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Submitted by martin on Tue, 21/10/2008 - 23:58

As I note above, Chris Harman of the SWP was downbeat in his predictions of the political consequences of the economic crisis.

Workers will face many defensive struggles, he said, in a situation where the left is weak. There will be increased social bitterness, but that may accrue to the benefit of the far right.

His emphasis was on building resistance, on however small a scale, to the economic repercussions on the working class of the crisis, while organising "a network of socialists".

On the front page of its website the SWP has, uncharacteristically, placed a link to articles by Trotsky on the relationship between boom, slump, and political radicalisation.

The articles are well worth reading, and indeed we in AWL have often cited them. Trotsky's basic, broad-brush argument is that the effect of boom or slump on working-class consciousness depends on prior conditions. After working-class defeats, a slump is likely to bring demoralisation; it will be the subsequent economic upturn which allows workers to regain confidence. On the other hand, a slump coming at a time of high working-class confidence can produce rapid radicalisation.

What does all that mean for now? It is not yet clear (to me, anyway). Working-class confidence is low, but there may have been some "molecular" revival signalled in such things as votes for left-wing rather than right-wing candidates for union leaderships. If the general effect of the economic downturn is to dampen mass trade-union-type struggles (and I fear it may well be), that does not at all rule out the economic tumult, and the vast public discrediting of the dominant "neo-liberal" mode of capitalism, also producing significant political radicalisation among a significant minority.

What does the SWP think? They note that they previously published those same Trotsky articles in 1983, at which time the SWP was telling its members that the working class was deep in a "downturn" and they should focus ruthlessly on propagandistic "party-building" activities. Is the messages the same now?

Socialist Worker (4 October) gave the job of writing an exposition to John Rees, the SWP leader whose advocacy of political coalitions such as Respect has recently been rebuffed by the SWP Central Committee's decision, against Rees's vote, to put the rump of Respect, "Left Alternative", on the shelf.

Rees is not clear.

The effects of the crisis will build on a deep scepticism about politicians and the political system in general, including scepticism about a Labour Party that has adopted Thatcherite economics virtually without amendment.

This sentiment has grown massively since the birth of the anti-capitalist movement in 1999. The scale of the anti-war movement after 2001 then radically enhanced it.

The same feeling has seeped into the trade union movement. Its first fruit in this area was the election of a raft of left wing general secretaries in 2002 and 2003. There has also been a political breach between the Labour leadership and many in the unions.

More recent and more important, though still limited, is the revival of industrial struggle that has been towed forward by this general radical mood.

So, there has been a rise in working-class confidence? It's not like 1983 at all? We already have a "general radical mood", and we can expect it to burgeon?

He is overstating too much, isn't he? You'd think from what he writes here that the SWP's Lindsey German had won Mayor of London, rather than getting 0.68%. And "scepticism" is double-edged. It can lead to disillusioned resignation as easily as to struggle.

But Rees then gets in his "on the other hand..." argument, bringing him closer to what Chris Harman argued on 21 October.

Not all political developments have been to the left, of course. A delicate comment that, on the 0.68%... The rise in votes for the fascist British National Party and the resurgence of the Tories remind us that working class opinion polarises in a crisis – some blame the system, some blame the nearest scapegoat they can find.

Every crisis involves a race between the right and the left as to who can most convincingly express people’s anger at the system and suggest the most effective ways of fighting back.

Rees concludes with more on the lines of "it could go either way".

As this recession strikes there is a pre-prepared disillusionment with the economic and political system among wide layers of the working class.

A mass anti-war movement has already mobilised millions and deepened scepticism about reformism.

Industrial resistance has been weak, though it has grown stronger in the last couple of years.

The push for coordinated public sector strikes remains a vital part of the response to the crisis. And the recent action on the London buses may well portend further strikes.

We must bend our every effort to ensure that the weaknesses of the movement are diminished and the possibilities of resistance are magnified.

That means a clear political argument about the nature of the capitalist system and an equally clear political commitment to working with others to defend workers from the effects of the recession wherever we can.

A classic statement, by the way, of the "minimax" approach - minimalist defensive demands (as per the SWP's "People before Profit" charter), plus maximalist argument about abolishing capitalism. No room for a workers' plan of transitional demands.

There is great danger here – but also a great opportunity for socialists.

I'd guess that the article by Rees and the speech by Harman reflect an SWP leadership unsure or divided about its perspectives.

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