Chris Bambery writes about the role of the Left in the global uprisings, and the strategy that we can take to build further resistance.
ìThe condition of the working class is the real basis and point of departure of all social movementsÖA knowledge of proletarian conditions is absolutely necessary to be able to provide solid ground for socialist theories.î
One notable feature of recent global resistance to austerity is the absence of the Left. There have been momentous strikes and protests across Europe, the Arab world, and even America as governments make the poor pay for the economic crisis with cuts, unemployment, and wage crunches. This will certainly continue. The capitalist system, as Marx pointed out, breeds class struggle. But this does not guarantee that the Left will respond effectively to grow its influence and membership. Resistance doesnít necessarily build the infrastructure of the Left.
The Spanish resistance
We find evidence of this in the recent protest movement in Spain, which began with the occupation of the Puerta del Sol square in central Madrid on May 15, and quickly spread across Spain after police attacked the Madrid and Barcelona camps. These protests directly confronted the capitalist system: banners in the Puerta del Sol proclaimed ëright to a roofí, ëSpain is not a business, we are not slavesí, and ëwe are not products.í But the protestors by-passed the Left. In the recent local and regional elections the Izquierda Unida (Left Unity) gained just 1 percent nationally at a time of massive youth anger and upheaval. Evidently the protesters looked at the left and did not recognise themselves in it.
The Spanish protests were largely made up of students, the young unemployed, and precarious workers. They warned political parties, including the Left, to stay away. This hostility to any form of permanent political infrastructure is a feature of many emerging youth movements. Rather than appeal to ëtraditionalí political parties and slogans, the Spanish protestors drew their energy from the spontaneity of the Arab revolutions.
Pundits have noted that Spain is not a dictatorship like Mubarak and Ben Ali. But the theme of a generation trapped and ësold outí with no real political choice is common to both movements. Opposition to unemployment and austerity were precipitating factors, but the grim inevitably of elections favouring either the centre left Socialist Party (PSOE) or the centre right Popular Party (PPP) also inflamed the Spanish protests. Of course, this is hardly unique to Spain: the hollowing out of democracy across Europe means the choice is similar, a choice of different brands of neo-liberalism.
Likewise, poverty and unemployment in Spain may not be comparable to the Arab world. But the crushing of expectations of youth and graduates in the wealthiest corners of Europe has its own dynamic. Job security and social mobility might have been taken for granted by their parentsí generation, but this generation faces unemployment and precarity. The job situation in Spain is particularly bleak: the unemployed account for 21 percent of the entire Spanish workforce, the highest in Western Europe, rising to 43.4 percent for under-25s. And this does not even include students looking for work.
If the problem is especially acute in Spain, it is comparable across Europe. In Italy, youth unemployment is 29 percent nationally; in the poor south, it approaches Spanish levels. In the Irish Republic it nudges 25 percent. Even in the UK unemployment among the under-25s tops 20 percent.
Unemployment is skyrocketing and the process of marketisation has accelerated during the crisis, but political discourse remains imprisoned within the framework of neoliberalism. Europe desperately needs a Left that can provide a serious opposition to this on the streets and in the workplace. But with the partial exceptions of Germany, Ireland and Portugal, the situation is fairly dire. The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) in France, launched with much fanfare, has been eclipsed by other sections of the Left but rejects appeals for unity. In Italy, the radical Left is in disarray and resistance bypasses it. The British situation is no better, with sectarian rivalries re-emerging in competing anti-cuts campaigns and terrible results in the May elections across Scotland and England. Even hopes for a Labour revival failed to materialise, with disastrous losses in its Scottish heartlands.
There is no lack of willingness to resist: in Britain, the student movement brought hundreds of thousands into action and half a million joined the TUC demonstration on March 26th. The problem is absence of direction, signified by a Left that does not represent popular anger. People do not recognize themselves in the Left, which, far from appearing as integral to resistance, appears to intervene from the outside into the movement. Many young activists express a fear that the Left seeks only to ëcannibaliseí rather than build, while in large parts of Britain, and in many of the campaigns against the Con-Dem attacks, the Left is simply absent. These concerns should be addressed with due respect.
The last global social movement comparable to today opened in 1968. The section of the Left that grew did so because it propelled itself into the movement: the first step was putting oneself alongside those fighting. Only then could a dialogue about the rights and wrongs of ësocialismí and ëcommunismí begin. The Left cannot put conditions on joint action; we must always fight alongside the oppressed to win their support on their terms.
While we should learn from the positives of the seventies, the Left also needs to face new realities about employment. The Western working class has undergone a structural adjustment. Precarious employment has been a reality for most under-40s for well over a decade in Southern Europe. This recession has seen some 2 million workers in Britain forced into part time employment, often against their will, with the subsequent loss of benefits. Part-time workers now make up more than a quarter of the workforce. There are now some 1.5 million agency workers in the UK: the number doubled in ten years to 2006. After Japan, the UK has the largest number of employment agencies in the world. Casual employment and unpaid labour (sometimes dubbed internships, sometimes as job experience) is common from the media to retail giants.
Trade unions organize just 19 percent of Spainís workforce, which is weak compared to Britain. However, there is no room for complacency. Union membership in Britainís private sector, at one in six, is comparable to Spain. More than half of the public sector is unionised ñ but as the cuts bite with little effective action, what state is this formally organised section of the working class really in?
Clearly, we cannot simply read-off the fighting morale of unions from membership statistics. A cursory glance at British working class history shows that spikes in militancy do not necessarily, or even usually, stem from the most organised sectors of the workforce. Upsurges like the New Unionism, the Great Unrest, the strike wave of the mid-1930s and the insurgence of white collar and public sector worker in the 1970s began with agitation among previously unorganised or ignored sectors. There exist some 200,000 union reps or shop stewards but these are often consumed in individual case work. Weak bargaining power and years of social-partnership with neoliberal governments has, coming on top of the defeats of the 1980s, created a passivity which has to be overcome.
Some union leaders, like Len Mccluskey and Mark Serwotka, have caught on to the dangers and are attempting to connect with political campaigns like UK UNCUT and Coalition of Resistance and to build up a younger, activist layer of trade-union reps and organisers. Others, like Dave Prentis and Paul Kenny still seem to focus on getting Labour returned to office, at local and national level.
Changing times, changing strategy?
Learning lessons from continental Europe, where many nations have taken united strike action against austerity, will prove invaluable in combating the Con-Dems. So far, the general strikes in Europe have been limited to one-day actions, with the exception of last autumn in France where a militant minority tried to spread continuous strikes but were stifled by the leadership of the main union federation, the CGT. Much of the fighting morale for these general strikes came from outside the ranks of organized labour ñ students, school students, the young unemployed and precarious workers ñ who gave the political movement confidence. In Portugal, where organization and confidence in the private sector is low, they helped organize blockades of bridges and transport in order to spread the one day general strike, receiving widespread support.
June 30ís coordinated strike, planned by four public sector unions, is a welcome development for the movement in Britain. Everything needs to be done to build it, to turn the day into a festival of resistance for all those fighting austerity and cuts. Hopefully it can be a stepping stone to a general strike.
But it is only a one-day strike. The biggest unions ñ Unison, Unite and the GMB ñ are not involved, and it does not involve the private sector. Tory and Lib Dem attempts to play off private and public sector workers must be rejected and defeated but simply concentrating on public sector workers wonít help do that. Unfortunately, where the left has a presence in the unions it is overwhelmingly in the public sector ñ too often we are cut off by age and position from the low paid, younger workers, who are disproportionally non-white.
With these sectors, we must promote a change of attitudes. Public sector workers on full-time contracts need to break down barriers with temporary and part-time colleagues, which will require considerable courage as the Con-Dems and layers of management seek to set workers against each other.
The union machine, to be an effective force against austerity, must confront the question of precarious employment and the stratification of the workforce in an honest and open manner to give an effective lead. On 30 June what will NUT reps say to supply teachers or even supply teaching assistants? How will the UCU relate to the growing number of lecturers denied permanent contracts? Will agency staff be asked to strike and assurances given they will not be victimized or punished for doing so?
Cameron and Clegg fear united resistance ñ the ruling class know that imposing the cuts depends on dividing the workforce. The Left must seek to impose its own solutions against this, a message of unity and solidarity. But this will require a change of attitudes on the Left: to break with a narrow focus on the public sector unions, whose formal channels can contain resistance as well as provide impetus, and make aggressive inroads among youth, students, the precarious and unorganised or barely organised private sector workers. As our socialist precursors in Britain realised ñ and as our allies on the continent are beginning to grasp ñ a successful social movement depends on organizing the unorganisable.
Originally published on International Socialist Group website. Chris Bambery is the author of Ireland’s Permanent Revolution and A Rebels Guide to Gramsci, and is a member of the International Socialist Group.
#1 Absence of the Left and the Right ó Duncan Pugh 2011-06-15 10:20
At 47 years old I fall into the precarious worker category and have done so for well over a decade. Be it working for a supermarket chain, a call-centre or teaching in a school, workers are increasingly treated as nothing more than statistical units. Our state is not even a business, it is a prostitute, and we are its slaves.
You mention the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali, the media made a great deal out of the apparent demise of their 30 year long dictatorships. Yet it is clear that during at least the last 30 years the UK has been living under a regime that has acted like an Orwellian dictatorship.
The best book I’ve read on politics in recent times is ‘On Revolution’ by Hannah Arendt. I no longer believe that the ‘right/left’ distinction is useful as a reference point for our political discourse. The unions are too wrapped up in individual cases and the quality of accommodation at the next training course venue to be of any real relevance and a turnout of 40% on the NUT strike ballot is a little disappointing, if not understandable, given the smug and empty rhetoric of the self-styled, and usually very well paid, ‘radicalism’ of the average union rep. Parliamentarian politics is an irrelevant distraction in its present form, ‘a choice of different brands of neo-liberalism’ as you put it. In line with Arendt, and Thomas Jefferson, I believe that we should be building our polity from the bottom up, its foundation should be the creation of local democratic institutions working within the framework of a written constitution.
Arendt dismisses the Revolutions of 17th century Britain as pre-modern and chooses to focus on France and the United States in her examination of how to make a successful revolution. The USA managed to avoid a reign of terror unlike France, I’m talking about the 18th century not the 21st by the way, because it wrote a constitution and then acted upon it. Even today, as their constitutional rights are being severely eroded, the US Constitution still provides a critical tool for those who can see what is being done to them, Alex Jones is a good example of this, alongside ‘Freedom Force International’ (www.freedom-force.org/#) amongst many others.
‘Unlock Democracy’ (www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/) is a UK organisation that seems to be heading in the right direction in my opinion. Constitutional reform is fundamental to creating real change, to ‘organising the unorganisable’.
Call me a fool, but the disestablishmen t of the Church of England might be a very interesting first step towards effective constitutional reform and getting everybody organised. It has lots of money, buildings in almost every locality and is at root a very radical belief system. This would also go some way to negating the outcome of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.
#2 RE: The Left and the crisis – a new strategy ó Mark Tyers 2011-06-15 21:41 Good timly analysis which I really identified with.
Key quote for me was probably:
“The Left cannot put conditions on joint action; we must always fight alongside the oppressed to win their support on their terms.”
#3 RE: The Left and the crisis – a new strategy ó Tom Henries 2011-06-16 20:42
The one missing word here is “Greece”. The left have had a huge influence in the struggles there, and the organised working class have led that rebellion.
In Egypt it was the militancy of the Mahalla workers and also the undercover chipping away done by the revolutionary left that played a significant part in building the scaffolding of the revolution.
And in Britain the fact that 750,000 are about to go on strike on 30 June is a big step forward… and has inspired even McCluskey and Unison to say they are planning significant strikes in the Autumn.
Obviously the left should involve itself in campaigns like UK Uncut, but at the same time we have to tap into the militancy of the working class, which we seem to be doing. The calls from the left for “coordinated” and “general” strikes had an impact, and now the union leaders are needing to relate to these calls. Even Prentis!
Let’s not forget about political leadership here. If the public sector unions strike it offers a lead, which fuses with the contagion sweeping from Tunis to Athens.
Right now we have reasons to be cheerful. It’s the job of the left to spread the spirit of hope and revolt, because now’s the time.
#4 RE: The Left and the crisis – a new strategy ó Alex Snowdon 2011-06-16 21:55
It’s worth noting there was a time lag between writing and publishing here – the article was written before the events in Greece of this last week. Whether that changes the general line of argument is another matter.
There are many reasons to be cheerful, and plenty of spirit of hope and revolt around. But the left’s task is not simply to spread a spirit of hope and revolt. We need to accurately assess what state we are in – in all its contradictions – and plot a way forward.
Since roughly 1985, i.e. the end of the Miners’ Strike, there have been two notable phenomena in terms of resistance in this country:
1)A drastic fall in strike levels; decline in union membership and coverage by collctive agreements; weakening of union influence as a result of anti-union laws; and increasing control by the union bureaucracies as opposed to the rank and file.
2) A growth in what can loosely be termed a ‘protest culture’, with the rise of protest and social movements across a wide range of issues (mostly supported by, and actively involving, the left).
From the anti-apartheid and anti-poll tax movements on to the mass demonstrations agianst pit closures in 1992, to the Anti Nazi League and protests at the Tories’ Criminal Justice Bill in the mid-90s, to (in this century) the huge Stop the War demonstrations, anti-capitalist movement, a revived anti-fascist movement, the protests and campaigns around Third World debt like Make Poverty History, Palestine solidarity and the huge Gaza protests, the big climate change demo in Dec’ 2009, and the student protests, right up to 26 March, the streets have been ahead of the workplaces as sites of resistance.
Much of the left still doesn’t quite grasp this historical development, or its implications. But it is crucial to formulating strategy and tactics.
None of the above means writing off ‘militant workers’ or ignoring the possibility – indeed likelihood – of large-scale strike action beyond 30 June. It does, however, provide some guidance on questions of who and what the organised left should be relating to – and how we should be doing so.
On the European revolutionary left… there was, in general terms, a big growth between 1968 and the mid-1970s, then a sharp decline after that. Has this revolutionary left revived and grown in recent years? In general no. Even where there have been significant steps forward, these have since been reversed (Italy is perhaps the most acute case of this). It’s important to think critically and realistically about this.
Let’s have a sense of perspective about 30 June. It’s a welcome step forward – ditto the noises being made by Prentis and Unison about action in the autumn. It needs, however, to be balanced by awareness of the on-going and long-running weaknesses of the union movement, which won’t be reversed by 30 June.
Tony Cliff used to say there are two ways of feeding demoralisation: one is pessimism, but the other is over-optimism. An inflated and unrealistic sense of what is happening sets us up for demoralisation later. Those calling for a ‘general strike’ – despite our current situation being a million miles from that – should remember that.
Finally, a realistic grasp of what’s happening in the unions – or of the left’s continuing marginalisation – is not meant to be a recipe for gloom. The events in Spain and Greece especially – not to mention the Arab revolutions – make it clear that would be daft. But such resistance doesn’t automatically translate into a stronger revolutionary left.
#5 The ‘left’ is an outworn and irrelevant term… ó Duncan Pugh 2011-06-17 10:14
We need to replace the term ‘left’ which is operating in this discussion to refer to a whole range of organisations and ‘pressure groups’, including the so-called Labour Party and its crony unions. Then you ask how they should be relating to or teaming up with ‘the oppressed’ … the so-called ‘left’ should, by definition be ‘the oppressed’. The sad fact is that the ‘right’ too is appealing to ‘the oppressed’, the BNP, EDL etc. are making a lot of progress in their making of scapegoats for our current woes and it isn’t difficult to see why _ Just visit your local civic centre or council housing office. Yes it is superficial and way off the mark in its identified causes, but ‘the oppressed’, in many cases, find their arguments convincing.
From what I saw on March 26th there is no way on earth that our enslaved media and police force would EVER allow Trafalgar Square to become another Tahrir Square.
Maybe we should desert the cities and start a new Digger movement? Land seems to be plentiful enough and I’m sure there are some of ‘the oppressed’ already working on it.
This IS a moment of hope and optimism, but also one of extreme danger. The powers we stand against are very powerful, deceitful and vicious. If we don’t get organised and pull together, we are going to become completely impotent very quickly indeed.
It is not too far fetched to say that, with regard to the ideological, economic and geo-political situation, we are in a 1930s Germany scenario on a global scale, and we all know where that led! Yes, Gramsci, Marx and even Lenin might have been right after all, but that doesn’t mean a thing to most of ‘the oppressed’. The first job is to recognise the true extent of OUR oppression which isn’t exactly difficult at the moment.
As Milton put it in ‘Paradise Lost’: “Awake, arise, or be forever fallen.”