The Labour & Progressive Movements

Workers do not exist in a vacuum and the economic sphere, in spite of its importance, is not the only aspect of people’s lives. Monopoly capitalism has its impact on these other aspects and identities as well, and many workers may be brought to political ideas and activity by social, democratic or international issues not directly related to work or the economy. Other people too, including those in the non-monopoly section of the capitalist class, can become aware of the destructive and divisive character of monopoly capitalism, coming to see it either as the cause of problems in society or as the system which obstructs their solution.

Oppression affects people in diverse ways and the movements which have been built to resist it are equally diverse.

The women’s movement in Britain has a long and proud tradition of fighting for economic, social and political rights. Yet, in spite of the fact that working class women make up the largest and most oppressed group of women, the aims and leadership of some of these initiatives have been heavily influenced by more affluent women. The National Assembly of Women is an exception, rooted as it is in the working class. Its campaigns for equal pay, workplace nurseries, price controls, peace etc. have won considerable support in the labour movement. Within their trade unions, women have also campaigned over a long period on issues related to their conditions in work and society.

The adoption of the Charter for Women by major sections of the trade union movement represents a growing understanding of the relationship between class exploitation and social oppression, and a determination to take up key issues within both the labour and women’s movements.

There is also a growing understanding among those who campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights of the ways in which powerful vested interests in capitalist society act to perpetuate prejudice and oppression.

The growth of self-organisation among the black and minority ethnic communities, exemplified by the Indian Workers Association, provides an important basis for challenging the prejudice and discrimination that emanate from empire, colonialism and imperialism. The broad-based anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigning by Searchlight and other organisations also plays an important role.

However, much more needs to be done to mobilise black, minority ethnic and other working class communities, together with the labour movement at every level. This is essential if government policies are to be changed and fascist organisations halted in their tracks.

As well as movements against oppression, there are other social forces whose interests conflict with those of state-monopoly capitalism.

Young people face their own specific problems, whether as students or young workers, as well as those they face in common with other sections of the population. Insecure employment and mass unemployment have become fixtures for younger generations, aggravating the discrimination felt by young women and black youth. Discontent among young people too often meets with demonisation by the mass media and harassment from the authorities. There is also the danger that continuing youth unemployment will strengthen the appeal of the extreme right-wing. This will be made all the easier by the growing frustration of young people and their lack of contact with the labour and progressive movements.

Therefore the labour movement needs to reach out to young people, offering them support in meeting the challenges they face. Its organisations must welcome new members, help provide social and cultural facilities, enable them to organise together and support their campaigns for decent work, equality, housing and education.

The students’ movement has shown its capacity to mobilise on issues of access to education, students’ living standards and the range and quality of courses. Coordination with teachers’ and lecturers’ unions has been of mutual benefit. But the whole labour movement needs to recognise the significance of these and related issues for the quality of life of workers and their families.

The fight against mass unemployment and precarious employment must unite the employed and the unemployed around key demands for decent, secure, well-paid jobs, free training and educational opportunities and adequate unemployment benefits. To this end, the role of unemployed workers’ centres as campaigning organisations should be strengthened, along with trade unions actively recruiting and representing the unemployed.

In recent decades, as millions of older people face a life of poverty and isolation, the pensioners’ movement has taken on a new militancy. But the fight for a ‘living pension’ and support from decent public and social services is not the responsibility of pensioners alone. All trades unions have to understand that this is a fight for their members’ future. The provision of a decent basic state pension is essential to guarantee a financially secure retirement.

Every union should have a retired members’ section. Although the pensioners’ movement has received increased backing from trades unions, the labour movement needs to help turn this into a truly mass, broad-based and militant campaign.

Public opposition to militarism and imperialist war has drawn hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people into the campaigning activities of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Stop the War Coalition and other peace organisations. While it is essential to maintain the broad appeal and unity of the peace and anti-war movements, the connections between monopoly capital, British and United States (US) imperialism, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the European Union (EU) and the drive to militarisation and war need to be exposed and understood.

Sections of the environmental movement already recognise the extent to which monopoly capitalism threatens to destroy our planet’s ecosystem. The imperialist powers resist the measures necessary to protect it, because those measures would challenge monopoly profit and prerogatives. As a matter of urgency, this understanding must be won throughout the environmental and labour movements and in society as a whole.

The national movements in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall also contain substantial progressive and left-wing elements that oppose reactionary policies of monopoly capital and the British state. While they tend to over-emphasise the national rather than the class dimension of important issues, many members and supporters of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) can be won to fight for measures which favour the working class and challenge the interests of British imperialism.

In Britain and its constituent nations, there is a long tradition of international solidarity. Today, there are active movements campaigning in solidarity with peoples facing imperialist-backed subversion, as in Cuba and Venezuela, or repression as in Palestine and Colombia.

In the case of all of these progressive movements, they cannot be considered as wholly separate from the working class. Working class people make up a substantial proportion, in most cases the vast majority, of their members. Moreover, through their activity in such movements, many people will come to a political, class understanding of society and the need for action to change it.

When assessing the forces that can be mobilised for progress, due account should be taken of divisions within the capitalist class. Some sectors or enterprises orientated towards industry rather than financial services, or the domestic rather than export market, or which are home-owned rather than owned from outside, can be split away from a united front of monopoly capital by appropriate measures. Small businesses may have their own reasons for opposing monopoly power, and their support for anti-monopoly policies can prove important in blocking reactionary mobilisations against the labour movement and the left.

The organised working class needs to show them that lining up with big business against the workers will never solve their problems. It must seek to win small businesses to the side of the labour movement, and prevent them falling prey to right-wing and fascist propaganda. This means campaigning for measures such as cheap credit, restrictions on monopoly price manipulation, controls on rent, relief from high business rates, the abolition of Value Added Tax (VAT) etc., as well as winning small businesses for the wider democratic demands of the working class, including the struggle for peace, disarmament and environmental protection.

Self-employed workers who own their own means of production, alongside small business owners, including small farmers, who employ little or no labour, are part of the intermediate strata. They are in neither the capitalist class nor the working class. While they are not exploited as workers, neither do they profit primarily from the labour of others. The intermediate strata also include those senior managers who are still ultimately dependent on selling their own labour power for much of their livelihood. But they also direct the exploitation of labour in the private or public sectors, and may derive a proportion of their own income from the surplus value produced by others.

Some of the people in these intermediate strata can and should be won for anti-monopoly and progressive policies.

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