The British Left Must Return to the Struggles of the 1970s, And We Must Win


British Left, Left-Wing, UK,

Since the 2017 General Election was announced roughly four weeks ago, the right-wing media have ramped up its media narrative, wheeling out every piece of rhetoric and propaganda it can to discredit progressive visions for Britain, and keep the people voting for self-interested financial elites.

Among the most powerful of memes deployed by the propagandists, is the spectre of the seventies, and ‘The Winter of Discontent’. A vision is painted of Britain at the edge of collapse, and the blame is lumped firmly on the Labour government, and the trade unions. This story was created by right-wing media at the time and used to propel Thatcher into power on a platform of crushing the unions and ‘restoring order’.

The reality of what happened in the seventies is very different. The decade from the late sixties to the late seventies saw intense industrial action in all of the world’s advanced economies. It was a time of rapid change, following a long period of tranquillity from the end of World War II. Following the devastation of World War II there was a rapid recovery, growth was very high for developed countries, and it was possible to accommodate the interests of the working class and the economic elite with relative ease. At the same time, the organs of the organised working class across much of the developed world had been broken by fascism and the Soviet Gulag. The working classes were politically very weak, and agreed in the post-war period to largely give up political resistance in exchange for the spoils of economic recovery, materialising in Britain as wage growth, the NHS and the Welfare State.

The rapid post-war recovery lasted around twenty years, before it began to slow down dramatically. The fragile balance between the forces of labour and capital began to break down, and the late sixties saw the working class beginning to return to more radical tactics in struggles for wages and public investment. Britain saw widespread strikes in 1969, 72, 74 and 79, part of a wave of disobedience across the world, linked to other struggles like the ‘May 68’ protests in France, or the ‘Hot Autumn’ in Italy in 1969. As the old order began to break apart, both progressives and wealthy elites were desperate to ensure that the new political order would serve their interests. In the 70’s, as an oil crisis struck the western world, the business elite ramped up their offensive. In Britain, inflation in this period went up to double figures, reaching a peak of 20%. While prices were skyrocketing, workers across Britain were offered paltry wage increases, amounting to large cuts to their livelihoods.

Unfortunately progressives did not win in the 70’s. Regressive governments were elected across the developed world, bringing an end to civil disobedience with violent repression, peaking in Britain with the Battle of Orgeave. Across the developed world a new economic paradigm was ushered in, marked by wage stagnation and rapidly rising economic inequality.

Since that economic turnaround, the worst impacts have been offset by encouraging the populace to borrow huge amounts of money, and build up massive stockpiles of private debt. That decision came back to bite us with the 2008 crash, when the financial sector collapsed under the weight of private debt, causing a dramatic recession. The collapse caused private debt to fall slightly but it is climbing back up, and without radical change to the global economic system, more crashes are on the near horizon.

It is time for us to retake the mantle of dissidents of the 60’s and 70’s, to examine what they did wrong, and to carve a new vision of a progressive future. Here, three key lessons emerge. First, the Left in the sixties and seventies had not fully recovered from the damage wrought by fascism, it was still relatively weak, and it was still using old techniques for organising, which were rapidly becoming ineffective in the face of technological and geographic change. Since then these problems have only intensified. The old working class-communities of Britain have declined, and society has become much more atomised and separated. New networks are needed to unite people together, in their hardship and their struggles, taking full advantage of the latest technologies.

The second lesson is the importance of vision. The protests of the 60’s and 70’s were mostly reactionary struggles; with the aim of defending against losses, but without a comprehensive vision of a better way of organising society. The main model for anti-capitalism at the time was the Soviet System, pioneered by Vladimir Lenin, whose most famous text ‘What is to be done’ laid out his belief in the inherent inability of the working classes to understand their role in political struggle, and their need to be led by an intellectual elite. For this reason, the Soviet union was rife with internal struggle, between the Soviet elite, and the working class grassroots, and it was difficult to point to as a model for greater liberty and popular democracy. Now, a hundred years after the Soviets came to power, with a much better educated population, and immense developments in communication and information technologies, it is much easier to imagine what a truly democratic economy might look like, where investment and planning is controlled by the general public, through co-ops, local councils, and community banks. It was because of this lack of vision, that many of the social democratic leaders of the time, including Labour Leaders Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan were stuck in a political morass, uncomfortable with the demands of wealthy elites, but unable to champion an alternative, leaving them only with the option of desperately trying to hold together the crumbling economic order which both angered the protesters who were fighting for their livelihoods, and gave the right-wing media an abundance of ammunition to paint them as weak and chaotic.

The third lesson to be learned from the progressive movements of the sixties and seventies, is the power of right-wing media. Renowned academic Noam Chomsky has laid out in his book ‘Manufacturing Consent‘ how, throughout the 20th century, media enterprises have increasingly merged, becoming much larger, more reliant on investors and advertisers, more profit-oriented and generally more reliant on the approval of wealthy supporters to remain afloat. In the seventies, and even more-so now, the mainstream media cannot be relied upon to give the public a balanced impression of events. The need is great for new media and educational enterprises, with a commitment to challenging the political and economic establishment of our time.

We may have a lost a great battle in the seventies, but the struggle for a fairer society continues, and we can continue where our grandparents left off.

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