The events of the past year or so, financial meltdown, political instability, uncertainty over jobs and the threat that many workers could lose their homes represents a huge shift in society, both internationally and especially in Britain where the effects of the “credit crunch” have been particularly acute. In the context of such a deep crisis the halcyon days of the “feel good factor” and the “15 years of unbroken economic growth”, seem like ancient history.
The effects of this crisis are very complex and the political repercussions will take years to play out fully. Indeed recent economic information indicates that the real economy is about to be hammered by the crisis, approximately a year to 18 months after the onset of the sub prime mortgage crisis in the US. The US economy is now losing jobs faster than at any time in the last three decades. Twenty five thousand Woolworth’s workers are about to get made redundant – “that’s the wonder of”…world capitalism. Sony is set to lose 16,000 jobs and Rio Tinto 14,000. Unemployment rose by 533,000 in November alone in the US.
As we’ve often explained before, parliament with all its trappings sits on top of society like the superstructure on a ship and the Labour leaders are subject to enormous pressures from all classes in society. Gordon Brown sitting in the crow’s nest has looked particularly green as the crisis has thrown him into the maelstrom. The speed of events has vastly increased and the depth of the crisis has meant that there have been rapid shifts in policy and perspective as the bourgeoisie have clammered for billions to shore up their system.
From the point of view of Marxism, however, what is decisive is the effect that the crisis has on the working class. How will workers respond to the crisis? What will be the effect on the class struggle? Is it possible to accurately predict the likely course of events or is it the case that the crisis means that all bets are off and that it’s every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
To examine what sort of response the working class is likely to make to the current crisis it’s important to consider what the situation is like on the shop floor? As we have explained elsewhere, “Millions of workers face short-time working, cancellation of overtime or sackings and closures. The bosses are demanding wage cuts, under threat of closure. This means a general reduction in living standards, which in turn means a new fall in demand, with more closures, unemployment and new cuts.” The crisis of world capitalism is gathering speed – Marxist.com.
What about the change in worker’s political consciousness? It’s obvious that there is a real change in the mood and many workers are looking for answers to the situation they find themselves in. The contradictions within capitalism are very clear to see at the moment, the financial crisis and the effects on the real economy are forcing many workers to question the system and the way it works.
The short answer is that both these observations are entirely correct. However, the effect of the crash on the class struggle is more complex. From a bourgeois point of view and from an accountant’s point of view, balance sheets have to be balanced, profits have to continue to be made and more than anything else the working class has to pay for the crisis. So shops and factories are shutting down, lines are closing because there are huge piles of unsold goods on the shop floor, there’s no overtime and so on.
How will workers respond? Trotsky pointed out in his article “The third period of the Comintern’s errors”, which was written in 1930 around the time of the Wall Street Crash that instead of automatically leading to radicalisation, the effect of big economic events was to open up a new cycle of events and a new period of sharp and sudden changes resulting in rapid changes in the psychology of all classes. He explained that the course of development of the class struggle was rooted in the preceding period and that:
“In discussing the radicalization of the masses, it should never be forgotten that the proletariat achieves “unanimity” only in periods of revolutionary apex. In conditions of “everyday” life in capitalist society, the proletariat is far from homogeneous. Moreover, the heterogeneity of its layers manifests itself most precisely at the turning points in the road. The most exploited, the least skilled, or the most politically backward layers of the proletariat are frequently the first to enter the arena of struggle and, in the case of defeat, are often the first to leave it. It is exactly in the new period that the workers who did not suffer defeats in the preceding period are most likely to be attracted to the movement, if only because they have not yet taken part in the struggle”
The position in Britain over the last two decades has been of a low level of strikes, a relatively empty trade union movement and a virtually empty Labour Party. Under these conditions the bureaucracy has held sway by and large and has held back the movement. However as we have seen over the last couple of years there has been a marked increase, particularly in the public sector in strike action, although the character of this has been fairly disjointed and has fallen short of the “united coordinated action”, that was being heralded by the trade union leaders. Trotsky faced a similar position in respect of a discussion inside the French CGTU (Trade Union Federation) where the Stalinists took an ultra left line against the syndicalists who argued that the workers were not moving towards radicalism:
“As a matter of fact, these figures testify not only that a new cycle of proletarian struggle has begun, but also that this cycle is only in its first stage. After defeat and decline, a revival, in the absence of any great events, could occur only in the industrial periphery, that is, in the light industries, in the secondary branches, in the smaller plants of heavy industry. The spread of the strike movement into the metal industry, machine shops, and transportation would mean its transformation to a higher stage of development and would indicate not only the beginning of a movement but a decisive turn in the mood of the working class. It has not come yet. But it would be absurd to shut our eyes to the first stage of the movement because the second stage has not yet begun, or the third, or the fourth. Pregnancy in its second month is pregnancy. Forcing it may lead to a miscarriage, but so can ignoring it. Of course, we must add to this analogy that dates are by no means as certain in the social field as in physiology.”
We correctly pointed out over the summer that the contradictory moods within sections of the public sector unions reflected the fact that many workers had “bigger fish to fry” and were unenthusiastic about strike action at that point over pay restraint. But it would be wrong to think that this necessarily means that the working class will remain passive for long.
Although the last few years have been quiet on the industrial front and as we’ve pointed out many workers have no first hand experience or even memory of the miner’s strike and the waves of industrial struggle in the 1970’s it also true to say that there have been very few major defeats over the past several years and that as such the working class has been strengthened.
It is wrong to assume that the workers will just be “stunned” into inactivity by events, although it has to be said that the financial crisis has resulted in a sharp intake of breath for many workers and to personal tragedy and misery for those who have lost their houses and their jobs. But, as Trotsky explained the crash has begun “a new cycle” in British politics, and in the class struggle.
In the current situation, it’s most likely that there will be defensive struggles and further demands for nationalisation and bail outs of companies. But there is no such thing as a final crisis of capitalism, it is senile and decayed yes, but it needs to be overthrown. As Trotsky explains:
“But leaders who wish to begin only when everything is ready are not needed by the working class. One must be able to see the first, even though weak, symptoms of revival, while only in the economic sphere, adapt one’s tactics to it, and attentively follow the development of the process. Meantime one must not even for a moment lose sight of the general nature of our epoch, which has proved more than once and will prove again that, between the first symptoms of revival and the stormy upsurge that creates a revolutionary situation, not only forty years but perhaps a fifth or a tenth of that are required.”
On a world scale the political and social implications of the crisis will be profound and will play out in an uneven fashion. In Greece where there have been 10 general strikes since the Nea Demokratia (Tories) came to power and the youth have been fighting the police on the streets, the political consequences are very apparent.
The task of the Marxists is to learn from history and to study the class struggle as it develops on an international scale. Trotsky explained in the same article that the tempo of the class struggle can be importantly affected by the stage of development of the Marxist tendency in each of the countries. Our task is to explain events and to begin to arm the best of the youth and the most advanced workers with the ideas of Marxism, ideas that can change the world.
This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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This post was written by Terry McPartlan