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Proletarian issue 18 (June 2007)
‘Victories and defeats’ in the motor industry
The deeper capitalism goes into crisis, the more essential it becomes to measure ‘victories’ and ‘defeats’, not by the immediate practical outcome alone (ie, which class won the battle), but by the political lessons learned (ie, what ideological progress was made toward winning the class war).

Recent developments in the motor industry illustrate the point. The defeats faced by car workers, as they watched jobs drain away from Vauxhall at Luton, Ford at Dagenham and Peugeot at Ryton, were blows suffered by the class.

But much worse than these blows in the long term were the defeatist politics with which opportunism served up these defeats, as the unions pursued their ‘pragmatic’ policy of limiting their activity to negotiating the ‘least worst’ redundancy terms, alternating with chauvinist campaigns against ‘unfair foreign competition’. Such misleadership not only saps workers’ resolve in the immediate battle, but also weakens the class ideologically for the battles ahead.

And some of the ‘victories’ claimed by opportunist leadership are as damaging, or more damaging, than some of the defeats, looked at in terms of what is gained or lost in class consciousness. For example, consider the political message smuggled in by these gentry when the anarchy of production spins the bottle back in favour of some ‘lucky’ car workers on Merseyside.

No sooner did General Motors announce that the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port will stay open a bit longer so that the new Astra can get built – obviously a welcome relief at least in the short term for workers in this locality – than T&G General Secretary Tony Woodley popped up to draw the worst possible conclusion from this development. Expressing his joy at this “boost for the car industry in the UK after too many disappointments”, Woodley gushed that “It is a strong indication that when we fight hard and fight together for manufacturing we win”.

Who is this “we” to which he refers? Clearly not the 4,500 Belgian workers at the GM Europe plant in Antwerp, where Astra production will cease in 2010. Nor in truth is he really talking about British workers either, except as auxiliaries drafted in to help fight a trade war on behalf of ‘their own’ capitalists. It is the “we” of class collaboration, not the “we” of class solidarity. It is the “we” that urges workers to depend, not upon their own class strength, but upon the ‘patriotic’ efforts of the Northwest Regional Development Agency to feed GM enough grant aid sweeteners to lure them away from Antwerp. And it is the “we” that so completely identifies the fate of workers with the fate of their exploiters that “fighting hard and fighting together” means actively helping to perfect that exploitation.

So it is that Jonathan Browning, GM’s number two executive in Europe, was able to brag that the thumbs up for Ellesmere Port “signals a lot of hard work successfully completed at the plant to turn round productivity”, adding ominously that he expects productivity to rise a further 25 or 30 percent “going forward”. (‘Ellesmere Port wins replacement Astra’ by Christine Buckley, The Times, 18 April 2007)

Every move workers make to resist capitalist exploitation, even the tiniest of steps, is a welcome demonstration of the fact that the working class, even when burdened by the direst opportunist leadership, remains still a thorn in the side of the bourgeoisie. But we need to learn not to trust the phoney triumphalism of the opportunists at least as much as their defeatism. We need to understand correctly both the defeats and the successes in the war of attrition between capital and labour, confident in the knowledge that, once possessed of an ideology equal to the tasks that history sets for it, the proletariat will be invincible.
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