1990s >> 1996 >> no-1106-october-1996

Class, Micropolitics & Solidarity

Socialists recognise that workers who are involved in reform campaigns are, at least, trying to gain some control over their lives.

What do we find if we examine, quickly, the present state of class struggle in this little corner of world capitalism known as Britain?

Looking first at what we might call the traditional areas of organised conflict, trade union activity, there has been something of a flurry of activity over the last couple of months with tube strikes and postal strikes particularly in the news. This has fairly predictably led to the government threatening more repression and further curbs on union powers, to the point of considering an outright ban on strikes in “essential services”, though such a ban may be rendered impossible by the difficulty of defining what is or is not an essential service.

These disputes drag on as management, more used these days to little overt resistance from workers, continue to try to impose their will on hostile workforces. Simultaneously, the unions are stung to greater efforts of resistance not only by the hostile interference of both the Tory government and the Labour so-called opposition.

Of course, these remain relatively minor disputes and the reactions of the two major parties represent the efforts of the capitalist state to stamp out what it thinks are the dying embers of workers’ resistance. It is possible that such efforts by the state might actually cause sparks to ignite further flare-ups of open conflict; what’s certainly the case is that they can never succeed in entirely extinguishing class struggle because the capitalist system itself continually produces both fuel and ignition.

What of other manifestations of conflict? What of the so-called “micropolitical” struggles—Newbury, Wexports, the “land is ours” campaign and the like?

As far as the major parties are concerned, the future has been abandoned. Mainstream politics, with Labour and the Tories drawing so close together, has nothing to offer but more of the same, world without end—unless of course things simply get worse. This political sclerosis and ideological entropy means that all the political energy has migrated elsewhere, out of parliamentarianism and into either charities or loosely-organised protest actions, both areas being primarily defensive.

There are many people including many of those involved in such struggles, who will question the relevance of class to these protests and actions. They are, after all, specifically “micropolitical”, single-issue campaigns, concerned it would seem, purely and simply with specific, very localised outcomes.

Newbury bypass protesters, for example, would probably consider the notion that their campaign to stop a road from being built (and save a rare snail) had a class aspect as absurd. But then, why should we assume that a struggle must necessarily be self-conscious? The class struggle is, in fact, an inevitable feature of the capitalist system, whether those involved are conscious of it or not, being the result of irreducible conflicts of material interest under capitalism.

While the immediate aim of those at Newbury may be “simply” to stop the construction of a road for ecological reasons, it should be recognised that this does not in itself mean that important issues of class are excluded from the entire structure of the conflict that is involved. There is a very important question of power at issue here, which is always a vitally important element of class relations. Class and capitalism are inevitably involved, so these issues are not really “micro” at all but actually have global, social and economic implications.

Whatever else may be involved, the conflict over the Newbury bypass is one in which working-class people are struggling for some degree of democratic control over their environment, which inevitably brings them into conflict with the state and with capitalist big business.

Of course, it needs to be recognised that most struggles such as these are doomed to failure in the long term, and that when they are successful, they will lead only to further struggles ad infinitum, as long as the capitalist system itself continues to exist; as long as, that is, working people don’t actually have real democratic control over our own lives. These struggles are (as in trade-unionism) defensive, as they react to impositions and the diktats passed down from the capitalists and their public lieutenants in the state, even though they also express a desire for something more, something better than what there already is. Part of the problem is that this desire is left vague, ethereal, relatively inarticulate, and the energy released by it is frittered away in specific short-term, defensive struggles, often without even recognising connections between them, or with apparently different but ultimately related and overlapping struggles such as those involving unions or tenants groups.


A recent example of an inspired, but ultimately doomed (as those involved will have no doubt realised all along), “micropolitical” action involved four women entering a British Aerospace factory in order to disarm military aircraft bound for Indonesia. These women, from the anti-war group Ploughshares, undertook this action as a protest against Indonesian state terrorism in East Timor, where it is assumed the planes were to be used against the civilian population (or against East Timorese rebels—although, if reports are to believed, that does in fact mean pretty much the entire population).

What is particularly interesting, and heartening, about this event is the strong element of solidarity involved. First of all, and most obviously, there is the solidarity of the women with the East Timorese people against the (Indonesian) state and big business (and not just British Aerospace—Indonesian aggression, and Australian support for it, is driven, surprise surprise, by economics, specifically by the existence of oil in the Timor Sea). Presumably the action was undertaken in order to publicise the situation in East Timor and therefore the women were expecting to be arrested and convicted of “criminal damage”; to that extent they will consider their action to have been relatively successfully.

What will have made it still more successful for them is the fact that they were actually acquitted by a jury on 30 July, despite having admitted their actions, simply arguing that they were ethically justified. This brings us to the second example of solidarity—that of the working people in the jury who decided that the women were indeed justified in their actions.

By the letter of the law, it seems apparent that these four women should surely have been convicted; they had broken the law. But, while we should hold no illusions concerning the jury’s motives in acquitting them, i.e., there seems no reason to think that it was specifically done with this in mind, their act of solidarity threw the whole notion of legality into question.

Working-class solidarity can go beyond legality; there is little enough such solidarity around at the moment, and it is understandable, if, for example, threats by the state against union rights make the union movement somewhat nervous, but it must also be recognised that the union leaders seems to have forgotten that such a thing as solidarity is even possible. But it is absolutely vital; whatever the laws says, class solidarity can make the law unworkable anyway.

The laws of the state are made workable only by the active consent of its “subjects”, the working class, and can therefore be made unworkable by the withdrawal of that consent. This is an absolutely basic lesson to be drawn from the history of the trade-union movement; if the relatively class-conscious workers hadn’t been willing to break the law, and back each other up, in the first place, there would be no unions today. This is a lesson that trade unionists, even more than those involved in “micropolitics” (who seem to have at least some consciousness of it) have to re-learn today so that they can regroup, grow once more as an effective force within capitalism, and defend themselves and the immediate interests of working people more effectively.

That said, there is an air of expectancy among the unions at the moment, an expectancy that flies in the face of all the evidence, that Labour will somehow “put things right” if it wins the next election, that they will “set things straight” for the union movement and the working class. But the Labour Party feels little or no solidarity with working people in struggle, and things will anyway always be twisted for workers under capitalism.

As socialists have reiterated time and time again, workers need to stop putting their faith in reformism; capitalism will never, can never, be reformed in our interest. The real interest of the working class will only be served by the abolition of class altogether, along with capitalism in all its forms and will all its iniquitous effects. But also, until the majority of people come to see this and do it, those workers who are drawn into struggle should also realise that reformist appeals to the laws of the capitalist state are irrelevant and solidarity is supremely important. And who knows? Maybe such recognition of a basic commonality of interest could lead more people to realise that those interests are absolutely opposed to the interests of capitalism itself.

Jonathan Clay

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