'Britain is different.' That has always been the cry of the right wing inside the working class movement. Now, however, it is to be heard in different quarters, from those who would love to see revolutionary change but have abandoned any hope of it ever happening here. Such pessimism arises from the contrast between what is happening in some of the major continental countries and the low level of class struggle at the moment in Britain.
Over the last two or three years there has been a sharp and perceptible recovery in countries like France, Belgium and Italy from the 'downturn' in struggle that stretched from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. And in Germany, which was hardly touched by the international 'upturn' in class struggle of the late 1960s and early 1970s, strikes and working class protests are now centre stage.
Meanwhile, in Britain the level of strikes is the lowest on record. This is not only Department of Employment statistics. It is borne out if anyone compares the industrial reports in Socialist Worker today with those which appeared ten or 15 years ago, let alone with the (much less comprehensive) coverage of the early 1970s.
The other side of the low level of struggle is the continuing pressure on people in their places of work. There is more working of unsocial hours, more pressure to work ever harder, more feeling among the best activists that there will never be light at the end of the tunnel. No wonder you hear them say, again and again, that it seems as if people will put up with anything. Yet the view contains a fundamental error. It looks only at one aspect of the current situation, not the total picture.
First, it ignores the overall political context. Ten years ago, in the late 1980s, the workers' movement had not only suffered enormous defeats notably the Great Miners' Strike and Wapping. There was also a minority in the working class who thought they could make it through 'people's capitalism' buying their council houses and then selling them at an enormous profit, investing in privatisation shares and so on. Their mood was summed up by Harry Enfield's 'Loadsamoney' character. The recession of the early 1990s changed all that. The talk in factories, offices and pubs was no longer of making a quick buck but of whose friends had lost their jobs and whose homes had been repossessed.
The huge and unexpected protests which erupted over the Tories' pit closure programme in the autumn of 1992 were an expression of the change. So too were a succession of local protests over health cuts and class sizes in schools. So, finally, was the electoral swing to Labour, starting back in the late summer of 1992. A massive amount of opinion poll research, as well as reports from socialist activists, show that there was a prolonged radicalisation to the left with the spread of an elemental 'them and us' class consciousness. This took place among all sections of workers, including many teachers and nurses, for instance who had in the past often thought of themselves as 'middle class' or 'professionals'.
This mood, which differentiates the 1990s from the late 1980s, still has not gone away. New Labour is doing its utmost to replace hope by cynicism, but it has not yet succeeded. The latest opinion polls still show the majority of people want to increase public spending even if it means tax rises.
The second great error people make is to believe that just because the mood has not translated itself into direct struggle yet, it will never do so.
Apathy arises in two very different circumstances. One is where people feel they have no need to struggle because things are getting better anyway. This was what used to bother the left back in the early 1960s when EP Thompson and others put together a collection of essays entitled Out of Apathy. But it is certainly not the situation today.
The other sort of apathy is that which comes from a feeling that things are getting worse but that collective struggle cannot be effective. People then look to their individual concerns, even though these merely reflect the general deterioration in their lives. But this sort of apathy can turn into its opposite very quickly. For once some more or less accidental factor leads a certain group of people to discover the power of collective action, then others rush to follow them. There is a chain reaction, in which one sudden, spontaneous struggle encourages others.
This was the process the German-Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg described so brilliantly in her pamphlet on Russia in l905, The Mass Strike. It was the process which occurred in May 1968 in France and again with the sudden emergence of mass workers' struggles in Poland in the late summer of 1980.
It has been happening, although not at the same speed as in 1905 and 1980, in France since the mid-1990s. Prior to that, activists in the French working class movement displayed an even greater pessimism than that found in Britain today. At the time of the protests here over the pit closure programme they would say that such things could never happen in France.
Then in late November 1995 protests against public sector cuts and attacks on rail workers' pensions suddenly coalesced into the huge movement that threw the Juppé government on the defensive, laying the foundations for its electoral defeat last year. It is precisely this sudden coalescing of individual grievances into collective feeling and action that lay behind the Italian strikes which forced the Berlusconi government from office, the new wave of workers' and students' protests in Germany and the UPS strike victory in the US last summer.
There is certainly enough bitterness in Britain to fuel a similar switch in the mood here. Indeed, the political swing to the left shows that the mood has already changed. What has been lacking so far is the confidence to translate the elemental class feeling into action. This is not surprising, since Britain's workers suffered greater defeats than virtually anywhere else in Europe in the 1980s and trade union leaders still play on the memory of those defeats to justify their own cowardice. But it is the worst form of historical shortsightedness to believe that things can continue at the present low ebb indefinitely. The moment some group of workers is driven to fight and discovers it has the power to win, confidence can begin to come oozing back. When that happens, the bitterness that wears people down now will shake society to its roots.