Tony Cliff

On perspectives:
The class struggle in Britain


From Nigel Harris & John Palmer (eds.), World Crisis: Essays in Revolutionary Socialism, London 1971, pp.225-50.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, Neither Washington nor Moscow, Essays on Revolutionary Socialism, London 1982, pp.218-38.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The central problem always facing Marxist revolutionaries is how the struggle of workers inside capitalism is related to the struggle against capitalism. For social democracy even in its heyday – the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the present – the problem was not even posed. There was no need to link reform with revolution. The organisation separated completely the minimum programme (i.e. the demands that can be achieved under capitalism) from the maximum programme (the demand for the end of capitalism). The maximum goals of socialism were relegated to the far future. The partial day-to-day struggle was for reforms. Socialism did for May Day speechifying.

In direct opposition to social democracy, Lenin repeated hundreds of times that reforms are the by-product of revolutionary struggle: “partial improvements can be (and always have been in history) merely a by-product of revolutionary class struggle”. [1] “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.” [2]

This statement fitted perfectly the Russian experience. 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 the year 1905 was a turning-point: between the two averages was “32 rubles more per year ... an increase of 15.5% ... The year 1905 improved the workers’ living standard to a’ degree that normally is attained during several decades.” [3]

Russian workers were beaten in the majority of their conflicts with the employers, except for the period of the revolution itself. The statistics show that during ten years, 1895-1904, the employers won 51.6% of the strikes (according to the number of strikers involved); in 1905, 29.4%; in 1906, 33.5%; in 1907, 57.6%; in 1908, 68.8%.” [4]

The situation in Western Europe has been very different since the Second World War. Except for the first couple of years after the war, in all advanced countries the relation between reform and the revolutionary struggle has been very tenuous indeed. There has probably never been in the history of capitalism a period of twenty years in which real wages rose as quickly as in this period. In Britain real wages have doubled since the war. In the five years 1959-64 hourly earnings rose in Britain by 35%, in France by 50%, in West Germany by 54%, in Italy by 74%. [5]

The stabilisation of Western capitalism on the cone of the H-bomb made it possible for reforms to be achieved over a long period, independently of revolutionary politics.

However, things have begun to change over the last few years. The stability of Western capitalism is beginning to falter. This does not mean that Western capitalism is faced with the kind of collapse of the inter-war years. 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, partly reflected in the international liquidity crisis, will inhibit systematic growth of the economies of Western Europe. The hurdles on the path of reform are becoming higher and higher. The period of decline in the working-class political movement is at an end.


The Generalised Employers’ Offensive

It is less than ten years since the first major productivity deal was negotiated at the Esso Oil Refinery at Fawley, Hampshire. How many workers who read of this strange new phenomenon would have gussed that in such a short time the same type of deal would come to dominate the lives of so many. The Fawley deal was signed in July 1960. [6] In December 1966 the Government Prices and Incomes Board (PIB) estimated the spread of productivity deals thus:

Over the last six years, productivity agreements ... have probably affected no more than half a million workers. [7]

But immediately after the publication of this report there was a rapid increase in the adoption of productivity criteria throughout the national industrial negotiating machinery. In 1967 the number of productivity deals registered at the Department of Employment and Productivity (DEP) averaged about sixty per month. Once the rush had started, the pace grew more intense. For the first five months of 1968 the number of deals registered rose to seventy- five per month, and the number shot up in June of that year to a level of about zoo per month for the remaining seven months of the year. Since the beginning of 1969 the number of productivity deals registered at the DEP was at a lower level but still double that of the first half of 1968.

In February 1969, this register recorded some 2,500 cases covering around 4½ million workers, or 20% of all employed workers ... at the end of June 1969 the register recorded some 3,000 cases covering approximately 6 million workers, or 25% of all employed workers. [8]

It took about a hundred years for the piecework payments system to spread until it encompassed two-fifths of the British working class. Productivity deals engulfed some 25% in a few years.

With justified satisfaction the Financial Times declared:

the country’s present obsession with productivity probably exceeds the wildest dreams of those who were trying to spread the word five years ago. [9]

The implementation of productivity deals was facilitated by the governments s incomes policy. On the face of it this policy had hardly any impact at all on the pattern of wage changes. All in all, in the four years of income policies – October 1964 to October 1968 – average hourly earnings (excluding the effects of overtime) rose by 27%, as against 23% in the four preceding years. [10]

Even Aubrey Jones, Chairman of the PIB, was very cautious regarding the effectiveness of the incomes policy. He believed that the net effect of the policy had been that the “average annual increase in earnings in recent years may have been just under 1% less than otherwise it would have been”. [11]

This was a very tentative conclusion. Of course, there is no certain way to tell what would have been the increase in earnings had there been no incomes policy. Nevertheless, neither a Declaration of Intent nor a law could stop well-organised workers in their trade unions from pushing their wages upwards to try to keep pace with rising prices. But the indirect effect of the incomes policy was much greater than its direct effect. For the incomes policy prepared the ground for the spreading of productivity deals, a far more sophisticated weapon for the employing class.

Aubrey Jones dotted the “i’s” and crossed the “t’s”:

All that we have heard suggests that the effect of government policy, especially since July 1966, has been to direct the attention of both the employers and trade unionists away from conventional bargaining and towards productivity bargaining. [12]

The Labour government blocked the path to a direct advance of wages, but left wide open the trapdoor of productivity bargaining.

One should not, however, draw the conclusion that the incomes policyhas served only as a prelude to the introduction of productivity deals. The failure of incomes policy in itself contributed to the pressure for productivity bargaining. The failure of incomes policy to hold down wages dictated the move towards productivity deals – i.e. making workers pay, by working harder, under worse conditions, for their wage increases. This is where the employers’ offensive springs from. The years of effort to impose the incomes policy located the main obstacle: shop-floor organisation. Hence the determination to eliminate this power not by direct confrontation but by fundamental alterations in the structure of industrial relations, which would be designed to isolate and undermine this power.


Strengthening the Power of Management

One of the main aims of productivity deals, in the words of Allan Flanders, publicist of the famous Fawley Productivity Agreement, is to put an end to the abrogation of management authority by workers:

This is the aspect of productivity bargaining that I particularly want to stress. I find it difficult to see how the accumulated disorder, which is the heritage of two decades of post-war growth in the unofficial system of collective bargaining, can be cleared up without the help of productivity agreements. The re-establishment of order and control is central to my case for productivity bargaining, because in the long run this may be far more important than the immediate gains that can be found in terms of increased labour productivity. [13]

And with considerable relish, the same author reports:

More and more managements seem to me to be becoming aware that the labour situation has drifted dangerously far and that they are faced with the need to re-establish control over their workers. And since in the modern world they cannot re-establish control unilaterally, the plant productivity bargain seems to them a logical first step towards a modern viable system of managerial control over pay and effort. [14]

Productivity deals are seen by employers as a means to curb the militant shop steward. They achieve this by the following means:

  1. Reorganising their payments systems in such a way as to remove from the bargaining table the issues over which stewards have traditionally argued and in doing so gained their leverage. These issues concern mainly the wages levels associated with piece-work rates but also include such questions as waiting times, availability of materials, etc.
  2. Denying stewards the right to bargain on details of new work systems such as Measured Day Work (MDW).
  3. Increasing the number of supervisors substantially and trying to channel workers’ grievances through these lower rungs of management – thereby bypassing the shop steward.
  4. Introducing highly formalised grievance procedures within the factory which enable the management to exclude shop stewards and replace them by local union officers.
  5. Under cover of flexibility clauses, establishing the right to move militants around the factory whenever they begin to build a base and win support among workers in a particular shop.
  6. Under cover of the Deal, stepping up the indoctrination of stewards by means of joint management/union sponsored courses.

The extent to which the employers are successful in these objectives depends very largely on the strength of the factory organisation. What the productivity deal does is to open the way for the acceptance of such changes which, under normal circumstances, would not even be countenanced by the best organised workers.


For “Partnership” of Employers and Unions

The real aim of the Donovan Report, of In Place of Strife, and numerous other similar documents was basically not to smash the unions, or even to weaken them as organisations, but to integrate them with management. This “partnership” was to be embodied in productivity deals an& formalised procedures in the plants.

The introduction of comprehensive formal agreements at factory level is the normal result of productivity bargaining and the central proposal of the Donovan Report. The reasoning behind this proposal is most clearly expressed by Allan Flanders, whose theoretical arguments strongly influenced Donovan, and who has been rewarded with a £6soo job on the Commission for Industrial Relations.

Flanders diagnoses the central problem, for management and the government, as

a progressive loss of managerial control over pay and work and therefore over labour costs, at plant level. [15]

To say that management has lost control is to say that workers have won an area of control: over piece-rate bargaining, overtime, manning, allocation of work, pace of production. All these areas of control which workers have been able to wrest from management – and which productivity deals are intended to restore to management – have arisen, Flanders argues, because collective bargaining at factory level is

largely informal, largely fragmented, and largely autonomous. [16]

Bargaining takes place at the point of production, where workers’ power is most effectively organised and where management is weakest. Lower-level supervisors – whose overriding concern is to get production out, and whose own reputation in the eyes of their superiors can be damaged by a strike – can be pressured into making concessions, informally, which top management would never sanction. And stewards can press hard, knowing precisely what are the feelings of their members, and being largely free of the restraining influences to which full-time officials are subject.

Informal plant bargaining, based on strong shop steward organisation, is an open expression of a relationship of conflict. Workers use their collective power to win concrete concessions in pay and working conditions, and to carve out an area of control. Because the inherent conflict is so obvious, the principal limit to workers’ demands is their own consciousness of their strength. And it is their increasing awareness of this strength which is so frightening to the ruling class. But formal plant bargaining necessarily means that the relationship is apparently transformed. Management meets union representatives as “equal partners” in discussing the organisation of work. Their negotiations aim at “joint regulation” of managerial questions. And the procedure under which these negotiations takes place is mutually agreed. In place of conflict, there is co-operation. Of course such “cooperation” is one-sided; as Flanders cynically puts it, “management regain control by sharing it”. Management can allow union participation in “joint regulation” only if the rules are stacked in its favour, and if the basic economic aims of the company are unquestioned; there must be, Flanders makes clear,

a common system of joint control based on real objectives. [17]

In return, many an employer expressed sympathy with the plight of the union full-time official who faces rebellious shop stewards. Lord Rootes had this to say:

We would like to make it clear that in our view there is considerable identity of interest between employers in industry and responsible trade unionism, and we prefer to see an improvement brought about by means of strengthening the position of the trade unions and enabling them to control their members more effectively than hitherto, so that agreements which are freely entered into on both sides are honoured. [18]

And John Davies, at the time Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), added:

We believe that trade unionists genuinely do not want this unconstitutional, irresponsible behaviour by their members in breaking agreements which the union has gone into. We all know many prominent trade union figures, who in the past and today, have expressed themselves in most forthright terms on this subject – you would think perhaps their greatest enemies were not employers but those of their rebel members who were bringing the unions into disrepute. [19]

Because productivity bargaining is a “soft option” in wage negotiations both Right-wing as well as Left-wing trade-union leaders are inclined to accept this willingly. The Right-wing leaders’ commitment to an incomes policy does not exclude getting extra money for his workers by selling conditions. The Left-wing top brass is happy to oppose the incomes policy without defending workers’ conditions. The only one that suffers is the worker. When it comes to productivity deals the limitations of the Left union leaders become very clear. Productivity deals pose in the most acute form the dilemma-either go through the procedure and according to the rules laid down by the government (this must mean “productivity” concessions) – or take direct action to win increases. Tied to procedure union officials are also thereby tied to productivity.

Trapped as they are in the logic of their own positions and reacting to mass pressure more than they initiate it, it is no wonder that the “soft option” of wage rises through productivity deals appeals to the top union officials-even the most Left’ of them. Scanlon of the Amalgamated Engineering Workers Union and Jones of the Transport and General support the principle of productivity deals. The Communist Party controlled Electrical Trades Union (ETU) was crucial in carrying through the Fawley agreement. [20] As a general rule, full-time officials are not averse to productivity deals precisely because these are bound to increase the power of the officials vis-à-vis the shop stewards.


The Ideological Offensive: Production – for What?

A central theme in the whole productivity bargaining campaign is the need for “efficiency” and “modernisation” in the interests of the nation. By raising the issue of productivity the government and the employers are forcing politics on to the shop floor. Socialists must take up the challenge. Government incomes policy was the soil upon which productivity deals mushroomed. Government deflationary policy softening workers’ resistance helped also the spkad of productivity bargaining. When the government and the employers talk of efficiency, socialists have plenty to say on that score; about the anarchy and waste of capitalist production; the fact that more is spent on advertising than on basic research; that millions are wasted on armaments; that constant re-tooling of car plants takes place not because tools are worn out but because competition demands accelerated obsolescence and never-ending “new models”.

The very purpose of production becomes an industrial issue. Should production be aimed at benefiting the workers, the old-age pensioners, or serve only to raise the profits of the rich?

The ideological offensive is in full swing. From government ministers, industrial tycoons and the political pundits of TV and the press we hear the same tune: “Forget about inequalities of wealth – that’s all old hat – if we all pull together and increase productivity then everyone will benefit.” It all sounds so plausible. If industry produces more then there will be more goods and services to go round. In a socialist society this would be true – by raising the productivity of labour we would give ourselves a choice; either a higher standard of living or shorter working hours. Today there is no such choice, because industrialists see higher productivity as a means to higher profit and in fact often have no wish to increase output at all. We see this contradiction most clearly in the motor industry. Although they are unable to sell all the cars they make at present, the manufacturers are desperate to push up productivity and make their workers work even faster. It is vital that we expose the employers’ pious talk about “efficiency” and “production in the national interest”. If British Leyland (BLMH) lay off 20% of their workers and still maintain the same level of output then there is a very obvious gain for BLMH. For the 20% who get the sack, and for the community as a whole, there is nothing gained at all. In the economy as a whole productivity’ can and is going up while production stays still-and structural unemployment grows.

The demands for increased productivity in the interest of greater profit should be countered by the socialist idea of production for use. By talking in terms of the “national interest” the ruling class is attempting to divert attention from the really important question of the distribution of income and wealth between classes. Of course, the wealthy want to treat this question of distribution as being of minor importance-after all their portion of the cake is in fact growing from year to year. For us, however, these are the important questions and it is here that our challenge must be made.


Shop Stewards’ Organisations: Weaknesses and Strengths

The shop stewards are the representatives of shop-floor democracy and hence the pillars on which any real revolutionary socialist policy must rely. In evaluating the shop stewards’ organisations at present, it is important that trade unionists and socialists be very clear about their weaknesses and their points of strength.

The most significant weakness of shop stewards’ organisation today is its fragmentation. As the concentration and centralisation of capital have increased, through the processes of merger and takeover, the great combines running a number of plants across the country have become very prominent. The need to combine and co-ordinate the activities of shop stewards at least between the plants of a single combine is self-evident. But moves towards such co-ordination have been quite slow and faltering. Nor are the reasons difficult to understand. Negotiations have been carried on at a local basis, in a particular factory or even a particular shop. There is a great unevenness in strength of organisation, in traditions of militancy, and so on.

Even when there are shop stewards’ combine committees, they are usually very weak indeed and their weakness is revealed clearly during industrial disputes.

Besides fragmentation, there is another associated weakness of the shop stewards’ organisations of today: on the whole, the horizons of these organisations are quite narrow. They tend to react to events more than they shape them, and they pay more attention to wages than they do to the equally important question of redundancy.

Above all, the problems of people who cannot defend themselves very well – people like old-age pensioners, nurses – are not central in workers’ activities and thinking. It is true, of course, that thousands of workers – lorry drivers, dockers, engineers – showed generosity of spirit in going on sympathy strike in support of the nurses’ pay claim in May 1962. But still action like this is the exception, not the rule.

The shop stewards reflect their supporters, and while this is their strength, it is also their weakness. When the majority of workers are not really socialist or even militant, the shop stewards they elect cannot be either.

A most insidious trend appearing in recent years is the increase in the number of full-time convenors, shop representatives, deputy convenors, works committee members, etc. – who spend an increasingly long period away from their increasingly nominal jobs. In many factories the ordinary worker who is elected shop steward very rapidly finds himself (if he is good at representing his men) taken away from the shop floor more and more often. Then he gets put on a “soft” job, to allow management to take him away without disrupting production. It is no wonder that many get completely divorced from their base. With factory convenors this is particularly strongly felt. Often the only contact they have with the workers is when they appear to try to persuade the men not to walk out over a grievance. The only answer to this process of incorporation is to insist on regular shop floor meetings.

In many cases workers became alienated not only from the union officials but even from the shop stewards. They see them as a buffer between themselves and management. Hence the growing phenomenon, in the motor-car industry especially, of unofficial unofficial strikes in which the workers act on their own without even the endorsement of their shop steward. Sir Jack Scamp reports:

At Morris Motors Limited, Cowley, for instance, the Council found that in 1965 256 out of 297 stoppages of work had occurred before the senior shop steward had even had a chance to put the grievance into procedure. [21]


The Widening of the Front

With a replacement of piece-work by Measured Day Work (MDW), with the abolition of tens of hundreds of wage levels in a plant and their substitution by a few grades, with plant negotiation instead of piecemeal negotiations, the ground is being prepared for a wider unity of workers in struggle. Whatever the intentions of management, workers’ solidarity could be strengthened by these changes.

This becomes obvious by comparing the pattern of strikes in Fords, based on MDW, grading, etc. and British Leylands, where Payments by Results (PBR) prey . The strikes in the former have been on the whole on a uch greater scale and continuing for a longer period. [22] Also the issues in the strikes, in the case of Fords, have been, on the whole, more fundamental, dealing with managerial prerogatives, production matters on the one hand and victimisation of workers on the other. [23]

As a matter of fact, productivity deals in themselves tend to provoke workers into greater militancy. At least, after the gilt on the gingerbread starts peeling off, it becomes clear that it means a much greater effort for the workers for relatively little or no extra money.

Take the case of the Post Office Engineers (POEU). In a fanfare of publicity they signed a productivity deal in January 1966. Three years later the first national strike in the 82-year history of the union took place. Similarly with the dustmen. In March 1967 the PIB suggested productivity bargaining for manual workers employed by local authorities, involving time and motion study, etc., for the magnificent wage rise of 5%, or some 14s. [24] During the whole of the summer of 1969 the unions were negotiating for the dustmen a wage increase of 18s and then at the beginning of October the dustmen went on strike. Their demands were not dampened at all by the past experience of productivity bargaining; on the contrary, they demanded an additional £4 11s, which would have brought their basic wage up to £20 a week. In the event, they were almost immediately offered a 50s a week rise in London (or 16%) and 30s (10%) in the provinces.

The miners followed suit and under the threat of a national strike (which actually broke out on a different issue and was the biggest miners’ strike since 1926 and the biggest ever unofficial strike) won 27s 6d for the surface workers – the largest wage rise in the history of the mines!

The firemen followed the example. Under threat of a strike on the eve of Guy Fawkes, London firemen won £4 10s and the provincial firemen a £3 10s wage rise.

Electrical power workers were next in line. In September 1967 the PIB, in reply to a request for a 5% wage rise put forward by the unions, offered 3.7% with very heavy new productivity conditions attached. [25] Instead, the workers in electrical power supply followed the example of the firemen and threatened to strike (in a few stations it even came to actual strike) so getting a wage rise of 10%.

The teachers took up the baton. The employers offered them a £50 interim rise on the annual basic wage (under 4%). The union leaders declared this “derisory”. Quite rightly, The Times explained:

An offer of £50 would have satisfied most teachers six weeks ago, but since then there have been awards of 16% to the dustmen, 9% to miners, and 12% to firemen. Now even the Right wing of the NUT [National Union of Teachers] will not be prepared to accept an offer of less than £70. [26]

It is very possible that productivity bargaining contributed indirectly to the size and height of the strike waves. Workers’ expectations rose when they heard from State and employers’ representatives about the benefits of productivity deals, while the reality was ... so much poorer. After a time all productivity deals become tarnished. (Other elements that caused the recent burst of wage levels are the failure of low-paid workers and workers not paid on piece-rates to keep up with the rising cost of living, and the worsening of their earnings relatively to the earnings of other workers.)

The incomes policy propaganda and the big rumpus about productivity bargaining concentrated the attention of workers on comparing wages. Hence the current phenomenon of the, so to say, epidemic wage demands: the dustmen inspired the miners, the firemen, the teachers. Similarly a couple of years ago the figure of £17 a week became a magic formula in Merseyside: once the dockers at the end of 1967 got £17 basic, the Liverpool busmen fought for the same, then the lorry-drivers and then the tugmen.

The factor of comparability – and the struggle for parity – increases also as a result of mergers. It is not an accident that with the rise of British Leyland the struggle for parity has raised its head inside the corporation (hence the long strike of the five Preston factories). The same is true in the car industry in general. Similarly, and previous to the rise of British Leyland, it was the joining of Morris and Austin into BMC that pushed the Morris Oxford factories, that used to be very peaceful, on to a much stormier course.


Sharpening of Class Conflicts

With the increasing advance of inflation, the capitalist class and its State are driven into a sharper and sharper, wider and wider confrontation with the working class.

At the time of writing, October 1970, public authorities have confronted a very wide section of the working class: local govern- meat manual workers, municipal busmen and miners, more than a million in all.

The employers in the private sector of the economy have also hardened their position. A couple of years ago the employers offered productivity deals in which the bitter pill was well covered with a thick coat of sugar. Now the sugar they offer is much thinner, especially if one takes into account the speed in the rise of the cost of living. Thus, for instance, in GKN Sankey, Wellington, the workers asked for £8 10s a week without strings to bring them up to the Birmingham standard of wages in the car industry. The employers offered the majority of the workers only a miserable £2 with many productivity strings. The top union officials of all the unions involved – from the right of the General and Municipal Workers’ Union to Bob Wright, “Left” leader of the AEF – sided with management. After six weeks of unofficial strike the workers knuckled under. The general trend with regard to productivity bargaining is that the strings are becoming thicker and the positive inducements weaker.

An integral part of the tougher employers’ offensive is the Tory trade-union legislation. Carr’s Industrial Relations Bill, Consultative Document (October 1970), is incomparably more harsh than Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife (January 1969) or even the Tory Fair Deal at Work (April 1968). Carr’s document puts the unofficial striker completely out of legal bounds. It aims to smash shop-floor democracy. It is symptomatic that in the thousands and thousands of words in the document two words are not mentioned even once, shop steward!


The Offensive of the Employers

For a whole generation there has been great apathy among workers about the trade unions. It seemed good enough to know who the shop steward was – who cared about who controlled the union as a whole? Now, with plant negotiations the foundations of all productivity bargaining, this apathy emerges as the source of a very dangerous weakness – the workers are unarmed.

Apathy towards politics was natural when reforms could be achieved on the factory floor, and while the only politics visible were those of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, of Parliamentary Toryism and Parliamentary Labourism. However, with productivity deals now thrusting politics on to the factory floor, political backwardness can be clearly seen as the Achilles heel of the working class.

The fragmented industrial struggle has been accompanied at many levels by a narrow, fragmented contradictory consciousness. Support for organised political opposition to the system dwindled while the path of improving one’s own conditions seemed to be open. (That this path was not a real solution to workers’ problems was beside the point.) Productivity bargaining by its direct attack on working conditions and the remaining workers’ organisations changes all this: it generalises workers experiences and resentments. Parochialism and shortsightedness become impossible impediments.

The implementation of productivity deals is associated with a comprehensive attack on workers, using all weapons: the State (incomes policy and anti-trade-union legislation), the trade-union bureaucracy, “science” (time-and-motion study), and ideology (the ideology of “national interest”, of “partnership of labour and capital”). The aim of the employers’ strategy is to split the workers, to subdue the shop stewards and integrate them into the union machine and incorporate the unions into the State. The workers need a total, a general, class strategy to confront the employers’ offensive, to move from defence to attack.

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 unchanging. The vast subsoil of the old fragmentation is still there, but on top of it new kinds of unity are arising. The picture is a mosaic, patchy and inelegant. But this is the picture of a transitional stage which we find ourselves in today.

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 arid numerous struggles.


The Contradictions in the Present Transitional Period

Over the last few years, it must be repeated, the economic-social-political scene in the working class has been very different from that of the two decades following 1948. However, from this one should not come to the conclusion that we are living in a revolutionary or at least in a pre-revolutionary period similar to those, let us say, of other proletarian revolutions in the past. To make this point clear it is useful to compare the present situation in Western capitalist countries with a previous revolutionary or prerevolutionary situation – for example, 1905 in Russia.

To bring things into a clear focus we will compare the highest stage of the revolutionary crisis in Western Europe in recent years – May-June 1968 in France – with the Russian revolution of 1905, the dress rehearsal for the October revolution of 1917.


May 1968 – a Turning-point

On 22nd May 1968 the French Prime Minister, Pompidou, told the National Assembly: “Nothing will ever be exactly the same.” Today such a statement sounds platitudinous. Just as between 1789 and 1848 the imagery – the personnel, the dramatic events – of the first French Revolution were the terms of reference for all revolutionaries, so when one reads Lenin or Plekhanov prior to 1905, 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.

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. [27]

However, the duration of the revolutionary wave in France was incomparably shorter. The Russian revolution stretched 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 on to the offensive. In 1906 workers’ strikes and peasants’ and soldiers outbreaks were much weaker than 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 standard. The picture becomes clear when one follows the strike statistics below.

Number of strikers [28]







1st quarter


2nd quarter


3rd quarter


4th quarter



1st quarter


2nd quarter


3rd quarter


4th quarter



1st quarter


2nd quarter


3rd quarter


4th quarter







The form of the revolutionary organisation of the working class in Russia in 1905 was far ahead of France in 1968. The year 1905 witnessed the birth of Soviets – of workers’ councils – the characteristic organisation of workers and the embryonic form of workers’ power. 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 being followed in Kiev, Kharkov, Rostov-on-Don, Odessa, Nikolayev, Ekaterinoslav, Vladikavkaz, Revel, 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 even 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 quashed by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT, the Communist trade-union federation). 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. It is interesting that even in Citroen, where for sixteen years there had not been a strike, and where only 7% 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 an independent network connecting the different strike committees. It did not exist even 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 27th May the Administrative Commission of the CGT declared: “What the government and employers have not agreed on at 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 wade, such as are being carried on in the nationalised 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 23rd May to receive a delegation of Renault Elms.

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. [29] 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.” [30]

The membership of the French revolutionary organisations is still counted in hundreds, and this from 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 period under comparison. In Petrograd alone three social-democratic daily papers were published, with a circulation ranging from 50,000 to 100,000. [31] Trotsky and Parvus, with no organisation, took over a tiny paper, the Russian Gazette, and transformed it into a mass popular paper. “Within a few days the circulation rose from thirty thousand to one hundred thousand. A month later it reached the half- million mark.” [32] In France there was not one revolutionary daily, and the circulation of the eeklies was only a few thousand.

In part the explanation o the difference between the pattern of events in France in 1968 and in Russia in 1905 lies at the organisational and ideological levels. In France there is a strong conservative workers’ party, beside which there are small weak revolutionary groups. The resilience of the French Communist Party, and the difficulties facing the groupuscules in gaining credibility in the eyes of the masses, are important factors. [33]

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 – both cause and effect – is the increasing bureaucratisation of the traditional workers’ organisations, the parties and wade unions, and their increasing collaboration with employers and State.

The alienation of workers from their traditional organisations has developed over a whole generation. This expresses itself in a number of ways. 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 sixty years ago, the Labour Movement has not even managed to maintain its weekly Reynolds News, later renamed the Sunday Citizen.

The French Communist Party, with some four million voters, finds it difficult to maintain L’Humanité, whose print order is less than 200,000 (of which a proportion goes to Russia and Eastern Europe). It is true that the Labour Party has six million members, but it is doubtful if 10% of these know that 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 organisations.

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.

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 of this same background. The new, the revolutionary, grew out of the general period of fragmentation, political lull and apathy. This is, basically, how the revolutionary struggle was channelled into a struggle for such puny, reformist aims.

For decades Marxists used to infer the state of mass consciousness from a few institutional barometers – membership of organisations, readership of papers, etc. The deep alienation of workers from traditional organisations eroded all such barometers. This is 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 the 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 are 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, than before. Their reaction, even to marginal challenges, may be unexpected, brutal and seemingly irrational.

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 in Britain were ready to accept a practically autonomous shop stewards’ organisation. inside the factory and more or less “liberal” policies outside. The economic faltering 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, 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.


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 affected by the economic crisis of French society. It is very difficult for them to find jobs and if they do they are often dead-end jobs. From childhood many 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 the 6th May 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 the 10th May, the Night of the Barricades. After that thousands of workers started visiting the Sorbonne.

The young workers are very similar to the students in their attitudes to society. They rebel against the whole set-up. The old workers’ thinking is basically concrete. It grows from bread-and-butter issues that are with the worker 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 massive working-class resistance to the system is lacking, youth protest can focus the aspirations of many working-class militants, and give confidence to old-timers who have been let down time and 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 struggles 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 promises 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 to oppose the ruling class.


Difficulties for Revolutionaries

The old forest of reformism is withering. The trees are without leaves, the trunks are dying. But, in society, old ideas are not wiped out unless they are replaced by new ones. 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 can never be separated from independent political revolutionary struggle. Only action 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 activity is to raise the 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 their social composition – white collar and student – from the main sections of the working class, split into a number of groups, 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 ...” [34]

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.

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 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 towards uniting the fragments, a revolutionary agitation that is both general and specific can start having a greater impact than ever before.

International socialism, up to now at best a theoretical trend, now faces the challenge and opportunity to become linked with the mass working-class movement. 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, patchy nature; reactions on the part of bosses and State that are disproportionate to the economic challenge, and hence appear as irrationally nasty; the withering away of loyalties to traditional organisations – the “vacuum on the Left” – and inertia of old reformist ideas, so long as they are not positively replaced by revolutionary ones.

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 premium.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.266, p.170.

2. Ibid., Vol.19, p.327.

3. Ibid., Vol.28, pp.258-9.

4. Ibid., Vol.26, p.385.

5. Financial Times, 10th March 1965.

6. The section dealing with productivity deals in the present article is largely based on the author’s book The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and how to Fight them, Pluto Press, 1970. The reader will find useful the articles by Tony Topham, Shop Stewards and Workers’ Control, in New Left Review, No.25, 1964; Productivity Bargaining and Workers’ Control, Nottingham, 1968; and Productivity Bargaining, in the Trade Union Register, 1969.

7. Prices and Incomes Board (hereafter PIB) Report No.23, Productivity and Pay during the Period of Severe Restraint, Cmnd 3167, p.8.

8. PIB Report No.123, Productivity Agreements, Cmnd 4136, p.3. Among the number included in the DEP register are some which were regarded by the department as not authentic productivity agreements. In August 1968 the number of such agreements was considered to be some 130, covering about 48,000 workers.

9. Financial Times, 29th September 1969.

10. Statistics on Incomes, Prices, Employment and Production, March, 1969.

11. PIB Report No.77, p.12.

12. PIB Report No.36, Productivity Agreements, Cmnd 3311, p.1.

13. A. Flanders in Engineering Employers Federation, Productivity Bargaining Symposium, 1969, p.14.

14. Steel Review, July 1966, p.6.

15. Collective Bargaining – Prescription for change, 1967, p.25.

16. Ibid., p.28.

17. Ibid., p.32.

18. Donovan Commission: Report No.23, Evidence of the Motor Industry Employers, p.889.

19. Donovan Commission Report No.69, Evidence of the CBI, p.2988.

20. “The ETU’s attitude ... was particularly interesting. Not only did this union have a Communist leadership nationally at the time [of the signing of the Fawley Agreement – TC] but the [full-time official – TC] and the senior steward were also avowed and longstanding members of the Communist Party. Anyone naive enough to conclude that the union must therefore be hostile to such management co-operation as the Blue Book implied would be mistaken. Throughout the negotiations the ETU [full-time official – TC] who was chairman of the CUC [Croft Union Committee – TC] adopted a very constructive attitude and in this was strangely supported by his senior steward. ...” (Flanders, op. cit., p.112.)

21. Ministry of Labour, Motor Industry Joint Labour Council, Report by Sir Jack Scamp, 1966, p.10.

22. Turner, Clark and Roberts, Labour Relations in the Motor Industry, Chapter 9.

23. Ibid., p.263.

24. PIB Report No. 29, The Pay and Conditions of Manual Workers in Local Authorities, the National Health Service, Gas and Water Supply, Cmnd 3230.

25. PIB Report No.42, Pay of Electricity Supply Workers, Cmnd 3405, p.22.

26. The Times, 7th November 1969.

27. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.23, p.247.

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

29. Ibid., Vol.11, p.265.

30. Ibid., p.359.

31. Ibid., Vol.23, p.248.

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

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

34. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.26, p.58.


Last updated on 27.12.2003