“Does the Labour movement still speak for the Labour classes?” So asked LabourList on the eve of the EU referendum. The article went on to note that, “On immigration, spending and welfare there is now a gulf between the left wing status quo and working class voters”, implying that any ideological shift that has occurred has been on the part of the ‘Labour classes’ (divorced as they are from the “status quo”). I don’t buy it. Working-class Brexit-voters are right back where the Labour movement started, motivated by self-interest and identity consciousness. The idea of a lost socialist working class, once guided by the spirit of the Internationale, with its inclusive invocations, is myth.
The working class Left was always about getting a bigger slice of the pie. End of. Nothing wrong with that – every other class looks after itself. Born out of industrial dispute, their politics did not represent some selfless retreat from the materialism of capitalism, but, rather, a hard-as-nails embracing of it. For Adam Smith, workers’ demands for greater pay is capitalism, the sale of one’s labour itself a market, like all others. Smith wrote, “The workmen desire to get as much, the master to give as little as possible. The former are disposed to combine in order to raise, the latter in order to lower the wages of labour”. The desire of a worker to maximise his pay is as natural and capitalistic as the desire of an investor to see pay kept down.
The materialism of the Old School Left has inevitably manifested itself, at times, as hypocrisy. In 1919 the ‘Red Clydesiders’, socialist legends one and all, while fighting for a shorter working week raised the red flag over George Square, Glasgow, an act which provoked the government, fearing Bolshevism, into deploying tanks and ten thousand troops onto the streets. But just weeks earlier, some of those self-same class warriors, led by future Labour government minister Manny Shinwell, were busy doing something rather less socialist: ethnic cleansing.
Shinwell, who would one day state, ‘the Tories never trouble themselves about facts when prejudice can serve them better’, decried the employment of black sailors, many of whom had fought for Britain in the war, seeing to it that they would not be allowed to join his maritime union. One of his rabble-rousing speeches led to a violent knife attack on thirty African sailors. Following a series of such riots, a population of some two thousand black people living in Glasgow was repatriated to Africa and the Caribbean [see Jacqueline Jenkinson’s book Black 1919]. Self-interest, sometimes noble (Brexit), sometimes despicable (see above), is the thread that runs through the people’s politics. The ‘World Brotherhood of Man’ takes a back-seat.
This ‘parti pris socialism’ is not peculiarly British. During the bloodiest of all the struggles against European colonial control – the Algerian War of Independence – the influential French Communist Party (PCF) came down fervently on the side of the imperialist forces, with the head of the party’s Algerian offshoot demanding that, “The organisers of these troubles must be swiftly and pitilessly punished, the instigators of the revolt put in front of the firing squad.” This, despite the fact the Comintern demanded that Communists, “support unconditionally all movements of national liberation against imperialist powers”. At a time when the metropolitan Left in France was imploring French troops to desert their posts, the working-class Left, as represented by the PCF, demanded the introduction of conscription to boost troop numbers. Members of the PCF were often proudly nationalistic, and many regarded Algerians in France, often fleeing violence, as being either immigrants stealing jobs, or fanatics. National pride trumped the Comintern.
Cut to the Persian Gulf, late 1940s. Conditions for 100,000 Iranian workers at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s (forerunner of BP) main site are abysmal. As Stephen Kinzer recounts in his book All the Shah’s Men, the workers toil in fumes, foot-deep mud and forty-five degree heat, are paid fifty cents a day, have no holiday or sick pay, receive no compensation for work-related injuries, live in ramshackle slums, have no running water or electricity (the British workers have air-conditioning, cinemas and tennis-courts).
To cap it all, as Anglo-Iranian has the sole concession to drill for oil in Persia, over eighty per cent of profit from Iranian oil immediately leaves the country for Britain. There are rumblings of discontent amongst the natives. But lo! The British government has a controlling share in Anglo-Iranian, and Britain finds itself with its most left-wing government ever – Attlee’s Labour administration – how will they respond to this terrible treatment of the workers? Answer: by disrupting said workers’ attempts to form trade unions. And when the Iranians attempt to nationalise their own oil industry? They are slapped down by Britain’s Minister for Fuel, our old friend, Manny Shinwell. Shinwell, who is in the process of joyously nationalising the British coal industry, sternly warns Cabinet that toleration of nationalisation in Iran would set a “terrible precedent”. Some workers (ours) are a lot more equal than others (theirs).
The struggle between the values of the old materialistic Left and the idealistic Left are exemplified by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his problems with trade unions. Chavez imparted to humanity that “history…tells us that the triumph of the … workers has never come about without a long process of resistance, of struggle, suffering even”. Well, the workers, as represented by Venezuela’s long-standing trade unions, resisted, and Chavez hated it. Abhorring their independence, he described them (probably correctly) as “capitalist”. As he stated, “trade unions who do not want to have anything to do with the party or the government, who want to be independent, it is a kind of blackmail… they remain odourless, tasteless”. The ‘problem’ was that the Venezuelan unions looked after their own members (as was their role), and couldn’t care less about Chavez’s wider socialist dreams.
Chavez’s intolerance of industrial action would have put Margaret Thatcher in the shade. When Metro workers went on strike in 2009, Chavez dismissed them as “corrupt” and drew up plans to deploy the army against them. Indeed, during Chavez’s time, May Days would usually feature two separate marches of the workers – one for the members of independent trade unions and one for on-message Chavez supporting ‘workers councils’; the independent one tended to end up enjoying baton charges and water cannon. Workers of the world unite…
So how did the Trades Union Congress in England respond to Chavez’s treatment of the unions in Venezuela? Answer: by passing resolutions of official support for his union-bashing regime. Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who had previously attempted to introduce a ‘Trade Union Freedom Bill’, and who delivered a speech entitled “Scrap the anti-union laws!”, would table an early day motion in Parliament recognising the wonderfulness of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.
And so there we have it – the volte face of the Left. Where once the main body of the Left was comprised of have-nots engaged in a materialistic struggle to get a bigger slice of the pie (often at the expense of others), now those self same, self interested members of the Labour classes (be they Brexit voters or Venezuelan trade unionists), are seen as an impediment to the implementation of left-wing doctrine.
And herein lies the reason why the Labour Party is screwed. Not because the old ‘selfish’ Left is currently attempting to take over the party, but because it isn’t. Labour is being engulfed by a battle between two strands of far-off metropolitan leftism. The old-Left hasn’t even been invited to the bunfight. It isn’t there. The materialistic Left, that the working-poor once clung to, has vanished completely from our political system. There is now a void. Brexit filled it for a time. But now what?
(Image: Chris Sampson)