Editorial from the May 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is now ten years since Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter from Grantham, became Prime Minister. Since then she has earned her place in the Guinness Book of Records. First woman Prime Minister, longest-serving Prime Minister, only Prime Minister to win three successive general elections. She has also earned a reputation for being heartless and indifferent to the lot of ordinary people and concerned only about helping the rich. No wonder she is so intensely disliked by so many people.
She has indeed been the head of an openly pro-capitalist government that has deliberately set out to attack the working class. Her government has legislated against the unions — the only effective weapon workers have to defend themselves under capitalism — and reduced the payments the State pays to workers not in employment. It has ended subsidised housing and made workers pay for a whole range of services which in the past were available on a free basis (the latest being eye tests). It has reintroduced the Victorian distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor and again made submission to a Means Test a condition for access to most State benefits.
It would, however, be a mistake to attribute the sufferings workers have had to endure over the past ten years to the actions of one particular capitalist politician, however ill-intentioned, class-prejudiced and domineering she might be. There is no such thing as Thatcherism as something different and worse than ordinary capitalism. What Thatcher has done is to have presided over the operation of capitalism during the worst part of the slump phase of its economic cycle. During such a period redundancies and unemployment reach a maximum and governments are forced to slash social benefits as a way of lowering the tax burden on the reduced profits of capitalist enterprises.
When Thatcher endlessly repeated “There Is No Alternative” she was in fact displaying a clearer understanding of how capitalism works than did the Labour and other opposition politicians. There really was no alternative (apart from socialism, of course). Any government of capitalism during the worst part of a slump would have had to behave in essentially the same way. In short, it was capitalism not Thatcher that has been responsible.
What has distinguished Thatcher has been style rather than content. Whereas other politicians, even Tory ones, would have apologised for having to take the measures capitalism was imposing on them, not Mrs Thatcher. She applied them enthusiastically, seeing them as steps in the cultural revolution from “dependency culture” to “enterprise culture” she believes it her mission to carry out. She has openly proclaimed her aim to be the complete eradication of “State Socialism”, by which she means the theory and practice of the Labour Party — nationalisation, government intervention, redistribution of wealth from rich to poor by means of improved State benefits, subsidised housing, transport and other services — what should more properly be called state capitalism. What she wants is “to roll back the frontiers of the State” and allow the freest possible operation of the forces of the market. In this respect she is more of a Free Trade Liberal than a Tory.
The Labour Party in power has indeed been a failure — the Labour governments of the sixties and seventies not only failed to improve working class living standards as promised, but worsened them for many workers while at the same time mismanaging the finances of the capitalist State by massively inflating the currency — but this has not been the failure of Socialism. It has been the failure of reformism and state capitalism to which we in the Socialist Party have always been opposed.
Unfortunately, this has been seen as the failure of Socialism and has allowed the intellectual defenders of capitalism to seize the initiative. The Free Marketeers re-emerged from the dustbins of history to preach laissez-faire, the survival of the fittest (the profitable) and death to lame ducks and other weaklings and to proclaim that capitalism, profits, inequality, the market were no longer dirty words. Indeed their views can almost be said to have become the official State ideology under Thatcher. Faced with this intellectual offensive, the leaders of the Labour Party have conceded defeat and now promise to run the market economy better than the Tories. Few believe them and most of their activists remain nostalgic for state capitalism, but in any event capitalism whether private or state can only run in one way: as a profit-making system in the interest of a profit-taking class.
So workers should not be taken in by the so-called Thatcherite Revolution which is essentially only window-dressing, one of a number of possible ideological justifications for what any government of capitalism would have been forced to do under the same circumstances. Indeed, the Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand have pursued the same policies, not excluding the denationalisation measures particularly associated with Thatcher.
It is for this reason that we say that Thatcherism is a myth and refuse to fall for calls for the return of a Labour government or some anti-Thatcher coalition. Capitalism without Thatcher would remain capitalism, and it is capitalism and not Mrs Thatcher that is the cause of the problems facing wage and salary workers.