In the aftermath of the great demonstration in Paris on December 9th, 1995, the strike continued to spread to new sectors, while occupations persisted and multiplied. The echoes of the great French revolutions of the past reverberated through the country. Within a fortnight, the general strike had come to an end with the workers’ movement gaining total and unreserved victory. President Chirac sacrificed his new Prime Minister to appease the crowd, firing him and revoking all of his reforms.

I remained in France for the duration of the strike and travelled through the country. This was the first real social conflict that I had observed from close up since becoming interested in such matters. The decisive victory of the workers’ movement over the state and the employers served to reinforce the socialist ideas that I had been imbibing. I assumed, based on the literature that I had been reading, that my future political activity would consist of many such victories and that the major problem that I would face would revolve around the battle for the soul of the workers’ movement between the limited “reformist” agenda of the current leadership and the revolutionary doctrine that I had adopted. I could not have been more wrong.

For, as it turned out, the victory in 1995 was the one and only clear-cut general victory that the labour movement achieved across the entire industrialised world during my generation-long period of political activity. There have been a small number of disputes that have ended in some sort of victory for a particular group of workers in specific industries from time to time. But throughout the entire period, across many countries, there have been a large number of issues on which the general interests of employers have come into conflict with the general interests of employees and I paid fairly close attention to their progress. In terms of victories for the labour side of the conflict, there has been nothing, nada, niente, rien.

I have instead witnessed defeat after defeat after defeat, some partial, some absolute, some bitterly fought, but most lost without a fight. This has not always been the case. In previous eras the labour movement succeeded in overcoming ferocious resistance from the state and employers to deliver reforms, such as the 8 hour day, that transformed economic life across the industrialised world.

The demise of la greve image: geneology web

I have come across many explanations for this downturn in the fortunes of labour. Most of them have focused on particular tactical or moral failings on the part of the trade unions’ leaderships. However, the ubiquity and consistency of the trend, extending over a generation across the entire industrialised world, makes it difficult to give much credence to such explanations. Other explanations focus on changes in the “class composition” of society – the growth of the middle class or some variation of that. But general conflicts between the economic interests of employees and employers have not disappeared, nor have their relative proportions changed much, and it is hard to see why an increase in the standard of living and educational levels of some of the employees should diminish their ability to advance their interests.

It is probably the case that there are many factors at play in the progressive and prolonged weakening of the ability of the labour movement to win victories. Demographics are probably significant – for a number of reasons, the supply of labour has outstripped demand and this has inevitably improved the bargaining position of employers. However, one would expect that factor, by itself, to manifest itself as a general trend in outcomes rather than a consistency in results. Cultural changes are, on the other hand, capable of explaining the phenomenon – changes in popular beliefs.

The importance of ideas

Contagious ideas image: Anna Leask (flickr)

There are a number of conditions that must be in place before a social movement which involves disruption to daily life can spread and turn into a revolutionary threat. Firstly, there must be widespread dissatisfaction, which is obvious. Slightly less obviously, there must be a widespread belief that a better alternative is possible if the existing social order collapses. This is a requirement because, as such a movement spreads, it becomes clear to everybody involved that the conflict could threaten the existing social order. Somebody who believes that no better alternative to the current system is likely to emerge from a collapse will consider this to be a threat, whereas somebody who believes that a better alternative is likely to emerge will consider it an opportunity.

It doesn’t matter what the alternative is, or how realistic the belief in its possibility is, what matters is how pervasive and strong it is. European history is full of examples of peasant uprisings based on magical, religious beliefs in a millenarian alternative which motivated large numbers to march to their slaughter against the swords, armour and cavalry of the military elites. Nor does the alternative have to involve a dramatic change to the social system – it can be as limited as the replacement of one king or dictator with another. There is always a cost to disruption and, thus, for people to join a disruptive movement, there must be a perceived benefit. When a conflict is small and contained within a particular sector, the cost-benefit equation is typically limited in scope, the benefit of increased wages versus the risk of losing one’s job, for example. But as a movement spreads across a society, the collective costs and benefits of a collapse of the social order loom larger in people’s decisions as to whether to join the movement or not.

From this perspective it is relatively easy to understand why phenomena such as the Arab spring were able to spread so readily. Firstly, there was widespread disaffection. Secondly, there was widespread belief in the possibility of more desirable alternatives to the existing social order. On the one hand, there was a broad Islamist movement which saw regime change as providing an opportunity to create a new religious caliphate. On the other hand, the urban intelligentsia believed that a liberal democracy could succeed the existing dictatorship and would bring with it many of the benefits that their homologues in the affluent West enjoyed. The existence of a belief among the masses in a better, religious, alternative created the potential for rebellion, the existence of a belief in a better alternative among the educated elites created the conditions for success of that rebellion.

When it comes to the workers’ movement in the West, the potential for labour disputes to spread into great disruptive social movements has always been premised on belief in the possibility of a socialist alternative emerging from a collapse of the existing social order. However, socialist ideas have been fading among the populations of the West for a long time. At some stage, their strength will fall beneath a threshold whereby contagion cannot happen – an epidemiological limit of sorts. It is indeed possible that, across the Western world, socialist ideas have already faded in influence to such an extent that there is no longer any possibility of labour disputes becoming revolutionary threats. The population may have achieved herd immunity.

Aftermath of the victory of 1995

To return to France in December 1995: it was immediately obvious to me, even as a political neophyte, that the decisive factor in the victory of the trade unions was the threat of contagion. The strength of socialist ideals in the population was manifestly an important element in producing widespread sympathy for the strikers.  And sympathetic public opinion was crucial both in maintaining the discipline of those involved and in creating the potential for the conflict to spread, perhaps even to turn into a revolutionary upheaval. It was this threat that caused the state and the employers to back down.

However, the strikes of 1995 were defensive in nature. The unions were fighting to protect the status quo.  Rather than being the beginning of an upsurge in militancy, as I hoped, it was one of the last chapters in a long term process whereby support for the ideals of socialism had faded to such an extent that it was falling beneath a threshold beneath which the workers movement lost the ability to successfully prosecute generalised conflicts.

The French neo-liberal reformers went away and licked their wounds. But they had time and cultural dynamics on their side. In 2006 they re-introduced a swathe of new reforms to the labour market, known as the CPE. Again there was a general strike and again it was forcefully prosecuted by the unions. This time the popular resonance was a little bit weaker and, although the unions succeeded in having a central plank of the reform revoked, they had to give ground on many other elements. The result was a defeat; partial, but unmistakably a defeat.

Another major dispute erupted in 2010 when president Sarkozy introduced a set of pension reforms, similar to those of 1995. Again there was a general strike. The cultural resonance was weaker again. This time the defeat was almost total.

The ebb and flow of socialist ideas

UK Decline The decline in the ability of Trade Unions to win conflicts is reflected in the decline in the size, frequency and duration of strikes – the collapse after 1984 is clear. image: Chekov Feeney

The history of labour disputes does, of course, differ from country to country. But they differ in timing rather than overall trend. Across the Western world, this is revealed clearly in numerous statistics, most notably declines in strike rates and union membership numbers. In the OECD area, the strike rate has roughly halved in each decade since the early 1980s (OECD). In the UK, the decisive watershed defeat for the workers’ movement occurred in the miners’ strike of 1984, while in the USA it was earlier, spread over a series of defeats during the Carter administration of the late 1970’s. The timing, in each case, reflected the underlying strength of socialist ideas in the population.  So, for example, left wing ideas have been more influential in France than in most other Western countries – the French communist party received over 20% of the votes in legislative elections throughout the 1970s.

US Decline Labour disputes collapsed from the late 1970s onwards and show no signs of recovering. image: US bureau of labor statistics

“in the OECD area, the strike rate has roughly halved in each decade since the early 1980s”

Changes in the influence of ideas are difficult to measure – difficult, but not impossible. By looking at things like party memberships, published literature, opinion polls, election results, changes to manifestos and so on, it is possible to arrive at a pretty good overview of the rise and fall of socialist ideas.  From this, a reasonable estimate is that socialist ideas peaked in influence in the industrialised countries on some date around the 1st of May 1913 (which happens to be exactly 100 years before I launched this website).  To explain why I choose this date over other candidates, I’ll briefly describe what the world looked like on that day and how it changed thereafter.

1st May 1913, Workers rallies and marches all over the world celebrate International Workers Day.  Everywhere, Marxist parties and socialist-influenced trade unions are on the rise. In Germany, the world’s rising industrial powerhouse, the orthodox-Marxist SPD party is the largest party.  All over the world, socialism has captured the hearts and minds of a significant section of the intelligentsia – writers, scientists, engineers, etc.  Thousands of newspapers, journals and magazines promulgate socialist ideas among the masses and, in many cases, their circulations are larger than the conservative competition. Socialism is broadly seen as the doctrine of science, rationality, progress and the future, an approach to social organisation that will do away with the superstitions and tribalisms of the past and the ‘anarchy’ of the market, leading to a sane, orderly and peaceful future for all. 

Mayday rally Union Square, Chicago 1 May 1913 image:

Then came World War 1. Much of the optimism of the socialist intelligentsia was shattered as the war drums conjured up old ethnic and nationalistic spirits. The population of each of the combatant nations flocked to enlist in vast numbers and marched off to turn their brothers and sisters of the international proletariat into huge piles of bodies.  The unexpected and unpredicted scale of the bloodbath dealt a significant blow to the naive optimism of pre-war socialist ideology – a blow that it never fully recovered from.

In the aftermath of the war, there was a significant upsurge in socialist organisation in the defeated countries – Russia and Germany in particular – but this was driven by the urgent necessity of finding something that could provide basic stability to replace the social orders that had collapsed during the course of the war.  The workers’ movement was now far less driven by an optimistic belief in a utopian future.  The bolshevik victory in Russia was particularly significant in that it provided a concrete example of “actually existing socialism” rather than the abstract ideal which had preceded it. In terms of the strength of socialist ideas, this had two major effects. Firstly, it meant that the question of whether an alternative social order, based upon socialist ideas, was possible became settled in the affirmative in many people’s eyes. Secondly, irrespective of what critical socialist theorists may have said, it defined what a socialist alternative actually amounted to in the popular imagination.

Order comrades image:

Electrification, industrialisation, agricultural collectivisation, regimented living in identical concrete tower-blocks, rigid ideological control and the gulags became the key aspects of what a socialist alternative actually meant to people. The attractiveness of socialism thereafter largely depended on whether you considered that this might be an improvement on your current position or not. Thus, socialism underwent a rapid decline in influence among the intellectuals in the West, who considered it an alternative that was significantly worse than their current position, while it grew in influence in the poorer parts of the world. For a Chinese or Indian peasant, for instance, life in the USSR would have represented a distinct improvement in their conditions.

Throughout the ensuing history of the 20th century there were significant upturns in the prestige of socialist ideas at various times in the West:  with the apparent successes of Stalin’s 5 year plans in the 1930s; with Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany in the 1940s; with the outbreak of militant anti-colonial movements and the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  However, the underlying trend has been consistently downwards – the influence of the ideas in the industrialised countries never recovered to its pre WW1 status. Each upsurge was weaker than the last, more pragmatic, less utopian and with less sway among the intelligentsia. 

At this stage, 100 years after socialist ideas reached their zenith in the West, they have faded to such an extent that they are effectively dead as a major force in social dynamics.  Without them, the workers’ movement cannot win generalised conflicts with employers and the state and is locked into a long cycle of defeat.

This post represents the first part of the introduction to the theoretical work that I plan to publish here.  My next post, which I will publish on Wednesday, will complete this introduction by looking at the question of whether it might be possible to reinvigorate socialist ideas in the modern industrialised world.  I will return to the main narrative of my political journey and Noam Chomsky’s influence on it, which I will publish on Friday.

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