Paul Foot

Why your should be a socialist

The Challenge of the Rank and File

‘And he meant that he would show the world. In that head of his a flame burnt that was like an altar fire, a miraculous and beautiful phenomenon, than which nothing is more miraculous and beautiful over the whole earth. Whence had it suddenly come, that flame? After years of muddy inefficiency, of contentedness with the second rate and the dishonest, that flame astoundingly bursts forth, from a hidden unheeded spark that none had ever thought to blow upon. It bursts forth out of a damp jungle of careless habits and negligence that could not possibly have fed it. There is little to encourage it. The very architecture of the streets show that environment has done nought for it; ragged brickwork, walls finished anyhow with saggers and slag; narrow uneven alleys leading to higgeldy-piggledy workshops and kilns; cottages transformed into factories and factories into cottages, clumsily, hastily, because nothing matters as long as ‘it will do’; everywhere something forced to fulfil, badly, the function of something else; in brief the reign of the slovenly makeshift, shameless, filthy and picturesque. Edwin himself seemed no tabernacle for that singular flame. He was not merely untidy and dirty – at his age such defects might have excited in a sane observer uneasiness by their absence; but his gestures and his gait were untidy. He did not mind how he walked. All his sprawling limbs were saying: “What does it matter, so long as we get there?” The angle of the slatternly bag across his shoulders was an insult to the flame.
‘And yet the flame burned with serene and terrible pureness.’

Arnold Bennett. Clayhanger

One thing unites Labour Party supporters, Communist Party supporters and trade union leaders: their pessimism. They all take the view that most workers are backward, and will always remain backward. Workers, they argue, will never be able to control their own lives – so it is up to an educated elite to improve things for them.

Many workers share this pessimism. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard workers objecting at meetings: ‘It’s fine, this idea of a socialist society, but you’ll never get the workers to do anything about it. Just come down and look at the people in the shop floor. All they’re interested in is racing, football and overtime.’

These people are easy meat for the capitalist system – because they go along with its central idea: that only a minority are ever capable of making decisions of running an economy. Once you’ve accepted that, then there’s no way you’ll beat the people who’ve been practising minority power for hundreds of years.

There’s plenty of evidence from our history, to show that rank and file working people are not always passive, and when they do move together there is no power on earth that can stop them.

The Russian revolution, as shown in the last chapter, was not the act of a small minority of bureaucrats but of the working masses. The forms of workers’ power thrown up by the workers there were not new bureaucracies. They did not lead to chaos in administration of distribution or exchange. On the contrary, they made all these things much fairer. And for a few short years, the Russian workers were freer than they have ever been before or since.

There are plenty of other examples of revolutionary activity in history – all of which point, in the same direction.

For instance, in Germany immediately after the first world war a mutiny among sailors at Kiel sent a revolution rippling through the whole country. For a fortnight, the whole structure of power in a country which had been ravaged by war for four years, was transferred to ordinary workers, shop stewards, army privates and sailors who dealt with the problems of production and distribution with far greater calm, common sense and fairness than was shown either by the former regime under the Kaiser or under the later Labour regime under Fritz Ebert. Sebastian Haffner, who is not a revolutionary, wrote a book about that revolution. Here are some of his comments about it:

‘There was little resistance, violence, or bloodshed. The revolution was good-natured. There was no mob rule and no revolutionary justice. Many political prisoners were set free, but no one was arrested. At the worst, a particularly hated officer or sergeant might get beaten-up. The revolutionaries contented themselves with depriving officers of the insignia of rank – this was as much part of the revolutionary ritual as running up the red flag. The week of revolution was not without glory. It was a massive outbreak that had the qualities of greatness and nobility which were manifest in its actions: courage, decisiveness, readiness for sacrifice, unanimity, ardour, initiative, even inspiration ... In one town after another thousands of workers and soldiers not only risked their lives but ventured the leap into the unknown, untried, incalculable, which takes more courage than merely putting one’s life at risk’.

This wonderful initiative, this peaceful, sensible administration was persuaded by the German Social Democratic Party to surrender its powers to a ‘properly-elected government and properly elected local authorities’. From January 1919, the workers and soldiers councils started voluntary to disband. The German Social Democrat Party took power and called in the troops to put down the last of the councils. Then began the shortages, the chaos, the unfairness and the violence which culminated in German Fascism. It was the educated elite, the skilled politicians who paved the way for disorder and violence.

In Spain in 1936, a Fascist army led by General Franco declared war on the elected government and tried to seize power. In the working class areas of Spain the workers resisted – not by leaving things to the elected government but by taking power themselves and electing their own workers and soldiers councils.

The result, for many hundreds of thousands of Spanish working people, was electric. At once all badges or rank, all the petty privileges and hoarding which had corrupted the Spanish cities was swept away.

George Orwell, the British writer who is usually (and wrongly) regarded as an anti-socialist, went to fight for Spain. As soon as he arrived in Barcelona, he recognised ‘a state of affairs worth fighting for’. He wrote:

‘There was occurring a revolution of ideas that was perhaps more important than the short-lived economic changes. For several months large blocks of people believed that all men are equal and were able to act on their belief. The result was a feeling of liberation and hope that is difficult to conceive in our money-tainted atmosphere ... No one who was in Spain during the months when people still believed in the revolution will ever forget that strange and moving experience. It has left something behind which no dictatorship, not even Franco’s, will be able to efface’.

Yet the liberals and the official Russian-style Communists were not satisfied. They argued that the war against Fascism could not be won unless old orders and ranks were restored. They urged the people in the name of the anti-Fascist struggle to disarm their workers councils and organs of popular power, and to make over the power to the institutions (parliament, local authorities, police law courts) which had ruled before the revolution. The Communist Party, assisted by police agents specially imported from Russia, set to work to dismantle this popular power, and to assist the old order. They not only destroyed the aspirations of millions of working people. They also lost the war against Fascism.

In Hungary, 20 years later, the workers of Budapest rose against the Russian tyranny.

Once again, the instruments which the workers chose for their representation were directly-elected councils, founded on the workplace. Peter Fryer, at that time correspondent of the British Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker, described the councils like this:

‘In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and civil order, in the restraint they exercised on the wild elements among the youth, in the wisdom with which so many of them handled the problem of Soviet troops, and, not least, in their striking resemblance to the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils which sprung up in Russia in the 1905 revolution and in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary, were remarkably uniform. They were at once organs of insurrection – the coming together of delegates elected by factories, and universities, mines and army units – and organs of popular self-government which the people trusted.

‘Of course, as in every real revolution “from below” there was “too much” talking, arguing, bickering, coming and going, froth, excitement, agitation, ferment. That is one side of the picture. The other is the emergence to leading positions of ordinary men, women, youths. The revolution thrust them forward, aroused their civic pride and latent genius for organisation, set them to work to build democracy out of the ruins of bureaucracy’.

The Russian reply ...

The Russian reply to this was sudden and instant. They denounced the revolutionaries as ‘agents of Fascism’ and put down the revolution with a brutality modelled on that of the Fascists. Russian tanks and armies tore into the Hungarian cities, rooting out the revolution’s leaders, killing and torturing them. All over the world, the Communist parties responded. Peter Fryer, perhaps the finest writer ever to have worked on the Daily Worker, was sacked and vilified. In September 1976, twenty years later, I heard an old Communist in Aberdeen denounce him as a ‘Fascist traitor to the working class’.

The idea of the ‘chosen few’ had been reasserted once again.

Hungarian society had been returned to the control of ‘responsible experts’. A revolution, which had taken place without blood and violence, had been suppressed in blood and violence.

The governments of America and Europe made Cold War propaganda out of the Hungarian revolution, but they allowed the Russians a free hand in their dirty work. The superpowers fear each other, and build up mountains of nuclear weapons against each other, but when one power is suppressing a workers’ revolution within it’s ‘sphere of influence’, then the other power keeps dutifully quiet. Responsible, rich, powerful experts all over the world can be relied upon to stand shoulder to shoulder in a time of crisis for their class.

In Portugal in 1974, a Fascist regime was tumbled. Its removal was followed by a tremendous explosion of popular power. Workers’ commissions in industry, residents’ commissions in the estates, workers’ control of several newspapers and cooperative occupation committees in the farms sprung up all over the country. There was little or no violence. Skills and abilities which had been suppressed for three generations were suddenly unleashed.

In December 1975, I was lucky enough to visit the Committee of Consumption, in Setubal, an industrial suburb of Lisbon. The Committee was dealing with the supply of food from the farm cooperatives outside the city. The cooperatives because they were cooperatives had been boycotted by the middle men and merchants. So food was being produced in the country and not delivered to hungry workers in the city.

Farmworkers and industrial workers were starving together.

The Committee of Consumption was set up by the residents commissions in Setubal. It approached the cooperatives and established its own supply, through hired lorries, from the farms to the cities. For the first time that anyone in the area could remember, demand and supply started to meet.

Workers' cabbage

The old merchants’ prices were halved. Cabbages came down from ten escudos to three escudos; cauliflowers from eighteen to twelve. Any food left over after the purchases, which were organised mainly through street markets, were distributed free to old peoples’ homes. The farmers were happy; the workers were fed and old people got an unexpected bonus. The whole operation was conducted without fuss and a great deal more efficiently than in the old days of ‘private enterprise’.

Organisations like this operated all over Portugal – to the horror of the professional reformers and the well-educated elite. The Labour government of Portugal which was elected the following year set about immediately to dismantle the committees of the common people, and restore property and the ‘right to decide’ to the old businessmen, merchants and landlords.

The violence and poverty which flowed from that decision came, again, not from the revolutionary councils but from the reformers and Communists who argued that things must ‘not be allowed to go too fast’. In order to stop it going too fast, these people flung the whole vehicle back into reverse, and left a black vacuum for the terrorists of the Right.

In 1926, the General Council of the TUC called all workers out on a general strike in defence of the miners, whose wages had been cut. The response in the working class was fantastic. The strike was solid – even in the most backward areas. Rank and file Councils of Action were thrown up in almost every town and city. The councils of action took control of the running of the strike in their area. This involved not merely a constant battle with strike-breaking forces and with the police, but wide-ranging and complicated administration of food supply and transport. Within hours, trades councils had established sub-committees with elected convenors to run these undertakings. In the strongest working class areas like Fife in Scotland, Merthyr in South Wales, and Northumberland, whole areas were controlled by the strike committees.

No one complained that there was ‘chaos’, or that the rank and file workers couldn’t administrate. On the contrary, the most unlikely workers proved themselves able and competent administrators. In 1927, Raymond Postgate and Ellen Wilkinson compiled a Workers History of the Great Strike from documents, leaflets and interviews with workers who took part. By the end of the nine day strike, they concluded:

‘The strike organisation in nearly all the towns of which we have information, was in full working order, and the workers were reaching out to fresh developments. Mass pickets, defence corps, propaganda, commissariat, federation over wider areas – all these were just coming into play ... The workers were just beginning’.

Then suddenly the General Council called off the strike – with no concessions to the miners! Most workers couldn’t believe it. They trooped back to work disillusioned and defeated. They were defeated not because of the actions or inadequacies of rank and file workers. They were defeated by the fear of their responsible, expert and moderate negotiators who dreaded the workers’ democracy which was unfolding before their eyes.

For a brief moment, the abilities and potentialities of working people, their instinctive solidarity and will to co-operate had come to the surface. They were doused, not by the workers, but by the elite, the ‘experts’ who claim the exclusive right to lead and to decide.

All these examples prove the abilities of working people to run society more fairly, and more efficiently than the people who run it now. They also prove that the ‘reformers’ and ‘negotiators’ who claim that they must run society for the workers, are the people who, at the slightest sign of workers’ revolution jump in to enforce the workers’ ‘backwardness’ and thereby their own petty influence and privileges.

The ‘flame’ which Arnold Bennett wrote of so brilliantly in the extract quoted at this chapter’s head burns up into a great conflagration at times of revolution or general strike. But you don’t have to wait for these momentous events to see it burning. All the time, all round us, you can see examples of the potential in human beings.

The miners ...

In British working class history of the last few years, for instance, there have been many examples of which the great miners strikes of 1972 and 1974 are the most remarkable. For years the miners had been told that new forms of fuel were pushing them into economic and political insignificance. For years they left their destinies in the hands of union negotiators, sponsored MPs and Labour governments. For all those years, they slipped down the wages league. Their communities fell apart. But when miners moved in those two great strikes, the whole situation changed. The communities took life. Men began to read and think again. They got a feeling of their collective strength, and so grew in confidence. It was suddenly obvious that a quarter of a million miners were more important to the economy than all the speculators, civil servants and economic experts put together. The miners changed.

In the wake of those great victories, other remarkable changes took place among workers. In 1974, the nurses, who for years had been patronised and mollycoddled by merchant bankers and newspaper proprietors took sudden and unexpected action. They struck, demonstrated, picketed and ended up with their biggest pay rise ever. Thousands of nurses who had previously suspected trade unions and socialist ideas moved out of their isolation, into proper trade unions and into a new way of thinking about their lives and jobs. The nurses changed.

Later that year, the lorry-drivers followed. For years, they had been told that they had no collective strength because of their isolation. They were encouraged to leave all their pay and conditions to their trade union representatives on wages councils. They set up their own unofficial committees, which they ran far more effectively than any union head office. Very quickly, they terrified the employers, who recognised their crucial function in the economy. Wage rises which were described as ‘unthinkable’ a few weeks previously, were granted. The lorry drivers changed.

Its not just among what people like to call the ‘advanced sections’ that these changes take place among human beings when they take action. For many many years the young Asians in the town of Southall have been told to steer clear of any form of political or trade union action. They have been asked to leave such matters to their leaders, usually religious or business leaders. Yet when one of them was killed in the summer of 1976 by an armed racialist gang, the whole youth of Southall exploded. The quietest, most diffident types started taking the lead, organising demonstrations, hounding the fascists. A whole community blew up in wrath and in the process a large number of people, who in ‘normal times’ would have been described even by socialists as ‘apathetic’, suddenly demonstrated that they were not backward or apathetic at all.

If proof were needed of the capacity and courage of the most so-called ‘backward’ sectors of society, look what has been happening in South Africa, since the summer of 1976. For years the battle against racial tyranny and apartheid had been left to liberals and religious leaders. They had made no impression on it, partly because they did not really want to. The elder, more educated blacks made grumbling noises from time to time, but, in general, they lay low.

In the summer of 1976, the black township of Soweto exploded. Schoolchildren, angry at the enforced teaching of the language of oppression, Afrikaans, started to demonstrate. Police violence and bullets were met with rampaging demonstrations. The South African Press, followed by the Press all over the world, rapidly dismissed these as ‘antics’ or put them down to ‘youthful exuberance’. But the outburst did not stop. Before long, those same schoolchildren were organising great strikes in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Their fathers and mothers were put to shame. Backward? No doubt. Raw? Absolutely. But these children showed more courage and revolutionary spirit than two previous generations of better educated and more comfortable liberals. And in the process, they changed. Their backwardness and rawness gave way to a hardened revolutionary determination.

These are the answers to the pessimists. If workers were stuck for ever in a single, apathetic pose, the future would be black indeed. But all the messages from working class history tell us that when people take action against their oppressors, they change. The flame suddenly spurts up, and lightens up great spaces which had seemed to be plunged in darkness.

Peoples’ attitudes change not just when they rebel, but also by argument or conversation or by books, pamphlets, leaflets, newspapers. But argument, written or spoken, doesn’t convince unless it connects with peoples lives. People who argue and organise for socialism among other workers are usually described in the newspapers as ‘agitators’ and ‘subversives’. What does that mean?

In 1968, Enoch Powell made a speech about black people in this country, calling for repatriation and prophesying bloody racial war. The following week, thousands of dockers from Tilbury and the Royal group of docks marched to parliament shouting E-NOCH! E-NOCH! and WOGS OUT! The fascists had a field day. The pessimists in the Labour movement let out a mighty wail. Look, they cried, we told you! The workers are all racialist!

The dockers who marched were racialist. The point was – could that be changed?

Eight years later, in 1976, Enoch Powell let loose another salvo of racialism, and struck even louder chord than he had done in 1968. For a month of two a great wave of racialist violence shook the country.

But there was no dockers’ march on parliament, no real evidence of racialist activity in the docks. Why? Partly because the dockers had gained a bit of confidence from their action in 1972, when a mass strike freed five of their representatives from Pentonville jail, where they had been imprisoned under the Industrial Relations Act. But, perhaps even more importantly, a handful of people in the docks, ‘agitators and subversives’ every one of them, carried a petition around the docks arguing furiously that it should be signed. The petition was headed Dockers Against Racialism. It was printed in Socialist Worker in July.

It read.

‘We are docks shop stewards and rank and file dockers.

‘We would like, through the pages of Socialist Worker to express our disgust at the racialist campaign now being carried out by the national press and television against Asian immigrants, which has resulted in racial violence. The violence has been encouraged by fascists like the National Front and National Party to confuse and divide the working class.

‘In areas like ours in East London, with one of the highest rates of unemployment and immigrant populations, scabs like the National Front fester on racialism. Every wrong can be aimed at the black man and the Asian. Bad housing, high unemployment, bad schooling, poor hospital services, everything that brings racial tension – East London has them all.

‘But they were even worse in the 1930s when there were no black or Asian immigrants. But then the Nazis blamed the Jews and before that the Irish.

‘“They smell, they eat smelly food, they breed like flies, they don’t wash, they have parties at night, they don’t work, they keep animals in their houses.” Part of a National Front leaflet about blacks?

‘No! A quote from Frederick Engels describing the opinions of London workers on Irish immigrants just over 100 years ago.

‘These are the same Irish workers who built the London docks, and many of us signing this letter are the descendants of these so-called “dirty immigrants”.’

This petition, signed by 58 dockers, had a considerable impact in the docks. That impact would not have been made without agitators. Racialism has not been hindered by Race Relations Acts or Boards, still less by pleas from trade union leaders. But rank and file workers can roll it back.

In the same way, the Labour government’s Equal Pay acts have been shot through with holes by reactionary tribunals and employers. Women will never get equal pay if they rely on Acts and tribunals. But when they go on strike, as the women at Trico did in the summer of 1976, they can win it.

Unemployed workers who hang around hoping that somebody will do something to help them will wait forever. Yet when the Right to Work Campaign organises unemployed people, pulls them out of their angry houses, off the street corners and onto demonstrations demanding from employed workers that they ban overtime and insist on a 35-hour week – then hope and strength is built out of despair.

Rank and file workers are the only people with the power and the potential to change society. The trouble is that their challenges are made sporadically, section by section. Very often, they lose as a result. The dockers, as we’ve seen, freed the Pentonville Five. But when the Tory government, in a vile conspiracy with courts and judges, sent Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson to prison for leading pickets during the official building workers strike in 1972, the building workers did not have the power or the organisation to free them. The case of Des Warren became famous in the trade union movement. The TUC called demonstrations and passed resolutions demanding his release.

But Des was in jail for nearly three years because there was no rank and file movement strong enough to coordinate workers’ industrial strength to get him out of prison.

The Right to Work Campaign was set up to fill this gap: to organise workers’ representatives right across industry and the public services so that they can provide strength and confidence to fight for workers’ advance in every section. Its aim is to provide help and industrial support wherever workers find themselves in conflict with their employers, and wherever workers are campaigning to stop the cuts in public services. Its aim is to establish a network of shop stewards and rank and file representatives dedicated to common action on behalf of the workers.

The building of the Right to Work Campaign and a rank and file movement is indispensable if the workers are to be protected against the ravages of the system.

But who is to argue for it in the workplace? Who are the people who will inevitably form the backbone of such a movement?

They will be the people who have no truck with the society’s excuses for attacking workers’ living standards; no truck with wage restraint; no truck with any cuts in public services; no truck with cuts in subsidies or increases in prices. They will be the people who know that every sacrifice demanded from workers is just another way of preserving the riches and power of the minority who control the wealth.

In other words, they will be the socialists. We will never get any organised rank and file movement without a strong socialist organisation: a strong socialist party.


Last updated on 7.1.2005