1970s >> 1978 >> no-885-may-1978

Russia’s Tolpuddle Martyrs

The Guardian of March 3 devoted a lot of space to a report about some stirrings among would-be Russian trade-unionists and to a leading article and a letter on the same subject. Obviously the paper considers the matter to be of some importance and—who knows?—for a change they may have got something right.

The cause of all this was that there is now emerging a new kind of dissident, namely ordinary workers demanding genuine trade-unions. The majority of dissidents up to now, it seems, have been ‘intellectuals’ of the Solzhenitsyn type demanding freedom to write and speak what they wish, this being of course a rather more nebulous aspect of democracy than the freedom to organise trade-unions with the power to strike for better conditions. The new tendency is certainly to be welcomed by socialists, even though apparently only a minute proportion of the Russian working class is at present involved. Nobody can deny the heroism of the dissidents who have taken on the might of possibly the most oppressive dictatorship in history and who, in many cases, have suffered grievously in the process.


In the early days of British capitalism, membership of trade-unions could be dangerous and heroic workers, like the Tolpuddle martyrs, suffered the British equivalent of banishment to Siberia, namely transportation to Australia. In 1978, however, more refined punishments are available to the ruling class and the heading of an article by Simon Hoggart—Insane to Complain—shows what happens to Russian workers who, sixty years after the fall of the Tsarist tyranny, are brave enough to complain about appalling conditions of work, including such “delights” as outrageously long periods of compulsory overtime and being forced to work in coal mines with a horrendous record of fatal accidents. The dictatorship over the proletariat now finds murderous psychiatrists to rule that workers who want to combine in order to fight against such conditions are, by definition, insane. And the treatment appropriate to such “insanity” is to be confined to prison hospitals, there to be forcibly treated with unending doses of mind-shattering drugs until the offenders change their minds about the condition of the proletariat in Leninist Russia. The whole thing is, of course, like some nightmare science-fiction, and it is clear that the gangsters, who have the nerve to call themselves socialists and communists, have decided not to wait till 1984 to bring about their Orwellian society.

The leading article in the same issue of The Guardian is headed “Russia’s Cruel Union Farce” and rightly stresses the fact that the International Labour Organisation have actually always recognised the so-called trade-unions run by the Russian state as being of the same calibre as the trade-unions in countries like Britain. (It is true that trade-unionists here do not sufficiently avail themselves of their power and leave matters far too much to so-called leaders, but that of course is another subject.)

The ILO is a body under the auspices of the United Nations which has withheld recognition from state controlled trade-unions as in Franco Spain or Chile, but with the normal display of double standards which has been part of the scene for many years now, the same criteria have not been applied to Russia. Indeed, it may even be that there are some bemused people who imagine that somehow Russian workers are different from their counterparts in England, and do not have to resist exploitation. These are the same kind of people (and liberal papers like the Guardian fall neatly into this camp) who argue that African workers do not need the same kind of democracy as their European brothers. However, it is not likely that anyone would seek to show Russian workers are somehow different in kind from their brothers in the neighbouring workers’ paradise, Poland. But some of the news that has come out of that country, over the last decade or so, has thrown a lurid light on the position of the working class in that ludicrously named People’s Democracy.

Intolerable act

Some years ago, the then Bolshevik boss of Poland, Gomulka, decided on a dramatic rise in the prices of foodstuffs without any comparable rise in the workers’ wages. This intolerable act resulted in serious riots, particularly among the dockers in Poland’s Baltic ports, like Danzig (Gdansk). The tyrannical Polish “communist” party was quick to reply. It sent in the tanks and hundreds of dockers were killed. It is worth noting at this point that this same Gomulka was not a hardliner by reputation, but on the contrary was the leader who had come to power by defying Russia in 1956, showing that if you have a situation consisting of a dictatorship over the proletariat in any country, then repression is the order of the day, no matter who is in charge. Gomulka was superseded as a result of these events by the present boss Giereck, who had learned so little from them that only a year or two age he tried the same trick which resulted in, amongst other things, the workers of Warsaw tearing up the railway lines and those of the industrial town of Radom showing their loyalty to their communist government by burning down party headquarters. Unfortunately it is quite obvious that a lot more suffering of this nature in Russia, Poland, China (not to speak of Chile etc., of course) will be needed before the workers in these countries can at least get some semblance of trade unionism. And there is precious little that socialists in places like Britain can do, other than admire the necessary heroism of the oppressed workers in these other countries.

L. E. Weidberg

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