Blair, Jospin: Enforcers of Capitalist Extortion

Fuel Protests Rock Europe

The following article was written for Workers Vanguard by our comrades of the Spartacist League/Britain.

LONDON, September 17—A blockade of oil refineries and depots by protesters brought Britain to the brink of total shutdown in a matter of days and gave vent to the seething anger felt by millions of people against Tony Blair’s Labour government. The protests were called off as Blair moved army fuel tankers into position to break the blockade. Crucially aiding Blair in this was the Labourite Trades Union Congress (TUC) bureaucracy which, meeting at its annual conference at the height of the protests, moved a resolution denouncing the blockades as “a crude attempt to hold the country to ransom.” The protesters have given the government 60 days to meet their demand for lower fuel prices and, while the petrol tankers have started rolling again, Labour’s crisis is far from over. The effects of the blockade will be felt for weeks, while the hatred toward the arrogant Blair government remains.

Protests in Britain followed closely on similar blockades by French truckers and farmers; protests have since erupted throughout Europe and continue to spread from Ireland to Germany and Poland. These actions are hugely popular expressions of opposition to the social-democratic administrations of Blair, France’s Jospin and Germany’s Schröder which, as capitalist governments, seek to jack up the bosses’ bloated profits through devastating attacks on the livelihoods of the working people, dismantling welfare programmes and grinding down the poor. Exorbitant taxes on items such as petrol and diesel fuel are regressive taxes which hit poor and working people hardest. In “rip-off Britain,” fuel prices are higher than anywhere else in Europe. Taxes and duties make up 76 per cent of the price of unleaded petrol, which costs around 80 pence a litre [$4.37 a gallon]. In the past 18 months alone, the cost of petrol has risen by 18 pence a litre. The cost of public transport is astronomical, as is the cost of running a car. In an industrial society, cars are not a luxury but are essential for vast numbers of workers to get to work.

The blockades were initiated and led by farmers organisations and road haulage companies—small and medium-sized capitalist companies, often employers in their own right—who are driven by the need to compete with their rivals in other countries, particularly within the European Union. The protests also enjoyed tacit support from the giant oil corporations, at least at first. While the forces leading this revolt were for the most part petty-bourgeois, the issue at stake—cheaper fuel prices—is clearly in the interests of the working class, as was reflected in the overwhelming support for the protests among the population as a whole.

The attitude of Marxists to such petty-bourgeois mobilizations is based upon the target of the protests and the nature of the demands raised: do they further the interests of the proletariat? In this case, the protests were clearly aimed at the Blair government and indeed the demand is one supportable from a proletarian standpoint. Because of their position in society between the two classes with social power—the capitalists and the working class—groups like the farmers and hauliers will swing widely in their orientation, sometimes militantly protesting alongside the workers and sometimes becoming the recruiting grounds for the fascists.

A revolutionary leadership of the workers movement must seek to take the lead of protests such as these in order to direct them clearly against the real culprit: capitalism and the Labour government which administers it. The fuel crisis is the most acute social crisis Britain has seen since the great miners strike of 1984-85. It has starkly illustrated the venal nature not only of Labour but particularly of the trade-union bureaucracy, which acted as Blair’s partners in crime and played a decisive role in saving the government’s hide.

A tanker drivers strike would transform the protests into a mighty class struggle against the Labour government. It could appeal to rail and all transport workers to strike the railways and the privatised public transport system which is equally hated. Such a mobilisation by the union membership requires implacable opposition to the pro-capitalist trade-union bureaucracy. While the oil blockade used militant tactics, and gentleman farmers were heard to repeat the fashionable phrase “direct action works,” the fundamental question is one of political programme and leadership. Forging a revolutionary proletarian party as the necessary instrument to lead the working class in struggle, committed to nothing less than victorious workers revolution against the whole rotting capitalist system, is the urgent task posed. It is such a party that we in the Spartacist League/ Britain seek to build.

Tony Blair, having been chased around Yorkshire by angry protesters, summoned oil bosses and police chiefs to Downing Street, reportedly demanded they get tough with the protesters and declared on national television that within 24 hours the oil tankers would be back on the roads. In order for Blair’s boast to become a reality, unionised tanker drivers had to drive the tankers out and break the blockade which they had supported until then. Enter the trade-union bureaucrats, whose slavish loyalty to “their” anti-working-class Labour government and the bourgeois order it upholds knows no bounds. Initially, many drivers refused to move oil except for emergency supplies. But the bureaucracy of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) scandalously instructed their members to bring the oil out. A TGWU press release issued 12 September, the same day as Blair’s ultimatum, said: “The Union which represents tanker drivers urged its members to continue working as long as it was safe to do so,” adding “We urge the protesters to remove the blockades and allow our members to resume deliveries.” TGWU general secretary Bill Morris egged on the cops, saying “If they are breaking the law, the protesters should be arrested” (Guardian, 13 September).

According to a report in the Sunday Telegraph (17 September): “While Mr Blair pondered sending in the troops, [finance minister] Mr [Gordon] Brown was attempting a different plan to break the dispute—by using the trade unions.” It goes on: “At the TUC in Glasgow the day before, he had met Bill Morris, the leader of the Transport Union, whose members include many tanker drivers. He convinced him of the need to end the crisis.” [Deputy Prime Minister] John Prescott warned Blair that sending in troops would backfire and would wreck “delicate negotiations taking place that night between trades union leaders and tanker drivers.” Thus, the trade-union bureaucracy was pivotal to the Labour government in defusing the crisis.

Break with Labour!

The depth of the crisis triggered by the oil protests provoked the government into a response which illuminates the workings of the capitalist state and the sinister forces that are arrayed against the working class and its allies in times of social crisis. The police presence at refineries was reinforced, use of troops was prepared and in Essex, tankers leaving a depot had a cop riding shotgun.

Behind the veneer of parliamentary democracy lurks the reality of the repressive British state. The capitalist state, as Lenin explained, consists of special bodies of armed men—the cops and the army—who are committed to the defence of private property. The capitalist state cannot be reformed; the power of the capitalist class must be broken and replaced by a workers state. The Privy Council, presided over by the Queen, met to accord “exceptional powers” to the government to assume control of fuel distribution, including the use of military facilities, for the purposes of breaking the oil blockade. This “private” council of the Queen is composed of current and past ministers and includes Labour “left” Tony Benn. We say: Abolish the monarchy!

The farmers and small haulage firms leading this protest openly espouse national chauvinism, reflecting their economic interests. This was expressed ad nauseam by Brynle Williams, a prominent spokesman for the farmers’ blockade in Cheshire, who said: “We don’t like the idea of Irish drivers coming over here with their cheap diesel then working two or three days and bringing over their cheap meat, robbing us of a living” (Guardian, 12 September). The interest of the working class in contrast lies squarely with the workers of other countries. As protests engulfed France, Britain and Belgium, there was a burning need for proletarian international solidarity in sharp opposition to the anti-French chauvinism promoted also by Blair & Co. The proletarian internationalism seen during the 1984-85 miners strike, when workers from France and other countries raised money for their British comrades and French miners sang the “Internationale” with British miners, is an example of the kind of international class solidarity which is needed. We fight to mobilise workers in opposition to every manifestation of national chauvinism and racism and for full citizenship rights for immigrants.

ICL sections in Britain and France gave no support whatsoever to Blair’s Labour and Jospin’s Socialist-led popular front. This is in stark contrast to fake “socialists” in both countries who helped elect the Blair and Jospin governments and are beholden to them. Jospin’s bourgeois Green coalition partners, in acting as the most hardline opponents of lower petrol taxes, underlined the anti-working-class character of Green environmentalism. Today, a class-struggle fight would galvanise opposition to these anti-working-class, racist governments. The Labour Party is a bourgeois work-ers party—revolutionaries seek to split the working-class base from the pro-capitalist tops and win it to the need for a revolutionary programme and party. From the strikebreaking Labour governments of the 1970s to knifing the heroic miners strike, the Labour Party and the TUC tops are the strategic obstacle to the fight for working-class rule.

TUC general secretary John Monks outrageously compared the fuel protests to the CIA-backed truck drivers mobilisations against the Allende regime in Chile in 1973. Those mobilisations were part of an imperialist “destabilisation” campaign against the popular-front Allende government which culminated in the bloody military coup by General Pinochet and were fundamentally aimed at crushing the Chilean working class in the midst of a prerevolutionary situation. To draw an analogy with popular mobilisations against a Labour-administered capitalist government in Britain today is a measure of the utter fealty of the labour bureaucracy to this government. Blair actually more resembles Pinochet’s fan Margaret Thatcher during the yearlong miners strike and the later poll tax upheaval than Allende.

The reformist left demonstrated their loyalty to Labourism in the course of the protests. The Communist Party’s Morning Star (13 September) opposed the protests and urged Blair: “The government should take all lawful steps necessary—without the use of police violence—to ensure free movement of oil and petrol.” The Socialist Workers Party supported the protests, headlining “Bitterness Explodes in Blair’s Face,” while neglecting to mention that they were “over the moon” when Labour was elected in 1997. And despite some whining about the evils wrought by the Blair government, the SWP is committed in advance to returning it for another term, as SWP honcho Chris Harman has made clear: “Most socialists will be supporting socialist candidates where possible in the next general election, but will still be voting Labour when there is no socialist standing” (Socialist Review, September 2000). Meanwhile they conceal the role of the trade-union bureaucracy behind a front-page headline asking: “Why Won’t Trade Union Leaders Act?” (Socialist Worker, 16 September). But the union bureaucracy did act—predictably, to get the oil flowing again. In addition to Morris’ scabherding, Bill Speirs, general secretary of the Scottish TUC, denounced the protests as a “bosses’ blockade.” This was also the line of the union bureaucracy in France to justify scabbing and to save the Jospin government in its hour of crisis.

Labour Rules for British Imperialism

Oil is not just another commodity; it is the source of more than 40 per cent of the world’s energy. Access to oil is thus of vital strategic importance for modern capitalist states. Ever since the 1920s, control over the Persian Gulf oil fields has given British and American imperialism an enormous strategic advantage over rivals Germany and Japan. London, in alliance with Washington, massacred tens of thousands of Iraqis during the Gulf War in 1991 to secure U.S. and British control of the region’s oil supplies. One and a half million people, including half a million children, have been killed through a starvation embargo. The imperialists continue the slaughter with almost daily bombing raids and sanctions, which prevent Iraqi oil from reaching the world market. If you want cheaper oil, break the blockade of Iraq! We say: Down with the starvation sanctions!

Shaken by the impact and depth of support for the fuel blockades, the Blair government is gearing up for a major confrontation. The Financial Times (16 September), mouthpiece for the City [financial district], editorialised: “Ministers should dig out the files from 1981 when Margaret Thatcher gave in to the miners. She was not prepared; coal stocks were low. But after the 1983 landslide, she was ready and a year later the miners were vanquished.” The Spartacist League fought to extend that strike to rail and the docks and to shut down the country. But although the miners fought militantly and heroically against the forces of the capitalist state, they were betrayed by the treachery of the Labour leaders and the union bureaucracy, while miners leader Arthur Scargill remained tied to the Labour Party. We seek to instill the lessons of that strike into workers’ consciousness so that the working class can go forward to victories.

The action of the petrol tanker drivers almost brought the country to a halt. With petrol pumps running dry, supermarket shelves emptied, banks ran low on cash and rail operators warned that workers would not be able to get to work. This explodes the myth of a “new economy” according to which “global” capitalism operates in virtual reality and goods are moved around the country by the click of a mouse. The capitalist economy is dependent on the labour of the proletariat and on fuel which is delivered by tanker drivers.

The working class is the only force which has the power, the social cohesion and the direct interest in defeating the attacks of the government. This must be linked to a struggle to overthrow the entire system of class exploitation, national oppression, racism and war, a system Labour upholds with a vengeance. Large numbers of workers who face plant closures, privatisation and racist attacks are itching to engage in some militant class struggle of their own. We seek to build a party committed to leading the proletariat in socialist revolution to expropriate the capitalist class, including the oil companies, and to construct a planned socialist economy.

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