Can we all win?

I have been reading Terence Ranger’s latest book, Writing revolt, an account of his part in the political events of the 1960s, which led to his expulsion by the Rhodesian regime. I am struck by the similarities between that time and now.

Some of the criticisms made of Joshua Nkomo at that time are very similar to criticisms we hear now of Morgan Tsvangirai. Both showed themselves decent men whose biggest mistakes may have been to believe their opponents were also decent men, humane, reasonable and interested in serving the people. I wonder whether this may be in part due to the trade union background they both shared.

A revolutionary party can threaten war on its opponents if it has access to the weapons to make those threats credible. Workers in a factory are not so free to choose those tactics. War is very destructive; a liberation war doesn’t only destroy oppressive structures. A lot of people and property become what the Americans, who like to wrap unpleasant things up in long and less aggressive words, call “collateral damage”. That means a lot of people get killed and a lot of homes and workplaces get smashed up by one side or the other.

If you propose to start a war, you must be prepared for that to happen. You might be forced to use more violence than you intended at first, or your opponents may respond to your first moderate use of violence with greater violence. It doesn’t matter which side kills more people or does more damage; wars always bring death and destruction, often on a larger scale than either side expected at the start. If you choose war, there will be a lot of deaths and a lot of destruction and you need to decide beforehand whether it is worth paying that price for your victory.

When workers organise themselves in a union, they want better working conditions and often a bigger say in how their workplace is run; they don’t want to destroy their factory, because that leaves everyone worse off. They don’t want a lose-lose situation in which they destroy their own jobs in order to hurt their employer. They don’t want to lose their jobs, so they don’t want to smash their factories. They win something, but not all at once. That is a slower kind of change, but it doesn’t destroy what you want to win. The quick way often means everybody loses, because the prize you were fighting over gets destroyed in the fight.

We might learn from British history. Workers were badly paid and overworked in their mines and factories at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, around 1800. Two groups opposed this. One, the Luddites, declared that the factory system was all wrong. They smashed the machines and wanted to go back to a simple rural life. Unfortunately, the population was growing and the land was not, so there wasn’t enough land for everyone.

The other group saw that industrial jobs might be an answer to this problem. Of course, workers needed to get a bigger share of the profits made from their labour. This group set out to negotiate for a bigger share. They formed trade unions, they organised strikes to put pressure on the employers. They won higher wages and shorter working hours. They formed their own political party, the Labour party. The 20th century saw Labour governments that did more for the workers; free health services, free education, a national pension scheme all became possible by a fairer sharing of profits from industry.

Maybe the early trade unionists needed Luddites shouting in the background to persuade the bosses that the unionists were more reasonable than the Luddites, but they created a situation in which everyone won something. Not everything, and Margaret Thatcher reversed some of those gains, but we’ll never see a perfect society. Progress towards it is always an unfinished task.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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