Tony Cliff

Where do we go from here?

(April 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 1, April 1978, pp. 12–15.
Transcribed & marked up Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This interview with TONY CLIFF, a leading member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, is the first in a series with socialists of differing viewpoints on the state of the British Labour movement. The interview was conducted by Alex Callinicos

In the last six months or so the left in the trade union movement has suffered a number of defeats – most obviously, the firemen’s strike, but also tn the mines. Leyland, etc. How serious have these defeats been?

Going around the country it is absolutely clear that workers are in no way demoralised. It is quite different from the situation after the defeat of the postmen’s strike by the Heath government in 1971 – then, whenyou met postmen you found that they were extremely depressed. Now, when you meet firemen, they have fantastic pride in their struggle – no sense of demoralisation at all.

I’ll give two simple examples. In one case, I spoke to a couple of firemen from a station in Essex and asked them about their relation to the fire officers, who scabbed on the strike. They said: ‘We simply don’t feed them – we cook for everybody, but not for the officers’. That’s a sign of self-confidence – they wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

You may have read about the other case in Socialist Worker. In one station an officer was given a cup of coffee by a fireman and he got terrible stomach pains. He suspected the fireman of poisoning him and so he rushed to the police station. He was taken to hospital and operated on – they found he had an ulcer! Now this again shows that the firemen are not on their knees.

What is also clear when you go round the country is that workers don’t believe that they can win. They don’t know how to win. It is not a question of their being demoralised – they don’t feel that that they don’t have the strength to fight. They don’t know how to mobilise their strength.

Therefore, when you ask how serious the defeats are, the defeats are serious from the simple standpoint that we have never had in Britain three stages of incomes policy that worked. Under Wilson between 1964 and 1970 we had two stages, and then the third stage fell to pieces. Under Ted Heath the collapse started at the second stage.

At present, not only is stage three holding, but they are talking about stage four. We’ve had support for stage four from Weighell of the NUR and Dave Basnett of the GMWU for example. And therefore we should not underestimate the feeling of impasse inside the movement.

What caused these defeats? In particular, did they simply result from the role of the trade union leaders, or did the weakness of shopfloor organisation and rank-and-file organisation generally also play a part?

To start with the union leaders, when I wrote a book on productivity deals eight years ago I didn’t mention the full-time convenors. As a matter of fact the estimated number of full-time convenors in the country in the late 1960s was 500. There are probably 6,000 full-time convenors today. That’s a very great change.

Again, I’m not talking about convenors only. When you look at the mines, there are three key people in every NUM lodge – the president and secretary of the lodge, and the lodge delegate to the NUM Area Council.

Now it is very interesting – these three lodge officials don’t work down the pit, although they are paid the wages of a face-worker. The abyss between the conditions of their life and those of a worker really at the face is absolutely massive and they’ll do anything to avoid going back to work down the pit, even if they started out as faceworkers.

Now this is the organisational aspect – in other words, the trade union bureaucracy has a much bigger base in terms of the number of people supporting them in the workplaces than simply the 3,000 union officials. But there’s something much more important than that.

Because of the massive productivity deals of the late 1960s and because of incomes’ policy and unemployment, the power of the individual shop steward, which was largely based on his ability to shift piece rate, to shift bonus-rates, has declined quite seriously. One of the best proofs of this is the fact that wage drift – ten years ago one of the most important expressions of the power of individual shop stewards – has practically disappeared from industry.

Therefore, we are in a period in which the struggle must become much wider than the individual shop and in which, on the other hand, the organisation inside the factory relating the individual shop stewards still goes through the convenor, who is increasingly collaborating with management through participation schemes etc. Faced. with participation and the new wave of productivity deals the shop stewards feel themselves less and less able to act as a collective.

What we find as a result is that the overwhelming majority of unofficial strikes at present involve not so much unofficial strikes of whole factories, but unofficial strikes of individual sections within the factory. Quite often the strikes are not led by the convenor or the shop stewards’ committee but by individual stewards.

In many cases we have the phenomenon of the unofficial, unofficial strike – in other words, the rank and file in one section or other start a strike and they are supported subsequently by the shop stewards.

All this is a fantastic impediment to workers fighting. They feel they cannot deal with the big things. They can handle little, sectional problems, but how the hell can you deal with massive issues like redundancies or a general wage claim within one shop?

But beside these organisational points, there is something not less fundamental and that’s the ideological aspect. You see, the assumption of the reformists in the movement – and this applies not only to the labour leaders but also to the convenors and to the stewards and the rank and file, to all those who accept the basic reformist ideology – is that reforms can be achieved within the framework of capitalism without challenging the capitalist system.

Now, as long as capitalism was expanding there was logic in it – it sounded OK. But now that capitalism is really in crisis, unless the militant is ready to challenge capitalism itself he cannot even fight for reforms.

I’ll give one simple example. The shipyard industry internationally is in crisis. This crisis is even more serious in British shipyards. Now what was the reaction of the leadership of Govan shipyard workers to this crisis? They signed a 31-point agreement with management which includes no strikes for the duration of the agreement, increasing flexibility and a target to cut the number of manhours per ship from 850,000 hours four years ago to 400,000 hours next year. In other words, seeing that we have unemployment anyhow, let’s cut the number of employed workers even more! Of course, another expression of this situation is the readiness of the shop stewards at Govan to take ships blacked by the workers of Swan Hunter.

Now the logic of this situation is quite simple, if Marx was right when he said that the working class is the grave-digger of capitalism, then, of course, the sicker the capitalist system the better it is for the gravedigger.

But if on the other hand the job of trade unionists is to get benefits within the framework of capitalism, then the sicker the capitalist system the more concessions the workers must make to the system. In other words, they have to become the doctors of capitalism rather than its gravediggers.

This is the reason why left reformists who were ready to fight when capitalism was doing well will not fight when capitalism is doing badly. On the QE2 the captain doesn’t mind if people play soccer. But on a tiny little raft the captain can’t let anyone rock the boat. That is the reason, why the Joneses and Scanlons have moved so far to the right.

Of course, the fact that reformism is identified with the Labour Party and that Labour is in power accelerated this shift to the right. I don’t believe for one minute that if the Tories were in power the NUM Executive would have accepted the ten per cent limit by 14 votes to 10 – perhaps they would have rejected it by 14 to 10. Now this ideological aspect is important because it affects not only the people at the top but also the leadership on every level of the movement.

We can sum all this up by saying that the labour movement is facing a crisis of leadership that affects every level of working-class organisation, from the top of the trade unions down to the shop steward’s committees.

How do the Broad Left and the Communist Party fit into this crisis?

You see, there is no question that when Scanlon and Jones became the leaders of the two biggest unions in the country this gave a fantastic fillip to the activity of the and file, the shop stewards, the district committees, etc. But at the same time only those left leaders could have contained the militants. The CP and the Labour left in the unions would not have tolerated from right-wing leaders like Deakin and Carron what they did tolerate from Jack Jones and Scanlon. That is the first thing we have to say.

Second of all, because the Communist Party for many, many years has put the emphasis on electing left-wing union officials, once they got the left-wing union leadership they found themselves in a very serious internal, crisis. The question for the CP was whether they put the emphasis on rank-and-file trade union activity – in other words, on militancy here and now on wages and conditions – or whether they put the emphasis on propaganda for an alternative economic strategy of import controls, state control of investment, etc. to be implemented by a left Labour government at some time in the future. They chose the second option. In reality, today the most enthusiastic Tribunites are the Communist Party leadership.

But this causes problems for them because for a long time the strength of the Communist Party was that it was a community of militants. It is true that in their programme, The British Road to Socialism, the CP talked about the parliamentary road, etc., etc. But this duality, this split personality, did not affect the Party too much because really what kept them together was their activity in industry. But now that the trade union bureaucracy has moved so far to the right the crisis of reformism goes throughout the party.

One of the expressions of this crisis is the fact that blacklegging, which was unheard of among union officials – especially left-wing ones – twenty or thirty years ago, has become respectable not only among union officials but among Communist Party convenors.

The Jim Airlie phenomenon is absolutely astonishing, especially when you compare the behaviour the right-wing convenor of Austin Pickerskill shipyards in Sunderland who simply said we are blacking the Swan Hunter ships and then Jim Airlie at Govan takes them. The difference is that the right-wing convenor is less committed to the Scanlons and the Jones of this world and so under less pressure from them not to rock the boat.

Isn’t there a danger of being too pessimistic in looking at the present situation? After all, sections of workers have broken through (e.g. at BOC), and there still seems to be a willingness to fight on the part of many workers – take the case of the power-workers who we saw on the news chasing Frank Chapple the other day.

There is no question that workers would like to fight. The move from defensive strikes to offensive strikes can take place very quickly. You have simply to check the strike statistics after the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation in 1971 – and UCS was a defensive struggle which did not lead to a complete victory, although it was a significant victory. The number of strikes for wage-claims as a result of UCS was simply massive. There is not a fantastic abyss, a Chinese wall, between defensive and offensive strikes, between even a retreat and going on the offensive. But what is necessary is that one significant group of workers will stand up and fight.

Now the idea was that perhaps the firemen could do it – but the firemen did not win. The strike was not generalised – giving money to a fireman was not generalisation of the struggle.

Because of that, when you ask me if I’m pessimistic, I’m not pessimistic at all – I simply say you need a breaking point. A breaking point can come in Speke over the closure by Leyland of the Triumph plant – I suspect it will not come there. I suspect that it will be postponed until a group of workers stand up and fight. Exactly when that takes place I can’t predict.

Switching to the future, then, what will be the impact of the coming general election on this situation? In particular, what would be the effect of a Thatcher government, which seems to me to be the most probable outcome?

First of all, I will deal with the question of the approach of the general election. I believe that James Callaghan will very likely use the coming general election as an argument for phase four. If the general elections come in October this year or even more so if they come in March next year, he’ll turn around and say: ‘We’ve cut the rate of inflation to seven or eight per cent and therefore we want a phase four of (let’s say) five or six per cent’.

Now, all the arguments that I have used up to now about phase three will be sharpened at that time. Because workers are prepared to give the benefit of the doubt, because of loyalty, because loyalty is based on fantastic conservatism and basically because workers are not prepared to throw existing organisation away unless they see something to substitute, to fill the gap, and this something doesn’t exist yet, because of all this, I think that the lead-up to the general election will not change the trend by itself.

A Tory victory on the other hand, will change it extremely quickly. All the bitterness that collected over the last three or four years will burst in the face of Margaret Thatcher – not in the first few months, because for the first few months militant workers will be stunned by the immediate impact of a Tory victory. But after a few months, workers will begin to fight because they have not lost anything in terms of their massive power.

Workers have not really been beaten. There have been defeats – in the hotels, at Grunwick, but generally among weaker sections of workers. What happened to the big battalions? They were not defeated by going into battle and being beaten – they simply didn’t go into battle, because they were held back by the union bureaucrats and the convenors, etc.

Now if you have a Tory government, this holding back will no longer be effective and therefore workers will burst into fight. So the situation can change radically if the Tories win.

This looks like a good opportunity to ask you about the article you wrote in Socialist Worker recently in which you predict three possible outcomes to the present impasse – another rebellion of the lower-paid as in 1969, a UCS-type situation, or a spontaneous general strike like France in 1968. Isn’t there a fourth alternative – more of the same, with the trade union bureaucracy containing rank-and-file militancy and people’s frustrations being channelled rightwards into the Nazis?

I’ll deal first of all with your second question. Fascism cannot become a mass movement before workers go into a mass struggle and are disappointed. Up to now, the National Front are on the periphery – they get only five percent of the vote and, when it comes to the key areas of the working class, they simply don’t exist. The fourth alternative isn’t an alternative – unless one of the first three possibilities takes place and leads to a defeat for the workers.

What did I mean by the three alternatives I outlined? We know that ‘theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life’. I don’t really believe that one of the three alternatives will happen as I put them. What will happen is a combination of them or some other permutation of their elements.

What is common to the three examples I gave? In each case we have a long record of workers being held back by the union bureaucracy, a long long period of workers being depressed because they didn’t get a lead in the struggle, followed by an action by some group which changes the situation. In the first case it was the dustmen, in the second case it was UCS, in the third a working-class movement was detonated by the action of students.

Now I can’t really know the exact form of what happens, but one thing is clear – you can’t go on and on with a situation like the present, where working-class organisation is intact, workers still haven’t been beaten and there is a steady deterioration in their quality of life. This will especially be accelerated if there was a small upward trend in economic life. If there were five months of economic growth then there’s no question of it – the expectations of workers would rise much more quickly than if the recession continued.

Therefore, the three alternatives I gave were simply illustrations of what frustration can lead to. The fourth alternative is not oh unless the workers go into struggle on a mass scale, are really beaten and then get completely demoralised.

What political conclusions do you draw from this analysis for the activity of revolutionary socialists? In particular, what do you think the perspective is for building rank-and-file organisation and what role do you see for united action by the left wing of the labour movement?

First of all, the most important lesson is the need to build a rank-and-file movement. But quite often people see building a rank-and-file movement in terms of building relations between combine committees into a movement that covers all industry. Now we have to speak about a much wider, much deeper movement, a movement that goes much further, because when you look at the situation in the working class you’ll find that the shop organisation is more cohesive than the factory organisation.

From the outside a factory looks like a unit, from the inside it looks like a collection of villages. Also, you’ll find that the Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee is always much stronger than the Combine Committee. And when you look at the relation between Combine Committees, there hardly exists any relation at all.

When you add to this what I said about the crisis of leadership affecting every level of the movement, then, when it comes to building a united rank-and-file movement, we mean not only going to the factories to collect money for Dessoutter or Grunwicks but also going inside the factory to argue the case for Dessoutter. Don’t rely like ten years ago on going to the factory convenor and asking him to collect the money. It is very good to ask the convenors to collect the money, but you have to do the propaganda inside the individual shop as well. Don’t simply put the demand, e.g., for strike action, in the way it was done in the docks last summer.

The National Shop Stewards Committee in the docks decided against the ten per cent and they expected the different docks to vote for it. You needed only one dock – in Southampton – to beat the decision, so that with only a tiny handful against strike action the whole thing collapsed. What was necessary under such conditions was to argue in every individual section of the docks – to argue the case again and again on every dock, and only then to argue it nationally and take it back to the membership.

In other words, we must not simply deal with the unity of the rank-and-file leaders from the top – we have to relate to the rank-and-file leaders on every level of the movement. We have to strengthen shop organisation, factory organisation, combine organisation, making propaganda for workers’ unity at every level. This is a very big task.

Also, we must make it absolutely clear that building rank-and-file organisation is a question of politics. You can’t simply say that you are opposed to sackings in steel, for example. The truth of the matter is that the steel industry, is losing ten million pounds a week. Now, my calculation is that the steelworkers’ wage-bill (including management) is less than twice the annual losses. Therefore, if workers really want to preserve their jobs and at the same time to accept the capitalist system, the only alternative is to demand that all workers accept a wage-cut of more than fifty per cent, and that, of course, is not on.

We have to put the political alternative. We have not simply to demand that there are no sackings, but that the steelworkers should be paid full wages, that they should be put on a three-day week, etc. These demands begin to challenge the basis of the capitalist system – they lead to the need for a planned socialist economy, not in terms of some abstract economic alternative, but in terms of what workers need faced with the world steel crisis. Therefore, the question of politics comes to the fore.

The question of racialism, for example, brings politics to the shop-floor. One of the most serious things that we find at present is that in some unions the racialists are doing far too well for our liking. This happens where for one reason or another the lack of unity between workers fits the racialist propaganda.

For example, if you look at the railways you’ll find that there are different messhalls for drivers, for guards and for shunters. Now, seeing that the drivers are practically all white, seeing that the guards are black and white, and that the shunters even more so, the area where racialism is strongest is in the drivers’ union, ASLEF, which is much worse’ in this respect than the NUR. It doesn’t make me happy at all to learn that there are NF resolutions from two branches coming up at the ASLEF conference. Here again, then, rank-and-file unity involves a political fight.

Now, how does this relate to left unity? It relates because we can’t simply say ‘All or nothing’. There are workers who agree with us on A or B but not on C. There are workers who are against racialism, against the Nazis, but not against immigration controls. Of course, we as revolutionary socialists must be consistent and we make it clear that we are against immigration controls. But if somebody joins the Anti-Nazi League and he doesn’t agree with the abolition of immigration controls, that’s his headache.

Again, we believe that the Nazis have to be stopped, if necessary, by physical confrontation. If someone believes only in making propaganda we say: ‘All right. Let them distribute the leaflets, they are pacifists, they won’t use violence, they will be attacked by the Nazis, and we will use the physical force to protect them against the Nazis.

Now, when it comes to the trade unions the same problem faces us. Of course, we would like a movement that is based on complete independence from the trade union officials, whether left or right, a movement that supports the trade union officials only to the extent that they support the rank and file and therefore will support Bob Wright for AUEW president only to the extent that he agrees with rank-and-file demands. This will be our attitude as revolutionary socialists.

But there are members of the Communist Party and members of the Labour left who have illusions in Bob Wright, who will support him unconditionally. Then we’ll say: ‘All right, we’ll agree to differ on the question of what attitude to take when there is a clash between Bob Wright and the rank and file.’

If there is a Leyland toolroom strike and Wright opposes the strike, then we will not support him and we will support the toolroom workers. But if there is a situation – and it will appear again and again – where the choice is between Bob Wright and a right-winger like Terry Duffy, then we will support Wright against Duffy.

This sort of question will arise because when the movement has been shifted so, far to the right the issue of united action with people who are to the right of us but still on the left centre of the movement becomes very important. But let’s be clear about it – this unity of action in no way means that we hide our attitudes to the union bureaucracy.

The main problem for us is not our attitude to Bob Wright but our attitude to the individual strike that takes place and in many cases Bob Wright will be against the strike, as in the case of the Leyland toolroom workers. Therefore, I don’t really believe that the question of our relation to Bob Wright should take more than five per cent, if you want to put it in terms of figures, of our thinking.

The main emphasis will not be on Bob Wright but on the independence of the rank and file from the trade union bureaucracy, including Bob Wright.

In conclusion, how does the problem of building a new socialist party fit into this perspective?

First of all, everything I have said up to now – the crisis of leadership at all levels of the labour movement, the importance of politics in building the rank-and-file movement – means that the need for a revolutionary party, is greater than ever.

Now, a revolutionary party must relate to the immediate struggle and to the final struggle – the struggle inside capitalism and the struggle against capitalism. Because of this interrelation the question of the rank and file is central for us. We establish our credibility only to the extent that we can lead the rank and file both politically and industrially here and now.

Of course, if the Tories came to power and there was a mass movement in opposition to it, the Socialist Workers Party would look much smaller than it does now because it would be a small fish in a big stream. Now we much prefer such a situation because it would give us a much bigger opportunity to create a mass influence for our party over time, although it immediate impact would be to cut us down to size.

At present our growth is quite modest because of the low level of struggle. However, for the first time, that I can remember the SWP is appearing as an alternative to the Communist Party.

We are not an alternative to the Labour Party in terms of the working class as a whole, but we appear as an alternative to the Communist Party in terms of the industrial militants in struggle. We also appear as an alternative in terms of activity against the Nazis.

At the present time the test for us will be whether we can relate to the struggles that so take place, even if they are small and defensive. We must relate to the rank-and-file at every level of action, even if the action takes place within the individual shop or factory. This means trying to root the SWP firmly in the workplaces.

Only if we succeed in doing this will we be able to exploit the opportunities that will come when workers’ frustrations explode into mass action.

Last updated on 13 September 2019