COMMUNITY ACTION Book reviews
This month's books include accounts of the dramatic events in two shipyards - one British, one Polish - which demonstrated a new vision of the social compact between workforce and government.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Solidarity East and West
Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy
by Ken Coates
Spokesman (pbk) £2.95 (hbk) £10.00
Solidarity: Poland's Independent Trade Union
by Denis MacShane
Spokesman (pbk) £3.50 (hbk) £13.95
Events in two shipyards, separated in time and space may become two of the key entries in the chronology of recent working-class history. The Clydebank yard in Britain and the Lenin Shipyard in the Baltic port of Gdansk were the scenes of ‘occupations’ by their respective workforces, the consequences of which reverberated far beyond their closely guarded gates, indeed beyond their national boundaries.
The effect of the ‘work-in’ at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in July 1971 was not confined to the rash of workplace occupations which followed, and which Ken Coates so ably documents in Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy. More importantly it was an intellectual as well as practical breakthrough for employees, faced with enforced redundancy which they perceived as illegitimate and unnecessary and who demanded from their employers and the government their ‘right to work’. Underlying this claim was the new-found conviction that the latter had an obligation to work people which went beyond auditing profit and loss accounts, and that no matter how lame the duck, certain social costs of unemployment were too high to pay. Where government (and therefore societal) resources have become inextricably intertwined with private capital, through such measures as various regional grants and loan schemes, the accountability of businessmen must go beyond their shareholders. For the nationalized industries such as steel and coal the argument is even more telling.
Recent experience in a recession-hit Britain suggests that the isolated actions of individual workforces will inevitably give way to more co-ordinated action. A possible model, although illegal in Britain, is provided by the Independent Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ which emerged in Poland in August 1980. Organized on a regional basis, factories and institutions with strong industrial muscle could step in on behalf of their weaker co-members.
In Solidarity: Poland’s Independent Trade Union, Denis MacShane provides an excellent journalistic account of the birth, development and scope of this phenomenon, concentrating on the industrial impact of Solidarity. We are led through the maze of confrontations with government, strikes and strike alerts and the sporadic ‘incidents’ which accompanied the emergence of Solidarity as a full-blown trade union organization. With its first formal elections over, it is currently involved in rescuing Poland from the economic, political but also moral depths to which it had sunk. Nevertheless, however much Solidarity may eschew adopting a political role and acting simply as an industrial trade union, by the nature of things this is doomed to failure.
For Solidarity is a social movement which adopted trade unionism as the vehicle for reforming a society where power was concentrated in the hands of a largely irresponsible and un-
accountable party-government elite. The ‘twenty-one demands’ drawn up at the Gdansk Shipyards during those August days in 1980 include the formation of independent trade unions as only one of such demands, alongside the abolition of censorship, better health and welfare facilities, more just appointments procedures to key posts and so on. By default therefore, Solidarity has become the guardian of this social compact signed between a government and its people until such a time as democratically enacted legislation and representative institutions relieve it of this onerous task. Inevitably the relationship of Solidarity to the Church, to the Party, to the emerging organs of employee self-management and to the censor’s office, all of which MacShane deals with, lead us to want to examine the impact, on the wider society, of the ethos which Solidarity represents. Control of educational institutions by academics and students, of agriculture by individual land-owning peasants, even of the police force by policemen and women are just some examples of the ‘spirit of August 1980’ released by the Gdansk workers.
Perhaps the underlying theme of both these books can be most appropriately summed up by the slogan of Polish working people brandished at their erstwhile masters:
‘No decisions about us, without us!’
(George Kolankiewicz lectures in Sociology at the University of Essex, UK)
The Third World Tomorrow
by Paul Harrison
Pelican - Penguin Books (pbk)
UK: £2.75/Aus. $8.50/Can. $6.95
Helping Ourselves: Local Solutions to Global Problems
by Bruce Stokes
Norton (pbk) US: $4.95
Paul Harrison has done it again. The Third World Tomorrow, his sequel to Inside the Third World, is as absorbing and informative as the first Last time, he analysed the poor world’s problems. This time he reports on development strategies based on ‘collective self-reliance’ which seem to be, at last, breaking through the stubborn cycles of deprivation and despair.
Implicit in the human-scale strategies is the recognition of people as living potential rather than as burdens. Mercifully, the poor in Harrison’s book come over not as a blurred and depressing mass of haggard brown faces, distant victims for the well-fed to feel briefly guilty about, but as a multi-farious company of recognisable fellow-humans: busy, hungry, mischievous, giggly, randy, unhappy, shy — their flesh-and-blood reality remains intact.
We meet barefoot dieticians in Bombay, visit a self-built township in Ougadougou, browse through a literacy campaign’s Peasant Library (the best-seller is on sex and marriage) and watch a peasant newspaper being read avidly — ‘sometimes by three people at once’ — in a sleepy village in Colombia.
The final chapters pull together the argu¬arguments that swirl around development Is ‘interdependence’ a Faustian bargain that inevitably favours the rich? Can the West learn some lessons from traditional cultures before they are drowned by Coca-colonialism? What, apart from alleviating gross poverty, is development for?
It’s a cogent and readable book, a good introduction aimed at the general reader who wants to know if a TNC is what an MNC used to be — and at ‘experts’ like the British politician who, just a few weeks ago, earnestly exhorted the West to help the poor countries by buying up more of their raw materials.
Bruce Stokes’ Helping Ourselves:Local Solutions to Global Problems is also about collective self-reliance. Despite all the worthy advice it contains, I must admit to finding it pervasively negative.
Perhaps Stokes ‘loves mankind, but hates Tom, Dick and Harry’ — although the bulk of mankind gets short shrift too. Most of the book is about suburban North America, despite the ‘global’ pretensions in the title. The Third World only figures largely when it comes to birth control. Perhaps Stokes likes Tomas, Devi and Arun even less.
Capitalism and Slavery
...being the book that showed how money, not philanthropy, abolished slavery
IT’S A PERPLEXING business, comparing historical accounts by authors from different countries. Facts melt like blobs of butter into rich pools of conjecture. One begins to wonder, like quantum physicists, whether the recorders of ‘truth’ observe it or create it.
Take the portrait of William Wilberforce. The leader of the Anti-Slavery Movement appears in standard British histories as a sweet-faced saint and an inspiring leader. In Capitalism and Slavery, sweet William becomes shilly-shally William, smug, sycophantic, hedging his bets: ‘It was a common saying that his vote could safely be predicted, for it was certain to be opposed to his speech.’
Pick your prejudice and choose your portrait As for the idea that slavery was abolished bravely, ‘in the teeth of powerful vested interests’ (G.M. Trevelyan), Williams spent the bulk of his text upending the idea that a freak wave of humanitarian goodwill overcame hardnosed slave-traders’ opposition. On the contrary, he argued, slavery was abolished precisely when and because it ceased to be profitable to Britain’s merchants. ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’
It’s a hard judgment. The late Dr. Williams, once a professor of political science and later Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, has been criticised for being too cynical and mechanistic. But Williams asked embarrassingly: why were moral voices so seldom raised against slavery while it was still profitable? Perhaps they were drowned out by the clinking of guineas — the name of the coin betraying the origin of its owners’ wealth. And why was sugar from Brazil and India, also slave grown, not boycotted by the abolitionists as West Indian sugar was? Not to mention American cotton.
Negro slavery ended, Williams insisted, as it began: for economic gain. And it began when it was discovered that ‘three blacks work better and cheaper than one white man’ (the governor of Barbados’ calculation) so importing white indentured labour ceased. There was no longer an indigenous population to exploit: untold millions of Indians had already been exterminated. And as fears of underpopulation grew in Britain, it seemed a better idea to under — populate Africa.
The triangular route from the slave-traders’ home ports — in France, Holland and Britain— to the Gulf of Guinea and then on to the West Indies (that stunningly Eurocentric name for the Caribbean islands) made up the geometry of success: the slave-trader pocketing a profit at each corner. His triangular trade also profited all those he traded with: shipbuilders, timber merchants, iron and copper smelters, rum distillers, cotton and wool clothiers, customs officers, mechanics, bankers... Prosperity percolated deep into Britain through its flourishing seaports: the walls of Bristol and Liverpool were cemented with Negro blood.
As for the sugar planters, they swelled with enough pride and plenty to buy their way into property and both Houses of Parliament back home. Few if any noble houses in England, claimed Williams, were without a West Indian strain. But their power depended on a guaranteed made monopoly with Britain.
That monopoly was broken as ‘free trade’ became the economic vogue, the password of a new class of industrial entrepreneurs with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as their guide. Cheap sugar from Brazil, Cuba and India further challenged the West Indian slave owners’ monopoly. By 1828 it was estimated that being forced to buy expensive West Indian sugar was costing the British well over a million pounds per year. Caribbean ‘King Sugar’ was dethroned.
As the new entrepreneurs defeated the West Indian planters’ lobby, so concern for the slaves’ well-being (by startling coincidence) also grew.
Williams made another controversial point that the wealth from slavery provided one of the main sources of finance for the Industrial Revolution. If the early industrialisation of the North provided the springboard for its economic supremacy today, it follows that slavery is partly responsible for opening up the present North-South gap. So fuelling the ‘dark Satanic mills’ of 18th century Europe with Negro blood has been more than a temporary nightmare for Africa: it lives on in the tragedy of African poverty today.
From a refreshingly quotable book, my favourite anecdote was this: A gentleman eager to prove that ‘the blacks were the happiest people in the world’ appealed to his wife for confirmation. ‘Well, yes,’ replied the good spouse, ‘they were very happy,I’m sure, only I used to think it was so odd to see the black cooks chained to the fireplace.’
Capitalism and Slavery
by Eric Williams (1945)
Andre Deutsch (pbk) £1.95