Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Workers in Uniform

(May 1959)

From The Newsletter, 16 May 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

The Shepton Mallet ‘glasshouse’ scandal brings to the fore the need for trade union rights for soldiers, as Bob Pennington pointed out in The Newsletter last week.

There was a time when the Communist Party interested itself in this important question.

A ‘soldiers’, sailors’ and airmen’s charter’ printed in the pamphlet ‘The Soldier’s Conscience’, by Robert Dunstan (1925), included demands for the right to join and to form trade unions, as well as a number of points for immediate improvements in servicemen’s conditions – and provisions that no troops be used against workers on strike.

There was even a time when that last matter was taken up by official Labour.

‘Severed from society’

When British soldiers were being used at a Baltic port to unload arms, for use against Soviet Russia, which the local workers had refused to touch, Ernest Bevin himself declared:

‘It is the view of the whole Council of Action that it is an abuse of the undertaking given by a soldier when he enlists to turn him from a soldier into a blackleg.

‘Military discipline has no right to be used to outrage the conscience of a soldier (Central Hall, Westminster, August 13, 1920).

It is just because the ruling class needs to use the armed forces against the working people that it tries to keep them isolated organizationally from the latter.

The more the soldier is cut off from the masses of the people, the better – this ruling-class principle goes back to the war against the French revolution, when soldiers were first systematically taken out of billets in pubs and private houses and put into barracks.

With the frankness of those days, prime minister William Pitt explained that ‘the soldier must be severed from society’.

Who are ‘parasites’?

A reader asks whether it is the view of the Socialist Labour League that everyone whose work does not directly produce a palpable object, such as a house or a heap of coal, is a parasite?

If so, he says, ‘railwaymen, let alone clerical workers, must be out of place in your movement’.

Well, the idea is certainly not a Marxist one. The category of ‘socially-useful’ work is a great deal wider than that of ‘productive’ work.

Take book-keeping, for instance, a thoroughly ‘unproductive’ activity: in a well-known passage in volume ii of Capital Marx pointed out that it will be still more necessary under socialism than it is already under capitalism!

What is ‘workers’ control’?

This reader asks also if by ‘workers’ control’ we mean that everybody in a position of authority must be chosen by those immediately under him.

That was one of the ideas of the so-called ‘Workers” Opposition’ which came out against Lenin and Trotsky in 1921.

In an article written then, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune, Trotsky argued that ‘the methods of shapeless democracy (simple electibility) must be supplemented and to a certain extent replaced by measures of selection from above.

‘The revolution must create an organ composed of experienced, reliable organizers, in which one can have absolute confidence, give it full powers to choose, designate and educate the command.

‘Electibility, democratic methods are but one of the instruments in the hands of the proletariat and its party. Electibility can in no wise be a fetish, a remedy for all evils. The methods of electibility must be combined with those of appointment.’

What is essential is, as our own National Workers’ Committee put it in its policy statement on Consolidation and Control, also issued in 1921, that ‘any tendency to bureaucracy’ be ‘curbed by giving the workers collectively a power over those who direct the industry’.

Gaitskell and the printers

What are we to make of the placing of the banners of the printworkers’ unions at the head of the Labour Party’s May Day procession, immediately behind Gaitskell himself?

Can it be that all the resources of Her Majesty’s Opposition are to be thrown behind these workers in their dispute; the sacred distinction between the ‘industrial’ and ‘political’ sides of the movement being scrapped?

Perhaps this is not exactly what Gaitskell has in mind. Though he certainly knows as well as anyone what methods get results with the British working class.

In the little book he wrote on Chartism for the Workers’ Educational Association, thirty years ago, Gaitskell referred to the existence of ‘two nations’ in Britain in the early nineteenth century, and to the concessions made by the capitalists in the second half of the century.

‘Without going so far as some historians, who are apt to put down to the credit of Chartism the greater part of the social legislation in the latter part of the century,’ he went on, ‘we can agree that the attitude of one “nation” towards the other was considerably softened after the events of the early forties.’

Last updated on 12.10.2011