Notes by the Way: Peter Petroff on British State Capitalism
Peter Petroff on British State Capitalism
Peter Petroff, who was active in the British Socialist Party before it merged into the Communist Party and became Russian Vice-Commissar for Foreign Affairs soon after the Bolshevists seized power, died on June 9th, 1947. He had long ceased his connection with the Russian Government and returned to this country, but his former association with the Bolshevists and his later Labour Party activities add interest to the views he recently expressed in an article in the Railway Review (January 3rd, 1947). Under the title “The Trade Unions Under State Capitalism” he opposed the fallacious idea that because there is a Labour Government the workers have less heed of trade union organisation. Here are some extracts:—
“We are entering a new era. Britain is gradually progressing from private capitalism to State capitalism. The Bank of England has been taken over by the State; the coal mines have at long last been transferred to public ownership; now the nationalisation of the railways and other branches of transport is on the order of the day. These important changes in society raise the question, what role the Trade Unions may be called upon to play in the near future . . .”
Although he held the mistaken view that State capitalism “is likely to change fundamentally the position of the Trade Unions in public life,” he had no illusions about the possibility of dispensing with their only weapon, the strike.
“. . . under more or less developed State Capitalism the Trade Unions can by no means afford to weaken their protective functions in defence of the wage-earners whatever may be the character of the government in power. The right to strike is under State Capitalism even more important than under private capitalism . . . strong, virile and mighty unions are required to protect the workers collectively and individually against dictatorial tendencies of the State employer . . .”
It must have occurred to some of his railwaymen readers to ask themselves why, in face of the above, Petroff and others should nevertheless urge the workers to support Labourism and State Capitalism instead of working for Socialism.
What Machinery will do for the Miners
On June 23rd, 1947, the Manchester Guardian published an interesting article on the use of machinery in American coal mines, strongly recommending mechanisation as the salvation for British mines also. Along with details of the higher wages the American miners have been able to get from mechanised mines, (though only ‘‘by fighting a hard and sometimes violent struggle for their share of the proceeds ”), the article tells also of the other side of the picture, quoting the President of an American mining machinery company:—
‘‘The miners have to be persuaded to accept pay by the hour instead of by tonnage. They have to face up to such a speed-up of work that it takes them several years to adapt themselves fully. Some conservative foremen and engineers have to be removed before you can get the best out of the new equipment, and you may have to retire some of the older men who cannot stand the pace.”
The Activities of the National Union of Mine workers
That governments and employers should spend money on persuading the workers to work harder is an old story but it is surely new (and a spectacle to make the gods laugh) that workers should pay contributions to a trade union in order to spend the money persuading themselves to work harder. The following extract from a letter written by Mr. Will Lawther, President of the National Union of Mineworkers and published in the New Statesman (January 4th, 1947) deserves to be placed on record.
‘‘I should be the last person to deny the effective part played by Mr. Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power, in this difficult situation, but surely it must be admitted that without the effective co-operation of the National Union of Mineworkers the position could not have been tackled successfully. Last winter the Union appointed a National Production Officer and Production Officers in the Areas. The salaries of the National Production Officer and eight of the Area Officers, who were appointed for six months, were paid for out of the funds of the Union. Indeed, the Minister of Fuel and Power himself, addressing the Miners’ Annual Conference last June, paid a tribute to the work of the Union, and especially that of Mr. A. L. Horner, the National Production Officer. In addition, leaflets and posters were also prepared explaining to the mineworkers the importance of increased coal production. Moreover, during the past year the National Union of Mineworkers has taken the initiative in organising a large number of meetings and demonstrations in every coalfield in the country.
‘‘The fact that the National Union of Mineworkers is the first trade union to use its own funds (about £20,000 was spent last winter) to assist in a production drive is surely worthy of mention.
The Tories and Nationalisation
Speaking at Woolwich on June 28th Mr. Herbert Morrison had the following to say about the attitude of the Tories to nationalisation.
“In the latest declaration of a committee of the Tory Party they have declared that if they return to power they would not undo much of the nationalisation which we have achieved and are achieving. The truth is they have no alternative policy within the defined field of Government policy in this regard which would stand up to public debate.” (Observer, 29/6/47).