Commentaries on Margaret Thatcher’s death commonly claim that she polarised the UK. This ignores the fact that the UK was always polarised. It’s called class society. When the economy is in good shape the ruling class grant concessions to the workers; when the economy is in trouble they claw them back. The picture varies to some extent from country to country according to the differing strength of class forces, but the general principle holds true.
However, what is undeniable is that Thatcher dealt a severe blow to the organised working class by defeating the miners in 1985. This was payback time for the working class vanguard that had brought down the previous Tory government. Her legacy, however, was not just to severely weaken organised labour, but to build the ranks of the small capitalists – the petit bourgeoisie – by measures such as the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Privatisation, and with it the widespread practice of outsourcing, further developed this sector, while the selling-off of council houses and the promotion of small-scale share ownership were measures aimed at encouraging a capitalist mindset in the working class.
As we view Thatcher’s success and the continuation of her legacy through Blair and now Cameron, it is easy to forget that even after the miners’ defeat there have been many moments when the tide could potentially have been turned. A quarter of a million marched on London when the second wave of pit closures were announced in 1992. How well I remember stopping at Membury Services and having copies of Workers Power practically snatched from my hands by the a militant horde of miners’ families and friends: they were ready to march on parliament, no question. But under the treacherous leadership of the TUC we all ended up on a ridiculous parade round Hyde Park with barely a passer-by as witness.
Such has been the history of struggle for the past twenty years: workers angry and up for a fight, but with little confidence anything will come of it after an endless series of disorientating surrenders by their leaders (remember the fire-fighters?). Meanwhile Thatcher’s other legacy – re-popularising flag-waving military adventures – has further cemented the control of the ruling class.
In the face of the retreat of organised, class-conscious workers, new forces have become prevalent on the left. The World and European Social Forums, the anti-summit protests and more recently movements such as Occupy and UK Uncut have been widely trumpeted, along with the massive anti-war protests, as a new source of hope.
In practice, however, a misreading of these large but often temporary movements had been fatal for the Marxist left. Overestimating the degree to which these were movements of the working class, left groups have drawn up wildly over-optimistic perspectives which have resulted in a search for quick fixes leading to disillusionment and internal division. In Workers Power there developed a schism between those old enough to have witnessed a confident working class vanguard and the young recruits who had not. In those circumstances those who proclaim the probability of imminent revolution will obviously be more enthusiastically received: the result was a split in what I believe to have been the healthiest, and previously most stable, tendency on the left.
Workers Power, along with most Marxist groups, attempted to orientate towards the social forums and new movements: we believed there could be a fruitful interchange between the new forces and the organised working class. But in putting theory to practice in Cardiff and Bristol, it soon became apparent that virtually all the activists radicalised by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and attracted to the idea of social forums were positively hostile to most of the ideas and practices in which my comrades and I had been educated. Why was this?
Many point to the opportunistic and undemocratic practices of the “traditional” left as the reason for the distaste for Marxism generally. And while it is true that the largest groups on the far left have been thoroughly cynical and bureaucratic in their methods, I do not believe the average social forumite would have made any distinction between these groups and those with a healthy, thoroughly democratic culture. The problem lies deeper and it is essentially one of social class.
Marx held that the working class would become the gravediggers of capitalism not just because, as the exploited, they have a vested interest in ending it, but because the conditions of their existence lead them to think and act collectively. When that ability to act collectively has been dammed up, however – the achievement of Thatcher and her heirs – the focus of rebellion passes to other forces produced but disenfranchised by modern capitalism: students, the unemployed, homeworkers, the struggling petit-bourgeoisie, left intellectuals, workers employed in small or family businesses. And, indeed, this was the profile of the social forums we built. Workers were in a small minority and generally employed where unions were non-existent or inactive.
Under these circumstances an individualistic ideology holds sway: the rights of the individual are paramount and any threat to these – for example through majority voting – is inadmissible. Although the argument against the Marxist left is generally couched as a difference between horizontal organisation and “top-down” parties, I believe it is the principle of collective responsibility which is the key. Under democratic centralism, or in a well-organised strike, everybody obeys a collective decision. There is no choice to opt out. That is the discipline necessary to prevail in the class war: the solidarity the ruling class fear, to which Thatcher’s anti-union laws and police truncheons aimed to put an end.
I am not arguing that the Marxist left has nothing to learn from the new movements. But equally I contend that Marx provided us with vital insights into the way society works which every rebel against capitalism should seek to understand. So too the tradition of democratic centralism developed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Otherwise Thatcher’s overarching aim – to destroy not only the organised working class but the ideology of socialism and the possibility of revolution – will have been all too successful.