itself undermines the very basis of class allegiance, and solidarity based upon it. Within each enterprise, each worker is forced into a dog eat dog competition with every other worker. That frequently is more powerful than any drive of the workers to take their shared condition and experience, and to form Trades Unions to fight for their interests against Capital. That is why Trades Unions have never managed, even during the time of the closed shop, to organise even more than half the workforce. But, even when Trades Unions are formed, their struggle is rarely a CLASS struggle, but is limited to merely a sectional struggle. In fact, frequently these sectional struggles are fought explicitly on the basis of defending the interests of one group of workers at the expense of workers somewhere else, be it in a competing firm, or country.
These sectional struggles fit neatly into a Nationalist ideology that seeks to represent the idea of promoting the interests of “British” workers, by promoting the interests of Britain, for which read British Capital.

Marx was right that Capitalism does act to break down national barriers. The development of a world economy is a powerful illustration of that. The same multinational companies that operate in New York, also operate in Tokyo, Paris, Rome and London, and sell the same products in the same packaging.
Capital has indeed become international, and a tiny, but very powerful international Capitalist class now exists that has in many ways detached itself from the nation state. It has attempted to create a range of international state institutions such as the IMF, WTO etc. to act at an international level in the way that the State acts at a national level. It, or its representatives meet at a range of international gatherings such as the G20.
But, these are only partial global state institutions, reflecting the fact that Capital is not homogeneous. The bulk of Capital remains tied up within the nation state, dispersed amongst a large number of small capitalists whose interests and ideas diverge considerably from those of the international Big Capitalists. Part of the contradiction is resolved, though unsatisfactorily by larger State organisations such as the EU, but here too the legacy of all those old separate, national cultures and interests continue and press down on the ability of Capital to move forward and introduce rational solutions.
Indeed, those separate interests of the small capitalists, and of their workers with their sectional interests, provide not just an obstacle in the realm of ideas, but an obstacle based upon real material interests. Just look at the German or Finnish workers objecting to bail-outs of Southern Europe, or look at the rise of the fascists of the Front National in France, now gaining even more support on the basis of the row breaking out between France and Italy over the flood of refugees already streaming in from the Middle East and North Africa.

There have been examples of noble actions of class solidarity by workers across borders. British textile workers in the 19th century, even though they were starving as a result of being out of work, opposed the textile manufacturers, who wanted to send the British Navy to break the blockade of Confederate Ports during the US Civil War, which was preventing cotton coming to Britain. Workers went to fight in Spain during the Civil War, indeed some went to fight in the US Civil War.
There have been numerous actions by workers to take solidarity action with workers in other countries, such as that of dockers in South Africa who blacked arms from China to Mugabe. But, in truth these actions are far from common place. At the height of workers militancy in the 1970's, efforts were made to create international combine committees in Europe across some of the big multinational companies, particularly in the car industry. Some co-ordinated action was taken, but ultimately sectional and national interest won out again, and the international combines proved ineffective. The European TUC has been established, but is just another bureaucratic talking shop. It has had no success in promoting the idea, and certainly not organising action to achieve, common Trades Union rates of pay across the EU, still less for the establishment of common Pensions and Benefits, or retirement ages. Nor has it even be able to repeat the example of the Trades Unions in Britain, who at the start of the 20th Century created a Workers Party based upon them. But, that is not surprising the history of Trades Unions in Britain has been as much about inter union squabbles and attempts to poach members, as it has been about solidarity.

If workers at least across Europe are to achieve some kind of unity, and sense of real shared interest it will have to be built on more promising ground than this. It is yet another example, of where workers need to build Co-operatives. Capital is forced to combine and expand, because its immediate material interests dictate it. Indeed, in order to avoid some of the problems of competition, Capital has been forced into co-operation to the same end, establishing cartels and price-fixing rings. Co-operatives, which from the beginning are based on the idea of such Co-operation as much as on competition, are perfectly suited to extending that principle for workers. There are something like 20,000 workers Co-operatives in Britain alone. Their main problem as with most small businesses is that they are limited by their small size, which makes them dependent upon the Capitalist Banks, and upon large Capitalist purchasers of their goods and services.
But, effective binding together of these separate units into a powerful Co-operative sector can overcome most of those problems. In Europe, the huge EuroCoop provides a basis for many of these individual producer Co-ops to sell their products. In this way the spread of worker Co-ops across Europe, all part of a European Co-operative federation can provide a material basis for developing the idea of internationalism, and workers solidarity as well as of Co-operative production, in a way that occasional, even very large industrial struggles never can.

But, even this is not enough to overcome those ideas of nationalism that have been fed down to us over generations, precisely because those ideas are not just based upon immediate material conditions, but are based upon other factors with emotional roots, that have just as much influence in determining the material environment we experience.
In his book, “Imagined communities:reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism”, Benedict Anderson points out the central symbolic role of Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers in nearly all nationalisms and says,

“The cultural significance of such monuments becomes..clearer if one tries to imagine, say, a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals. Is a sense of absurdity unavoidable? The reason is that neither Marxism nor Liberalism are much concerned with death and immortality. If the nationalist imaging is so concerned, this suggests a strong affinity with religious imaginings.” (p18.)

Of course, the vast majority of those unknown soldiers are themselves workers sent off to fight in the interests of Capital in Two World Wars, and numerous other conflicts, including the intervention against the workers revolution in Russia in 1917.
But, the ceremonies and rituals surrounding them de-class them, and turn them merely into British soldiers. The closest this comes to referring to any class aspect is the attempt to portray the Second World War as in some sense a war against Fascism, rather than a War of British Imperialism against German Imperialism, with the other Imperialist powers choosing sides not according to their own political regime or inclinations, but according to where they thought their own economic interests would be best met. In fact, even in this the revolutionary sects have abandoned the ground of Marxism for Left Reformism, and Social-Patriotism.
On the one hand organisations such as the SWP have attempted to harness, rather ridiculously, the imagery of the second World War, in their propaganda against the BNP today, which fits neatly with their Popular Frontist politics of appealing to the clergy and other bourgeois worthies. At the same time their fellow Third Campists such as the AWL, bowdlerise Trotsky's writings, attempting to make him say that he was in favour of such a war against fascism, and that it was necessary to find a way of workers supporting such a war by “Democratic Imperialism”. A most grotesque distortion of what his actual position was.

But, of course, there is no recognition in those ceremonies, there is no mention on those cenotaphs of all those workers who fought and died against fascism, and who DID go to fight as workers and socialists, as opposed to simply being BRITISH soldiers. There is no reference to those who were part of the International Brigade, fighting in Spain against Franco.
After all, that was not a war that British Imperialism showed any interest in fighting against fascism, just as throughout the 1930's they had shown no interest in the atrocities already being committed by the Nazis against German Jews. Why would they?
Throughout the 1920's, the British establishment lauded the efforts of Mussolini and the Fascists in Italy. And, they heaped equally lavish praise on the Nazis after they came to power. Lord Rothermere who owned the Daily Mail was a friend of both Mussolini and Hitler, and the Daily Mail carried numerous headlines supporting them, and one entitled "Hurrah For The Blackshirts" supporting the British Union of Fascists. After all, the Nazis and the Italian Fascists were acting to put down their own workers. Nor was there any reason for Britain to show much concern for Jews.
Its history of anti-Semitism went back into its Medieval past, and leading politicians such as Churchill were equally vile in their anti-Semitic views.

But, there are many, many more instances of workers who have fought and died in the interests of their class, and of progressive historical development. There are those who fought alongside the peasants during the Peasants Revolt, or alongside others during the Civil War in the cause of Constitutional changes that form the basis of Britain's bourgeois democracy.
Indeed, there are those who died in St. Peters Fields in Manchester, demanding further such democratic rights, in the same way that workers are doing across the Middle East today. There are many more who were mowed down by dragoons opposing the struggle of the Chartists for the right to vote for workers, such as the Leek Mill worker who was decapitated by the lash of a Bull whip at a Chartist meeting in Burslem.

Yet, their numbers pale compared with the thousands of workers who have died so that Capital could make profits. Men, women and children have died in some of the most grisly industrial accidents imaginable. My father's own best man, died at work when a huge piece of equipment fell on his chest.
Industrial injuries alone have cost thousands of workers their lives, and despite the Tories pledges to reduce Health & Safety provision, continue to do so today. But, the numbers who have died from industrial diseases, or had their lives ruined by them, are even greater.

A powerful class symbol of the lives lost by workers in the cause of creating a decent society ought to be created. As well as the cenotaph in London, similar monuments exist in every town around the country. Other symbols of nationalism abound such as the National Military Cemetery in Staffordshire. The Labour Movement should create its own such focus for working-class pride, and remembrance that provides a focus for celebrating all those workers who have fought reaction, and lost their lives because of Capitalism.

1 comment:

Jacob Richter said...

Any tomb of the unknown worker should combine the colour scheme of the Lenin Mausoleum, the solemn atmosphere of the big Motherland statue in what should be called Stalingrad, and the whole complex from the Great Sphinx to the Great Pyramid.