September usually marks the return to 'normal' politics after the summer. The TUC meets at its annual congress, the Labour Party conference takes place at the end of the month.
They take place against speculation about whether Labour can lose the election. On the face of it, the question hardly seems worth discussing. Labour's lead is so far ahead of John Major's government and has been for so long that it seems impossible for the Tories to win. But over the past few months there has been a slight narrowing of the gap between the two main parties. This has led those like Michael Portillo to claim that there is a turn towards the Tories.
It seems highly unlikely. The government remains as unpopular as ever. Many of its claims for electoral popularity are based on the supposed arrival of economic recovery. People are feeling better as well because they have more money through tax and interest rate cuts.
It is obviously in the government's interest to claim this. But no one really knows what is happening from all the conflicting signs given by the economy for example, retail spending fell again in July after a few months of increases.
In addition, at least some of those usually friendly to the Tories are worried about any sort of spending boom. The Bank of England and others in the City fear an inflationary and debt increasing boom of the sort seen in the late 1980s.
Certainly, any improvement in general feelings which are supposed to underlie such increases in spending pale into insignificance when compared with the discontent over poor hospitals, schools or transport. However, there is a grain of truth in the speculation. Labour has found itself beset with internal division in recent months and has been unable to take on the Tories over a whole number of questions. Its leadership accepts the basic premise of the Tories and the press that once working people get a bit more money in their pockets they will revert to being individualistic Tory supporters.
This mistaken view of politics in Britain today stems from one of Labour's greatest weaknesses the lack of any class perspective. There is little sense that working class people (the vast majority of society) come to think as they do because of their life experience, which puts them into opposition to those who exploit them.
Tony Blair should read a recent article in one of his favourite magazines, the New Statesman. Going completely against the stream of that publication, Brian Deer uses the findings from Gallup polls over nearly 40 years to find that far from class dying out, it is more relevant to more people today than ever (23 August 1996).
When asked whether they thought there was a class struggle in Britain 76 percent answered that there was. When the question was first asked in 1961 only 56 percent thought so. Figures in the affirmative have consistently been in the high 70s or low 80s throughout the 1990s much higher even than during most of Margaret Thatcher's rule.
British Social Attitudes found in 1991 that, when asked to choose which class they were from, 2 percent chose 'upper middle', 27 percent 'middle', 18 percent 'upper working' and 46 percent 'working' class. Last year Gallup also found three quarters believed Britain was divided into haves and have nots up from 63 percent in 1984.
The growth of inequality, greater rewards for the rich and more insecurity for the poor, attacks on welfare all fuel such feelings among millions of people who are unlikely to fundamentally change their attitudes because they get £20 a month off their mortgage.
Such beliefs help explain support for Labour and why it has held up for so long.
This is of course ignored by Blair and his supporters who pretend that class has simply gone away. They are happy to attack the striking tube workers because they believe these people represent the past. In fact, the strikers are more in touch with most Labour supporters than are the Blairites.
Even the director of Gallup polls recognises this. 'What is conditioning people's attitudes to the "class struggle" is what is happening to them on a day to day basis,' says Bob Wybrow which is why class and the class struggle are not going away.
Following the war skirmishes between Greece and Turkey over the barren Aegean islands of Imla last February, the tensions in Greco-Turkish relations have again resurfaced this time in the buffer zone that has separated the Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus for the last 22 years.
Two rival groups of nationalist demonstrators clashed at the border after 100 Greek Cypriot bikers, who were on a propaganda joyride across Europe, arrived triumphantly in Cyprus with the intention of breaking through Turkish Cypriot lines, their declared destination the Turkish controlled town of Kyrenia. In the clashes that ensued, two Greek Cypriot youths were killed, bringing the two sides to the brink of war.
The bikers were encouraged and funded by the Clerides government, the deeply chauvinist Greek Orthodox Church and big business. Among the bikers were extreme right wing nationalists whose slogan is 'A good Turk is a dead Turk'.
The nationalism of one side found its mirror image on the other. With the blessing of the conservative government of Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot counter-demonstrators were led by members of the fascist Grey Wolves organisation, who had recently murdered the Cypriot journalist Kutlu Adali, a supporter of reconciliation between the two communities.
Last March the Turkish Cypriot government introduced privatisation of the citrus industry, electricity and telecommunications, and implemented cuts in education. In the process 8,000 workers were sacked with unemployment already soaring.
The attacks carried out by the regime in the north against Turkish Cypriot workers are the same as those that the conservative government of Clerides wants to implement in the south. Clerides has launched a privatisation programme starting with telecommunications and Cyprus Airways.
At the same time the Greek Cypriot government is trying to make strikes illegal in what it describes as 'vital sectors of the economy'. These range from hospitals and cement factories to electricity, airports and post offices. Rising unemployment in the Greek Cypriot south is combined with a concerted effort by the government and the bosses to scrap the system which ties wages to inflation.
Since the recent clashes in the buffer zone the government has also announced its intention to increase 'extraordinary taxation for military expenditures' from 3 to 5 percent.
Workers' response in the Turkish Cypriot north matched the government's attacks. A 3,000 strong strike in Morphou against the privatisations turned into a 24 hour general strike with a mass rally in northern Nicosia. Workers demanded not only the reversal of the privatisations but also put forward anti-nationalist slogans like 'No to Turkish annexation' and 'All the peoples are brothers', and 2,000 students demonstrated for a reduction in university fees.
Support for the privatisation schemes by the CTP (the equivalent of Blair's New Labour Party) enabled Denktash to suppress the strike wave by calling in the police and the army. Still 150 people clashed with the police during a demonstration against the two killings and the chauvinism of Denktash's thugs. Even the bulk of the Turkish Cypriot press criticised the counter-demonstration, with the liberal Halkin Sesi carrying the headline 'Chauvinism is the only victor'.
In the Greek Cypriot south a planned strike by Cyprus Airways workers was called off in the name of 'national unity' after the events in the buffer zone. Nevertheless, working class bitterness and anger runs deep in southern Cyprus too. The refusal of some people to let the bikers pass through their villages, and the great number of people criticising the bikers' demonstration on radio phone-ins, shows that a lot of people are not blinded by the warmongering propaganda.
Ever since independence in 1960 both sides have sought to strengthen their position by forming alliances with Greece and Turkey respectively, making the Cyprus problem part of the wider conflict between Greece and Turkey. Following the recent events, the Turkish minority in northern Greece was attacked by Greek thugs, while the Greek minority of Istanbul was attacked by their Turkish counterparts.
Each ruling class has its own interests to pursue with Turkey seeking to join the EU and Greece wanting to become the sole policeman in the Balkans. Both are also seeking to exploit the oil reserves in the Aegean. It is in this framework that the Greek Cypriot rulers are seeking to secure and expand their economic domination on the island while the Turkish Cypriot ruling class is trying to end its isolation by gaining international recognition for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Nevertheless, none of them is really sure how far they can pursue their interests without destabilising the region and scaring off foreign investors.
This is why this time round neither side wanted the nationalism they promoted to get out of control. This is also why it was not diplomatic intervention by the UN and the US that prevented war. Nor can they be part of the solution in this conflict.
The only force that can secure peace in the region is the working class on both sides of the Greco-Turkish rim through fightbacks such as those that brought down the conservative government of Çiller in Turkey last autumn and the wave of strikes that brought down the conservative government of Mitsotakis in Greece three years ago. The potential for such a fightback exists on both sides of the border in Cyprus too. The only dividing line between potentiality and actuality is the impotence of AKEL (the Greek Cypriot equivalent of Blair's Labour Party) and the CTP to deliver any non-nationalist opposition to all the warmongers on the island. It is up to the revolutionary left and workers' struggle to deliver such opposition.
Every August for the past four years, the legal firm Dibb Lupton Broomhead has issued a solemn warning about 'increasing tension in industrial relations', based on a survey of personnel bosses and union leaders. This year we are told that the survey 'indicates that we are possibly heading towards the worst "winter of discontent" for many years'.
As any forecaster knows, it's always a good idea to predict storms. If you're right, everyone praises your foresight. If the weather is fine, no one blames you. All the same, there are two findings which are important.
The first is that, as we have consistently argued in Socialist Review, the level of conflict is quite high, even though the number of strikes recorded is very low. Over the last four years there have only been around 200 to 250 officially recorded strikes each year. But this recent survey shows that around a third of (unionised) employers faced strike ballots or industrial action during 1995/96. If we compare this to 1993, the number of employers reporting disputes has doubled.
If we take the official statistics from the government, industrial action in June was the highest for more than six years. But even these figures grossly underestimate the amount of action that is going on. For example, the marathon dispute at Liverpool docks, which has been going on now for 11 months, has never been recorded in the official figures because the dockers were sacked by the company. Official figures only cover disputes connected with the terms and conditions of employment. They also ignore disputes involving fewer than ten workers or lasting less than one day. Similarly, although postal workers have now taken six days of strike action, this only counts as one stoppage in the figures.
But it is the response to the survey from trade union leaders which is most interesting. Two thirds of them predicted an increase in industrial action over the next 12 months. This is in sharp contrast to the views of employers. Of course, there's rather a difference between responding to a survey and actually calling action. But this is quite unlike the usual response of the top officials to the possibility of a Labour government. You would expect at least a cautious response particularly to a survey which always gets publicity. This points to two conclusions. One is the growing unrest in the public sector (also confirmed by responses of public sector employers). The other is the huge gap that has opened up between the trade union leaders and the Labour Party.
The leaderships of the unions and the Labour Party have fallen out in the past. The left of the bureaucracy have been at odds with the Labour leadership for some time. What is new is the fact that the right wing are bitter about Blair, with hostility from people such as John Edmonds and Roger Lyons.
The public intervention against striking London Underground workers was the clearest evidence yet of the extent of division. The union leadership did not expect Blair to denounce the Tories (let alone support the strike) but they did assume the Labour Party would remain neutral. Yet, by calling for compulsory arbitration in the public sector, the Labour leadership in effect were arguing for the removal of the right to strike. Even though they backtracked, the damage was done.
Behind the division lies the contrasting experience of the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour leaders. It is not just the different world which Tony Blair, Jack Straw and their friends inhabit (although that rankles). While New Labour preens itself, union officials reflect that they have lived through years of confrontation with the Tories, weathered the storm and now find themselves with a Labour leadership which is deliberately distancing itself as much as possible.
At the same time the trade union bureaucracy remains crucial to Labour's chances of winning elections. It is trade union organisation which delivers at local and regional level.
Blair and Co take all this for granted, yet it represents a problem for them. The trade union link cannot be severed without slicing through arteries. But it means that Labour is still under pressure to deliver certain basic reforms: the minimum wage, employment rights, the right to trade union recognition.
And Blair is forced to rely on people within his ranks who have been schooled in the trade union bureaucracy. The obvious example is John Prescott, but just as significant are those such as Ian McCartney, once a textile worker, now the frontman on employment. These people come from a much tougher background than Blair and have their own agenda.
None of this means that a great schism is likely. Rather it means that, despite his ascendancy, Blair faces pressure to deliver and this in turn provides opportunities for socialists.
What are we to make of last month's astonishing claim by American space agency NASA scientists that life may have evolved on Mars billions of years ago and may still exist there today?
At the centre of the claim is the discovery of a potato shaped meteorite, named ALH840001 and weighing 1.9 kilograms, which was found in Antarctica in 1984 but only analysed over the last 30 months. The NASA scientists say that the meteorite came from Mars and claim to have found evidence that it once harboured primitive life forms. So how reliable are these claims and what are the implications if they are shown to be true?
The origin of the meteorite is probably the least disputed part of NASA's claim. Most scientists agree that ALH840001 did come from Mars. The meteorite appears to have been chipped off the Martian surface 15 million years ago when an asteroid or comet crashed into the planet, sending small pieces hurtling into space with enough force to escape Mars's low gravity. Then about 13,000 years ago the meteorite wandered close enough to Earth to be sucked into our planet's gravitational field and fall onto the Antarctic ice sheet. One of the most convincing pieces of evidence indicating that the meteorite originated on Mars comes from the measurement of gases trapped in its interior whose composition exactly matches that measured in the Martian atmosphere by the Viking space probes.
So far so good. What is much more controversial is the claim that the meteorite contains signs of ancient life. The NASA scientists are basing their claim on three main discoveries. Firstly, using high powered microscopes, they have found markings resembling the outlines of tiny micro-organisms; secondly, they have discovered iron-containing crystals similar to ones produced by some bacteria on Earth; and finally, they have found oily deposits often associated with decaying terrestrial micro-organisms.
If life were shown to have evolved on Mars long ago it would have major consequences for our view of the universe and our own material origins. It might tell us whether the evolution of life follows a fairly general pattern or whether the sort of life forms we take for granted on Earth are largely the result of chance. It would certainly indicate that life may be much more universal than we had previously thought.
However, it would not be the first time that life was thought to exist on Mars, only to be disproved soon after. In 1896 one of the first astronomers to study Mars, Percival Lovell, claimed that he could see a network of narrow lines crisscrossing the planet. Lovell concluded that the regularity of the lines could only mean one thing they were canals made by alien beings. In fact the Martian canals have turned out to be entirely spurious a product of the limited telescopic power available at the turn of the century and Lovell's own wishful thinking.
Despite the fact that Lovell's claims came under attack by other eminent astronomers in his own lifetime, this didn't stop them dominating visions of Mars for almost half a century. In particular they were the direct inspiration for countless works of fiction the most famous being H G Wells's The War of the Worlds. In Wells's novel, which was a kind of Independence Day of its time, the aliens even had the similarly curious characteristic of wanting only to destroy the Earth despite having vastly superior intellects to us! Only when the first glimpses of the real Mars began to appear in the 1965-76 period, from the Mariner and Viking space probes, was Lovell's fantasy finally laid to rest.
Even the latest discovery of a Martian meteorite showing apparent signs of ancient life forms is not as novel as it seems. In 1961 a very similar claim to the present one was made about a meteorite called Orgueil which had fallen on France. Not only did the meteorite contain chemicals like those found in biological materials such as butter, Orgueil also appeared to be harbouring quantities of microscopic particles resembling algae. Only after 14 years of intense debate did it emerge that the 'alien life forms' were in fact Earthly contaminants and the unusual chemicals a by-product of cosmic rays.
The present evidence for life on Mars seems to have more substance to it. But already there are many scientists who are beginning to question the assumptions behind the latest claim. Among the criticisms that have been made, it has been pointed out that the supposed 'micro-organisms' appear far too small to contain the chemicals of life. It is also far from proven that they, like those found in Orgueil, are not in fact Earthly contaminants.
Initially, a major part of the NASA claim was based on the discovery of iron-containing crystals similar to those produced by some bacteria on Earth. In terrestrial bacteria these particles are used as a kind of compass which allows the bacteria to find their way around. Unfortunately, the extension of this type of function to the putative Martian micro-organism is flawed by one simple fact the magnetic field on Mars is only 0.2 percent that of the Earth's, so such a compass would be useless on Mars!
Finally there is the question of the oily deposits which are often associated with decaying micro-organisms and which the NASA scientists say have never before been seen in a Martian meteorite. This is certainly true but, as critics point out, the deposits have also been found in other meteorites which are not thought to be from any planet and which could certainly not have harboured life.
From the evidence presented so far the case for Martian life having ever existed is still far from proven. The only way we will ever be sure life existed on Mars, and indeed whether life exists on the planet today, is through further exploration of Mars itself. In this respect, the latest findings could not have come at a better time for NASA, which has been demanding more funding recently, particularly for further missions to Mars. As the US elections approach, President Clinton will be similarly hoping to benefit through his personal call for a 'space summit' to be held in November to plan the search for further evidence of life on Mars.
Any scientific research that helps us to understand more about the natural world, and about our own material origins, is welcome, as are many of the practical applications of space exploration such as satellite telecommunications. However, we should have no illusions about the capitalist and military interests behind much of space research. From its very inception NASA's primary aim has been to further the interests of US imperialism. The 'space race' and the bid to put a man on the moon were more an extension of the Cold War arms race than a proper scientific programme.
In 2005 NASA plans to bring back samples from Mars. If Martian micro-organisms do exist they have the potential to be a serious health risk and would demand rather more rigorous safety measures than were displayed during the Apollo 11 moon mission in 1969. Then, for example, although the returning astronauts did don biological isolation suits after they splashed down, they waited until after the spacecraft hatch had been opened! NASA now admits that poor planning and tight schedules were responsible for the failure of Apollo's quarantine procedures all the more reason for ordinary people to keep a close eye on future trips to Mars.
Rarely can the sham of bourgeois democracy have been exposed so immediately as during the aftermath of Boris Yeltsin's election victory. Within a matter of weeks the central election issues peace, democracy, wages, the economy have all exploded with renewed intensity.
The army reopened its assault on Chechnya barely a week after the election, but with the enemy refreshed and Russian troops deeply demoralised by Yeltsin's broken promises of peace. Within three weeks the Chechen resistance had seized the capital, Grozny, and the second city, Argun. Russian attempts to retake Grozny have met with failure.
At the time of writing the assault has been called off and the Russian government has agreed to withdraw the troops from Chechnya by the end of August.
There is deep discontent in Russia with the government in general and the war in particular, which is threatening to explode in popular discontent. Millions of workers have not been paid since Yeltsin's promise in March to compensate wage arrears. This led at the end of July to a rash of bitter strikes spreading from the maritime region throughout the coalfields strike threats by power, oil and aviation workers and a planned national miners' strike on 26 August. Although this was called off by union leaders at the last minute, many pits are still on strike.
With expectations raised by Yeltsin's extravagant election pledges, the situation is very volatile. An indication of this can be found in a remarkable newspaper report of a meeting outside the town hall of Chernogorsk in the Kuzbass coalfield:
'The miners were joined by townspeople, and soon the building was surrounded by an angry crowd, now making political demands: no to the war in Chechnya, no to profiteering at the town market, no to the mafia, yes to better pensions. The mayor tried to calm the crowd, but almost paid for it with his life. A woman's voice cried, "Hang him!", and the crowd surged forward with intent. He was saved only by the speedy arrival of the police. Luckily numerous calls to take up arms and go and shoot the businessmen and loot the villas of the rich were not taken up. The detonator of these events, the miners, are still desperate' (Segodnya, 16 August 1996).
This simmering discontent has given an added urgency to the government's attempts to avoid a new outbreak of crisis in the economy, further symptoms of which are a budget deficit which is double the IMF target, and 400 trillion roubles of inter-company debt.
Given the immediacy of this new crisis, infighting within the leadership has also intensified, led by the thuggish head of the Security Council, General Lebed, who has demanded the resignation of interior minister Kulikov over the handling of the Chechen crisis.
Lebed tried to turn the rout of Russian troops in Grozny into a personal triumph for himself as 'peacemaker', negotiating a last minute agreement for the Chechen resistance to maintain effective control over the republic, while accepting status as part of Russia. It appears that a section of government is prepared to back Lebed and accept that the immediate social, political and economic price of staying in Chechnya has become too high.
The situation, however, remains on a knife edge. The 11 hour peace negotiations on 22 August, for example, were broken off 15 times as fighting continually flared up.
Lebed's position is highly tenuous he is an ambitious but isolated individual with little support within the state machine. Yet another coup attempt is maybe on the cards. Consequently the ceasefire may be nothing but another temporary lull in the fighting as Russian troops regroup.
If the agreement holds, however, we will be witnessing a crushing defeat for Russian imperialism, the ramifications of which will be immense. One popular Moscow newspaper has already drawn parallels with Russia's defeat by Japan in 1904, noting that it heralded the 1905 revolution; 1905, however, came after 15 years of rising mass struggles, whereas today the Russian working class is still politically weak and demoralised. Nevertheless, the situation is ripe with possibilities for workers to go on the offensive.