Tony Cliff

Building in the downturn

(April 1983)

Editorial, Socialist Review, No. 53, April 1983, pp. 3–5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

With the failure of the miners to vote for a national strike it is abundantly clear that the downturn continues. We print extracts of a speech made by Tony Cliff to the National Committee of the SWP, in which he discusses the implications of the downturn.

We talk about three separate things; the industrial scene, the Labour Party and CND. But all three are connected. The interconnection between them must be seen at all times.

Industry relates directly to the relation of class forces and always precedes the rest. A year ago we talked about the industrial downturn and the political upturn. We said, because workers don’t feel confident enough to fight for jobs or over wages in their own workplace, they look to Tony Benn.

CND is one step removed even from that. At least the Labour Party has some relation to the trade union organisations, what’s happening in industry in other words. The result of the ballot in the mining industry reflects much more of the ideas in the Labour Party than the ideas of people in CND.

But the three are connected and because they are connected you’ll find the collapse of CND will be incomparably quicker than that of the Labour Party, and the collapse in the Labour Party quicker than the collapse inside the unions.

I’ll start with the industrial side. There is no question about it, the miners ballot was an absolute catastrophe, and it’s no good sweeping it under the carpet and explaining it with technicalities. I laughed when the Morning Star said the intervention of the press was to blame, as if in 1972 all the Tory press said ‘Miners: go on strike, we support you, we love you.’

Our analysis is different. Under the conditions of the upturn of the early 1970’s the trade union bureaucracy impeded the struggle, but it could not prevent victories. Joe Gormley plotted with Ted Heath in 1972 against the strike but didn’t stop the miners winning. In the downturn, the trade union bureaucracy – whether right or left – is a much greater impediment and causes catastrophes in the struggle.

Look at the miners. There is a left wing bureaucracy in the NUM and so the rank and file, instead of approaching the workers in Yorkshire and Kent, went to the area councils. I spoke to a miner in Bolton a few days ago. He told me the South Wales miners came to his pit on the morning of the ballot. You can’t influence workers if you come on the morning of the ballot.

In 1969 the right controlled the NUM. therefore the rank and file, including Scargill had to mobilise in opposition to the union bureaucracy. In 1972, the flying pickets were in opposition to the right wing who controlled the union. Even in 1981, with Joe Gormley still in control, the South Wales miners went straight to the rank and file and got Scotland and Kent into action.

But now Scargill’s in the leadership – and that’s why the tactical mistake was made. Even the style of Scargill, the way he speaks, shows he simply assumes he is the leader and he has the troops.

Loyalty and lies

He didn’t just demand loyalty to the union, he told lies to the members and every member knew it. He said we can win the strike in seven to eight weeks, yet nobody in the country believed it. Why? Because the stocks at the power stations are enough for four or five months.

The collapse of the left, the movement to the right and the impotence of the left, shows itself fantastically clearly in the NUM.

The water workers’ dispute, was a victory and it wiped the smile from Thatcher’s face, but just for a few days. After the miners’ defeat the smile’s back and it’s fixed.

You have to draw a number of conclusions from the downturn. The ‘victory’ of the left in the NUR is associated with the McCarthy award and the loss of 45,000 jobs. The ‘victory’ of the left in the CPSA is associated with the defeat of the Civil Servants, and it’s almost certain there will be no set-piece struggle between a major union and the government in the coming months.

You have to understand what this means for the work of the Socialist Workers Party. Our intervention in the water workers’ dispute was extremely good. We assumed, quite rightly, that the thing would not change the nature of the class struggle in the country.

The Party intervention was low key. It was from the outside; the water workers were a tiny group, just handfuls at any workplace; twenty percent of them were picketing. Generally they were not willing to go round and collect money.

We have to play it low-key – until the upturn comes – it is better to be wrong on the estimation downwards than to be wrong upwards.

The only people we cheat if we cheat upwards is ourselves. We can always amend it if a group of workers does break the mood. So what? There is no danger of demoralisation.

So, the downturn continues. There are not going to be set-piece confrontations. The question of intervention means individual intervention in individual disputes. In ninety cases out of a hundred we will do it from outside. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred we’ll do it in a very low key.

Things will not change in the short-term. The miners did us a fantastic amount of damage in this ballot. It means other workers will feel even less secure.

Now let’s turn to the Labour Party. Bermondsey was a cataclysmic event. The editor of the New Socialist wrote in an article in The Times:

‘The Bermondsey result has produced a seismic shock in the Labour Party. It has caused both sides to draw together, not simply as a cosmetic exercise for media consumption, but on the basis of a reassessment of what their past actions have led to.

‘Continued internal skirmishes it is now agreed by left and right alike will merely assist the revival of the SDP/Liberal Alliance and the return of a right wing Conservative government.’

In other words, ‘we are going to close ranks. No more shaking the foundations of the Party. Unity, Unity, Unity.’

Even before Bermondsey the process was taking place. Simply see how many people signed the declaration in Tribune of Labour against the Witch-hunt. Only five MPs, only two members of the Labour Party executive. Tony Benn didn’t sign it; Frank Allaun didn’t sign it.

The Labour Co-ordinating Committee agreed to register, the CLPD agreed to register and voted by two to one to kick out the Bennites from the leadership of their organisation.

Keith Dickinson of Militant was kicked out of the London Labour Party Conference. All this was before Bermondsey. Bermondsey has accelerated the process.

Labour didn’t lose in Darlington as they did in Bermondsey, for a number of reasons. Firstly, public opinion (Labour support included) has moved to the right.

Therefore Ossie O’Brien fits, Peter Tatchell doesn’t. When Peter Tatchell tried to pretend that he is really a respectable man, the only thing he’s interested in is in houses with gardens, nobody in Bermondsey believed it. And if they did people asked, who actually built those monstrosities of tower blocks that eighty percent of the population in Bermondsey live in – Labour.

Ossie O’Brien did much better. Because James Callaghan and Dennis Healey put in a massive effort. I’m convinced the Labour left will sigh with relief. They are looking for a way to retreat.

Benn’s recent speeches have been about uniting behind Michael and Dennis, about ‘the ten years we had together in cabinet,’ ‘we managed to work very well with one another.’

Remember 1979 Benn denouncing it as a ‘rotten cabinet’. They are going to shoot massively to the right.

What does it mean for us? We won’t recruit many Labour Party people. I don’t believe there are many people in the Labour Party anyway. Their membership is 250,000; if one in ten are activists, that’s 25,000. Now divide that by 600 constituencies – it comes to forty or fifty per constituency. That’s not a lot, but we can recruit a few.

Above all, we can raise the confidence of our members. In the last three years we didn’t lose many to the Labour Party; our ex-members of course were all in there. But the rise of the Labour left puts us on the defensive. Today, it’s exactly the opposite.

Analysis correct

SWP members are confident and proud. And the good branch meetings, where there are two or three Labour Party members present, reinforces our members’ confidence because our analysis proved to be correct.

A swamp is going to be created inside the Labour Party with the move to the right and passivity. In the unions the Broad Left is going to the right, into swamp and passivity. That’s why there’s more emphasis on Jimmy Knapp’s election victory than on the loss of jobs through the introduction of one-man trains.

There will be a swamp in the unions and in the Labour Party, but what about the CND? CND will become the worst swamp of the lot! They are bigger and have a feeling of success. But they are not on the up in terms of activity. CND is a passive mass organisation.

The passivity will increase because of the general election.

If you’re in CND, you simply say we have between now and October to win or lose. Now if you’re forced to get results quickly, you say what forces have we got?

They say we don’t have the industrial working class against the bomb, we don’t have industrial action against the bomb, so we have to adapt ourselves to the forces that exist. If we had fifty years it would be different. We could say, we’ll become active gradually, building up until the day of confrontation.

But because the election is there we have to win by this date or we have to forget about it. The whole thing is finished.

In such a situation you adapt yourselves to the forces that exist. You adapt yourself to public opinion. If public opinion is against cruise but not against NATO, then you forget about NATO and only emphasise cruise.

Just recently the Daily Mirror had seven pages on CND. It was brilliant – very hard against cruise and Trident but it was for NATO and Posiedon and so on. And when it comes to a general election that will be exactly the policy of the Labour Party.

Look, for instance, at the interview Brian Walden had on Weekend World with a woman from Greenham Common. He asked her what was the answer to the Russian threat – and she said, Love!

Then he went on to ask the same question of the vice-chairman of CND. And he said we have to surround the whole country with conventional missiles to stop the Russian nuclear missiles!

CND are playing to the right and the Labour Party. And because of this they are going to face disintegration. We can even give them a date for that disintegration: the general election. They will disintegrate during the general election.

What will accelerate this process is the fact that they are going to stand candidates. They did the same in 1964. But our system is not the German one where they might get four or even five percent of the vote – over here they will get practically nothing.

Now what is happening around the Greenham Common women is tokenism. You can’t just say they are feminists, or separatists. That is not the real reason for their actions. We have to ask why tokens come to the front.

Tokens come to the centre when there are not any real forces to solve the problem.

There are two hundred black mayors in the United States for this very reason. The black riots in America in the sixties did not smash the white capitalist establishment, so if you can’t smash them what do you do? You join them. So you try to have a black mayor in Los Angeles, a black mayor in New York and so on.

Tokenism is at the centre of the downturn here. The trouble is it does a fantastic amount of damage.

I don’t want to compare the Greenham Common women to the Red Brigades in Italy too much. But there are elements in common. There is the general crisis of capitalism, the general move to the right of the movement, the industrial downturn and so there is a group of people who say ‘we will do it for you.’

The Red Brigades did this in Italy, and they did a massive amount of damage. In fact they ruined the movement. One of the tragedies of Italy was that the revolutionary left were a bunch of softies that felt guilty towards the Red Brigades because they thought the brigades were at least fighting.

So when people say to me the Greenham Common women are fighting, I always ask exactly what are they doing?

They tell us they will do it and stop the missiles while we remain at home.

It is like the Labour Party. People say, the Labour Party is moving to the right; therefore Socialist Worker shouldn’t write anything about the Labour Party. On the contrary, now the party is moving to the right it is time to put the boot into them good and hard.

We can’t stand back. We have to intervene. You don’t intervene by standing back and smiling while they go on their way.

We have to do exactly the same with CND. We have to be very hard because they are moving very fast to the right, towards complete disintegration.

We can not shift a whole movement like CND, we are too small and the period is wrong. But we can talk to the ones and twos. What we can do is say, come down to a water workers’ picket line.

The Bolsheviks didn’t come to ‘power in Russia on the slogan of peace – they won on the slogan of Bread, Land and Peace. You don’t mobilise a movement except through bread and butter issues that then spreads to take on foreign policies.

Because of the downturn CND is less and less related to bread and butter issues and because of that we have no expectation of being able to build big out of it.

That brings me finally to the slate of the party. The party is in a better state now than I remember for years. This is because I think the comrades are very, very optimistic.

To be optimistic as Spinoza says, you don’t laugh, you don’t cry, you understand.

Three tasks

At conference we talked about three things: We said we need politics in the branch, we need to intervene in disputes and we have to attract the periphery and contacts into the party.

If you achieve only any one of these tasks, you will not survive. You end up with a discussion group if you concentrate on politics only. If you just discuss which paper sale to send new members to, that can lead to demoralisation.

The three elements have to come together. And they have to be in the right order. First the political meetings; if we don’t do that, forget about the rest. Secondly, get the contacts along otherwise the political meetings disintegrate. Thirdly, make the interventions. The three things must come together.

There are still branches that don’t do this. One of the reasons they don’t do it is because they are so small. They decide to take part in a campaign because it gives them a feeling of bigness, but this just leads to demoralisation.

A campaign should be – under the conditions of the downturn – one percent of our activity not 30 percent, not 40 percent.

Then there are the branches that are doing the work, but only formally. They are not relating the politics to what is happening on the ground.

Another thing that is very important for us in the present conditions is the centrality of the paper. With the general collapse of the left, the lack of militancy the key thing becomes the politics. People are looking for political answers.

This is why it is good that the paper not only gives replies but itself puts the questions. And all the time the paper is giving an analysis of what is going on.

At the same time we know that the paper is not being sold widely enough. But we have to be careful of saying, ‘Sell the paper’ because we have branches that have a high paper sale, but they devote all their energy to that. These branches will disintegrate.

This underlines what I said before. You have to have all three elements operating in the branches, and in the right order. The selling of the paper has to connect with the other things.

The selling of the paper is not only propaganda, it is political action.

It is not a question of a few ‘star’ sellers, there are always those, it is a question of shifting the emphasis to get everyone selling. And that is incomparably harder than the other things we have done.

It took us a year, maybe two to understand the downturn and shift the party towards the branches, and – I believe to save it – now it will take another year or two to shift towards the paper.

And it is terribly important we don’t look for short cuts. This is not an upturn where we can sell thousands of copies – we are not in a sprint – we are in a marathon. To sell papers it’s going to take a lot of brains and a lot of planning.

Selling Socialist Worker is a long-term investment. You should be able to look at sales after three or four years, and count the gains. But you can’t measure it immediately. Therefore you need much more stamina because you don’t see instant results.

If we don’t do this, then as the downturn continues we are going to find ourselves high and dry. The swamp will surround us and get bigger, so we have to build our little island to keep ourselves out of it.


Last updated on 4 October 2019