Chris Harman


One Small Mistake

(March 1977)

From Correpondence, International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, p.14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE LAST issue of IS journal was excellent. But you make one small mistake in your briefing How Special is the British crisis, which seemed to put the responsibility for the low level of productivity in British industry on to the workers organisations alone. You write,

‘The strength of shop floor organisation in Britain is at least part of the reason for low productivity.’

You then go on to quote figures that show that

‘compared with the US labour productivity in the USA is over 50 per cent higher, in Germany it is over a third higher, in France over a quarter higher’.

The danger is that from such figures it is possible to draw the social-democratic conclusion (although I’m sure your writers did not intend it to be drawn) that if only British workers had been less concerned with their conditions over the last 25 years, then today they would be enjoying the higher living standards to be found in the US, Germany and so on. But a study into labour productivity in multinational companies (Labour productivity differential within International companies, by C.F. Pratten, Cambridge University Press, quoted in Financial Times, 10 August 1976) comes to a different conclusion. See table:

Productivity lead over UK






Output and length of production runs




Plant and machinery



Other, including difference in
product mix and capacity use



Strikes and restrictive practices



Manning and efficiency



Average lead




As can be seen, in no case is the strength of working-class organisation the major cause of differences in labour productivity, although it is clearly important in the case of Germany. More significant are factors you would expect to be associated with a low level of investment over many years—the plant and machinery themselves, output and production runs (due to relying on diversified old plant rather than on concentrated production from newer plant), and capacity use. As the study pointed out,

‘... there is a vicious circle where shorter production runs, lower wages and less capital equipment reinforce one another’ (quoted Financial Times, 10 August).

If the workers had heeded all the invections of social democrats and union leaders to work harder and to tighten their belts, this vicious cycle could not have been reversed. That does not mean there is any way out of the crisis as the would-be-more-radical social democrats of the Benn school pretend, merely by increased investment now. The crisis is not a ‘special British crisis’ precisely because throughout the world any increased investment is in labour-saving equipment which means both more unemployment and a higher organic composition of capital leading to a falling return on investment.

The refusal of workers to labour as hard as in other capitalist countries is not the cause of the crisis. But for British capitalism, the only way to ease the effects of the crisis is massive speed-up. And here your articles figures for factory accidents are very relevant. They show that to reduce manning to make the 8.5 per cent productivity gap due to this cause between Britain and Germany would involve a horrendous increase in the death toll due to accidents. To try to bridge all productivity gap (regardless of its cause) by speed up would mean wholesale butchery.

Last updated on 16 November 2009