Category Archives: CPGB

Communist University 2012 – August 20-26

Communist University 2012 starts on Monday August 20 at 2pm. Because of the Olympic Games, we have moved to a new venue:
Glenthurston Apartments, 30 Bromley Rd. London, SE6 2TP


5 min walk from Catford railway station – there are trains leaving London Bridge Station every 10-15 minutes. Click here for a map.

Our annual school – the Communist University – takes place in a world in great flux. Given its explanatory power and practical programme, Marxism has huge potential in this period – a potential that is irresponsibly squandered by the sectarian in-fighting and opportunism of the Marxist groups. Communist University points a way out of this mess. Over seven days of intense and open discussion, comrades from a variety of left political backgrounds teach and learn from each other. Differences between comrades are debated in fiercely partisan ways – but without the fear of excommunication that characterises the confessional sects of much of the rest of the left. The aim is clarity and fight to show the relevance of contemporary Marxism to the huge battles the workers’ movement will soon be squaring up to.

Come and join us this year and make your contribution to the job of politically tooling our side up for war.

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Communist University 2010 (August 7-14)

Communist University 2010, summer school of the CPGB, will be held from August 7-14 in south London. Confirmed speakers so far include Lars T Lih, Hillel Ticktin, Yassamine Mather, Mike Macnair and Jack Conrad. For more information visit the Communist University blog, here.

World politics, long waves and the decline of capitalism

Are we facing a new ‘long slump’ like the 1930s or is the recent financial crisis merely a blip in a larger picture of capitalist expansion? And how does the decline of capitalism fit into the picture? In an article in the Weekly Worker Mike Macnair examines the issues

Arthur Bough’s letters (December 10 and December 18 2009), and his fuller version of the argument of these letters on his blog [1], reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the CPGB’s discussion on the issues of the economic crisis.

To some extent this was the result of unclarities in Peter Manson’s brief report (December 3) of my opening on this issue at the November 29 CPGB aggregate. We had intended to transcribe and edit my opening for publication, but this was held up for various reasons. In fact in the December 3 paper we printed the opening I gave at the November 28 Hands Off the People of Iran annual general meeting on the policy of US imperialism. This argued that the decline of US world dominance, paralleling but different from the decline of British world dominance in the later 19th century, was the primary driver of international economic and political dynamics in the present period.

The primary purpose of my November 29 opening, upon which this article is based, was to stress both the real uncertainty of the immediate economic situation and the need to take seriously the arguments that what is involved may be merely a ‘blip’ and avoid staking all our political orientation on ‘slumpism’.

My personal opinion is that a ‘second leg down’ of the recession in 2010 – driven by concerns about state finances, leading to public expenditure cuts and other forms of withdrawal of liquidity which hold down consumer demand – is now more likely than not. However, I also emphasise both the level of uncertainty in all predictions, and that it is not the business of Marxists to hope for crashes and slumps to make our politics attractive; and that much of the left which does predict a severe crisis does so precisely in the hope that a slump will make their rather unattractive alternative to capitalism attractive. In reality, such a slump is more likely to benefit the far right.

In discussion comrade John Bridge criticised my opening as tending to reduce the problem with capitalism to that of cycles and to offer a cyclical theory of history more generally (this relates to my Hopi opening). It was in this context that he made the point that “it was not just a question of capitalism’s cyclical crises that ought to concern us, but the fact that it is a system in long-term decline”.[2]

My reply to the discussion was to a considerable extent addressed to the question of the decline of capitalism and the meaning and limits of this idea. I address this question again at the end of this article.

Economic conjuncture

Looking at the immediate indicators, there has been a rise in global markets over the last few months, and the general expectation is that the increase in unemployment will be reversed now that confidence has returned in the financial markets and the ‘real’ economy – there is some data indicating a rise in actual output. In theory UK output is still in decline, but whether this is accurate remains to be seen. There was a brief acute bout of nerves on the market following the Dubai government defaulting on its debts. But it is not clear if this is a complete default, and this is essentially a huge, but single property development which has gone bust.

The nerves caused by its collapse show the fear which exists amongst the investing section of the capitalist class that we are in a similar phase as 1929-31 – after the first crash, but yet to fall off the precipice, when the downturn hits the material economy and unemployment sky-rockets, masses of factories close, there is major deflation, etc. There is a perception among both Marxist and bourgeois economists that this is a possibility. At the same time there are those on both sides who argue this will not happen and that what has occurred can be compared to the market crashes of 1987, 1998 or 2001; a big financial crash, but one which capitalist states can manage by interventions to ensure liquidity.

It is important to be clear that having a Marxist methodology does not give us an answer to this question. Why this is the case can best be explained by looking at the attempts of Marxists to explain the current crisis as a minor financial bubble. Permanent Revolution takes this line, and a recent article by PR’s Bill Jeffries argues that the underlying trend is a massive recovery of capitalist profitability, which has continued since the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1990s, and the rise of capitalist zones and foreign investment in China.[3]

Long waves

Capitalism goes into crisis because it runs up against limits to the profitable investment of capital, the consequence being that it shifts into speculative activities and the search for short-term liquidity. Hence there is an overproduction of fictitious capital (a bubble), leading in due course to a financial crash, which temporarily chokes commercial credit, resulting in depression and recession in the real economy. But Jeffries argues, broadly following Trotsky’s argument around long waves in the capitalist economy, that fundamental transformations in global conditions may allow for capitalist investment in new areas. Whether they take the form of new technology, a world-historical defeat of the working class or capitalism expanding into pre-capitalist countries, the new possibility of investment creates the conditions for a major revival in the profitability of productive industry and therefore a sustained expansion in investment. This does not do away with the business cycle, but mitigates the effects of it. The downturns are less acute and shorter, and the ‘up’ phases are stronger and more persistent. In PR’s view the fall of the Stalinist regimes and the market turn in China and Vietnam created the same effect as, in the 19th century, capital breaking into Africa or east Asia, opening up large fields for profitable investment.

In this view the underlying condition since the late 1990s is one of long-term boom analogous to the period of capitalist expansion in the late 19th century, or the 1950s boom and capitalist realignment. Why did World War II open up the possibility for profitable investment? Because it broke up the British and French colonial empires, which to a large extent kept US business out of their colonies. The effect of British dependence on the US was that Britain had to hand over large quantities of overseas investments, to be passed on to US corporations, in payment for the arms which were supplied. Britain and France were also compelled to agree to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt 1), which managed trade between the main capitalist powers, but centrally broke down the old imperial protection system and allowed US capital to dramatically expand into British and French territory.

Arthur Bough, an ex-member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, has an alternative view which must be taken seriously, though he is an individual rather than representing a group, since he offers considered economic arguments. His argument draws on Kondratiev rather than Trotsky. Kondratiev argued that over the long term there was an (approximately) 50-year cycle running concurrently with the usual short cycle of booms and slumps of capitalism. In the first half of the cycle there are strong booms and weak recessions, and in the second half there are weak booms and heavy recessions. In Bough’s view the recessionary phase of the cycle opened in the early 1970s and closed in the 1990s, so we are about 10 years into the boom phase.

Kondratiev never offered a serious causal explanation of why there should be a long cycle, or why the periodisation should be 50 years. A variety of causal mechanisms have been offered ranging from technical innovations to long-range weather changes which affect harvests and hence food prices. None of them are really satisfactory.

The idea of fixed-period cycles is itself generally problematic. The short boom-bust cycle takes very approximately six to 10 years. Marx made some attempt to theorise this periodisation on the basis of the turnover time of fixed capital. That is, to simplify grossly, capitalists all buy machines and buildings at the same time, causing a forward push for a boom, then demand for these ‘capital goods’ necessarily falls and a downturn results until the fixed capital has to be replaced, triggering another upturn. There is correspondence between Marx and Engels where Marx is looking for evidence that the turnover of fixed capital accounts for the boom-bust cycle and so the latter can be reduced to a mathematical certainty. Engels – who was engaged in running a capitalist business at the time – denied the importance of this, telling Marx that capitalist decision-making was often based on guesstimates and back-of-the-envelope calculations.

There is an approximate regularity, and it is certainly the case that free-market capitalism cannot go longer than 10 or 12 years without a recession caused by a financial crash (if it is not triggered earlier by state action, as it was by the ‘demand management’ of the 1950s-70s). But talking about a range between six and 10 years is not the same thing as the ability to predict the date of crashes, and so on; there are many contributory factors in the determination of the cycle.

If this is the case with short cycles, why should there be a 50-year cycle over the long term? It is worthwhile pointing out that Kondratiev conceived the 50-year cycle based on 100 years worth of data – hardly sufficient to demonstrate a trend. In contrast, we know that the short business cycle has a considerable degree of regularity, including from the data going back to 1760s Britain.

This was Trotsky’s original criticism of Kondratiev – that there was not enough data to draw such a firm conclusion. Hence Trotsky’s ‘long waves’ were both less definitely periodised, and driven by aspects of the class struggle and capitalist expansion rather than ‘internal’ capitalist dynamics.

Both Kondratiev cycles and Trotsky’s long waves gained popularity among Marxist economists because of the long boom in the 1950s and 60s. In this period there was sustained material growth in the imperialist centres and colonial countries, as well as in the USSR and China, and there was a mitigated form of the business cycle: that is, neither booms nor busts ran away. It was a standard Marxist idea that with imperialism, capitalism had reached its terminal stage, and would tend to stagnation and persistent, repetitive crisis. That worked pretty well as a characterisation of the world between 1914 and 1948, but the question was how Marxists could explain the new stage of the 1950s and 60s. Long cycle theories came to be used to address this problem.

While comrade Bough’s argument is over-dependent on the dubious long waves of Kondratiev, Permanent Revolution’s argument has a considerably stronger basis: what happened in 1989-91. The Stalinist regimes were half-inside the capitalist economy; their purchase of higher-tech production equipment from the west gave a significant stimulus to ‘department I’ (capital goods) industries, with the usual multiplier effects for the rest of the economy. They also sold raw materials on a large scale to the capitalist economies. So, although the domestic relations of production in the USSR, etc were not straightforwardly those of capitalist production, the productive activity of those countries was in a contradictory sense part of the capitalist world economy.

In that sense, the breakdown of those economies and in particular that of the former USSR was the equivalent of an enormous bankruptcy. A fundamental part of the Marxist theory of cycles and crisis is that at the end of the boom period over-investment of capital occurs, and in order to clear this, particularly in certain sectors, a wave of bankruptcies is necessary. This is the crisis phase of the cycle and opens the way to new growth by devalorising a section of capital. From that point of view, it is correct to say, as Permanent Revolution does, that in this period we saw an enormous devalorisation of fixed capital – factories, etc – in the formerly Stalinist states. This devalorisation and reduction in barriers to trade opened the way for a substantial increase in potential capitalist investment, considerably so in China and Vietnam, but also in eastern Europe.

The fall of the Soviet Union and semi-marketisation of the eastern regimes should, therefore, in theory have paved the way for a prolonged period of capitalist growth. However, as pointed out by other Marxists, including Hillel Ticktin and István Mészáros, there was so much standing overcapacity in the capitalist economy that it is not clear if the collapse of the Stalinist economies provided that much of an opening for new profitable productive investment. Unemployment and underutilisation of capacity still afflicted the western and ‘southern’ economies. Though money profits rose after 1989, this overcapacity and underutilisation persisted through the 1990s. It remained the case that there were factories in the US and Mexico running at 60% of their capacity. So it is not clear that the fall of the Stalinist economies provided a real help in dealing with this overcapacity. In the ‘third world’ countries, production has shifted around more from one location to another: for example, from Latin America to China.

It is not clear that if we crunched the global numbers they would show an actual increase in total productive output, as opposed to goods being cheapened by major reductions in global average wage costs. What is clear is that in many peripheral countries there is endemic mass unemployment. Indeed in the core capitalist countries there is both endemic unemployment and underemployment in productive industry. The real level of unemployment is masked in a variety of ways. In the UK, this has been performed by transferring workers to sickness benefit, by the increase in training schemes and by expansion of higher education. The latter has not been undertaken because of a growing demand for highly skilled labour – overwhelmingly the demands of capital are for part-time, casual labour: flipping burgers, fruit picking, cleaning and so on. It has almost entirely been a device to mask unemployment.

The state also runs what are effectively white-collar job-creation schemes, duplicating work and multiplying bureaucracy. Local councils, for example, employ significant numbers processing claims for housing benefit, mostly from tenants in council housing. They also employ significant numbers to chase those tenants to pay their rent, which is, under legislation introduced by the Conservatives and continued by Labour, theoretically based on ‘market values’. It would actually be cheaper and more efficient for the council to lease the houses rent-free to benefit claimants, or to equalise the values of the rent and housing benefit. Housing benefit is a pure recycling of notional money as a way to keep clerical staff in work.

Projects like this and NHS marketisation create many a form-filling job for white-collar staff and managers. Privatisation has produced a series of regulatory quangos, and also multiple companies with their own bureaucracies and staff duplicating the same functions. In the case of the utility companies we have infrastructure monopolies (Transco and the electricity distribution companies) providing ‘services’ to a series of pure rentier/speculator companies running their multiple billing departments. The value of such companies is not based on any fixed capital or control over infrastructure, but on artificially created markets in gas or electricity futures – another form of fictitious capital.

If there had been a real global rise in the real rate of return of productive industry post-1989, one would have expected to see a substantial expansion of capitalist operations in Russia and eastern Europe, but in reality this has been quite marginal. When the US took power in Iraq, one could have expected huge investments by US capital flowing into Iraq, as when Britain took over parts of India. On the contrary, what we have seen is capitalist firms pretending to invest in Iraq as a way of stealing money from the US government – and the Iraqi government to the extent that it has to pay for reconstruction – for fraudulent construction projects.

If Permanent Revolution’s theory is correct, capitalists should be showing confidence that investment in material productive activities will yield above-average profit. They are not behaving this way; indeed predominantly their attitude is that material production will yield no profit, or not an adequate one for the investment, compared to ripping off the state through PFIs, through financial speculation and so on. Their behaviour would indicate they do not believe the rate of return on material production to be high enough to support a sustained expansion in the material productive economy. This is not the 1930s. But it is also not the 1950s.

Is it the case – as Permanent Revolution, Arthur Bough and Michel Husson, among others, argue – that there was a rise in the underlying global rate of profit in productive activities from the late 1980s? It is at least arguable that the statistics used to judge this are so contaminated by unproductive activities that what they reveal is not movements in the rate of profit in productive activities, but simply the ability of the US and the financial services sector to rip everyone else off to a greater extent. Aggregate GDP and profitability figures include the activities of lawyers, accountants, business consultants and the like; and these do not represent new production of material surplus, only the redistribution of surplus.

The point is that PR’s theory is a tenable one, but whether the available evidence really supports that theory is highly debatable. Some economists like Andrew Kliman have attempted to ‘get behind’ these figures, and drawn the conclusion that profitability was high in the 1950s and 60s, then declined and has remained at a low level since. Part of the problem with this approach is that it relies on statistics on productive output by sector (which can then be used to disaggregate the productive and unproductive sectors) which are only published every six years. So it is possible to explain events half a business cycle ago, but impossible to predict future movements in more than the broadest outline.

The view that we are in a phase of long-wave expansion triggered by 1989-91 is on its face theoretically tenable, but appears empirically problematic unless the ‘world economy’ is treated as merely an aggregate of the national ‘advanced economies’ and marginalist aggregate and average statistics, which fail to differentiate productive from unproductive activity, are taken at face value. Why?

My own take – for what it is worth, which is limited – is that the ‘long wave’ phenomenon reflects at least partly the shift between the positive effects of an ascendant world-dominant capitalist state (as creating fairly stable world money and ‘order’ conditions for global trade and productive expansion) and the negative effects of a declining world-dominant state (as exacting financial and other tribute from rising countries and protecting exhausted sectors of its own industry). On this basis a new phase of long-wave capitalist expansion like the 1950s is possible, but depends on the overthrow of the military power of the USA by capitalist rivals and the creation of a replacement world-dominant power: ie, a new 1914-45, which is not on the immediate agenda.

Hence, though in other respects the conditions exist for a new phase of capitalist dynamism and progress, what we actually get is a succession of bubbles and crises against a backdrop of endemic overcapacity and inability of capitalism to break beyond the auto/aerospace/petrochemicals economy. The other side of this coin is increasing irrationalism in politics and the persistence and deepening of the export of death and destruction in the form of the ‘war on terror’.

Against slumpism

PR may be right or wrong. But why does this matter? Of course, it matters to Marxists whether or not we are entering a big depression, but it is not vital for us to know the exact time or place that crisis will hit first. The fundamental points of Marxism’s critique of capitalism and bourgeois political economy are, firstly, that cycles are unavoidable and there will be booms and busts – no amount of management will do away with the business cycle. Secondly, that free markets spontaneously tend towards radical inequality – the concentration of wealth in the hands of an increasingly small number and the relative impoverishment of an ever larger number of workers and petty proprietors. Whether the current crisis is another great depression or another short-cycle financial crisis like those of 1987, 1998 and 2001 but on a larger scale is completely immaterial to these facts about capitalism.

Permanent Revolution’s argument is a negation of that of the Workers Power group from which PR came. WP argues that capitalism entered its terminal phase in 1914, and that the working class needs to create a state like the early Soviet Union, complete with the dictatorship of the party and the dictatorship of the leadership over the party. In this view, the more there is economic chaos and war-induced recession, the more workers will move into action. The Transitional programme is the other side of this coin: people will move into action based on immediate economic concerns, not a vision of an alternative future, and revolutionaries can lever them, step by step, through wage demands, etc, then soviets, into taking power. Without the masses having the idea in their heads that the parliamentary regime is corrupt and unacceptable or that it is possible to institute an alternative socialist order. Without a prolonged period of building up forces, delegitimising the existing state regime and spreading the idea that an alternative system is not just better than capitalism in the depths of recession, but better than capitalism in its boom phase.

The consequence of this strategy is that it becomes essential to predict, as Workers Power does, an enormous slump, which will bring with it street violence, mass strikes, the formation of councils of action and so on. In this situation the small group (whether it be WP, the Spartacists or indeed the Socialist Workers Party) can manoeuvre the masses into taking power. For these groups crisis is fundamental because it leads to the only conditions – if their theory of capitalism is correct – in which masses of workers might conceivably be desperate enough to think it would be good idea to give all power to the central committee of the SWP (or the equivalent ‘Leninist combat party’ group of your choice).

The method is the same; the small cog driving the bigger wheel; the enlightened vanguard vested with dictatorial powers. It is only when crisis gets so severe as to totally dislocate the capitalist economy that it is plausible that broad masses of the working class would consider this a serious alternative to capitalism. Even under these conditions it seems dubious. In a sense we can see this in the failure of the revolution in Germany, in Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution and the split in Comintern in 1921. The majority of the west European working class did not view the regime in Moscow as representing a superior alternative to capitalism – in spite of World War I, the acute economic contradictions following it and, in the case of Germany, in spite of the brutality with which Noske, Ebert and Scheidemann in alliance with the military right suppressed the radical wing of the workers’ movement.

Because the strategic conceptions of the far left stake everything on slump, there actually develops a desire for it. Crisis is transparently irrational – because of overproduction and overinvestment, people are laid off, reduced to poverty and starved. Too much wealth produces poverty. But actually wanting to experience slump conditions is an irrationality of its own sort, certainly if our aim is the self-emancipation of the working class majority, rather than a coup d’etat by the central committee of your choice.

Uncertain

To return to the present economic situation, the only possible thing to say is that it is uncertain. It may be that the fiscal stimulus from the Bank of England will be enough to re-inflate the financial bubble, at least in the core economies. If that happens there will still be acute crises in the periphery economies, examples of which we have seen already, including the instability in Ireland and eastern Europe.

Each past cyclical bust -1987, 1998, 2001 – has had severe consequences for some periphery countries, like the Argentinian crisis in 2000-01. Millions lost their savings, banks closed, and the country still has many cooperatives formed by factory occupations, such was the acuteness of economic dislocation. Ireland has seen a mass movement spring up. Even if stimulus packages were enough to re-inflate the bubble in the US, western Europe and perhaps China, this would still be at the expense of major recession in several peripheral countries.

It is also possible that a more severe recession will hit the core economies some time this year. If David Cameron were elected and introduced massive cuts in public expenditure, that would probably trigger a severe material recession. Actually doing what has been promised, to sack vast numbers in the public sector, cut local government funding and attack pensions and benefits, would sharply reduce consumer demand, undermining the service sector and triggering serious material recession.

Which way things will go we cannot know, though it seems unlikely that we are in a long boom and this is just another minor recession without consequences. If states have succeeded in re-blowing the bubble, we will see deepened instability in the peripheral countries; the core will be protected, but only for another four to eight years. There will be another upswing, but this will be dependent on liquidity and hence followed by a more severe version of the 2008-09 financial crash (just as 2008-09 was more severe than 2001, which was more severe than 1998, which was more severe than 1987).

Decline

Comrade Bridge is correct to say that capitalism is in decline. Contrary to comrade Bough, this statement has absolutely nothing to do with Lassalle’s “iron law of wages”,[4] with the idea of a secular tendency for the working class to be impoverished, with the Zusammenbruchstheorie (theory of collapse) criticised by Bernstein and wrongly defended by some of his opponents, with Soviet narratives of “the ‘crisis’ and the ‘crash’”, or with Trotsky’s ‘death agony’.[5] Conversely, however, in my opinion when we understand capitalist decline correctly, the fact that capitalism is in decline has only limited implications for the diagnosis of the present economic conjuncture.

Social orders or forms of class rule – the slave-based urbanism of antiquity, feudalism, capitalism – are over historical time replaced by radically different social orders and forms of class rule. That is to say that each individual social order as such rises and declines. We have no reason to suppose that capitalism will be uniquely persistent.

To say that a social order or form of class rule is rising is to say that it plays an increasing role in organising the society’s productive activity and shaping its structure and self-image, replacing any prior social order. To say that it is declining is – obviously – the reverse: that it is decreasingly able to organise the society’s productive activity, that it decreasingly shapes the society’s structure and self-image, that it begins to be displaced by other forms of social order and to lose its legitimacy.

The phase of decline is characterised by statisation. The Roman empire, which artificially created and subsidised cities to keep them alive and attempted to intervene against the potentes, making the free peasants into private clients, represented the decline of the social order of classical antiquity. European monarchical absolutism and the analogous Tokugawa shogunate were forms of the decline of feudalism.

Like certain sorts of coral atolls, social orders may enter into decline at their historical centres even while they are spreading geographically. This is clearest in the case of feudalism. Feudalism was at its apogee in western Europe in the 11th-12th century, but already facing challenges from the rising proto-bourgeoisie and in decline at its core from the 13th century; but it continued to expand geographically both in eastern Europe and in the last phase when as it were ‘neo-feudal’ societies were created by the Spanish state in Latin America in the early modern period.

To say that capitalism is in decline is to say that it is in an analogous phase: declining at the core, while continuing to expand at the periphery at the expense of subsistence and artisan production, forms of feudalism and other pre-capitalist societies. At the core the decline began in the mid-19th century. The rise of the organised workers’ movement, beginning with Chartism and the early trade unions, led to concessions to the working class which had to be organised by the state. The biggest of these concessions was the extension of the suffrage.

This has involved the rise of a different organising principle of society: that of conscious, collective social decision-making: expressed in a distorted form in the form of the growth of state provision and regulation at the expense of market provision.

Meanwhile, the concentration of capital has the result that in several sectors there are firms which are ‘too large’ to be allowed to go bust, and that there are whole sectors which, like transport and agriculture, require permanent subsidies – again resulting in the extension of the capitalist state and of statised capitalism at the expense of the capitalist class in its proper sense.

And the extension of mechanisation has the result that capital needs a more educated proletariat and more extensively educated specific sections of the proletariat. As this extends, the underlying rationality of entrepreneurial ‘one-man management’ – that is, of the social-hierarchical division of labour – declines. This, too, is expressed in distorted forms (the corporate institutional bureaucracies mimic the state bureaucratic hierarchy).

It is also expressed, paradoxically, in the fragmentation of the left: there are too many people who are perfectly capable of serving on central committees, as full-timers and so on for the organisation run by long-serving career ‘professional revolutionaries’ to make sense as an organisational form; the result, given that the leaders cling to their positions and control and mimic the state bureaucratic hierarchy, is the proliferation of ever smaller and smaller splits (far worse than – for example – the divisions of the British far left before World War I).

The feudalism which Spain exported to Latin America was not the classic feudalism of the central middle ages, but the statised feudalism of the absolute monarchies. In the same way, the capitalism which has expanded geographically at the expense of pre-capitalist social orders and of Stalinism is not the ‘classic’ form of capitalism, but ‘mixed economy’ and corporate, statised capitalism.

In a certain sense, the decline of capitalism is most sharply expressed in the difference between the later 19th century decline of Britain as a world-dominant power and the decline of the US. The first involved Britain – and the other European imperialist powers – exporting population on a large scale to their global empires in an endeavour to create a form of order in the colonies which would serve the metropolitan society. (I do not mean by this to prettify the results of the European colonial empires; the observation is simply that the colonialists did seriously attempt to govern their colonies and protectorates.) Conditions for the working class and middle class in Britain were unpleasant enough to support this process, while the empire was, for Britain and other imperialist states, a source of domestic political legitimacy.

The decline of the US is sharply contrasting. The concessions made by US capital to the working class mean that the US continues to be characterised by large-scale net immigration. Its imperial role is a source, not of domestic political legitimacy, but of domestic political illegitimacy. The overseas operations remain acutely sensitive to US casualties – the ‘Vietnam syndrome’. The result is that the dominant form of US overseas intervention is not to impose any sort of order on the target state, but to impose destruction and chaos. In terms purely of weaponry, metropolitan population and domestic production capacity, the US has more war-fighting power than the British empire ever had: but its decline has set in more quickly than British decline and it is, at the end of the day, weaker in decline than the British empire was.

Decline and crisis

The arguments for seeing capitalism as in decline presented here are arguments in the long term. The analogies should make this obvious: the Roman empire was a form of decline, but lasted for another 500 years in the west and more than 1,000 in the east; feudalism was in decline from the 13th century, but the decisive capitalist breakthrough did not happen till the 17th, or, indeed become Europe-wide until the 19th.

Of course, capitalism develops more rapidly than feudalism (which developed more rapidly than the slave-based urbanism of classical antiquity). We may therefore not unreasonably expect it to ‘burn out’ more rapidly too. But it would be most unwise to use this as an argument that capitalism must be in terminal decay now.

The crisis of 2008-09 is in a certain rather limited sense the product of capitalist decline. This sense is that the immediate trigger of the crisis was financial instruments built on subprime mortgages in the US; and subprime mortgages in the US were a part of the system of controlling the US working class through material concessions, the apogee of the policy of ‘property-owning democracy’ and in a sense the moment at which this policy flew too close to the sun and its wings melted.

Indeed, the more general credit bubble was in part the product of the efforts of the US and other core capitalist states to stave off a crisis which should have produced a more or less severe recession in 1998 by pumping liquidity into the system. If we ask why the recession could not simply be allowed to proceed, the answer is that it was politically unacceptable. It was politically unacceptable because credit expansion and the ‘property-owning democracy’ was the primary means of managing working class expectations after the ‘social-democratic consensus’ was abandoned in the 1970s.

More deeply, however, the failure to break through to a new regime of productive investment is the product not of capitalist decline as such, but of the decline of the USA as a world-dominant power and the specific forms that this decline takes. I do not think that the decline of capitalism as such has proceeded so far that it is excluded that the US can be replaced by a new world-dominant capitalist power, allowing a new long wave of productive growth. The problem is rather the costs of replacing it – namely that the military power of the US has to be broken: the world has to go through another experience of global great-power war like 1914-18 and 1939-45 – and hope that this does not end in the US, in its Götterdämmerung phase (twilight of the gods; the Nazis in 1945), unleashing its nuclear arsenal.

We are as yet some way – probably decades – away from this threat, though the immensely destructive character of the US invasion of Iraq and the millenarian fantasies of the US right already tell us that it is a real one. The idea of a peaceful transfer of power from the US to some other capitalist force (or to a reformed United Nations) is utterly illusory. The only real alternative is if, before the point of global war, the working class can begin to act politically and on at least a continental scale to project its own power as an alternative to capitalist class rule.

We are as of now a long way from this possibility. Hopefully, the workers’ movement will manage to catch up before the processes of US decline reach their end-point.

Notes

  1. http://boffyblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/left-risis.html.
  2. ‘The polemical alternative’, December 3 2009.
  3. ‘Whatever happened to the great depression?’, www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/2887.
  4. A Bough, Letters, December 10 2009.
  5. J and H Tudor (eds) Marxism and social democracy Cambridge 1988; R Day The ‘crisis’ and the ‘crash’ London 1981; L Trotsky The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International (www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm).

Report of Hands Off the People of Iran AGM

The following report is by Mark Harrison of The Commune group

Saturday 28th November saw 50-odd people congregate in central London for the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Hands Off The People of Iran campaign. Being a internationalist socialist campaign this gave oneself the chance to mix with some of the more principled elements of the British left, from class struggle anarchists to the LRC.

The day was opened by a report from Hopi secretary Mark Fischer of the CPGB, he explained that the protest movement emerging this summer around the fraudulent elections had vindicated the organisation’s position. He also attacked the leadership of the Stop The War Coalition for continuing to bar Hopi from affiliation due to our “working class common sense” position of opposing both imperialism and the theocratic regime. In June Hopi approached both SPEW and the SWP for a joint solidarity drive but received no response.

Following the June elections the SWP made one of their characteristically cumbersome shifts in position and now seemingly uncritically supports the Green movement (see Socialist Worker Issue 2156, “People power rocks Iran”). However, they tarnish the meaning of socialism less than the Stalinist George Galloway who appeared on Iranian state television shamelessly defending Ahmadinejad’s government and attacking enemies of the ‘Islamic Revolution’.

The second half of comrade Fischer’s presentation included campaigning priorities for the next 12 months: he bemoaned that although we have strengthened links with dissidents within Iran and the Hopi vs LRC cricket match showed the untapped potential for us to explore, our activist base is the same as last year and we have failed to make any significant breakthrough with trade union affiliations. He ended by suggesting that the employment of a part-timer would help fix these problems.

Speaking from the floor, Charlie Pottins (Jewish Socialists Group) and Andrew Coates said they were disappointed that not enough Hopi supporters were attending demonstrations outside the Iranian embassy as this would be an ideal opportunity to spread our message. Tina Becker commented that although she would welcome the suggestion of a part-timer, she doubted that enough money would be available to pay one. Comrade Becker also mentioned the campaign’s attempts to have its voice heard in a wider a wider selection of media: the piece in Red Pepper was the most viewed on their website for a whole month. However attempts to contact The Guardian and The Independent failed to yield any response.

The next session was entitled ‘Imperialism’s need for conflict and the situation in the Middle East’ with Mike Macnair and Moshé Machover. Comrade Macnair (CPGB) demonstrated using historical examples how capitalism required a ‘top dog’ wheather it be The Netherlands, Britain or America due to the needs of credit money and a central bank. He also claimed that American imperialism is in terminal decline and compared the Vietnam war to the Crimea.

Comrade Machover (founder of the Israeli socialist organisation Matzpen) explained that even if Barack Obama wanted to take a more peaceful turn in US foreign policy this would not happen as he is being constantly hounded by the American right and members of this own party. The comrade warned of the growing threat of war. Benny Morris, one of the ‘New Historians’ has been in the media recently justifying an attack on Iran – this could have the gravest of consequences. Moshé Machover brought his speech to a close by moving his motion, ‘For a Middle East Free of Nuclear Weapons and other WMDs’.

An amendment from Tina Becker was passed which deleted the demand for “effective democratic international supervision” for the decommissioning of nuclear weapons as this could be misread to mean the United Nations. Peter Manson of the CPGB proposed an amendment to state that Hopi is against a ‘mullahs’ bomb’. Some criticised this phrasing, and the manner in which it was proposed – as a reaction to criticism by the Trotskyist group AWL – however, an amendment by Ben Lewis (CPGB) and David Broder (The Commune) stating unequivocal opposition to any development of nuclear weapons in Iran was passed by conference.

Gerry Downing (Socialist Fight) opposed the motion on the grounds that an Iranian nuclear weapon could be used to dissuade an American or Israeli attack and this could become a ‘workers’ bomb’ in the future, the comrade continued that the only reason that the Western world did not launch a nuclear attack on the USSR was due to its own nuclear capabilities. Jack Conrad (CPGB) defended the motion by stating there can be no such thing as this ‘workers’ bomb’ if it is intended to destroy other workers. Moreover, the Soviet Union was not able to hit mainland American until the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The motion was overwhelmingly passed.

Next came elections to the new steering committee, it was decided as only 11 candidates were standing they should all be elected unless anyone was opposed or wished to stand themselves. One comrade questioned the re-election of Stuart King as he was not present and the comrade also questioned Permanent Revolution’s commitment to Hopi, however the record of Stuart and of PR was defended by a majority of those present. The CPGB now hold four out of the positions on the steering committee although I would reject the notion of Hopi being a Weekly Worker front.

After lunch Marsha-Jane Thompson of the LRC read out a message of support from John McDonnell MP which received a round of applause. Comrade Thompson chaired the session lead by Cyrus Bina who attacked the idea of Iranian demonstrators mostly coming from the middle classes as 3 million people had been on the streets at one point. He also pointed out that sanctions are often a precursor to war and hit the country’s poorest the hardest, as was seen in Iraq from 1990 to 2003 – Hussein and his gang still lived in comfort whilst an estimated 500,000 lives were needlessly lost due to sanctions. (See Unicef reports)

Heading into the final session Iranian exile and Hopi chair Yassamine Mather spoke on the activity of the Iranian workers’ movement since June and moved a motion opposing sanctions which was passed unanimously. As was a motion from Ben Lewis (CPGB) which called for a day of solidarity with Iranian workers.

The final piece of business of the afternoon was a motion entitled ‘No to state murders’ moved by Charlie Pottins. On the 11th of November, Ehsa Fattahian, a Kurdish socialist was killed by the Islamic Republic. Pottins called for workers to oppose the repressive nature of the Iranian regime and the oppression of national minorities like the Kurds. The motion also attacked the Iranian state for becoming a platform for Holocaust deniers as well as refuting capitalist propaganda which compares the Islamicist regime with Hitler’s fascism. I voted for an amendment moved by Gerry Downing which called for a re-wording of the phrase ‘self-determination for all.’ However this amendment was defeated.

I considered the day a success, however it is worrying that we cannot attract more support for our cause.

Soviet ‘planning’ and bolt-on democracy

The Socialist Party in England and Wales’ Socialism event in London had a session on Stalinism’s collapse. Mark Fischer points out what it represents for Marxists

Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe made a number of rather dubious claims in his competently delivered session entitled ‘Why did Stalinism collapse in the Soviet Union – what have the consequences been?’

Prominent amongst these was the assertion that his was “the only organisation” that recognised that the collapse of the Soviet Union – and in particular, the ignominious manner of its defeat – represented an important “ideological defeat” for the left as a whole that precipitated a rightwing global offensive on working class gains. He used the Labour Party as an especially pertinent example, correctly pinpointing the removal of clause four and growing confidence of the right as a political consequence of the collapse of Stalinism.

He did not even qualify this – manifestly untrue – statement about the ‘unique’ position of his organisation by admitting that the Socialist Party had arrived at it in hindsight. This was, after all, the same Peter Taaffe who told us in 1989 that talk of “capitalist restoration” was a “chimera” (Militant July 21 1989). Indeed, he once thought that “Gorbachev’s coming to power signified the beginning of the political revolution” and would define the coming decade as the “red 90s” (Militant January 19 1990). A tad on the over-optimistic side, I’m sure even comrade Taaffe would now concede.

He was not alone in this confusion, of course. Practically the entire Trotskyist/Trotskyoid left mechanically insisted that there were only two possibilities open to societies such as the USSR. There “will either be totalitarian rule under a one-party state” (i.e. the status quo) “or there will be control of industry and state by the workers” (i.e. a healthy workers’ state – Ted Grant, writing in Militant October 3 1980). Ironically, this was quoted as an example of how “Militant was absolutely correct and born out by events” in the May 1989 introduction to Grant’s selected works, The unbroken thread.

In vivid contrast, our organisation – despite its very different evaluation of the nature of bureaucratic socialism in those days – was able to point to the obvious fact that “in these countries capitalism is being restored with the consent of the broad mass of the population and that for the full-blown reintroduction of capitalism there exists no necessity for violently smashing the existing state” (editorial The Leninist April 1 1990). To halt this process, we called for “a real political revolution” in the USSR, not the counterrevolutionary farce headed by Gorbachev (The Leninist November 21 1987) – a simple fact that belies comrade Taaffe’s assertion in his reply to remarks I made during the discussion that it was our now highly critical attitude to the Stalinist states that was retrospective and that “no wing” of the Communist Party had made these sorts of criticisms at the time.

I decided not to explore these rather involved questions in my five-minute contribution to the discussion. Instead, I took issue with a much more straightforward difference – the notion that collapse of Stalinism equated with the “liquidation of planned economies”, an historical ‘gain’ of the revolution that had been preserved despite the bureaucratic excrescences.

I pointed out that planning for Marxists was not simply target-setting – it must have a genuine social content. Specifically, the democratic formulation of that plan by the direct producers themselves. The farcical nature of bureaucratic ‘planning’ in the USSR was perfectly illustrated in the five-year plans, when Stalin and Molotov arbitrarily leapfrogged one crazily unrealistic set of targets by another, with no concern for equilibrium or balance in the economy, nor indeed for genuine utility of the outputs.

Comrade Taaffe would later reply to discussion and underline that the “vital issues” that were raised as we endeavour to “understand Stalinism” would have a “direct bearing on our coming struggles”. This was not simply relevant to regimes such as Venezuela and its creeping Bonapartist authoritarianism, he suggested, but also because Stalin would be “used as a scarecrow to frighten new generations away from socialism”.

Absolutely. And the fact that SPEW comrades – including Peter Taaffe himself – can still see the unviable monstrosity of the USSR as an “anticipation from an economic point of view” of the society of the future is a pretty frightening prospect in itself. Summing up, the comrade told the meeting that what existed in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was “planning in a rudimentary form” (although quite why and how it “disintegrated” in the 1980s he did not elaborate) and, even in this primitive form, the mass of simple “empirical evidence” countered my claim about the absence of planning. I actually got quite nostalgic when comrade Taaffe cited achievements such as Sputnik and other SPEWers talked of the rights enjoyed by Soviet citizens to “a home, a job, a decent health service” – it was like being in a CPGB meeting from the mid-70s again.

One comrade put it particularly crudely. After listing all the economic advantages conferred on the population by even bureaucratic ‘planning’, he conceded “the bit that was missing was democracy”.

The notion that democracy is a desirable, but non-essential bolt-on in a workers’ state underlines that SPEW – in common with much of the rest of the left – in practice has a top-down, paternalistic view of socialism. Many of the comrades were reduced to citing the catastrophic collapse in living standards that followed the counterrevolutions as circumstantial evidence of the partially progressive nature of these regimes. Living standards are hardly an irrelevance, but the key when we evaluate such societies should be the levels of proletarian consciousness and organisation, its room for independent initiative and the genuine workers’ control that can be observed. It simply is not Marxism to work backwards from the growth in pig iron production or even – an example closer to home – the number of council houses put up in Liverpool and extrapolate from this dull “empirical evidence” that what we have in front of us is a working class entity in any meaningful sense.

Royal Mail’s assault and our political tasks

As expected, attempts to broker a deal between Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union have been unsuccessful. Mike Macnair examines why Royal Mail, encouraged by the government, has been determined to push ahead with confrontation, and looks at the implications of this decision

cwu-demoA Sunday Times front-page headline reads: “Brown faces winter of discontent” (October 25). In other words, this is not the only industrial dispute in the pipeline at the moment. There are a whole range of them expected to come to a head in the next six months.

There is a risk – one that would not be at all surprising, as it is normal to the British political cycle – that the last months of this Labour government will be characterised by large-scale industrial disputes and substantial disruption. This will therefore see an increasing degree of support for the Tories from suburban middle class voters due to the perceived lack of Labour control over the trade unions. Certainly the Tories are already winning a substantial number of votes. Nonetheless, the fear of a “winter of discontent” is plainly an element in the calculations of the government in relation to its attitude toward the current postal dispute.

The media are producing their usual outpouring of anti-strike propaganda. In particular it is said that Royal Mail is habitually losing money – surprise, surprise! Most postal services across Europe are subsidised. Even the early privately owned Thurn und Taxis postal service back in 17th century Germany had to have state-backed monopoly rights, for the very simple reason that a profit could not – and still cannot – be made without them. A universal postal service is, precisely, public infrastructure. Privatising the postal service or requiring it to make profits is like selling off the public highways in pieces or prohibiting public expenditure on ‘unprofitable’ repairs to roads and bridges.

It is true that the universal postal service is, in some senses, of decreasing use because people have turned to email and other forms of electronic communication. The same has been the case in relation to businesses for quite some time: private couriers offering same-day delivery were used for some time before fax and email became routine.

So there is lower demand for postal services than there has been in the past. The government has been looking for ways to undermine wages and conditions, drastically reduce its pensions commitment, casualise the workforce and hopefully even get rid of the universal service obligation. This assault is aimed at creating conditions for privatising the postal service – government subsidies would be withdrawn without too much worry about the major losers: people living in the countryside.

There would actually be some losses for business out of this policy. Who will deliver all the junk mail – probably the bulk of most post bags these days? Equally, online mail order operations like Amazon could suffer, as it is unlikely that private couriers could actually deliver with the same coverage and at the same price.

The government and its servants in Royal Mail management demand ‘modernisation’. What this actually means is not primarily automation. That claim is bullshit. What it means is a major speed-up, attacks on working conditions and a move to, in effect, piece work, resulting in people not getting paid for a full shift. The language of ‘modernisation’ is merely code for a huge attack on the workforce.

Provocations

In reality there has been industrial guerrilla warfare in Royal Mail locally for at least four or five years. Certainly there were major disputes going on in the more militant sorting offices as far back as the last general election. It was clearly decided in the spring/summer of this year to bring this simmering guerrilla warfare to a head, and have a massive, national confrontation with the CWU.

I say ‘clearly decided’ because it is obvious that in the last six to nine months there has been an escalation of unilateral action by management in the form of provocations, victimisations, etc. Actions that can only be intended to trigger local action and a climate of militancy, leading to a massive vote in support of industrial action. It is equally clear that management (and behind them business secretary Peter Mandelson) intended, as Thatcher and co intended in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, to control the timing of the national dispute. Here the point is if possible to break the union before we get into the Christmas run-up, which is the peak of the mail service business.

Similarly Thatcher aimed to bring out the miners before the overtime ban had reduced the coal stocks to the point where there would be forced power cuts. These tactics have been reflected in the political sphere, with absolute and complete intransigence on the part of Mandelson. And with Mandelson’s unequivocal backing, the Royal Mail management has stood firm to its assertion that it will not go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service without a pure and unambiguous guarantee from the CWU that there will be no strikes. But  the CWU could not deliver this even if it wanted to, because most of the industrial action has been local, over which the national union has less direct control.

Of course, this is not all one-sided. The CWU executive is generally seen among the membership as a militant leadership, and it, too, has been using the period of local and guerrilla struggles to prepare for the larger struggle which has now arrived.

What we have seen in the last months in relation to this dispute is therefore the run-up to a major class confrontation just like in 1984-85. There is an intention in government – at least among Peter Mandelson and his co-thinkers – and among Royal Mail management, to have a big confrontation and inflict a massive defeat on the CWU workers similar to that of the miners’ strike. This is expected to knock on the head any serious industrial militancy in the next six to nine months, as it will be an object lesson to other unions and other workers.

It will also be an object lesson in a second sense. The Labour government will demonstrate to capital, and to the capitalist media, that they are a safe hand on the tiller, that it is possible for a Labour government to smash an industrial offensive of the working class before it gets off the ground, and therefore capital should leave Labour in place rather than back Tory leader David Cameron.

The bourgeoisie has its concerns over Cameron. Yes, there is at the moment massive support for the Tories. Yes, the media have been backing him. But there are worries about how safe Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne will be as managers of the economy, at a time when quite a lot of media commentators are worrying about when the second shoe is going to drop in relation to the economic crisis.

There are also worries that a Cameron government might tip relations with Europe so far into Eurosceptic territory that Britain can no longer build alliances to block further EU integration. This is a central part of the role Britain plays for the United States in Europe: controlling a possible global rival by building alliances against Franco-German integration proposals.

So there are reasons for the capitalist class to have concerns about a Cameron administration. And if the Labour government can show, in these circumstances, that it can break a substantial public sector trade union, derecognise it and casualise its workforce, then Labour might, from that point of view, be in with a chance of regaining some of its lost bourgeois and middle class support prior to the next general election. There are, then, clear political calculations why this government might be thinking about doing a ‘Thatcher on the miners’ job in relation to the CWU.

Labour Party

In discussing the government’s policy I have referred particularly to Peter Mandelson. The reason is not merely that he is the relevant minister, but that there are indications that Gordon Brown is rather less up for a full-on confrontation (see Financial Times October 24); the failed TUC-sponsored talks (without the precondition demanded by Mandelson and management that the strikes be called off) represented a slight retreat by the government.

Behind this is a fundamental political fact. For Thatcher to set up a major class confrontation with the aim of breaking the National Union of Mineworkers was ‘extreme’ from the point of view of the 1940s-70s, but perfectly consistent with the longer historical role of the Tory Party. For a Labour government to actually smash one of its own major affiliated unions in a major national class confrontation would be something different altogether. Rather than allowing Labour to retain power, it would be more likely to break up the Labour Party. The result could be a split by the unions and the left, or – as in the 1931 fall of the Labour administration and the formation of the National government – a party revolt, leading to a split of the right to join up with the Tories to force the confrontation through.

True, the current Labour government since 1997 has faced down trade union action more than once (for example in the case of the firefighters). But in general the workers’ movement had not responded in a militant way. What appears to be different this time is the willingness of the movement to fight. A major conflict between the government and the CWU would pose severe problems for the Labour Party, that is for sure.

If Brown does back down from an all-out confrontation, it will be presented by the media as yet another Brown U-turn. Brown’s reputation for dithering not only reflects a hostile media, but is a real phenomenon. Unlike cynical careerists such as Blair, Mandelson and co, Brown was a genuine convert to neoliberalism from the left; hence, the 2007-08 crash shook his convictions and left him rudderless in policy terms. If Labour does go ahead with a major attack on the CWU, and the result is not a major split in the party, we in the CPGB will certainly need to reassess our current judgment that Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party: the event would look like the party finally ditching the ‘workers’ side of the contradiction.

But, whatever exact diagnosis we make, if the government goes ahead with plans to break and derecognise one of the Labour Party’s major affiliated trade unions, this will be a fundamental shift in politics and in particular of Labour Party politics.

Our tasks

post workers picketI have no idea why CWU general secretary Billy Hayes let himself be reported as saying he is in a stronger position than Arthur Scargill was (The Times October 17).

True, strike action has received very clear majority support in a ballot. But the actual underlying sectional economic positions are if anything weaker than those of the NUM in the 1980s, and the ability of the postal workers to sustain their internal solidarity in relation to a furious media offensive is likely to be less than the miners. The miners lived in concentrated communities, had networks of solidarity outside the pits in place, and indeed, as a workforce, were highly concentrated. Postal workers are concentrated only in sorting offices, but atomised when out on the streets. So the actual position of the CWU is relatively weak in the purely trade unionist, sectionalist-syndicalist sense of its ability to disrupt the economy.

However, this situation is to a considerable extent general in the service sector (and, indeed in some industrial sectors dominated by highly automated plant with small workforces). In this sense in future disputes the CWU will indeed look like a union with strong sectional power. But this is entirely consistent with my fundamental point: namely simple reliance on ‘industrial muscle’ – ie, sectional ability to disrupt production – is decreasingly adequate as a strategy to defend working people’s immediate interests.

Even if the sectional strength is less than Billy Hayes’ Times interview suggested, the possibilities of the strike winning broad public support are real. Precisely because of the increasing atmosphere of class confrontation in the dispute, because of the intransigent alignment of the government behind Royal Mail management and because we see the unanimity of the bourgeois media behind ideas most clearly expressed in the Daily Mail headline, “The lemming strike is on” (October 22), there has been some public reaction against the capitalist united front. We are beginning to see some, inchoate, inadequately politically represented, support for the postal workers. A poll reported in The Independent on October 24 showed 50% supporting the postal workers and only 25% supporting management and Mandelson.

So where does that leave us? It looks like we are headed for a major class confrontation with a serious and unambiguous effort to break the CWU, and thereby give an object lesson to the rest of the trade union movement, in the hope of preventing a “winter of discontent”.

What should the political left be doing? There are two sorts of task: simple solidarity ones, and those that are specifically political. The first of these are tasks that the labour movement and left will probably do well in spite of divisions and disorganisation. Raising the issue in other trade unions, getting CWU speakers to meetings, organising solidarity campaigns and support groups, collecting for strikers in hardship and so on. Promoting the idea of solidarity action: thus, for example, in Unite the question of instructing the managers not to scab has been posed.

The Socialist Workers Party is therefore entirely correct to advocate the rapid formation of strike support groups, which can play a critical role in mobilising public support and solidarity. There is also the question of international solidarity. Even if this is only symbolic in character – as, in this dispute, it inevitably is – such international solidarity would strengthen the morale of strikers and assist the struggle for broader solidarity within Britain.

A specific task lies in the student movement, because traditionally students have been recruited as casuals by the Royal Mail. We must agitate against students acting as scabs – this is an issue to be raised, addressed and spread. Indeed the general attitude towards scabs is critical. Casualisation is already extensive in the Royal Mail, partly inevitably because of the seasonal nature of the business. Nevertheless it is vital to get across the message that during this dispute taking casual jobs is scabbing. This is partly a job for the student movement; but it is also a job for strikers themselves: the movement needs to revive the basic ideas of non-cooperation with scabs, and that picket lines mean don’t cross. And it is also a job for PCS members working in job centres and so on: scab ‘casual’ jobs in Royal Mail are not ‘normal’ jobs to which the unemployed should be sent and PCS members should refuse to fill them.

Political tasks

The other aspect, where the far left is traditionally much weaker, concerns specifically political tasks. The far left is bad at these because they are the tasks of a party. Solidarity campaigns are necessarily broad movements of all those of whatever political complexion who wish to support the strikers. Hence they necessarily find it hard to address the politics of the strike.

For example, there is an early day motion opposing Royal Mail management’s intransigence, etc. Has your local Labour MP signed it? If not, why not? If your local Labour MP is supporting ‘modernisation’ and all that crap, perhaps it is time that his/her constituency office or surgery should be besieged by strikers and their supporters.

This sounds like a solidarity campaign-type action. But actually it turns out that broad solidarity organisations find it extraordinarily hard to undertake campaigns to besiege scab Labour MPs or whatever, because the Labour lefts and the trade union officials would be unwilling to pursue them. Stop the War Coalition in the 2005 election is an excellent example of the problem – it was unable to make any recommendation on who to vote for. Even in the 1984-85 miners’ strike this issue was posed, as the union leadership was very reluctant either to enter on the terrain of politics itself or for the support groups to do so.

What was said above about the Labour Party means that an absolutely central issue is the question of sharpening the divisions between left and right which a major confrontation with the CWU will inevitably produce. Parts of the left will undoubtedly call for the CWU to disaffiliate from Labour. But at the moment that would be a counsel of retreat and a road to depoliticising the union: neither ‘son of No2EU’ nor any of the other left groups and ‘unity projects’ presently represents a realistic alternative electoral project. What is immediately needed is for the CWU to adopt a tactic of reducing general financial contributions to Labour, targeting any support on Labour MPs and candidates who have backed the strike, and also being willing to back selected workers’ movement candidates outside Labour; if this leads to the party leadership seeking to remove affiliation, the union should fight back.

In other words, the requirement is not (yet) to run away from the Labour Party, but to promote and sharpen a fight both within and outside it against the most pro-capitalist wing of the party.

Equally important is explaining both the character of what is going on, that it is a class confrontation motivated and driven by politics. That is a task for a Communist Party, for communist papers, and for leaflets addressing the broad masses in the districts where they live. The far-left press and the splintered groups do part of these jobs, but we are too limited by our divisions and the left press and leaflets often restrict themselves to basic trade union solidarity – the Morning Star as a daily is closer to having the resources, but prints only what suits leading union officials.

Strike support groups cannot substitute for these tasks, for the reasons already given. Neither can the splintered organised left and the even more splintered ‘independents’. A coalition of the far left could begin to do some of them. In doing so such a coalition would be beginning to act as a party. But for the moment most of the far-left groups fetishise either their own independence as ‘the revolutionary party’ (all 57-plus of them); or ‘broad unity’, which leads to an inability to take political action because it has to include some element of the ‘official lefts’; or both at the same time. So, as valuable as a far-left coalition for the purposes of political solidarity with the postal workers would be, it probably will not happen.

CPGB

Realistically, the CPGB cannot play this role either, because of our very limited resources. We can and should argue for Communist Students to campaign for students not to scab on the postal workers: a campaign which could be conducted in unity with other left student groups and could be very successful. Our contacts, through Hands Off the People of Iran, with the Iranian workers’ movement, can and should be used to promote symbolic international solidarity with the strike.

More generally, what we can do is largely limited to the use of the Weekly Worker, with which we can propagandise around the idea that solidarity has to be more than just hardship support and agitation in the trade union movement; that solidarity has to address the politics, the MPs and the political context of the strike.

The paper also needs to make an effort to contact CWU militants in the localities and get their stories. In spite of the fact that this is something the whole of the left is doing, in the context of the bourgeois media overwhelmingly giving the management and government version of the story, low-level exposures of the provocations management has been engaged in is a useful activity. We need to develop more and broader contacts across different localities, and get the information into the paper.

Equally militants and the left need information about the political alignments within the CWU and about what is going on in the dispute at national level. Are the far-lefts, some of whom sit on the CWU national executive, acting as communists or merely as trade union officials? We need to try to get the information and publicise it.

Across all this, the fundamental point is to use all the resources we have to try and develop the sense of the political context of the dispute, its significance and the question of solidarity of the working class as a whole with the strikers.

Oxford public meeting, October 27 – capitalism’s crisis and the communist alternative

going-out-of-businessOxford Communists are hosting our first public meeting on Tuesday October 27, in the Judges room at Oxford Town Hall. The meeting will start at 7.30pm and will be addressed by Mike Macnair – a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and author of the recent book Revolutionary strategy: Marxism and the challenge of left unity. Mike will be speaking on the important topic of the capitalist crisis – how it happened, why, what it means for the world – and the communist alternative to this system.

Come and join the discussion. There will be time for contributions, questions and debate from the floor. All welcome.

Topic: Capitalism’s crisis and the communist alternative

Speaker: Mike Macnair

Time: 7.30pm – 9.30pm

Date: Tuesday October 27th

Venue: Judges room, Oxford Town Hall, Aldate Street, Oxford.

There is a Facebook event page for this meeting which you can join here: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?ref=home#/event.php?eid=317894845159&index=1