Friday, 29 March 1991


Tribune, 29 March 1991

Trade unionists and a Labour parliamentary candidate have asked the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to cancel its Easter demonstration in Barrow-in-Furness because of the jobs crisis at the local shipyard. Paul Anderson reports

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament never gets a particularly warm welcome in Barrow-in-Furness, the Cumbrian coastal town where VSEL's shipyard is building Trident nuclear missile submarines. But on Monday, when it holds its Easter national demonstration there, it can expect an especially hostile local response.

The economy of Barrow and its hinterland is dominated by VSEL, which employs half the town's workforce. Last Wednesday the company's chief executive, Noel Davies, announced that in the next `five years it would be shedding up to 5,500 of the 12,500 workers it now employs in Barrow. The 1,900 workers at Carmen Laird, VSEL's surface-warship yard in Birkenhead, already face redundancy unless a buyer is found by 1993.

VSEL Barrow specialises in submarine construction, and has orders worth £3,500 million Three Trident submarines are under construction (one, HMS Venture, to be launched this year, with two more to be completed by 1997), and the company has high hopes that a fourth Trident will be ordered soon. Barrow also stands to pick up refit work if the naval dockyard at Rosyth is shut.

But the bulk of the labour-intensive work on Trident has already been done, and Ministry of Defence orders for conventionally armed submarines, both diesel- and nuclear-powered, have been cut drastically in the past year. Barrow faces an economic collapse as severe as any suffered by a one-industry town in the eighties.

Local people were shocked both by the announcement and by the way it was made, without any warning to the workers. "Some of the youngsters looked as if they were going to the scaffold," a VSEL fitter told the Barrow North West Evening Mail the day of the announcement. The paper led its front page on Thursday with an open letter from the editor, Keith Sutton, to the Prime Minister, arguing that Barrow's dependence on MoD work gave the government a duty to intervene in Barrow's hour of need.

Frank Ward, the Barrow district secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and chairman of the local Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, said he was "devastated". "This is catastrophic for Barrow, there's no doubt about that. Everybody is going to suffer." It is hardly surprising that this weekend's demonstration (slogan: "Turn from Trident: Build a Future") has not gone down too well with many of the locals – a feeling that the Tory opposition group on the town council has done its best to exploit, attacking the ruling Labour group for waiving CND's £385 licence fee for using Barrow Park on Monday.

But opposition to the demonstration has not been limited to the Right. At the weekend, the VSEL unions wrote to CND asking for it to be cancelled, arguing that the fourth Trident was essential for Barrow's economic survival. John Hutton, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for the highly marginal Tory seat, Barrow and Furness, has also called for the demonstration to be called off as a mark of respect for the feelings of local people. "Frankly, it isn't the time or the place," he told Tribune, although he added that the threat to the yard had nothing to do with Trident.

But CND decided this week to press ahead. Chris Sinton, the secretary of Barrow and District CND, told Tribune that the demonstration was a specifically antinuclear one. "We regret the redundancies and share the town's grief," she said.

The chair of national CND, Marjorie Thompson, backed Ms Sinton. "We are not demonstrating against the people of Barrow. One of our main priorities is a proper conversion and diversification policy. We cannot abandon our opposition to Trident. But VSEL's own refusal to build a future' has caused these redundancies and wrecked thousands of livelihoods. These defence cuts have been expected since the end of the cold war, and VSEL should have been looking seriously at possibilities for conversion and diversification since then."

When VSEL announced the redundancies last week, it also indicated that it wanted to reduce its dependency on the defence sector by 25 per cent within five years, possibly by going into offshore engineering, environmental engineering and combined-heat-and-power generators. Management met union representatives this week to discuss possibilities for diversification, and the unions are planning to consult the workforce for further ideas.

"The people who know the workers' skills best are the workers themselves," said one official, How many jobs could be saved by diversification alone is, however, a moot point. All the areas of possible diversification mentioned by VSEL are intensely competitive and would require extensive expensive retooling. Other defence companies hit by spending cuts face similar problems. Some sort of state intervention to ease the path to civilian production seems essential if substantial job losses are to be avoided.

The main problem here is that the government is opposed to state intervention, seeing cuts in defence expenditure as a convenient tool of counter-inflationary policy. On the other hand, Labour, although enthusiastic about the need for action and insistent that the "peace dividend" should be used to rebuild Britain's industrial base, has given few indications about what it would do beyond setting up a defence diversification agency.

Detailed policy documents are apparently in the pipeline, but in the meantime trade union calls for the party to make more of the running on defence job losses are bound to grow louder. Anyone who thought that the Gulf war had killed off the controversy about defence spending after the cold war has got another thing coming.

Friday, 8 March 1991


Paul Anderson, review of The Revenge of History by Alex Callinicos (Polity, £9.95), Tribune 8 March 1990

Alex Calinicos's argument in The Revenge of History will be familiar to anyone who has read the publications of the Socialist Workers Party. The collapse of "actually existing socialism" in eastern Europe is not to be mourned by socialists, because it isn't (increasingly wasn't) socialism at all but rather state capitalism. Far from marking "the bankruptcy of the revolutionary socialist tradition founded by Marx," the end of the Stalinist system means that true revolutionary Marxism-Leninism will no longer be held back by the popular misconception that it was somehow responsible for the disaster. Meanwhile, capitalism remains as crisis-ridden and irrational as ever, and social democracy offers no real alternative.

The proletarian revolution, led by the Leninist party, is still on the agenda.

All this is stated clearly and concisely, and on the way Callinicos makes some telling points – about the flimsiness of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History?, about the vacuity of postmodernism, about the intellectual and political collapse of the orthodox communist parties. But in the end this must go down as one of the least convincing books yet published about 1989 and its aftermath.

One problem is Callinicos's conception of "state capitalism", which is based upon a definition of capitalism – "wage labour plus capital accumulation" – that makes it difficult to conceive of any feasible socialism This is not to suggest that the left should be leaping to the posthumous defence of "actually existing socialism", but it just won't do simply to denounce as reactionary all the ideas of social democrats and market socialists, while gesturing vaguely in the direction of democratic planning through workers' councils as if it were a panacea.

More importantly, in his attempt to rescue Lenin from the dustbin of history, Callinicos falls in himself.

His account of the fate of the Russian revolution dismisses far too casually the argument that the roots of Stalinism were well nourished in the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party and in the practice of the Bolsheviks after their seizure of power in 1917: the red terror, the militarisation of labour, the suppression of workers' control, independent trade union organisation and rival political parties. Even in the hands of an articulate polemicist, the old excuses — the isolation of the Bolshevik revolution, the backwardness of Russian society and the defeat of Leon Trotsky by the right — are as unconvincing as ever. Callinicos gives no good reasons to expect that a Leninist revolution in the developed world today would be anything other than a bloody disaster.

Of course, the chances of such a revolution are luckily almost non-existent, but that. we can be sure, won't cause Callinicos and his pals in the SWP leadership any pause for thought. As long as a few hundred students every year sign up to replace the few hundred disillusioned ex - students who leave, the SWP leadership will continue quite happily to wallow in its belief that it is the vanguard of the working class. The overwhelming feeling one gets on reading this book is a sense of sadness that such an obviously intellectually capable man has wasted so much of.his life on such a tbolish cause.