Oration at Marx’s grave

Sunday 14 March 2010

Alex Gordon. President, National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers (UK)

We meet today as monopoly capital and forces of so-called ‘globalisation’ face yet another deep crisis. Conversely, this has awakened new interest in the ideas of Karl Marx, which have proved much more resilient than the forces of imperialist globalisation have claimed hitherto.

Temporarily, the international banking system has been saved from complete meltdown, but only by the extensive intervention of the state with public money. If the situation were not so serious we may even have been amused to witness those that claimed the total victory of global markets, the “end of history” itself and the death of the nation state now scrambling for government bail-outs and demanding state intervention.

The drive for world market integration over the last 40 years has unleashed and intensified competitive pressures on capital and labour and sought removal of sovereignty of nation states. Not only the global reach of capital markets, but the increased speed and volume of capital flows and their repercussions, have undermined ‘normal’ democratic policy cycles.

These factors weaken the ability of organised labour to resist economic exploitation and of nation states to regulate economic activity. Capitalism in its ‘neo-liberal’ guise has privileged value in motion (‘liquid capital’), labour as a disposable and substitutable factor of production, finance capital as an international commodity (particularly with growth of hedge funds, derivatives and credit default swaps), nature as a commodity and knowledge as intellectual property.

The growth and acceptance of labour practices such as ‘off-shoring’ and ‘flagging out’ (operation of commercial ocean-going vessels under ‘flags of convenience’ to avoid health and safety regulation and social legislation) creates a looming spectre of ‘social dumping’ of workers’ rights, which has thrown into doubt the ability of the state to act as a regulator of markets.

The primary vehicles for limiting rights of nations to self-determination and for removing sovereignty in defined economic areas have been the G8, the IMF, NAFTA and the European Union. The most sophisticated of these geopolitical constructs, the EU, has ironically been driven by its two most powerful nation states: France and Germany .

However, the unleashing of forces of capital with little or no regard to consequences has meant no-one is immune from the fall-out. The weakening and total removal of political and economic levers to deal with the crises at a national level is simply intensifying the nature and depth of the malaise.

This coming Tuesday, 16 March Greece must comply with European Central Bank austerity measures or lose control over its own taxation and expenditure altogether. If Greece fails to comply, unelected, unaccountable EU institutions will impose spending cuts on an elected government, under the draconian Article 126.9 of the Lisbon Treaty, in what will amount to economic suzerainty.

Yet, even this will not ease the huge economic crisis in Greece or elsewhere and will further fuel internal political upheavals as for the first time all meaningful democratic powers are finally removed from an EU member state.

The imperialist war machine has developed as the military wing of corporate globalisation over the same period to deny, where necessary, the right to self-determination enshrined in the UN charter. NATO secretary-general, Lord Robertson declared in 1999 that the “rubicon had been crossed” with the illegal attacks on Yugoslavia . Even the lexicon of imperialist, military intervention has been replaced with post-modern, media-friendly terms like ‘humanitarian war’ and ‘nation building’.
The EU’s director-general of politico-military affairs, Robert Cooper, like some latter-day Lord Palmerstone, describes the emerging European system of supranational governance as ‘post-modern’ and proclaims that it will impose a ‘liberal imperialism’ on the ‘pre-modern’ world.

So how should we respond?

Despite the now obvious limitations of ‘letting global capital rip’ without any meaningful restraints, there is clearly a great deal of disorientation as to how workers should respond to the present crisis.

An honest appraisal of the left’s response to imperialist globalisation must accept that regrettably there has been a significant tendency to adapt to the logic of market dominance and to post-modernism, the ideology that developed in tandem with it.

Marxian slogans such as ‘workers of all lands, unite’ and ‘The working men have no country’ have been appropriated as crude justifications for the proposition that the nation state is, indeed, dead.

These death notices, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have proved to be greatly exaggerated. Marx also had to deal with such idealism in his own time. The Proudhonists famously wanted to ‘abolish nationalities in the interests of the social revolution’. Marx calmly responded by asking if this meant we must all become Frenchmen!

The present crisis of capitalism and massive attacks on the idea of the nation state and democracy, demand that we return to ‘the National Question’ with sober senses, as Marx would have it.

To begin with, we must understand that nowhere did Marx write of nations themselves disappearing, only of the: “vanishing of antagonisms between peoples”.

Indeed, Marx’s immediate call to action to the working class was to take from their oppressors what previously had been denied them. In the Communist Manifesto, he wrote:

“Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”

The battle for democracy in this country had been raging long before those words were written down. The first trade unionists asserted freedom of association. The Chartists demanded universal adult male suffrage, secret ballots, abolition of property qualifications and payment of members of parliament, equal constituencies and annual parliaments in their struggles for political representation to effect economic change.

At that time, the very emergence of modern nation states out of empires was a relatively new conceptual development born of rationalism and enlightenment.

The French serf had only relatively recently become a citizen of the republic. The New England farmer a few years earlier had defeated their British rulers to become a citizen of the United States of America . The ensuing struggles against slavery and the American civil war were played out in a clearly national context.

These modern developments have continued since the Second World War with the establishment of the United Nations by 51 founder members. By 1990, 50 new countries had joined and today nearly 200 countries sit in the UN general assembly. So much for the death of the nation state.

Even imperialist, supranational organisations such as NATO and the European Union have had to create nation states for their own geopolitical purposes, for example the client statelet of Kosovo, and to oppose the creation of others for the same reasons.

However, the overriding logic and purpose of the EU is to hollow out the democratic structures of nation states and incrementally to transfer law-making powers to un-elected, undemocratic, supranational institutions in Brussels through treaties and directives. This anti-democratic, slow motion, revolution-in-reverse has gone unnoticed by many voters and most political commentators, who still see the Westminster parliament as the key citadel of state power in Britain .

This is why the debate over many contemporary political and social issues in Britain has such an unreal quality. To take for example the question of railway privatisation – of utmost importance to my union RMT – most voters in Britain support renationalisation of our railways and reversal of the disastrous policy of rail privatisation. Yet, how many voters are aware that an EU directive (91/440) orders separation of train operations from rail infrastructure, which the European Commission in 2010 is insisting must be controlled in the same way as a listed company, with a prohibition on democratic, political control over railway investment and ownership by elected governments. Faceless bureaucrats are imposing rail privatisation on member states using EU directives.

Other neo-liberal EU directives, such as those for General Services, Postal Services, Health Services and numerous EU rulings and treaties, are designed to hand public services to the private sector, thus further restricting the power of elected governments to respond to the needs of their electorates.

In conclusion: imperialist, supranational bodies such as the EU, seek to roll back democratic advances achieved in previous centuries. Not content simply to defeat and scatter forces for socialism, modern imperialism seeks not “the end of history”, but to reverse history, nothing less than to undo the results of the French and American revolutions. It repudiates the historical significance of the development of modern independent nations.

Progressive forces must respond to this threat by defending and restoring national democracy. Ultimately, national independence is required for democracy to flourish. The freedom of all nations to develop without external, imperialist interference should be the touchstone for our understanding of Marxism in the modern context.

National independence should, once again, play a decisive role in the defeat of the parasitic class, which has no more interest in the fortunes of workers and their families than an economic army of occupation.

As Marx said: “Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society” – by which, I believe, he meant the state. He also said: “Democracy is the road to socialism”. The battle for democracy is yet to be won, but the army of labour is crying out for the battle to be rejoined.