The politics of revenge are understandable, but futile, argues Peter Manson. It is not individual representatives of capitalism that need getting: it is capitalism itself
“Rejoice!” reads the Socialist Worker front-page headline under a picture of a blood-spattered tombstone (April 13). Inside there is a “Thatcher’s dead” four-page pull-out showing the former prime minister’s head in a noose and the slogan, “Now get the rest”.
But it seems to have escaped the notice of our Socialist Workers Party comrades that we did not “get” Margaret Thatcher - with or without the aid of a noose. She died peacefully in her suite in London’s Ritz Hotel, having enjoyed a luxurious retirement, as far as her increasingly poor health and frailty permitted.
So what exactly have we got to “rejoice” about? Does Thatcher’s death signal the end of the ruling class offensive? With her out of the way, can we now celebrate a renewed and confident mobilisation of our forces and look forward to the final end of the vile system she symbolised?
Yet the bourgeoisie are in a sense celebrating. They are celebrating not only the life of one of their greatest heroes, but their belief that, thanks in no small part to this intransigent class fighter, the system of capital appears so much more secure - not just in Britain, but throughout the world. Despite the unresolved economic crisis - which exposed that system yet again as pathetically fragile and incapable of being fully controlled - right now capitalism has nothing to fear in the way of a viable alternative. The occasion of Thatcher’s death is being used to ram home that undeniable fact.
Of course, it is perfectly understandable that those who were at the sharp end of Thatcher’s class-war attacks should express satisfaction that she is no more - even though, obviously, she has not existed politically, except in terms of her legacy, for well over two decades. But elements of the media have seemed to revel in this spontaneous, but impotent gut reaction from class-conscious workers. For example, Dave Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners Association, who turned 70 on the day Thatcher died, is quoted by The Daily Telegraph as saying: “It looks like one of the best birthdays I have ever had … It’s a great day for all the miners” (April 9).
You can picture the smug faces among Telegraph editorial staff members as they reproduced such comments amongst the pages of tributes. For them it merely confirms the rout suffered by our class at Thatcher’s hands. However, there is a big difference between such a gut reaction and what you might expect from the would-be proletarian vanguard.
But the SWP will have none of it: “It’s right to celebrate the death of someone rotten,” reads one of the headlines in the pull-out. At the same time, however, Socialist Worker seems to imply that she was not that much more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill Tory leader: “In reality Thatcher was much less successful than she often seems.” Not that much to celebrate, after all, then. Although “Thatcher unleashed a brutal ruling class offensive against ordinary people”, the same article concludes, “the fact that she was forced out reflected the weakness of British capitalism, not its strength”.
But the establishment thinks otherwise. In the words of prime minister David Cameron, “Margaret Thatcher took a country that was on its knees and made Britain stand tall again … She didn’t just lead our country: she saved it.”
His was not just the usual, platitudinous, ‘never speak ill of the dead’-type eulogy. His words were sincere and passionate. He is old enough to remember that Thatcher took on and saw off all the main union battalions in the 1980s - the steel workers, seafarers, printers and, of course, the miners, whose heroic, year-long 1984-85 strike ended in a strategic defeat for the whole working class.
She not only closed down the ‘unproductive’ mines: the same treatment was meted out to other state-owned industries at the cost of thousands of jobs and the wrecking of whole communities. Not just because those industries were ‘inefficient’ or ‘uncompetitive’, but because the unions that organised within them were powerful both within each workplace and in terms of overall British politics. Whereas previous Conservative post-war governments could usually be relied upon to reach an eventual compromise when faced with militant strikes, Thatcher was determined to end what she saw as the ‘humiliating’ practice of conceding to ‘industrial blackmail’.
Not that she rushed into the planned strategic confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers. Before her re-election in the May 1983 general election, she talked about wanting “the chance to banish from our land the dark, divisive clouds of Marxist socialism”. And she was well into her second term as premier when she finally gave the go-ahead for that confrontation to begin through the provocative announcement of a comprehensive pit-closure programme. In the meantime the National Coal Board had built up a huge stockpile of coal. Despite the determination of the miners under Arthur Scargill, they could not win without the support and real solidarity of other unions or their members - support that was not forthcoming in any real sense.
It was in the middle of this epic battle, in July 1984, that Thatcher uttered her notorious phrase about “the enemy within”, which is “much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty” than the “enemy without” - such as Argentina, whose invasion of the Falklands had been defeated two years earlier by the British taskforce.
After the strategic defeat of the NUM, union power was drastically reduced - not just in terms of the anti-union legislation, but in terms of membership. When Thatcher won her first election in 1979, official union membership stood at around 12 million. A decade later it had been halved, thanks not only to the decimation of industries like coalmining, but also to the impact of privatisation and of measures such as the ban on the closed shop. The number of ‘days lost’ to strikes fell from a peak of 29 million in 1979 to a few hundred thousand by 2000.
That is why it is the establishment that is (still) celebrating. As Charles Moore crows in The Daily Telegraph, Thatcher was “the only British Conservative leader since the war who beat the left again and again” (April 9). By “the left” he means the unions and the working class, of course, but by the 90s the actual left, at least as a force within the Labour Party, had been marginalised. The 1994 election of Tony Blair as leader was the response of the unions to four successive Tory governments (although Thatcher herself had been replaced by John Major in 1990). In desperation the union barons went for this so-called ‘moderniser’ in the belief that at least he would be better than the Conservatives.
However, unsurprisingly, Blair has been almost as fulsome in his praise of Thatcher as senior Tories. Even though he was on the “left”, he said, he recognised her as a “remarkable and towering figure”. He confessed: “I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them.” He gave as examples the new “trade union framework” (anti-union laws to you and me) and the “privatisation of certain industries”. Thatcher was the main global instigator of privatisation - a policy that was not only aimed at delivering profitable utilities to capital, but also breaking up the strength of the unions in their nationalised strongholds. But when you hear Blair speak today, you cannot help but wonder what even the union leaders who used their block vote to elect him think now of that desperate act in 1994.
‘Fall of communism’
Clearly, it was not Argentina that was the main example of “the enemy without”. Nor was it the Irish Republican Army - after all, Northern Ireland, where the IRA was conducting its armed struggle with British imperialism, was considered by her to be absolutely part of the United Kingdom. Thatcher was hated by republicans for her ruthless suppression of Irish self-determination. In 1981 she was happy to see 10 IRA political prisoners, including Bobby Sands, die after a long hunger strike for recognition of their political status.
Political prisoners had to be treated as ‘common criminals’ (although, unlike common criminals, many of them had been sentenced by no-jury courts). According to Thatcher, “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political.” At the height of the conflict she ludicrously banned the voices of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, from television - broadcasters used actors to speak their words, which were dubbed over the images.
But, as I have said, it was neither Argentina nor the IRA that was considered the “enemy without”. That title undoubtedly went to the Soviet Union. It is Thatcher, together with US president Ronald Reagan, who is credited with the undermining of the USSR and the subsequent ‘fall of communism’ in 1989-91. Of course, the demise of the USSR had much more to do with its own internal dynamics than Margaret Thatcher’s intransigence - although she did spot that president Mikhail Gorbachev was a “man to do business with”.
At the time, however, it seemed to many bourgeois commentators as though the global power of capitalism had been permanently secured, never again to face a serious challenge. Not only had the working class been set back industrially in advanced capitalist countries, thanks to the neoliberal assault and privatisation: the main alternative it still upheld - that of Stalinism or bureaucratic socialism - was destroyed. It is Thatcher who is revered for her role in both.
In the words of Barack Obama, she was one of the “great champions of freedom and liberty” - freedom and liberty for the bourgeoisie, he means.
That is why we should not remember Thatcher as “the woman who tore Britain apart” (Morning Star April 9) - someone should point out to these ‘official communists’ that Britain was and remains a class-divided society. No, she was a true hero of British capital and the global bourgeoisie.
The left should neither play down Thatcher’s achievements on behalf of British (and global) capital nor celebrate her death as a victory. The truth is, the bourgeoisie is rampant and preparing for further assaults. Instead the left needs to learn from Margaret Thatcher: the working class needs its own leaders and organisations prepared to fight for their class as determinedly as she did for hers.