Lessons from the Grangemouth dispute

GRANGEMOUTH_2700282bI received an email from Socialist Democracy inviting me to contribute to a discussion based on an article they have written on the lessons of the Grangemouth dispute in Scotland. This article sets out the devastating scale of the defeat – the freeze in pay, butchery of pension entitlement and castration of union organisation.  Many in the media called it an old fashioned battle of labour against capital, such was the unvarnished clarity of what was involved.

The questions to be answered are whether there could have been a different result and what lessons can be learnt?

The article does not say whether the result could have been different.  Given the circumstances I think not, but this means we must be clear what the circumstance were that lead to this conclusion.

As for the lessons the article posits two – that the entire strategy of the trade union leaders has been overthrown and that of union support for, and reliance on, the Labour Party is a mistake.  I believe that there is a third rather more basic one, which can be explained very much as the old fashioned relationship between labour and capital.  What is this relationship?

The relations of capitalist production are unequal as they involve capitalists as owners of the means of production, including oil refineries and petrochemical works, and workers separated from ownership of such means of production and dependent on employment by the capitalist for their livelihood.  In a struggle that does not threaten or weaken these foundations it is generally the case that the capitalists will be able to impose their wishes because these align with the power structures in society.

This does not mean each and every strike or struggle by workers is doomed to defeat but that in certain disputes this power of capital is fully deployed and the fundamental imbalance in power is cruelly demonstrated.  Were it otherwise capitalism might be able to find some stable compromise, some equilibrium between the two classes that would allow a ‘fairer’ distribution of resources.  No such stable equilibrium has been found.  Marxists have been confirmed in their view that the liberation of the majority of working people requires overturning the existing system and creation of one in which the monopoly of ownership of capital is destroyed. 

This is the basic case for socialism in opposition to all those who think a better world is possible while not overthrowing the fundamental structures of society.

It is not an all or nothing case.  It does not say that workers can do nothing to protect themselves short of socialism.  Struggles that do not threaten these fundamental relations can sometimes be victorious such as when the economy is booming, unemployment is low and workers can strike or otherwise bargain for higher wages without fear of being sacked and their place being taken by the unemployed.

Of course in an economic downturn the temporary leverage of workers and trade unions is undermined and the power of capitalists to do as they wish because of their ownership of capital is reasserted.

In the case of the Grangemouth dispute this means that no workers’ action no matter how brilliant, innovative or militant could prevent Jim Ratcliffe from using his ownership of capital to close the refinery and petrochemical works and throw thousands of workers onto the dole.

Of course if you were convinced he was lying about the profitability of the plant and convinced his threats to close were a bluff the solution is simple – call his bluff and tell him his demands will not be accepted.  Unfortunately his ownership means that only he and his management know the truth and his claims that the plant only had a future if he was able to put £300 million in investment into it were credible. The same system that decrees private ownership of a refinery also necessarily involves periodic overcapacity in production and this was held over the workers’ heads as the brute fact that required they surrender or face the sack.

Under such circumstances no one can be surprised the workers decided to accept the lesser evil.

The article is correct that simple strike action would not succeed.  It was the boss who went on strike – it’s called a lockout.  It is he who brought production to a halt and threatened to make this permanent.

Others called for widespread solidarity action perhaps secondary strikes.  Firstly these are illegal and related to this, workers have not yet the level of combativity to carry out such action, even those involved in the chemicals industry who would have lost their own jobs had Grangemouth closed.

If it is argued that this strategy is one we must argue for and attempt to build for the future then this is indeed an element of strategy.  In this situation however there is no reason to believe Ratcliffe gave a rat’s arse about the fate of the wider industry and of the other thousands of jobs that would have been lost.  If he was going to close Grangemouth then all these strikes would have made no difference to his plans.

A second possible answer was to call on the state to nationalise the refinery and works.  The problem with this is that neither the British State based in London nor that part that might go independent had no intention of doing so.  Both are ‘open for business’ only when it means private capitalism.  So who was going to nationalise the works?  If it is believed that strike action would compel such nationalisation then it would have had to be wider and deeper than that considered above and the first response of the State would have been to attempt to throttle it. Some people keep on forgetting the State is the protector of the enemy.

Some on the Scottish Left said the situation at Grangemouth showed the need for independence but this was not an immediate solution.  As we have just said, the Scottish National Party has no intention of nationalising private industry when private capitalists are prepared to invest if only the workers accept the necessary sacrifices.  Alex Salmond’s primary concern was with the exposure of his independence project, and the illustration of how weak the idea of a prosperous oil economy looks in light of this immediate threat to pull the plug.  Since the refinery provides fuel for northern England and Northern Ireland as well as Scotland the case for action to protect the service went beyond the border and thus implicitly provides the grounds for wide action to defend it.  It also undermines any case for a nationalist solution from the right or the left.

The article argues against the efficacy of such answers and proposes its own elements of a strategy.  Some of these are by no means very clear.

For example what does this mean? –

“The trade union and political fights have to be united around a movement that is willing to reject the claims of finance capital and to step in and expropriate capital where it is necessary to preserve the livelihood of workers.”

The only time a workers’ movement will be able on its own to expropriate capital is when there is a revolutionary situation. We’re not in one of those so it wasn’t and isn’t an answer.  (We’re also fighting industrial capital in this one.)

The article says –

“The Labour Party has promised a temporary freeze on prices, so a call could be made for a permanent cap . . .”

Just how are the laws of capitalism to be permanently abolished or even suspended when the system still exists?

They can’t.  The only way they can is if and when there is a revolution that creates the conditions for totally remodelling economic and social relations and even then prices will not be abolished for some considerable time.

The alternative proposed revolves around occupation and seeking an alternative to the Labour Party.

Once again however if the plant is really losing money and the threat of closure real then why would Ratcliffe not just let the workers occupy, sit in the refinery and – so far as he was concerned – rot away?  It would be just another way of closing the plant if he didn’t get the workers to accept his demands.

What the demand for occupation means is that workers take over ownership and run it themselves.  They cannot simply run it themselves without ownership.  No one would provide raw materials or other services without someone to contract with and you don’t form contracts with those in unlawful possession.  So the question is how would the workers take ownership?  How would they get the money to buy it and to invest perhaps the£300 million Ratcliffe says is needed?

Obviously this is much harder when pushed against a wall, with no preparation and no conception that this is the alternative.  Equally obviously if it is accepted that this is the road that workers in such situations should follow then it would be better to be prepared for such a challenge.  The challenge is precisely to the monopoly ownership of the means of production that we said at the start is the heart of the relationship between capital and labour and at the heart of capitalism.

The workers movement is big enough to fund research into the creation of worker owned businesses.  Workers might start to fight to gain control of their pension funds to invest in their own enterprises.  Money can be raised for investment from financial institutions or other funding means to be determined.    A network of employee owned cooperatives already exists.  What is involved is not utopian, in the sense it has never been done before, nor is it without rational calculation.

If workers could be ready for such an alternative the threats of closure would not be so conclusive.

In other words the alternative to capitalist ownership is workers’ ownership.  Not just in some indefinite future ‘after the revolution’ but now and not just for now but in order to build towards the future.

Finally the article criticises the unions’ support for the Labour Party.  It notes that organised workers continue to support their trade union and political leaders, although it only proposes that in order to fight both it is necessary to break from the Labour Party but not from the existing trade unions.  It calls for a ‘class struggle movement’ to be created across all the unions, which should call for a new working class party.

It obviously believes this fight can dismiss the Labour Party and need not go through it, although it does not explain how this can be achieved when it acknowledges workers continuing support for that Party.  Implicit is the view that a fight within that Party is not needed to convince workers to break from it.  This in my view is very doubtful.

It draws no lessons from its ridicule of the small socialist organisations which have attempted this road or what it correctly describes as the private character of their concerns; illustrated by their bizarre discussions and replication of policies that decades ago they excoriated the Labour Party for.  The articles’ own call for a revolutionary party is correct but of no help here since it is put forward, necessarily so, as an ideal future location.

Instead it states that – “there are many issues around which a fightback can be organised, but they cannot be organized by the current leadership of the working class . . . What it [Grangemouth] has shown up is the utter inability of the traditional leadership to defend workers and the demoralisation and lack of strategic vision on the part of the socialists.”

If what is being said is that a new leadership has to be created, and the existing one challenged, then this is correct.  If it is being said that this is a precondition for a fight-back then this is not correct. It is only in the course of struggle that existing leaderships can be defeated, as long as such objectives become part of the struggle by the mass of ordinary workers.

The workers at Grangemouth and, by extension, those beyond have suffered a cruel defeat.  One possible reaction is to be cowed by the power of capital to shatter livelihoods.  A second is to seek some magic bullet of a strategy that workers can employ to defeat such plans: a strike, secondary action or an occupation.

A third lesson is that very often workers are forcibly confronted with the reality that to secure a decent life they need to go beyond capitalism and that no amount of shifting it with militant action can change its fundamental nature.  This nature is one where capitalists own the means of production and they can open and close it when they want.  This is not a strong argument for capitalism but a powerful argument for changing society – for socialism.

As Marx said – “the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!

Russell Brand and Revolution


I was listening to BBC Radio 4 on the headphones on my way home from work last night when three Westminster politicians were asked about Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman.  The link shows it has had nearly 9 million hits, just a few million more than this blog.  This is why Radio 4 was covering it and why it is important.

Is it another illustration of the celebrity culture that colonises everything?  This is the claim of some of the derisive dismissal of Brand’s rantings by the rest of the media who, at least the ones I’ve read, have slagged him off as a hypocrite.  An obvious example of ad hominem argument or shooting the messenger, not that it’s always wrong to shoot the messenger when the message is intolerable.  In this respect I’m reminded of the opening scene of Gladiator when the Germanic tribes respond to the demand to surrender by the Roman legions by throwing the severed head of the messenger on the ground in front of their massed ranks.

The problem of course is that shooting the messenger doesn’t deal with the message as the Germanic tribes discovered.  It might be claimed Brand doesn’t have an argument.  But read his New Statesman article and he does.

It might be dismissed as primitive or naïve but a better word is elemental and he does have more than a few good lines.  He makes a case.  It’s not the sort you will read on this blog but this blog doesn’t pretend to have the only or the best or the most effective voice for revolutionary change.  It aspires to encourage the recovery of Marxism and its application to the practical political programme of socialists.  It hopes that whoever thinks this is a reasonable objective to pursue will contribute to it and write their own posts.

So what if Brand’s surprising political commitment lights up the sky like a meteor and crashes and burns to earth?  What if he is a one-hit wonder?  When the rest of us are unable to get a gig a one-hit wonder is something to be.

Has his outburst reduced the credibility of our cause?  Or given it a little more light? Perhaps one more point of departure to argue for it and to advance it?

He is obviously very aware of the brickbats he would get for his ‘champagne socialist’ position and his trenchant, and in some ways reasonable, response to this is itself rather honest compared to the carefully constructed insincerity of politician’s continual hypocrisy.  It’s not as if he’s a champagne socialist in the way that that other celebrity in the new is – ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson – with his Icumfigovan sign in his office, his hobnobbing with millionaires and his advice on man management to Tony Bliar. Nevertheless Brand has a brand problem – for example my partner thinks he’s a prat and she is very rarely wrong in such judgements.

russell brand revolution header

Brand can be criticised as anti-political, with his calls for people not to vote, but he is not stupid and he puts forward a case why we ‘should not encourage them’.  He also puts well the idea that apathy is more accessible than anger to all the shit that people have to put up with from politicians and the system they pimp.  Compared to many on the left, who claim there is a crisis of working class representation, that is we don’t have the right politicians in parliament to represent us, the radical critique of all politicians who do represent us is refreshing.

Not because we haven’t heard it before, in fact as Marxists we invented the revolutionary critique of bureaucratic ‘representation’ of the working class, but because we never see it on television.  We are extremists who never get heard but a little bit of a hearing for revolution makes us a little bit less extreme in the sense we are able to register in political debate a little bit more.

Listening to the feeble and self-serving helpings of cant from the Tory, Labour and Liberal politicians last night on the radio shows how even such a minor assault on their system from someone with a shred of credibility can so easily expose the defenders of the status quo.  Now Radio 4 reports the disillusionment of Paxman himself with the politics on offer in Britain. For Ireland multiply that lack of alternative by the number of Euros given to bailout the banks.

Above all, when pressed for what he wants as an alternative Brand calls for socialism and for revolution.  This is a darned sight more than some on the left do when faced with such a question.  The next question is that of the child – but how do we get a revolution?  You can ague all you like that Brand hasn’t much to say about this that seems practical but what is the message of the so-called revolutionary left?

As I have posted many times, the left that claims to be Marxist asks the state to extend its power through extra spending, taxation and through nationalisation while simultaneously believing, but not having the courage to say so in front of the workers, that this same state should be smashed in a revolution.

Let’s not pretend Brand is an advanced political thinker whose views we should instantly embrace.  He may be on a ‘messiah world tour’ but he’s still more a very naughty boy than a genuine Messiah.

Brandism is hardly going to succeed Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism.  It’s not a practical guide but an emotional and reasoned outburst.  It’s not even an inarticulate expression of youth rebellion.  He’s 38 and very articulate.  We’re not obliged to defend his every word or even every tenth one but his avalanche of words creates an impression – there is something radically wrong with the world we inhabit.  Very, very wrong.

It would be easy to criticise what he says for all sorts of reasons, from his apparent attitude to women to his lack of political strategy.  But it is precisely his political limits that creates a focus on the key message that he is held to be delivering – opposition to the venality of the present system, the need for a revolution.

I’ve just finished reading a book – ‘A Marxist History of the World’, written by a member of a British left organisation.  It also makes the argument that what is needed is a socialist revolution.  The French revolution of 1789, the revolutions of 1830 and 1848; the 1917 revolution in Russia and revolutionary wave in Europe up to 1923, the Spanish revolution in 1936, the Hungarian revolution of 1956; the French general strike in 1968; the Iranian revolution of 1979; the overthrow of Stalinism after 1989 and the recent Arab revolutions, are all held up to show its possibility.  The last 100 years has been ‘pregnant with revolution’ readers are told.  We face Armageddon reminiscent of that foretold by the bible –with the appearance of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  The stakes have never been higher with a crisis of capitalism the deepest and most intractable ever.

This to me is no more coherent than Russell Brand’s interview but without a few of the redeeming features of the latter.

The list of revolutions includes only one successful socialist one – 1917 – and it was strangled into Stalinism relatively quickly.  We will, rather shortly, be commemorating the 100th anniversary of this revolution.

The point is not that the objective of revolution should be abandoned.  Revolution is not required to achieve a certain state of affairs – socialism – revolution is that state of affairs, which is the ruling of society by its majority.

Revolution on the other hand is seen by many on the left as one strategy to achieve something as opposed to alternative reformist ones – such as voting and elections to parliament – which are said not to be realistic.  Revolution is therefore seen as a cataclysmic single event rather than as a process, one that begins and grows and that moves towards a qualitative rupture that destroys the old state and creates a new one based on the working majority of society.

The road to socialism is not growing state control but increasing workers’ control of every aspect of their lives through incrementally reducing the power of the capitalist class and its state in preparation for the final battle.  I have tried to explain this a little bit on this blog.

When a public intervention leads to Radio 4 interviewers pursuing their politician guests with the question “but why not revolution?” this intervention deserves some support.