In the din and dirt of McNeil's forge in Scotland Street, Kinning Park, I used to hear old-timers say things like “The working man ay cuts his ain throat”, or sometimes, a bit more prosaically, “The working man is his ain worst enemy.” It was an everyday refrain and I never heard anybody querying it. In 1951, as a 15-year old trying to make sense of the horrible world of industry, I didn't query it either. In my innocence I thought they were talking about the fact that every day of our lives we hurried to get in that gate, to sweat our guts out from 8 till 5-30 between Monday and Friday and from 8 till noon on a Saturday, with the coveted two nights and a Sunday to fill out the pay poke. I could easily understand why the working man would be suicidal. He was trapped in a nightmare. The foundry was practically his whole life except when he slept. Of course they were probably talking about something else. They were probably talking about betrayal. A dream that turned sour.
It was an old story even forty years ago. With high hopes the Clydeside Reds had gone off to Westminster only to sink dismally in that “treacherous bog”. To be precise, it was the hopes that sank rather than the men. The men did quite well for themselves once they had jettisoned, for all practical purposes, the people's cause. On the whole they turned out to be men of small principle and less conscience. One hears that some even purred when Churchill cracked jokes at their expense. There was chronic amnesia as well. At the end of a long and lucrative parliamentary career during which, among other things, he became Financial Secretary to the War Office (1929-30), Minister of Fuel and Power (1945-47) and Secretary of State for War (1947-50), Manny Shinwell could say: “I was always a red-hot iconoclast, and I still am.” He said that on the floor of the House of Lords.
As radicals, Shinwell and Gallacher and McGovern had started off with the anti-parliamentarians. For parliamentary action had been repudiated overwhelmingly by the greater part of the working-class movement long before the Red Clyde period. The First International had foreseen the danger of the movement being absorbed and neutralised in the capitalist state machine. The idea that real socialism could be achieved through parliament was the antithesis of what the movement stood for. In the words of William Morris, writing in the 1880s: “It is widely understood that parliamentary success can only be won at the expense of abandoning real socialism in favour of mere palliatives.” Prior to 1921 the rejection of parliament was the common ground on which the various left-wing groupings in the revolutionary movement stood.
But following the Bolshevik counter-revolution in Russia and the parliamentary ‘party of a new type’ doctrine promulgated by Lenin in Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, the situation changed. Too few people had any idea of the realities behind Bolshevik domination: all they knew was that the dreamed-of revolution had happened and Lenin was at its head and the Bolsheviks, ‘thir convalescence oot’, would soon be putting the ideas of Marx and Engels (‘the state will wither away’) into practice. Clearly if anybody knew what should be done it must be Lenin.
If Lenin said it was imperative to work within the parliamentary system, even if this was contrary to all previous experience in developing the working-class movement, then people should forget their previous experience and set up a party of iron discipline, highly centralised and authoritarian, strictly hierarchical and organised around a small, hard core who would be the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’.
It was this kind of advice (as well as Comintern directives to the same effect) that led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. Others from the working-class movement, obeying Comintern orders, went off in search of careers in the Labour party. Left-wing politics was easily assimilated by the power system and quickly legitimised: much safer in the talking-shop than in the workshop. And gradually, with parliament now the be-all and end-all of leftist strategies, and with the rank-and-file dynamic of direct industrial action and free debate stilled in the interests of these strategies and the ‘party line’, the creation of a socialist society ceased to be on the agenda, a truce was called in the class war and the only thing exercising the minds of the ‘vanguard of the proletariat’ was how to reduce the revolutionary movement to brain-dead, ballotbox passivity.
All they succeeded in doing, however, was sowing working-class disillusionment and apathy to the point where Arthur Greenwood, Lord Privy Seal in the Attlee government, could rejoice that his Labour colleagues were now “landlords, capitalists and lawyers.” Betrayal was now called by a prettier name. The working-class traitor was now a ‘realist’ with a peerage and a bank-account to prove it.
By 1951 and my baptism in the world of work, it was the working-class movement, sapped of all its earlier revolutionary self-confidence that had withered away’. Although the Labour and trade union leadership could still make noises in a language borrowed from the revolutionary tradition, what was once a genuine aspiration had now degenerated into empty rhetoric in the mouths of people who were not so much seeking the liberation of the working class, as life-long security for themselves in their dominant role as ‘responsible’ mediators between the capitalist bureaucracy and the people.
The movement's primary dynamic - the ideal of a classless, co-operative, voluntarily organised, communalist society-was smothered and forgotten in the sham ‘struggle’ waged in parliament and in industrial disputes which the trade unions, tied to the Labour Party and with vast sums invested in the capitalist system, would inevitably betray.
The working class did indeed ‘cut thir ain throat’ insofar as, bit by bit, through parliament and the trades unions, they surrendered the movement to representatives over whom they would never have any real control. As far as the unions go, the classic example is the General Strike of 1926. The TUC, although never in favour of the strike, led it in order to keep it in the hands of ‘responsible Executives’ who would, at the first opportunity, force a ‘settlement’ on the workers. In fact it was total and abject capitulation covered over with a few airy phrases about ‘guarantees’ to disguise the bitter reality of defeat. This the workers discovered when they returned to their places of employment only to find widespread victimisation, massive wage reductions and outright dismissals with no appeal.
If the trade union movement is now in retreat, it is not because the workers have at last seen through the treachery of leaders who worry more about financial assets than working-class liberation: it is only because, as a direct result of long-standing trade union betrayal coupled with the advance of capitalist controlled computer technologies, the workers themselves are in retreat and the boss class has less need of trade unions to facilitate the implementation of boardroom decisions.
In the era of post-industrial capitalism which is slowly beginning to envelop us, the worker in manufacturing industry is no longer at centre stage. While the manufacturing workforce grows ever smaller, output stays steady or can easily be increased as computerised production advances. On Clydeside the service sector - tourism and leisure, financial services, commerce, transport, etc - now employs about 70% of people in work. It would seem that whatever potential the manufacturing worker once had to overthrow the capitalist system is now greatly diminished. It is a sad fact certainly that that potential was seldom put to use except in pursuit of delusory wage claims. As long as the trades unions were only haggling over sums of money in the pay poke, they were in effect collaborating with the employing class. They had people's labour to sell and they had come to market to sell it. They were thinking the same thoughts and talking the same language as the capitalists. The uses to which the labour would be put had no place in the discussions. Would the manufactured commodity enhance or degrade life? Would the working class be able to afford it? Would it be good for people or bad? Nobody cared.
And naturally of course the wages system itself was never questioned. Was it right that people’s labour should be just another commodity to be bought and sold in the market place? That a person’s chances in life should be determined by the market value of his labour? That certain people’s labour should have a higher value than that of others. That some people’s labour should have no pay entitlement whatever.
That dog-eat-dog competition should be the rule in the labour market, creating privileged elites at the expense of the excluded majority?
These questions were never asked by the trades unions in the past - at least not since monopoly capitalism and the State made the TUC a partner in the attempt to make capitalist domination proof against the strike weapon. They are not being asked today.
While the wages system remains intact all the authoritarian relationships proceeding therefrom will continue to thrive throughout the whole of society, in every job and profession, and the only political change possible will be the displacement of one power elite in favour of another no less rapacious elite.
I doubt whether the work-day in McNeil’s forge forty years ago had undergone much radical change in the previous twenty or thirty years. Today the computer revolution has transformed the industrial scene almost overnight, and it has hardly yet begun. The old jobs are vanishing. Nostalgia for these outmoded forms of production - now a marketable commodity in art and theatre - is surely misplaced. It was hard, miserable toil in deplorable conditions. People forget the crude anti-Catholic discrimination operated by management and foremen which kept workers at each other's throats; as well as the callous indifference which led to an accident rate which is hardly credible today. Ships were built on the Clyde because labour was cheap on the Clyde and the people in work were for the most part too cowed and too terrified of unemployment to make any real trouble.
But today so many proles are out of work with little hope of ever working again. When jobs in heavy industry go they go forever. The capitalist-led cybernetics revolution has seen to that. It is no longer just a case of temporary unemployment while capitalism rides out another crisis. The major readjustment has been made. New investment is now in technology and science. Where a plant is fully automated, a small group of technicians can carry out the whole productive process from beginning to end without any help from ‘workers’. The traditional image of the ‘worker’ as ‘producer of wealth’ gets more problematic every day. We are now moving towards permanent non-employment of ‘workers’ on a massive scale.
The workerist and productivist notions we were brought up on - having pride in our role as indispensable (although cruelly exploited) units of production, taking our identity from the job we did and suffering a terrible kind of shameful death with its loss - these are now much weakened if not yet completely obsolete. People may still feel shame when out of work but capitalism no longer demands it. Today identity depends not so much on the work one does as on the commodities it enables an individual to consume. In our desocialised population, the work ethic - the old nightmare of self-hate, duty, renunciation which kept the industrial wheels turning has been abolished in favour of commodity consumption as the strict form of economic/political arm-twisting. Work has been degraded to the point where it is totally devoid of any meaning outside the consumer values of capitalism.
Capitalism spreads its poison throughout the whole of society by means of the official culture which is itself permeated by an ideology of domination. To varying degrees this ideology contaminates us all. It ends in psychological as well as economic domination. It is hard to escape it. Much of the traditional socialist critique was - and still is - imbued with it, which in practice led only to the replacement of one band of oppressors by another, with no appreciable benefit to the mass of the population.
Yet in the de-industrialised world of the 1990s, with the control of the new technologies firmly in the hands of capital, with the prole’s social identity fast disappearing, and with countless millions condemned to lead useless lives on a pittance of dole money, easing their day with drugs and television - who would dare forecast social peace and tranquillity? Ten years ago the riots in the ghettoes of Toxteth and Brixton - short-lived and ill-directed though these protests were - showed that people's needs run far deeper than pills and television and the parliamentary charade can ever satisfy.
It is among the millions of unemployed today, and the countless more of the future as the pitiless advance of automation and computerisation plays havoc with people’s lives, that the revolution must surely have its roots.
It will be a negation of the official culture of power and domination. It will be based on individuals and small groups coming together to forge a libertarian cultural movement for themselves out of a simple hunger to bring a measure of depth and meaning into their lives.
They will be working on the principle of the socialist ideal: a classless, co-operative, voluntarily organised society, and drawing on the spiritual and moral values embodied in that ideal. From the commune and the co-operative it will flow out through the whole of society.
Only when we turn away from the culture of power will the will to power begin to fade, and the socialist dream become a living reality.