The TUC national demonstration against the cuts is likely to prove to have been a turning-point in the class struggle in Britain. We need to trumpet its potential significance.

All great historical events attract instant controversy. Too big to be ignored, every political tendency is bound to pass judgement. The true significance of what has happened is easily lost in a cross-fire of proclamation and counter-proclamation.

How big was it? The short answer is ‘bigger than they are saying’. The Con-Dem Government, the New Labour leadership, the mainstream media, and the police all have an interest in playing it down. They do not like people taking to the streets. To deflate the numbers is to discourage repeat performances.

But even the TUC is underestimating the size of their own demonstration. A conservative bureaucracy under pressure ‘to do something’, they have spent weeks fretting about the forces they may have unleashed. Their eve-of-demo estimate was 100,000 but everyone involved knew perfectly well from the numbers of trains and coaches that it was going to be much bigger. Now it is over, they are closer to reality, putting it between 250,000 and 500,000. In fact, it was almost certainly bigger than this.

It may have been the second biggest demonstration in British history. If there were – as seems likely – between 500,000 and 750,000, only the Stop the War demonstration on 15 February 2003 was bigger. For a trade union demonstration, its size was probably unprecedented.

The return of the working class

To find comparisons, we have to dig deep in the historical record. Hundreds of thousands were mobilised by the Chartists in the 1840s and by the National Unemployed Workers Movement in the 1930s. The London poll-tax demonstration in 1989 may have numbered 250,000. But 26 March 2011 was perhaps twice the size of any of these.

It was also diverse. It was called by the TUC and dominated by giant union contingents. But the organised working class had rallied to its standard hundreds of thousands of others. The brass bands and ancient banners of the movement were suddenly invested with new meaning as great rivers of workers, young and old, black and white, women and men, many on their first ever demonstration, formed up behind them. And interspersed with the union phalanxes, many of them thousands strong, were the students, the anti-cuts groups, the artists and musicians of the resistance, the disabled, the direct actionists, the black activists, the pensioners, the greens, and the anti-war protestors.

No less important than size and diversity was the mood. As the Con-Dem regime commits itself to the destruction of the welfare state and the ‘transformation’ of Britain in the interests of the rich and the bankers, they might have hoped that the TUC demonstration would be little more than a funereal lament for a passing world. But it was not. It was angry and vibrant from end to end, surging with idealism born aloft by the confidence and determination of a rising movement.

It was a true carnival of the exploited, as hundreds of thousands coming into action for the first time rallied around the slogans and symbols of 200 years of British working class history.

So what is the significance of 26 March 2011? It represents the return of the working class, a defiant reassertion of class politics, and the birth of a new mass movement.

What next?

But no movement builds itself, and there are hazards ahead. To realise the potential of the demonstration, we have to steer between rocks of conservative inertia and a hundred streams of sectarian futility. Asked ‘what next?’, the TUC’s Brendan Barber had no answer. The cuts, it seems, will be stopped by ‘public opinion’. In practice, one guesses, this amounts to roll over for now and then vote Labour for slightly slower cuts in 2015.

Given the devastation being visited on the fabric of society due to the reckless actions of the banks and the tax avoidance of major brands it is little wonder that they became the target of angry young protestors. But to challenge the power of these wealthy institutions we have to build a mass movement. No direct action event involving a few hundred will ever threaten the Con-Dem Coalition.

Radicalism disconnected from the mass is, in the end, no radicalism at all, but mere self-indulgence. Because without the power of a mass movement behind it, without a mechanism for mobilising millions of working class people in active resistance, the militancy of the vanguard is a punch without a fist.

Patience – in the politics of resistance as in so many things in life – is a necessary virtue. There are no shortcuts to revolution. You have to build a movement, bit by bit, protest by protest. And herein, perhaps, lies the deepest significance of 26 March 2011: the demonstration contained the embryo of a fighting movement of the masses.

A national anti-cuts alliance has now emerged from the confusion of groups and programmes since May 2010. You could see it on the day, and you can see it in all the photos and video-clips.

Sprinkled the entire length of the demonstration are the lollipop placards of the Coalition of Resistance. On one side, a dead-simple message: not different cuts, not slightly slower cuts, but NO CUTS – because cuts divide, cuts deflate, and cuts destroy lives.

On the other, the logo, a symbol of unity and solidarity – the class-wide unity and solidarity we need to build a mass movement with the power to stop the cuts, save the welfare state, and deliver a programme of investment in public services and green transition.

Steering between bureaucratic rocks and sectarian backwaters, there is now the Coalition of Resistance. Every socialist, trade unionist, and anti-cuts activist needs to throw themselves into building it. That way, we can turn 26 March 2011 into a great turning-point in our history: the moment when the sleeping giant of the British working class was roused once again to mighty action.

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Image © Tom Wills. Not to be reproduced or republished without permission

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.