Saturday, 7 August 2010


Rousseau vs Voltaire; Whittaker vs Douglas?

The other week I had an email from Dave Douglass, the famous NUM militant who has just published his memoirs of the Miners' Strike of 1984-5, who said he was not willing to review our booklet 'The Workers' Next Step' – a discussion document considering the modern day issues surrounding ideas put forward almost 100 years ago by the South Wales Miners' Federation in their 'The Miners' Next Step'; Dave said he was not willing to review the booklet because of a contribution by Rachel Whittaker, the anarchist environmentalist and conservationist. Both Dave and Rachel support a body called the Northern Anarchist Network. Dave, now a retired miner living in South Shields, believes in clean coal and the NUM; while Rachel from Shropshire rejects this, supporting campaigns like the Climate Camp.

In a way this dispute fought out some years ago at a NAN conference reminds me of the 18th century dispute between Rousseau and Voltaire. This year has seen two serious earthquakes – one in Haiti and the other in Santiago in Chile – and it was the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 that led to the famous quarrel between these great two thinkers. Voltaire wrote a poem on the Providential government of the world. Rousseau replied: 'Voltaire, in seeming always to believe in God, never really believed in anybody but the devil, since his pretended God is maleficent. Being who according to him finds all his pleasure in working mischief. The absurdity of this doctrine is especially revolting in a man (Voltaire) crowned with good things of every sort, and who in the midst of his own happiness tries to fill his fellow-creatures with despair, by the cruel and terrible image of the serious calamities from which he is himself free.'

Rousseau saw no reason to make a fuss about the earthquake and thought it a good thing that a few people should get killed now and then. Besides, the people of Lisbon suffered because they lived in houses several stories high; if they had been dispersed in the woods, as people ought to be, they would have escaped uninjured. One wonders, reading this, if the people living in shacks and shanty towns in Haiti and Chile fared better than those in the big houses? Is modern living bad for us? Should we return to the woods from whence we came with Rachel Whittaker? Or should we, with Dave Douglass, huddle round the fireside stoking the cinders? Should we invoke Rousseau with his implied classical anarchism and return to the wilds, or should we stop indoors and enjoy the comforts of modern living and the enlightenment with a more liberal-minded Voltaire?

In 1755, Voltaire replied to Rousseau's essay 'Discourse on Inequality', in which Rousseau had argued that 'man is naturally good, and is only by institutions made bad'. Voltaire responded thus: 'I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it...'

Do we don our woolly jumpers from Oxfam and retreat to a farm in the mountains of Iberia with Rachel Whittaker in the spirit of Rousseau? Or do we jump in Dave Douglass' scrappage-scheme car and visit Beamish Museum with its drift mine colliery?

Meanwhile, our NV publication 'The Workers' Next Step' languishes on the bookshelves almost unwanted: Dave Douglass won't review it and the Peoples History Museum, which happily stocks Northern Voices and sells our Spanish Civil War booklet like hot cakes, has rejected it. Housmans bookshop in London has said the poor reception may have something to do with the Lucien Freud illustration of a 'Benefit Officer Sleeping' on the front cover and the lady at Bookcase at Hebden Bridge said she didn't expect it to do as well as our Spanish booklet. Another explanation may be that, since the defeat of the miners, workers are no longer fashionable in our post-modern world.


David Douglass said...

Your a twat you Brian, you really are, you gave me TWO books to review, and I was already reviewing the major book on 1926, by Barron. The Workers Next Step wasnt a pamphlet with any potential to make any impacts or ring any bells with anyone, I mentioned Racheal because I have already had this debate with her, twice now at national open conferences and in numerous publications, the rest of the pamphlet wasnt really spending scarce time reviewing. However I gave your other pamphlet on Spain a major review in Freedom and on the miners website Ive just finished after three week hard weeks now doing the review of the a1926 book, meantime if you know wheres there a blackbirds nest DONT TELL bliddy Brian...

Rachel said...

I could bore you with that most elusive of qualities in the ‘Bammy’ repertoire, i.e. the facts, by pointing out that even when defending Climate Camp against some of the criticism levelled by Dave and others, I’ve NEVER given it my unqualified support. I might also point out that Oxfam’s ‘two pounds a month to end poverty’ approach to alleviating bourgeois consciences leaves me cold.

However, I myself am becoming a little bored with him stirring up the shit amongst his comrades in order to offset his own frustrations and whilst there is cause for some celebration (in that he has given me and Dave something to agree on at last) the twattery of a valued comrade can never really be greeted with unbridled joy.

Yes, Dave and I profoundly disagree on the role of coal mining in both a working class and environmental context and this is a matter of public record but we aren’t the only ones who disagree on these issues and frankly, in this context it is neither here nor there. What’s more, for someone who is happy to criticise so-called ‘exotica’ in the writing of others, El Editorismo doesn’t half churn it out himself and although Dave Voltaire and Rachel Rousseau does perhaps have quite a pleasing ring to it in terms of a Las Vegas magicians act, I feel there would be too much disagreement on the role of ‘glamorous assistant’!

The Worker’s Next Step is a publication in which most of the articles (in fact, half of the entire pamphlet) were written by Bammy himself and it was mooted as a radical commentary on the plight of ‘the worker’ - much as The Miner’s Next Step’ had been 100 years before. Am I really the only one who is not surprised that either failed to muster even modest interest, let alone a revolutionary spirit, amongst the massed ranks of the proles?

This is nothing to do with the fact that post-modernism has rendered ‘the worker’ unfashionable in the wake of the miners’ defeat. It’s to do with the fact that even before capitalism enjoyed the vice-like grip on social relations that it does today, most workers actually preferred to seek concessions from the system than take their destinies into their own hands, often at the expense of other workers. In fact, much of what has previously passed for ‘worker solidarity’ has often been less unity in the face of a common enemy and more a quest to ensure that some workers are not getting more crumbs from the master’s table than others.

Of course, for ‘workers’ read ‘white, male and industrial’ or am I missing a subliminal revolutionary message in Bammy’s comment to me last year that “the trade union movement today is dominated by these minority issues of gays, women, etc”?

bammy said...

GOD SAVE US all from the wrath of Rachel!

She quotes me out of context here, but that's fine in a knockabout polemic like this.

The question she put to me that produced the quoted response from me came at the end of a long interview, and was one of those standard questions that tutors offer to undergraduates and, as I recall, went something like this: the British trade union movement is mainly 'white, male, industrial' and heterosexual – discuss? I seem to remember that I queried the historical basis of the question itself, and argued in a speculative sociological way that there had been changes in the culture of the British trade union movement since the miner's strike of 1984-5 with the rise of white collar unions like Unison that had transformed things, and not necessarily for the better. One aspect of this could be seen as the decline of the influence of blue collar unions such as the NUM and the focus by the official trade union movement in the TUC on issues which had hitherto been considered marginal to the central core concerns of the trade unions: 'gays, women, etc.', not to mention the trade union conferences now afforded liberally to transsexuals and transvestites: I should have thought that explaining this novel phenomena in the labour movement would be part of the curriculum in the universities today. Is there something 'subliminal' about this? I think not. Indeed, I would say analysis of this cultural shift should be central to any contemporary comment on the labour movement. Could we see it, as Max Weber might, as the natural drift away from the original core values that occurs in organisations like trade unions as they age? Others, perhaps Rachel, may see this as an evolution towards a more enlightened politically correct world?

Rachel's question was framed in terms of the organised trade union movement and the novel phenomena I referred to above, which I think clashes with the basis of her question, are principally the preoccupation of the the bureaucracy, the hierarchy, the organisation at the top and not perhaps the rank and file of the trade unions. Why these issues have become the fashion and the fad of certain people at certain levels in the trade union movement at this time needs explanation, and for all I know they may have had some academic attention already. In all this there is a tendency to give too much importance to the official line and ignore other, less readily articulated accounts, among trade union members. In the latest volume of Dave Douglas's autobiography 'Ghost Dancers' he dwells on an idea put up by Arthur Scargill after the end of miner's strike in 1985: 'His idea was to incorporate the women of the pit communities into the NUM.' Dave claims: 'It would have sunk our roots deeper into the villages and areas and ethnic cultures, from which we had sprung and drawn our power.' In the end the rule change dealing with 'Associate Membership and Honorary Membership' for women was not accepted by the National Rules Revision Conference.

Dave believes that the NUM and the miners were a 'revolutionary' force in the British working class in 1984; I believe they were the most militant element at that time but that Dave uses the word 'revolutionary' in vain. Dave bases his belief on the miner's control of the job, but that was it so far as I can see: the miner's fight was basically a struggle for 'job control' not social and cultural transformation. Rachel is right to perceive that this struggle – the miner's battle in 1984-85 - was a conservative campaign to keep the status quo. The miners, particularly Arthur Scargill, were using tactics to defeat the Thatcher government. Thatcher, in 1984, had a radical strategy to confront the conservative miners who were trying to hang-on to their old traditions and practices, neither the miners nor the TUC had a plan for social change and in the end they lost decisively.

Rachel said...

As it happens, I don’t think that it would be ok to quote you out of context, even in a knockabout polemic (despite your own habit of rejecting context of any kind) but I don’t think that I have.

Yes, the comments I quoted from you were made in response to a wider question asked during an interview undertaken as part of my degree course but to suggest that this question was prompted by a tutor is utter crap. More so when you well know the numerous personal battles I undertook with my dyed-in-the-wool Trot lecturer, not least on the issue of whether your experiences as an anarchist were a suitable topic for study as an oral history project.

I’m happy to quote the question I asked (which you have misquoted) and your lengthy answer verbatim from the interview transcript if you like, but as this is in the public domain via the University of Wolverhampton library, I’m sure people can do their own research and make their own judgements in this regard if they so wish. I don’t think I would be on my own in finding a lot of what you had to say quite worrying and contradictory, however speculatively sociological you might have thought you were being.

What your response here fails to address, clearly because you still do not find it problematic, is your description of women as a ‘minority group’, objections to which have little to do with either a penchant for political correctness on my part or differences between the unions’ top brass and their rank-and-file.

Are you really suggesting that Arthur Scargill and Dave’s desire to bring women from pit communities into the NUM on an official basis was only opposed by those at the top? I would say that if you are, and even if you are correct, then the NUM were very much the exception rather than the rule. To suggest that rank-and-file discrimination against women is a thing of the past or that a general acceptance of women in the workplace and/or trade unions at grassroots level has been spoiled by knee-jerk political correctness by a union bureaucracy is, at best, naïve.

It’s just one example but in 2008, the Equality and Human Rights Commission sharply criticised trade unions for failing to take women’s equal pay claims forward, leaving them to rely on private legal firms (‘Unions Fail Women Workers’ Freedom Vol. 69 No. 15 30.08.08). However, it would also be fair to say that many ‘new’ feminists have taken up the issue of equal pay with vigour, whilst treating the arguments of radical feminists, i.e. that seeking equality with those already suffering inequality is no equality at all, as something of an embarrassment.