Chris Harman

Thoughts that count

(April 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 108, April 1988.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WHEN I was summoned for jury service I didn’t believe Paul Foot when he told me how interesting I would find the experience. But interesting it was.

Jury panels for the Inner London Sessions are made up almost entirely of people we Marxists define as working class.

So on a typical jury there would be a building worker, an engineering worker, a librarian, a cleaner, a social worker, a bus driver and a typist.

These were people whose main reading matter was the Sun, the Star, the Mail or the Mirror (although on every jury there would be a couple of Guardian or Independent readers).

On the face of it they should have been stuffed with every Thatcherite prejudice, ideological victims of what Marxism Today’s intellectual guru, Stuart Hall, has called “authoritarian populism”.

Certainly, some of the media’s muck had got stuck in their brains. Twice I heard people (one of them black) repeat the lie of the Murdoch press that Labour councils had changed the words of the nursery rhyme to “Baa baa green sheep”. No doubt if we had been discussing general social issues, all sorts of pro-capitalist ideas would have been aired.

But we were restricted to discussing particular cases, and it soon became apparent that most people would not accept one of the media’s most adamant contentions – that police officers are upright, honest individuals who never lie.

And if anyone made anything which might possibly be a racist innuendo about any of the defendants, they were immediately put down in no uncertain terms by other white members of the jury.

There was a powerful minority within this cross-section which dissented completely from the Thatcherite message – and much of the time the minority was able to pull the majority behind it in its rejection of the police case.

The experience caused me to reflect on some of the problems facing Thatcher.

She has been given a completely free hand in parliamentary terms and has been able to see off extra-parliamentary challenges because of the abject cowardice of the trade union bureaucracy.

The major newspapers give her unbridled support and the BBC whimpers its apologies any time any TV programme even half offends her.

But political power is not the same as “hegemony” – domination of the thinking of those who live under that power. As the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, pointed out, to be fully effective the ideas of the ruling class do not just have to be pumped out centrally. They also have to be retailed on the ground networks of individuals who interpret people’s everyday experiences in terms of them.

The great majority of people in Britain today accept the general ideas of capitalism. But this does not mean that they are prepared to interpret all of their own experiences in ways which fit with the needs of capitalism.

There was a time when the bourgeois political parties of this country penetrated the working class through a network of local Conservative and Liberal drinking clubs. They don’t today. Twenty five years ago the Young Conservatives could boast hundreds of thousands of members. Today they have shrunk to a group of a few thousand with little impact anywhere.

Nor are the ancillary institutions that used to back up Tory rule that useful to Thatcher. Even the Church of England refuses to be the Conservative Party at prayer any longer.

Thatcher has attempted to fill this vacuum on the right by “people’s capitalism” – by encouraging people to see crude greed as the highest social value. But such a strategy runs bang up against two of the central features of capitalism. Only a few people can really make money, as the dynamic of the system leads to the concentration and centralisation of capital, and even the gains of this minority are continually thrown at risk by the vagaries of the market.

Hence the strangest spectacle of recent months – the onslaught by the Thatcherites against a range of institutions which they see as somehow betraying their crusade to transform Britain.

There were Tebbit’s campaign against the BBC, Glimmer’s attack on the Church of England bishops, a tirade against the British film industry by a right wing historian in Murdoch’s Sunday Times.

It is as if the Thatcherites see themselves as an army which has conquered a country, but still has to reduce the population to subservience.

But they do have one very important thing going for them. Their weakness on the ground is matched by an even more profound vacuum on the left. The individual membership of the Labour Party fell again last year to around 260,000, of whom fewer than one in 10 go to meetings of any sort.

Among manual workers the picture is even worse. The party reckons it only has 30,000 members altogether in the two key private sector and manual unions, the TGWU and the AEU – that is fewer than one manual trade unionist in 800!

None of this worries the Kinnock-Hattersley leadership. They try to outbid Thatcher through media orientated campaigns, without mass organisation.

It must worry those of us who are socialists. There is a minority everywhere inside the working class that at least half accepts our arguments.

But the minority is not organised. Its members often do not even recognise each other and they coordinate their activities only in the most spasmodic ways.

Above all, that minority do not have the confidence to take action on its own behalf, without waiting for the say-so from Labour and the trade union leaders who are in full flight before Thatcher. Our weakness is her strongest weapon.

Last updated on 12.8.2013