Why is it that despite class struggle being on the up, we’re also witnessing a wave of racist violence against refugees? Many on the left assumed the rising levels of class struggle would mean divisive ideas such as racism would be forced into retreat automatically.
After all, when people are fighting back, they need allies, not more enemies. It’s true that strikes are one of the most important weapons in an anti-racist armoury. Because they disrupt the “normal” functioning of the system, strikes offer an opportunity to break the hold of right wing ideas about society.
When people are in struggle they are far more open to new ideas. They’re far more willing to confront contradictions in their own thinking than when they are passive. In the biggest and most important battles, people can go far further and gain a sense of their collective power.
They can come to see themselves and their colleagues in a new light—and make connections between their own battles and those of others. That’s why it is common to see banners of different unions and community groups together on a picket line.
Strikes open the door to arguments against division. That is a good reason why they are so crucial to a socialist vision of how society might be radically changed.
Nevertheless, there are important reasons why even big strikes cannot by themselves deal with racism in wider society. First, class struggle in most circumstances is uneven. While the number of strike days is already the highest since 1989, the vast majority of workers in Britain have not taken action.
Many of them will doubtless cheer the pickets. But others will ignore the strikes, and a minority will even oppose them. That means there are large sections of workers that have not absorbed lessons about the nature of collective power and the need for unity.
Many workers will still be hit hard by plummeting living standards, falling wages and rising poverty, and feel that there is no way out. These people are far more likely to fall for the right wing propaganda spewed about migrants.
Second, it matters that, so far, none of the major strikes has yet broken through and forced the Tories into a retreat. When strikes win they demonstrate to the whole of the working class that standing together and showing solidarity is the best way to improve our lives.
They create a reservoir of working class confidence. But stalemate, compromise and defeat can spread the opposite message—the demoralising idea that resistance is futile.
Racism feeds on such periods of disenchantment. Third, even in big and important strikes, there are no guarantees that leading militants have tried to raise questions of racism and other threats to working class unity.
Some will think it best to keep politics to a low level and instead concentrate on the immediate needs of the strike. That means the wider lesson of class unity can be lost on those that fought.
It is for this reason that the Socialist Workers Party puts so much emphasis on raising political questions on picket lines. As well as discussion about what tactics are necessary to win disputes, we want workers to discuss big and important issues beyond the strike itself.
Not only does that raise the ideological level on the picket line, but it is also a way to strengthen the wider workers’ movement. Important examples of this approach come from Britain in the 1970s.
Back then union power was at its height. At the beginning of the decade, militant strikes led by the rank and file were commonplace and often won quickly. By the middle of the 70s the picture was more complex, but still, there were far more strikes than today.
But alongside the militancy there was a rising tide of racism. Not only were the fascists of the National Front advancing with boots on the ground and votes in the ballot box, but racist poison also seemed to be everywhere.
It was common to hear even shop stewards talking about black and Asian migrant workers being used by the bosses to undermine wages. They even argued that unions should try to keep them out of the workplace.
What changed the situation for the better was the arrival of new forms of working class anti-racism. Asian workers were in the vanguard of many strikes that spread throughout Britain’s industrial heartlands, standing on its head the idea that they were management dupes.
And, a fresh layer of trade union activists began to see anti-racism as a vital part of building workers’ power and confidence in the factories, offices and mines. They made it their business to raise the fight against racism at every opportunity and fought to bring their workmates to demonstrations and to Asian workers’ picket lines.
On occasion, some went further and walked out on strike to join migrant workers fighting for their rights. Starting as a small minority, these forces came together spectacularly towards the end of the decade at the Grunwick strike in west London.
Together they helped shift the ideas that dominated the unions and, in turn, had a big impact on wider society. Workplace struggles were not the only way the new spirit of anti-racism expressed itself. But they played a crucial role in insulating organised labour from the clutches of the far right.
Then and now, some on the left prefer to sidestep the divisions in the working class. Instead, they hope a policy of radical reforms that improve pay, housing and health will be enough to pull the rug from underneath the racists.
A consequence of that idea is that if there is a rise in racism, it is likely the failure of the left to make better the economic issues at the heart of most workers’ grievances. But that is to misunderstand the form and function of racism in capitalist society.
Bigotry does not arise naturally from the terrible conditions people are forced to live in, and it is not necessarily eroded if those circumstances improve. In the mid-1960s, for example, jobs were plentiful, and hundreds of thousands of new council houses were built every year.
Yet the racism experienced by black and Asian people coming to Britain at that time was of truly shocking proportions. So rather than simply a by-product of political and economic policies that damages the whole working class, racism is instead a deliberate and specific ruling class construction.
Its purpose is to stop workers from coming together to fight for a better share of the world. It encourages a sense of superiority that separates white workers from “others”. And it says white working class people enjoy a common interest with their managers and bosses as members of an elite club.
Those on the receiving end of racism often see in whiteness a people bought off with “privileges”. For their part, racist whites think they are lucky to have been born into a superior class of humans. Racist ideology confirms this by insisting that British people should have preference over all others because their nationality and skin colour shows they “belong”.
To reinforce the point, the ruling class are happy to model their laws and values around this principle. The message from them to white workers is that there is a way of improving their material situation without the need for class struggle— to demand that all others from the “benefits of Britishness”. The implication of this should be clear to all socialists.
Rather than a distraction from the serious business of class struggle and winning reforms, racism acts as cancer within the working class movement. And because it eats away at the ties of solidarity, there can be no radical change in society while significant sections of our number are infected.
Strikes offer our best chance of burning out prejudices and broadening the struggle against the system. But the process of shifting prejudices is not spontaneous. It requires the active intervention of the most class-conscious workers and activists.
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching