Sixty-day deadline nears

Petty bourgeois revolt and the politics of Blairism

"Something new is surely happening in British politics," wrote Jack Conrad in connection with last month's fuel blockades (Weekly Worker September 14). The comrade was absolutely correct. The September events represented a strikingly new departure from the norms of recent British political history. We saw an embittered, enraged and in part despairing petty bourgeoisie taking to the streets in a direct challenge to the power and authority of the government.

It was not just a revolt over fuel taxes, but also an expression of a deep sense of betrayal. Here, after all, is the class that once formed the social base of Thatcherism: law-abiding, hard-working, viscerally conservative. Thousands of their number went under during the last recession, many more barely survived it.

Such has always been the fate of small capital in bad times. No wonder, therefore, that after Britain's forced departure from the ERM, these traditional adherents of Toryism saw 'their' party as exhausted and incompetent. The scale of Labour's landslide victory in the general election of 1997 demonstrates that many of them chose to put their trust in Tony Blair.

Despite boom conditions for big business, they came under increasing pressure: not just from fuel costs, but from the effects of a strong pound, 'unfair' foreign competition and other objective economic and financial factors. Their demand for urgent help fell on deaf ears. Labour has either ignored them, or, in the case of farmers, treated them with undisguised contempt and hostility.

Where are they to turn? To a Conservative Party that - itself divided and shambolic - they perceive as unelectable? Notwithstanding the cornucopia of electoral bribes that will be forthcoming from chancellor Brown, some will no doubt return to the Tory fold, but with scant expectation of victory. It is, in the opinion of this writer, precisely the absence of a viable alternative within the normal framework of parliamentary democracy that has led the petty bourgeoisie to take the extra-parliamentary road of direct action. It may turn out to be a limited and temporary phenomenon, but even if that proves to be the case, it is nonetheless something that raises a number of important questions for Marxists. If it persists and takes on new forms, perhaps with a mass character, it must surely impinge on every aspect of our work - on theory, practice and programme.

Our task at this juncture is twofold: first, to locate the political character of the fuel revolt; secondly, to re-examine our theoretical positions in relation to the petty bourgeoisie as a class.

Before doing so, however, let us briefly review the facts. In the space of only a few days, a tiny, spontaneous coalition of small business interests - farmers, hauliers, taxi drivers and so forth - operating with no formal leadership or programme and employing very rudimentary forms of organisation managed to cause massive disruption to fuel distribution. Panic buying - not just of petrol, but also of food and other essentials - created an atmosphere of acute tension and served to remind us of the essential fragility of the infrastructure of society - a valuable lesson.

For the government, it was a genuine crisis, an event that tore down the facade of New Labour's invincibility and competence. Behind it we saw a new Blair. Gone was the asinine grin, replaced by a look of bewilderment and a tinge of fear. All the prime minister could do was try to shuffle off responsibility, order the oil companies to sort things out and rush off to the privy council for emergency powers, including the use of force, to break the protests.

Such powers were not needed. With a display of tactical sure-handedness that had marked their conduct of the whole campaign, emerging leaders like farmers Brynle Williams and David Handley of Farmers for Action, knew when it was time to call a halt, before losing the high level of support they had gained from the general public and risking a head-on confrontation with the state. Such support was hardly surprising, given the fact that once the protests began to bite, their content was transformed by sections of the media from a fight for sectional interests into a general struggle to bring down fuel taxes for all motorists.

Williams and Handley are interesting figures. Both run small family farms and have experience of direct action dating back to 1997, during the BSE crisis, when farmers besieged the port of Holyhead in a successful attempt to block the importation of Irish beef. The scale of the recent protests was unprecedented, but the tactic itself of blockading distribution depots has been used before, during the 'beef wars' and also against depots run by Tesco and Express Dairies, in protest at the low farmgate prices paid by the big supermarkets for milk.

Williams, Handley and other activists have emerged as unelected leaders during the course of struggle rather than having been elected, but there is no doubt that they command the respect of the protesters. They claim not to be interested in party politics. Williams, for example, states that, "The Labour Party has done some sterling work. There's no two ways about it. The same as the Tories have done, and the Liberals and the Welsh nationalists" (The Times September 26). What they are interested in, and passionately, is trying to win government support for a farming industry currently suffering catastrophic losses, and lobbying on a range of other issues affecting small businesses and communities in the countryside - bureaucratic, heavy-handed treatment of small to medium-sized abattoirs vital to local food markets, poor and rapidly deteriorating rural transport, widescale closures of post offices and the like.

Significantly, perhaps, when asked what he would become if he could no longer farm, Williams answered "probably a politician"; in fact he acknowledges that he has already become a politician in a "very peculiar way" and is conscious of the power he can exercise. His values centre on "the family" and on "democracy". Questioned as to how he would react to military intervention in the event of further blockades, he asks in turn: "Where do you draw the line ... do you bring them in every time there is a protest ... If we are going down this avenue ... do we need elections any more?" (ibid.). It would be interesting to hear his views about the 1984-85 miners' strike.

Certainly, the Stanlow oil refinery was a million miles from Orgreave. From the outset, the protesters behaved with firmness but restraint. It was made clear that fuel for emergency services would not be stopped. The attitude of the police was astonishing. "The government and police have to respect the fact that these protests seem to have widespread public support," said Kevin Morris, president-elect of the Police Superintendents' Association. Sir John Evans, retiring president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, emphasised "the need to balance the rights of protesters against the rights of others".

The atmosphere outside Stanlow and elsewhere was for the most part good-natured, even cordial, and there was not a single arrest. Some oil depot canteens provided the blockaders with food and drink, and tanker drivers were seen to be forming good relations with the farmers and hauliers on the other side of the fence.

There were, however, grossly exaggerated stories of intimidation, vandalism and criminal acts, in what would appear to be a concerted attempt by the government and trade union bosses to employ smear tactics in order to discredit the activists.

Of course, claims that the oil companies actively furthered the success of the blockades by dissuading tanker drivers from leaving their depots may have some truth in them. A run on supplies at the pumps may have offered a short-term commercial gain. But there were genuine issues of safety to be taken into account. A collision between an oil tanker and one of the blockaders' vehicles could have had catastrophic consequences.

The main point of interest, however, is the approach taken by the police. It would appear that, with direct action coming from the right and enjoying widespread public support, then the police force was prepared to adopt an acquiescent stance. Decisions must have been taken at a high level within the relevant forces in what amounted to an intensely political situation. Another lesson for the future, perhaps, although the government has since evidently brought chief police officers back into line.

As we go to press, there are some 18 days left before the blockaders' 60-day deadline for government action expires. It is clear that the government, actively abetted by trade union tops like Bill Morris of the TGWU, is intent on using a combination of carrot and stick to ensure that the authority of the state is upheld in the face of a possible resumption of direct action.

The carrot will take the form of partial concessions, to be announced in the chancellor's autumn budget statement. Blair has reassured big capital that "We will meet the demands we can, but only within the strict bounds of what is prudent" (The Daily Telegraph October 20). There has been talk, for example, of an across-the-board cut of £50 in vehicle excise duty for cars up to 1800cc. Such a move would obviously be popular with millions of motorists and would be likely to dampen any support they might give to 'extremist' farmers and haulage operators.

The more establishment-minded bodies such as the Freight Transport Association and the National Farmers Union (which notably declined to back the farmers involved in the blockades) have held a number of meetings with ministers and can be expected to toe a conciliatory line.

A significant reduction in tax on white diesel would buy off many of the haulage companies, whose 420,000 heavy goods vehicles over 3.5 tons form the basis of the country's road transport infrastructure. It would also reduce farmers' costs in transporting food to market on public roads, but it is difficult to see this government doing anything to tackle the problem of the price of red diesel used in tractors, combines and other farm machinery. They point out, correctly, that the price of red is around 24p per litre, as against 89p at the pumps, but omit to mention that red has increased very significantly in price over the last year, in many cases destroying already wafer-thin profit margins across the farming sector.

The intention is obviously to split the ad hoc coalition of small business interests that formed itself, after September, into the People's Fuel Lobby. It is interesting to note that, rather than calling for a renewal of blockades, the PFL has changed tack and announced a mass rally to be held in Hyde Park on November 13. The situation, however, remains fluid and much will depend on the details of any putative aid package.

The more sinister aspect of the government's attempt to restore its authority can be seen in orchestrated moves last week to condemn what they called "fuel thuggery". Weeks after the event, some 200 reports of intimidation, supposedly logged at the time by oil companies and the TGWU, were collated by the government's so-called fuel task force. Clearly, the oil companies' elbows have been twisted to provide Jack Straw with ammunition. Straw tells us that "The protesting went beyond the bounds of a peaceful protest and ended, in a few cases, at straightforward thuggery ... It was not a peaceful protest, as some of them persuaded us it was. The kind of action that took place last time is quite intolerable" (ibid. my emphasis).

In a clear attempt to put across the notion that the police have been firmly brought back 'on message', the Association of Chief Police Officers promises that policing of any new protests would be more "vigorous" and that "we are determined that blockades and intimidation will be dealt with very firmly".

The response of David Handley, on behalf of FFA and PFL, was that the reports of intimidation and "thuggery" were "absolute and utter rubbish. If it was true, why has it taken so long for these people to come out and tell anybody? There is something sinister here. In view of the way the T&G leadership supported the government during the blockades, you have to ask what is going on?" (The Times October 21). "What is going on" is quite plain to see. The government means to marginalise any protesters bold enough to renew direct action and, if necessary, to use force to put down any new revolts by the petty bourgeoisie.

It is, of course, the class character of the September events that is of great interest to us as Marxists. What analysis has so far been forthcoming from the left?

From the Communist Party of Britain's Morning Star we heard a dark tale of a right wing conspiracy to bring down the Blair government. It seems that this canard originated with some remarks by TUC general secretary John Monks: "Let me remind you of the other occasion that trucks and lorries were used by the self-employed and the far right to attack democracy. That was in Chile in 1973 - and it started the chain of events that brought down the Allende government."

Monks used this bizarre and totally unhistorical 'parallel' as a basis for calling on all trade unions to give their full support to the government. Quite why the oil companies and big capital in general should want to be rid of Blair was never explained, but it says a great deal about the ideological and moral bankruptcy of the 'communist' Morning Star and of the trade union bossocracy that they should be so ardent in defence of the most business-friendly, anti-working class Labour government in history.

If Monks's reference to the "far right" was meant to refer to such organisations as the British National Party, it is interesting to note that when representatives of that organisation tried to get involved in the blockades, they were told to fuck off by the farmers. But what Monks was probably referring to was the Conservative Party. Here is as good a place as any to deal with that aspect of the fuel crisis.

It is correct to say that some influential commentators in Tory papers such as The Daily Telegraph and particularly the Daily Mail gave vocal support to the protests from the very beginning. It was, after all, the Daily Mail that played the major role in instigating this summer's abortive 'dump the pump' initiative. But the Tory Party machine itself was quite obviously just as taken aback by the scale and effectiveness of the blockades as were their counterparts in Downing Street. The instinctive reaction of Hague and Portillo, in the face of such a 'national emergency', was initially to close ranks with the government and confine themselves to statesman-like utterances. They were evidently afraid at this stage of being associated with this kind of direct action, the consequences of which were totally unpredictable.

For this they were severely criticised (quite correctly, from the right's point of view) by the Tory press. It was only later that Hague dubbed the protesters "fine upstanding citizens ... hard-working, law-abiding people" with "the support of the great mainstream" and later still that the Conservative leadership made its opportunistic promise to lower the rate of tax on fuel.

Since then, of course, the Tories have belatedly managed to get their ducks in a row and become somewhat more proactive on the issue. Last weekend, for example, activists were mobilised in some 300 town centres in a campaign to collect signatures for a protest petition against high fuel taxes - also a useful way of acquiring a database of potential electoral support.

Where the future is concerned, surely the most significant aspect of the Tory papers' treatment of the protests was the way in which influential journalists like Leo McKinstry gave active and positive endorsement to the tactic of direct, extra-parliamentary action. He told readers of the Daily Mail that, "We could learn from the French in showing a greater willingness to challenge our political masters." These were, of course, the same "French" whom the paper, along with John Prescott, for that matter, had chauvinistically condemned a few days before for interfering with the transport of British produce. Describing the British blockaders' actions as being "the lifeblood of democracy", he drew a clear distinction between such 'good' manifestations of popular revolt and the 'bad', as represented by the miners' strike, CND demonstrations and so forth, which constitute "only violent mob rule, disrespect for the law and ultimately anarchy" (September 11).

There could hardly be a clearer example of the Tory right's willingness to encourage direct action by the petty bourgeoisie in order to destabilise a Labour government, but it hardly constitutes a 'conspiracy'. Rather it attests to the fact that the Conservative press, like the party itself, is already preparing for parliamentary defeat at the next election and that other forms of action must now be contemplated.

The lunacy of the CPB/Morning Star was demonstrated in its attempt to depict the fuel protests as a kind of top-down conspiracy from the right. At the opposite extreme, we found the Socialist Party trying - desperately, it has to be said - to convince us that the same protests were evidence of a resurgence of grassroots activism on the left. This subject was dealt with exhaustively by comrade Peter Manson in a recent issue in which he analysed Peter Taaffe's recent lengthy article, 'A turning point for Britain' (see Weekly Worker September 28).

Given the importance of trying to understand the real class character of the September events, it is worthwhile briefly reminding ourselves of Taaffe's case - yet another pointless attempt at the artificial resuscitation of his group's already decomposing corpse - if only to show how a combination of despair, wishful thinking and sheer mulish stubbornness can produce 'theory' that is totally out of touch with objective reality. Even Taaffe does not have the stomach to pretend that the protesters were members of the working class. Instead he indulges in Jesuitical equivocation of a most unconvincing kind.

It is true, he graciously concedes, that "the movement initially had a large element of middle class protesters - farmers, hauliers, etc - in its ranks. But this was by no means the whole picture. There was a strong 'plebeian' element; small business people linked up to owner-drivers as well as lorry drivers employed by the oil companies, some with trade union consciousness" (my emphasis, The Socialist September 22).

Let us be charitable and assume that the comrade's feeble categories betray not a fundamental ignorance, but an effort, for his own reasons, to throw sand in the eyes of the working class. What are we to make of "middle class", and worse still, "plebeian"? "Farmers and hauliers" fall into the former category, but "small business people" into the latter. What really gives the game away, however, is the contention that "some" of the tanker drivers had "trade union consciousness". We can safely assume that Bill Morris - a class traitor and Blairite arse-licker - has "trade union consciousness" too. So what?

Nothing in Taaffe's four pages gives any indication that he is either able or willing to come to grips with the complexities of the problem. Instead we have a febrile attempt, yet again, to conjure up an image of Britain on the verge of economic and social collapse.

Hence the ludicrous assertion that "This movement had some of the features of a general strike, or near general strike" (ibid.). There is, of course, a truth in the comrade's point that the fuel blockades demonstrated the fragility of the infrastructure underlying bourgeois society; that the effect of the protests should lead us to reflect on "the colossal potential power of the working class, even of small but decisive sections of the working class". True, but irrelevant - at least so far as contemporary reality is concerned. To use a modish piece of psycho-babble, the comrade is evidently 'in denial'. He cannot bring himself to accept that - for the time being at least - the working class has effectively disappeared from the political stage.

Finally, we must take note of the position adopted by the Socialist Workers Party. To begin with, it suggested confusion and irrational exuberance. Initially, the working class was exhorted to "Get the French spirit" and "make the bosses quake" (Socialist Worker September 9), perhaps a reflection of comrade Chris Bambery's well-known infatuation with any manifestation of militancy across the channel, regardless of its objective class content. Soon, however, the paper warned that, although the fuel blockades represented "a further sign of the potential for British people to act like the French, to adopt the most militant methods and to defy the law", "they are also a warning and a challenge to the left. They show that not all outbursts of anger at the government are automatically leftwing" (Socialist Worker September 23).

The reality was evidently dawning, and all credit to the SWP for taking this a stage further and publishing the article 'What attitude do socialists take?' by comrade Hassan Mahamdallie (Socialist Worker September 30), a thoughtful essay on the place of the petty bourgeoisie in contemporary politics, with some very useful statistical material. We can take issue with the political conclusions that comrade Mahamdallie derives from his study and with some of his formulations, but his piece represents a useful contribution to debate and a good starting point for our own brief review of Marxian theory on the subject of the petty bourgeoisie.

The comrade begins by stating that "these small businessmen and the self-employed belong to a social group known as the 'petty bourgeoisie', from the French for 'small capitalists'". Good. Unlike those who talk airily of the 'middle class' and 'plebeians' - terms that are effectively meaningless outside a specific socio-economic context - comrade Mahamdallie, like a good Marxist, roots his definition in the concrete social relations of the capitalist mode of production. But his formulation is not quite correct. Capitalists - big or small - make their living not just by investing in the means of production, but - crucially - by purchasing human labour-power in the market and extracting surplus labour to generate surplus value.

It has to be admitted that Marx and Engels themselves, especially when writing in English or French, often use the terms "petty bourgeoisie" and "small capitalists" interchangeably. In the German, however, their is a significant distinction. What we might call the petty bourgeoisie proper (die Kleinbürgerschaft, or das Kleinbürgertum) consists of those who live by exercising their own labour on means of production which they themselves own. In this context ownership of the means of production has a broad connotation. They can in fact be leased, rented or whatever, but the key thing is that the petty bourgeois uses their capital to acquire this ownership and then exercises their labour on the means of production thus acquired.

The 'small capitalists' or 'small bourgeoisie' (die kleine Bürgerschaft), however, consists of those who live, like all capitalists, by purchasing the labour-power of others. The distinction may seem at first sight to be a fine one, and one must obviously make the point, known to all of us from practical experience, that the two categories often shade into one another. The petty bourgeois who do well for themselves will soon hire enough labour to extend their business; the petty bourgeois who fail, as so many of them do, will have no choice but to sell their own labour-power and thus enter the ranks of the working class. This tension and contradiction within the category of petty bourgeois has profound political implications and consequences, and it will soon become apparent why the point has specific relevance to the participants in the fuel blockades.

In so far as they do not sell their labour-power to a capitalist, the petty bourgeois are always self-employed. In Marx's day, the category was applied to those engaged in small-scale production or in small trade - craftsmen, artisans, shopkeepers, etc, with most emphasis characteristically being placed on the distribution of commodities rather than their production.

Today, with the burgeoning of the service sector, countless examples of petty bourgeois economic activity can be cited. Comrade Mahamdallie tells us: "Of the 3.7 million businesses in 1999, over 2.3 million [some 62% - MM] were 'size class zero' ... those made up of sole traders or partners without employees." Leaving aside statistical distortions, a good five million people fall into the categories of the self-employed petty bourgeoisie or small capitalists, a figure that has doubled in the last two decades.

One must emphasise at this point that the urban petty bourgeoisie has its direct counterpart in the countryside, in the form of what Marxism classically refers to as the peasantry. The word has become so degenerated in the English language - where 'peasant' is now no more than a pejorative term - that it can no longer be used. But it is evident that, in Marxian terms, quite apart from the rural proletariat, who sell their labour to farmers, related agrobusinesses, hunts, shoots and other country sports, we do indeed have a rural petty bourgeoisie: i.e., that sizeable class of small farmers, who characteristically work their 'own' land (sometimes owned directly, but very frequently rented from private landowners or county councils) with their own labour and that of a few family members. To the extent that they pay their sons and daughters wages, they become small capitalists proper, but now is not the time to discuss how many angels dance on that particular pinhead.

A combination of ignorance and deep-rooted political antagonism has led many Marxists virtually to ignore the problem posed by the rural petty bourgeoisie in particular (and the rural proletariat, for that matter), and the whole petty bourgeois stratum in general.

Conscious of it or not, they take up a kind of Lassallean leftism, that writes off the petty bourgeoisie as 'one reactionary mass', deemed irredeemably antagonistic and objectively an enemy of the working class and of socialism.

Such a mechanical approach inevitably ignores the fact that in their very economic existence, the petty bourgeois are a living contradiction. The small amount of capital at their disposal leads them to share in the social position of the bourgeoisie, but the real insecurity of their existence tends towards sharing in the conditions of the proletariat.

As an intermediary stratum, the petty bourgeoisie suffers figuratively from a kind of split personality, squeezed between capital and labour: above, the pressure of competition from bigger and more efficient capitals, combined with the tendency of government and the big bourgeoisie to focus on the gains to be achieved by the concentration and globalisation of capital; below, the threat of assimilation, or re-assimilation, into the working masses, loss of independence and a descent into the social abyss. The petty bourgeoisie finds itself torn in two opposite directions: as property owners, they identify their economic and political interests with those of the bourgeoisie, the ruling class - hence their generic conservatism; but on the other hand, experience of the crushing realities of the capitalist system endows them - at least in embryo - with proletarian consciousness.

It is precisely this profound economic and social contradiction which, in great part, lay behind the anger and frustration that motivated the fuel blockades. Let us just take the farming sector as an example. According to figures from the accountants Deloitte and Touche, farmers' incomes have fallen by 90% over the last five years, to the point where the real take-home income from a typical 500-acre holding now stands at around £8,000 a year, a figure that, when adjusted, is lower than at any time since the 1930s and is way below the current average for an industrial worker. Over the last year alone, the industry has shed more than 22,000 jobs. Unemployment on this scale in any other sector would have provoked massive protest, even from the supine unions who sit beneath Blair's table, begging for crumbs. Yet nothing has been heard from them; nothing has been done. Small wonder, therefore, that the rural petty bourgeoisie, and their counterparts in the towns, feel impelled to take to the streets.

Some will no doubt say, 'So what?' Are not these people, like the owner-driver hauliers, the cabbies and such like, just 'one reactionary mass', merely intent on enriching themselves? The answer, for the most part, to this question is 'no', on several counts. In the first place, honesty and common sense should compel us to acknowledge that the concrete politics of the petty bourgeoisie are often subjectively no more 'reactionary' than those of the broad mass of the proletariat. That, sad to say, is a plain facet of the period of reaction in which we are living. To pretend otherwise would merely be self-deception. As for self-enrichment, most of the petty bourgeoisie are intent on doing the same as everybody else, the working class included: namely, trying to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.

Does this imply a desire to 'merge' the economic, social and political interests of the working masses with those of the petty bourgeoisie? Does it suggest that a movement, even a mass movement, led by the petty bourgeoisie can ipso facto be transformed into a force capable of fighting for socialism? No, comrades, it does not.

As Marxists, we know that to permanently win over the petty bourgeoisie as a class to our socialist goals is not feasible. The petty bourgeoisie, especially in times of economic slump or social crisis, can be recruited as an ally against the interests of big capital, but we are not blind to the enduring, if ambivalent, self-identification of the petty bourgeoisie with capitalism itself. If the fuel protesters, like their French counterparts, get what they want, they will go away - until the next time. So much is clear.

Yet, if only as a matter of expediency - let alone of principle - it seems clear that we must stand up for programmatic demands that, in their awareness of the needs and fears of the petty bourgeoisie, are capable at least of bringing them over to our side, albeit temporarily. The alternative is simply to leave them to the right and extreme right. The historical lessons of that approach are so well known as to need no reiteration. It was the artisans, shopkeepers and small producers, the peasants and small farmers, who, in their despair at the consequences of hyper-inflation and social disintegration, brought Adolf Hitler to the chancellery.

It seems to this writer self-evident, that, as communists, we need a programme that includes specific, economic and democratic demands that will serve to improve the lot of small farmers, small businesses and the self-employed in general.

And, of course, the Communist Party of Great Britain argues for a set of immediate programmatic demands, including the abolition of VAT, the cancellation of small business debts and mortgages, cheap credit and generous subsidies. As communists, we also struggle for the rounded development of all human beings, a long term fight which necessitates the abolition of the present-day distinction between urban and rural living. In practice this means, the end of rural deserts and commuter villages; the abolition of concrete jungles and urban sprawls; a countryside served by frequent transport; a distribution of industry, population and food production that is rational, shortening the distance between the point of production and consumption in a way that must put an end to the profligate use of finite resources in the haulage sector.

All this can only be achieved through a society where, not production for profit, but production on the basis of need, production geared to a central, democratic plan, becomes a reality.

Michael Malkin