Tony Cliff

After Pentonville:
the battle is won but the war goes on

(August 1972)

From Socialist Worker, 5 August 1972.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle, Selected Works Vol.2, Bookmarks, London 2002, pp.329-34.
Transcribed by Artroom, East End Offset (TU), London.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This has been the greatest victory for the British working class for more than half a century. The battle has been won, but the war against capitalism is still going on.

After such a great victory it is important to take stock, view the battlefield as a whole and, while full of enthusiasm and the will to struggle, keep a cool head and think out the strategy, tactics and organisational measures necessary to lead the struggle forward.

The motive behind the Tories’ attack on the working class is not the nastiness of the rulers, nasty though they be, but the deepening crisis of world capitalism.

The weapons the ruling class uses are determined largely by the immense strength of workers’ organisation and workers’ resistance. In fact, as Lenin put it, there is no crisis of capitalism the capitalists cannot find a way out of if the workers are ready to pay the price.

The workers’ resistance makes it more and more difficult for the bosses to get their way. Let us look at the weapons bosses have been using for the last few years.

Incomes policy: The aim of this is to shift the distribution of the national income from wages to profits.

In the 1920s and 30s, with massive unemployment and a weak shop organisation, the employers never dreamed of offering a wage rise of 31/2 percent or 5 percent. Instead they cut wages all round.

Productivity deals pay homage to working class strength. Basically, a productivity deal is a bitter pill in terms of worse conditions, speed-up, etc, but it is covered with sugar.

In the 1920s and 30s management didn’t dream of saying, “We will give you an extra £3 a week on condition you accept deterioration in working conditions.” They simply dictated, “If you want a job, have it. If you don’t, out you get.”

Key wage settlements: The idea of taking on the post workers and keeping down their wages, plus setting an example to other sections of the working class, is again homage to working class strength.

In the 1920s and 30s the employers reduced all workers’ wages. There wasn’t one weak section to become an example to the strong sections – all sections of the working class were weak.

Anti trade union legislation: Again homage to our strength. When shop organisation was weak and unemployment massive, the philosophy of capitalism was non-intervention of the state in labour relations.

Let there be a free for all and the best man win. And you can guess who won.

But, because of the present strength of workers’ resistance, the capitalist machine does not work the way the bosses want. The driver steers and the machine doesn’t turn. He presses the accelerator and it doesn’t speed up. He puts on the brake and it doesn’t stop.

What, in heaven’s name, is affecting the engine? The answer is the workers’ will and ability to resist.

For example, the question of key wage settlements. It is true that the government managed to beat the post workers at the beginning of 1971. They got only a 9 percent rise. This meant a cut in real wages of some 5 or 6 percent.

When the cost of living is rising by 10 percent the workers must get 15 percent – as a third of any wage rise goes in deductions – just to stay in the same place. But the defeat of the post workers did not prevent Chrysler workers getting a rise of £6 a week in the same month.

Ted Heath and before him Harold Wilson believed that unemployment would introduce discipline on the wages front. (Remember Wilson’s “shake-out of the labour market”?)

For nearly two decades Paish’s Law was accepted as a holy truth. Professor F.W. Paish of the London School of Economics had been economic adviser to the Tory government. His theory was that a certain level of unemployment – anything between 2 and 2½ percent – would break workers’ resistance and put them in their place, so that wages would be contained. However, even with unemployment running at a million, Paish’s Law did not work at all.

Workers’ organisation is too strong for unemployment of the present magnitude to break their will to fight. Actually, unemployment in many cases spurs workers on to further claims. A Dundee building worker told me about a year ago, “Because of the heavy unemployment among builders in my town we decided not to work for less than £1 an hour.”

The Paish logic, on the other hand, is that, if under conditions of more or less full employment a building worker is ready to work for 75p, he will come cap in hand to the boss and be ready to accept a wage of 60p if there is unemployment.

But the workers argue exactly the opposite: “If I am sure of 40 hours a week, then I can manage on 75p. But if there is unemployment I must demand at least £1.” Finally, the Industrial Relations Act didn’t work the way the Tories expected or hoped. Now we don’t have to waste too much space to prove this, emerging as we are from five days that shook Tory rule.

It is true that if a ship loses its rudder the captain may use the left engine and stop the right, and then use the right and stop the left.

But this is a costly and ineffective way of moving a ship. If the five rank and file docks militants had to be freed from prison perhaps pliable Jack Jones can serve now as the disciplinarian of the rank and file.

The threat of £55,000 over his head may serve to soften him up. We always knew that we have the best trade union leaders money can buy!

Workers’ memories, however, aren’t as short as all that. Perhaps two months ago a £55,000 fine would have terrified the rank and file, at least for a time, into submission. But why should workers stop picketing Midland Cold Storage even if Jack Jones has to pay the £55,000?

There is no compulsion on him to pay. He can fight back. If a strike can free the five, it can also prevent the imposition of a fine. If the TUC declared in advance that they would bring the country out on a one-day strike every time a fine was imposed, the ruling class would find the gain not worthwhile.

Every day workers in this country produce goods and services to the value of £150 million, so let’s say to our rulers, “You fine us £55,000 and we will take it back not in thousands but in millions.” That is only fair. It is not an equal exchange, but then we do not live in an equal society. So again this weapon of the ruling class somehow doesn’t hit the target.

Partial struggles: The other side of the coin to the ineffectiveness of Tory oppression is the fragmentation and volatility of the workers’ struggle. If we juxtapose the great victory of the dockers and workers who came to their aid over the five days, against the fight of the Fine Tubes workers for more than two years, we see how fragmented the struggle is.

The management of Fine Tubes are far smaller in calibre, in weight, in resources than the executive committee of the capitalist class as represented by the state. On the other hand, the workers of Fine Tubes are members of two of the biggest trade unions in the country – the TGWU with 1,700,000 members and the AUEW with 1,400,000.

How is it that unions with more than 3 million members cannot crack a peanut the size of the Fine Tubes management? The answer is that the trade union bureaucracy was much more effective in paralysing aid to the Fine Tube workers than in paralysing the dockers and the workers who came to their aid.

But the struggle is fragmented also in another way. Take the miners. They won a magnificent victory. They smashed the Tory wage norm. They wiped the smile off Ted Heath’s face.

But they could not prevent the rise in the cost of living, or the loss of Family Income Supplement, free milk, etc. What they held in their hand largely slipped through their fingers.

Again, the dockers five weeks ago saved three of their members from going to prison. But the very same weekend the giants of the City of London went on strike and they and other big businessmen transferred hundreds of millions of pounds out of this country.

The result? The floating pound and rising prices. The docker can prevent his mates being arrested but he cannot prevent his children losing school milk or the rise in prices now or after Britain joins the Common Market.

Every partial struggle under capitalism means that no victory is really complete.

Volatility: The working class movement has been suffering the last few years not only from fragmentation, from the partial nature of the struggle, but also from extreme volatility.

If one looks back to the 1920s or 30s the struggle was largely systematic in its development. One event followed another in practically a straight line.

If one looks at the 1940s and 50s until the mid-1960s, again, for a whole generation we face a systematic development in the class struggle. Year by year workers’ real wages improved practically everywhere. Strikes were small in size, short in duration and practically always victorious.

Of course to all these steady developments there were important exceptions. After all, capitalism is an anarchic system and there cannot but be many exceptions to any rules governing the way it works.

As against this long period from the First World War to the mid-60s, the last few years have seen great volatility in the movement. Take only a couple of examples.

The defeat of the post workers led to the same or lower wage settlements involving millions of workers. 1971 was a year of declining wages all round, with important exceptions. Then came the miners’ victory and following it the railwaymen’s. A fantastic zigzag!

The volatility is even clearer in the case of the struggle against the Industrial Relations Bill. On 8 December 1970 half a million workers came out on strike against the Industrial Relations Bill. The struggle rose.

On 21 February 1971, 140,000 workers demonstrated against the bill. There must have been many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who identified themselves with these demonstrations in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, and so on.

On 1 March 1½ million workers came out on official strike against the bill. On 18 March a similar number came out again. On that day the TUC made it clear they were not ready to give a lead in the general struggle against the bill. The result? There was an immediate 180-degree turn.

The militants’ slogan now was “Stop the retreat”. From an offensive posture they turned to a defensive one. This volatility affects largely the advanced sections of the working class. It is rooted in: (1) the feeling of the militant that quite often he cannot carry the majority of his own workmates with him; and (2) his isolation from militants in other places of work and, even more, in other industries.

Three cog wheels: The trade union movement, with 11 million members and 250,000 shop stewards, is a powerful cog, with by far the strongest shop organisation of the working class anywhere in the world.

Let’s assume that we had in this country a revolutionary socialist party, a combat organisation, steeled in struggle and schooled in the art of strategy and tactics for the overthrow of capitalism. Let’s assume that we, the International Socialists, who are building such an organisation, had 50,000 members.

There is no question that this would indeed be a powerful cog wheel. However, one cog wheel of this size could not have moved the cog wheel of 11 million. If it tried it would only break its cogs. A connecting cog wheel is necessary between the two.

This is the organisation of militants in different unions and industries who work together round specific issues, issues wider than those affecting a small group of workers in one place of work and not going as far as to aim at a complete emancipation of the working class by the overthrow of the capitalist system.

IS members participate in building such a cog wheel in the form of rank and file organisations round papers like the Carworker, the Collier and Rank and File Teacher. The aim of these is to influence the policies of the trade unions.

The rising conflict will disclose to workers the magnitude of the struggle, will widen their horizons and will help to clarify their ideas. It is very important for members of IS to do their best to recruit militants into our political organisation as well as to strengthen all existing rank and file industrial and trade union organisations.

Generalise the struggle: One of the main strengths of the dockers’ five-day struggle was the clear unity between the particular life and death interest of the docker protecting his livelihood and the general interest of the working class to break the yoke of the Industrial Relations Act.

In the coming stage of the dockers’ struggle this unity has to be preserved. There is no doubt that the media, television and the press, that serve big business, will do their best to show the dockers’ struggle as a struggle of one group of workers in their own selfish interests against other workers.

It is extremely important that the dockers make it absolutely clear that their struggle is a struggle for the right to work. Now more than ever it is important to have leaflets and posters by the thousands putting this case.

It is important that dockers themselves should go around factories, power stations, mines and so on and put this case clearly forward. One live docker can make more propaganda for the truth than 1,000 copies of the Daily Express.

In the new stage the question of generalisation rises in another way. During the five-day struggle the rank and file showed itself in all its glory while the trade union bureaucracy, including Jack Jones, showed their complete bankruptcy. Now that the dockers’ strike is official, the danger is that those bankrupt full-time officials will take over the running of the strike.

It is even more important now that the joint Port Shop Stewards’ Committee is central in actively running the strike, in publicising the issues and in developing the strategy and tactics of the struggle.

The question of generalisation arises also in yet another way. The Tory press is arguing that a docks strike can go on for a long time without damaging the economy, that is, big business. To some extent it is whistling in the dark.

However, the experience of 1970 with a 2½-week docks strike makes it clear that to spread the struggle is important. A docks strike affects exports but it also affects imports.

When the miners’ strike started, the Tory press was confident that the government would win because it assumed that the miners would simply picket the mines. But the rank and file miners were 100 percent right when they showed their initiative in picketing the power stations. This is a lesson that the dockers should not overlook.

The question of generalisation of the struggle also raises a question of new institutions created in struggle. In the short five-day struggle very close relations were created between the dockers and the printers in Fleet Street. It is important that those close relations continue.

It won’t be amiss if the printers refuse to print particularly obnoxious attacks on the dockers. After all, we are told we live in a free, democratic country, and if six owners of the press have a right to dictate what is being published in their papers, why shouldn’t the printers also have some say?

In the five days of struggle the embryo of a “Council of Action” connecting dockers and printers and other workers was in the making. In new, more prolonged, wider struggles the question of a Council of Action will really come to the fore.

The last point in terms of generalisation – episodic struggles are very prone to accidents. Their outcome depends on the relation of forces in every specific situation.

Because the ruling class is highly centralised, its ability to manoeuvre is much greater than any individual section of the working class.

Therefore the need for a revolutionary party, to repeat, as a school of strategy and tactics, and at the same time an active combat organisation, will become more vital than ever.


Last updated on 22.1.2005