Joti Brar: We are heartened and inspired by French workers’ fighting spirit

Unfortunately, even the most militant of Britain’s trade union leaders seem keen to end the strikes here as quickly as possible.

There is much we have to learn from fellow workers in France, whose militant battle against the capitalists’ attacks on pay and conditions has spread to every corner of France and is posing a serious threat to the regime of Emmanuel Macron. Ultimately, however, only a complete change in system can bring workers security and dignity in their conditions of work and life.

The following interview was given by our vice-chair Joti Brar to communists in France (PRCF). You can read the French version on the Communist Initiative website. It has also been translated into Spanish and reproduced on the New Revolution website.


What is the situation in Britain from the perspective of the social movement? What impact have the recent protest and strikes had? What is the influence of the Enough Is Enough campaign?

In the last year, Britain has seen the largest rise in strike action for 30 years. In 2022, 2.4 million working days were lost as a result of strikes, and it seems likely that the number will be higher this year.

As in many other countries, workers are facing a huge inflation crisis, with enormous rises in energy costs (67 percent rise in electricity prices and 129 percent rise in gas prices in the last year alone) to add to the rapidly rising costs of rent, food, clothes and other necessities. Grocery inflation is now at 17.5 percent compared to last year, and the prices of many staple goods needed by the poorest have risen the most. For example, a can of Heinz baked beans is 70 percent more expensive now than it was in 2019.

This inflation crisis came at a time when workers in Britain, especially in the public sector, have had real-terms pay cuts imposed every year since the economic crisis of 2008. Combined with huge cuts in public spending on everything from schools and hospitals to roads and public spaces, this ‘austerity’ programme was demanded in order to service loans that had been taken out by our government to prevent Britain’s banks from collapsing.

Since workers’ pay has been steadily cut over the last 15 years, the inflation crisis has caused a further and very steep decline that has left many workers with pay packets that simply don’t cover the basic necessaries of life. Living standards are sharply declining for all employed workers, but for those on benefits and for those workers at the bottom end of the pay scales in the health service, in teaching, on the railways etc, life is becoming insupportable. Single parents in these roles are increasingly unable to manage, turning to food banks and other emergency charitable organisations to try to feed their children.

This explains why those areas of the economy where union membership is still high (mainly transport and public sector, with some utilities, logistics and communications) have all experienced a sharp uptick in strike action. Workers in all sectors are desperate for pay restitution; in sectors where union membership is still common, this is pushing the union leaders into reluctant action.

All the railway, health and teaching unions have been out on strike. So too have the postal workers, Amazon workers, dockers and civil servants. Even the traditionally very conservative Royal College of Nursing had to bow to pressure from its hard-pressed members, calling the first strike in its 107-year history. Mick Lynch of the RMT (a railway union with a reputation for radicalism, since it broke its 100-year connection to the Labour party in 2004) gained huge public support when he appeared on mainstream media standing up for the aims of the strikers and vigorously defending the right of workers to strike.

Lynch and other union leaders also led the formation of the Enough is Enough campaign, whose five-point programme demands a meaningful pay rise, a cut in energy bills, an end to food poverty, decent homes for all and higher taxes for the rich. Action on any of these points would be extremely popular.

Unfortunately, those who are in charge of these movements are not prepared to offer the kind of leadership that is needed at a time of severe economic crisis, where the ruling class is united in trying to pass the burden of the crisis onto the backs of the workers. Even the most militant of our trade union leaders (of whom there are very few in Britain) seem only to be interested in ending the strikes as quickly as possible.

None of them wants to show workers how to use their power to win even a basic battle for better wages. Every union has either settled, or tried to settle, for far less than the workers are demanding – and really need – in terms of pay, recommending ‘deals’ to their members that don’t cover even half of this year’s inflation, never mind making up for the last 15 years of real pay cuts.

At the same time, those running the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign, after organising a couple of impressive opening rallies at which militant speeches were made to large crowds, have proven to be totally uninterested in mobilising workers to fight for their own programme. Instead, they are focusing the attention of their declining audiences and lacklustre meetings on asking workers to believe that voting Labour at the next election will bring about the changes they so desperately need.

What is the position of the CPGB-ML on the situation in Britain?

As well as taking out loans to bail out the banks in 2008, our rulers resorted to a huge increase in money-printing. The prime minister of the time, Gordon Brown, was credited with an act of heroic genius for implementing this programme of what bourgeois economists called ‘quantitative easing’, but which was in reality a huge theft – a direct transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest in our society.

As Karl Marx explained in Capital, money circulating in the economy reflects the value of the commodities in circulation. To print more money without increasing the value of goods in circulation simply means that each note or coin that circulates will be exchanged for a smaller amount of commodities – it will be worth less. The more money that is printed in this way, the more the currency is devalued. The effect may not be noticed straight away, but sooner or later this reality has to come into force.

The rulers of imperialist countries thought they had discovered a magic trick when the inevitable inflation crisis did not hit immediately. This feeling was reflected in the world of petty-bourgeois academia, too, with the invention and promotion of the ‘modern monetary theory’ (known by its critics as the ‘magic money tree’).

What all these observers failed to realise was that the apparent ability of countries like Britain and the USA to print money without suffering adverse economic consequences was based not on some new rule of economics, but on the reality of their being imperialist countries. The fact that so much world trade is conducted in the currencies of a few dominant countries allows them to spread out and export the inflationary effect of their money-printing, and thus to water down and delay the inflationary effects in their home economies.

But this watering down and delaying, facilitated by their position as dominant imperial powers, could only last so long. And when the effects finally started to be noticed, the train was already racing at a runaway speed.

Our rulers got themselves out of their systemic crisis in 2008 by printing money. While the national debt skyrocketed and the people’s pay and pensions lost their value, the banks were saved and asset and share prices ballooned. The rich became fabulously richer. Meanwhile, pay and pensions were steadily eroded.

When the next systemic crisis hit in 2020, our rulers masked its existence by declaring national lockdowns ‘to respond to the health emergency’ (although an effective health response would have been localised and would have taken place far earlier). In this way, they were able to camouflage the huge subsidies they paid to the monopoly corporations by calling it a ‘Covid bailout’ and also subsidising many workers to stay at home. The government once again took on more debt and the Bank of England once again printed huge sums of money, which once again inflated asset prices and devalued wages.

The disruptions in global supply chains caused by the Covid shutdowns exacerbated this inflationary spiral further by creating artificial shortages of many goods. They also showed the fragility of capitalist ‘efficiency’, which has pushed for the removal of every piece of contingency planning (‘just in time’ delivery replacing warehousing, for example) in the interests of maximising profits. We saw during Covid how this efficiency drive has left the poorest workers everywhere most at the mercy of shortages and price rises that arise whenever these globally spread supply lines are interrupted. Three years after the first Covid lockdowns, this fragile web of connections has still not stabilised, and many small businesses all over the world have ceased trading or gone bankrupt as a result.

With the launch of the imperialists’ sanctions war against Russia in February 2022, the high inflation and steeply rising energy prices were shifted up to an even higher level, once more hitting the poorest workers everywhere the hardest. The imperialist plan to destroy Russia’s economy by cutting it off from the world market spectacularly failed, but it did have the result of cutting Europe off from the cheap energy on which it has depended since the 1980s, leaving us with unpayable utility bills and uncompetitive industry.

With inflation rising rapidly, the Bank of England had officially declared a plan to end its money-printing programme, but the need to ‘stand with Ukraine’ led it to print more billions to pay for weapons, while the need to keep social peace led it to do the same in order to subsidise energy costs for individuals and for businesses. These open-ended subsidies have delivered huge bonanzas to the arms and energy monopolies while further reducing the purchasing power of the masses.

In such a situation, the performance of Britain’s trade union leaders has been a grave betrayal. Instead of fighting for pay restitution and the rights of their members to live in dignity, they have been looking for the exit, repeating employers’ (and Labour leader Keir Starmer’s) assertion that to ask for better is ‘unaffordable’ (unreasonable) and trying to scare members into accepting further real-terms pay cuts with assurances that these ‘deals’ are the ‘best that can be achieved’, and with dark threats that if the deals are rejected, the members will be sorry.

All the same, despite this lack of leadership, and despite the division of each profession into several unions that divide the workforces in each workplace and weaken their fighting spirit, the strikers are not doing as they are told. Nurses recently voted to reject a government pay offer despite huge pressure from their union leaders to accept. It seems likely that at least some of those striking will continue their fight, therefore, but it’s hard to see how much they can achieve with leaders who have made it abundantly clear they have no heart for the struggle and are anxious to come to terms with the employers.

Meanwhile, the Enough Is Enough campaign has dwindled from promising beginnings into yet another toothless and diversionary organisation whose main programme (like too many supposedly ‘resistance’ organisations before it) is to persuade workers to vote Labour at the next election.

The truth is that we have over a century of experience to tell us that the Labour party is a loyal servant of British imperialism, and plenty of more recent experience to show that the party’s present leader Keir Starmer is an impeccably establishment figure (having previously served as head of the public prosecution service) whom the ruling class would be only too happy to instal as their next prime minister.

Two things have been made very clear by the experience of the last year. The first is that there is a great desire and willingness amongst workers to fight for pay restitution. The second is that the present trade union structures, institutionally tied to the Labour party and loyal to British imperialism, are completely unwilling and unable to lead this struggle.

The ruling class hopes very much that the union leaders will be successful in persuading their members to accept below-inflation offers of 5 percent with occasional one-off lump sums on top, and into giving up the fight to defend pay, pensions and public services (all of which are suffering crises of recruitment because of the terrible pay and conditions that now prevail everywhere). It is also doing what it can to sell the illusion that a Labour government will bring ‘change’ and workers should simply resign themselves to pay cuts, go home and wait for the next election.

Without new leadership, new unions, or both, it is hard to see whether the pressure from members will be able to overcome their own leaderships’ resistance to leading a real fight for pay restitution and defence of public services. The present leaders have shown very clearly that their loyalty is to the system and not to the workers.

What is your perspective on the ongoing war in Ukraine and the politics of the new Sunak government?

I would sum up our position on the war in Ukraine by saying that the conflict was started by the USA and Nato when they instigated a fascist coup in 2014, and that Russia was forced to intervene by the refusal of the western powers (France and Germany) to implement the terms of the peace treaty they guaranteed in Minsk in 2015, and refused to recognise the need for a new security framework in Europe that could guarantee peace for all and stop Nato’s aggressive expansion to the east – an expansion that has been aimed at Russia for the last 30 years.

Russia’s war, in our view, is a just and necessary war of national-liberation for the oppressed Russians in the east of what was formerly socialist Ukraine, and of self-defence against Nato, which is using the Ukrainian people as its proxy army in the hope of bringing down Russia’s independent government. When the imperialists use pseudo-Marxist academic phraseology like ‘decolonisation’, what they are really referring to is their long-time desire to break up Russia’s vast territory and loot its huge mineral wealth.

As regards our latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, he has shown himself to be another impeccable member of the establishment. He is ready to continue the war for as long as the British ruling class desires it, and ready also to start the process of reversing Brexit, which the ruling class never accepted, but which has taken some time for them to be able to start unpicking.

How do the British people and working class see the social uprising in France?

The true extent of the uprising in France is kept hidden from the majority of British workers, just as the yellow vest protests were a few years ago. Our rulers do not allow meaningful coverage of your actions in their media because they are terrified that the example of French militancy might spread across the Channel and inspire workers in Britain to organise the same kind of action over here.

It is clear that workers in France are facing essentially the same problems as those we face in Britain: rising inflation, crippling energy costs, rapidly falling wages and pensions, constant rises in the pensionable age, cuts in public service provision of all kinds. In Britain, our pay and services are in a worse state than in France precisely because we have not taken such spirited action in defence of them. From the great miners’ strike of 1984/5 until today, very few meaningful attempts have been made to resist the ruling-class programme of dismantling the welfare state, and workers have in general been demoralised and resigned.

Those of us who are aware of the French uprising feel very inspired by your actions and hopeful of a positive outcome. While we understand that trade union action on its own cannot fix the deep crisis of the capitalist system, we do believe that such actions can be a great school for the workers. The more the current actions spread and the longer they are prolonged, the greater will be the opportunities for communists to spread their influence and education, helping workers to expand their programme from a simple struggle with the government over pension reform to a broader one against the capitalist class as a whole, and an understanding that it is the capitalist system that is ultimately responsible for inflation, poverty, inequality, economic crisis and war.

In the meantime, the real experience of physically resisting the power of the state will be a great education for workers in understanding the true nature of the capitalist system and the class enemy, and all of this will provide important opportunities for communists to work and to extend their influence – which is an essential precondition for any successful class struggle to be waged.

Do you have a message you wish to send to the working class and the people’s struggles in France?

We are greatly heartened and inspired by the fighting spirit of the French workers, and especially by those who combine the demands for decent pay and conditions with the demands that France should leave the imperialist Nato alliance and European Union bloc. The French workers’ enemy is not in Russia or China, but in Paris! The same bankers who want to break Russia into pieces in order to loot its mineral wealth and exploit its people want to privatise French public services, reduce French wages and raise the age of French retirement.

It is instructive to note that even militant workers like the French find themselves condemned to fight the same battles over and over again. Advantages they had previously secured by struggle come under attack as soon as the ruling class feels itself strong enough to push back, and our positions are once again under fire. We see that the best we can achieve by trade union action is, in general, and despite occasional advances, only to retreat less slowly than we would if we had no unions to fight within.

In order to secure real and lasting change, trade union action will not be enough. Ultimately, our struggle for decent pay and conditions, for the dignity of the working class, must be joined to the struggle to overthrow the rule of the bloodsucking exploiters and replace it with the rule of the working class – with a planned socialist economy.

We have every faith that the French will bring to the fore a leadership that understands this urgent necessity and is prepared to help the working people direct their powerful blows against the enemy’s fortress, which is already being weakened by the fatal flaws within the system itself.