Sunday, May 18, 2014

Outer Space and Inner Agency: Leadership and the labour movement (1998)

Outer Space and Inner Agency: 
Reflections on the realm of the Outside in the labour movement

NB - This essay was presented to the First Conference of the Association of Indian Labour Historians; Delhi, March 1998

This essay is a speculative exercise undertaken with the purpose of debating afresh one of the most hoary themes in the history of the working class - the question of intervention and agency. The subject is vast, and I will not pretend to have arrived at any definitive conclusion. The observations set out here are not based on an all-encompassing survey of labour history, but may be substantiated in a reading of some of my earlier research to which references will be provided.The exercise will  begin with a consideration of certain well-worn positions, but will then attempt to analyse the functional notions of space and boundary inherent in the repeated use of the term `outside', `outsider', "from without", etc in the language of managements and unionists of different hues. I will suggest that the question of the Outside is not merely one of the origins of consciousness (to which suffixes such as `adequate', `socialist', `historical', etc may be attached as per ideological preference), but also, and perhaps primarily, one of class domination and class power. Hence I will suggest an expansion of the historiographical use of the term. It is also about the types of plebeian agency and initiative, which the hegemons of labour found acceptable, versus those, which endangered their position and required to be thwarted in the immediate sense and disregarded historically...

Our period covers the Depression and its aftermath, the advent of suffrage-based politics and the first elected Congress ministry. An examination of the labour movement during this phase illustrates the nature of nationalist political intervention, and the interaction of state, managements, unions and workers, during a period which witnessed the advent of elected ministries in the provinces and the decline of colonial power. During the eventful decade of the thirties, the workers of Chota Nagpur many of them first generation employees, underwent a painful learning process, in the course of which employers great and small, began reluctantly to concede a more democratic system of labour relations. These concessions were wrung from the capitalists in the course of bitter and often violent struggles which took place in a context complicated by the politics of nationalism and retreating imperialism. In a comment on the authoritarian nature of the managerial regimes then prevailing, Professor Radhakamal Mukerjee, a member of the Bihar Labour Enquiry Committee had this to say:

            even the formation of the trade union... provokes intimidation and victimisation on a large scale from the management. Workers want to... secure the rights of collective bargaining. But the agents whom they elect or choose are dubbed `outsiders'... and treated with indifference and scorn... It is the managements' deliberate policy of non-recognition of unions and persistent refusal to deal with (their) accredited representatives... that is one of the most frequent causes of strikes in India, and a labour union hardly ever gets recognition without the ordeal of a strike...

The struggles for democratic industrial relations and against intensification of labour were central to the history of the labour movement in Chota Nagpur, and had their own political expressions and consequences. In the context of a national movement committed to displacing the colonial bureaucracy, the insubordination of the proletarians seemed at certain moments to resonate with, and at others to diverge from that of the Indian elite, who were at pains to maintain the principle of managerial authority even as they challenged the political authority of the British; to stabilise their own rule over labour even as they sought to replace the ruling class. In such a situation, the intervention of so-called outsiders with multifarious motives and functions was a foregone conclusion. In the sphere of union activity, the appearance of this person, very often a local pleader, would suffice for managements to protest loudly about the imminent advent of Bolshevism. There are numerous instances of employers of labor claiming that their workers would have remained quite contented but for his malevolent intervention. Many initial struggles in major industrial centers were around the question of the right of the workers to be represented by such persons. One explanation is that the working class was uneducated and backward and needed the leadership of the political literati. This position possesses a certain resonance with classical Leninist epistemology, which posits the `outside' theoretically as a pre-requisite to an adequate class consciousness. In the context of an unfolding nationalist movement with its left-radical element, the notion of the indispensability of the political outsider acquired considerable acceptance.

Although the use of the term by managements was always in the pejorative, a close study of industrial relations impels the historian to examine the mercurial roles of these persons as they were viewed from different vantage points in the spectrum of classes and indeed, to ask the question about the very nature and necessity of the implied `outside' sphere.

The Outsider as Mediator
To begin with, the `outsider' was cast in the role of the fomenter of strikes or the saviour of an otherwise helpless mass of working people - in either case, the assumption being that he was the real knowing Subject in the history of modern industrial relations. This carried the implication that the source of both subjugation and liberation lay in the Outside sphere, ie, beyond the control of workers themselves. For radical critics of this approach, it needed to be demonstrated that leadership could arise from Within the ranks (as in `organic' leadership) - this would constitute adequate proof that workers could mobilise their own liberation. But this kind of critique uncritically accepts the division of Outside vs Inside, as would appear from the following observation by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya:

            The really interesting question was whether there was a possibility of the proletariat outgrowing their mentors through the development of a leadership from the rank and file of the workers, i.e., the possibility of stepping from this paradigm into another where the outsiders, members of the intelligentsia, would not have such a role.. 

The most common usage of the term `outsider' was with reference to the matter of labour representation. Bhattacharya has pointed out that while the term might have emanated from the vocabulary of managers, it was acceptable to both moderate and left-wing politicians with union links - its acceptability being a reflex of a social reality. Of course, it took time for the capitalists to accept this. The Tatas, for example, were pressured by senior nationalist leaders to recognise the need for a union, this after violent conflicts had taken place in 1920 and 1922. It was only TISCO's need for Swarajist support on the tarriff question that made conciliation possible - in 1924, Motilal Nehru and C.R. Das agreed to support their case on condition that the Jamshedpur Labour Association be recognised.... 

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