On 30 November Britain saw two million public sector workers from thirty different unions out on strike, with over a thousand local and regional rallies and protests mobilising hundreds of thousands on the street. This was the case not only in London but also in places like Bristol (20,000) and Manchester (30,000). Despite the prime minister’s comical efforts to dismiss the day of action as a “damp squib”, even the government’s own suspect figures prove the contrary, with around two thirds of state schools closed, over a quarter of all civil servants walking out and NHS managers obliged to cancel thousands of appointments and operations.
Though the strikes were triggered specifically by the government’s attacks on public sector pension arrangements (requiring workers to contribute more, retire later and get less), the breadth of grass roots support made it clear that for many people 30 November represented a long-awaited chance to demonstrate their anger over the whole package of austerity measures whereby capitalism is driving down living standards in an attempt to make workers pay for a crisis not of their making.
Whilst the TUC has paid lip service to the need for a coordinated fightback against the cuts, all it had previously coordinated was the demonstration of 26 March, in the event a demonstration of a size and potency that clearly scared Transport House no less than it did Whitehall. With Milliband invited to come to the TUC’s own conference to denounce the planned strikes and TUC chief Brendan Barber slipping off to the Tory conference for secret talks on averting the same, it was clear from the outset that grass roots militants would be obliged to supply the leadership so signally lacking at the top. Whatever could be achieved on 30 November would be achieved in spite of Labour/TUC opportunism.
With this perspective, the real significance of 30 November becomes clear. After over a year watching from the sidelines as students occupied Tory HQ at Millbank, UK Uncut picketed the tax evaders and the Occupy Movement pitched its tents in the centres of power, it was finally the turn of organised labour to take its proper place in the ranks of resistance. If for the moment there remain gaps in those ranks, this is the consequence of so many years of opportunist influence within the workers’ movement. Wipe out that influence, break the link with Labour, and the ranks will soon enough be filled. And with the crisis itself eroding the material basis upon which social democracy squats, there has never been a better time for making this break.
The capitalist state prepares
Whatever their puppet Cameron may say in public, the capitalist state by no means views the sight of thousands of workers on the march as a “damp squib”, nor is it behaving as if it believes the Brendan Barbers of this world can indefinitely be relied upon to keep working class anger in check. Otherwise, how are we to account for the clear tilt towards open political repression with which the state is reacting?
The Met announced in advance of 30 November that “total policing” would be the order of the day, and so it turned out to be with every exit street from the march route blocked by foot police, mounted police, dog handlers, riot vans and, on a massive scale, the deployment of the so-called “iron horse” mobile police barriers at many junctions. We are assured by ‘Jane’s Police and Homeland Security Equipment’ that the “Iron Horse mobile barrier has been tried and tested by the police and army throughout the UK for operational use, especially riot control. The unit, when closed for transportation, resembles a mobile cage with internal storage area for carrying further equipment if required. Deployment of the barrier takes only 20 seconds with two personnel producing a secure Streetblocker, 13.1 m wide and 3 m high.” Equipped with “a heavy-duty rubber skirt at the lower part of the unit to protect personnel from thrown objects”, the “versatility” of the Horse is praised, which “allows the blockade of a designated area but can be opened immediately for exit or access to emergency vehicles. It can also be towed at slow speeds while open. Warning signs, flashing beacons, spotlights or even billboards can be fitted easily.” In short, this is less akin to a regular crush barrier and more like a cross between an armoured vehicle and an instant prefabricated ghetto – “kettle” is too cosy a word to do it justice.
Those who dared to raise a protest elsewhere in London, away from the official march, found themselves exposed to the full rigours of “total policing”. Thirty or forty Occupy London activists marked the day by peacefully occupying the offices of the Anglo-Swiss mining giant Xstrata, wishing to draw attention to vast salary drawn by its CEO on the back of exploitation. Having arrested some of the occupiers, police then proceeded to kettle people out in the street for the next four hours, whilst plainclothes officers infiltrated the crowd and further snatch arrests were made. Taking one small group at a time, people were filmed, interrogated and searched prior to release, with some further arrests at this stage. The total number of arrests for this peaceful act of civil disobedience was 21.
Another 37 people daring to picket a public library in Hackney found themselves first kettled, then arrested. As a police helicopter circled overhead, dog-handlers moved in, terrifying small children in the process. In response to this repression, over a hundred attended a demo outside the local police station that evening, including pickets from Unison and UCU. The police point-blank refused to explain why people had been detained or where they were being held.
Social democracy opens the door for fascism
Lest it should be supposed that those who confined themselves to marching with their banners along the official march route thereby escaped the wrath of the establishment, it is sufficient to recall the prime time slot accorded to Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson on the BBC’s One Show. In a pre-rehearsed piece of banter with the show’s hosts, Clarkson was asked his opinion of public sector workers daring to withdraw their labour for a day. He obligingly replied, “I’d have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families.” This staged provocation, running the swastika up the flagpole to see who would salute it, didn’t make many new friends (with nearly 5,000 complaints to the BBC) but gave a clear indication of the direction in which bourgeois propaganda seriously intends to push public opinion – no joke.
Unison quite reasonably called for Clarkson to be sacked (though as the BBC had itself engineered the provocation it should logically sack itself). But their assistant general secretary, Karen Jennings, neatly summed up exactly why social democracy offers no protection from this push towards fascism, and indeed opens the door for it. Clarkson, she declared, had spoken “almost like Gaddafi would have spoken about demonstrators. It’s an incitement to hatred and we are seeking legal advice.”
So there in a nutshell is the division of labour between fascism and social democracy: Clarkson incites us to hate the strikers, and Jennings incites us to hate Gaddafi, an enemy of imperialism! By spiking the guns of the workers even as it pretends to be defending their right to strike, social democracy disarms workers ideologically and would send them naked into the class war. By confusing workers as to who are their allies in the world and who their class enemies, Labour and its social democratic satellites in the Trot and Revisionist camp help build up a wall of narrow chauvinism between labouring people in Britain and their anti-imperialist brothers and sisters, concealing the fact that we share one and the same enemy: imperialism. Yet as Marx long ago explained, no nation can be free that enslaves another, and the workers cannot complete their task of self-emancipation in isolation from those likewise engaged in struggle against imperialism. That is why the need to stand in solidarity with Libya, Iran and Syria against our own imperialist masters is right now such a burning issue for the British working class, and why such an “innocent” sideswipe against the murdered Libyan leadership is so treacherous, and first and foremost to the British working class itself.
The working class must prepare
In its first newsletter after 30 November, the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) asked the question: what next? It suggested that “There should be at least another one day nationally co-ordinated strike across the public sector – a 24 hour public sector general strike – before the end of January. The TUC should be looking towards setting out a timetable of action that could escalate the strike to 48 hours and beyond to force the government to back down. We should also look at practically moving towards a strike by public and private sector”. This will doubtless put useful pressure on the opportunists and afford valuable opportunities for their further political exposure. But lessons can only be learned if those leading the resistance are able to extend the struggle against individual “sell-outs” into a conscious political struggle against opportunism itself.
The NSSN newsletter goes on to call for “full and frank discussions on how the strike worked, what we need to be better prepared for”, adding that “discussing and promoting the alternative to the cuts is also essential”. Yet it is over that “alternative” that there remains such confusion in the workers’ movement. If the NSSN seriously wants us to be “discussing budgets based on the needs of the majority not the greedy, hypocritical minority”, then they need to be grasping the nettle of the proletarian revolution and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, the inevitable precondition of any such budget getting implemented. The question of revolution must be honestly broached, neither by coy implication, nor as a mere rhetorical flourish to lend colour to a reformist agitation, nor as a piece of “revolution now” ultra-left hysteria. The question of revolution must be raised as a sober explanation of the onerous tasks which history will be imposing upon our class going forward, and what steps we must take to prepare ourselves to complete those tasks and effect our own emancipation.
This essential question was pushed to the fore in the leaflet with which the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist Leninist) intervened on 30 November. The leaflet, distributed in very great numbers, concluded with these thoughts:
“It is clear that capitalism has outlived its usefulness. The longer working people allow it to linger on, the more we will suffer. That is why those who profit from the system are trying to convince the working masses that there is nothing wrong with capitalism; that the only problem is the greed of a few ‘fat cats’. But this is like trying to blame blowflies and maggots for the rotten flesh off which they are feeding. Instead, our attention needs to be focussed on getting rid of the stinking corpse of the capitalist system itself.
“Working people must take possession of all means of production now owned by the bourgeoisie (factories, machines, raw materials etc) in order to start producing goods that directly meet the needs of the people, as opposed to the current system, in which even the most basic necessities of life are only produced or distributed if there is a profit to be made. The bourgeois state has been perfected as a machine to prevent us challenging capitalist relations of production and it must be smashed. In its place we need to build a workers’ state, whose main job will be to stop the ousted exploiters returning to continue their reign of misery, war and destitution. This is the only way out of the mists of darkness.
“The financial crisis is nothing to do with us;
our work has created sufficient wealth for everybody to be able to live well.
If capitalism will not produce or distribute because there’s no profit to be
made, then the working class must step into the breach to take over the levers
of production. By spreading understanding about the real nature of the crisis
among workers, the CPGB-ML seeks to help empower our class to fulfil its
historic mission of killing off capitalism once and for all and building a new
socialist society and a bright future for all our children, free of war and
free of want.
Join us and help to make it happen!”