By Martin Thomas
A conference of left-wing trade unionists on 11 November, initiated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) under the auspices of their “Respect” coalition with George Galloway MP, discussed a “workers’ charter”.
There is a lot to say about the defects of that attempt at a “charter”. What concerns us here is the final action point in the charter, which was also the one international element in it. It called for a trade union solidarity delegation to Venezuela.
A good idea, but it begs a question. Solidarity with whom in Venezuela? Should British workers organise in solidarity with workers in Venezuela, especially those workers in trade-union organisations like the UNT which stay politically independent from the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez? Or in solidarity with Chávez?
Actually the organisers were in no doubt. They meant solidarity with Chávez. “We also want to organise a solidarity delegation to Venezuela, so workers can show their support for and see the dramatic change taking place there because of the government of Hugo Chávez”, said conference organiser Linda Smith (Socialist Worker, 14 October 2006).
And this was not a point where the organisers were in conflict with the left-wing trade-unionists who came to the conference. Most left-wing trade unionists, including those who have little sympathy for the general politics of Respect or of the SWP, would agree that socialists’ international efforts should focus on solidarity with leaders like Chávez.
We disagree. We recognise an element of truth in the desire for solidarity with Chávez, but we disagree.
Hugo Chávez is an army lieutenant-colonel. He attempted a nationalist military coup in Venezuela in 1992, against a right-wing government, but failed. After two years in jail, he formed a political movement centred on his own personality and leadership.
He won election as president in 1998; was re-elected in 2000; survived a brief right-wing coup in 2002; and won a referendum against demands for his “recall” from the presidency in 2004. His government has spent large amounts of Venezuela’s large oil incomes on social measures to improve health care and education and to subsidise food and housing, and it has put through land reforms.
Against attempts by Venezuela’s right wing, covertly assisted by the USA, to overthrow Venezuela’s elected government, we are in solidarity with the people of Venezuela and to that extent with Chávez. The US administration gave tacit approval to the 2002 coup attempt, criticising it only after it had failed.
But the conflict between the USA and Chávez does not abolish the class struggle in Venezuela. Venezuela’s workers are still exploited by Venezuela’s bosses.
Chávez’s combination of military personality-politics and limited social reforms from above fits into a pattern.
In Argentina Juan Perón came to power in a military coup in 1943, but was then elected president in 1946 and 1951. He cut back the privileges of the old landowning, agricultural-export-oriented elite, and redistributed some of the proceeds to the poor.
In Brazil, Getúlio Vargas came to power in 1930 in a military coup carried through by officers of leftish and nationalist views against the old oligarchy. Like Perón, he expanded welfare programmes.
Neither of those leaders imposed a full-scale, absolute dictatorship of the Stalinist or fascist type. All of them had popular support. But all used the credit they had from their social reforms to strengthen their power, squeezed opposition, and made independent working-class action more and more difficult. In somewhat the same way as Chávez has befriended Iran’s president Ahmedinejad, Peron and Vargas drew from the precedents and techniques of European fascism to construct their regimes. Despite some “left-wing” measures, in many ways they were very right-wing.
In short, for the working class, social reforms from above are never an adequate substitute for self-liberation. The times when social reforms are being handed down from above are times when the working class has to be particularly vigilant about its political independence from charismatic “benefactors”, or else it may find that it has paid for those social reforms by the loss of its ability to mobilise freely for further improvements.
More and more, in the 21st century, workers worldwide are tied into a single web of exploitation. The great multinationals and their subcontractors, and the big international banks, roam and dominate the globe.
Global capital can only be pushed back and defeated by global labour.
Many people suffer from the workings of global capital — peasants, the unemployed, small business people. The wage-working class is different because it is not just a class which suffers, but also a class which, to the extent that it is able to organise and mobilise itself as a class, embodies a global alternative.
In developed capitalist society, as Karl Marx put it, “individuals easily pass from one type of [standardised] labour to another, the particular type of labour being accidental to them and therefore irrelevant. Labour... has become a means to create wealth in general, and has ceased to be tied as an attribute to a particular individual”. Each individual worker is an element of a general social pool of labour-power, multivalent and mobile.
The working class, the human basis of that general social pool of labour-power, is both the basic exploited class and the basic creative class, developing an ever-more-multifarious cooperative potency in production.
Marx again: “Large-scale industry... does away with all repose, all fixity and all security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned [and enforces] the ceaseless sacrifices required from the working class... the reckless squandering of labour-powers, and... the devastating effects of social anarchy. But [also] large-scale industry, through its very catastrophes, makes the recognition of the variation of labour and hence of the fitness of the worker for the maximum number of different kinds of labour into a question of life and death. [It points towards] the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn... “.
Capitalist production throws the working class into constant conflicts with capital over the terms and conditions of the sale of labour-power. Even if limited to the issue of wages, those battles generate class organisations of the workers — trade unions — and ties of class solidarity. Extended to issues of workers’ control over production, they pose the question of the principle of solidarity replacing the rules of the market.
Progress is not automatic or easy, of course. Capitalism also works to atomise and disorganise the working class. Defeats in struggle can set the working class back many years.
But there is no short cut. And there is an enormous amount to do in international solidarity with working-class struggles.
China now has thousands of strikes - all illegal, or of dubious legality, but they happen. World-wide, there are probably more workers in genuine trade unions (not the state “labour fronts” characteristic of the old Stalinist states) than at any time before 1989.
Workers of the world, unite! The workers, united, will never be defeated!