Existence under early industrial capitalism was harsh and brutal for our fledgling working class. Unwilling to accept their lot, workers sought improvements to their working conditions and gradually their quality of life was raised. Following World War Two, gains endured but illusions grew, as improvements were taken for permanent fixtures. There was a dwindling acknowledgement of why the improvements were there. Many forgot how they had actually been won, assuming the gains and reforms had capitalism’s blessing. We lulled ourselves into thinking that these gains were secure “rights”, incapable of suffering erosion or being overthrown. As capitalism’s absolute decline proceeds, we now know that reversal and setback are possible as the system attempts to diminish the power of our class.
So how did previous working class gains materialise? Improvements and reforms came out of past struggle and campaigns by organised workers. Enhanced working conditions such as increased rates of pay, better holiday entitlement, implementation of pension schemes, reduced working hours, etc. were extracted and won in the face of opposition from employers and government. Equally, reforms such as free national health provision and free state education were struggled for over many generations, not arising from government benevolence. Collective need actively challenged private profit.
Recent decades have seen too many in the class freewheeling, exploiting an impetus set going long before, enjoying advances that had really been earned with difficulty by preceding generations of workers, who had fought hard to establish them. Because these gains were not protected by our organised vigilance, because our defences – mainly our organisation in trade unions – had become neglected, weak, and used for other purposes, everything we should have held dear was more vulnerable to capitalism’s eventual assault.
If destruction and retreat are to be halted, if the prospect of progress is to rise again, then we must put right the central weakness, the lessening organisation and collective instinct of our class. We must painstakingly put our class together again. We must stop depending on others, banishing reliance on false politicians or scheming activists. When there is a self-reliant mass of workers spiritedly wanting reconstruction in Britain, then progress will return. To that end, workplaces are key. We must rebuild collective union strength in workplaces and, as soon as it is feasible, link them up as networks of power. Our class will have to shape the trade unions in the best fit and form to do its bidding. If well-planned action is conducted in tactically sound ways, then confidence will reappear.
But initially our steps may have to be small. Sometimes the greatest step is to speak out: from good ideas, other things will flow.