The Strike Situation
In every action of resistance by the workers against their exploitation the Socialist Party of Great Britain is on the side of the workers. The Miners and Railwaymen have all our sympathies in their efforts to get more pay – but we as Socialists have a lot more to say than that. We hold, with Karl Marx:-
“At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, 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; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing the direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought therefore not to be exclusively absorbed in those unavoidable guerrilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market.”
It is a tragedy of the present situation that the two strikes are not at all part of a carefully planned and organized working-class movement to defend or to raise the standard of living of the working class as a whole, but predominantly sectional efforts; by the miners to get a pay level above that of the workers in other countries, and by ASLEF to widen the margin between their wages and those of railway workers in other unions. In this the two unions on strike reflect the sectional outlook of the 450 unions into which trade unionists are divided.
And what of the TUC, supposedly a co-ordinating body for trade-union struggles? Representing as it does the political leanings of its affiliated big unions, and working hand in glove with the Labour Party leaders, its preoccupations has not been seriously to organize working-class industrial action but to manoeuvre to secure the return of a Labour government at the next election.
For their part the Heath government has likewise been using the strikes as a platform for the election campaign. “Standing up to the unions” helped them to win the election in 1970, and they hoped to do it again this time.
The background to the strikes is that British capitalism is in difficulties, partly because of the monopoly squeeze organized by the oil producers, but mainly because of the thirty-year rise of prices, now approaching six times the pre-war level. That inflation has been the direct and inevitable outcome of a policy shared by the Tory and Labour Parties and solidly backed by the NUM and ASLEF and other unions – the fallacious Keynesian belief that it is possible to humanize and regulate capitalism on a course of steady expansion, rising living standards and full employment. Average earnings of men in manufacturing industry have risen since 1938 from about £3.50 to £40 a week, but all except a very small fraction of the rise has been lost running faster and faster on the cost-of-living treadmill.
Whatever the strikers may get out of the dispute to offset the loss of pay and hardship caused to themselves and other workers is being eroded all the time by rising prices.
The National Union of Mineworkers has in its programme “abolition of capitalism”, and other unions have paid lip-service to the same slogan. It does not mean a thing, and neither the NUM nor any other union has ever done anything to promote it. Instead, they worked for half a century to get industries nationalized, and have now had a quarter of a century seeing its utter futility. Nationalization is state capitalism and solves no problem whatever for the working class.
In our generation the unions have been fighting over and over again the same battles they were fighting in the nineteenth century, without ever achieving their aim of “fair wages” and security. They have ignored the advice given to them by Marx: –
“Instead of the conservative motto ‘a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword ‘Abolition of the wages system’.”
This is of course not an aim that has application inside capitalism: it means working for the replacement of capitalism with Socialism. Socialism cannot be achieved or even brought nearer by following the traditional trade-union policy of supporting the Labour Party. From the working-class standpoint it makes no material difference whether they are exploited under a Labour government or a Tory one – both are committed to the continuance of capitalism.
Nor is Socialism advanced by strikes to unseat governments, still less by the dangerous folly advocated by so-called left-wingers of engaging in violence against the police and armed forces.
The trade unions in their long history have, as Marx said, been fighting with effects; they and the rest of the working class need to change course and start dealing with the basic problem of the class ownership of the means of production and distribution. The only road to Socialism, a world-wide social system based on common ownership and democratic control, is through dislodging the capitalists and their agents from power – that is, from their control of the machinery of government including the armed forces.
This is the road of political action. When the working class grasp that Socialism alone is in their interest the road to emancipation is open to them. In this country they command nearly ninety per cent. of the votes but so far, while doggedly fighting the defensive struggle on the industrial field, they have never got round to using their votes in their own class interest.