New Internationalist

After the eclipse

Issue 309

Revolution is out of fashion and organized labour has tumbled for the orgiastic imagery of consumerism. But the next phase of labour resistance is just beginning, according to Jeremy Seabrook.

'Working people arise!' – the Russian Revolution's idealized self–image by painter Valentin Alexandrovich Serov.

If it is true, as historian Eric Hobsbawm says, that labour spent the first half of the nineteenth century learning the rules of the capitalist game and the second half applying them, then the first half of the twentieth century saw the apparently irresistible triumph of labour, and the second half its eclipse and fall – or almost.

The nineteenth-century ้lite was haunted by fear of those the Industrial Revolution had called into existence to serve it: the volatile and unpredictable masses of people concentrated in the manufacturing districts. Memory of the French Revolution led the privileged classes to dread the potential power of labour, whether organized or spontaneous; and after Marx wrote Das Kapital in 1867, with its sulphurous predictions of the inevitable victory of the proletariat, the anxiety of the rich became acute. Marx himself alerted them to the need to conciliate the labouring poor to a system which they might otherwise destroy.

The working class were a new kind of humanity, never before seen on earth. Transformed by industrialism from the remnants of a wasting peasantry, their psyche and sensibility was reshaped by and for the rhythms of industrial society. Yet in spite of Marx’s assertion that revolution would occur in the advanced societies, it was the Russian Revolution in 1917 which seemed to confirm his prophecies.

The effects of this event have shadowed the world ever since, at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The energy and creativity of the Revolution may have been buried beneath the brutal rigidities of Stalinism but a threatened West still had to modify the harshness of its free markets. Reform was inevitable, under pressure from its own labour movements.

The gains made by the workers of the West, of course, preceded the Russian Revolution. Indeed, it was the products of slavery and of the European empires which helped reconcile Western workers to capitalism. For the British, it was the colonized lands which increasingly provided the small comforts and satisfactions of the poor – sugar, tea, tobacco, snuff, coffee, chocolate, pepper, cloves for toothache and apple pies, nutmeg sprinkled on rice pudding, later canned pineapple and refrigerated meat. Indeed, the relationship between the workers of the imperial powers and the oppressed peoples of empire foreshadowed the North-South divide of the twentieth century – inequalities which are today being exacerbated under the banner of globalization.

Once a form of socialism had been established in Russia, Western workers’ demands had to be listened to by their rulers more closely than before; the more so since labour and socialist parties were beginning to participate in government in Europe. At the same time, the socialist movement in Europe made common cause with liberation and anti-colonial struggles elsewhere. It seemed to many that socialism was the unifying force that would liberate both the workers of the West and the oppressed of empire. This was made more likely as an indigenous working class emerged in many of the colonized territories: the mill-workers of Maharashtra in India, the miners of South Africa, the tin-mine and plantation workers of Malaya. When Gandhi visited London’s East End and Lancashire in the 1930s, he was received with a strange enthusiasm – ‘strange’, in that British workers responded to Gandhi’s simplicity and resistance to exploitation, even though they were afraid their jobs were being undermined by cheap labour in the mills of Bombay. It was another curious prefiguring of the present day.

Amidst the ashes of Europe in 1945, the Fascist nightmare over, the workers’ cause seemed unstoppable. This sense was strengthened by the establishment of Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, and was given fresh impetus by the Chinese Revolution in 1949. In Western countries, the welfare state was established; a new note of concern and respect for workers was heard. ‘Never again’ became the slogan, not only to war, but, it was implied, to the poverty, unemployment and economic ruin that had been major causes of war. It looked as though socialism was inevitable.

Of course, the United States provided the alternative model which was to divide Western workers from the other subjects of empire, and to attach them further to capitalism. This model is today offered globally as a source of hope to all the peoples of the world – the promises and pleasures of the consumer society.

Consumerism is not the same thing as prosperity. It is not a synonym for relief from poverty. It is in fact a substitute for the security and sufficiency which the labour movement sought for its people. Visions of the future formulated by labour were of well-regulated workplaces populated with healthy workers, living in salubrious State-provided houses, who enjoyed their leisure in parks, libraries and devoted themselves to self-improvement. Such visions have now been overtaken by the orgiastic imagery of mass consumption which has, through the modern media conglomerates, saturated the globe. The fact that labour’s visions were so easily submerged, colonized and eclipsed does not mean capitalism has a better grasp of what people want. It speaks rather to the poverty of labour’s imagination as it resisted the easy version of the ‘good life’ promoted by consumerism.

The ‘settlement’ of 1945 in which labour and capital were apparently reconciled, was based on a tacit acceptance by the leaders of socialist and labour parties that if governments ensured people were adequately fed, clothed, housed, employed and educated, the earthly paradise could not be far behind. Lost was any sense that humans also need to be proactive, to make and to create, to do things for themselves and for one another.

Chris Stowers - PANOS
Snouts in the trough: Taiwanese factory workers decry the greed of top industrialists. Chris Stowers - PANOS

How much more compelling have been the seductions of consumerism! This may have dealt in promises, maybe illusions; it may have undermined as many real needs as it answered. But it is through consumerism that the people of the world have apparently been won to capitalism, that socialism has been seemingly vanquished. The ‘pact’ of 1945 was observed by labour, but not by capital.

The story of the 1980s is well known. Thatcher and her cohorts called the bluff of the labour movement, which had become a ghost-army of dead souls not only in Western Europe, but also in the Soviet Union. Communism crumbled and the free market was set to reign until the crack of doom. It is an epic paradox that capitalism has now declared the end of history, has proclaimed a realm of freedom that is supposed to endure for all time – thereby expropriating communist rhetoric and belief.

The great majority of the countries emerging from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s emblazoned some form of socialism on their banners of independence. This, for the most part, meant allying themselves with the Soviet Union; it also helped to freeze all discussion of ‘development’, ‘modernization’, ‘progress’ in the either/or division of communist and capitalist society institutionalized in the Cold War. The example of China under Mao Zedong’s ferocious, heroic and unique experiment, offered poor peasant societies an alternative, both to the savagery of Stalinism and the asperities of the market-place – at least for a time.

The working class were a new kind of humanity, never before seen on earth

But the story of humanity in the twentieth century has been, overwhelmingly, the story of attempts to compel people into ideological orthodoxies which have done great violence both to their experience and to their needs. The working class has been used by ideologues of all colours for their own ends. Soviet Communism claimed to celebrate the heroics of labour, for example, while the West persuaded the working class to collude in the conjuring trick of its own disappearance. The myth of the ‘classless society’ in the US, Canada and Australia is deeply demobilizing: it undermines collective action and solidarity among the dispossessed.

The majority of people on earth require only a secure sufficiency. Neither the sonorous pieties of Marxism-Leninism, nor capitalism’s industrial garden of earthly delights in its ubiquitous shopping-malls can satisfy the basic needs of the world’s people.

The internal decay and collapse of the Soviet Union has been a grievous loss for the victims of globalization, not because of the extinction of an ideology that had proved so arid, but because the well-rehearsed obituaries over the death of socialism have left a triumphalist market system free to spread its graveyard dogmas over the entire planet. All ideological conflict is supposed to have been laid to rest, as the rich have been transformed into revered ‘wealth-creators’ whose exertions allow the poor to survive. In this benign view of the world, rich and poor are no longer antagonists but are united in their search for yet more wealth, more money, more resources.

The reality is vastly different. The market, which is powerless to provide profitless clean drinking water to thousands of villages in India can nevertheless offer unaffordable Coca-Cola to their thirsty inhabitants. The spinning mills of Jakarta, which cannot provide a living wage, can furnish the owners with the military protection which will prevent workers from combining in struggle for a bare sufficiency. Globalization permits money and goods to move around the world unimpeded, yet criminalizes the other indispensable element of production, labour, when it seeks to move to where it can command a decent livelihood. And in the process, the treasures of earth are mined, ravaged and consumed at an accelerating rate.

Globalization is imperialism by another name; the world market is an extension of the global imperial adventure of the nineteenth century; and the majority of the working class are now located not in the tenements of Berlin and Glasgow, the immigrant apartment blocks of Chicago and New York, but in the terrible slums of Asia, the favelas of Latin America, the townships of Africa.

There is now no alternative to the impoverishing enrichment envisaged by the defenders of globalization, even as their project falls apart in East Asia and Russia and plunges the world into ruin once more. The story of labour holds sober lessons. It shows that it is not only as workers that people need emancipation from the totalizing dogmas of neo-liberalism, but as consumers too, as complete human beings. There is a new urgency to the need to formulate a richer form of liberation than that envisaged by the revolutionaries and pioneers of labour. Meanwhile globalization rages across the world, leaving whole countries ravaged in its passage – a Russia ruled by organised banditry, an Indonesia plunged into a new kind of market-determined wretchedness, vast swathes of Africa and Asia in hopeless debt. It is the moving spirit of a global economy in which illegal dealings almost equal legal ones, from drugs and arms through tropical hardwoods and ivory, to the traffic in women for prostitution and industrial slavery.

It is against this that new resistances are forming. Among them are workers in the frightful factories of Indonesia, women garment workers from Bangladesh to Mexico, the indigenous peoples of South America – and all over the world the unemployed and semi-employed, the landless and marginalized of an industrialization without end.

Neither the sonorous pieties of Marxism–Leninism, nor capitalism's industrial garden of earthly delights can satisfy the basic needs of the world's people

One of the greatest of these movements – so far uncelebrated and unrecognized by a dominant but curiously inattentive West – has occurred in a ‘backward’ part of Madhya Pradesh in Central India. Shankar Guha Niyogi came to Chattisgarh in the 1970s, and began to organize some of the most wretched workers on earth: those who mined iron ore in the rust-coloured countryside of this tribal area. The trade-union movement he started here was based upon a mixture of Gandhian and Maoist principles (non-violent but relying on the resourcefulness of the people themselves), but it became something more: a movement for liberation, demanding security and a modest well-being for the workers, not the industrial mantra of more and more. So subversive was this peaceful movement, that Niyogi was shot and killed by a cabal of industrialists as he lay sleeping in his room in Bilhai in 1991. But the movement continues, defying both mechanization and globalization.

This new wave of resistance involves not merely workers – however great a part they must play in the liberation struggle waiting to be born – but all whose freedom is forfeit to globalization. Capitalism now promotes itself as a cosmos, a single system which has substituted itself for the natural world it is destroying. In furtherance of this noble ideal it wastes humanity in one way or another, as the British socialist William Morris said, through excess or insufficiency. A world is still to be won: a world where wealth means a conserving and sparing plenty and poverty means a voluntary frugality; a world in which visions as old as humanity itself still remain to be realized.

Jeremy Seabrook has devoted his life to writing about poverty and resistance in both North and South. He is a frequent contributor to the NI.

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