Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Protest and Politics

The Blair-rights have always argued against Corbyn, just as they have always argued against the idea that the Labour Party should be driven by principle rather than their own careerism, that the politics of protest is no use without being able to be in government. They continue to promote that nonsensical argument today. Yet, the most graphic, most momentous destruction of that argument has just occurred. The UK Independence Party still has just one MP in Parliament, three-quarters of MP's in parliament favour remaining in the EU, and the government threw all of its weight, plus the weight of other international institutions behind the campaign to remain inside the EU. Nevertheless, the protest movement, calling for Britain to leave the EU, won and all of those MP's, and the government, are now having to legislate to take Britain out of the EU!

That is one of the most momentous changes in my lifetime, and yet it has been brought about by a party that has campaigned for it, that today still just has one MP!! How on Earth can those Blair-right MP's and apologists continue to make what is quite clearly a false argument, with a straight face? The truth is that nearly all political changes, of any magnitude, have been won outside Parliament, outside government. Governments have usually, at best, simply legislated to bring those changes into law so that appearance and reality coincided, but just as frequently, where such legislation has been enacted, it has often watered down the actual social changes that have been achieved outside parliament, funnelled the movements of direct, self-activity of workers into safe, institutions channels, and thereby emasculated them.

The first blog post I ever wrote (at that time on the AWL website), and which I have reproduced here described this very process, from my own experience. In 1981, myself and another Labour Party member organised a campaign against a decision by the Labour controlled County Council to site a toxic waste tip in our community. We managed to organise several hundred people from within the community to oppose the plans, and to engage in their own self-activity. The local Labour councillors, and right-wing party bureaucracy threatened to expel us, just for opposing the decision; the local Tory media obviously fell in behind them. All of the local council's bureaucratic apparatus was mobilised to defeat the arguments we put forward.

But, they failed to defeat us. Within weeks, the same councillors who had been opposing us, stood on election leaflets claiming they had supported the community all along, and the District Labour Party, even incorporated opposition to the siting of toxic waste tips in urban areas, into its manifesto, along with other environmental policies.

If we look at things like Equal Pay, the real fight and victory for equal pay was waged by women workers, such as those at Ford's Dagenham. The Labour Government, via Barbara Castle, only put into law what was already being brought about by direct action, and self-activity by workers on the ground. In the process it acted to demobilise the self-activity, because women workers were thereby encouraged to believe that they could now simply rely on the law, and appeal to the courts. In fact, they could not. The law, of course, made it easier, just as the Factory Acts of the 19th century, made it easier for workers to hold to account employers, but women workers still needed, via their unions to demand their legal entitlement to equal pay, and that fight now was transferred on to the ground that favoured the employer, into the industrial tribunals and courts, run by the bosses friends in the state apparatus.

The reality of that has been shown by the fact that year after year employers found ways of denying equal pay whilst remaining inside the law. It was up to workers to prove that their jobs were identical, until along with other European workers struggles the law was changed to a comparison based on work of equal value. Yet, women's wages continue to lag behind those of men, which is evidence that 40 years after the passing of that legislation, the fight for equal pay continues to be one that workers have to win by their own actions, through trade union struggle. 

To be clear, I am not making the kind of syndicalist case here that sects like the SWP make, that political action is irrelevant, and that all that counts is industrial action, and more militancy. Far from it. As I said above, the Factory Acts made it easier for workers to hold employers to account, so do things like the Equal Pay Act; the anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher make it harder for workers to organise, and political action to remove them would be beneficial. As Marx pointed out, in relation to education, although we oppose state provision of education, the introduction of minimum educational standards for the curriculum, for the qualification of teachers and so on, by the state, as with minimum health and safety standards, enable workers to operate collectively to establish education by their own self-activity, on a uniform basis. But, all of these things depend upon workers themselves being sufficiently organised, sufficiently capable to enforce and deepen all of these provisions, otherwise they are simply a sham, a means of duping the workers and pacifying them, driving them into apathy and inaction.

In fact, what all of these instances show is that ultimately workers can only have real control over any of these things, when they themselves have control over the means of production, and of their communities. Otherwise, everything is a perpetual Sisyphean task that has to be continually repeated, and every victory is only ever temporary. That is the real political action that is required.

Just a casual consideration shows that to be the truth. It was not becoming the government that brought down the Berlin Wall, and ended the workers prison house of Easter Europe, but direct action by Eastern European workers. It was tens of thousands of ordinary workers that protested against the Poll Tax, and brought down the Thatcher government, whilst the Kinnockites watched on, and as today complained about the actions of those who were actually supporting workers and bringing about that change. The Suffragettes, by definition had no votes, let alone any MP's, let alone, therefore, the possibility of becoming the Government, and yet their protest movement forced a male dominated parliament to legislate the right of women to vote. In the 19th century the same was true of the Chartists who organised workers protests for the right to vote, and so on.

In all these cases the legislation came after the victory of the actual protest outside Parliament, and that legislation, in every case, then acted to dilute what was being fought for and won outside Parliament, to channel it into safe institutional forms, and to limit the transformational function of such changes. On one hand, the legislation made it easier for those that had fought for the change, because it meant that they could use the law as a benchmark, but that benchmark could only ever have any use, if the workers themselves continued to be strong enough, organised enough to be able to use it, and enforce it. On the other hand, it weakened those that fought for the change, because it demobilised the struggle, and by setting it inside legally defined parameters, it limited what could be achieved, because the bosses could always appeal to that same law, and to their friends in the judiciary to interpret the law in their favour.

The health and safety laws require workers to enforce them, for example, and the bosses continually ridicule such protections via their media, talking about “health and safety gone made”, backed up by the same kind of fabricated stories that have been used by that media over the years to attack the EU, immigrants and so on. How often does an employer get prosecuted for breaches of health and safety, despite the fact that hundreds of workers in Britain die each year from industrial accidents, and many thousands more die each year from industrial diseases. The introduction of a Minimum Wage was a step forward, but it is wholly inadequate, both in its level, and in the fact that it is only an hourly, rather than a weekly or monthly minimum. Yet, there have been virtually no cases of employers being prosecuted, let alone jailed for breaching it.

All such laws and rights for workers introduced by legislation are essentially useless unless a strong, organised working-class exists in society to enforce them. Even then, the task of enforcing such rights is a continual task that always favours the employer, and not the worker. Only when workers themselves own the means of production, via the creation of worker owned co-operatives, can they ensure that proper health and safety is provided as a matter of course, without the need for constant vigilance against the employer, only then can those workers ensure that they provide equal pay for work of equal value, and that the wages they pay are those required to ensure that the workers labour-power is able to be adequately reproduced, without the need for constant battles with the employer, and disruptive action.

But, none of that can be legislated via Parliament, or even a government that is wholly favourable to workers. As Marx put it,

“That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale, in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionise the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid. But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

(Critique of the Gotha Programme)

In other words, not even the most worker friendly government can provide such things for workers, unless the workers themselves want to bring about such change, and take on the task. It must be workers who want to take over and run their enterprises, not the government that takes them over, or establishes them on behalf of workers. The consequence of the latter was seen in all of the Stalinist states, and in the experience of all of the state capitalist nationalised enterprises. If workers do not passionately wish to take over the means of production, and exercise control over them, then a bureaucracy of some kind will immediately take on that role. It is why politicians of the Blair-right kind wish to keep workers themselves out of such roles, and to insist that all change can only be brought about by self-serving, self-selecting elites such as their own.

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