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Twenty-five abnormal years

Normally we associate the workings of capitalism with certain undesirable, unpleasant attributes that are inescapably part of its nature such as mass unemployment and economic downturns. But the twenty-five years following the end of the Second World War were markedly different from all other capitalist periods.

After the war, the British economy operated on changed lines, unlike what went before or what has happened since. For two and a half decades, the market was not allowed to dictate everything. Abnormally for capitalism, there was sustained full employment with relatively high economic growth. There was even a large state-run sector comprising not only essential services such as health and education but also industries like steel and railways. State monopoly capitalism ran huge parts of the economy. For a brief spell capitalism changed its spots and temporarily assumed new traits.

Why did this period not conform to the usual capitalist practice? What prompted this seemingly errant behaviour?

Look for the answer in the phenomenal change in the balance of power between the capitalist and working classes that took place during the Second World War, brought about largely by the Soviet Union’s leading role in the victory over fascism. In particular, working class influence grew massively throughout western Europe and by 1945 the ruling classes were fearful that the end of the war might bring revolution.

Capitalism moved consciously to prevent this scenario and opportunistically ditched many of its preferred ways. It tactically retreated in the face of sudden working class advance to ensure its preservation. And so began its post-war aberration. Though a relatively short-term setting, it seems to have lulled many workers into dropping their seasoned guard and picking up disastrous misconceptions about the nature of capitalism, particularly that its extreme harshness had been consigned to the past. In those times our class’s commitment to collective organisation lessened. Our instinct of keeping our defensive abilities in order, so as to repel the exploitative system, was often scorned. As we noted at our 1976 Congress, some trade unions became “a fast emptying house”. Those uncharacteristic post-war years proved corrosive and damaging to our vitality, producing a serious decay in our class consciousness and a sorry lapse in class organisation. Our misreading of the system made us vulnerable and unprepared.

Inevitably with the passage of time and as fears dissipated, capitalism reverted to form. The first clear indication was the reappearance of mass unemployment in 1970. Progressively, the usual market approaches were resumed.

Recognising the true nature of the opposing beast still remains a problem. Rebuilding effective trade unionism will be a welcome sign of renewed class purpose.