Friday, February 16, 2007

Learning from the past

According to the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (PDF), there are some 320000 workplace representatives: 230000 shop stewards, the rest being health and safety and learning reps. “Union representatives tend to be male (56 per cent are male), relatively old (78 per cent are 40 or over, and the average age is 46) and work full-time (92 per cent are full time employees).”

The key statistic here is that the average age is 46. Perhaps the biggest difference I have with today’s revolutionary left groups is that I believe any broad left wing alternative to Labour cannot by-pass or ignore this layer, by looking for fresh new radicalised people - whether yoof or Muslims!

These tens of thousands of activists have developed their political understanding of the world over a long period of time, and a small but very significant layer have been informed by experience of the far left.

Therefore, in order to understand te politics of the activists of the unions we cannot start with a blank sheet of paper, we also need to learn from the past.

Over the next few weeks I will be writing more about the history of the SWP’s industrial policy. But before I start I wish to thank Mike Pearn for sending me a copy of Roger Cox’s seminal article on organising in the workplace from July 1983 – that was representative of a major and disastrous turn in the SWP away from the established activists. I also wish to thank “Grouchy” for sendng me a copy of his very interesting article: “Socialist Worker – paper with a purpose” published in Media Culture and Society (1985). This provides a useful review of changes in the paper, and also extracts from an interview with Roger Protz (editor of SW n the early 1970s) that makes some insightful observations.


Louisefeminista said...

But also the other key factor is that majority of union representation is male. Though my own personal experiences of organising and representation has been predominantly female but that was probably due to the area of work I worked in i.e. administration. But I have also represented mainly male departments (utterly stereotypical) i.e. techies, security, and sparks. There was definitely a gender demarcation.

Majority, for example, of academic institutions I have worked in the reps have been women and very good militant activists they were esp. at leading strikes (and I learned a hell of a lot from these women who I was in my early 20s and a rather raw rep).

I also think it is useful for this layer of activists to be able to help influence younger activists. Like I said, I did learn a lot from more experienced TUnionists which was invaluable advice.

AN said...

I'm not minimising the gender imbalance, it was just trying to emphasise the age thing in support of why I post aboiut the history of the left.

This morning I just had a meeting at the GMB office about a project for migrant owkers, and the intersting thing is that the success that the GMB is having with Polish workers is partly being driven by young Polish women who have joined the union.

Mark P said...

If you don't mind me saying Andy, it appears that you have a certain personal interest in the line you are arguing here: An experienced activist, who is to put it kindly no spring chicken, pushing the view that the left doesn't look towards experienced activists enough!

From the point of view of a small socialist organisation (and they are all small socialist organisations) it makes a lot of sense to try to recruit mostly from younger, fresher sections of the movement. Such people tend to be easier to recruit, more energetic and have more free time and fewer responsibilities. That doesn't mean that recruiting more experienced activists is a bad thing or is unimportant. But it does mean that it is entirely sensible for activist groups to primarily look elsewhere.

This is particularly true in a period like the current one where long experience in the movement generally means long experience of defeat and demoralisation. People whose training was received during a two decade long period of defeats and decline for the left will inevitably tend to be more cynical, more ground down and in many cases will have dramatically lowered their political horizons. Yes there will still be many people from those generations who would add valuable experience to any organisation, but a groups overall orientation can hardly be towards that layer.

If a group fails to recruit young people it is going to have a very difficult time avoiding an ageing membership profile and slow extinction.

AN said...

No that old mark, I'm still the youngest person who goes to Trades Council! But I agree these things are relative.

The question is how will socialism be achieved, and we all know that will require a hish level of class struggle, and that also means rebuilding shop floor organisation. The contribution that socialists can make to that process is by participation in the mass organisations of the class.

What you are counterposing is the greater activism (and less scepticism?) of young ativists in essentially a propaganda routine of paper sales, leafleting etc. Now of course that has a role to play as well in maintaining and creating a left culture.

BUt if it does not revolve aroung the actually existing activists then you are essentially arguing that socialist consciousness must be brought to the class from outside, via the leadership of your vanguard group, rather than being the conclusion drawn by the most class conscious workers who develop an understanding of the world-historical role of their own self-activity during the course of their own participation in class struggle, and participation in the mass organistaions and campaigns of the class.

The role a socialist party can make is to bring together those militants, but iot has to be orient on the actually existing mass organisation, and the actually existing militants.

Mark P said...

Your reply relies on two quite unwarranted assumptions about my views, neither of which were implicit in my post. The first is that I am "counterposing" routine propaganda activity to shopfloor activity. I am not. Nor is anything in what I said at all connected to the notion that socialist ideas have to be brought to the working class from without.

The "existing activists" are not the working class, they are a thin layer of the working class. And in many cases they are a worn down, demoralised section of the working class - this could hardly be otherwise given the experience of the last two decades. I'm not scorning the contributions of people who helped hold the labour movement together in one of its roughest periods. I am saying though that I don't expect the bulk of the activists of the next step forward in class combativity to be largely composed of the same people.

It is a quite spectacular leap to get from this to the argument that socialist ideas have to be introduced to the working class from the outside. The people I'm talking about orienting on are the working class activists of tomorrow, rather than the working class activists of today.

I'm also not saying that it is worthless to recruit more experienced activists at the moment, far from it. But from the point of view of a small socialist organisation a primary orientation to sections of the working class which (a) have less free time and less energy and (b) are more tired, cynical and worn down would be strategic suicide. A greater orientation towards existing activists might make sense in a situation of rapidly rising militancy and of working class militancy. It categorically makes no sense in a period where those existing activists are generally tiread and have seen nothing but 20 years of defeats.

AN said...

I will return to this mark, as there are some things you have written that i disagree with, and I will defend both of my "unwarranted assumptions". BIt too busy to reply now.

But we shouldn't overemohasise the difference between us. I recognise the value of propaganda work especially amog the yung, and you appreciate the value of workplace activity.