Tony Cliff

On Perspectives

(April-May 1969)

Originally Published in International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April-May 1969, pp.15-21.
Reprinted in International Socialist Review 13, August-September 2000, pp.60-66.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle: Selected Works, Volume 2, London 2002, pp.129-143.
Transcribed & marked up by Dylan Stillwood & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

On May 22, 1968, the French Prime Minister, Pompidou, told the national assembly: “Nothing will ever be exactly the same.” Today such a statement sounds platitudinous. We shall continue to work and struggle in the glow of the French May events. Just as between 1789 and 1848, the imagery – the personnel, the dramatic events of the first French Revolution – were the terms of reference of all revolutionaries and when one reads Lenin or Plekhanov prior to 1905, the events of 1848 and 1871 are central in evaluating the current events in Russia decades later, so France 1968 will be central to the analysis of the tasks and perspectives of revolutionaries in advanced industrial societies in the years to come.

What is necessary, however, is not a euphoric generalisation about the great days of May and June 1968, but a sober analysis of the lessons of those events.


Two dress rehearsals

The best way of evaluating the specific characteristics of the French events is to juxtapose them with the Russian revolution of 1905 which was a dress rehearsal for 1917. This comparison is made here in an effort to throw light on the specific characteristics of the period in which we live.

First of all the general strike in France far surpassed in magnitude anything that happened in Russia in 1905. In France at the height of the strike some ten million workers were involved. In Russia, in the month of October 1905, when the strike was at its peak, a little more than half a million workers participated. [1]

However, the duration of the revolutionary wave in France was incomparably shorter. The Russian revolution continued over a period of some three years. It started in January 1905 and reached its apex in the December insurrection of the same year. This insurrection ended in defeat and the Tsarist autocracy went onto the offensive. In 1906 workers’ strikes and peasants’ and soldiers’ outbreaks were much weaker then a year earlier, but were still very formidable. In 1907 the workers’ struggle grew weaker still. However, only at the end of 1907, after three long years, can one speak of the end of the revolution. The wave declined completely, and the level of struggle returned to the pre-1905 level. The picture becomes clear when one follows the strike statistics:

Number of strikers [2]







1st quarter


2nd quarter


3rd quarter


4th quarter



1st quarter


2nd quarter


3rd quarter


4th quarter



1st quarter


2nd quarter


3rd quarter


4th quarter







Qualitatively, as regards the form of revolutionary organisation of the class, Russia in 1905 was far ahead of France in 1968. 1905 witnessed the birth of Soviets – of Workers’ Councils.

The first Soviets arose out of the strike movement even prior to the October general strike. In May 1905 a Soviet was formed in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a month later in Kostroma, while in September Soviets of printing, tobacco and other workers were formed in Moscow. In October a Soviet was formed in St. Petersburg. Shortly before the December insurrection in Moscow, the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ Deputies came into being, its example followed in Kiev, Kharkov, Rostov-on-Don, Odessa, Nikolayav, Ekaterinoslav, Vladikavkaz, Reval, Novorossisk, Saratov, Chita, Irkutsky, Krasnoyarsk, Baku and elsewhere.

In France not one Workers’ Council was formed. In fact in only a very few instances were strike committees democratically elected. In practically every plant the trade union nominated the delegates to the strike committee. In Renault there were a few attempts to get elections by the rank and file, but with the exception of one department they were squashed by the CGT [1*] and the CP [2*]. In the central Citroën factory the officially appointed strike committee was not challenged, and although it was in one of the subsidiary factories (in Nanterre), the attempt failed. As against this, in the chemical factory Rhone-Poulenc-Vitry, the demand for a rank-and-file committee was so strong that the official one was overthrown and a new one was elected by union and non-union workers alike. [3]

It is interesting that even in Citroën, where for sixteen years there had not been a strike, a where only seven percent of the workers were organised in trade unions, the union bureaucrats still managed to prevent the election of a democratic rank-and-file strike committee, and imposed a nominated one. They hastened to do this even before the strike began, as they were afraid that things might get out of hand with such a weak organisation. This is also the reason why the CGT full-time officials took the initiative in calling the strike. The most obvious lack in the strike was a network connecting the different strike committees. It did not even exist for factories belonging to the same firm.

If the CGT could not stop the strike it was able to sabotage it by fragmenting the movement – taking what had been a mass movement of the class as a whole and reducing it to a series of disconnected struggles in different industries. Thus on May 27 the Administrative Commissions of the CGT declared: “What the Government and employers have not agreed on a national, inter-trades level, we must obtain from them on other levels by means of negotiations which we must demand immediately in each separate branch of industry and trade, such as are being carried on in the nationalise and public sectors.” Thus negotiations with different employers transformed the strike from being general into a collection of separate strikes.

Not only was there no network of strike committees, but in practice the trade union bureaucracies did their best to isolate one strike committee from another. Thus, for instance, the Renault Billancourt CGT refused on May 23 to receive a delegation of Renault Flins. [4]

In Russia the revolutionary political organisations were incomparably larger, more massive and more influential than the groupuscules in France. In November 1906 there were 150,000 members in the Russian Social Democratic Party: 33,000 Bolsheviks, 43,000 Mensheviks, 13,000 Letts, 28,000 Poles and 33,000 members of the Bund. [5] Since the total number of workers employed in large factories was 800,000 [6], the Party constituted quite a high proportion of the industrial proletariat. In Petrograd the Party had 6,000 members compared with 81,000 workers in large factories in the St. Petersburg Gubernia. In the Central Industrial Region there were 20,000 members, and the number of workers in large factories was 277,000. [7]

The membership of the French revolutionary organisations is still to be counted in the hundreds, and this out of a working class far larger than that of Russia in 1905-7. The revolutionary press in France is puny compared to that of Russia in the periods under comparison. In Petrograd alone three daily Social-Democratic papers were published, with a circulation ranging from 50,000 to 100,000. [8] Trotsky and Parvus, with no organisation, took over a tiny paper, the Russian Gazette, and transformed it into a mass popular paper. According to Trotsky in My Life, “Within a few days the circulation rose from thirty thousand to one hundred thousand. A month later, it reached the half-million mark.” [9] In France there was not one revolutionary daily, and the circulation of the weeklies was only a few thousand.

In part the explanation of the difference between the pattern of events in France in 1968 and Russia in 1905 lies at the organisational and ideological levels. In France there is a strong, conservative workers’ party, besides which there are small, weak revolutionary groups. The resilience of the French Communist Party, and the difficulties facing th groupuscules in gaining credibility in the eyes of the masses, are important factors. [10] The situation in Russia was completely different.

But this is only part of the explanation of the failure of the French struggle to develop to a higher level. The strength of the reformist organisations and ideas and the “crisis of leadership” are inherent in the objective situation. The two decades of capitalist expansion since 1948 have profoundly affected the labour movements of Western Europe, resulting in “the fragmentation of the working class,” “privatisation” or in conventional terms “apathy.” This false consciousness was defined by E.P. Thompson as the idea that individual and sectional problems which are essentially social, can be solved by individual and sectional efforts.

The other side of the coin of apathy – cause and effect thereof – is the increasing bureaucratisation of the traditional workers’ organisations, the parties and trade unions, and their increasing collaboration with employers and state.

The alienation of workers from their traditional organisations has gone on over a whole generation. This expresses itself in a number of symptoms. Before the First World War, the British labour movement had two daily papers – the Daily Citizen and the Daily Herald. Today with the Labour vote much larger than 60 years ago, the labour movement has not even managed to maintain its weekly Reynolds News, later renamed the Sunday Citizen.

The French CP, with some two million voters, finds it difficult to maintain L’Humanité, whose print order is less than 200,000 (of which a big proportion goes to Russia and Eastern Europe). It is true that the Labour Party has six million members, but it is doubtful if ten percent of these know they are members. The process of alienation is not a conscious act of rejection; the majority of workers are unconscious agnostics, not real atheists, towards their traditional organisation.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 came after a decade of continuous development of the workers into a more and more united, politically conscious, class. The 1968 events in France followed a long period of fragmentation and privatisation. In Russia the revolution followed a decade of increasing politicisation of the working class; in France it followed years of depoliticisation.



Reforms and the revolutionary struggle

The basic difference between the background to the 1905 revolution in Russia and the last couple of decades in Western Europe is summed up clearly in the relation between reforms (wage rises, etc.), and the generalised revolutionary, political struggle in the two periods under comparison.

There has probably never been in the history of capitalism a period of twenty years in which real wages rose as quickly as in Western Europe in this period. In Britain real wages have doubled since the war. In the five years 1959-1964, hourly earnings rose in Britain by 35 percent, in France by 50 percent, in West Germany by 54 percent, in Italy by 74 percent. [11] As against this in Russia wages were practically stagnant up to the 1905 revolution. The average earnings of a factory worker were:


201 rubles


231 rubles


201 rubles


214 rubles


208 rubles


242 rubles


213 rubles


236 rubles


205 rubles


242 rubles

Average for five years:

206 rubles

Average for five years:

238 rubles

This shows that 1905 was a turning-point. “...Until 1905 the Russian factory worker’s wages averaged 206 rubles. After 1905, they average 238 rubles, i.e., 32 rubles more per year, an increase of 15.5 per cent ... The year 1905 improved the worker’s living standard to a degree that normally is attained during several decades.” [12]

While workers in Britain, as well as those in other advanced industrial countries, have won the overwhelming majority of strikes during the last two decades, the Russian workers were beaten in the majority of cases, except for the period of the revolution itself. “The statistics show that during ten years, 1895-1904, the employers won 51.6 percent of the strikes (according to the number of strikers involved), in 1905, 29.4 percent; in 1906, 33.5 percent; in 1907, 57.6 percent; in 1908, 68.8 percent.” [13]

On the bases of the Russian experience Lenin could repeat hundreds of times that reforms are the by-products of revolutionary struggle. “Partial improvements can be (and always have been in history) merely a by-product of revolutionary class struggle.” [14] “The truth that reforms are possible only as a by-product of a movement that is completely free of all narrowness of reformism has been confirmed a hundred times in world history and is particularly true for Russia today.” [15]

Yet the stabilisation of Western capitalism on the cone of the H-bomb made it possible for reforms to be achieved over a long period independent of revolutionary politics. This is the basic difference between the background to 1968 France and 1905 Russia. This is the main objective factor making it possible for the PCF [3*] and CGT leadership to transmute a revolutionary general strike into a series of wage demands.

The new phenomenon, the May-June mass struggle, has not wiped out the inheritance of twenty years. Actually, it must be explained as an outgrowth from this same background. The new, the revolutionary, grew upon the general period of fragmentation, political lull and apathy. This explains, basically, how the greatest revolutionary struggle was channeled into the struggle for such puny, reformed aims.

For decades Marxists used to infer the state of mass consciousness from a new institutional barometers – membership of organisations, readership of papers, etc. The deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations smashed all such barometers to pieces. This explains why there was no way of detecting the imminence of the upheaval in May 1968. And also, more important, it explains the extreme, explosive nature of the events. If the workers in France had been accustomed to participate in the branch life of the trade unions or the Communist Party, these institutions would have served both as an aid and as ballast preventing the rapid uncontrolled spread of the strike movement. The concept of apathy or privatisation is not a static concept. At a certain stage of development – when the path of individual reforms is being narrowed, or closed – apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action. However, this new turn comes as an outgrowth of a previous stage; the epilogue and the prologue combine. Workers who have lost their loyalty to the traditional organisations, which have shown themselves to be paralysed over the years, are forced into extreme, explosive struggles on their own.

Traditional barometers missing, the policies of the bosses and the state, as well as those of the trade union bureaucrats, are much less sure, much more vacillating, then before. Their reaction, even to marginal challenges, may be unexpected, brutal, and seemingly irrational.

The stability of Western capitalism is beginning to falter. This does not mean that Western capitalism is faced with collapse, as in the thirties. In the coming years we can expect an unevenness in the rate of economic growth, and intermittent expansions. The contradictions in the permanent arms economy, appearing above all in the international liquidity crisis, will prevent systematic growth of the economies of Western Europe. In this unstable situation the forms by which the ruling class exercises its political and ideological control will become more contradictory. During the period of steady economic expansion, the bosses were ready to accept a practically autonomous shop stewards’ organisation inside the factory and more or less “liberal” policies outside. The economic faltering, with traditional barometers broken, means that many of those tolerant attitudes will have to go. The political impact of the contradictions in capitalism under such conditions must far exceed their economic significance. By itself apathy, or a declining interest in the traditional reformist organisations (the Labour Party, Communist Party, trade unions, etc.), does not mean the overcoming of reformist ideology. For this a long struggle is necessary, in which all sections of society are involved, in which all parties and ideas are put to the test, and in which the victory of revolutionary ideas over reformist ideas takes place.



Beyond the fragment

For some two decades the picture of Western capitalism as expanding, with ups and downs but still in a fairly orderly way, and its concomitant, a fragmented working class, more or less fitted reality. Today the picture is much more complicated.

The fragments have not ceased to exist, but the boundaries between them are not static, but conditional and changing. The pure fragment is non-existent. New generalisations rise as superstructures on the fragments, without completely eradicating their boundaries. The vast subsoil of the old fragmentation still exists, but on top of it a new kind of generalisation rises. The picture is mosaic, patchy and inelegant. But this is the picture of the transitional stage we find ourselves in today.

To give a few examples. In the booklet Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards we wrote: “The need to combine and coordinate the activities of shop stewards at least between the plants of a single combine is self-evident, but moves towards such coordination have been quite slow and faltering.” [16]

Since then and especially over the last few months, fantastic strides have been taken in building real combine committees, above all in ICI, BMC, Fords, Rolls Royce, GEC-AEI-EE. Who would have visualised a few months ago a complete ban on overtime in Rolls Royce’s many factories employing over 50,000 workers, to defend the jobs of some 700 workers or the national Ford’s strike – the first ever – on February 24? Again, the February 27 strike called by the Scottish miners, even if it involved only a few tens of thousands, was the first militant political strike since 1926!

The generalisation, beyond the fragment, takes original, unprecedented, complicated patterns. Workers at Injection Moulders in North London occupy their factory for eighteen days and nights, 2,100 workers at Armstrong factory in York do the same for a day, so do a few thousand workers in Dagenham’s Body Plant. The inspiration did not come from immediate experience: probably LSE and other student sit-ins provided it. When locked-out Ivy Bridge building workers decide to try and install a hundred homeless families in the almost-completed flats this is a new kind of generalisation, very different to the traditional one of contacting building and other workers to ask for help in their own struggle.

The Prussian Minister of Internal Affairs, Herr von Puttkammer, coined the famous phrase, “In every strike there lurks the hydra of revolution.” Lenin commenting on this statement said: “If you say that every strike conceals the hydra of revolution, and he who fails to understand this is no socialist, you are right. Yes, the socialist revolution looms behind every strike. But if you say that every single strike is an immediate step towards the socialist revolution, you will be uttering empty phrases ... undoubtedly, clear as it is that behind every strike there looms the hydra of socialist revolution, it is equally clear that the assertion that every strike can develop into revolution is utter nonsense.” [17]

What is necessary, above all, is to understand dialectically the relation between the partial – the strike, the struggle for reforms in the fragment – and the total struggle against the system. It is necessary to understand the richness, the many-sided nature of the way – through contradictions, conflicts and upheavals – the fragments are being bridged in real life.

With the increasing fusion of state and business (incomes policy and labour legislation) the boundaries between fragments have become more and more conditional and dynamic. Something new grows out of the old – different “stages” appear simultaneously. In such a situation sharp changes, sudden turns, unexpected combinations of different and conflicting elements of struggle, consciousness and organisation in the working class are bound to appear again and again. The whole movement can develop only as the result of very long and numerous struggles.



Young workers and other workers

To add to the complexity of the picture one must not only remember that all the boundaries between “fragments” of the working class are dynamic, but that cutting across the class is the division between young and not-so-young workers.

The student rebellion had some effect in radicalising at least one section of the French working class – the young workers. They, more than anyone else, are effected by the economic crisis of French society. It is very difficult for them to find a job, and if they do, it is often a dead-end. From childhood they are roughed up by the police as “delinquents” or rebels. They are affected by the ideological and moral crisis of society.

When the students proved on May 6 that not only were they ready to fight the police, but they were also able to stand their ground against them, thousands of young workers joined them. The number increased even more on May 10, the Night of Barricades. After that, thousands of workers started visiting the Sorbonne. The revolutionary élan there caught their imagination. The young workers are very similar in their attitudes to society to the students. They rebel against the whole set-up. The old workers’ thinking is basically concrete. It grows from bread-and-butter issues that are with him all his life, from trade-union consciousness. The young workers have usually been in a particular factory only a short time and they have no great interest in the specific work conditions. Socialist consciousness transcends trade-union consciousness. The young workers, like the students, are practically free of trade-union consciousness.

The young workers can provide much of the enthusiasm necessary for sustaining a revolutionary organisation. When massing working-class resistance to the system is lacking, the youth’s protest can focus the aspirations of many working-class militants, and give confidence to old-timers who have been let down time and time again by the traditional organisations and feel isolated among the more backward workers. In France the young workers showed much greater self-confidence than the old ones. Unfortunately the cleavage between the age groups caused many of the young workers to leave the factories during the struggle and to move to a milieu more congenial to them – among the students in the Latin Quarter.

For Marx the concept of exploitation transcends that of alienation. The latter describes the situation of the individual in an inimical society, the former explains the cohesion of collective workers in opposition to the ruling class. The young workers cannot sustain a struggle unless they unite with workers of all ages in organisations based on the place of work.



From the general to the particular

The introduction of the incomes policy means that workers in a factory face not only their individual employer, but also the state, as the representative of the ruling class. The two, employer and state, do not make a simple, unified, homogeneous front. While Barbara Castle dictates the general norm, the individual employer opens up a second front, offering the workers a rise above the norm at the price of worse conditions and weakened shop-floor organisation.

The response necessary is both general – political, and particular – applicable to specific industries and places of work. Transitional programs of demands connecting the particular with the general are needed. Such programs by definition must be adapted to the specific conditions of different industries, different plants, etc. The point of reference of every such program must be a many-sided investigation of the dialectical relation between the state, the employing class and the workers in the particular industry or plant. Some two and a half years ago we wrote:

Both the rise of the shop steward organisations and the number of unofficial strikes are symptoms (among other things) of the common aspirations of the working class: towards workers’ control. Under capitalism the worker is a cog in the machine with no say in the running of production, and no part in the creative organisation of his work. The growing number of strikes in Britain expresses the worker’s rebellion against this subordination, this mutilation, limitation and alienation of his own creativity, only too clearly. [18]

The urge for workers’ control is becoming more stridently expressed in strikes, as the decline in the proportion of strikes over purely wage issues shows: “In the twenty years of high employment from 1940 the proportion of strikes about “wage questions other than demands for increase”, and (particularly) about “working arrangements, rules and discipline” rose remarkably: from one-third of all stoppages to three quarters ... One could say that these disputes all involve attempts to submit managerial discretion and authority to agreed – or failing that, customary – rules: alternatively, that they reflect an implicit pressure for more democracy and individual rights in industry. [19]

With productivity agreements beginning to play a central role all issues of conditions become much more clearly and closely intertwined. The question of workers’ control over production and the question of political power will come to the centre of the arena of workers’ struggles.

The strategy, if one may grace the chaotic, spontaneous, practically blind reaction of the industrial rank-and-file militants over two decades with this word, was simple: let the national leadership of the trade unions deal with industry-wide bargaining, fixing the floor of wages, and let the shop stewards deal with local bargaining to raise the ceiling. What the militant cared most about was the latter, wage drift. Bargaining within the individual firm took place over such matters as piecework rates and other forms of payment-by-results, additions to wage rates such as bonuses, and local rules and practices including the manning of machines and demarcation questions.

We cannot follow the syndicalists in idolising fragmented militancy. However militant a body of workers, unless this militancy is generalised into political action, it is bound to increase the gulf between workers in less fortunate positions (old workers, or workers in stagnating or declining industries) and workers in a strong position. Sectional militancy multiplies the fragmentation of the class, substituting local or sectional consciousness for class consciousness. Hence it is possible for Smethwick workers to be quite militant industrially and at the same time racist. The sectional pressure delivers better wages, but it cannot solve problems like housing, which depend on state-wide policies (policies that depend very closely on international factors such as the strength of the pound, the dollar, its effect on the interest rate, etc.). The racialist trap is the result of the limitations of sectional action and sectional consciousness.

With state intervention in incomes policy, and the drive toward productivity agreements, the helplessness of local militancy that does not tie up with the general experience of the class, will become more pronounced. With the move away from piece rates, the sharp cuts in overtime working (and it was control over these two things which made the shop-floor organisation decisive) and negotiation of productivity agreements in individual plants passing into the hands of full-time union officials and “experts”, the challenge to the shop-floor organisation is greater than ever before.

The vacillation of the trade-union bureaucracy between the state, employers and the workers, with splits in the far-from-homogeneous bureaucracy will continue and becomes more accentuated during the coming period. The union bureaucracy is both reformist and cowardly. Hence its ridiculously impotent and wretched position. It dreams of reforms but fears to settle accounts in real earnest with the state (which not only refuses to grant reforms but even withdraws those already granted) and it also fears the rank-and-file struggle which alone can deliver reforms. The union bureaucrats are afraid of losing what popular support they still maintain but are more afraid of losing their own privileges vis-a-vis the rank and file. Their fear of the mass struggle is much greater than their abhorrence of state control of the unions. At all decisive moments the union bureaucracy is bound to side with the state, but in the meantime it vacillates. It is important to see that this attitude actually introduces confusion and disorganisation into state policies themselves, for instance the hesitations of James Conway in the Ford dispute must make Barbara Castle’s steps less sure.

It is wrong to confuse the employers and the state with the ambivalent union bureaucracy, and to ignore the conflicts between them or to brush them aside. For the very reason of its bureaucratic position, the union bureaucracy is in conflict with the workers, but because of its dependence on its members it is bound to reflect workers’ pressures to some extent. Its policy is not consistent. Even the pattern of its retreats in the face of threats from employers or the state is not completely predictable. During a whole historical period the shop-floor organisation existed alongside but relatively independent of the trade-union machine. The mutual relations between these two was clearly expressed by the existence of wage drift, determined by local negotiation, and the national consolidation of gains by the union. During the long period of co-existence shop-floor and trade-union machinery, the latter became more and more bureaucratic, and the workers less and less interested in it. Democracy on the factory floor managed to co-exist with bureaucracy in the trade union structure. But even in the heyday of shop-floor militancy the syndicalist apathy or indifference towards the official unions was unjustified. The shop-stewards’ committees always relied on the union machine in lesser issues against management (court cases about accidents, etc.) and they quite often found it very important to try to get official recognition for strike action. They often used the union as an important channel of communication with other fragments of the class. Above all they needed union recognition in order to get support from the more backward workers in their own place of work.

Productivity deals and long-term agreements must encourage the intervention of the full-time officers in local negotiations. The trend will be to transfer local negotiations away from the hands of the shop stewards and into the hands of experts. The interests of the employers in disciplining the shop-floor militants, and the trade-union bureaucracy in integrating the shop stewards into the union structure, converge. But this is only one trend. In the United States it is practically completed because it has had a run of some three decades almost free of deep economic convulsions in the economy. The shop stewards in the United States are often simply the trade-union bureaucracy’s policeman on the beat. [20] In Britain the trend has begun too late, in a period of much greater convulsions in British capitalism, and it will meet incomparably greater resistance. Even if this trend is bound to win ultimately, in the meanwhile Marxists cannot deal only with ultimates but must participate in the struggles against it. Apathy toward the trade unions will become more and more an unpediment even to the immediate economic struggle for the defence of labour conditions. The demand for worker’s control of the trade unions will become more and more vital. This demand can take the authentic form of a demand for radical changes in the structure of the unions, – election of all union officials, right of recall, paying them wages no higher than those of the members they represent – or the purely reformist, opportunist form of the CP and “left” labour – “Vote for X”.

The question of workers’ control over conditions, over speed-up, manning of machinery, etc. and the question of workers’ control over the trade unions, will become more and more intertwined.



Bankruptcy of the Traditional Left

The trade-union bureaucracy is basically divided in its attitude to the incomes policy into two sections: the right accepts it; the other, the “left” (Hugh Scanlon, Frank Cousins, Jack Jones, Clive Jenkins, etc.), try to circumvent it by getting extra pennies for the workers in exchange for selling conditions. Both sections of the bureaucracy try to avoid a massive workers’ confrontation with the employers and the state. The parliamentary Labour Party and the CP with its “British (parliamentary) Road to Socialism” [4*] are prisoners of this strategy.

The main industrial strategy of the CP has been for a long time winning official positions in the trade-union hierarchy. With the increasing integration of the union bureaucracy with the state, and its ideological justification under “Labour” the irrelevance of CP policies is bound to increase.

CP policies are being undermined from another direction too. For decades it used to get a new infusion of blood from thousands of industrial militants who in practice cared less for trade-union elections than for plant militancy. Many of them were to all intents and purposes less interested in the CP as a political organisation, then as a community of industrial militants. The majority of CP members in industry for many years have been really pure syndicalists. With the encroachment of general on local issues – incomes policy, legislation to emasculate the shop stewards, etc. – the co-existence of syndicalist tactics and political reformism is undermined. Every time a general issue is raised, the CP members in industry are split from top to bottom. Thus during the anti-Devlin strike in 1967, CP dockers in Southampton supported Devlin and scabbed, so did Lindley, the CP leader of the lightermen m London; Will Paynter’s policy of no resistance to closures and attacks on absenteeism split the CP miners, etc.

The crisis of the international Communist movement increases the impotence of the CP. This has left the members of the Party cynical, apathetic and disillusioned. The CP plays more and more a routine bureaucratic role. Their incapacity to mobilise their own members in any campaign is unbelievable.

The traditional organisations, the Labour Party and CP will prove completely incapable of attracting the youth, students and workers who are in rebellion against the whole capitalist system.



Difficulties for Revolutionaries

The old forest of reformism is withering away. The trees are without leaves, the trunks are dying. But in society old ideas are not wiped away unless they are replaced by new ones, and the shoots of revolution are very small indeed in the British labour movement. Reformism can never be defeated by programmes. It can only be defeated by deeds. The education of the masses – not the pedantic SPGB [5*] version – can never be separated from the independent political revolutionary struggle. Only struggle discloses to the workers the magnitude of the struggle, widens their horizons, and clarifies their mind.

The point of departure of a revolutionary organisation is the experience – the action, thinking and organisation – of the workers, and the aim of its operation is raising the historical initiative and drive of the working class.

The weakness of revolutionaries in Britain at present is quite obvious. Small in number often isolated because of social composition – white collar and student – from the main sections of the working class, split into a number of groupings, and above all lacking experience in leading mass struggles. But these weaknesses can be overcome. Readiness to learn, readiness to experiment systematically, above all readiness to try and translate the general theories into practical activities – this is what is necessary. In a complex and rapidly changing situation, readiness to move from simple tasks to more difficult ones, above all readiness to overcome one’s own mistakes, is crucial. . The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in mistakes, refusal to admit and correct the mistakes. [21]

The greatest defect of revolutionaries who have been isolated for years from the mass movement, is their inclination to make a virtue out of necessity, and concentrate on theories to the exclusion of practice, forgetting that above all the duty of a revolutionary is to raise theory to the level of practice.

To say that we are in a transitional period is not enough. We must be clear what is specific to the transition, and devise forms of propaganda and organisation that will take account of the specific characteristics of the situation. The main features of the immediate period are, to recapitulate: quick changes, fluctuations, economic, social and political, reflecting both the expansion of capitalism, and its intermittent, unsystematic nature; reactions on the part of bosses and state that are disproportionate to the economic challenge, and hence appear as irrationally nasty, withering away of loyalties to traditional organisations – the “vacuum on the left” – and inertia of old reformist ideas, so king as they are not positively replaced by revolutionary ones; fragmentation of the working class and generalisation beyond the fragments, co-existing with the boundaries between the fragments conditional and changing swiftly, and their combination in a many-sided fashion.

Fatalism, that is inimical to Marxism in general, exposes its poisonous nature especially under such dynamic conditions. The initiative and perseverance of revolutionaries are at a special premiums




For clarity of direction it will be very important to locate the concept of the new transition period we have entered into, in the context of our previous analysis; What follows will try to do just this.

(1) After the Second World War three options were open to Marxists in the evaluation of the immediate future of capitalism: (a) To assume that the war changed the features of capitalism very little, i.e., that massive unemployment, very low wages etc. will continue. (This, basically, has been the line of the SLL. [6*]) (b) Capitalism has changed completely, is no more irrational and anarchic. (This was the position of Anthony Crosland and John Strachey.) (c) Capitalism is as irrational as ever but now its irrationality not so much in non-use of productive capacity, but in misuses – the permanent arms economy.

The theory of the permanent arms economy is both a continuation of the basic position of Lenin, Luxemberg and Trotsky about the completely reactionary nature of modern capitalism and a partial negation of this position. The new stage in. the permanent arms economy over the last couple of years – the decline in its stabilising impact, and increase in the element of instability: especially the increasing international competition between national capitalist powers, the liquidity crisis, etc. are nothing but a further development, i.e., are nothing but a further development, i.e., continuation and negation of the same.

(2) What about workers’ consciousness? The numerous defeats of the British workers in the 1920s (Black Friday, 1921, the Engineers’ Lock-out in 1922, the defeat of the miners in 1926) tattered the workers’ self-confidence. The massive unemployment of the 1930s went further to weaken theft resistance. The full employment (or near full employment) of the war and the post-war period gave the workers new confidence, but at the same time fragmented the working class: sectional consciousness largely replaced class consciousness. “Do-it-yourself” reformism was a partial advance – to self-reliance and self-activity – but also a partial retreat.

The development of the consciousness of the class was spiral in form. Now, again, the new stage is a partial negation of the stage before: the locus of action breaks the boundaries of the fragment.

(3) The propaganda and agitation of revolutionaries. Before the Second World War the agitation carried on by revolutionaries was putting forward, on the whole, highly generalised slogans. The 1938 Transitional Programme written by Trotsky was very characteristic. Dealing with mass unemployment, with the mass threat of fascism and war, there is no reference to specific local points of struggle (top-steward committees, unofficial strikes, etc.) at all. However the general political slogans had no impact to speak of in the labour movement. (The effectiveness of a Transitional Programme depends not only on the logical connection between its parts, but above all on the actual class forces which make it possible to carry the transition from one demand to another.)

After the war, because of the general expansion of capitalism and the great improvement in workers’ wages, a propaganda that tried to generalise from the fragments, again had no impact to speak of.

Now, with the new stage – the increasing similarities between the experiences of workers in the different fragments and the trend to break down the borders of fragments a revolutionary agitation that is both general and specific can start having a greater impact than ever before. [22]

International Socialism, up to now at best an ideological trend, now faces the challenge and opportunity to become linked with the mass working-class movement.

In summing up one can say that the third stage the British working class has entered is a “negation of the negation” – synthesising elements of the first stage (the 20s and 30s) – class identification – and of the second stage (1945-1965) – self-confidence. The synthesis is higher than the individual elements joined in it and pregnant of great revolutionary possibilities.




1. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.23, p.247.

2. Ibid., Vol.19, pp.534-6.

3. Action, No.6.

4. Analyses et Documents, No.155.

5. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.11, p.265.

6. Ibid., p.357.

7. Ibid., p.358. Lenin was, of course, not satisfied with the size of the Party. He wrote: “We must learn to recruit five times and ten times as many workers for the Party.” “We suffer from routine, we must fight against it ... Our slogan is: for a larger Social-Democratic Labour Party.” Vol.11, p.359.

8. Ibid., Vol.23, p.248.

9. L. Trotsky, My Life, p.177.

10. T. Cliff and I. Birchall, France, the Struggle Continues, International Socialism publication, 1968, pp.45-50.

11. Financial Times, 10 March 1965.

12. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.28, pp.258-9.

13. Ibid., Vol.26,p 385.

14. Ibid., Vol.26, p.170.

15. Ibid., Vol.19, p.327.

16. T. Cliff and C. Barker, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards, 1966, p.97.

17. Lenin,op. cit., Vol.27, p.95.

18. Cliff and Barker, op. cit., p.89.

19. Ibid., p.90.

20. Sunday Times, 9 February 1969.

21. Lenin, op. cit., Vol.26, p.58.

22. Only once before in the past generation has Trotskyism had some real links with the mass working-class movement – during the Second World War.



1*. CGT – Confédération Générale du Travail, the main French trade union federation, controlled by the Communist Party.

2*. CP – Communist Party.

3*. PCF – Parti Communiste Française – French Communist Party

4*. The British Road to Socialism was the name of the programme of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

5*. SPGB – Socialist Party of Great Britain, a small propagandist group renowned for its “theoretical purity”.

6*. SLL – Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary Party), the largest Trotskyist organisation in Britain during the 1960s.


Last updated on 12.2.2008