The Red Plough
Vol. 3-No 2
Libya, why not Syria?
Politics on the internet.
Belfast 1907 Strike
Libya why not Syria?
All through the year 2011 Libyan rebels, probably sponsored initially by the Western powers and certainly backed by their air power were trying to topple then Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. These rebels left to their own resources would have stood no chance in their campaign however with the assistance of the most advanced aerial weaponry available these odds increased to a racing certainty. The Western powers, especially Britain told lie after lie in order to build up public support for their intended genocide in Libya. These powers led by Britain and France managed to gain from the United Nations (UN) a vague resolution (1971) about protecting civilians during the conflict. Equally it was stated that “regime change” was not on the agenda. Well “regime change” may well not have been on the UN agenda but it was most certainly on the menu for Britain and France and, for once to a lesser extent, the United States.
Aerial support using “tactical” weapons was given to the Western backed rebels increasing their chances of success a million fold. Suddenly these aerial incursions into Libya, to “protect civilians” were transferred from the UN to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) thus bypassing any mandate, or lack of one, from the UN. Gaddafi and his forces never stood a chance agaist such aerial power let us be clear on that. On one NATO raid “protecting civilians” 86 of the intended protected were blown to bits in a hospital by their would be guardians!
Around the same time as events were unfolding in Libya, and is still going on with increased ferocity, disturbances were beginning in Syria. Far more “civilians” were/are being killed in that country by the forces of President al-Assad than were in Libya by Gaddafi. When asked why NATO, led by Britain and France, had not intervened in Syria British Foreign Secretary William Hague indicated that they had no “mandate” from the “Arab League” as they had for action in Libya. The truth is that Libya did not come directly under the “Arab League” (Saudi Arabia in truth) remit but was chiefly the domain of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) who denounced NATO and their intervention. The OAU were ignored by Britain and France the two leading perpetuators of the genocide committed in Libya.
The fact is that the Western powers hated Gaddafi because he refused to do things their way. He was hostile to Western ideology and particularly imperialism. The Syrian leader on the other hand was not generally unfriendly, certainly by comparison, towards the West so he can kill his people, up to now, at will it would appear! The lies and hypocrisies of the Western powers are laid bare for all to see, that is those who wish to.
Equally sad and hypocritical was/is the lack of support, even verbal protest, for Gaddafi from freedom fighting groups around the world whom he had supported in some way. I can not recall one word of condemnation from these various organisations all of whom at some point had benefited from Colonel Gaddafi. Nobody in their right mind could describe Gaddafi as the perfect socialist/communist by any stretch of the imagination but without his support these revolutionary groups would have been unable to practice at all.
Politics on the internet.
The explosion in new technology during the past 20 years has had a profound effect on the way we live our lives. Many of us have i-phones, kindles, mobile phones computers and i-pods or MPG players, ( that is those of us who can afford them.) There are negative aspects to this. For example many of us have become individualised even in social settings. School children up to old age pensioners can sit on buses listening to their devices and having no social contact with other humans. This is of course less obvious in working class districts rather than in middle class districts. There is still a strong sense of social cohesion in the working class districts of major cities.
An other negative is the decline in reading of books and papers and the ready acceptance of the instant headline or opinion. Furthermore the internet has become a tool for consumer capitalism to target the individual tastes of the individual with marketing. (http://www.v3.co.uk/v3-uk/news/2156299/google-rolls-privacy-changes-despite-storm-protests)
However there are also positives such as the explosion of knowledge. Using search engines one can readily access information on any subject under the sun. From a political viewpoint this is all to the good in that political writings are easily accessed and the ideas of great thinkers can be studied. The down side of this is that one can become a “computer activist” ie isolated alone arguing great ideas but not actually doing anything concrete or being part of a movement party or campaign. This in turn can allow the so called “activists” to despise “ideas” and refer to “ideological cul de sacs” and “theoretical abstractions” with contempt.. Of course neither way is the way forward for the republican or left forces in Ireland.
Most political organisations now have their own websites where sometimes the discussions are abusive or apolitical.Sometimes they are narrowly focused on their own politics and their own world view to the exclusion of any other possibilities. And sometimes they are genuinely political combining both theory and action.
Revolutionary organisations have always been open to infiltration by intelligence services of the state. Any organisation with revolutionary pretensions should accept as given that their own organisation is infiltrated and probably at the highest level.
The intelligence services use their agents to gather information, assess the leadership potentiality of the membership and whether they are “flexible” and also to disrupt the organisation either by provocative actions designed to discredit the organisation or spreading false information and slanders to discredit genuine revolutionaries. There should be no place for back biting, rumor mongering, gossip or personality attacks in a serious revolutionary organisations. While it is sometimes difficult to separate the personality from the politics it should always be the case that the primary and overriding concern is politics not personalities.
So those who indulge in personality attacks should have no place in the leadership of a revolutionary organisation. (http://irsm.org/history/tapowerdoc.html)
That is why it is so important to monitor what goes into political debate on the internet. At all times debate should be political no based on innuendo , lies slander or abuse. Too often too many republicans rather than deal with with the actual politics of Sinn Fein resort to personal abuse of the likes of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness. That route is not the way to win over to your point of view, many of the young people attracted to the modern Sinn Fein. The internet is full of attacks on the above but rarely do you see critical engagement with the ideas of the leadership of Sinn Fein. To see some republican sites one would think that all republicanism was about was holding commemorations, abusing Sinn Fein, selling books and holding white line pickets for prisoners. All these, except the abuse, are worthy in themselves but there is a great absence of critical engagement with ideas and policies and a great absence of debate. It is in debating ideas and polices and then carrying out those policies that young people in particular learn the art of revolution. Theory and Practice!
A marxist web site has just passes over 200.000 hits on the internet.The web site has only been in existence for two and a half years. Another marxist site in existence since 2001 has had only 86,000 approx hits. The site is called Fightback and is the online journal of the International Marxist Tendency in Ireland.(http://ireland.marxist.com/) As a site it is navigated with different sections on youth, trade unions history international ,marxism the IMT itself and Ireland.The Ireland section is divided into two parts-politics and the North. (I declare an interest having a number of articles printed in the North and History sections-GR) The articles(by other writers )are well written and examine the impact of capitalism on Ireland. For example
“Irish emigration masks the unemployment crisis”
deals with the curse of irish people for generations -emigration. Using statistics from official sources the short article sums up all the reasons why capitalism does not serve the irish people and argues for an international solution to the capitalist crisis-socialism.There is also a series of articles on the politics of bigotry which exposes the sectarianism at the heart of Imperialism in ireland .
The web site also exposes the role of the Labour party in betraying their election promises and appeals for Labour’s rank and file to pressure that Party to break from the coalition. It opposes the Household Water and Septic Tank taxes. In clear unemotional language it puts forward the case for socialism in Ireland. Its main orientation is towards the trade union movement and youth and it has the aim of developing a strong marxist tendency within the labour movement across the island of ireland.
Its aim is to give the working class the tools to fight back against capitalism-tools that are both theoretical and practical. For a sober analysis of capitalism in ireland this site is well worth a visit.
Below is what Fightback stand for
“We base ourselves on the ideas of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, VI Lenin, James Connolly and Leon Trotsky; the basic principles of the Marxist movement.- We'd urge you to join with us in the fight for Socialism.”
Where we stand
Nationalise the banks and the major industries under the democratic control of the working class
You can’t control what you don’t own we need a democratic socialist plan of production
Nationalise any factory or business threatening redundancy under workers control and management.
Make the bosses pay for the crisis.
"Social Partnership" has proven little more than a trap for the working class. Industrial action to protect jobs, services, wages and conditions.
No sale of state assets; privatisation is piracy
Not a cent off the pay, not a second on the day.
No wage cuts or attacks in conditions on either side of the border
Break the Coalition with Fine Gael. For a Labour and Left Government with a socialist programme.
No collaboration with the bosses. Labour must support the workers in struggle.
A 32 hour working week with no loss of pay
For a €12.50 per hour minimum wage.
For a free and universal health care system
Affordable and adequate housing for all, no reposessions
Place empty housing under state control; slash the housing queues
No to all Household Taxes!
Fight all discrimination whether on the grounds of religion, age, race, gender or sexual orientation.
Fight anti union legislation. For full union recognition in all workplaces - with no loopholes
No to the Lisbon Treaty; No to a Bosses Europe, for a Socialist United States of Europe.
No to Stormont and the sectarian blind alley of the Good Friday Agreement
For a mass non sectarian workers party in the north, based on the trade union movement
For a 32 county Socialist United Ireland linked in a voluntary federation to a socialist Britain as part of a European and World Socialist Federation.
Workers of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains
Belfast 1907 Strike
(The following article was first printed on feb 13th Feb in Fightback http://ireland.marxist.com/history/8401-the-1907-dock-strike-105-years-on.It is here reproduced by ind permission)
Belfast in 1907 was a hotbed of militancy. It was the fastest growing city in the British isles. Its most successful industries were labour intensive. Although once described by a former Lord Mayor,
“an elysium of the working classes”1
Belfast had a sharp divide, not only between catholics and protestants, but between skilled and non-skilled labour. The skilled workers shared in the general prosperity of the and had wages unsurpassed outside of London. However the unskilled who flocked into Belfast from the countryside did not share this prosperity and the
“ labouring classes ..... were bordering on starvation” (ibid)
It was estimated that to keep a family the minimum income would need to be 22 shillings and five pence, yet unskilled labour only earned10 shillings a week. The wages of women and children made up the difference.
With an upturn in the trade cycle in 1906 the unskilled were no longer prepared to take up the suggested (by the skilled unions) route of petitioning their employers for the right to organise. That route only led to humiliation.
In May of that year 17,000 spinners weavers and others had struck for wage increases and in 1907 there were 34 strikes that included textile operatives engineering, service trades, navvies and other labourers. Moreover the first annual conference of the British Labour Party was held in Belfast in early 1907. Labour organiser and socialist agitator James Larkin attended that conference. He had come to Belfast intent on the organisation of Belfast's 3100 dockers, 2000 of who were casual ‘spellsmen’ hired at low rates on a daily basis.
“Even for regularly employed dockers, wages were low, and the working week could be as long as 75 hours.” 2
Larkin, born of Newry parents and brought up in Liverpool, had arrived in Belfast 20th January 1907 and set up branches of the National Union Of Dock Labour in Belfast and Derry. A previous attempt to organise 400 of the men 15 years previous had failed due to a extended lockout and a sustained press campaign labeling the union leaders as “Fenians”.
“Jim Larkin crashed upon the public with the devastating roar of a volcano exploding without even a preliminary wisp of smoke”3
The Belfast membership of 3000 included protestant cross channel and Catholic deep sea sections. Then there were added carters and coal-men.
On the 6th may 1907 dockers at the York dock in Belfast objected to working with two non union men. Their union organiser, Larkin, advised them to go back to work. When they did, they found they had been replaced by 50 strike breakers imported from Liverpool. The following day the union members drove out the scabs from the Kelly Coal Quays and the sheds of the the Belfast Steamship Company. While Kelly capitulated, granted union recognition and a pay rise, Thomas Gallagher, refused to negotiate with Larkin.
Gallagher was also a shareholder in Belfast Ropeworks company and he realised the implications of allowing unskilled labour to organise. While prepared to negotiate with the Union he set out to personalise the issue by highlighting Larkin’s role. Soon he had hundreds of scabs working on the quays surrounded by the RIC and troops requisItioned by the Lord Mayor of Belfast.
Larkin, who described Gallagher “as an obscene scoundrel,” had three weapons he used in pursuit of the union membership and they were ,
the sympathetic strike,
the doctrine of tainted good and
his wildfire oratory.
So Larkin responded in kind. When Gallagher dismissed seven girls in his tobacco factory for attending a lunchtime meeting of Larkin’s 1000 of their fellow workers walked out.
Stone throwing and attacks on scabs occurred. Larkin himself was arrested for attacking a scab. While the tobacco strike was crushed the dockers strike escalated. In June 350 ironmoulders began a seven week stoppage which affected 2000 engineers indirectly.
On June 26th Larkin called out all dockers for better pay and union recognition.The following day 1000 carters struck in sympathy and for for their own wage claims.
So Larkin called on other carters not to handle goods of companies in dispute.
This produced a response from 18 coal merchants who said that from 15th July they would not employ any union labour. This in turn saw 880 porters and carters joining the struggle. In the meantime it took until 19th of July for the union leadership to sanction strike pay. Up to then it was the Belfast trades council and local unions who sustained the strikers and their families.
Thousand would flock to Larkin’s public open air meetings. Despite all this occurring around the 12th of July sectarianism did not break the strike.
“On the eve of the twelfth of July, the traditional day of the orange order marches and of sectarian violence throughout Ulster, a mass rally was held in Belfast. Reporting on this event, Police Commissioner Hill commented that "the speakers at the meeting last night did not speak of the strike. They spoke of socialism and generalities." (Gray P.77). The following day, Belfast witnessed the strangest 12th of July ever. Instead of riots and pogroms, strike leaders were getting up in public to defend workers interests against sectarianism.”4
Larkin having grown up in Liverpool was aware of the nature of sectarianism and indeed at one stage offered to hand over the leadership of the strike to Councillor Alec Boyd, an orangeman and trade unionist. Significantly riots in support of the strikers broke out on the mainly protestant Ravenhill Road and the mainly catholic Falls Road. A case of East and West Belfast united in a common cause.
On the 16th of July Larkin made a speech in which he outlined discontent within the police ranks with their pay, conditions and been made to protect scabs. Larkin persuaded the members of the police force that they were underpaid. The Police demands in 1907 were identical with the trade unions
“they wanted the machinery by which periodic increases in income could be negotiated in place of the inveterate repulsion they received from the authorities each time they tried to catch up on inflation” 5
Then the state intervened. British troops sealed of the quays. Cavalry escorted the goods traffic. Warships anchored in Belfast Lough.
On the 24th the police protested and over 2500 troops were drafted into Belfast and over 200 police transferred to country areas.6 By August 6th the police protest was over.
During this period the Presbyterian Ulster Echo made a sectarian attack on the union leadership referring to them as
“extreme and rabid nationalists and Roman Catholics”7
Then as now the media threw its considerable forces behind the employers and the state forces.During the period of the strike the ‘yellow press describe Larkin as a “socialist” an “”anarchist” or a “syndicalist” and a “papist.Ironically when he later moved to Dublin he was called an “orangeman” an “atheist” and “the son of” the infamous informer Carey.8
On August 11th security forces flooded the lower Falls area provoking riots. Soldiers shot dead two people and wounded scores of others. The mainstream labour movement was quick to distance itself from the militancy of the workers. Philip Snowden9 condemned
“that portion of the Belfast population which is almost as much accustomed to rioting as a savage tribe is to constant warfare”10
This almost unconscious racism of course fed into the sectarian mindsets in Belfast. Thus the heightened sectarian and political tensions made it extremely difficult for the strikers. Larkin sought arbitration but when only the carters employers agreed the dockers were left isolated as the carters had to accept a deal they had earlier rejected.
The dockers were defeated-“they were never again employed by the shipping company”(ibid)
The support of the union bureaucracy had always been very lukewarm and when the men came out in a desperate attempt to prevent the formation of a bogus union the NUDL leaders James Sexton paid a one day visit to Belfast, meet the employers on his own, denounced the workers action and told the men it “would plain sailing”. The next day the workers found they had been permanently displaced by scab labour.
It was a terrible defeat for the workers but in that strike there were important signals of what was possible. The use of the sympathetic strike brought a solidarity that transcended the sectarian divisions even if it was just for a short time. The explosive nature of the personality of Larkin showed what charismatic figures, if unflinching in the face of adversity, can do. Larkin was not afraid to take on not only the employers but also the forces of the state, in defence of the weakest sections of the working class. It also underlined the essentially conservative nature of the leaderships of the British trade unionism ready to secure a deal at a moments notice and without consulting the workers.
At the beginning of the 20th century the unskilled workers were unorganised without representation. The Belfast strike gave hope to unskilled workers throughout the British isles that they too could become unionised. However the strike also exposed the ways that the ruling class will resist any attempts to curtail their power.
They acted ruthlessly when their own police force mutinied, they unleashed their troops on one section of workers to heighten sectarian tensions and they used their media, their churches, and their liberal establishment to demonise and slander the workers and their leaders.
In the 21st century we have seen the demonisation of the public sector workers by those same forces. Today there are unprecedented attacks on the living standards of the working class. Much of the gains of the 20th century
were build on the backs of generations of workers in struggle, like the 1907 strike. For workers on these islands the National Health Service and the growth in the public sector brought thousands of workers from poverty and ill health.
Now an unprecedented attack has been launched world wide on the gains of the 20th century. Attempts to divide workers on public versus private sector , or catholic versus protestant or Shia versus Sunni lines must be resisted. Let us learn from the past and make permanent the class unity that existed if only for a magnificently short time in Belfast 1907.
James Connolly Archive http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly
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