THE DEATH OF Joan Maynard on the 27 March 1998 should give every socialist and principled trade unionist pause for thought. Especially so, after a year of Labour government, which has seen wealthy farmers and a newly-enriched rural landholding aristocracy demonstrating successfully in London for a change in Labour’s policy, while several million vulnerable elderly, disabled and poor people have good reason to fear a Labour government.
Many of the articles and letters in What Next? and other journals demonstrate that those who are, and have been, opposed to patient work shoulder to shoulder with the mass of workers, Labour and trade union activists, are reinforcing their own sectarian positions on the basis of Blair’s governmental record and the deepening retreats of trade union leaders. Their cries for a boycott of activity within the mainstream of the Labour and trade union movement, their insistence on sectarian programmes, are reaching a new pitch of hysterical intensity.
What such sectarians all have in common is a real failure to grasp the significance of the forms taken by the centuries old struggle of workers and their families to organise themselves through the building of trade unions and the creation of a party of labour.
That struggle, the sacrifices, suffering and untold misery of which it was born, left deep scars on the memory of the class and created bonds, too, which continue to have many consequences for the movement. However much we might wish it, these bonds cannot be changed as easily as sectarians change their programmes, at will or overnight. So while considering the warning Karl Marx issued in the Communist Manifesto, not to impose sectarian models on the movement of the working class, every socialist should reflect on the significance of Joan Maynard’s contribution to the struggle.
If for nothing else, Joan Maynard should be remembered for her championing of one of the most oppressed layers of the working class, farm workers and the rural poor.
Joan Maynard was born on 5 July 1921, the daughter of a small farmer, at Easingwold, North Yorkshire. She became a lay official of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers. From 1966 until 1972 she served as National Vice-President of the union. Joining the Labour Party in 1946 she served as a district councillor in North Riding and as Labour Party agent in North Riding and as Labour Party agent in Thirsk from 1953 to 1974. In 1972 she moved a motion at Labour Party conference calling for the nationalisation of all land as a step towards socialism and the alleviation of the burdens of the rural poor.
In 1974 she became MP for Sheffield Brightside, removing the right-winger Eddie Griffiths. Once elected she pursued the interests of rural workers with renewed vigour, using her position in parliament to fight for an end to the power of farmers and rural landholders to evict farm labourers under tied cottage legislation.
For the benefit of those who have grown up without knowing what powers the farmers and rural aristocracy had over their labourers, I will quote from page 125 of Reg Groves’ history of the farm workers’ union, Sharpen the Sickle!:
"I, the undersigned, agree to give the cottage up held by me, with all its apartments, to the landlord or his agent, at a week’s notice. I also agree, on quitting my cottage, not to damage the property in any way. If the copper, oven, stoves, etc are my property, I undertake not to remove them without first offering them for sale to the landlord or his agent. I undertake not to take in any lodger without first obtaining the consent of the landlord or his agent. I promise not to harbour any of my daughters who may have committed a breach of morality, nor yet any of my sons who may have broken any of the game laws. I promise not to receive into my home any members of my family, with their wives and their families, without first obtaining the consent of the landlord or his agent."
The tied cottage system was only one of a number of horrors which were clamped on the back of the rural proletariat in England by their "superiors". We should never forget the workhouse, and measures for controlling those deemed to be insane, in the asylum. Without studying this system of social control we cannot fully grasp why and how workers and their families develop generational ties to their unions and the party they created.
When Joan Maynard raised the struggle against the tied cottage system to the level of parliament in the 1970s, we should not forget that previous Labour governments had systematically betrayed policy commitments in this respect in the interests of the rural bourgeoisie and remnant aristocracy. From personal experience I recall seeing rural workers and retired people still living in accommodation with rammed-earth floors and without running hot water or electricity in the 1970s. It should not be lost sight of either that the hated workhouse system and the asylums were functioning up until World War Two. The fact that these things are forgotten, though, goes some way to explain why many sectarians, in spite of their own best intentions, fail to grasp the history and significance of the trade unions and Labour Party for the proletariat in England.
If the living conditions of rural workers remained horrendous during years of boom which saw improvements for workers in the cities, their wages also fell far behind the average for working people. Maynard had the courage to defy the Labour government of the day in 1977, calling on rural workers to take action and break the government’s pay limits. She continued to fight for agricultural workers and the rural poor up until her retirement in 1987.
But this is not the only reason to remember her. Almost alone among MPs, Maynard had the courage to call the members of the IRA and their supporters "national liberation fighters". She refused to slander them, as the majority of Labour MPs have done, as "terrorists". She gave her support to the Troops Out Movement and other sections of the left campaigning for an end to the British occupation of Northern Ireland. She became national president of the Labour Committee on Ireland and Vice Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s Northern Ireland Group of MPs.
She vigorously opposed the Common Market and campaigned against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. At one time she served as chair of the Campaign Group of MPs. Throughout her career she never forgot her constituency and her accountability to that wider constituency, the working class.
Early in the 1970s, sensing that a moment of reckoning was on the cards in the class struggle, she issued a call to all left groups to join the Labour Party and fight the right wing, but all too few listened or responded. It is not a futile exercise to consider how things might have turned out today if other groups had heeded her call. The right-wing backlash and witch-hunt against Militant supporters and left MPs could have had a wholly different outcome if thousands of left activists had not remained pure in their sectarian abstention from work in the Labour Party.
Today in Britain the rural proletariat has been almost eliminated. There are fewer farmers in Britain by the year and they grow richer as their farms swallow up smaller farms by the dozen. The rural aristocracy has actually managed to increase its wealth by driving out small tenant farmers and running the estates as a part of agro-industrial commerce. While they take to the streets of London claiming to defend England’s "green and pleasant land", "England’s heritage", they get fat on the Common Agricultural Policy’s subsidy schemes.
They should be dealt with as harshly as they dealt with the generations of farm workers who they ground into the soil. They have poisoned the land, the food and the water supply in pursuit of profit. They drove workers off the land and reaped huge profits with mechanisation. They have nothing but contempt for the mass of city dwellers isolated from the countryside. Joan Maynard knew these types very well when she said: "The courts, the law, are made by the ruling class for their class, not for my class, the working class."
Let every socialist be as serious in their reflections on her passing as she was in her struggle for the interests of the working class. How else can we understand "what next"?
REPLYING TO Al Richardson and myself in What Next? No.7, Dave Hollis ("Marxism and the National Question") describes us as "descend[ing] to disgusting methods to put [our] views across", referring to our responses ("The Class Basis of Marxism" and "Bosnia, World War I ...") to the article by Joe Rassool ("Against Neutralism") in issue No.5, which Hollis and Paul Trewhela, among others, helped author.
The self-righteousness here is astounding, coming from people who cast around charges that we favour rape and genocide, are racists and apologists for Stalinism, endorse the Holocaust, etc, as well as accusing Engels of responsibility for the SPD’s failure to oppose World War I, and, in part, for the Holocaust, too. The point is that these people make these charges without any evidence and relying on their own twisted logic and confusion, along with badly digested historical knowledge. By looking at Engels’ view on the so-called "history-less" peoples, detached from what Marx and Engels were trying to do as communists at a time when the democratic revolution was on the agenda, and using the assorted insults for peoples who had up to then not played a progressive role on the world stage, one does utilise exactly the same method as the anti-communist journals (Encounter, Readers Digest, etc) that I referred to, which sought to portray Marx as a racist, an anti-semite, etc.
And, in fact, it was Rassool who mentioned his university education and claimed that he was able to "deconstruct" my phrases and tone and thereby determine – without quoting me at all – that I was "pro-Serb, therefore pro-massacre". I was supposedly "quasi-magisterial". Well, only having had the benefit of a secondary modern education, I had to use the dictionary to find out the meaning of a number of words used by Rassool, including quasi-magisterial. What readers should note is, that Rassool the humanist looked on the Croatian attack on the Krajina Serbs during the summer of 1995, and the driving out of 250,000 people from their homes, presumably including the murders of pensioners and mental patients who stayed put, with "glee".
The replies by Al and myself in What Next? No.6 state our views in outline and readers should accept them, not the hysterical charges of people who seem to have collapsed into liberalism and are possibly in need of counselling. Inasmuch as I can speak for Al, I know that we have always insisted on taking up a class approach to the conflict in Bosnia and not rallying behind any of the three entities at war. From Rassool’s texts and what I have seen of the Bosnian Muslim lobby, one only reads of Serb crimes, never of Croatian or Muslim ones. What seems to have happened here is that, when the conflict started, the elements that made up the lobby were ignorant of the history behind it, confused, and hence silent for a time. Incapable of developing a class approach, they constructed a fictional edifice in their heads – just as in their time these nut groups had supported Saddam Hussein’s "socialist Iraq" (the Healyites) or the Islamic reactionaries in Afghanistan "fighting the Holy Alliance of US imperialism and Stalinism" (Lambertists) – namely, a Bosnian nationality, headed by a multi-ethnic government, undertaking a war of democracy against fascism. In this scenario the Serbs took on the role of fascists. An old-fashioned "goodies" versus "baddies" story. Having sorted that out, the assorted bankrupts heading the groups could keep their followers busy. Of course, there were also those, usually of a Stalinist hue, who got behind the Serbs out of some faith in Milosevic and his rump Yugoslav regime.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-’70s, I spent many weeks or even months in Yugoslavia. I made an effort to learn some Slovene and enough Serbo-Croatian to get by, made many friends among the different national groups, discussed the politics and studied the history. So when the country began to break up I was not totally ignorant, but I was very upset at the thought of my old friends in that gathering mayhem. Hence I’m offended, to say the least, by the wild charges of Rassool and the rantings of Trewhela.
[This is extracted from a much longer letter by Mike. We will publish the main part of it in the next issue.]
MY SHORT Comment piece on the Morning Star strike in What Next? No.7 ("The Crisis at the Morning Star"), which tried to address the politics behind the conflict rather than uncritically accepting the strikers’ claim that it was an elementary trade union dispute, proved contentious to put it mildly. The article even provoked a denunciation in the Workers’ Morning Star, the weekly paper produced by the journalists during the strike.
In retrospect, I would concede that my analysis was over-simplified, partly because the piece had to be cut due to lack of space. It must be said that the disciplinary charges against Star editor John Haylett were trivial and provided no justification for the management committee of the Peoples Press Printing Society (PPPS) to suspend and then sack him. It was a classic case of trying to resolve political differences by organisational means, and it backfired badly.
Many in the labour movement understandably supported the strikers on basic democratic grounds. Consequently, there was not, as my article implied, a straightforward division between, on the one hand, the sectarians (the strikers and their supporters) and, on the other hand, the advocates of a broad labour movement orientation (the majority of the PPPS management committee).
However, I think that the main thrust of my article was correct. The fact is that the strikers and their supporters did include a strong element of died-in-the-wool sectarians. This has become even clearer since the end of the strike.
For example, a leaflet has been circulated by a Haylett supporter slanderously attacking PPPS chief executive Mary Rosser, who was the main instigator of Haylett’s sacking. Among other crimes, it indignantly accuses her of wanting to build a mass circulation paper oriented towards the Labour Party! "Only the left-wing editor, journalists and shareholders stand in the way", the anonymous author writes, with evident approval.
Another notable aspect of the Haylettites’ politics has been their attitude to Ken Livingstone, who sided with the PPPS management committee over the dispute. At the Reclaim Our Rights conference in March, Morning Star journalist Mike Ambrose urged those present not to back Livingstone in his bid for election as London mayor. Since the return to work, the Star has given Livingstone no support at all in the fight for his right to stand for selection as Labour’s candidate in a ballot of London Labour Party members.
Now, you might argue that Livingstone was wrong about the strike, but this scarcely justifies forming a bloc with the Blairite right of the Labour Party in an attempt to nobble his candidacy. No paper with a serious orientation to the Labour left, or any concern for the broad labour movement, would take such a stand.
A further example of sectarian behaviour was seen at the AGM of the Marx Memorial Library in April. The anti-Rosser faction turned up en masse in order to vote her off the management committee, of which she was chair. This was not because anyone questioned Rosser’s commitment to the MML, but was primarily concerned with settling political scores arising out of the Morning Star dispute. In the event, Rosser failed by one vote to get re-elected. However, Communist Party of Britain general secretary Rob Griffiths did stand successfully for re-election, even though his contribution to the library amounted to attending a mere two committee meetings over the previous year.
There is a common thread to all this. In each case, the narrow concerns of a small faction are placed above the interests of the movement as a whole – which is, of course, one of the defining features of sectarianism. The lesson of the Morning Star strike, however, is that sectarianism has to be fought politically, not by bureaucratic manoeuvres.