Britain has long typified the different periods of the evolution of the world capitalist system. No more so than today where, among the major industrial powers, it illustrates the long-drawn out deterioration of the system in its final phase of decomposition, and reveals the acceleration of this decline over the last few years.
At the level of economic decline, of imperialist convulsions, political chaos, the disinvestment in infrastructure, Britain has been in the forefront of the downward slide and in 2022 it was strongly engaged in arming and financing the war in Ukraine. And when war broke out in Israel/Gaza in October 2023, Britain wasted no time in sending military forces to the Eastern Mediterranean.
But in 2022, the British working class, the oldest section of the global working class, reminded the world that within the mounting ruins of capitalist society there remains an alternative perspective: the destruction of capitalism and the construction of a communist society. The class struggle, which had been in retreat for three decades, still has the potential to disrupt capitalism’s message of ‘no future’.
It is vitally important to understand the significance of the struggles of the working class in Britain which broke out last year, affecting many sectors (post, rail, health, education….), and playing an important part in struggles across the globe, including Europe, particularly the movement against pension reform in France, in the USA which has its own summer of anger in 2023, a year after the summer of discontent in the UK, and Asia (South Korea, China, Japan). Struggles taking place on the proletarian terrain of defence of living standards and working conditions which have been under attack for decades and now are coming up against the high inflation rates and the ‘cost of living crisis’; taking place in spite of the propaganda around the need for sacrifice for the Ukraine war, or divisions for instance created around Brexit between Leavers and Remainers. These struggles show the emergence of a new generation of workers able to break with three decades of passivity and so point towards the proletarian perspective of putting an end to decomposing capitalism. Consequently, while on the one hand the situation in Britain can only worsen in all aspects of the vicious circle of decomposition, on the other hand the slow development of workers’ struggles on the proletarian terrain of defence of its living standards show that the class is not ready to sacrifice itself on the altar of imperialist adventures.
1. The ‘whirlwind’ effect
The international situation is characterised by imperialist war in Ukraine and the Middle East with its aggravation of the economic crisis, the prospect of hunger across large parts of Africa, and of the ecological crisis. This is only one aspect of the whirlwind effect, in which all the different expressions of capitalist crisis and decomposition no longer merely run in parallel lines, but directly exacerbate each other. Faced with which the bourgeoisie has increasing difficulty controlling its political game, with the growth of populism and of deep divisions in its ranks. Britain is implicated in every aspect of these disasters and threats:
- The UK is defending its interests by supplying Ukraine with lethal and non-lethal aid as well as sending its military to the Mediterranean
- Britain was particularly hard hit by the Covid pandemic because of the dilapidation of its health services and the callousness of the bourgeoisie, and not simply because an incompetent Prime Minister was happy to allow the elderly to die of the disease, as news from the current enquiry would imply
- In this year of record high temperatures, Britain has suffered a series of storms leading to floods, but has escaped the more deadly wildfires, droughts and heatwaves that have hit much of the world, including developed countries in Europe and North America
- The British bourgeoisie suffers particularly from the political crisis linked to populism, particularly around the issue of Brexit, with deep divisions in both the Tory and Labour parties.
- All these aspects have contributed to the worsening of the economy
2. The weakness of British imperialism
The economic failure of Brexit and “global Britain” is mirrored at the imperialist level. British imperialism in fact benefitted momentarily from its exit from the EU by being able to act as the greatest friend and supplier of Ukraine, and most raucous enemy of the Russian invasion, amongst the European powers. But the economic consequences of this support and posturing are not viable long term. Britain can’t afford it and the USA’s objective over Ukraine, as elsewhere, is not only to weaken its enemies but also its “allies”, including Britain.
After nearly two years there is no sign of any resolution to the war in Ukraine on the battlefield or through negotiation. This ongoing death and destruction may help the US to weaken its allies, including Britain, as well as Russia, but it hinders America in concentrating its efforts on China.
The rush to send a Royal Navy task force and surveillance aircraft to the Eastern Mediterranean in response to the war of Israel-Gaza, a mere footnote compared to the two US aircraft carriers sent, and equally unsustainable in the long term, also shows the decline of British imperialism.
This predicament for British imperialism is a continuation of the problem it has faced since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, which opened up a period of every man for himself at the global imperialist level. British imperialism no longer benefitted from its attempts to continue its role as special ally of the US as it did during the Cold War. Its participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up in military humiliations. At the same time the attempts by Britain to play an independent imperialist role, as in the war in ex-Yugoslavia, brought counter attacks from US imperialism, as in the latter’s support for Irish Republicanism in the mid-1990s.
Not only is Britain facing reverses and humiliations on the world arena, its attempt to assert its power against its rivals has brought problems for the integrity of the United Kingdom itself. Brexit has increased the calls for Scottish Independence, while both the US and European powers supported the rights of the Irish Republic against the attempt of Westminster to ignore the Northern Ireland Protocol, one of the articles of the Brexit agreement with the EU. Coupled with the growing power of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, this means that Britain is going to have to fight strenuously in the coming period merely to prevent the fragmentation of the kingdom. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation shortly before a financial scandal hit her party illustrates this fight.
3. The economy
The decline of the British economy has to be understood in the international framework.
“The main zones of the world economy are already in recession or about to sink into it. … The historical gravity of the present crisis marks an advanced point in the process of the “internal disintegration” of world capitalism, announced by the Communist International in 1919, and which flows from the general context of the terminal phase of decadence, whose main tendencies are:
- The acceleration of decomposition and the multiple impact of its effects on a capitalist economy which had already been deteriorating;
- The acceleration of militarism on a world scale
- The acute development of every man for himself between nations against a background of increasingly sharp competition between China and the US for world supremacy
- The abandonment of the rules of cooperation between nations to face up to the contradictions and convulsions of the system
- The lack of a locomotive able to relaunch the capitalist economy
- The perspective of absolute impoverishment of the proletariat in the central countries, which is already underway
We are witnessing the coincidence of different expressions of the economic crisis, and above all their interaction in the dynamics of its development: thus, high inflation requires the raising of interest rates; this, in turn provokes recession, itself a source of the financial crisis, leading to new injections of liquidity, thus even more debt, which is already astronomical, and is a further factor of inflation.... All this demonstrates the bankruptcy of this system and its inability to offer a perspective to humanity.” International situation resolution (International Review 170)
The British economy is being particularly badly hit today, reaching new historic lows. British capitalism already presaged the end of the post-war reconstruction period in 1967 with the devaluation of the pound sterling. It suffered badly from the 2008 financial crash and recession, then reeled again when Britain departed from the European Union. The economy was further battered when the Covid pandemic plunged world capitalism into the worst recession since the Second World War. The phenomenal costs of imperialist war in Europe with the support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion have accentuated the crisis, especially in Britain.
The historically uncompetitive British economy has been further hit by the political dislocation of a bourgeoisie divided over Europe and infected with populism. This saw three short-lived prime ministers after Cameron resigned following the 2016 Brexit referendum, before settling on the present one, Rishi Sunak, in an effort to stabilise the political situation. Nevertheless, populism and its attendant divisions still weigh heavily on the economy.
Brexit was a self-inflicted economic wound of historic proportions, limiting Britain’s access to the large single market. The pound sterling lost 10% of its value as a result. The decision was an expression of the growth of a populist trend in the political apparatus. This reached its nadir with the Liz Truss government, an extension of the Brexit disaster, with its radical free market policies and the fantasy of “global Britain” causing havoc in the global markets.
The economy is still suffering the effects of these populist measures, and others such as Sunak’s retreat on phasing out petrol cars, creating uncertainty for business, or anti-immigration policies that keep out much-needed labour. The government has run out of money for HS2, schools are collapsing due to ageing concrete, a rundown water system discharges raw sewage into rivers, and a local authority the size of Birmingham has gone bankrupt. These are the effects of decomposition on the infrastructure and the economy.
4. The attacks
The bourgeoisie has no option but to continue draconian attacks on the working class. The British working class over the last decade had already seen a relentless deterioration of its living standards, through cuts in the social wage - health and social services, housing, pensions, reduction in claimant payments - and a slow deterioration of the purchasing power of wages for those still in employment. But in the last few years, with the sharp rise in inflation, the effective wage cuts have been much sharper. Fuel prices rose sharply last year, food price inflation fell to 13.6% in August from a peak of 19.2% in March, the highest for 45 years, with overall inflation (CPIH) down to 6.3% from over 10% at its peak.
As increasing numbers of workers cannot afford housing, heating and food and more and more rely on food banks. The bourgeoisie talks of “fuel poverty” and “food poverty” and “housing poverty”, as if the inability to afford adequate heating, housing or food were not simply poverty. Such terms won’t hide the tendency for capitalism to pauperise the proletariat.
5. The rupture
As we say in the Theses on decomposition, "the inexorable aggravation of the crisis of capitalism constitutes the essential stimulus of the struggle and of the awareness of the class, the very condition of its capacity to resist the ideological poison of the rotting of society. Indeed, as much as the proletariat cannot find a ground for class unity in partial struggles against the effects of decomposition, its struggle against the direct effects of the crisis itself constitutes the basis for the development of its strength and its class unity."
The present upsurge in struggle fully confirms this perspective. They are a direct response to the deepening economic crisis and not an explicit reaction against the war in Ukraine by the majority of workers, even if a minority is already posing the question of the link between economic crisis and war. And yet the refusal of the working class to accept economic sacrifices despite all the war propaganda is profoundly significant and contains the seeds of a future conscious struggle against war and all the effects of capitalist decomposition. In the same way, the mass strikes of the Polish workers in August 1980 constituted the response of the working class to the intensification of imperialist antagonisms inaugurated by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
The British working class was a major force in the worldwide resurgence of class struggle after 1968 and the following two decades. It played, as it still does, a bridge from the European to the American working class. But it suffered a major reversal in the defeat of the miners’ strike and then the printers’ strike in 1984-86. With the defeat of the militant coal miners in 1985, a major sector of the working class was effectively wiped out: its numbers were reduced from 190,000 to 5,000, and so this sector could no longer play, as it had previously, the role of reference point for the whole British working class.
With the additional blow that came with the huge ideological campaigns at the time of the collapse of the Eastern bloc, plus the divisive, terrifying and disorienting effects of the general decomposition of the system, the retreat of the working class in Britain over the past 30 years has exemplified the difficulties of the world proletariat in this period.
Particularly in the period leading up to and following the Brexit referendum, the bourgeoisie was able to use its divisions over Europe to divide the population, including the working class.
So the revival of class struggle is no automatic response to a particular level of attacks. Attacks have been going on for decades and we need to understand what made the present fall in living standards insupportable, what made workers raise the slogan “Enough is enough!” after decades of passivity? Similarly, what made it clear that with these price rises, with this fall in real wages, “we are all in the same boat” – in other words, what has facilitated the real recovery of class identity that we are now witnessing? Here we need to understand that entering into this struggle, breaking with decades of passivity, was also the result of the subterranean maturation of consciousness: “in the broadest layers of the class, it takes the form of a growing contradiction between the historic being, the real needs of the class, and the workers' superficial adherence to bourgeois ideas. This clash may for a long time remain largely unadmitted, buried or repressed, or it may begin to surface in the negative form of disillusionment with, and disengagement from, the principal themes of bourgeois ideology;” (International Review 43, quoted in Report on the class struggle, IR 170). The experience of the attacks over many years, the emergence of a new generation of workers less resigned to putting up with them, has given rise to a growing feeling of discontent, and to a process of reflection in those “broad layers” of the class, culminating in the open outbreak of the struggle in the summer of 2022.
Since summer 2022 many sectors of workers have been struggling – postal workers, BT, rail, bus, school teachers, university teachers, workers at Amazon, healthworkers…. This situation where workers in Britain all face falling real wages with high inflation, and where there is a broad strike movement by workers in response, cries out for the unification of the struggle. Yet the strikes have been divided from each other by many means. Sometimes by using devolution, as when the Royal College of Nursing settled the nurses pay claim for a different offer in Scotland. More often the divisions are initiated and imposed by the trade unions: the Communication Workers Union kept their members working for BT and those working for the Royal Mail completely separate despite their struggles going on at the same time; ambulance workers were divided up between three unions, Unite, Unison and GMB, striking on different days or different times on the same day. In this way the unions robbed pickets of their role of calling on workers to join the strike since this was not allowed for those not in the same union. Some large RCN pickets looked very impressive, but they were kept under tight control and not allowed to call on other workers to join the strike.
Despite this tight control and the divisions imposed, there was no denying that different sectors of workers were fighting the same battles, that it made no sense to keep them divided. Also, there were questions raised about how to struggle effectively, how to make the government or bosses withdraw attacks without being worn down by on-off one or two day strikes. These questions were posed, but could not be answered yet, and in particular there was a real hesitation about going against the union framework by breaking the law on secondary picketing, i.e. going to other workers and calling on them to join the fight.
In order to successfully advance the strikes the working class will have to spread them outside of corporatist union control, and take them into its own hands through assemblies and strike committees, and confront at least in practice the prison of electoral, legal and national interests. This poses the necessity for further reflection in the working class.
It is also essential to place the struggle in Britain in its international context as part of a development of struggles, including Europe, USA and Asia. Struggles that started in Britain a year ago have been a beacon for workers in the English-speaking world, including the USA, as well as having an impact on the movement in Europe, notably the struggle against pension reform in France.
Right now there are fewer strikes going on in Britain, as there are fewer struggles in France, while the centre of the resistance of the working class has moved to the USA. With strikes continuing in a number of sectors in Britain, there is no sign of a defeat. But nor have workers found the way to force the ruling class to restore living standards eroded by inflation. The greatest gain of the struggles is the struggle itself, the experience of fighting together as workers, as part of the working class, and of the way the unions undermine that struggle. It is vital that workers continue reflecting on their own experience of struggle and workers’ experiences in other parts of the international class, which constitutes another vital aspect of the subterranean maturation of consciousness: “in a more restricted sector of the class, among workers who fundamentally remain on a proletarian terrain, it takes the form of a reflection on past struggles, more or less formal discussions on the struggles to come, the emergence of combative nuclei in the factories and among the unemployed. In recent times, the most dramatic demonstration of this aspect of the phenomenon of subterranean maturation was provided by the mass strikes in Poland 1980, in which the methods of struggle used by the workers showed that there had been a real assimilation of many of the lessons of the struggles of 1956, 1970 and 1976” (International Review 43, quoted in Report on the class struggle, IR 170).
6. The radicalisation of the unions in preparation for the class struggle and the role of the leftists
The tight union control of the struggles in Britain should not lead us to underestimate their significance in the break from three decades of passivity. Whether the unions control the struggles or whether the working class is able to take its struggle into its own hands is the result of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie. The wave of struggles that started in 1968, marking the end of the counter-revolution, caught the bourgeoisie by surprise, allowing a large number of wildcat strikes to take place. Today, by contrast, the bourgeoisie is much better prepared. The unions have been watching the development of anger in the working class over the years and adopting a more radical language. Mick Lynch, who has been putting forward a very left face, announcing that “the working class is back”, was put in place as general secretary of the RMT union in 2021. In the same year Sharon Graham became general secretary of Unite, which has now become much more critical of the Labour Party, while still backing it financially.
This radicalisation of the trade unions in preparation for the present strike wave was in fact the main obstacle to the development of the latter. It has allowed the unions to go to the head of the movement and keep the different sectors isolated from each other, with the ultimate aim of wearing out the movement and preventing the development of a class front. The express aim of the trade unions is the election of a Labour Government as the solution to the strikers’ grievances, not the widening of the struggle. The cause of the upsurge in workers’ struggles would be, according to the unions, the failure of Tory government policies and the failure of the bosses of each industry to negotiate fairly with the unions and redistribute their enormous profits to the workers.
The leftists (Trotskyists, Labour left etc) have focused mainly on the base of the unions, where they have the most influence. Their propaganda calls for the linking up of the struggles but without breaking their corporatist framework, and criticise even the radical union leaders, who they nevertheless support, for respecting the legal framework for strike action. Their objective is also to bring down “Tory rule” and, contrary to the laws of capitalism, reduce profits in favour of wages. They also want a Labour government, but “pledged to socialist policies”.
A constant refrain from the unions and the left is the question of “anti-union laws”, last year around legislation changing the conditions of strike ballots, and more recently insisting on the preservation of “minimum levels of service” during public sector strikes. Far from being “anti-union” such legislation helps the unions to keep workers from escaping the corporatist prison of their struggles, as we can see with older legislation against secondary picketing. This sort of legislation provides the bourgeoisie with a constant campaign around ‘the democratic right to strike’, and with the Labour Party promising to repeal the “minimum levels of service” legislation it is also an ideal ruse to try to turn strikers into participants in next year’s electoral campaign.
While the traditional union methods of strike-breaking have retained all their strength, those obstacles associated with the decomposition of capitalism, refracted through bourgeois and interclass movements against the ecological crisis, against racism and sexism, campaigns for or against “woke” in the “culture wars”, have also been pushed forward, containing the danger of submerging the class struggle and class identity into a morass of popular protest..The mobilisations in support of “Free Palestine” are a further obstacle to the re-emerging sense of class identity; more generally, the war in the Middle East is a potent source of division and hatred within the population.
7. The political line-up of the bourgeoisie
The convulsions at the level of the political apparatus of the state are also a factor of derailing and obscuring the underlying class antagonisms that define the situation. Unlike the radicalisation of the unions and the efforts of the left, these convulsions and divisions do not derive from the Machiavellianism of the bourgeoisie but from its loss of control of its political game in the context of decomposition. However, as the Brexit campaign showed in 2016, this in no way limits its capacity to confuse and derail the working class.
Britain was famous for the longevity and stability of its state institutions, the experience of its politicians, diplomats and administrators. Now the disruption within these institutions - the monarchy, the ministries, the cabinet, parliament and its parties, the judiciary - have become a striking example of the decomposition of the bourgeoisies’ political apparatus worldwide.
As indicated earlier, populism has caused ongoing damage to the economy, through Brexit and through increasing instability (see section 3).
Brexit was accompanied by the transformation of the centuries old Tory Party into a populist shambles that relegated experienced politicians to the sidelines and brought ambitious, doctrinaire mediocrities into governmental positions, who then proceeded to disrupt the competence of the ministries that they headed. The rapid succession of Tory prime ministers since 2016 testifies to the uncertainty at the political helm.
However, the need of the state to preserve some of its democratic credibility, and the reality of the re-emergence of the class struggle, obliges an important part of the political apparatus to defend “traditional dignity and values of governmental office” against this trend, and pull back if possible from the most reckless decisions. The Sunak government, despite the influence of populism, has modified aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to get round some of the contradictions of Brexit, and rejoined the European Horizon project, without being able to overcome the drain on the economy. King Charles has been dispatched to France and Germany as an ambassador to show Britain’s remnants of dignity. Finally, the sacking of Suella Braverman and the appointment of Lord Cameron as Foreign Secretary is a further expression of this attempt to limit the growing populist virus in the party, but its future direction and stability remains profoundly uncertain, not least because the same virus is an international reality, most obviously in the American ruling class.
The division in the state between the populists and the more classical liberals expresses the deterioration of the political game of bourgeoisie that is increasingly losing its margin of manoeuvre. However, faced with the working class the whole bourgeoisie is very much aware that it has to use these divisions to divide its class enemy. The conflict between the madness of populism and the return to democratic sanity is the great false alternative that will continue to be played out daily in front of the population in order to hide the real problem of the inevitable collapse of capitalism as a whole, and to present it as a national problem.
At present the opposition Labour Party, under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, is adopting the role of responsible and honourable centrist and electable alternative to the right-wing extremism of the Tory Government. A first step has been to eject the “hard left” from the party. Starmer models himself on Tony Blair as he waves the Union Jack and sings the national anthem. Like Blair he has announced that if elected next year he has ruled out tax increases or unfunded spending. He has also announced he intends to renegotiate with the EU in order to improve trade and relations while not openly reversing any Brexit decisions.
Starmer intends to turn Labour from a “party of protest into a party of government” and is currently ahead in the polls, although the recent by-election successes which made this prospect more plausible have been tarnished somewhat by the impact of the war in the Middle East, where Starmer’s tail-ending of the UK government and the US has provoked deep divisions within a party that had been touting its new unity in contrast to the factionalism dominating the Tories. .
However, the Labour Party retains the means to head dramatically leftward as the trade unions and their leftist camp followers can wield significant power in the party when the sabotage of the class struggle requires it. The British bourgeoisie has made very good use of a hard right in power and a radical left in opposition to face up to a resurgent working class, as it did with great success in the Thatcher years, and the bourgeoisie may still opt to continue this line-up. However, if necessary the trade unions and their leftist camp followers can play a left wing oppositional role towards a Labour government if the bourgeoisie needs this to face a resurgence of class struggle with Labour in office.
8. Our responsibility
The responsibilities of revolutionary organisations depend on the historic situation, today characterised by decomposition and by a working class that has not suffered a historical defeat, the former threatening the destruction of humanity, and the latter holding open the perspective of the communist revolution. This demands that our analysis follow the both these poles of the situation today, and in particular remains awake to the development of the class struggle. Our intervention, particularly our press, must draw the lessons of the class struggle as well as denouncing the bourgeoisie’s manoeuvres against it, particularly through the unions and the left. And it must highlight the worsening of decomposition, pointing to the necessity for the communist revolution to avoid the destruction of humanity. None of this can be done without a revolutionary organisation able to defend proletarian principles of functioning.