Chris Harman

Thinking it through

When it’s right not to choose

(November 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.246, November 2000.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Sometimes there isn’t a simple answer to problems says Chris Harman

‘It’s a reform that would materially benefit the mass of working people.’ ‘It’s a retrograde step that would further pollute the environment, and those who’d suffer most would be working class families.’ Much of the left was virtually paralysed by arguments like this during the lorry owners’ blockade in late September. Such arguments will rage just as fiercely when the Greater London Authority and other city councils finally get round to imposing congestion charges.

The intensity of debate comes from the fact that each side seems to have powerful arguments. Those for accepting the lorry owners’ demand for a cut in fuel tax pointed out that the tax is a regressive indirect tax, and so hits working people more than the rich. Though the poorest third of people cannot afford cars, the hardest hit are the skilled and semi-skilled workers with jobs – rather than the rich.

The arguments against congestion charges from this standpoint are even clearer. There would be a fixed rate charge on each car, regardless of its size. The rich and those in company cars would simply put the charge down as expenses, while the middle group of working people would cut back on other things in order to pay it. The result might not even be safer roads for pedestrians, since those who had paid the charges would be able to drive at higher speed. Anyone who’s visited a Third World city will tell you what its like when the rich really feel they own the roads.

The counter-argument on both points is, of course, the ‘green’ one. A reduction in the cost of motoring encourages more cars. The effects are both a rise in the toll of deaths (poorer children are ten times more likely than rich ones to be hit by cars), and to make the greenhouse effect even worse, destabilising weather patterns and producing the floods and droughts we’ve seen all the way from Bangladesh to Central America, and from western India to the US Pacific coast.

The arguments become, on the one side, ‘stuff the petty bourgeois environmentalists and make workers pay less’, on the other, ‘stuff the selfish motorists and save the planet’. Each side only sees one part of the picture without relating it to the wider system that is both damaging working class living standards and threatening the planet. A central concept in the Marxist understanding of the world was emphasised by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács 80 years ago – that of the totality.

Capitalism is a rapidly changing total system, in which each element is influenced to differing degrees by other elements. But the questions people raise when confronted with changes are often posed in narrow terms framed by their particular experiences. A point made by Frederick Engels in his writings on dialectics is very important. To say either ‘aye’ or ‘nay’ can be to fall into the trap of accepting the limitations of the question itself. Once you do this, you can end up going in the opposite direction to that which you intended.

This happens to socialists in the US who accept politics as involving a choice between two unreservedly capitalist parties. It happened to socialists across Europe in 1914 who accepted the ‘choice’ between the alliances of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one side and Britain, France and Russia on the other. It happened in the Cold War years to those who saw the ‘choice’ as being between Western imperialism and Russian Stalinism.

Those who refuse to make such a choice are often accused of ‘abstentionism’. But a refusal to choose can mean the opposite. In the First World War it meant risking imprisonment and worse by supporting every protest and strike, regardless of its impact on ‘your own side’s’ army. In this year’s American election it has meant vigorously campaigning for Ralph Nader’s candidacy, regardless of the damage this might do to Gore’s chances against Bush.

In the case of the fuel protests, it meant understanding that the widespread sympathy with the protesters was an expression of the very widespread alienation of people from official politics. The lorry owners and farmers were able to tap into this feeling precisely because union leaders have held the organised working class back from doing anything which might damage their own friendly relations with the Labour government. But it also meant understanding that the class nature of the forces leading the protests would prevent them developing into any sort of challenge to the wider system. They may have been anti-government but they were certainly not anti-capitalist.

The lorry owners and small farmers are part of what Marxists call the ‘petty bourgeoisie’. This class of capitalists and would-be capitalists usually identify with the system even while it is doing them damage. The most energetic sections of them want to join the big bourgeoisie. They can be won to follow the lead of workers’ organisations struggling for independent class demands. But short of this, their movements are easily channelled in directions favourable to big business and can pull atomised groups of workers with them.

So the fuel protesters insisted they were only concerned with the increased tax (1.2p out of the total 18p a litre rise of recent months) and not the profits of the oil companies. They relied on the sympathy of the oil companies and local police chiefs to make their protests effective. And they allowed subsequent negotiations with the government to be dominated by the Freight Transport Association, which represents the big haulage firms and supermarkets, the very forces responsible for squeezing the small hauliers and farmers.

The rumoured outcome is government action on diesel prices which will reduce the costs of these businesses, while leaving the petrol bills of working class motorists untouched. Meanwhile the oil companies feel strengthened in their ability to prevent the government taking action over global warming. Those socialists who threw themselves uncritically into the fuel protests now find themselves, uncomfortably, on a train pulled by the oil lobby.

Yet there was a response to the protests which could have united concern with working class living standards and concern with the environment. This was to focus on the record level of oil profits and to demand that they are used to pay for public transport.

Needed along with this was the demand that unions provide a focus for the general alienation through using ‘French methods’ over issues like that of pensions. This is what the Socialist Workers Party tried to do. It won’t be the last time we have to rely on such a method of approaching issues.

Poorer children are ten times more likely to be hit by cars than rich ones

Last updated on 22 December 2009