Saturday, October 01, 2011

The 2011 Jarrow March: A Long Walk To Nowhere

The original march, three quarters of a century ago
This month marks seventy-five years since two hundred men marched three hundred miles in the depths of the Great Depression but the heights of the Spanish Revolution, in protest against mass unemployment in their north-eastern town of Jarrow. At noon today, supporters of Socialist Party front group Youth Fight For Jobs will start to follow in their footsteps. But while there are parallels to be made with the 1936 event, there are also important differences - and it's worth remembering that all the original 'crusaders' got was train fare home.

Though the working class was struggling all over the country - and indeed over much of the world - in autumn 1936, Jarrow was hit particularly hard. Unemployment levels were at 70%, and the local Labour MP described the area as:
"... utterly stagnant. There was no work. No one had a job except a few railwaymen, officials, the workers in the co-operative stores, and a few workmen who went out of the town... the plain fact [is] that if people have to live and bear and bring up their children in bad houses on too little food, their resistance to disease is lowered and they die before they should."
The march was actually proposed by the local council, and the marchers bore the council's petition, pleading for Jarrow-specific government aid. The march was designed in a decidedly undemocratic way, and partly represented an attempt to steal the thunder of the long-established and Communist-linked National Unemployed Workers' Movement, which had organised their own 'hunger marches'. As a result, Communists were strictly forbidden from participating.

Despite these important limitations, it can be said that Jarrow was an event thoroughly rooted in a working class community, enjoying widespread support in the town, and it is still remembered with nostalgia there today. En route south, the marchers received many donations of food and lodgings, because many millions sympathised with their plight.

With all due respect for the 2011 marchers - and I hope they have a great, life-changing experience - their event is a very different affair. Yes, the world economy is again spiraling into depression, and as the organisers point out, youth unemployment is already around a million, which is both an obscene social tragedy and irrational waste of talent.

The 1936 march is still fondly remembered by some in Jarrow
But importantly, the march is not some grassroots expression of discontent, born out of a working class community. Rather it is an 'astroturfed' action, a conscious political strategy to win the Socialist Party more members. Doubtless many participants will see this as a worthy aim in of itself. However, as I have explained before, the so-called 'left parties' are not revolutionary organisations. Rather, they are reformist organisations in the orbit of the reactionary trade union bureaucracy. And I do not reach this conclusion based on sectarian motives. The reality of my claim should be made apparent by the very nature of the action in question.

Think about the effects this march will have. In essence, it is a largeish group of people going for a walk, at the end of which they will make a plea from a position of weakness. It is a plea which is certain to go unanswered. In contrast to the young unemployed of Spain, Greece, and now the United States, these unemployed people will not even occupy a particular space for any length of time. While the growing attempted occupation of Wall Street inevitably poses the question 'should public places be used for private profit?', the new Jarrow march poses no questions, and offers no solutions. No doubt, media coverage will raise awareness of chronic youth unemployment, but this is something that most people in this country are well aware of already. The effect on public consciousness will be depressing, not inspiring, because it offers no practical example to follow.

In his 'Marching For A Future' article, Youth Fight For Jobs chair Ben Robinson asks: "Why should we let pro-big business politicians get away with condemning the young and the unemployed as a 'feral underclass'?" Why indeed? But revolutionary movements and revolutionary organisations decisively break with the lobbying tactics tolerated and even encouraged by the ruling class. They take actions which challenge the ability of the few to profit from the potentially overwhelming many. They do not just go for long walks on the road to nowhere.
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