The great social achievements of the post-war generation have been systematically attacked and eroded. Historian Neil Faulkner explains why – and outlines how we can shape history in a different direction
The German-Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg likened the struggle for reforms under capitalism to the Labour of Sisyphus. A character from Greek myth, Sisyphus was a captive titan condemned to push a heavy rock up a steep hill forever; each time the rock reached the summit, it toppled down the far side, and the labour began again.
So it is with reforms under capitalism. That which is granted under pressure during a boom can be clawed back in a crisis. As long as the system exists, riddled as it is with contradictions, subject to crashes and slumps, no gain made by workers can ever be considered permanent.
The Labour of Sisyphus is a short summary of the history of Britain since 1945. If, like an Athenian tragic playwright, we turn the myth into a full-length drama, it falls naturally into five acts.
The spirit of ‘45
In the first, a working class embittered by memories of the Great Depression, but then empowered by full employment and military service during the War, was able to win the welfare state. ‘If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.’ That was the warning delivered to his parliamentary colleagues by Quentin Hogg, a young Tory MP and wartime officer, in the House of Commons early in 1943.
He was right. ‘The spirit of 45’ produced an electoral earthquake, turfing out Tory war-leader Winston Churchill and delivering a landslide Labour victory.
The 1945 government represented the zenith of social-democratic reformism in Britain. Its flagship reform was, of course, the National Health Service.
From boom to bust
Act Two was the Great Boom. The most sustained period of global expansion in the history of capitalism, the period 1948-1973 saw full employment, high growth rates, and rising living standards. This in turn enabled workers to build the strongest trade-union organisation in British history.
When this prompted a counter-attack by the state and the bosses, workers defended the post-war settlement with unprecedented militancy, winning a succession of stunning victories on the picket-lines in the late 60s and early 70s.
But as world capitalism entered a new period of crisis, the stakes in the class struggle rose. Unwilling to break with capitalism and the nation-state, Labour and trade-union leaders called for ‘restraint’. The workers’ movement was undermined from within.
During the crisis of the 1970s – Act Three – the balance of forces began to shift against working people. The ground was prepared for a full-scale counter-attack by Britain’s ruling class.
That counter-attack was launched by the Thatcher government of 1979-1990 (Act Four). The unions were defeated in a series of massive class battles, the greatest of them the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-1985 - an epic confrontation which broke the back of organised labour for a generation. As the labour movement recoiled, manufacturing industry was decimated, public services were privatised, financial speculation took off, and the rich got much richer.
The Second Great Depression
The ‘neoliberalisation’ pioneered by Thatcher and driven forwards by her successors, Major, Blair, Brown, and Cameron/Clegg – Act Four of our drama – was part of a global transformation which, in 2008, turned into the biggest financial crash in world history. We are now five years into Act Five – the Second Great Depression – as our rulers attempt to shore up their bankrupt casino-economy by reversing all the gains made by working people in the post-war era.
History has two simple lessons to teach. First, they will succeed in making workers and the poor pay the cost of their crisis – just as they did in the 1930s – unless we organise and fight.
Second, this time we should not stop with piecemeal reform, but should aim at nothing less than the wholesale transformation of the economy under democratic control.
Another of the titans was Prometheus. Because he gave knowledge and power to humans, the other gods condemned him to an eternity chained to a rock while a vulture pecked out his liver. The time has come to set Prometheus free. The time has come to end the torment of exploitation, poverty, and violence under capitalism, and to unleash the full creative power of liberated humanity.
Neil Faulkner is the author of ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals’ (Counterfire/Pluto, 2013). He will be talking about Britain since the war at Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times
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‘.
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