Chris Harman


A message to our readers

(10 February 2001)

From Socialist Worker, No.1734, 10 February 2001.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Regular readers of Socialist Worker will have noticed some changes in the paper in the last three weeks. We are devoting more pages than before to reports of meetings, protests, strike ballots and strikes. And on each of the pages there are more reports than before.

This is not an arbitrary editorial decision. It reflects a change taking place in the outside world. You will not notice this change if you believe politics is merely what takes place in Westminster or what they write about in the mainstream press. For the change is taking place somewhere else – at the grassroots in workplaces, schools, colleges, union branches.

We’ve pointed out for some time that the beginning of the new millennium has seen two developments internationally. There has been the emergence of a new “anti-capitalist” minority – people in every workplace, college and school in the world who question the global system. This has been most visible on the demonstrations from Seattle to Prague to Nice, and most recently Porto Alegre and Davos.

There has also been a revival of class struggle in the advanced industrial countries after the demoralisation and defeats of the 1980s. This has been uneven. The most spectacular revival has been in France since 1995. The scale of this was shown a fortnight ago when huge demonstrations forced the employers’ federation to back off over its demand to raise the age of retirement for workers.

By contrast, the revival, we said, was most limited in Britain, where the unions suffered the biggest defeats anywhere in the 1980s – the mines, Wapping, the docks, the seafarers, steel, and so on. But since Christmas there have suddenly been signs of a change in Britain as well.

Through the 1990s there were isolated sparks of resistance to what the employers, the Tories and then New Labour were doing. Now suddenly there are lots of sparks together – in the post, in the councils, on the buses, on the tube, in the car plants, and among hospital workers and tenants facing privatisation. These struggles are still often held back by the heritage of the 1980s and 1990s.

Ballots usually do not lead to strikes, and union leaders usually manage to persuade strikers to allow themselves to be hampered by the anti-union laws, so that one-day strikes and selective strikes are still much more common than all-out strikes.

But the mood of the mass meetings, pickets and demonstrations is changing rapidly.

THERE ARE meetings after meetings, hundreds-strong, in which people are expressing the desire to struggle. If we were to adequately cover all the meetings that take place each week in Socialist Worker we would not have room for anything else.

And on a few occasions, most spectacularly in the recent post strike in Liverpool, workers have refused to be bound by the union laws and have delivered knockout blows to management. They show how easily a spark can cause a prairie fire!

Alongside the new desire to struggle a political awakening is taking place. The hostility to New Labour is very widespread. And the message of the anti-capitalist protests and counter-conferences is finding an echo among very large numbers of rank and file activists.

This is shown by the way in which the Socialist Alliances and the Scottish Socialist Party are picking up electoral support. Even the union leaders are not completely immune to the sudden shift in people’s mood. Their speeches at the demonstration against the closure of Vauxhall in Luton, for instance, showed much more fighting spirit than their speeches on the huge Rover protest last year.

Some of them feel emboldened to demand more from the government since Blair’s reliance on them to deal with the oil blockades last September. The feeling will have been strengthened by the amazing demise of the hated arch-“moderniser” Mandelson.

Activists who have witnessed innumerable sell-outs by the union leaders over the last 20 years will rightly be wary of relying on them now. Those leaders still regard the mass of workers as a Duke of York’s army to be marched up the hill and then back down again in endless manoeuvres that rarely lead to battle.

The union leaders’ fighting speeches on the streets of Luton were followed by declarations that they did not really want a strike at mass meetings in the Vauxhall factory only nine days later. UNISON leaders say in public that the Dudley strike against PFI in the NHS is of national importance while doing their best to get the strikers to accept an appalling compromise.

BUT THE union leaders’ fighting talk, however dishonest, can in some situations create a feeling of militancy which escapes their control. When I was in Paris at the end of November I was told the country’s main union federations had only called the demonstration in Nice on 6 December as a manoeuvre to avoid greater militancy.

But the very size and spirit of an international demonstration backed by all the big unions created the militant feeling among the rank and file that led to the victorious protests of two weeks ago.

Last autumn the French employers’ organisation expressed its great fear of “the new sort of alliances” forming “an anti-capitalist front to fight globalisation”: “This movement is arising outside the workplaces but will end up by influencing them, and they are scarcely prepared to deal with it.”

Things are not nearly as advanced yet in Britain. But activists can begin to sniff how they can become like that. The biggest danger is that socialists and trade union activists who have held the movement together through the grim years of retreat and demoralisation will not grasp how quickly things are changing.

Through those years we all became accustomed to swimming against the tide, to having to put a hard socialist message across to small numbers of people in small meetings, to other activists giving up or veering to the right under the pressure around them.

But the coming together of the anti-capitalist minority and the new mood of resistance is changing all that. Suddenly there are large numbers of people around who are moving in the same direction as us. What they have in common with us is much more important than what separates them from us.

There are all sorts of discussions we need to have with them – from the role of the trade union leaders on the one hand to arguments over alternatives to the international trade system on the other. But these arguments have to take place within the context of common struggle for shared aims.

That is why we have been making changes to Socialist Worker. We want it to become the place where people involved in all the struggles and all the movements send reports of their activities, so that they see it as their paper as much as ours. In this way it can become an important point of intersection between the anti-capitalist minority and the new feeling among many workers.

But for that to happen we need the assistance of our supporters in the Socialist Worker branches, those involved in the new struggles and those active in the anti-capitalist movements.

Chris Harman,
Editor, Socialist Worker

Last updated on 9 December 2009