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'Turn to the Right' in the Eighties

With the change from Labour to Conservative in 1979 the infamous era of Thatcherism began. Eight Labour governments had shown that whoever runs capitalism must exploit and oppress the working class - that is its inherent nature. Her regime represented a change of style rather than content. As one of the articles in this section put it, the main difference between Thatcher and Kinnock (Labour leader at the time) was that “she admits to being a swine who will do whatever the system requires of her; he lies about it”.

The Tory attack on trade unions in the 1980s featured prominently in the Socialist Standard. Protestors attending a 1980 TUC day of action were reminded that most union leaders and Labour MPs had supported the previous Labour government’s “social contract” to keep wages down. Nineteen-eightyfour was not only the year of Orwell’s dystopia, but also saw the longest and bitterest coal strike since 1926. Despite widespread and heroic support, it all ended in failure and frustration. Mines were closed and many thousands of miners sacked because producing coal was “uneconomic”. Nationalisation had not been the answer - the National Coal Board was just as exploitative and anti-worker as were the old mineowners.

Another major theme in the 1980s was the increasing evidence of a sick society. Faced with the impoverishing reality of capitalism, many of its victims responded with anti-social behaviour or a retreat into drugs. Multinational drug companies were - and still are - a growing industry, marketing tranquillisers and anti-depressants of various kinds. The decade had begun in Britain with a wave of civil disturbances, with young people from inner cities venting their frustration and anger at unemployment and poverty. They were taught that violence was wrong and immoral by being beaten with truncheons and sprayed with gas.

The environment was also a much-discussed theme. Around the world, workers were having their health threatened and protests concerning the dumping of radioactive waste were ignored. The Sellafield incident and the Chernobyl disaster were dealt with in the Socialist Standard in 1986. The wider question of the relationship between socialism and ecology was also raised, with the Greens wanting to impose on capitalism things that were incompatible with its nature. The Green Party in Britain enjoyed a short-lived breakthrough at the 1989 European elections, committed to a gradualist, reformist strategy, seeking support for a programme of environmental reforms that would leave capitalism basically unchanged.

The long-running competition between Western capitalism and Russian state-controlled capitalism resulted at the end of the 1980s in defeat for the latter. Faced with an economy in serious difficulties, Gorbachev offered to cut Russian forces in Europe by half a million. Meanwhile, the British Communist Party re-asserted its support for the terminal USSR and for a market-based economy.

War - international and civil - continued to take its toll of human life and well-being. There was a revival of CND but, this time, to protest only against a particular type of missile. There was the Falklands War in 1982, to which the Socialist Party responded that “despite the wave of jingoistic hysteria in the press and its endorsement by Labour and Tory politicians alike, no working class interests in Britain, Argentina or the Falklands can be served by war”. The decade ended with the Chinese army moving into Tiananmen Square to repress the demonstrators. There was also conflict in Burma, El Salvador, Ghana, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland and Palestine, to name but a few.

To commemorate the centenary of Marx’s death in March 1983 the Socialist Standard carried a 24-page supplement on Marx the Revolutionary. This included articles on historical materialism, Marx the journalist, Marx and Darwin, and Engels’s review of Capital. A special issue in February 1984 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Morris, and included his vision of future society, his attitude to reforms and parliamentary action, and his views on work.