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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 8

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy

For marxists, as for any other kind of optimist, current inability to perform a task does not imply that one will always be unable to perform, nor that one should not look into how things might be done if circumstances became more favourable.

Whatever the value of Cliff’s state capitalist theory, what it did do was to focus on the question of workers’ control over the abstraction of property forms, the thesis on the “changing locus of reformism”, again set the working class into the centre of analysis. The questions that were raised by the Labour government’s dedication to incomes policy and strike breaking at home (and grovelling support for America’s war in Vietnam), were more and more concerned with the value of an entry tactic that did nothing for recruitment and obscured the perspectives for socialism.

An entry tactic can find its justification in a perspective that sees future mass radicalisation that will find first expression in a great influx of workers to the Labour Party. This was effectively the thesis of all the Trotskyist groups in the early 1950s. It was predicated on general capitalist crisis sooner or later (in Healy’s case almost immediately and for the others a bit later). In this scenario the revolutionary forces in the Labour Party would be able to place themselves at the head of this new revolutionary force. This was the view held most consistently by Ted Grant and the Militant Tendency, for some 40 years, then, with a piece of stick bending that must have made Cliff sick with envy, Peter Taafe, Grant’s right hand man, took the overwhelming majority of the Tendency out of the Labour Party, leaving poor Ted with a small entrist rump. [1]

For the Group, in the first years of its existence, the Labour Party was the milieu in which a tiny group could just about survive. The YS provided an invaluable young cadre, but by 1965 it was virtually moribund. As a life support system for ailing revolutionary groups, the Labour Party began to lose its charms when it became possible to exist outside. Not that the Labour Party ever did more than keep the patient alive and it always had the air of Mother Theresa’s hospice for the terminally sick, rather than the plush lined care of the London Clinic. With a few hundred members it was possible to live and grow, albeit modestly, in the fragments of the movement that existed in the mid 1960s.

There was no specific decision to leave the Labour Party, rather a gradual realisation that there was more important work to be done elsewhere. For IS, at least, it was a practical rather than a principled question and one day we were no longer in the Labour Party. No one gave thanks, or a sigh of relief, because it really did not matter that much. The Group worked on the fringes of the growing militancy in the factories and workshops: in the Roberts Arundel strike, in Stockport, at Myton’s building site in the Barbican, where an IS member, the late Frank Campbell, was one of the stewards; at Pilkingtons and many more isolated but important strikes. The work was difficult and unglamorous, often no more than manning a picket line but the comrades were becoming known in their localities and were also learning something about working class action. The strikes were reported in Labour Worker, which grew, in size and professionalism under the editorship of Roger Prom

The idea of working in the fragments meant that one felt that despite small resources we could have some positive effect on the day to day struggles; if only a small one. I can recall driving along a road near Harrow and noticing some Asian workers setting up a picket line outside a small factory called Injection Mouldings. There were about 50 workers and, despite the fact that they were paid a pittance, after sending money home and keeping themselves, they had saved enough to finance a short strike. Although they had joined the AEU, they had not been in long enough to qualify for strike pay. A majority of them spoke little or no English, but their steward, a tough and very bright young chap, (who was, incidentally, rather a good cricketer) was eloquent in English and Urdu. I stopped and introduced myself and we discussed how to organise the picket and to avoid trouble with the police. We organised several support meetings, at one of which Nigel Harris spoke well, and John Deason spent a fair amount of time in discussion with them and helping both on and off the picket line. The strike, which went on for several weeks, was eventually successful in securing a significant increase in the hourly rate. Several of the strikers joined the group for a short while, but that was more from gratitude for solidarity than political agreement and IS did not have the resources in people or organisation to secure their integration into revolutionary politics.

The experiences throughout this period confirmed that IS’s theoretical appreciation of the key nature of the rank and file was turning out to be a good guide to revolutionary practice. It also confirmed that trade unionism, even of the most militant kind, cannot, of itself, represent a mortal threat to the system. No matter how long drawn out or bitter a strike might be at the end of it, win lose or draw, both sides have got to get up, dust themselves down and co-exist, until the next time. Trade unions may recruit capitalism’s gravediggers, but capitalism also provides the raison d’etre for the trade union’s existence and, almost as important, an enhanced lifestyle for officials. In this contradiction is the reason for the bureaucracy’s betrayals and the key to the way rank and file bodies can adapt and transcend the limitations of trade unions.

It was obvious that any strategy the revolutionary left developed in the 1960s and 1970s would have to come to terms with the need for rank and file organisation and how to aid its construction. The obvious course was to examine the history of this movement in Britain.

Very little seems to be known, today, about the movement before the World War I. The bare bones of the shop stewards’ movement was created in the craft unions’ need to collect subscriptions and to ensure that there was no dilution of craft status, but quite soon developed to carry out the members’ needs where the union machine could not or would not oblige. The upsurge of general unionism from the 1880s, showed the potential strength but more febrile character of mass trade unionism. The Labour Representation Committee was in the first instance a form of trade union lobby, from the inside, prepared to support any candidate willing to pursue the unions’ parliamentary programme.

In the first decade of the 20th century, British capitalism developed and became infinitely more wealthy than ever before. Working class living standards had not kept pace and parliamentary reform was grudging and inadequate, despite the fact that British trade unions had existed longer and organised more workers, both in numbers and as a proportion of the whole, than anywhere else in the world. The time was ripe for the introduction of a new idea for working class advance. French syndicalism and American industrial unionism found a ready response among militant British trade unionists. Tom Mann and Guy Bowman formed the Industrial Syndicalist Education League in 1910. The year before a strike occurred at Ruskin College involving students fed up with the sterile orthodoxy of official policy, which led to the founding of the Plebs League – National Council of Labour Colleges (this last was the organisation that, in the 1950s, provided a kind of outdoor relief to tired Trotskyists). James Connolly came back from America, enthused by the ideas of Daniel DeLeon on industrial unionism and Marxism, if not by DeLeon’s atheism, and helped form the Socialist Labour Party. A new generation of militants was influenced by the movement that was forcefully asserting the central role of the rank and file and the need for workers’ control. AJ Cook, Richard Coppock, AA Purcell and Noah Ablett were future trade union leaders whose ideas were formed in this period. Men, such as JT Murphy, Willie Gallagher, Tom Bell and Arthur McManus rallied to the DeLeonite message and were later to form an important part of the leadership of the CPGB.

For all the seeming spontaneity of syndicalism, it displayed a rather formal character in practice. Mass action was built into the theory but without tactical flexibility: The general strike, or “great national holiday” in anarchist parlance, was a possible outcome from each and every limited action. The mass strike then transcends its limited trade union character and challenges directly for power. This ability to see the mighty ocean in a drop of water may be a useful insight, but you should not try to float anything with a serious displacement in a glass of water. In practice, of course, while the wilder reaches of syndicalist theory kept the devotees’ enthusiasm warm, the practical demands for union amalgamation into industrial unions achieved a wider response. Indeed, a number of trade unions that were formed in the early 1920s, the UPW, the TGWU and the AEU, adopted constitutions that were based on industrial union principles and enshrined the goal of workers’ control. Another demand for union alliances across industries met its response in the Triple Alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers. In 1921, it was called “the Cripple Alliance” after the NUR and Transport Federation sold out the miners.

All of this was given much greater impetus by the development of the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee Movement (SSWCM) in the World War I. Despite arrests, deportations and conscription, a frequently successful series of struggles were conducted on rents, dilution, conditions and pay. Inevitably they were local actions, that would spread no further than the range of the cry of pain that set them in motion. The organisational forms of that time, despite defeats and retreats, closures and downsizing, still exist to this day and the inability of the trade union machine to fully incorporate them means that even in the worst periods of reaction the movement has been saved from the excesses of trade union experience abroad. Not only that, it is also the earnest of hope for the future.

The yawning gap in syndicalist theory seemed to be decisively closed by the Russian Revolution. For the first time in history the workers had actually taken and kept power. The enthusiasm for this event conferred immense prestige on the Bolsheviks and imbued their every suggestion with significance and conviction. In 1919 the Communist International was formed as a world party of socialist revolution and, in September 1920, the Red International of Labour Unions (Profintern) was announced to direct union struggles into a revolutionary direction. Its Programme of Action called for: strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations, street actions, armed manifestations and insurrection. The trade union policy for amalgamation and indusrial unions, allied to the implicit aim to turn every action into offensive class action, was an indication that RILU was almost as influenced by syndicalism as Tom Mann had been. This time, however, the policy came with all the prestige of the Russian Revolution behind it.

In Britain the SSWCM agreed to the need for an unofficial industrial movement under the leadership of the CPGB. Unfortunately, the Programme of Action with its implicit assumption of imminent revolutionary struggle appeared just at the time when the militant wave was ebbing. In 1921 the miners, abandoned by their partners in the Triple Alliance, fought for 13 weeks and were virtually starved back to work, suffering a 34 per cent wage cut. Building workers, engineering workers and dockers were separately taken on and separately defeated. By the end of 1922 more than six million workers had suffered a cut of at least eight shillings a week, this at a time when £2. 10s was a good wage. In such circumstances, there was less chance of building a rank and file movement than an unemployed workers’ movement and that is what they did. It was thus not until 1924 that the inaugural conference of the Minority Movement was held, although there already existed Minority Movements in several industries most powerfully in mining. At the first conference, about a quarter of a million workers were represented; a year later the total was almost a million. In factories and unions up and down the country, bulletins and newssheets publicised the MM and its programme of militant demands. At the 1925 TUC, Harry Pollitt, secretary of the National Minority Movement, seconded a Garment Workers resolution that called for shop floor organisation, opposition to capitalist co-partnership schemes and for the overthrow of capitalism. It was carried by a two to one majority.

That was the highpoint of the movement and the story of the General Strike, the Anglo Russian Committee, the CP and the TUC lefts is too long for this book. Suffice it to say that the MM’s eventual decline into dual unionism and third period idiocy was a direct result of the policies of 1926. The MM was a failure but it nevertheless had some useful lessons, lessons that are at the heart of the discussions about the nature of the party and the class and their relationship one to another.

The workers, under capitalism, spontaneously form trade unions; this we know from Karl Kautsky – ably seconded by Lenin in What Is To Be Done. Actually you do not need either of these authorities, it is demonstrably the case. It is also the case that workers, given their trade union proves ineffective, will develop their own democratic forms of organisation to aid their struggles. It is furthermore the case that many workers given the experience of both conventional and rank and file organisation, may find that neither form meets their needs. They will attempt to achieve these reforms through parliament with a Labour Party or some political action committee.

All of these forms of struggle are, by definition, conducted within a capitalist system. Obviously these are not exclusive categories, they interact all the time, but in the final analysis there is no resolution to the workers’ struggles so long as capitalism continues to exist. The reforms last as long as the workers have the strength to make them stick. Let the relation of forces turn to the bosses’ advantage and they will be back making the most of their chances. In addition, the best reward invariably comes from mass involvement under democratic control. Conventional trade union negotiations, with or without strike action, provides less and is additionally subjected to the caste interest of the bureaucracy.

So far as parliamentary reformism is concerned that which makes trade union forms of struggle unproductive ensures that there is nothing much doing from legislation. No more than a cursory glance at what New Labour has in store for us in the way of goodies will indicate the truth of this point. Under these circumstances a small but growing layer of militants look for and become receptive to, especially when engaged in a struggle, a thoroughgoing socialist analysis. Through a socialist organisation it becomes possible to connect up militants who would otherwise remain isolated. It is possible to build up a vast store of information from discussion with these militants to develop with them a programme of advance that is both militant trade unionism and transitional politics. There are few things more rewarding on which a group’s meagre resources, in money and manpower, can be expended than work with rank and file militants. If a revolutionary organisation professes to have no interest separate from that of the advanced workers, it is a good idea for it to behave as if it believes what it professes.

The popular pamphlet, Incomes Policy, Shop Stewards and Legislation, Wage freeze was an attempt to emphasise the class interest that was fundamentally different from the “national interest” displayed in Labour policy and the plethora of government, trade union and employer committees that presumed to regulate the workers’ rights. The next pamphlet on productivity bargaining, The Employers’ Offensive, was based on more actual discussion with workers than the earlier pamphlet. It attempted to develop an aggressive strategy for opposition to the employers’ latest stratagem through a programme with a sliding scale of demands that would prove useful whatever the situation faced by the workers. In its immediacy it went a step further than the Incomes Policy pamphlet because it contained transitional demands that put pressure on both the employers and the unions within the framework of existing struggles. It was an exercise in agitation rather than generalised propaganda and marked a modest but significant advance for IS. For all that it broke new ground, the productivity pamphlet was published under a cloud that arose from Cliff’s inability to learn from, or acknowledge the contributions of others he considered to be political competitors. This fault, grievous enough in itself, began to look chronic when it seemed to descend to plagiarism. In this case it was Ken Coates and the Institute of Workers Control. According to Ken Coates (Workers’ Liberty, No.18 Feb 1995) large bits of it were taken complete and unacknowledged from an internal publication of the Institute of Workers’ Control written by Coates and Tony Topham. As if to add insult to plagiarism, at the same time Coates was being denounced for “left reformism” and other heinous crimes. Coates continues the story: “I wrote what I thought was quite an amusing letter to Cliff. It certainly seemed to get under his skin and brought an abject Cliff up to Nottingham, grovelling, begging that we should not print it. He said that the plagiarism was not his fault, and that a committee had written the book, and that the copying out had been done by Colin Barker ... apparently it was all Barker’s fault. I do not mind my revisionism being denounced, that is splendid. It is the duplicity that bothers me. If I am good enough to copy out, I am good enough to acknowledge ... I did withdraw the letter in deference to Cliff’s non-existent reputation.” Ken Coates’ story rings true, and Cliff’s tale that the book was a committee product over which he had no final control is unalloyed rubbish. In any collaboration between Cliff and Colin Barker there is no question that Cliff would be the senior partner exercising a total droite de seigneur over the final text and, as a matter of fact, over Colin Barker if he got at all uppity. [2]

What was abundantly clear was that, given the strength of IS and the divisions on the left, the IS Group did not have the resources to carry out these formidable but necessary tasks. It was also becoming clear that there were no other organisations that were even thinking on the right lines. The pressure to come to terms with what the group was and what we wanted it to be was becoming urgent. It was in these circumstances that ill thought out and far reaching decisions were taken. It seemed that the needs of the hour called for dramatic growth that transcended the steady but slow recruitment experienced so far. Unity of the left forces could bring in the numbers if nothing else. At the same time the groups closest to us were dedicated a to a tradition that rejoiced in the trappings of Bolshevism. Like some middle aged divorcee seeking a fresh partner, IS ponced itself up in the outdated cosmetics of its youth.



1. NB This is not a sexist remark.

2. For further evidence of Cliff’s carelessness with texts, see Appendix 2 on Luxemburg.

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Last updated on 31.1.2003