In 1855, riots broke out in London’s Hyde Park in protest over a Sunday Trading Bill. Karl Marx was there and the next day declared that he did not think he was exaggerating in saying that “the English Revolution began yesterday in Hyde Park”. Marx did not begin, but nor did he end, a long history of embarrassingly premature predictions of the demise of the British ruling class.
On Wednesday 10 November, a demonstration, long planned and organised jointly by the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, took place in central London to protest against the government’s cuts in education funding. The demonstration was expected to be the usual poorly attended, tame and boring affair – marching from one spot to another, waving placards, and chanting slogans.
The reality was somewhat different. Around 52,000 university workers and students attended, and the demonstration quickly turned into “something resembling a Mardi Gras carnival”, as a reporter for Red Pepper magazine put it. “The young faces and large grins, combined with incessant whistle-blowing, trumpet blasting and drum beating, all mix[ed] together to form … a fun-filled, party-like atmosphere.” A breakaway from the march, 200 strong according to a reporter from the Guardian, then broke into and occupied 30 Millbank, the Conservative party's campaign headquarters. Once inside, the demonstrators quietly staged a protest – alongside some minor scuffles with the police and a broken window, ludicrously blown up out of all proportion by the mainstream media – and issued some inspiring propaganda:
"We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected. We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning.”Commentators from both the Leninist and anarchist left predicted that the day marked the beginning of a new politics – another Poll Tax-style rebellion, according to some; a mass revolutionary insurrection a week Wednesday, according to others. Did the English revolution begin yesterday at Tory HQ?
We in the Socialist Party are more cautious. We welcome any upsurge in the militancy and resistance and organisation of our class. But we also know, from bitter experience, that work of an altogether quieter, patient, more political kind is also needed. The skirmishes in the class war must be fought if we are not to be reduced to beasts of burden. But as human animals capable of rational thought and long-term planning, we must also seek to stop the skirmishes by winning the class war, and thereby ending it. This is only possible if the capitalist class is dispossessed of its wealth and power. That means that the working class as a whole must understand the issues, and organise and fight for these ends themselves – by organising a political party for the conquest of state power that will convert the means of production into the common property of the whole community.
As Marx’s fellow socialist Engels came to realise, this would have to involve not “surprise attacks” by minorities, but the “long, persistent work” of socialist education and organisation. If he had known just how long this work would have to go on, he might well have despaired. But the task hasn’t gone away. And it won’t as long as capitalism lasts.