Neverending Resistance

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(300)

Ian Birchall celebrates 300 issues of Socialist Review.

In 1978 Tom Robinson recorded a song called 'The Winter of '79'. In it he imagined someone from an unspecified future (perhaps 2005) looking back on the late 1970s. After recalling that 'A pint of beer was still ten bob [50p]' he described how:

'The National Front was getting awful strong
They done in Dave and Dagenham Ron
In the winter of '79
When all the gay geezers got put inside
And coloured kids was getting crucified
A few fought back and a few folks died
In the winter of '79.'

Robinson was right about the relentless rise in the cost of a pint. Happily he was wrong about the rest. In 1977 the National Front was indeed 'getting awful strong'. It had no chance of power - yet - but its racist poison divided workers and encouraged physical attacks.

In the summer of 1977 the Nazis were physically confronted at Lewisham. Then in 1978 two Anti Nazi League carnivals (which Tom Robinson actively supported) brought together tens of thousands of anti-racists. These were the tip of the iceberg. All over the country campaigners came together to paint out racist graffiti, prevent Nazis meeting on school premises and promote the anti-racist message. In workplaces and trade unions there were groups like Health Workers Against the Nazis, Teachers Against the Nazis, etc.

The atmosphere of fear evoked in Robinson's song was real. It was a life and death matter. In 1979 Blair Peach, an SWP member who had been taking part in an anti-Nazi demonstration, was killed by police in circumstances that have never been properly investigated. But there was also exhilaration, a feeling that we had achieved real unity in the struggle against racism, a sense that if we stood up for what we believed we could isolate the Nazis and set them back for ten years or more. That mood gave birth to Socialist Review, whose first issue appeared in April 1978. Its aim was to complement Socialist Worker, to provide analysis, debate and commentary, always geared to action.

The 300 issues of Socialist Review have chronicled 27 years of struggle. For what is remarkable is that there was always a fightback. Lazy journalists, who can't be bothered looking outside the saloon bar, repeat such clich├ęs as 'Thatcher tamed the unions' and, 'Students are apathetic now compared with the 1960s.' The record shows otherwise. Yes, there were defeats, very bitter ones, but there were victories too. Above all, working people kept on kicking. Under capitalism, there's nothing else to do.

Late in 1978 there was a flare-up in industrial struggle, with a month-long Ford strike, followed by the famous 'winter of discontent' when lorry drivers, health workers, refuse collectors, gravediggers and others stopped work. But there was no political expression to the militancy. A Labour government in power since 1974 had succeeded for three years in cutting real wages. Labour ran away from any suggestion of support for strikers, and got the worst of both worlds. Militant workers felt no enthusiasm to vote Labour, while Tories flocked to their party in fear of working class action. And so we got Thatcher.

Younger readers, who have only seen Thatcher in her role as 'drink-soaked former prime minister', might be tempted to feel sorry for the pathetic old dear. They shouldn't. She fronted the most viciously right wing Tory government in living memory. Her close associates were Norman Tebbit, who argued that the unemployed should cycle to neighbouring towns in search of work, and Keith Joseph, who feared that, since the poor tend to have more children than the rich, 'our human stock is threatened'.

Thatcher's aim was to weaken the organised working class, which had been dangerously strong in the early 1970s. There were four parts to her strategy - higher unemployment, public service cuts, attacks on unions, and a rabidly nationalist foreign policy.

Some on the left were intimidated. They argued it was time to abandon the campaigning politics of the 1970s and retreat into the Labour Party. In 1981 Tony Benn ran for deputy leadership of the Labour Party, receiving press vilification of the kind now handed out to George Galloway. Benn, an honest man who recognised late in life that campaigning was more valuable than parliamentary manoeuvres, eventually moved left. Most of the Bennites moved right.

In London Labour left wingers headed by Ken Livingstone in the Greater London Council introduced the Fares Fair policy, designed to cheapen public transport. Car use fell, and lives were saved as road accident figures were reduced. This was too much for the state in the person of Lord Denning (a man who told the Evening Standard he had been on a bus - once). The scheme was ruled illegal. Some of Livingstone's friends urged individual passengers to refuse the new fares - but totally rejected the only method which could have won, industrial action by transport workers.

Patriotic ideas

Thatcher sought to boost her Churchillian image by waging a totally futile war against Argentina, defending the Falkland Islands as 'ours', though few Brits could have located them on a map. Again some on the left lost their nerve. Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm proclaimed a new rise in nationalist sentiment, saying that the Falklands had produced 'an almost universal sense of outrage'. Socialist Review carried a much better researched article by Sue Cockerill, 'The War and the Workplace'. On the basis of reports from a number of workplaces, she concluded that while patriotic ideas had flourished in some places they had not been particularly strong, and that where socialists had stood their ground they had had real influence.

Meanwhile Thatcher fervently backed Ronald Reagan's revival of the Cold War. The result was a rebirth of the nuclear disarmament movement, dormant since the 1960s. There were massive demonstrations, the largest mobilising a quarter of a million protesters. The decision to base cruise missiles in Britain led to the establishment of the Greenham Common peace camp. There were criticisms of the sectarian feminism of the Greenham women, but their activity had an undoubted impact. Guardian polls showed the percentage of people who disapproved of cruise missiles in Britain rose from 50 percent in April 1981 (before the protests started) to 61 percent at the height of the Greenham Common movement in 1983. A Sunday Times poll in 1983 showed that 94 percent of the population had heard of the Greenham Common protest, half of whom recognised it had made them think more about the nuclear issue.

Thatcher now moved on to the 'enemy within' - the working class and in particular the miners. In 1974 the miners had brought down Edward Heath's Tory government. By the nature of their work and their communities, they had a deep sense of solidarity and a strong tradition of trade unionism. Thatcher knew that if the miners could be defeated it would be a huge setback for the organisation and confidence of the whole class.

She won - but not easily. A burglars' paradise was created as thousands of police were drafted into mining areas. Enormous sums of money were collected for the strikers in workplaces and on the streets. But the industrial solidarity action that could have won the dispute was not delivered. After a whole year the miners returned to work, defeated but not humiliated.

Then came the print workers, another traditionally strong section. Rupert Murdoch's move to Wapping was an attempt to smash the unions through new technology. Again he had support from the state - herds of police horses rampaged around the area. He won - but vigorous pickets continued for a whole year.

Thatcher's next attack took her too far. The poll tax was designed to increase inequality by a flat rate tax on all residents in a borough. A massive demonstration turned into a riot. Encouraged by the resistance, millions decided not to pay. The use of bailiffs and imprisonment provided a focus for organising resistance. Thatcher's closest hangers-on realised she was now a loser and, in the traditional genteel manner of Tories, they stabbed her ruthlessly in the back.

There is a myth, repeated so often by journalists and academics that they have come to believe it, that the Labour Party was 'unelectable' from 1979 until Blair came to rescue it. The facts are quite different. In 1985, after the miners' strike, and again in 1990, Labour had a lead in opinion polls which would have won an election. In April 1990, just after the poll tax riot, Labour led the Tories by 56 percent to 32 percent. But victory was thrown away by the Labour leadership, dissociating itself from even a raised fist on a picket line. Neil Kinnock condemned advocates of non-payment of the poll tax as 'Toytown revolutionaries'.

General strike

Resistance continued. Before the first Gulf War in 1991 100,000 marched for peace. When a new wave of Nazis in the British National Party won a council seat in the East End of London there was a massive protest at the BNP's headquarters in Welling, followed by a carnival bigger than those of the 1970s. In 1992 the Tories awakened a huge wave of anger by further pit closures. The call for a general strike won widespread support, but the trade union leaders threw away the opportunities.

As Labour moved further to the right, a new generation of radicals turned to direct action politics. In particular the Reclaim the Streets movement (much distrusted by the car-owning left) organised big street demonstrations against the domination of motor transport. There were the beginnings of unity with the traditional left. In 1997 there was a joint demo between RTS and the supporters of sacked Liverpool dockers. (I recall marching with a group of soberly clad trade unionists, stopping for a moment to speak to a comrade, and finding myself surrounded by wild-eyed youngsters with their faces painted bright green. I wasn't sure if I was on a different demonstration or a different planet.)

Then came Seattle. In the dying weeks of the millennium a huge demonstration against the World Trade Organisation brought together protesters from many different backgrounds, from trade unionists to ecological campaigners. They all learnt in action. As one demonstrator put it, 'I went to Seattle to save the turtles, and came back determined to overthrow capitalism.' The movement spread to big demonstrations in Prague and Genoa. Italy's rulers were so unnerved by this new type of international demonstration that they attacked it ferociously, killing one participant.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre, many journalists (still stuck in the saloon bar) announced this would mean the end of the 'anti-capitalist' movement. On the contrary. As American imperialism's strategy (faithfully supported by Tony Blair) became ever more aggressive, the anti-capitalist movement merged into the biggest anti-war movement ever seen, with up to 2 million on the streets in February 2003.

There have been many ups and downs in the 27 years of Socialist Review's existence. We have tried not only to celebrate victory, but to recognise defeat and analyse the causes. But the trend is clear. The organised resistance is growing larger and broader.

I helped to organise the first big Vietnam Solidarity Campaign demonstration in 1967. Some 25,000 people turned up and we were delighted. That was in the mythical 1960s, when people were supposedly more 'political' than now. Through the ANL, the nuclear disarmament movement, the poll tax demo and the anti-war protests, resistance has grown stronger and more vibrant. Future growth is not guaranteed - we have to build it. But the possibilities are enormous.

Writing in 1852, Karl Marx compared revolution to a mole, most of its time unseen below ground. But he foresaw that when it did appear 'Europe will leap from its seat and exult: Well burrowed, old mole!' Marx was writing in far more difficult times than those we face. But it was just 19 years before the Paris Commune.