In 1867 in the preface to the first edition of his famous work Capital Karl Marx observed that the economic conditions of England, the first industrialised country, were the model of future capitalist development in other lands. England was then the “locus classicus” of capitalist relations of production. From here ascendant capitalism would come to dominate the world.
In 1967 the devaluation of the pound sterling made England into another kind of prophetic symbol: this time for the decline of world capitalism and its growing bankruptcy.
The events over the summer of 2005 in London indicated that England is once again a sort of signpost for world capitalism. The London summer was prescient both at the level of imperialist conflict, that is the deadly military contest between national states on the world arena and at the level of the international class struggle, of the conflict between the two main economic classes in society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
The terrorist bombings of July 7th in London were claimed by Al Qaeda in retaliation for the participation of British troops in the occupation of Iraq. The explosions on that Thursday morning rush hour brutally reminded the working class that it must pay for capitalism not only in terms of drudgery and poverty but also in terms of blood and gore. The 4 bombs on the London underground and a London bus brought a hideous end to the lives of 52 mostly young workers and left hundreds maimed and traumatised. But the outrage had a much wider impact. It meant for example that millions of workers would now have to go to and from work wondering whether their next journey, or that of their loved ones, would be the last. Life in the capital city suddenly became more precarious. The words of the Tony Blair government, of the left wing London mayor Ken Livingstone, and of the media and employers, couldn’t have been more sympathetic. But behind the slogans of “we will not give in to terrorists” and “London stands united” the bourgeoisie let it be known that business was to continue as normal. Workers would be expected to run the risk of further explosions on the transport system in order that they could continue to enjoy their “traditional way of life”.
Imperialism is coming home
This was the single bloodiest attack on London civilians since the Second World War. The comparison with the imperialist carnage of 1939-45 is entirely apt. The London bombings, after 9/11 in New York, March 2004 in Madrid, indicate that once again imperialism is “coming home” to the main metropoles of the world.
Its true that London itself has not had to wait 60 years for the return of military attacks on its citizens. The city was also the target of the bombs of the Provisional Wing of the Irish Republican Army for over two decades after 1972. The population had already been given a taste of imperialist terror. But the July 7th atrocities in 2005 were not simply a repetition of this experience; they represented an increased threat indicative of the more deadly current phase of imperialist warfare.
Of course the terrorist bombs of the IRA anticipated the barbarism of the Al Qaeda attack. In a general sense they expressed the tendency in the latter half of the 20th century for terrorism against civilians to become more and more a favoured method of imperialist warfare. But nevertheless, during most of the period in which the IRA bombs were detonated, the world was still divided into two imperialist blocs, under the control of the USA and the USSR. These blocs more or less regulated the isolated secondary imperialist conflicts between states within each bloc, such as the one between Britain and Ireland in the US bloc, and the latter prevented them from weakening the main military front with the USSR and its satellites. This was particularly true of the dimensions of the IRA campaign to eject Britain from Northern Ireland. The scope of this project was, and still is, largely decided by how much financial support it receives from the United States. The IRA terrorist attacks on London were therefore relatively exceptional in the metropoles of the advanced countries at the time. The main theatres of imperialist war fought in proxy by the two blocs were on the periphery of the system: in Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East.
Although the IRA blew up defenceless civilians the targets of their bombs corresponded to a more classical imperialist logic. They chose military sites in London like the Chelsea Barracks in 1981, or Hyde Park in 1982 or targeted symbols of economic power like Bishopsgate in the City of London, or Canary Wharf in 1996.
In contrast the Al Qaeda bombs on crowded public transport in London are symptomatic of a more dangerous imperialist situation at the world level and therefore more typical of international trends than those of the IRA were over ten years ago. The imperialist blocs no longer exist to contain and to give some semblance of order to capitalist militarism. Each for himself has become the dominant imperialist motto, proclaimed most violently and bloodily by the United States in the ongoing attempt to maintain its hegemony on the world stage. The unilateral strategy of Washington shown in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and elsewhere has only exacerbated the growing military chaos. The development of the global reach of Al Qaeda and other imperialist warlords in the Middle East is a product of this imperialist free for all that the main imperialist powers, acting against each other, are unable to prevent.
On the contrary, the major powers including Britain have actively contributed to the development of the terrorist threat. They have used it and tried to manipulate it to their own advantage.
British imperialism was determined not to be left out in the US invasion of Iraq. It wanted to protect its own interests in the area and maintain its prestige as a significant military power. Fabricating a pretext for joining the US “coalition” with the famous dossier on imaginary Iraqi weapons of mass destruction British imperialism therefore played a full part in reducing Iraq to its present bloody chaos. The British state has helped to stoke up Al Qaeda’s terrorist campaign against western imperialism. This campaign certainly began before the invasion of Iraq. But the great powers had a hand in the very origins of this terrorist campaign. Britain as well as the United States helped to train and arm Bin Laden’s guerrilla struggle against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
After July 7th Britain’s major “allies” (in reality, rivals) couldn’t help pointing out that the capital of the country should be known as “Londonistan” – that is, a refuge of various Islamic radical groups connected to terrorist organisations in the Middle East. The British state allowed the presence of these groups, or protected certain individuals in the hope of using them to advance its own status in the Middle East often at the expense of its “allies” amongst the great powers. Britain for example has resisted the demands of the French state for the extradition of Rachid Ramda, a suspect in the 1995 bomb attack on the Paris metro, for ten years! Returning the compliment the French Direction Centrale des Renseignements Generaux, (according to the International Herald Tribune 09.08.05) did not communicate to its British counterparts an intelligence report written in June predicting that a bomb attack would be carried out in Britain by Pakistani sympathisers of Al Qaeda.
Britain’s own imperialist policy, which follows the same “principles” as its rivals – “do unto others before they do it to you”, has helped bring about the terrorist attacks on its own soil.
In this period terrorism is no longer the exception in the war between states and proto-states but has become the method of choice. The growth of terrorism partly corresponds to an absence of stable alliances between the imperialist powers, and is characteristic of a period where each power is trying to undermine and sabotage its rivals.
In this context we shouldn’t underestimate the increasing role of “black operations” or “psy-ops” carried out, or in some way engineered, by the main imperialist powers on their own populations in order to discredit their rivals and provide a pretext for their own military initiatives. While these operations are of course never officially confirmed, there is strong evidence that the blowing up of the Twin Towers, or of the Moscow apartment buildings that led to major imperialist adventures by the United States and Russia respectively, was the secret work of these states themselves. British imperialism is no innocent in this respect either. Its undercover involvement in both sides of the terrorist conflict in Northern Ireland is well known, including the presence of several double-agents in the ranks of the Real IRA the terrorist organisation responsible for the Omagh bombing. More recently, in September 2005, two members of the SAS (British special forces) were arrested in Basra by the Iraqi police while they were, according to some journalists, on a terrorist bombing mission. These undercover operatives were subsequently freed by an armed assault by the British Army on the prison that was holding them. From events like this it is reasonable to assume that British imperialism is itself involved in the daily terrorist carnage in Iraq: probably in order to help justify its own “stabilising” presence as an occupying force. The underlying “principle” of divide and rule behind such terror tactics was first perfected by British imperialism as the oldest colonial power.
The deterioration of imperialist conflict in the direction of terrorism bears the imprint of the final period of capitalism’s decay, the period of social decomposition where the absence of long term perspectives and possibilities predominate at all levels of society.
Indeed the fact that the July 7th attacks were the work of suicide bombers born and brought up in England symbolised the general breakdown in the remaining rules of imperialist warfare. It also showed that the capitalist heartlands as well as the peripheries of the system can generate the sort of irrationality among the young that leads to the most violent and hateful self-destruction. Whether the British state itself was involved in the bombings is too early to say.
The arbitrary horror of imperialist war is thus returning to the heartlands of capitalism where the most concentrated sectors of the working class live. It is no longer confined to the third world but is increasingly hitting the industrial metropoles: New York, Washington, Madrid, London. No longer are the targets nominally economic or military: they are designed to maximise civilian casualties.
Ex-Yugoslavia expressed this tendency for imperialism to return to the capitalist centres in the 1990s. Today England does.
The terror of the bourgeois state
But terrorist bombs weren’t the only mortal threat to Londoners in July 2005. On July 22nd, a young Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes was executed by 8 police bullets at Stockwell underground station on his way to work. The police supposedly mistook him for a suicide bomber. Britain, famous for the image of the integrity of Scotland Yard and of the friendly local “bobby” helping old ladies cross the road, has always tried to pretend that its police were the servants of the democratic community, the protectors of the citizens’ legal rights and keepers of the peace. Yet on this occasion the British police now appeared to be essentially no different from the police in any third world dictatorship that openly uses auxiliary “death squads” to carry out the needs of the state. According to the official line of the British police, echoed by the government and media, the execution of Jean Charles was a tragic mistake. However the armed detachments of the Metropolitan police had already been given the directive to “shoot to kill” any suspected suicide bomber after the events of July 7th. And even after the slaying of Jean Charles this policy was defended and maintained in force. Given the near impossibility of identifying or apprehending a suicide bomber before he could detonate his explosives, this directive effectively gave the police leave to shoot practically anyone without warning. At the very least the policy directed from the highest level allowed for such “tragic mistakes” as an inevitable by-product of the strengthening of the state.
We can thus assume that the killing was hardly accidental particularly when we consider that the function of the state and its repressive agencies is not what the former claims it to be: that is, a protector and servant of the population that often has to make difficult choices between defending the citizen and protecting his rights. In reality, the fundamental task of the state is quite different: to defend the established social order in the interests of the ruling class. This means above all that the state must preserve and display its own monopoly of armed force. This is particularly true in time of war where the display of force and the taking of reprisals is vital. In response to such terrorist attacks as July 7th the state’s main priority is not to protect the population – a task which is in any case impractical except for a small number of high functionaries - but to display its power; reassert the superior force of the state with the object of maintaining the obedience of its own population and commanding the respect of foreign powers. In these conditions the apprehension of the real criminals is secondary or irrelevant to the main objective.
Here another analogy with the IRA bombing campaign is useful. In response to the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham and Guildford, the British police arrested, extracted false confessions from and fabricated evidence against 10 Irish suspects and sentenced them to long prison terms. Only some 15 years later did the government admit a “tragic miscarriage of justice” had been made. Was not this rather a reprisal against the population of a foreign power?
Behind the democratic and humanitarian façade of the state, so elaborately constructed in Britain, July 22nd revealed the truth. The essential role of the state as a machine of violence is not to act for or on behalf of the majority of the population but against them.
This was confirmed by a whole series of “anti-terrorist” measures proposed by the Blair government in the wake of the bombings to strengthen the control of the state over the population in general, measures that cannot in any case stop Islamic terrorism. These measures include the introduction of ID cards; the introduction of an indefinite shoot to kill policy; control orders restricting the movements of citizens; the official recognition of the policy of phone tapping and web surveillance; the holding of suspects for up to 3 months without charge and the commissioning of special courts where evidence is given in secret and without juries.
Thus over the summer the state, as it has done before, used the pretext of terrorist outrages to strengthen its repressive apparatus in preparation to use against a much more dangerous foe: the resurgence proletariat.
The workers’ response
On July 21st after the failed bombings of that day only the Victoria and Metropolitan London underground lines were officially closed (on July 7th the entire network was shut down). But the Bakerloo and Northern lines were also closed on that day because of workers action. The underground drivers had refused to take out the trains given the absence of safety and security guarantees. In this action there was a glimpse of the long term solution to the intolerable situation: the workers taking the situation into their own hands. However the trade unions reacted to this spark of class independence as quickly as the emergency services had to the bombings. Under their guidance the drivers would return to work pending negotiations between unions and management while the unions would back any worker who nevertheless refused to drive i.e. leave him to his own devices.
It was in the first weeks of August that the resistance of the working class made a bigger impact. A wildcat strike at London Heathrow Airport was unleashed by workers employed by the catering firm Gate Gourmet that supplies in-flight meals to British Airways. This strike led immediately to “sympathy”, i.e. solidarity, action by airport baggage handlers employed by British Airways; some 1000 workers in all. British Airways flights were grounded for several days and the images of stranded passengers and mass pickets were broadcast around the world.
The British media furiously denounced the insolence of the workers in taking up the supposedly old-fashioned tactic of the sympathy strike. Apparently the workers should have realised that all the experts, lawyers and officials of industrial relations had consigned solidarity action to the history books and made it illegal for good measure. The media tried to denigrate the exemplary courage of the workers by pointing to the poor plight of the airline passengers that their action had caused.
The media also took a more conciliatory line, but one equally hostile to the workers’ cause. The strike was blamed on the uncivilised tactics of the American owners of Gate Gourmet who had announced the mass sackings to the workers by megaphone. Apparently the strike was a mistake: an unnecessary result of poor management, an exception to the normal civilised conduct of industrial relations between unions and management where solidarity action is unnecessary. But the root cause of the strike was not the arrogance of a small employer. In reality the brutal tactics of Gate Gourmet were not that exceptional. Tesco for example, the largest and most profitable supermarket chain in Britain, recently announced the effective end of sick pay for its workers. Nor are mass sackings typically a product of the absence of union involvement. According to the International Herald Tribune 19.08.2005, a spokeswoman for British Airways, Sophie Greenyer, ‘said the company had been successful in the past at cutting jobs and costs by working with the unions. BA had cut 13,000 jobs in the past three years, and £850 million in costs. “We’ve been able to work sensibly with the unions to achieve those savings,” she said.’
It was BA’s continuing determination to cut operational costs that led to the pressure on Gate Gourmet workers’ pay and conditions. In turn, the actions of Gate Gourmet were a deliberate provocation to enable the replacement of existing staff by Eastern European workers on even worse conditions and pay.
The relentless cost cutting by BA is hardly unusual whether in the airline industry or elsewhere. On the contrary intensified competition in increasingly saturated markets is the normal capitalist response to the intensification of the economic crisis.
Therefore the Heathrow strike was not an accident but an instance of workers being forced to defend themselves against increasingly savage attacks by the whole bourgeoisie. The workers appetite for the fight was not the only significant feature of the strike. Even greater importance should be attached to the illegal solidarity action by other airport workers.
These workers risked their own livelihoods to widen the struggle of workers in another company. This expression of class solidarity – albeit brief and embryonic – cleared the suffocating atmosphere of national obedience generated by the bourgeoisie following the terrorist attacks. It was a reminder that the London population was not invoking the “spirit of the Blitz” of the 1940s when Londoners passively endured nightly bombing by the Luftwaffe in the interests of the imperialist war effort.
On the contrary the Heathrow strike was in continuity with a series of struggles that have taken place around the world since 2003 such as the solidarity action of Opel workers in Germany and the sympathy action of Honda employees in India.
The international working class is slowly, almost imperceptibly emerging from a long period of disorientation after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. It is now groping towards a clearer class perspective.
However the difficulties of developing this perspective were made apparent by the swift sabotage of the Heathrow sympathy action by the unions. The Transport and General Workers Union quickly brought the strike of baggage handlers to an end and the sacked workers of Gate Gourmet were then left to await the fate of prolonged negotiations between unions and bosses.
Nevertheless the difficult resurgence of class struggle is particularly significant in Britain. The British working class, after reaching high points of its struggle in the massive public sector strikes of 1979 and the1984/5 miners strike, suffered particularly from the defeat of the latter, which the Thatcher government exploited to the maximum, including the outlawing of sympathy strikes. Therefore the reappearance of such strikes in Britain is all the more welcome.
England was not only the first capitalist country but also witnessed the birth of the first working class and its first political organisation, the Chartists, and provided the site for the International Working Men’s Association. England is no longer the axis of the world economy but it still plays a key role in the industrialised world. Heathrow Airport is the largest in the world. The English working class is still a significant weight on the scales of the world class struggle.
Over the summer England was the location where the stakes of the world situation were laid bare. On the one hand the tendency of capitalism to descend into chaotic barbarism where all social values have been destroyed in a bloody free for all. On the other, the strike at London Airport revealed again the existence of a quite different social principle based on the unlimited solidarity of the producers: the principle of communism.
1. This does not include the 4 suicide bombers who blew them up.
2. The "Provisional Wing" of the IRA was so-called to distinguish it from the more "socialist" "Official IRA", from which the Provisionals were a split. The "Official IRA" played no significant role in the civil war that shook Northern Ireland from the 1970s on.
3. Chelsea Barracks is situated in the heart of London, and was at the time home to the Irish Guards. The bomb attack in Hyde Park targeted a military parade by the royal guard. The City of London is in fact the financial district, an approximately square kilometre area within Central London, which in turn is an area within Greater London. Canary Wharf is a symbolic skyscraper in the new business district built on the site of the old London docks.
It is worth pointing out that one of the IRA’s bloodiest attacks on the other hand – against the Arndale shopping centre in the centre of Manchester in 1996 – corresponded more to the period when the IRA was being used as a tool of US imperialism’s intimidation campaigns against British efforts at independence. In this sense it belongs rather to the new epoch of chaos which has also witnessed the appearance of Al Qaeda.
4. The "Real IRA" was a split from the Provisionals, with the declared aim of continuing the struggle against the British. The group was responsible for a bomb attack in the town of Omagh (Northern Ireland) which killed 29 civilians on 15th August 1998.
5. The justification for these attacks on pubs was that they were frequented by the military.
6. Solidarity strikes were outlawed in Britain during the 1980s by the Thatcher government. The same law has been maintained by the Labour government of Tony Blair.