SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 126 - March 2009

How to fight the crisis

How can working-class people fight the effects of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s? Mass lay-offs are already a feature in the major capitalist countries and around the world. The bosses and their governments are on the offensive to make the working class, and large sections of the middle classes, pay for the catastrophe they have created. PETER TAAFFE analyses the situation today, explaining the relevance and necessity of a transitional programme.

WORLD CAPITALISM IS in a blind alley and its serious representatives see no quick exit. Take your pick from the gloomy prognostications for the economy from Alistair Darling, British Chancellor of the Exchequer – ‘the worst for 60 years’ – to Ed Balls, schools cabinet minister in the New Labour government, who says it is the worst in 100 years! Most capitalist commentators now agree with our analysis that at the very least this is the worst economic crisis since the great depression of the 1930s and may yet exceed it.

In a sense, this crisis is potentially even worse than then. The extent of capitalist globalisation which led to this crash is much wider and deeper than existed in the so-called ‘gilded age’ before 1929. For this reason, it is already the most internationalised, generalised economic crisis in history. The US, western Europe, Japan, eastern Europe, Russia, Asia, Australasia and Latin America; all have been caught up in the downward economic whirlpool. It has certainly developed at a speed and with a severity that exceeds even the initial phases of the 1930s depression.

The crisis then began in the stock exchanges, spreading to the financial sector and inexorably into the so-called ‘real economy’. Today’s crisis was triggered by the financial meltdown, fed into industry, and now has fed back into the financial sector. But 1929’s full effects were only felt over time – in the case of France, two or three years after – whereas this crisis has struck with a speed and severity that has terrified, if not demoralised, the representatives of world capitalism. What took three years in 1929 could now unfold in a year.

This crisis is marked by overproduction, a glut, of goods, which the bosses are trying to solve through mass unemployment of the working class. But it is also leading to ‘overproduction’ even amongst sections of the middle class, who are being ejected from workplaces alongside workers. In other words, the proletarianisation of the intermediate layers, a feature of capitalism even during the boom, is taking a qualitative step forward. This in turn undermines the social reserves of capitalism.

Capitulation by workers’ organisations

THE CAPITALISTS ARE trembling at the social consequences of further economic implosions to come. Their only consolation is that they face no organised challenge from the working class, because of the political beheading of the former workers’ organisations at the hands of leaders like Tony Blair in Britain and their social-democratic cousins in Europe and elsewhere. They went over lock, stock and barrel to the side of the bourgeoisie in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism and the ideological, pro-capitalist tsunami that ensued. The result is that the mass of working-class people are politically disarmed in the teeth of the greatest challenge to their hard-won rights and conditions in living memory.

Without leadership and organisation when the capitalists have used the cover of the crisis to put the boot in, mass anger has poured out spontaneously both in the factories and onto the streets. This happened in Ireland as the government sought to eliminate health benefits for the elderly. It was followed by angry protests including occupations or threats to do so at Waterford Crystal and Dell, as brutal capital shut down whole factories with as little difficulty as shutting a matchbox. The same outrageous scenes were seen in the ending of the weekend shift at BMW’s Mini plant in Cowley, Oxford, which provoked unprecedented protests including fist fights between workers and supervisors. However, for this elemental revolt of the working class to lead to a sustained movement, what is required is a clear programme, including fighting slogans, and organisation.

The capitulation, also shared by the trade union leaders, actually helped to reinforce the brutal imposition of neo-liberal policies on the working class and the poor worldwide. The bourgeoisie, no longer forced to look over its shoulder at an organised working class or fearful of a labour movement revolt, was therefore unrestrained in the mad dash towards unregulated capitalism. The former leaders of the workers’ organisations proved to be a fifth wheel in the chariot of neo-liberalism. The complete pusillanimity of the union leaders is evident in the capitulation to the bosses and their governments as the latter seek to unload responsibility for this crisis on to the shoulders of the working class and poor.

The masses are quite clear who are responsible. In Italy, the students, a barometer of what is developing from below, have chanted on demonstrations: ‘We will not pay for your crisis’. What a contrast to the belly-crawling attitude of the trade union leaders as factories close down around the ears of the working class and all that we hear from the summits of the labour movement is the need for ‘shared sacrifices’. Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1930s that the crisis facing the working class, indeed humanity, was summed up in the crisis of leadership of the workers’ organisations. The difference today, however, is that we face not just a crisis of leadership but also of organisation, or the lack of it, for the working class as well as a clear programme.

Never in history has the gap – the ‘scissors’ – between the objective situation of capitalism in crisis and the outlook of the working class, its absence of organisation, particularly political mass parties, been so evident. Given the relentless propaganda barrage, the reality of neo-liberal policies over 30 years and the absence of a political and economic alternative, it is inevitable that there is still, despite the severity of the crash, a residual acquiescence to the ‘market’, even amongst the working class. Many are stunned by the economic collapse. There is even a lingering view amongst many workers that the present crisis is temporary, that it will all be over by the end of next year, at the latest, and we can then return to the sunny, economic uplands.

Bleak economic outlook

THESE ILLUSIONS ARE fostered by the ‘popular’ press and one wing of bourgeois economists and commentators. However, another section has drawn the conclusion that this time the party is really over. For instance, Sean O’Grady of The Independent declared bluntly in January: "High unemployment is here to stay". In America’s great depression, unemployment did not regain its level of 1929 until 1943 when the US economy was being dragged out of the economic mire by the devastating second world war. This puts in perspective the efforts of the Obama presidency as it seeks to wrestle with the avalanche of job cuts and redundancies which are rising by 600,000 a month. Unemployment in the US and Britain could touch 10% of the workforce in the next year or so, the effects of which in the modern context are akin to a depression.

If anything, the position is even worse in other parts of the world, paradoxically particularly in parts of Europe which were supposed to be immune. The pronouncements of the European Central Bank that the eurozone would escape the worst effects of the virus emanating from the US economy have turned to ashes. The continent has joined the general implosion of world capitalism, as has Japan. The latest forecasts for the latter are that gross domestic product could plunge by almost 10%. The great export-orientated machine of Japan is grinding to a halt, dropping by 3.3% in the last three months of 2008, an annualised rate of 12.7%. It has been joined by Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, while the lesser powers of the continent – Ireland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Britain – risk following Iceland into national bankruptcy.

For the masses, it is as if it is warm and sunny one day and bleak, dark winter the next, without the transition of autumn. The fate of Spain which, along with Ireland, went further than most in an orgy of a debt-fuelled construction and housing boom, is summed up by the story of Zaragoza, featured in the Observer in February. The collapse of the building boom means that unemployment has rocketed in the city by 75% in a year. Spain could see unemployment shooting up from an already unacceptable 14% (3.3 million workers) to 20% by the end of this year. The working class is furious that it will bear the burden, with protesters coming out onto the streets in tens of thousands demanding ‘Strike! Strike! Strike!’

Spain is just one example of what could happen to a series of countries, including Britain, which in time will provoke revolutionary explosions. If a conscious lead is not given then riots will ensue with a section of young people even possibly seduced into taking to the road of terrorism, which is a complete blind alley. The explosive events in Greece revealed that anarchistic and terroristic moods amongst a small section would be evident at a certain stage. Mass action, freed from the paralysing influence of opportunist leaders, is the only way forward.

Oil refinery strikes: confusion and clarity

AN EXPRESSION OF the indignation was contained even in the eruption of strikes from below of the construction workers in the oil refineries and power stations in Britain. This was a laboratory test in measuring the consciousness of the working class and how different political trends faced up to this. Given the dark night of neo-liberalism, it would be entirely utopian not to expect that elements of nationalism and even racism would be present in the consciousness of some workers, in some instances perhaps the majority. This, however, was not the case in this dispute as we have demonstrated in our weekly paper, The Socialist. It was, in essence, a strike against the capitalist ‘race to the bottom’ to impose slave labour rates, orchestrated by the bosses on a European scale through the anti-working class legislation, the European Posted Workers Directive, and the EU itself.

This was skewed in the minds of some workers towards nationalism, expressed through ‘British jobs for British workers’. This was coined originally by prime minister Gordon Brown in a New Labour conference speech, in an attempt to outflank the far-right British National Party (BNP). Without clear guidance from the leadership, such an initial reaction of the workers, not just in Britain but elsewhere, is no surprise. But this was a minor feature of the strike, and was soon cut across by the intervention of more conscious socialists, particularly from the Socialist Party, who fought for the same rights, wages and conditions for migrant workers. In the Russian revolution, the tsarist general staff feared the presence of one Bolshevik who could act as a ‘crystal in a saturated solution’, as Trotsky put it, capable in a heated atmosphere of drawing the majority to his side. We witnessed something similar in this strike with socialists and Marxists, some from the Socialist Party, completely cutting across any elements of nationalism or racism. Clear solidarity was expressed with the migrant workers including the printing of a leaflet in Italian and a resolute demand for all workers to receive the rate for the job.

Predictably, some far-left groups without a real presence or even an ear to the real moods of the workers in this strike took a completely false position. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), for instance, concentrated on criticism and emphasised ‘British jobs for British workers’ as the main feature of the strike. Pushed aside was the fact that the BNP members who turned up on the picket line were driven off by the workers. Moreover, the strike magnificently achieved an element of workers’ control and trade union involvement in the allocation of new jobs. Of course, one swallow does not make a summer but the workers in this industry and elsewhere now have a living example of how to fight in defence of workers’ living standards and, at the same time, overcome national or racial divisions in a complicated situation and actually secure a victory for the working class.

In the aftermath of the strike, the ‘conciliation’ service ACAS has concluded that the foreign-contracted workers did not receive lower rates than the British workers. This is not true, but what is entirely forgotten is that agency workers formally may sometimes receive the same as ‘domestic’ or permanent workers in their weekly or monthly wage rates. But they do not receive payments for breaks, holidays or the overheads which the bosses worldwide are trying to wipe out as a means of boosting their profitability. The same applies in this dispute. This has been covered over by ACAS and acquiesced to by the full-time trade union officials who did not exactly cover themselves in glory while the strike was on, being concerned to distance themselves from unofficial action which might fall foul of Britain’s draconian anti-union laws. This dispute primarily emphasised the positive outcome and saw the secondary features of nationalism swept aside by a combination of the experience of the workers in struggle and the intervention of socialists and Marxists.

Most of the far-left groups have no perception of how a mass movement will evolve, particularly given the character of the last period. This will not be in a perfectly rounded-out fashion but, as Oliver Cromwell described himself, with ‘warts and all’. If these ultra-lefts had been present at the beginning of the 1905 Russian revolution, their starting point would have been, no doubt, to condemn Father Gapon, the priest who initially led the masses in the first demonstration under the tsarist flag, with a petition to the ‘Little Father’, the tsar. In contradistinction to Vladimir Lenin who urged participation in the movement and even discussed and collaborated in the initial phases of the revolution with Gapon, they would have demanded that the priest be removed from the demonstration as a precondition for their participation! How would they have reacted to James Larkin organising mass demonstrations of Catholic and Protestant workers in 1907 with Orange and Green bands in the common struggle against the bosses?

While making no concessions to racial or national prejudices, it is necessary, above all because of the period we have just passed through, for socialists to approach the existing political outlook of the working class in a skilful fashion. We do not have the luxury of the Russian sage who answered the question, ‘How do I get to Moscow?’ by answering, ‘I would not start from here if I was you’. The working class, particularly after a period of alleged social peace, never emerges into struggle fully formed, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter.

Bitter class hatred

THERE IS A gathering rage within the working class, signified by the semi-insurrectionary mood in Greece last year and the colossal anti-Sarkozy strikes which convulsed France on 29 January. Not so long ago, Nicolas Sarkozy jeered that, despite his attacks on the French workers and the youth, ‘where are the strikes?’ He was given his answer in the elemental revolt indicated by these strikes, which far exceeded in scope and turnout on demonstrations what was anticipated even by the organisers in the trade union leadership. Over two million workers flooded the streets of the cities of France. Sarkozy, sensing the underlying explosive mood before the strikes, immediately gave concessions to the school students as a means of heading off the movement. This did not prevent the strikes taking place, which indicated a whiff of 1968 itself.

There are, however, even in France, which is still politically in the vanguard of the workers’ movement in Europe, important differences in the outlook of the French working class between 1968 and now. Paradoxically, the economic situation is far worse for capitalism today than it was in 1968 when the greatest general strike in history took place against the background of a continuing boom. Then, there was a broad socialist and even a revolutionary consciousness amongst workers and students. Given what has transpired in the last three decades combined, as we have pointed out, with the capitulation of the leaders of the workers’ organisations to capitalism, the mood is bound to lag behind that of 1968. There is a mixed outlook and a certain political confusion.

There is, undoubtedly, generalised bitter class hatred throughout the advanced capitalist countries for those who are seen as the main authors of the present economic catastrophe, namely the financiers and bankers. Semi-public trials have unfolded in the British parliament and US Congress. The ire of the masses was expressed in France on the streets but, noticeably even here, was initially directed against the bankers and the figure of Sarkozy, despite his demagogic attempts to separate himself from the bankers. If even in France there is not yet a broad anti-capitalist consciousness, then it is perhaps even less the case in other European countries.

In Greece, the situation is somewhat different, with pronounced elements of a pre-revolutionary situation already present. This is reflected in the utter bankruptcy of the Greek bourgeoisie and its state, the desperation of the mass of the working class and the youth at their poverty-stricken condition and their preparedness to struggle, as shown in three general strikes to now. It is also reflected in the complete incapacity of the official parties of capitalism – New Democracy and the ex-socialist PASOK – and the corresponding rise of a new workers’ party, SYRIZA. This is combined with the bleak economic future facing Greece. So desperate is the economic situation that its economy has been downgraded by ratings agency Moody’s, which could presage a refusal to buy government debt by capitalist investors. This could lead to economic collapse and, in turn, could see Greece leave or be evicted from the eurozone.

It could also herald a series of partial or even outright national bankruptcies, as witnessed in the 1930s in Europe and neo-colonial regions such as Latin America. Greece could be joined very easily by Spain, Portugal and even Ireland if bond traders go on strike and refuse to buy government debt. Faced with this situation, the ruling class would unhesitatingly resort to even more savage measures attacking the wages and conditions of the working class. The conditions of the working class in this situation of decaying capitalism is like a man on a downward escalator frantically running just to maintain his position.

Discrediting capitalism

QUITE CALMLY AND ‘soberly’, the ideologues of capitalism debate the merits of deflation – falling prices, cuts in production and mass unemployment – versus inflation – an increase in prices – as the best means of preserving their position. Deflation and inflation are heads and tails of the same capitalist coin, and the working class is called on to pay. This was shown by one writer in the Financial Times who calmly declared that companies will benefit from inflation because a portion of the debt will disappear, benefitting those companies with fixed-interest debts. On the other hand: "Higher inflation allows more companies and workers to agree to real wage cuts than would otherwise be the case. This is both useful for those firms that are currently uncompetitive, and preferable for [capitalist] society, because wage cuts are more equitable than unemployment". In other words, the working class must pay, profits must be maintained, if not increased, at the expense of the working class.

Clearly, capitalism and with it the working class have entered a brutal new era. The burning question is how to close the gap between the underlying objective situation, of the drawn-out crisis of capitalism, indeed a series of crises, and how to make concrete the slogan of the Italian youth: ‘We will not pay for your crisis’. What is involved here – as the recent strikes at the British refineries and the outburst of anger at Cowley at the summary dismissal of 850 workers with an hour’s notice show – is the need for a fighting programme. Obviously, the case for a general change from outmoded capitalism to a new socialist society has to be made.

This crisis is proof, if any were needed, that boom and bust, the economic cycle of capitalism described by Karl Marx and so derided by the overwhelming majority of ‘intellectual’ opinion in the past period, has reasserted its validity. Inequality can no more be overcome within the framework of capitalism than could Canute turn back the waves. Inequality is the essence of capitalism, revealed clearly in the relationship between the workers and the capitalists. As Marx pointed out, the capitalists buy the labour power of the working class in order to exploit it. The working class only receives back a portion of the new value it has created, the rest being unpaid labour, the profit that is garnered by the capitalists. The class struggle, as Trotsky pointed out, is nothing else but the struggle over the division of the surplus product. The more that this surplus product is fought over – particularly when profits stagnate or decline, as is the case now – the more intense the class struggle. The starting point of the working class in this situation must be a determination to resist the onslaught of capital, to defend all past gains, before going on to make new conquests.

Contrary to what the bourgeois ideologists argue, capitalism, particularly in its neo-liberal phase, is not the best nor the most efficient vehicle to maximise production and distribute products efficiently to the peoples of the world. The idea that capitalism was a seamless system, not subject to abrupt breakdowns, which was prevalent particularly following the collapse of the Berlin wall, is now utterly discredited. Tucked away from the gaze of the working class in their ‘quality’ journals, the defenders of capitalism admit this: "Conservatives… actually believe in the capitalist system. Anyone who understands capitalism knows that it is programmed to fail from time to time. Conservative economic teachings hold that recessions are much like the weather. It may be possible to mitigate its effects, but impossible to change its nature". (Peter Oborne, right-wing political columnist for the Daily Mail.)

A transitional approach

NO MENTION OF a rosy future: if capitalism breaks down we, the working class, must pay. This is the essence of Oborne’s stormy weather scenario, a world in which the state is the umbrella for capitalism while the workers receive a soaking in the form of mass unemployment. We are not going to pay and we must demand an entirely more humane system. Socialism must be the policy of the working class. Even Newsweek declared: "We are all socialists now". Unfortunately, this is not yet the case for the overwhelming majority of the victims of this system, the working class and the poor. Therefore, while demanding a democratic, socialist planned economy, as a crowning idea in the programme of socialists and Marxists, it is necessary to put forward fighting transitional demands in the current situation.

In pre-1914 social democracy, such an approach was considered unnecessary. Its programme was divided between a maximum programme, the idea of socialism, and a minimum day-to-day programme. That decisively changed with the onset of the first world war which led to the revolutionary explosions in Russia and the mass struggles and revolutionary waves which detonated in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution throughout Europe and the world. In this changed situation, the struggle for basic reforms and even the defence of past gains, came up directly against the limits of the system of capitalism itself. The Bolsheviks therefore formulated a transitional programme as a bridge – taking into account the day-to-day demands of the working class – from the existing level of consciousness to the idea of the socialist revolution. This was necessary even during the Russian revolution because of the differing and changing outlooks of the different sections of the working class. This was summed up in Lenin’s wonderful pamphlet, The Threatening Catastrophe and How to Avoid It.

Following in Lenin’s footsteps, Trotsky formulated for the revolutionary Fourth International the Transitional Programme: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International. This was adopted in 1938 on the eve of what Trotsky correctly anticipated would be a devastating world war. Out of this conflagration would come a revolutionary wave and the transitional programme and its demands could play a key role in this process. A revolutionary wave did ensue but social democracy and Stalinism stepped in to save capitalism in the post-war situation. This in turn laid the political preconditions for the boom, the spectacular economic fireworks, which developed between 1950 and 1975. Consequently, Trotsky’s ideas, which were fashioned for a revolutionary epoch, were never fully implemented in this period.

Some, like the SWP, therefore jettisoned both the transitional programme and the transitional approach. We defended Trotsky’s method but recognised that it was necessary to modify some of the demands for different conditions, which the boom represented. The current situation facing the workers’ movement in Britain, Europe and across the globe, however, means that this approach, if not all the demands of 1938, is now vital in the present struggle. In fact, it is more relevant now than when it was written in 1938 because the conditions which are developing are akin to the period anticipated. Trotsky demanded, for instance, ‘work or full maintenance’ in the teeth of endemic mass unemployment. We demand today, ‘useful work, or a living income’. The working class refuses to shoulder the burden of this crisis. Let the bosses pay! If they cannot guarantee a decent existence for the working class, we can’t afford their system!


IT IS ALSO necessary in this explosive period to take up the partial demands of the working class both at the level of wages and conditions but also involving governmental action or inaction. A case in point is the burning anger directed against the banks, not just the crooks who have been caught, like Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford, but the whole fraternity who have bankrupted their own industry and threaten to drag the whole of society, including the working class, into the abyss. They have allowed the state to step in to rescue them through massive bailouts. Yet the defeated, right-wing Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, is far from grateful. He has described the increase in state debt as "generational theft". But was it not his talisman, previous right-wing vice-president, Dick Cheney, who declared that "Reagan proved [US government] deficits don’t matter"? It has still not stopped McCain, along with other Republicans, from considering full nationalisation of the banks.

Capitalist politicians can accept state rescue, so long as it is then run completely along capitalist lines and with the prospect of returning the ‘nationalised’ industries in the future to the very same private interests which ruined them in the first place. Some commentators in Britain envisage that banks could be nationalised and remain in the state sector for an estimated nine years.

The hypocrisy of McCain and his touching concern for future generations is belied by the colossal expenditure on the Iraq war, probably $3 trillion in total, which he supported to the hilt. The corruption of Madoff is as nothing to the creaming off of government cash by the ‘privatised’ construction industry to ‘reconstruct Iraq’. Patrick Cockburn in the Independent commented: "The real looting of Iraq after the invasion was by US officials and not by the slums of Baghdad". In one case, auditors working for the government said "that $57.8 million was sent in ‘pallet upon pallet of hundred-dollar bills’ to the US comptroller for south-central Iraq… who had himself photographed standing with the mound of money". Although the extent of the robbery will probably never be known, up to $125 billion (£88bn) has simply disappeared. This is just one example of the way that the capitalists, not just in the US but world wide, use the state as a colossal milch cow.

The demand, in Britain and in the US in particular, is not for bailouts for the bankers but for the working and middle classes. Even the demand for nationalisation – because it is aimed at the bankers who are seen as responsible for the mess and which both Obama and the Brown government may be compelled to carry through despite its unpalatability to them – is not as popular as in previous periods. This is because the experience of the partial nationalisation so far in Britain and de facto in the US has alienated mass public opinion. The boards of these partially nationalised companies remain unreconstructedly capitalist in character. There were no celebrations similar to those which greeted the taking over of the mines in 1948 by the Labour government of the time, with the flying of red flags and big hopes for the future of the working class. This is because, for instance, Northern Rock’s state takeover was marked with increased repossessions of homes, the sacking of 4,000 workers and, latterly, lavish bonuses for some of the capitalist crew who remain in charge of this bank. This is a form of state capitalism, not a step in the direction of socialism, as advocated by even reformist socialists in the Labour Party in the past, when it was a workers’ party at bottom.

The need for democratic planning

ON THE OTHER hand, the ‘market’ offers no alternative. In Britain in 1999, for instance, two thirds of jobs created were not in the much-vaunted ‘entrepreneurial’ private sector but were in the state sector. This itself is a confession of bankruptcy by capitalism. Moreover, the structures in private industry are not at all an example of the ‘meritocracy’ beloved of the upholders of the market. Indeed, so convulsive have been the effects of the crisis that more and more capitalist writers have revealed the real character of the conditions and management which are such an intrinsic part of neo-liberalism. For instance, Simon Caulkin in the Observer compares the structure of big business – including British Telecom, which the government, it has been leaked, has contingency plans to renationalise in the event of its collapse – as more of a mirror image of Stalinism than a prettified picture of an ideal capitalist firm. They are, according to him, "zombie-like in their structural and strategic similarity" with Stalinism.

Rather rudely, he declares of management: "With their faces towards the [chief executive officer] and their arses towards the customer" most managers are more concerned with earnings targets than producing a worthwhile product. The world’s most efficient, conventionally managed corporation, General Electric, "spends 40% – that is, $60 billion – of its revenues on administration and overheads… The managers of large western corporations have much more in common with the apparatchiks of the command economies than is recognised". How much cheaper and efficient it would be to take over these firms, establish a system of workers’ control and management, and install a socialist planned economy!

Caulkin’s article is both a concession to Marx’s argument that the internal management of even a capitalist factory – Marx was speaking about the conditions of the nineteenth century – was an example of planning. The factory system, Marx said, applied to the economy and the world as a whole, would represent democratic socialist planning through the elimination of the market. Now, ironically, giant corporations – monopolies – have a top-heavy bureaucracy on the lines of the former Soviet Union. The solution lies not with Stalinism or with the capitalist ‘market’ but with democratic socialist planning. This requires the opening of the books for inspection by representatives of the unions and working-class organisations, small businesspeople, etc, in order to inform working people of what is the real situation as a preparatory step for realising such a plan.

Bridging the gap

THE NEED FOR a transitional programme in this era arises from the mixed consciousness of working-class people. This consciousness will be shaken and changed by the march of events. But the development of a rounded-out socialist consciousness, firstly of the most politically developed layers and then of the mass of the working class, can also be enormously facilitated by a transitional approach and a transitional programme – by adopting the method of Leon Trotsky brought up to date and filled out by the experience of the working class itself in struggle. This provides the bridge from the consciousness of working people today to the idea of socialist change. Sectarians have no need for such a bridge because they have no intention of passing over from the study, armchair or sideline to engage with the working class and, together with it, helping to change consciousness and increasing identification with socialism.

We have entered an entirely new period for the working class of Britain, Europe and the world. Even if Obama manages to put a partial cushion under US capitalism and thereby the world through stimulus programmes – and this is not at all certain – the situation that will arise from this crisis will be entirely different than the one before its onset. At best, the world economy will experience anaemic growth with the stubborn maintenance of mass unemployment. This, like fatty tissue in the body, is a symptom of a declining organism. Capitalism, however, will not disappear from the scene of history automatically. It is necessary to forge a powerful mass weapon which will be assisted by raising the level of understanding of working-class people – helped by a transitional programme – which can provide the helping hand for this failed system to make way for socialism.

Without such an approach, there is the danger that it will not be immediately evident to working people, even faced with the present economic catastrophe, what is the viable alternative. In the car industry, for instance, where wages have been slashed due to mass layoffs, there is an instinctive understanding by workers that there is ‘no market’ for their present products. But, given the high technique and skill that exists, it would take very little to convert the car industry, with a market faced with massive overproduction and a glut, to the production of useful goods, including green, environmentally-friendly vehicles. These are urgently needed for the world’s population, in the context of a sustainable, environmentally-friendly transport system. Such a switch in production was achieved at the outbreak of the second world war but is frankly impossible given the chaos of capitalism today. This does, however, pose the demand for an alternative socialist society.

The gap between the increasingly worsening objective situation and the consciousness of the working class will close in the next period. Events – and explosive events at that – will help to ensure this. On the edge of an abyss, the mass of workers will confront the capitalist system – sometimes without a clear idea of what can be put in its place. The journey to a socialist and revolutionary consciousness will, however, be shortened considerably, the pain much less, if the working class embraces the transitional method and a transitional programme linking day-to-day struggles with the idea of socialism.

No to any burdens of the crisis of capitalism being placed on the backs of workers! No to mass unemployment, particularly the frightening prospect of a new generation being permanently on the dole. Nationalise the banks but with democratic, socialist forms of organisation, including the involvement of representatives of the working class, unions, small businesspeople, etc. A democratic socialist state sector will itself pose the issue of going further towards more nationalisation, encompassing the commanding heights of the economy. On this road, hope is offered to working-class people against the dead-end of stagnating, decaying world capitalism.


Striking developments

Timeline of the Lindsey oil refinery dispute

31 October 2008: First round of redundancies on Ferrybridge (West Yorkshire) power station construction site.

Mid-November: Workers employed by Shaw to build a new desulphurisation facility at Lindsey oil refinery, Lincolnshire, are issued with 90-day redundancy notices (setting the date for 17 February 2009).

8 December: Some of the redundant Ferrybridge workers re-employed ‘out of scope’ (not covered by national agreements).

12 December: Previously redundant workers also working out of scope at Fiddlers Ferry power station, Lancashire.

Mid-December: Shop-stewards reported that part of Shaw’s Lindsey contract had gone to IREM, an Italian company, with the loss of a third of Shaw jobs. Shaw, a UK-registered company, had to employ union labour. Under EU laws, IREM did not. IREM would employ 200-300 Italian and Portuguese workers who would live on barges in Grimsby docks, bussed to work in the morning, bussed to and from the barge for lunch.

Late December: Shop stewards tried negotiating with IREM. National construction industry stewards met in London to discuss Staythorpe power station, Nottinghamshire, where Alstom was refusing to hire local workers, relying on non-union Polish and Spanish labour. It was decided that all sites covered by the National Agreement for the Engineering and Construction Industry (NAECI) should send delegations to Staythorpe in protest.

15 January 2009: Representatives met with Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Unite union. Simpson announced a mass protest at Staythorpe.

19 January: Over 200 protest at Staythorpe at 6am in torrential rain. Union officials arrived two hours late!

28 January: Again, over 200 protest at Staythorpe. (Union leaders on time.) Shop stewards informed Lindsey workers that IREM had refused their demands. The stewards recommended that they stay ‘in procedure’ (abide by anti-trade union laws). The mass meeting voted unanimously to take immediate unofficial strike action.

29 January: Over 1,000 construction workers from Lindsey, Conoco and Easington sites picketed Lindsey oil refinery. This ignited spontaneous unofficial walkouts of construction workers across Britain.

30 January: Lindsey strike committee was set up and Socialist Party member, Keith Gibson, became one of its main spokespeople.

2 February: Lindsey strike committee issued a call to spread the strike. In its first meeting the oil company, Total (which owned the Lindsey site), said there would be no negotiations until the strike was called off. The strike committee found out that two national union officials from Unite and the GMB were in secret talks with ACAS (the conciliation agency) in a four-star hotel in Scunthorpe. Fifty strikers went there but were kept away by police. Eventually, the strike committee forced its way to the table to ensure that no deals were done behind its back.

The unofficial strike had started without any leadership or clear demands. The vacuum that existed initially was filled by home-made posters for British jobs for British workers. This slogan was never a demand of the strike but the media used it to present the strike as anti-foreign labour. The strikers tried to make it clear that their action was against the exclusion of UK labour and the undermining of national agreements. The far-right British National Party was kicked off the Lindsey picket line.

3/4 February: The ‘British jobs for British workers’ posters had gone, although there were still a few union jack flags. Placards in Italian appealed to the Italian workers to join the strike. Another stated, ‘Workers of the world unite’, as commented on by Seamus Milne (The Guardian, 5 February).

4 February: Total capitulation! Initially, Total proposed that 60 local workers (40 skilled, 20 unskilled) could be on the IREM contract. Lindsey strike committee recommended rejection of this proposal to a mass meeting and, after discussion, it was overwhelmingly rejected. The strikes on oil refineries and power stations swept across at least 22 sites in Britain.

Total then offered that half the jobs will be filled by UK workers. All workers will be paid according to the national agreement, with union oversight. No Italian or Portuguese workers were laid off. All can now join the union.

5 February: The new proposals were agreed at a mass meeting at Lindsey.

Nationally, this group of skilled construction engineers – essential to major projects such as oil refineries and power stations – number 25,000. Their conditions have steadily worsened. At least 1,500 were unemployed. They are some of the best organised workers in Britain. Hiding behind EU directives, and seeking to divide workers on national lines, the employers were attacking everything they had fought for over many years. The workers struck back, breaking through the anti-union laws.

It is not over. Lindsey workers have won a significant victory, for the time being. But workers on other sites are still under attack. On 11 February, 800 flying pickets (including from Lindsey) descended on Staythorpe. Picketing and protests continue around the country. Calls for official national strike action are increasing. A march on parliament is planned.

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