Here I was, happily going about my day preparing for the march to demonstrate support for keeping the NHS in public hands, when out of nowhere*, this article from the New Statesman lands on my screen. Take it away, Staggers:
Few would have guessed that, as the man the Tories chose to lead their assault on the trade union Unite, Michael Gove had a militant past of his own.
But now, courtesy of the People, we have an image of the young Gove manning an NUJ picket line during a year-long dispute at the Aberdeen Press and Journal.
Apparently, the vile little upjumped blackleg was once a member of my own glorious union, and only left its welcoming bosom in 2007, after the conference passed a motion in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israeli apartheid.
I extend my warmest congratulations to union comrades for finally driving out this reactionary, and quite frankly find it incredible that he ever managed the cognitive dissonance required to join an organisation predicated on the need for a solidarity that he so publicly derides.
It makes you reconsider some positions that have become calcified though. We tend to expect, when joining a picket line or demonstration, that most of those in attendance will agree with a certain set of general perspectives. It is often taken as read that trade unionists will: a. Hate the Tories, b. Be opposed to public service cuts and c. Agree that solidarity in action is the only way to win a given dispute.
This is clearly not always the case. So what’s the correct response? Hold a slanging match against anyone who comes up with right wing, or even racist or sexist ideas? Refuse to stand beside them on a picket line and storm off in a huff? If we demand ideological purity for everyone who comes together to defend a school or a hospital, we will rapidly find ourselves marching on the town hall in a crowd of ten instead of ten thousand.
Tony Cliff used to talk about there being three possible outcomes to a problem of politics that arises during a dispute. Say a section of the pickets holds racist ideas, something that is a clear danger in modern disputes and can lead to disunity and defeat, as we saw at the Lindsay oil refinery strike. How would each position respond?
- The opportunist, privileging unity in action over all other concerns, will either ignore the fact that racist ideas are being bandied about, or in the worst case actually take them up and make them a slogan, proclaiming them a thing to be proud of merely by the virtue of having been articulated by members of the working class. This can only lead to being divided in the struggle against the bosses, and in the end less likely to win.
- The sectarian, who cares only for abstract ideological purity, will damn the whole struggle with the words of a few. In order to prove that they do not share what is correctly divined as a disgusting sentiment, they will cut off all solidarity and abandon the picket in the very moment of need. There is no positive change in consciousness gained here, only demoralisation and resentment, against which the sectarian counterposes their own sense of satisfaction at remaining untainted.
Both of these positions boil down to an attempt to avoid the argument, to present it as something which must either be shunned or lived with.
- The revolutionary takes on the ideological battle to win workers away from the ideas that cause strife, division and defeat. If a racist element gains a partial foothold in a dispute, then it should be opposed at every turn, and a principled refusal should be made to bow before an ideology that we know benefits only the other side. Every organising meeting, every picket line, every collection, pamphlet and poster is an opportunity to show how solidarity operates across race and gender boundaries. And when the police come to smash and break the unity of that strike, the revolutionary stands shoulder to shoulder with everyone willing.
The current upsurge in working class activity is a cheering event, and a good sign that the austerity agenda is not yet a settled fait accompli. However, we should never lose sight of the role of the principled individual and organisation intervening to make sure things are set on the right track. Because I don’t know about you, but I want to win this time.
* Not literally from nowhere, from Twitter, thanks to @PeterBradshaw1