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The ABC of Syndicalism?

John Rees, The ABC of Socialism (with cartoons by Tim Sanders), Bookmarks 1994. 79pp, £2.25

Reviewed by Chris Gray

From New Interventions, Vol.6 No.2, 1995

THERE IS a great need for this sort of book, especially in Britain. John Rees, editor of the SWP’s quarterly journal International Socialism, describes in the first chapter how he read an economics textbook at school – it was by Jan Pen – which highlighted the gross inequalities in income among people in our society – the obscene disparity between the income, for instance, of part-time workers in comparison with top-flight professionals, not to mention businessmen holding multiple directorships, the royal family, and so on. The textbook presented this in graphic form by inviting the reader to imagine people on various incomes passing by in a procession of figures whose height was in proportion to their income – with sensational results.

"Thinking about what caused such inequality, and knowing that my parents would be near the start of the parade [in the low income ranks – CG] was one thing that first set me wondering about socialism", says Rees (p.6). He goes on to describe other personal experiences – arguing at school for a school council which would register the collective views of the pupils, and being rebuffed, walking to a youth club in the pitch dark in 1974 when the miners’ strike was taking place against the Heath government. Rees was already interested in the idea of workers themselves running industry: "I can still remember", he says, "the disappointment of reading, not long after, that Tony Benn had been replaced as industry minister by right-winger Eric Varley, ending what I saw as experiments in workers’ control" (p.7). He tried the Communist Manifesto, but did not get much enlightenment from it at that stage. Instead Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia showed him how for a time in the city of Barcelona the working class was effectively in control: this convinced him "that the workers could make a revolution".

"So now I knew what I was for and what I was against. But there was so much more I still didn’t know. Was the Labour Party socialist? If it wasn’t, what kind of organisation should socialists join? What about the unions, or women’s liberation? What kind of arguments could you use against racism.

"Most working class people become socialists in this way. A bit of direct experience, a bit of general experience added to a bit of reading about politics, class and socialist history. I wish that at some point during those years someone had pushed a little book into my hand to speed up the whole process, make things clearer and suggest a course of action. This book is designed to do that for a new generation of socialists" (pp.7-8).

There is indeed a crying need for such reading matter. Other readers of this journal may know of comparable efforts (in which case please write in) but as far as I know the only comparison in these islands is with James Connolly’s Socialism Made Easy, first published as long ago as 1908. Before that, I suspect, one would have to go back to Friedrich Engels’ "Principles of Communism" (1847) and the Manifesto itself. Oh yes, I almost forgot, there is the Transitional Programme (1938), but then the objection that could be lodged against all these previous works is that much in them is quite simply out of date. Times change, and we change with them, and the world of the mid-1990s is a place very different from what it was even in the ’70s and ’80s, and the future, too, will be different.

So what does Rees do with his opportunity? He looks, as he must, at the condition of the working class, defined as "the vast majority of people who cannot survive unless they sell their labour in return for a wage", at its role in 20th Century history, at how ideas change, at the trade unions and the role of their leaders, at rank and file organisation, the Labour Party and its inadequacies, at the capitalist state, fascism, "sexual liberation", racism, internationalism, workers’ power properly so called, the Russian Revolution, the question of a revolutionary party and its organisation, and more. The final chapter is entitled "What should a revolutionary do?"

He makes some useful points. For example, against those who claim that the working class is shrinking, John Rees asserts that: "They forget that manual workers are still close to 50 per cent of the British workforce, and they never see that great swaths of the working class in offices and huge factory-like stores now suffer the same hours, boredom and pay as production line workers" (p.10). You can say that again. Yet an undoubted political fragmentation has occurred, despite continued evidence of militancy in some quarters. (I write this at the end of a week in which there took place an unofficial and quite possibly illegal strike of postal workers in London, and in anticipation of the outcome of the special conference called to discuss Clause 4 of the Labour Party Constitution.) Even so, Rees is surely right to repeat how centrally important the working class still is to the achievement of any socialism worthy of the name. The narrow equation of socialism with state ownership makes no sense and never did make any, and Rees quotes Engels’ arguments on this to the effect that, if it did, then: "the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal Porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailors in the army would be socialist institutions" (p.58).

So if socialism isn’t necessarily state ownership, and if it surely isn’t control of enterprises by the directors and shareholders, then what is it? The answer can only be "working people controlling their own lives collectively and democratically". (This is my definition, not John Rees’s, but see p.59 where Rees writes: "Only when workers democratically control society will we have socialism. Socialism cannot be built unless workers control the factories and the political institutions.") If that is the case, then the organisations which working people have created – the trade unions, the Labour Party – retain their central importance.

This is not to say, of course, that socialism can be equated with whatever a Labour government does in office. Rees is right to point to the activities of Wilson and Callaghan in the late ’70s following the intervention of the notorious IMF in British economic affairs. As he says:

"Labour made the first cuts in education, the first cuts in NHS spending, increased prescription charges and stood by as unemployment soared to over one million. The cuts and a pay freeze eventually produced a fight with public sector unions. The government ... fell as a consequence of the 1979 Winter of Discontent. Labour had so disgusted its natural supporters, so abused the idea of socialism, that Margaret Thatcher’s Tories seemed like an alternative to a minority of workers. That minority ... along with the Tories’ natural supporters, tipped the balance and were enough to get her into office" (p.28).

The chapter on the state is excellent and presents a classic case well. Similarly versus fascism, where Rees points out that only 15000 people were added to the UK population in 1993. Yet unemployment stood at 4 million, so a ban on immigration won’t be itself solve the jobs crisis. (Unfortunately he does not give statistical sources here.) Similarly he is right to say that "for liberation to mean anything to the vast majority of working class women, and for it to be successful, it must be part of a wider class struggle" (p.47). Likewise it is true that "the working class is an international class, found everywhere from Maryland to Moscow" (p.53), and implicitly opposed to ongoing imperialism (p.54). Imperialist chaos needs replacing with a system of socialist planning (p.63). Rees draws one lesson at least from the failures of the Russian revolution. The revolution "can’t be completed in a poor country. For it to survive it must spread to richer countries with bigger working classes and stronger economies" (p.68). The Russian Revolution, indeed, only made sense, if it did so at all, as the first stage of a pan-European revolution: the defeat of the left in Germany in the early 1920s sealed the fate of the Soviet Union in equal measure with Stalin’s dictatorial rule.

However, a series of insights does not necessarily make a coherent case. Rees rightly points to rank and file organisation as a necessary counterweight to the tendency of union leaders to play the part of "labour lieutenants of capitalism". He mentions the Shop Stewards’ movement and the Workers’ Committees of the First World War, the CP-led Minority Movement of the early 1920s and the rank and file groups set up by his own organisation in the 1970s, tracing a decline in influence, but without suggesting there was anything wrong with the tactics employed by the left leaderships of these movements and the political currents in control of them. For him "a relatively high level of struggle was necessary for these organisations to flourish" (p.21). This looks suspiciously like an excuse for political mistakes, whatever truth it may contain.

There is a noticeable gap in the discussion on trade unions, viz. any mention of anti-trade union legislation and what Labour should propose as a replacement for it. (Significantly the initials ILO – International Labour Organisation – occur nowhere in the book.)

Then we come to the issue of the Labour Party. Rees argues that all attempts to transform the Labour Party into a party really bent on wresting power from the capitalist class, as opposed to a party attempting to use capitalism for the benefit of workers, are doomed to failure, because this is what has happened in the past – witness Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and Tony Benn, who "now stands isolated" (p.29). But in that case how do you explain last year’s conference vote against Tony Blair’s renewed assault on Clause 4? The real tragedy, surely, is that the left in Britain has not properly addressed itself to the task of winning support for socialist ideas either in the Labour Party or in the trade unions, partly as a result of its own fragmentation and confusion and partly because it has often been over-anxious to appear in pristine purity outside the mass organisations of the class, parading its own banner.

I would suggest that the section of the Manifesto where it is stated that "the Communists do not form a separate party, opposed to other working class parties" is still relevant in this context, and that we have not collectively succeeded in reaching the standard set by the words on that page. Instead we have too often fallen victim to sectarian aloofness and/or abstract propagandist passivity, reacting belatedly to events instead of anticipating them. The fault, dear comrades, lies not in our activist zeal (or lack of it) but in our ideas and how they are presented. That may well be the reason why the history of the Labour Party bears witness time after time to left-wing resolutions being carried at conference only to be overturned subsequently. (See Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism.)

The most interesting sections of the book are those which deal, in general terms, with the way in which socialists would attempt to transform the economic set-up if they were to gain power. Rees correctly emphasises capitalism’s inability to respond adequately in the absence of effective demand: the profit motive dictates that "if ... a profit can be made out of giant fluffy dice to hang from the rear-view mirror of a car, rather than food for the starving, then fluffy dice it is" (p.63). The resultant chaos needs replacing with effective socialist planning – democratic planning: "The idea of planning is very unfashionable these days. People think it has to mean the grey uniformity of the old Stalinist states. But they were a parody of planning. Workers had no control over production and distribution, yet this is the first requirement of socialist planning" (ibid). Rees appears to leave a role for spontaneous market forces, emphasising (correctly in my view) that "Socialists don’t want to, even if we could, plan all the details of consumer purchase" (p.64).

How would a socialist plan be arrived at? Apparently "large scale priorities" would be decided upon democratically: "Would we vote for more hospitals or more weapons? More houses or more schools? They won’t always be easy choices. There will be a lot of debate. But they will be our choices not the imposed priorities of a market made for profit" (p.64). The locus of decision-making would appear to be the local enterprise: "We would meet together in workers’ councils and vote on economic priorities, just as we now elect shop stewards and union officers, after debate and discussion. Because we would control the factories, offices, hospitals and schools we would see that our decisions got carried out. We would implement what we had decided" (p.67).

All this leaves many questions unanswered. Chief of them is, who exactly is meant by "we"? Rees seems unable to see workers, in this context, anywhere apart from actually at work together. Workers, however, are also consumers, members of families, residents of particular localities, citizens of different countries, of differing ethnic backgrounds, with special needs, interests, and so on. How do we structure decision-making so as to take account of all this? And what happens if there is a difference of view? What happens if one enterprise or group of enterprises wishes to produce x, whereas another group is determined that y should be produced instead? Pat Devine tried to tackle these issues in his book Democracy and Economic Planning (Polity Press 1988) – see Harry Ratner’s review in New Interventions, Vol.5 No.2, July 1994. [See "Feasible Socialism: Market or Plan – Or Both", in Is There a Future for Socialism?, in the Publications section of this site.] Rees seems unaware of them. His book gives the impression that "we, the workers" will simply take over everything on the morrow of the revolution and run it -just like that. "Workers’ control" seems for him no different from "workers’ management", whereas the two are surely distinct: under workers’ control the previous set of managers would continue to manage, but the workers in the enterprise would be in a position to veto anything they disapproved of, whereas under workers’ management the shop steward (or any other worker) would have the chance of being elected managing director responsible to the workforce as a whole, with the former management being phased out.

Socialism requires that workers do take an active part in the direction of their enterprises, as far as is practicable, but neither workers’ control nor workers’ management constitutes a panacea – as experience has shown in Russia (1917-18) and Spain (1936-7), there are various interests that potentially conflict, and some means must be found for reconciling them. Rees does not, in fact, go beyond the position outlined by Connolly in Socialism Made Easy – his position is even less detailed. Connolly wrote:

"Under a Socialist form of society the administration of affairs will be in the hands of representatives of the various industries of the nation; ... the workers in the shops and factories will organise themselves into unions, each union comprising all the workers at a given industry; that said union will democratically control the workshop life of its own industry, electing all foremen, etc., and regulating the routine of labour in that industry in subordination to the needs of society in general, to the needs of its allied trades and to the department of industry to which it belongs ... representatives elected from these various departments of industry will meet and form the industrial administration or national government of the country. In short, Social-Democracy, as its name implies, is the application to industry, or to the social life of the nation, of the fundamental principles of democracy. Such application will necessarily have to begin in the workshop.... In other words, Socialism must proceed from the bottom upward, whereas capitalist political society is organised from above downward. Socialism will be administered by a committee of experts elected from the industries and professions of the land, capitalist society is governed by representatives elected from districts, and is based upon territorial division." (Socialism Made Easy, New Writers Press, Dublin, 1968, p.17.)

However, neither Connolly nor Rees address the problems identified by Devine; and Rees, failing to go beyond Connolly, appears trapped in a revolutionary syndicalist time-warp. And this, in turn, is because the left as a whole has not done its homework on these questions. That is why Rees’s book, although well worth reading, fails ultimately to satisfy.

The practical advice in the last chapter is also correspondingly thin: the message is the usual one – build the revolutionary party (i.e. the SWP). But does the revolutionary party in question know where it is going? The standard excuse for not going into great detail concerning what exactly will happen under socialism has been that it would be premature, since the workers themselves will decide. That is right, so they should; but the revolutionary party will not persuade them that the experiment will be worthwhile if it refuses to draw all the necessary lessons of past experience.