Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Out of apathy

(May 1998)

From Socialist Review, No.219, May 1998.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Thirty years on 1968 is still associated in people’s minds with revolutionary hopes. Quite rightly so, given that it was the year of the biggest general strike in world history in France, the rise of the Black Panthers in the US and the first stinging defeat for the American forces in Vietnam.

But the year began as a very miserable one for socialists in Britain. The hopes much of the left had placed in Labour in the elections of 1964 and 1966 had turned to dust. The unions had put up with a six month wage freeze followed by two years of wage controls. The seafarers had been defeated after a long strike and the dockers had not only been defeated but also divided, with activists at the two most militant ports, Liverpool and London, blaming each other. The chancellor, Roy Jenkins, was pursuing a harsh deflationary economic policy, with cuts in welfare expenditure, a forcing up of council rents, and a conscious attempt to force down real wages, especially in the public sector.

Yet the national trade union leaders refused to make any real stand against the government. Protests against government wage controls were hundreds rather than thousands strong. There was a very high degree of demoralisation among the activists who had campaigned so vigorously for Labour only two years before. The (pre-Murdoch) Times ran a series of articles about how local Constituency Labour Parties were falling apart. In a round table discussion for a television programme, a succession of union activists from South Wales expressed despair, not only at Labour’s policies, but of any hope for things ever changing. As one of them said, ‘Labour have become part of conformity. They have made no inroads into capitalism. The haves and have nots remain the same.’

But the transformation of hope into disillusionment and of disillusionment into despair was not confined to the activists. There were huge swings from Labour in the local elections of May 1968, with the Tories taking cities such as Sheffield and Glasgow, and London boroughs such as Islington. The mass of former Labour voters were staying at home, or even voting Tory. One of the South Wales activists, a miner, told how ‘three years ago 80 percent of the men who worked with you would be Labour, now 60 percent are against.’

Nor was this the worst of it. On 20 April Enoch Powell made his notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech, using language that was so obviously racist that Edward Heath sacked him from the Tory shadow cabinet. The days that followed saw strikes and demonstrations in support of him from dockers, meat porters and others.

There were, of course, big left wing demonstrations against the American war in Vietnam. But these were overwhelmingly made up of students and young people, and could even encourage the feeling that workers’ struggles were a thing of the past. So the left wing paper Black Dwarf in its issue dated 12 May (the day before the general strike in France) could claim:

‘In Britain very many trade unionists have more sympathy with the police force and racism than with student demonstrators. The only work stoppages in recent times which were meant politically were the racialist demonstrations of dockers and meat porters in support of Enoch Powell ... Can it be that the most effective militant workers in Britain are to the right of the powerful Conservative Party?’

In fact, the most militant workers did not support Powell. But they were paralysed by their own despondency. They had believed that collective change could only come about by parliamentary means and, now this was not on offer, did not know how to respond. This left them with little to say to their fellow workers who were increasingly fed up with the government, leading most to apathy and a minority to fall for the racism of Powell.

Black Dwarf’s mistake was to see this as a permanent state of affairs. But in fact, the apathy was double edged. It expressed alienation from established politics and a lack of confidence in any alternative, but also deep bitterness. As Tony Cliff put it in a key article in 1969:

‘The concept of apathy is not a static concept. At a certain stage in its development it can turn into its opposite, swift mass action ... Workers who have lost their faith in their traditional organisations are forced into extreme, explosive struggles on their own.’

This was exactly what happened in France in May 1968. The process was not nearly as dramatic in Britain. Yet barely eight months after the Black Dwarf article a new wave of industrial strikes did begin, which drew into action a whole range of workers many from industries which had not taken strike action since 1926 – a wave that finally culminated in the miners’ and dockers’ victories of 1972 and the defeat of the Heath government in 1974.

It is well worth remembering today both the despondent mood of the workers’ movement in 1968 and the transformation that began in 1969. For, as the Blair government destroys the hopes that so many people had in May last year, there are signs of a new pessimism among sections of the left. There are, of course, big differences between the situation today and that in 1968. Few people in that year could remember personally defeats on the scale of the miners or Wapping. And the level of strikes, although low, was much higher than today.

But, at the same time, the bitterness at the base of society was nothing on the scale of today’s. Then most people still expected their children to have better lives than themselves. Few do today.

Finally, the right show few signs of picking up on the bitterness, as they did in 1968. There is still a strong political mood to the left, with a widespread feeling that there should be less inequality, that welfare should not be under attack, that Blair is wrong to have betrayed the hopes of last May. So anyone who puts forward a left wing criticism of Blair gets a good response – whether they are a welfare protester, a sacked Liverpool docker, a Magnet striker, a television comedian or a seller of Socialist Worker.

The point is to organise that mood and connect it with bitterness, not to collapse into a despondency which will eventually look as daft as the despondency of early 1968 did soon after.

Last updated on 21 December 2009