Left misreads Europe fuel protests
The last couple of weeks have witnessed the European petty bourgeoisie on the move - first in France, and then, as small farmers, trucking owners, self-employed taxi drivers and fishers joined in the blockades of oil companies and obstructed major roads, in Britain, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain and even Poland.
This was no coordinated campaign, but a spontaneous international outburst of Jacobin copycat actions by small business operators and the self-employed in protest at ever-rising fuel prices. For the most part they own concerns whose profit margins are being increasingly squeezed by the blind market and onerous government taxation. While in Britain some of the protesters were one-person companies, others - even among those manning the picket lines outside the oil refineries - might even have been paper millionaires in terms of their assets. Nevertheless all are small fry compared to the monopolies.
The petty bourgeoisie forms a core part of the middle class - the intermediate layer between big capital and the proletariat. It is a stratum which is constantly being killed and reborn, as many are driven out of business, only to be replaced by newcomers - often former workers seeking escape from wage slavery or attempting a new start, through investing redundancy payments, for example.
The petty bourgeoisie has no vision of a new society - only the drive to reform the present one, or a yearning for some imagined golden era of yesteryear. But it has demonstrated that it is very much a force to be reckoned with, capable of taking effective collective action in its own interests. For the moment, in many countries this compares very favourably to the combativity of the working class - not least in Britain, where we suffered a strategic defeat at the hands of capital and the Thatcher government with the miners' Great Strike of 1984-85. Everywhere we have been thrown on the defensive - ideologically, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent crisis of both 'official communism' and social democracy; and industrially, as the bourgeoisie has been able to take advantage of the demise of a perceived alternative in bureaucratic socialism.
Despite the fact that this movement is clearly neither working class nor bourgeois, sections of the left have failed to identify its class character. On the one hand there are those who seem to confuse it with proletarian mass action. The Socialist Workers Party, for instance, at first praised the "French spirit" which had the "bosses trembling" and was something to be emulated by British trade unionists (Socialist Worker September 9). However, once it became clear to them that it was not trade unionists, but small business operators and the self-employed who were in revolt - on both sides of the channel - thankfully Socialist Worker adopted a more measured tone from that of its initial unbridled enthusiasm.
Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party, however, was four-square behind the protest. After condemning privatisation, the "rundown of our railways" and the failure to adopt "a sensible energy policy", it stated that fuel price increases had caused "widespread public anger and direct protest action". It continued: "When people take action to maintain or improve their jobs, communities and basic rights, the Socialist Labour Party will always support them" ('SLP comment on the fuel crisis', September 11). Note that the statement does not elaborate on which "people", which sections of the "public" - ie, which class - it considers worthy of "support".
On the other hand the Morning Star took a diametrically opposite position (interestingly enough, the Star's Communist Party of Britain was in merger talks with the SLP this time last year, according to Scargill). Far from an example of the masses spontaneously taking action to "maintain or improve their ... rights", the fuel protests, stated its editorial, were "a well planned conspiracy" on the part of a "powerful alliance of transnational oil corporations and road haulage companies, backed up by sections of self-employed lorry drivers and farmers". They were a "deliberate shot across the government's bows - an attempt to impose an economic policy acceptable to the roads lobby, the oil companies, the Tory Party and the rightwing media" (September 15).
The Star praised TUC general secretary John Monks for his "welcome lead" in comparing the blockades to "the action by lorry owners and self-employed drivers which helped bring down Salvador Allende's socialist government in Chile in 1973" (September 14). And Andrew Murray was even more disorientated in his 'Eyes left' column the following day: "This was more than just the oil companies flexing their muscles. It was a dry run for counterrevolution." In Murray's opinion, "Reaction is mobilising its forces for a sustained attack on democracy and labour" (September 15).
The Morning Star and CPB were actually using Murray as a left-sounding cover for their support for the TUC's full-scale backing for Tony Blair's New Labour government (the TGWU had been summoned into action by New Labour to persuade drivers to resume deliveries). The paper's front-page headlines screamed: "PM appeals to oil companies" (September 13); and "NHS placed on red alert" (September 14). The articles below repeated the government's hyped-up claims that "essential supplies" for the health service were running out, while editorials called on the government to "stand firm and force the oil companies to retreat".
The CPB issued a statement, echoed word for word in the Star editorial, demanding that the government take "all lawful steps necessary ... to ensure free movement of oil and petrol" (September 13). However, mindful of the way workers' picket lines have been broken up in the past, it added: "without the use of police violence". Presumably the CPB thinks that polite requests to 'move along' are the best way to deal with "counterrevolution".
This picture of a big business-inspired anti-working class rebellion, with a British Pinochet waiting in the wings, is not very convincing. And the implication that Blair is our Allende is even more ludicrous. Yes, the protests were directed against the government and, yes, it was a case of class against class, but the pathetic CPB misidentifies the classes involved. Tony Blair represents not "democracy and labour", but the bourgeoisie. And it was not the oil companies that were attempting to undermine his government. Why on earth should they? New Labour is serving the interests of capital, including the oil transnationals. There is no necessity to "impose" anything. Acting to some degree as a cartel, they are able to fix prices and rake in the profits almost as they choose. As for counterrevolution, the obvious question is, 'Against whom?'
As Trotsky pointed out, counterrevolution, in the shape of fascism, can draw strength and support from the middle classes, faced with a revolutionary crisis which threatens their livelihoods. But they can also be won to our side - or at least neutralised - if we are sensitive to their needs and fears. That is why the CPGB includes in its immediate programmatic demands the call for the abolition of VAT, the cancellation of small business debts, cheap credit and generous subsidies.
At present the fuel protest has no specifically anti-working class character, although we recognise that the Tories will be seeking to win over the likes of Farmers for Action, and the Hauliers and Farmers Alliance, under their own wing, as part of a reactionary bloc alongside the Countryside Alliance.
So what we witnessed was the movement of an enraged section of the petty bourgeoisie, not a conspiracy led by Esso, Shell, Texaco and BP. True, the role of the oil companies was distinctly ambivalent. As the crisis developed, they remained strangely silent, refusing, with the sole exception of Chris Gibson-Smith, BP's managing director, to give interviews or answer journalists' questions. At the very beginning they used anonymous "industry sources" to leak threats of legal action against the blockaders - threats which of course came to nothing.
It soon became clear, however, that this desire not to "appear confrontational" (The Daily Telegraph September 11) was actually a form of passive collaboration with the protesters. Using greatly exaggerated claims of "intimidation", the companies gave their full blessing to most drivers' refusal to deliver fuel from the refineries. A Shell spokesperson told the press: "Our drivers are concerned about what will happen to them if they try to leave the terminal, and we share their worries."
Around two-thirds of the truckers used by the oil companies are either self-employed or work for small haulage companies, and clearly looked favourably on the protesters' actions. The police too bent over backwards to accommodate the 'sitting pickets' and motorway crawlers, insisting that the entrances to the refineries were not blocked and that the pickets were doing nothing illegal. They were "acting peacefully and within their rights", according to the Association of Chief Police Officers. After Blair issued his 'get tough' instructions to get petrol flowing back to the motorists, the police assured pickets that only fuel for emergency services was being driven out.
Similarly, practically the entire establishment press expressed sympathy for the protest. Polly Toynbee may have talked of a "popular front of Poujardist small businessmen, farmers, cab drivers and truckers ... the militant chamber of commerce" (The Guardian September 13), but she was hardly typical. For the most part it was the undoubted widespread support that the protesters enjoyed that was stressed.
Nevertheless the establishment media was by and large more than a little concerned at the across-the-board disruption. The Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph both called on the government and police to clamp down on those obstructing lawful activity. Far from being in on the plot from the beginning, as Murray claimed, the Telegraph was warning against taking "a leaf out of the French hauliers' book" (September 9). The day before - just as the blockades were beginning - its leader-writer had expressed fears that "peaceable British demonstrators" might "adopt more direct action along French lines" ... if the government raised petrol duty again in the April 2001 budget (September 8).
As for the Tories, it was only when the action was called off that William Hague allowed himself to sing the praises of "the hard-working, law-abiding people" who had protested "with the support of the great mainstream majority of the British people". While promising that the Tories would cut taxes in general, he still did not specifically undertake that this would include petrol duty until the crisis was over - now, after a weekend of deliberations, he promises a 3p reduction. Throughout the crisis the Tories concentrated their fire on the government's "incompetence" and declined to come out openly in favour of the rebellion - creating difficulty for your opponent is one thing, but engaging in disruptive, potentially unconstitutional action from below is for the moment quite another.
It seems that the Tories have reaped the benefit, at least according to latest opinion polls. For the time being they are running neck and neck with Labour. The unexpected spread of 'French' methods across the English Channel has at last knocked New Labour off course and left Blair looking vulnerable.
From our point of view, it is a pity that it was spontaneous petty bourgeois protest, as opposed to organised working class action, which threw Labour into crisis. Nevertheless, there is a lesson to be learnt: if such a movement can spread across European borders so rapidly, then think of what a working class movement, with international coordination, could achieve.
The building of such an international proletarian movement is not merely possible, but essential.