Book Reviews: ‘All Power to the Imagination!’, ‘More Agitation’, & ‘ Your Money or Your Life! The Tyranny of Global Finance’
The unions we deserve
‘All Power to the Imagination!: Revolutionary Class Struggle In Trade Unions and the Petty Bourgeois Fetish of Organisational Purity’, by Dave Douglass. (Class War Federation, P.O. Box 467, London E8 3QX)
This is a really interesting and readable book, despite some horrendous comments on “national liberation”, particularly relating to Ireland. The author is a life-long mineworker and NUM activist who is also a member of the IWW and the section of Class War which decided to continue with the CW paper and federation. The aim of this book is basically to attack the argument popular in some anarchist and left-communist circles that trade unions are inherently tools of the capitalist establishment that act to stifle workers’ militancy and so on.
This position has led some revolutionaries to declare themselves “outside and against the unions”—though whether in practice they would choose not to join a union is another thing. The point about all this, as is brought home by Douglass, is that unions are essentially about workers uniting to defend themselves within capitalism. To criticise “the unions” for being reformist misses the point, as a union and its membership are one and the same. Workers are not “reformist” because “the unions” make them so; rather the level of political consciousness within a union will be a reflection of the general consciousness of the working class at the time. As Douglass points out, trade unions are not ideological monoliths—the processes of class struggle go on within unions.
If more militant members are losing the arguments then this reflects a wider passivity: something that is hardly surprising given the shattering defeats organised labour has suffered in Britain in recent decades. Trade unions can only be as militant and class conscious (and effective) as their memberships are, which must depend on the wider situation. Though this isn’t to take away from the damage done by union bosses, whose frequent knighthoods and other “honours” are tawdry campaign medals minted by the real bosses, whose class interests they have served. However, to create a dichotomy between “the unions” and “the workers” can only lead to a distorted analysis of the uses and limitations of union struggle.
As a way of illustrating the dangers of this “against the unions” position Douglass points to the direct correlation between declines in union membership and the decrease in days lost (or won) in strikes. Hardly surprising—but if “the unions” were really responsible for holding back working-class combativity shouldn’t the opposite be the case? In reality, non-union workers have not “broken free” from the unions—falls in membership are symptoms of the hammering the working class as a whole has taken. On the other hand, resistance to the attacks of capital is generally stronger in those sectors where there is still significant unionisation. There are some signs however that union membership and general combativity are rising. And let’s not forget that this is vital if our class is to develop some of the solidarity and self-confidence essential for the final abolition of wage slavery.
Interestingly, one of the few sources quoted with any sort of approval by Douglass is the October 1994 edition of Spartacus, a publication put together by Socialist Party comrades in Norwich. He generally agrees with the case put in an article called “Socialism and Trade Unions”:
“[T]he essence of the trade union is workers uniting to protect their interests in the workplace, and . . . ultimately the union and the workers are one and the same thing. If these workers have reformist outlook on life, i.e. believe that capitalism can be made to run in the interests of all, the unions must therefore have the same outlook; on the other hand if there were more revolutionary workers in the unions—and in society generally—then the unions would have a more revolutionary outlook, no longer harbouring any illusions about ‘common national interests’ or other such rubbish. That would not in any way alter the essential nature and role of the trade unions as the defensive organisations of the working class; but it would make them far more effective fulfilling that role” (p.10 – quoted from Spartacus).
‘More Agitation: Political Satires and Other Poems’, by Bob Dixon. (Artery Publications: Bromley, 1999)
There are some good little poems in here, and a few I could either take or leave. Bob Dixon has also written some criticism on children’s fiction in his Catching Them Young books, looking at the head-fixing “literature” that has been aimed at children in order to help mould them into good little workers with the required levels of patriotism, fear, and conformity. In this spirit a foreword to this collection states his principled position that he would like these poems to be used in schools, but never “in connection with any examination, test, or competition”. Good stuff. Though it is debatable whether poems called “The Poet, in Capitalist Society, Speaks” or “Fascist Haiku” are ever likely to see the light of day inside the classroom.
In the poem “The General Election” the poet is visited by various politicos who don’t impress him much. Refusing to pledge allegiance to the Labour candidate he asks, “I’m a socialist/so why should I vote for you?”. Too right.
Then, a “Marxist man” sails into view. Who could this be?! I’d like to think this might refer to someone presenting the case for common ownership and self-emancipation, but fear we may be talking the Left Wing of Capital here. However, the poet is going to vote for him—as long as there’s not going to be any backstabbing or “shilly-shallying”. Get those pigs ready to fly! Next up is some fascist knuckledragger. So, it looks like Tweedledum and Tweedledee have been joined by Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber.
Apparently some of these poems have appeared in Socialist Worker. Funny; they don’t really seem them, y’know. Perhaps some eulogy to the massacre at Kronstadt would be more in the SWP line.
‘Your Money or Your Life! The Tyranny of Global Finance’, by Eric Toussaint, translated by Raghu Krishnan. (Pluto Press, 1999)
This is a potentially useful resource for socialists’ campaign of educating the working class about how they are being exploited. It provides an analysis of the “globalisation of capital”, and how this has enabled the largest industrial groups and financial investors to operate “with the least possible number of restrictions as far as labour laws and social conventions were concerned”. Toussaint provides a useful introduction in which he outlines his 45 “theses” which are enlarged upon in the body of the text. These cover the workings and the consequences of the process from “1: massive impoverishment on a global scale” through to 42: “globalisation hastening environmental decline”, and conclude with the need for alternatives, in particular 44: “satisfying human needs” and 45: “rethinking a project for emancipation”.
Of course, much has already been written on such matters as Third World Debt, the role of financial institutions including the World Bank and the IMF, and the human suffering resulting from unfair trade and Structural Adjustment Programmes. But this book is a less irritating read for socialists because it uses the language of the class struggle, for example, in thesis 43 referring to “the global offensive of capital against labour”, and in 26 stating that the repayment of foreign and domestic debt “has been a tremendous mechanism for transferring the [surplus] wealth created by the workers to capitalists”. Toussaint evidently considers himself to be a socialist, dedicating the book to Ernest Mandel and sharing Marx’s belief that “the emancipation of the oppressed can only be achieved by the oppressed themselves”.
However, there are errors in the book in terms of the socialist analysis of capitalism. For example, Toussaint refers to debt repayments coming out of tax revenues, “which largely come from working people”. This is odd given that in the Glossary he defines surplus value as “what remains of the social product once the reproduction of the workforce is assured and its maintenance costs covered”. Logically these subsistence costs must be the money actually received by the workers, hence net of tax, and so tax revenues must, in effect, come from the capitalists’ share of the spoils. A much more serious error lies in the kind of solution Toussaint proposes. He lists alternatives to the current situation headed by reforms to the handling of Third World Debt. He asserts that the “tyranny” of financial markets can be “disciplined”, “if governments decide to do so”. He puts his faith in “the wealth of social movements” succeeding in resisting globalisation. How can Toussaint reconcile this trust in reformist measures which only capitalists or their state servants can bring about with his recognition of the unavoidable responsibility of the oppressed for their own emancipation?
One welcome theme of the book is Toussaint’s account of the effects of globalisation on the environment. In particular, he recognises that the so-called “Green Revolution” was “carried out to the detriment of communal lands, has led to severe impoverishment of biodiversity, an increase in plant diseases and soil exhaustion”. He cites the well-known environmental and social activist Vandana Shiva as seeing that, far from saving India from famine, as is claimed by the World Bank, the Green Revolution was “part of the plunder and exploitation of the peasantry for the benefit of trade and industry”. In a socialist society the traditional knowledge and expertise held by small communities will be respected, especially where this relates to local ecology and sustainable systems of land use, and hence priority given to local decision-making over whatever has to be delegated to wider regional or global democratic control.
How much more interesting it is looking forward to the future socialist society than indulging in wishful thinking about how the current economy might be reformed to mitigate its worst effects. However, to be fair to Toussaint, he devotes only ten per cent of the pages of his book to these alternatives, and damns capitalism so powerfully in the rest, that it may be that he intends the reader to draw their own conclusion: that the only solution is to scrap it altogether.