Sunday, April 05, 2009

Revolting Times

There can be little doubt that we are entering a period of economic collapse, the likes of which many of us have never seen before. Analysts are predicting the most severe crisis since the 1930s. In response, business leaders and politicians are trying to make working class people pay for the chaos they created. There’s been redundancies, cut hours, wage freezes, loss of sick pay and pensions…and this is only the beginning! But painful as they are, recessions and depressions don’t have to be depressing; historically, they have been a time when 'ordinary' people have fought back, and tried to secure their own interests. Remember, everything that the rich are now trying to claw back was won by previous generations of working class struggle.

Of course, it isn’t a case of ‘the worse, the better’ for militant fightback. Many different factors feed into the equation. Workers are encouraged by solidarity from the wider public. But on the other hand, workers worried about the sack might feel less confident about resisting other attacks, especially if there are large numbers of people waiting in the wings to replace them. Then again, the boss might try to take advantage of this, and end up pushing workers too far. Ultimately, working class resistance comes when those resisting believe they have ‘nothing to lose but their chains’, as someone once said.

The 1910s were an extremely dramatic decade, complete with recession, world war and revolution. The idea that the working class should gain control of the economy became commonplace during this time, though there was much dispute over how this should be achieved, and what it would mean in practice. From 1911-14, syndicalism had a strong base in Britain and the US. Despite the word coming from the French for ‘trade unionism’, syndicalism was something very different from the trade unionism of today, which sees union tops help corporate and government bosses restrict any threat to profit making. Instead, syndicalists like Tom Mann argued that labour unions should be the basic unit of a post-capitalist society, while mass strikes could win concessions in the meantime.

The Liverpool general transport strike was perhaps the highpoint of this strategy in Britain. Class anger had been bubbling under because of ten years of wage cuts, and it reached boiling point in the summer of 1911. As so often in Liverpool labour history, the docks were central to the action. A mass demonstration in support of striking seamen took place on 31st May, gathering support from all over the city, and dockers joined the movement. A national strike followed, with rank and file workers demanding big improvements in wages and conditions. The companies accepted these demands in late June, but this only had the effect of encouraging other workers to take similar action.

Tugboat workers came out in early July, and were followed by workers in the Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse, breweries, rubber plants, oil mills and wool warehouses. Most crucially, railway men who had been petitioning for reduced hours and increased pay joined the revolt with a wildcat strike – going against the wishes of their ‘representatives’. Police started attacking pickets, and the Liberal government sent in soldiers. The railway strike spread across the country, as Liverpool prepared for a monster demonstration of strength and solidarity on 13th August at St George’s Plateau on Lime Street. Around one hundred thousand workers came to hear speeches from leaders such as Tom Mann. At four pm, police began attacking demonstrators, and half an hour later they had cleared the Plateau, as blood ran down the steps. Fighting continued on and off for several days, but the strike only ended when the government reached a deal with rail unions, and workers slowly began going back to work. There had been no revolution, but workers had won significant gains from the British imperial power.

All this working class action came to an abrupt halt in 1914, when the government – helped by many supposed ‘radicals’ – whipped some workers into a patriotic frenzy, and conscripted others to fight their class brothers in Europe. But when the soldiers returned home, they did not find a ‘land fit for heroes’, as Prime Minister David Lloyd George had promised. Instead, they were faced with another recession, and massive unemployment. To make things worse for the government, many people had been inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, where state power was claimed in the name of the working class for the first time. In 1919, bookseller Arnold Yates was arrested and fined £50 for leafleting sailors with revolutionary pamphlets.

Just weeks later, Mary Bamber won the Everton ward for Labour, in council elections. This vote was remarkable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as a woman, she was one of the first females elected in the country, after the extension of suffrage to women over thirty. Secondly, she was a Communist, and openly supported the Russian Revolution. The Everton seat had long been held by pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic councillors, so her election showed that class issues were suddenly more important to Everton voters than sectarian bigotry. Time and again, when this period in Liverpool history is studied, the pattern emerges of ‘Orange’ and ‘Green’ small business people trying to get workers to back ‘their’ leaders against their sectarian rivals. In May 1919, Everton voters chose someone to speak for them in the Town Hall who spoke of workers’ power.

Later that year, about half of the Liverpool police force joined a nationwide strike for union recognition and a pay rise. The Daily Post reported “an orgy of looting and rioting”, and the military were brought in to repress this ‘orgy’, killing several people and arresting two hundred others. The government banned police strikes.

By the time the Wall Street Crash of 1929 signalled the start of what would become known as the ‘Great Depression’, Labour had already had a turn in government under Ramsay MacDonald, and proved their loyalty to profit. So when the economic crisis started hitting British profits, the king had no hesitation in appointing MacDonald head of a coalition government, alongside Liberal and Conservative politicians. The government immediately began attacks on the working class, and many in the Labour Party found it necessary to expel the ‘National Labour’ Cabinet members.

After this, working class opponents of the government were mostly to be found in the post-MacDonald Labour Party, or the Communist Party. The Communists still claimed the legacy of their Russian counterparts, but Stalin had adopted a policy of ‘socialism in one country’ – i.e. the Soviet Union. Communists had even worked with Trades Union Congress leaders to undermine the 1926 General Strike, because this better suited Stalin’s aim of better relations with trade union leaders and the Labour Party.

All this political manoeuvring was a major factor in reducing the number of workplace struggles on Merseyside during the Great Depression. Instead, anti-fascism moved to the top of the agenda, as Hitler and Mussolini consolidated their power in Europe. Oswald Mosley, an aristocratic former Labour minister, led British fascists. In October 1936, Mosley’s mob marched in the centre of Liverpool, but they were attacked at several points along the way. They returned to the city a year later, but this time they were effectively ran out of town by a very physical anti-fascist mobilisation at Queens Drive, where Mosley was struck by a stone.

At this time, Spanish fascists under Francisco Franco were fighting a counter-revolution against the working class and peasantry of that country. In 1936, much of the country’s economy was under working class control, with many factories run by their workers, and much of the land collectivised. Representing ultra-religious landowning elites, Franco battled against the socialists, communists, anarchists and liberal republicans, in an ultimately successful attempt to crush the revolution. Just like in Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom – where a young Liverpudlian goes to Spain to fight for the revolution – many working class British people supported the Spanish anti-fascists. Thirty Merseyside volunteers died, most of them members of the Communist Party, fighting for the International Brigades at the Battle of Jarama, in February 1937. But armed struggle wasn’t all that Merseysiders contributed to the Republican cause: refugee children (especially from the Basque region) were welcomed, an aid committee was set up, and supplies were sent.

The local events of the 1980s will be more familiar to many, for obvious reasons. As unemployment hit, and the government of Margaret Thatcher introduced sweeping anti-working class policies, Liverpudlians were amongst her most bitter enemies. So much so, protesters around the world would apparently chant “Liverpool, Liverpool”, when she went on foreign visits.

In July 1981, parts of the city were ablaze as the Toxteth uprising – known in the media and the textbooks as the ‘Toxteth riots’. Though this uprising did not have a worked-out political programme, it was a furious reaction to appalling social conditions, and police harassment of the poor in particular. The insurrection was sparked by the search and arrest of Leroy Cooper and the ‘sus law’, but its roots lay far deeper.

In 1984, Labour won a majority on the city council. Nationally, Labour politicians were making speeches against Thatcher’s cuts to public services, but were implementing them almost everywhere they came to power. However, the Labour politicians elected by the people of Liverpool were mostly from the ‘Militant’ faction, and they allocated money for five thousand council houses to be built, ten thousand more homes to be renovated, five hundred extra education staff to be employed, and six new sports centres to be constructed. The Conservative government removed £30 million funding, and twenty thousand marched to support the council in getting the money back. Eventually, the Labour Party leadership expelled the Militant faction, and the movement disintegrated.

Liverpool people showed solidarity during the yearlong miners' strike, even though there were no pits in the city. Campaigners went door-to-door collecting money and other donations from people who felt that the miners’ fight against Thatcher - in St Helens collieries and elsewhere - was also their fight.

Here we are in 2009, so what can we do this time round? At the time of writing, sacked workers at a few factories in the UK have occupied their plants, and students have been occupying their universities in protest at the Israeli war on Palestinians. All these resistance struggles must link up if they are to be successful. But more importantly than that, they must provide an answer to the question that circumstances are posing ever more urgently: should society be organised to benefit a tiny elite, or all humanity?

In short, when they say cutbacks, we must say united fightback. Like those sacked factory workers, many people worldwide are finding they have nothing to lose…

History will continue to unfold on Indymedia and LibCom, but more importantly in the streets and workplaces!

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