It is not just the weather that is rubbish. An icy wind of political reaction is blowing all over Britain and Europe. Everyone can see that on the job, the fighting mood of last year has given way to resignation. Inflation is supposed to be down, but the end of the month is only getting harder. Many are looking at their meagre payslip wondering how a few percentage points can even come close to making up for the worsening conditions. The NHS, schools, rail, housing are still crumbling, but no one is talking about that any more. Instead, Labour and the Tories both promise to attack working people and are having a pissing contest over who can better brutalise and deport migrants.
The truth is that the trade unions are weaker and more discredited than before last year’s strike wave. In many workplaces, bosses are taking advantage by pushing speed-up, increased workloads, unsafe conditions and redundancies. If you are unhappy, you can shut up or leave, and if you have a meltdown, the union rep can give you a hug.
If that weren’t enough, Israel’s murderous blitzkrieg on Gaza has only added to the gloom. While hundreds of thousands have joined protests, in workplaces this war is fuelling a climate not of resistance but of division and repression. Standing up against genocide means risking your job and being branded an anti-Semite. Opposing Hamas means to risk being seen as a supporter of Israel. Since no trade union or Labour leader is willing to take a serious stance for Palestine (tepid speeches for peace on Saturdays do not count), there is a profound sense of powerlessness. No wonder many at work prefer to just avoid the subject. “Keep calm, carry on and everyone for themselves.” Welcome to Britain’s cold winter of reaction.
Defeat of strike wave looms large
Stumbling in this icy storm are the various “socialist” groups, each as disoriented as the next. Have you ever tried to make sense of what is going on in Britain by reading the newspapers of the far left? Good luck. The Morning Star, Socialist Worker, the Socialist, Socialist Appeal etc all have their own campaign of self-delusion about the current political context, clueless about the task of socialists and mindlessly running around.
To understand the current climate of reaction and the disorientation of the left, one must look to the strike wave. The surge of trade union struggles in the autumn and winter of 2022-23 represented the first real opportunity in decades to turn the tide in favour of the working class. With the Tories hanging by a thread, a real offensive by the trade unions could have swept away this rotten government and put Keir Starmer and his clique of Blairites in a chokehold. The strike wave had the potential to halt the destruction of living standards, reverse the war on public services and bring back the organised working class as a real political force.
But this is obviously not what happened. From beginning to end, the strikes were dragged out, undermined and led to defeat. The Tories did not even have to do much. The leaders of the unions themselves, by refusing to organise a real confrontation with the ruling class, were able to demoralise their members and quash the movement. Because of this betrayal, the workers movement, the only force which can fix “broken Britain”, was taken out of the political equation, opening the door to reaction. (For a full analysis of this defeat, read “Strike wave faces defeat: leaders to blame — How to rebuild union power”, Workers Hammer no 250, Summer 2023.)
All the far-left organisations spent the strike wave cheering the same “left” union leaders, like Mick Lynch or Sharon Graham, who were leading the movement astray. And since then, none of them has been able to tell the simple truth: the strike wave was defeated, betrayed by its own leaders. Without this understanding, it is impossible to orient working-class militants or make sense of what is going on in Britain.
Gaza protests and the left
With no serious lessons drawn, these “socialist” groups stood disarmed as the bloody war on Gaza erupted. They threw themselves into pro-Palestinian activism, mistaking the huge outpouring on the streets for a turn to the left. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) thinks this is akin to the Vietnam War. Socialist Appeal is running around screaming about “communism” and “intifada until victory”. The Socialist Party thinks that the sacking of Suella Braverman is a gain, while everybody knows she orchestrated it to jump out of Sunak’s sinking ship. After a summer of stagnation, the pro-Palestinian movement acted like a sugar rush for the left.
What is happening in Gaza is not the Tet Offensive but ethnic cleansing of an entire people. So, while hundreds of thousands have come out in justified anger, the protests are dominated by liberal outrage and a sense of powerlessness. After the ceasefire (which was the main demand of these marches), the demonstrations and the opposition inside Labour are a shadow of their former selves. For those who remain on the streets, demoralisation sets in.
Had the strike wave been successful, the workers movement would be playing a leading role in the struggle for Palestine, making it harder for the Tories and Labour to support genocide. But because of its defeat, the unions barely play any role. Now, everyone on the left is calling for working-class actions against arms shipments to Israel. But such needed actions face the exact same obstacle as the strike wave: trade union leaders who either openly support British imperialism and Israel or make tepid speeches while refusing to cross the government’s red lines. In both cases, the result is the same: the leadership of the unions props up British imperialism.
The task of socialists in the pro-Palestine movement is to attack its liberal illusions, wage war on the pro-Zionist union leaders and fight to reorient the movement in a revolutionary direction. But is this what the left does? Is it saying what needs to be said against the left-Labourites and union leaders? No! Their statements and interventions are all identical in opportunistically tailing the movement. We urge our readers to look at how we fight for a Marxist pole in the Palestinian liberation movement (pages 12 and 9) and see for themselves.
Left out in the cold
As Britain is going through a winter of reaction, the left is in swimsuits. From the defeat of the strikes to the pro-Palestine marches, it jumps from blunder to defeat with no compass or sense of the current situation and what to do.
The gold star for delusion probably goes to Socialist Appeal, which will soon rebrand itself as the Revolutionary Communist Party. Why? Because “ever-larger layers are looking towards Marxism, revolution, and communism” (Socialist Appeal, 17 November). Oh boy…. It is one thing to see that the growing crisis of the world order is leading some youth towards more radical ideas. It is another to proclaim the march of communism to be on an unstoppable rise, ignoring the political obstacles to communist consciousness in the working class.
That said, when we challenge Socialist Appeal members on their refusal to oppose the union bureaucracy and fight for a socialist leadership of the trade unions, their standard response is that workers’ consciousness is too backward so we must support “left” reformist bureaucrats as a “step” (like NATO-lover Sharon Graham of Unite). So, on the one hand Alan Woods proclaims that the masses are turning to communism and on the other the working class is supposedly too dumb for communist politics. Go figure.
But Socialist Appeal’s ultraleft act is only one way to wrongly respond to the new period. The Socialist Party is desperately promoting TUSC, an openly reformist “broad church” electoral coalition, to revive the Corbyn movement, oblivious to the fact that Corbynism already proved its bankruptcy precisely because of its reformist “broad church” programme.
As for the SWP, now liquidated into pro-Palestine activism, their strategy consists in building “rank-and-file committees” in whatever moves, usually composed of WhatsApp groups that are echo chambers of their own supporters disconnected from the working class (see article, page 3). Socialist Alternative is running around like a headless chicken, pasting a socialist label on identity politics. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! has no perspective of doing work inside the unions and Labour Party, thereby condemning themselves to the margins of society. Who knows what the CPB is doing, so enmeshed is it in the discredited RMT leadership.
We could go on. Various left groups have their own false responses to the winter of reaction. Most are disconnected from reality. Others simply adapt to it. But none seeks to provide a way out of the crisis of the left, which is an expression of the crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.
We Spartacists are often accused of being obsessed with the question of leadership. Damn right we are! Because whatever rank-and-file committee you build, whatever courageous actions you do, as long as the working class is led by pro-capitalist scoundrels, and as long as there isn’t a real socialist opposition in the unions whose goal is to sack the rotten misleaders, there can be no serious talk of working-class actions against British imperialism, or of any significant progress for the workers movement. That is the lesson from the Corbyn movement to the strike wave.
What to do now? Militants in socialist groups must stop running around and seriously think about the disastrous course of the past period. Get out of your sectarian castle and seriously engage with workers and the rest of the left. As for militants in the trade unions, now is not the time for idiotic, adventurist offensives. The task is to rebuild the unions into fighting weapons (not on WhatsApp but in the real world). New members must be recruited and educated. Strike funds must be replenished or created. Various unions in the same workplace must be merged into one. Everything that strengthens the union at work is worth a thousand times more than whatever paper resolution the same few militants pass at some branch meeting. That is how we will prepare the next counteroffensive.
But every step, however modest, will have to come as the result of a ruthless struggle against the leaders of the trade unions. And that’s what the rest of the left cannot stomach.