With even TV presenters talking about the possibilities of a general strike, things are definitely changing. HANNAH SELL looks at the historical experience of general strikes and the prospects for one of the most powerful weapons of the working class being on the agenda in Britain.
In Britain in 2017 just 33,000 workers took part in industrial action, the lowest level since records began in 1893. The numbers, at 39,000, were barely higher the following year. Against this background many on the left, including some who parted ways with the Socialist Party, turned away from the organised working class as the key force in the struggle to change society.
Now, in 2022, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch’s declaration that “the working class is back” is palpably true. The first national rail strike led to the Trade Union Congress (TUC) having a 700% increase in enquiries about how to join a trade union. Suddenly, the proud history of the working class in Britain is featured in the mainstream media for the first time in decades. The evening news has included references to the heroic revolutionary Chartist movement, to the 1926 general strike – the greatest show of strength to date by the British working class – and to 1972 when a general strike began to develop from below demanding the freeing of five London dock stewards jailed under the anti-union Industrial Relations Act.
Are we heading into events of a similar scale? Without doubt the workers’ movement is on an upward curve. Under the cover of the pandemic the government stopped collecting strike statistics, but it doesn’t require official confirmation to see that a major strike wave has begun.
As we go to press a one-day national shutdown organised by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) is about to begin. Called as a ‘National shutdown to defend the socio-economic interests of the working class’, Saftu held meetings of provincial shop stewards committees at the start of the month to prepare the action. Members of the Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa) distributed a leaflet at these assemblies, reprinted below, that analysed this important step and made proposals on the way forward.
The National Shutdown Saftu has called for 24 August represents potentially a very important step forward for the working class. It will be taking place under conditions that are significantly different from the previous largely unsuccessful Section 77 actions of October 2020 and February 2021.
What is even clearer now than then, is that the capitalist class worldwide has no solution to the crisis of their system, worsened by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, other than to make the working class pay. Across the world, a new fighting mood has developed, with the working class on the march in their millions. In South Africa, communities are organising their own shut downs. The National Shut Down offers the opportunity to compress the energies of all these actions into a single movement of workers unity against the ANC government and the capitalist system.
The Italian coalition government of Mario Draghi has become the latest political victim of the cost-of-living crisis. The government’s collapse at the end of July triggered a fall on the stock exchange and a rise at one stage to up to 3.7% in the ‘yield’, the difference that Italy has to pay to service its debt compared to Germany: 2.5% is considered the ‘danger zone’. This has raised fears amongst the European capitalist classes that economic and political instability in Italy could trigger another sovereign debt and Euro crisis, ten years after the last one following the 2007-2008 global financial crash, which opened up social and political crises throughout Europe and potentially could have blown the Euro apart.
The trigger for the government’s collapse was the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) voting against an economic package that would have given some aid to those struggling with rising prices, arguing that the help was not enough. This was total political opportunism. In 2018, at the time of the last general election, M5S emerged as the biggest party with 33% of the vote. Now, according to the polls, it will struggle to get 12% in the elections scheduled for 25 September. A recent split in its parliamentary ranks, the latest of many, resulted in its former leader Luigi di Maio breaking away and taking 60 MPs with him. Now the party is desperately looking to try and channel anger and frustration at rocketing inflation to rebuild its social and electoral base. Given its record in the three coalition governments since 2018 this tactic is doomed to failure.
Summer 2022 saw the hottest temperatures since records began, in capitalism’s industrialisation period in the 1850s. No area of the planet was untouched by scorching heatwaves. Even the measures to secure water supplies and air conditioning which Europe’s major cities invested in and installed in the early 2000s, proved inadequate. One hundred French municipalities were left with drinking water shortages.
Millions of hectares of American and European forest burned. Those historically dry areas this season, from Iran into Baluchistan and into India, flooded. Rising temperatures are having a destabilising effect on the stability of nation states which will exacerbate conflict and crisis. The International Organisation of Migration points to the possibility that 30-60 million more people will live in areas that average 38-45C in the shade (too hot for the human body to function well) by 2100, unless fundamental action is taken.
How should socialists approach demands for national self-determination? Replying to the Communist Party of Britain, an influential presence behind the Morning Star newspaper, an article recently published by the Socialist Party Scotland takes up the defence of a Marxist approach to the national question, including issues raised by the demand for a second independence referendum in Scotland.
Young people and workers looking towards socialist and Marxist ideas sometimes ask us, what are the differences between Socialist Party Scotland and others on the left? This is an important question. Moreover, one that every person seeking out ideas to rid the world of the horrors of capitalism should be asking.
After all, how is it possible to judge what the most effective organisation to join actually is? Is that organisation capable of seriously taking on the task of building a viable working-class Marxist force to help lead a mass movement for socialist change? Only by studying the record, programme and role that organisation has played in leading struggles of the working class can an answer be found. Indeed the wrong political programme can, and indeed has, led to the defeat of many revolutionary opportunities in the past.
To assist in this clarification, Socialist Party Scotland, the Scottish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), has regularly written material that contrasts our position with that of others on the left, including the revolutionary left.
Mass movements striving to change society are inevitable under capitalism. But a revolutionary party is vital to ensuring their aspirations are realised. JUDY BEISHON continues our Introduction to Marxism series.
Many people regard themselves as anti-capitalist and are interested in socialist ideas, but at the same time can be wary of political parties. They have seen the attacks on living standards made by political parties in governments, by those claiming to be politically on the left, as well as the right. There is also the repellent mark left by the authoritarian parties that ran repressive Stalinist regimes, which claimed to stand for Marxism, communism and socialism but were an outrageous distortion of what those words really mean.
Mistrust towards political parties – and sometimes the very act of organising or having leadership bodies – can lead people towards the idea of spontaneous, unorganised action or loose networks.
There are times when spontaneous action can spur events along, but it also has great limitations. It provides no structure for democratic debate about what is to be done, how to develop it, and decisions over the roles individuals or teams will play. When people act together in a planned and united manner, with democratically agreed goals and roles, more can be achieved than with action in which every individual acts separately or in small groups.
“An ounce of action” by the working class, Karl Marx’s great collaborator Friedrich Engels is reputed to have said, “is worth a ton of theory” in developing awareness on a mass, societal scale.
And so it has proved again with the RMT rail worker strikes at the end of June, following on the biggest trade union-led demonstration in a decade on June 18, which have touched the consciousness of millions of people in Britain and internationally too.
The propaganda offensive against the RMT has also in its own way helped to showcase the power of the working class once it is prepared and organised to fight.
BBC presenters from the UK’s very own ‘state-affiliated media’ sometimes tried a line – even as they broadcasted from a deserted station concourse – that the strikes were not as impactful “as expected” (by who? compared to what?), while real-time retail data had high street footfall across Britain down 8.5% in a week and 27% in central London.
But the general routine across the capitalist press and TV, with different degrees of subtlety, was to denigrate the union for ‘holding the public to ransom’, selfishly making demands that would ‘cripple the economy’, and even accusations of being ‘Putin’s friend’.
The capitalist establishment has been sorely rattled by the biggest strikes organised by the RMT since its formation in 1990.
The cost of living crisis hitting workers is also having its impact on the finances of local councils – which are responsible for over a fifth of all spending on vital public services.
Rising prices have increased the fuel costs of refuse trucks, care workers’ cars, and school transport services, while soaring energy costs have hit budgets for schools, children’s centres, care homes, swimming pools, libraries and street lighting.
Council budgets were agreed in January, based on the government’s autumn 2021 spending review settlement which factored in inflation of about 3%.
But six months later the consumer prices index is rising by 9.1% and a new council funding ‘scissors’ looms, with projected spending for the 2022-23 financial year no longer balancing with income.
The US Supreme Court has overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which recognised a constitutional right to abortion. This represents the biggest attack on women’s rights in the US for the last 50 years and has been met with protests by tens of thousands across the country. CHRISTINE THOMAS writes.
The US Supreme Court has overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling which recognised a constitutional right to abortion. Decisions will now be left to individual states, at least 13 of which already have ‘trigger laws’ in place ready to ban abortion. Abortion could become illegal in practice in more than half of US states – affecting as many as 36 million women, according to Planned Parenthood. And it will be working-class and ethnic minority women, who do not have the resources to travel hundreds of miles to states where an abortion is still possible, who will suffer the most. The overwhelming majority of those seeking abortion will be women, although of course other groups will be affected by attacks on abortion and reproductive rights more generally. As one spokesperson for the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute explained: “The typical abortion patient is in her 20s, doesn’t have a lot of money, and has one or more children”. Sixty-one percent of abortions are carried out on minority women.
HANNAH SELL reviews one of the numerous recent books looking at the events in Washington DC on 6 January 2021 and their aftermath, examining the crisis in both the Republican and Democrat parties and the prospects for huge movements shaking the US.
This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future
By Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns
Published in the US by Simon & Schuster, 2022
This Will Not Pass, a new book by two New York Times journalists, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, was published prior to the start of the current House Committee hearings into the events of 6 January 2021. It covers much of the same ground, although its revelations about the storming of the Capitol are tame compared to some of the evidence given to the hearings. Moreover, despite the promising title, it is light on conclusions about how the ‘battle for America’s future’ will develop, not least because it barely references the experiences of working-class Americans, their organisations, and how the working class is developing its consciousness on what needs to be done to find an answer to the American crisis.
Nonetheless Martin and Burns do describe well events in Washington DC on January 6, including Trump whipping up the crowd, declaring “we will never give up, we will never concede”; while his sidekicks like Alabama congressman Mo Brooks told the crowd to start “taking down names and kicking ass” and Rudy Guiliani called for “trial by combat” over the election results. Meanwhile inside the Congress buildings politicians were hiding under desks and writing last messages to their families. It depicts “Republican president candidate Mitt Romney being seconds away from ‘colliding with a throng of insurrectionists’ that had breached the Senate, and him raging about ‘what this says to country and the world’ and ‘the only time this ever happened before was in the civil war’.”