Rarely has class conflict been made so blatantly obvious. Gathered under the vast dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and ringed by legions of police and military personnel, the royalty, robber barons, presidents, oligarchs, bankers, tycoons, war criminals, celebrities and aristocrats of the global capitalist class assembled in grand style to bid farewell to their champion: a woman who had dedicated her life to defending and expanding the profits and privileges of the few -- at the expense of the many.
But mere blocks away from where former British PM Margaret Thatcher lay in state masses of working class people gathered to basically celebrate the death of a woman who had brought them nothing but misery, impoverishment, heartless spending cuts, privatization of public services, foreign wars, union busting, regressive taxes, police crackdowns, and a reactionary legacy that keeps on killing, and uprooting.
Thatcher's trail of destruction is relevant for young people in Canada, to understand an important part of the global story of how gains of past struggle, and prospects for our future, were destroyed.
What went wrong?
Many of the gains made by working people in the UK, gains that were hard fought and won over generations, now lie in ruins. As we mark the death of a person who did such great harm and worked such class-evil, we must understand the important lesson that her legacy should teach us: that the working class will never find ultimate justice in the necessary concessions we successfully wrestle from the capitalist class, concessions that can all too easily be rolled back.
Thatcher, in many ways, puts a face on what today is widely called the ideology of "neo-liberalism." The history which these forces helped make also shows myth of promoted by those supporters of social democracy who claim there is a "Keynesian" substitute for socialist revolution and the seizure of power by the working class itself.
Winning social reforms
Margret Thatcher was born in 1925, the daughter of a small grocer. By age 25 she was a candidate for the Conservative Party, by age 28 a lawyer and mother of two, and a member of parliament five days before her 34th birthday. Two decades later she would begin her slash-and-burn career as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.
The timeline of her life therefore paralleled, more or less, the construction and partial dismantlement of much of what is known as the welfare state – ie. free public healthcare, accessible public education, public housing and social security. While some of the initial building blocks of the British welfare state were arguably put in place by the Liberal welfare acts from 1906–1914, the majority of social legislation arose following the Second World War.
Marxists call these kind of important and significant social changes "reforms." Reforms can challenge the balance of class forces in society but do not fundamentally alter the system itself. Marxists therefore consider reforms to be the opposite of "revolution" -- a social transformation that marks a qualitative leap to a new social system such as from capitalism to socialism.
Many activists believe revolution is not necessary and we can obtain the same results through far-reaching or successive reforms. This perspective is known as reformism. When reformists go further and argue that a respectable political party is necessary to form government and implement evolutionary reforms it is called social democracy. The Labour Party in Britain and the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Canada are social democratic parties, although today they have long abandoned the goal of socialism and advocate for "capitalism with a human face."
Marxists, however, do not think we can wish or legislate-away social conflict, which comes from inherent class contradictions in the capitalist system between workers and bosses. Marxists view this class struggle as an objective revolutionary process. Thus, while arguing revolution and reform extreme opposites, Marxists point out they are also interconnected.
For example, the achievements and experience of the struggle for reforms helps the working class in situations of political and economic crisis and revolutionary conditions. On the other hand, a socialist revolution creates the conditions for deep-rooted social reforms that can eliminate poverty, ignorance, and want, as well as social ills like racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Social reforms also strengthen the working class. The British welfare state formed a model for similar social policy implemented later in Canada, although they were somewhat more encompassing in the UK. For millions of working Brits, the welfare state made their capitalist society not only more livable but put them strategically in a better position to fight for more -- as have Medicare, Employment Insurance, basic labour rights, and accessible public education in Canada.
(For example, consider the issue of health care. When the striking miners of Bienfait, Saskatchewan were shot at by the RCMP in 1931 killing three and wounding at least ten others, private doctors turned away the injured because they couldn't pay. Strikers and protesters still have to worry about police brutality on the picket line, but not emergency medical access for themselves or their families. Thus last year, when the police fired projectiles at a protest in Victoriaville, Quebec, blinding one protester and putting another in a comma, nobody could be turned away by the doctors at the hospital. Although not always -- by arresting the sister and brother of Dudley George and holding them for an hour as the siblings rushed George to hospital, police basically guaranteed he would die of the gunshot wounds they had just inflicted on the unarmed aboriginal activist during the 1995 Ipperwash park reclamation.)
Class struggle and public pressure
Reforms do not emerge from nowhere nor are they the product of elite generosity. Like at many other time periods in history, the British welfare state was a concession wrung from the ruling class of the greatest imperial power in modern history by years of working class struggle through which hard lessons were learnt.
From the 14th Century Peasant’s Revolt, to the 17th Century struggles of the Diggers and Levellers, to the United Englishmen and English Jacobins in the 1790s, to the Chartists and first British socialists in the 19th Century, to the labor unions and general strikes of the 20th Century, class struggle in the first modern industrialized capitalist state has always been intense.
By the 1930s this struggle had reached another "fever pitch" and many of the battle-scarred young people who returned from the war-torn Europe in 1945 were not only veterans of the destruction of Nazism but veterans of pre-war labour struggles against the often pro-fascist British capitalist class.
The returning army of young working class soldiers, many of them fully class conscious, battle-hardened and fully trained for war, as well as a massive army of class-conscious women workers mobilized on the home front, contributed in no small part to forcing the British elite to make the kind of concessions that would lead to the creation of the welfare state. The experience of limited social planning during the war helped create wide public consensus of the British working class and other social strata strongly in support of a planned economy and socialism.
The Soviet example
The challenge of socialism, however, did not issue from the British working class alone, but from the international example of a country that already prior to World War II had been going from strength to strength and by 1945 had heroically dealt the death blow to Hitler and the Third Reich, sustaining by far the most losses -- 22,000,000 to 27,000,000 people died or between 13.6 and 14.2% of its population; by comparison the UK lost 0.94%; Canada 0.4% and the US 0.32%.
The Soviet Union, the world’s first socialist state, born out of the fires of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, presented an undeniable threat to the status quo of global capitalism. It had withstood multiple foreign invasions, transformed itself from a backward impoverished agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse, raised workers and peasants to become generals and statesmen, and proven that socialism was a viable alternative to capitalism. As an ally of Britain, war-time reports on the USSR had dropped much of the anti-communist propaganda, reporting on "proletarian democracy" and presented the country in a more positive light.
Interest and support for the USSR had always been broader than the Communist Party in the UK, and included many activists in the Labour Party. Many British workers were therefore convinced that socialism was not only desirable but necessary and possible – a fact which terrified the ruling circles of Westminster and was brough home with the results of the "Khaki election" in 1945 which dumped the Conservative war government of "heroic" Churchill and brought to power the Labour Party -- and two Communist MPs.
All of these forces – a radicalism born of a tradition of working class struggle, a World War, and a revolutionary example – combined to force the capitalist elite to give in to many longstanding working class demands.
The implementation of the welfare state was neither simple nor direct, with the social democratic Labour Party quickly proving itself willing to completely accede to the response of big business in the UK -- such as abandoning the demand for socialized childcare -- or allow their agenda to be significantly co-opted -- such as with the nationalization of certain industries and the continued role of the monopoly capital in their administration and control.
Nevertheless, public pressure was still so great that the Tory government which came to power after a narrow election victory in 1951 implemented some further social reforms. The Conservatives held office until 1964; a few more progressive measures were taken by the Labour governments of 1964-1970 and 1974-1979.
Real gains were therefore made. Millions of people were raised from poverty. Importantly, throughout these times, the British ruling class was able to use its vast profits robbed from its colonial markets to pay for these reforms as well as a boom-cycle in the economy which obscured the more systemic crises in capitalism. Yet the British Empire itself began to crumble under the onslaught of anti-colonial struggles, combined with the support a growing number of people in the UK.
Notwithstanding many differences, both Labour and Conservative governments endorsed an economic policy broadly defined as "Keynesianism." Monopoly capitalism remained (as did imperialism, as the Irish people in particular can attest). For a generation of British workers, exploitation was rolled back somewhat through public spending and a redefined and more interventionist "welfare" state.
Prosperity seemed to be within the reach of everyone -- with many believing that the profit motive could co-exist with justice for working people in a "social contract" between labour and capital -- while the colonies helped foot the bill.
Today in the context of the ongoing global capitalist economic crisis, some voices speak nostalgically about returning to this "Keynesian past." This illusion is deeply mistaken, as modern international finance capitalism has all but shredded that possibility. In fact, it was not simply a policy shift but the reality of the crisis-ridden capitalist economic which would cruelly shatter the post-war illusions of Keynesianism and create leaders such as the Iron Lady to implement a different model for the capitalist state, neoliberalism.
It is probably no coincidence that the mass murderer at the centre of the first trial run for neo-liberalism would later become the close friend of Margret Thatcher and someone she would help hide from the limited hands of justice and restitution after his fall from power in the 1990s.
Different conditions produce different kinds of governments, including social democratic governments. While social reforms in Britain of 1945 were effectively contained by the capitalist class, the big landowners and capitalist of Chile in the early 1970s had much more difficulty with the agenda of limited nationalization and social welfare proposed by Dr. Salvador Allende's Popular Unity coalition, which embraced a diverse range of political forces from just-left-of-centre to the Communists.
Unable to successfully manipulate the electoral process, the ruling class helped General Augusto Pinochet smash his way to power in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1973, massacring thousands of progressives from leftist priests to members of the Communist Party of Chile.
In privatizing and deregulating the economy, Pinochet's fascist junta was directly advised through the CIA by neo-conservative economists like Milton Friedman whose economic model became known as neo-liberalism.
By the mid-1970s, the deepening world crisis of capitalism compelled big business to turn away from Keynesian economic policies towards neoliberalism. These factors included the oil shock of 1973, so-called "stagflation," as well as set-backs to imperialism especially in Indochina, like the victory of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.
Under the slogan of a “return to the free market,” capitalist governments in Britain, then Canada and elsewhere began to impose a vicious, pro-corporate and anti-people agenda of liberalized or “free” trade, deregulation and privatization. Neoliberalism remains the prevailing policy of finance capital today and, then as now, constituted a ruthless attack on working people.
Thus through-out the 1970s, the Labour government implemented a series of regressive wage controls, bending to corporate ultimatums over the pressure from unions and the public. As one indication of the end of the post-war boom and the difficulties Britain's capitalist economy was facing, the government accepted a £2.3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. In reality, Keynesianism had not resolved the crisis of capitalism but merely created new contradictions.
Despite the acquiescence of some trade union top brass, resistance to the Labour government's wage controls grew with a massive series of strikes in 1978. A resulting political crisis in winter 1979 meant that by the spring Britain was going to the polls. On the ballot was a party led by a woman who had wiped her voice 'clean' of her rural-sounding Lincolnshire dialect and proven herself as a hard-line right-winger, staunch anti-communist and pro-imperialist. The Conservatives chosen election slogan was a play on words which became both iconic and ironic: Labour Isn't Working.
Helped by a mood of discontent and disappointment with the social democratic Labour Party, bankrolled by big business who wanted a reliable team for their class in office, and supported by the corporate media, the first woman Prime Minister was elected, Margret Thatcher.
Her dream becomes our nightmare
Thatcher would implement a wave of attacks on labour unions and the people which would cut back or privatize much of the welfare state system and create a framework for her successors to go even further.
The new agenda favoured the state-as-battering ram: smaller in terms of social welfare, but with renewed and expanded military, policing and prison power to break unions and repress workers, take away services and programmes, and generally deregulate the British economy which effectively led to the wholesale destruction of the country’s industries and their outsourcing to the Third World.
Arguably little now remains of the British welfare state. The neo-liberal agenda was particularly hastened by the counter-revolutionary overturn of socialism in the USSR and the socialist countries in the early 1990s. That decade also saw Blair's New Labour, and a new re-invented right-wing social democracy, take a chain-saw to the concessions the capitalist class of Britain had made just a generation before.
Thatcher's legacy is thus millions of unemployed, homeless, and suffering people. The generation whose parents chanted "Thatcher, Thatcher milk snatcher," after the Iron Lady abolished free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven, now faces underemployment, precarious work, and unemployment with almost a million youth alone out of work in the UK.
The working class in Britain will justifiably never forgive her for this. This is why young and old filled the streets across many cities in the UK. Some of those slogans were much better than others, and the power in social anger comes after directing that anger in an organized way, in solidarity and against the class Thatcher represented.
After all, unity and struggle is the way forward for youth -- choosing the side of the labour movement and the working people -- and the way to prevent more vicious and nasty Thatcher-like leaders.
While the poison further injected into British society continues to destroy lives and ruin families, Thatcher could not kill the unions. Instead her medicine has become a bitter lesson that the working class cannot trust the capitalist class and seek to make a permanent peace with its oppressors and exploiters.
In the long run, the only sustainable option which can make truly protect the gains of working people in the UK and Canada can't stop with the return of a renewed welfare state, without discounting the importance and necessity of such immediate social reforms.
Ultimately, what is needed is the transformation of society to one characterized by the political, economic, and cultural leadership or rule of society by the majority working class and its allies, not the tiny minority of capitalists. It might be said that the youth of today are living Thatcher's evil oppressive dream as our nightmare. But more and more youth are waking up and rising, realizing what her class says is a nightmare is actually our dream of liberation.