First Published: Autumn 1984.
Source: Published by the Workers Socialist League.
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‘DISPUTE on the TUC’ deals with an episode which was the turning point for the organisation: afterwards the tempo towards split accelerated and became irreversible. Ironically, we had agreement on WSL analysis and proposals during the NGA dispute, and, as it happens, they were distinctive on the left. Nevertheless we had the most embittered disputes, and the last links of practical cooperation between the two groups in the WSL were ruptured.
Most of the factional agitation of the Thornett group in their last months in the WSL was concerned with organisational details. Formally the most political issue they raised was the role of the TUC in the NGA Warrington dispute.
Formally it was political. In fact it was nakedly fuelled by the factional obsessions of Thornett and his ill-feeling against the majority of the organisation’s leadership. The ‘dialogue of the deaf’ quality of the dispute was typical of the internal life of the organisation.
If it were only a matter of nonsense like this on small committees it would have been unpleasant but bearable. But the knock-on effects from Thornett’s agitation on the TUC included the final withdrawal of the Thornett group’s joint editor of the paper. It led to an accelerated internal campaign spearheaded by misrepresentations of what we had been saying on the issue – blatant lying according to the style and technique of the SLL / WRP. It led, in February, to Thornett’s production of a 6000 word long apologia and the demand for four pages of a weekly paper to print it – and, when he was offered 3000 words and two pages this in turn led to an accelerated campaign denouncing the ‘suppression’ of the ‘worker leadership’.
This, together with the general pessimistic prostration of the Thornett group in November / December and after, prepared the way for their attempt in. March – after the miners’ strike had begun – to turn the organisation toward a two-month long pre-special-conference discussion of such burning questions as this ‘suppression’ of the ‘worker leadership’.
The episode shows things in the organisation moving from the just tolerable to the intolerable, and on the eve of becoming impossible. This document is a response to the SLL style polemics by Alan Thornett and John Lister. The references to ‘what we said about the TUC’ are less clearly labelled here than they were in the Internal Bulletin for reasons of not making things easy for witch-hunters in the Labour Party.
Smith says in IB 80 that:
“Carolan . . . argued that the role of the TUC in the NGA dispute was weak but progressive. I argued that it was wholly negative and much worse than in the 1970-74 period . . . ”
And Cunliffe in IB 78 denounces:
“our failure until after the ‘Black Wednesday’ betrayal to offer any analysis of the TUC leaders in the NGA dispute . . . ”
Now the first thing that must be said is that Cunliffe and Smith here present their accounts of a real dispute that did take place in a sauce of shameless lies.
On November 30, I wrote the following description of the TUC’s behaviour:
“timid, fearful, cowardly, and in the circumstances grossly inadequate . . . pusillanimous even by the TUC’s own standards . . . we cannot rely on the TUC leaders”.
On December 7, still before ‘Black Wednesday’, we published the following assessment:
“The union leaders are trying – successfully, so far, this week – to take the issue off the streets and into the negotiating chamber . . . ” The TUC had “helped the dispute not a hair’s breadth or an iota, the TUC wants to use this dispute to strengthen their links with the Tories, not allow it to disrupt them”.
And more of the same. Not condemn the TUC? What do Cunliffe and Smith want us to do – organise a posse to go and strengthen up outside Congress House?
Smith even writes that I saw the whole record of the TUC on the NGA dispute as progressive! Look back at what we wrote. After ‘Black Wednesday’ we called Len Murray ‘King Rat’ and headlined: ‘Fight back against betrayal’, Hardly the way you describe people who you think are playing a progressive role . . .
It would be better to explore the real differences that do exist. What are / were they?The TUC Employment Committee’s decision
On November 29 the TUC employment committee (EPOC) voted to give the NGA ‘all support possible within the law’. On December 2 the TUC General Council unanimously approved this recommendation, but on the same day the NGA (probably pressurised by TUC leaders) lifted its pickets in Warrington.
On December 10 the NGA National Council called for an (unlawful) national print stoppage on December 14, On December 12 EPOC voted 9 to 7 to adopt “a supportive and sympathetic attitude to the entirely predictable official decision” by the NGA to strike. Len Murray publicly condemned this EPOC decision; the NGA on December 13 suspended its strike call; and on December 14 Murray got the TUC General Council to overturn the EPOC decision.
I wrote an article on November 30, shortly before the December 2 General Council meeting. I took for granted and said (see above) the general truths about the treachery the TUC bureaucracy which are part of our ABC. As well as that, I tried to assess concretely what was happening at the top of the TUC, what processes and interactions were going on there in face of the implacable Tory attitude towards their TUC collaborators.
To this task I brought two ideas. A belief that I had to pay close attention to what the bourgeois press was reporting about divisions in the TUC, and assess it. And a general theory of the Marxist movement, no less basic than the thesis that the TUC leaders are a distinct and alien bureaucracy – namely, that when the bourgeoisie attacks the labour movement at a fundamental level, so that the interests of the labour bureaucracy are threatened as well as the rank and file’s, then the bureaucrats will at least make gestures towards fighting back. These gestures may trigger a bigger rank and file explosion than they bargain for, and that in turn may force them to go further than they would choose to go.
For example, in July 1972 the spontaneous strike in response to the jailing of five dockers under the Industrial Relations Act – a movement which released the dockers and forced the TUC to declare a one-day general strike – was partly prepared for by 18 months of TUC agitation against the Act, feeble though the official TUC policy was.
Sometimes the bureaucrats will not fight fundamental attacks on the labour movement – Germany. Sometimes they will – Spain. Even if they do, you can’t trust them. If these ideas are not true, then much of what Trotsky did in the 1930s, calling for united fronts against fascism in Germany and France, was fundamentally mistaken and wrong in principle.
The TUC bureaucracy is not one homogeneous mass, always and invariable reactionary.
Now if you look at the minutes of the fusion discussions, you will find me saying that I often got the impression from the old WSL press that they saw the union bureaucracy as such a homogeneous group. I don’t think that Smith and Jones have a coherent theory to that effect, but they effectively had an implicit position.Making an Assessment
In the course of assessing the divisions in the TUC and EPOC I wrote a passage in the November 30 article which made a positive but clearly qualified assessment of the EPOC vote to support the NGA. I noted its weakness and lack of commitment to hard support for the NGA. At the same time I noted that within their careful bureaucrats’ jargon and the declaration of support “within law”, they were in fact, in the real world of conflict and strife, declaring timid TUC support for the NGA which was breaking the law.
Much better would have been a full-blooded policy such as we advocated. But l was assessing what was happening at the top of the TUC – that slow, conservative movement representing 11 million workers, with its wretched leadership who would more usually have been expected to condemn the NGA than to give it even timid support.
I thought something was happening at the top of the TUC. According to Marxist ABC notions about the dual character of the bureaucracy, I expected at least some flicker as the Tories seemed poised to destroy a trade union for the first time in over 150 years.
The task was not just blindly and unintelligently to repeat rote truisms about the bureaucracy, but also to assess what was new, what was growing and developing and changing.An Error in Assessment?
But after a minute’s discussion with Cunliffe I agreed it cut the passage on the progressive aspects of the EPOC decision. Working at top speed, you write things down and then make a critical assessment and ask for other people’s reactions, I was aware of the danger of being defocused from the immediate issues of fighting against the TUC’s call to stay within the law by a longer term assessment of the implications of the EPOC stand. After a brief discussion I agreed to ‘play it safe’ and delete the passage which Cunliffe thought gave the TUC too much. I also agreed to a headline, ‘TUC weak link in solidarity’.
So when Cunliffe raises this, what point is he making? For the sake of the argument suppose I made an error in the draft of the article. I agreed to change it. I was reasonable in responding to the point of view of the other editor, and we published a jointly-agreed article.
Such changes after discussion among collaborators occur all the time. Trying to assess something new, you are always likely to make mistakes, I have not claimed that I don’t make mistakes, nor do not ask anyone to follow me blindly or set me up as a prophet in competition to Smith. So, even if my error were greater than it was, where is the big deal?
The big deal is that Cunliffe had to deal with the fact of Smith’s politics on the TUC and his own deference to Smith.‘Not part of a developing situation’
Moreover, I was not fundamentally mistaken in the idea that shifts and processes were going on in the TUC.
The next EC meeting took place on December 11 – after the NGA had called off the picketing, but had also (on December 10) called a one-day print strike for December14.
Smith insisted that it was all over with the struggle. (Cunliffe was not present). Smith put down in a resolution that the NGAs decision was “a serious retreat which puts the whole struggle in jeopardy”. When the other EC members indicated that they agreed, he added a clause: “. . . and we regard it as part of a developing situation”.
The next day EPOC voted to adopt “a sympathetic and supportive attitude” to the strike. Len Murray publicly denounced EPOC, saying that it was putting the TUC in danger of legal action. The General Council on Wednesday 14th was persuaded by Murray to reverse the EPOC decision. The TUC leadership was openly and bitterly split. We ourselves started agitating for a recall TUC.
Now we know very well (and we wrote at the time) about the feebleness of the EPOC ‘left-wingers’ semi-support for the NGA. But was it really “not a developing situation”?
And two months after he betrayed the NGA, ‘King Rat’ Murray (my phrase!) called for workers to strike over GCHQ despite the law.
What do the comrades say about that? Still no contradictions, no elements of the TUC being forced into a fight despite itself, no ‘developing situation’? They bluff and twist and weasel like political charlatans.Smith’s argument of a ‘SWP Binge’
At the EC on December 11 there was a dispute between Smith and the rest of the EC over:
(i) whether or not to focus on denouncing the TUC only; and
(ii) whether to call on the rank and file to act apart from the leaders.
A resolution was put by me to the EC which stated:
“In general we call on the TUC to act as a leadership but we do not do this in such a way as to imply waiting on them. We call on the rank and file, on the shop stewards etc. to act in solidarity, immediately, but we do not do this in such a way as to imply that the official movement and its leadership are irrelevant . . . Concretely, now, we explore the possibilities of getting rank and file solidarity strikes in support of the NGA one-day strike . . . ”
(on December 14).
Smith denounced the arguments of this resolution as “an SWP binge”, and eventually refused to vote on it.
It was common ground to blame and denounce the TUC, but Smith wanted to focus on denunciation much more, even before the decisive betrayal on December 14.
He was in a minority on that.
You should not denounce in the same shrill monotone, whatever is going on, or people will stop listening – and the effect on yourself will be to blunt or destroy your ability to analyse concretely what is going on.
And our duty does not end with saying, ‘Blame the leaders’. Trade union leaders have been selling out for many decades – in Britain since around the turn of the century. If it had been left to the trade union leaders, then the struggles of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s would not have happened. It is an irrefutable part of our politics to call on the rank and file to act – ‘if the leaders won’t lead, the rank and file must’.
In words, this is common ground, and you would expect Smith and Jones at least not to need us to tell them this. Nevertheless in December Smith argued polemically for exclusively denunciation of the TUC. He said that our insistence on calling on the rank and file to act independently was “an SWP binge”. In fact, if you confine yourself to denouncing TUC leaders as scabs whose trade for 80 years has been scabbing, and don’t call on the rank and file, you are left with passive propaganda.Back to Healyism?
I’m not sure that I understand the whys and wherefores of all this. Smith is certainly capable of analysing nuances and recognising shifts in the bureaucracy if he puts his mind to it.
There was an element of accident in it. Smith is a subjective man who often announces “fundamental differences” to whatever we say and especially to what I say. It was, I think, also true that a general pessimism about the prospects of rank and file action expressed itself for Smith incoherently in an opposition to calls on the rank and file (which opposition then, by way or reflex factionalism and the desire to generalise, became denunciation of our supposed ‘Cliffism’).
But there is more than accident to it. And Smith is partly right to relate it to the old disputes of the ’60s.
He is wrong about Workers’ Fight and the supposed SWP / IS influence on us. We related to the rank and file long before we joined IS. For example, I helped organise the national movement against the Devlin plan on the docks in the late ’60s (I was on the national strike-organising committee) and helped lead the strike in Manchester against Devlin.
But it is Smith here who lapses back to the SLL trade union policies of the ’60s, which focused heavily on the union leadership and whose stock-in-trade on everything, from the CP to the Labour Party to the trade union tops, to other far-left groups, was propagandist denunciation (frequently dishonest).Conclusion
I want to express myself in measured and cool terms as much as I can, but if I am to write the truth as I see it, then only one word fits what Smith was saying and writing about the labour movement in the NGA dispute and soon after. That word is not ‘wrong’, or ‘mistaken’, or ‘badly informed ’.The word is silly.
In part its origin is comrade Smith’s petulance and subjectivism. He bitterly resented not being treated as the giver of the law on these matters (and not only on these matters, where he might be thought to know more than most of us on the EC). He probably found that our resistance to his prostrate pessimism set up painful internal conflicts and contradictions within himself, too.
His general posture towards us is that of hatred (I’m still choosing my words carefully) and die-in-the-last-ditch factionalism. Whatever I say, he has a strong personal urge to contradict and deny. That is a big part of the explanation of such childishness as the amendment that there was no longer any “developing situation”.
But such behaviour, such subjectivism, such consistent self-righteous silliness, is possibly only because comrade Smith is still very much in the grip of his Healyite basic politics.
As in every field, these are now overlaid with all sorts of empirical adjustments made over the last decade. They have not been replaced by any coherent alternative ideas. Thus the utterly one-sided 1960s Healyite Third-Period-style denunciation of the bureaucracy as a fixed, immovable caste remains comrade Smith’s faded but intact fall-back set of ideas when the exigencies of his factional competition and his own subjectivism force him back on it.What the Dispute tells us about the Faction
In terms of basic slogans and political line, throughout the NGA dispute we had a clear position, substantially different from (and better than) that of any other far-left groups, which was unanimously agreed. At most Smith’s differences – rationally understood – were differences of nuance. It should have been an excellent opportunity to recreate some unity in our ranks. In fact it led to the most bitter divisions – alongside an almost complete lack of cooperation on the dispute from Smith as industrial organiser of the WSL.
The dispute on the TUC sheds light on a number of questions:
a) Every comrade can see clearly that what Smith, Jones and Cunliffe say about our line on the TUC is blatant lies. Read what we wrote. They are shameless liars on this question. Don’t trust them on anything else.
b) Cunliffe more or less explicitly demands that we defer to Smith on industrial affairs. What if the paper had reflected the prostrate pessimism and demoralisation of Smith last December? The leading committees, editors, etc. must function according to reason and argument. The organisation cannot afford a system of deference such as Smith, Jones and Cunliffe want to set up.
c) As well as catching themselves out as liars, Smith, and Cunliffe show themselves on this question – one of those on which Smith and Jones have the best claims to knowledge – to have acted as charlatans. Of course everyone makes mistakes, says silly things when irritated or hurt; etc. But serious people do not play games like Smith and Cunliffe are playing on this question.
d) Finally: last. December and January the ‘worker leadership’ took their stand in the organisation on a series of ultra-pessimistic assessments and on a one-sided; essentially non-Trotskyist, conception of the bureaucracy.
Events since – the February 28 day of action and the miners’ strike – have decisively shattered what they said then, in factional recoil against us, about the industrial / political situation. They were utterly wrong: and at some points Smith, for reasons of his subjective approach to politics, was utterly silly.
Serious people would try to learn some lessons from that. But Smith, Jones and Cunliffe haven’t. Political accounting? Not from this ‘worker leadership’ who demand that we should defer to them politically and especially where anything to do with industry is concerned. Under pressure of their factionalism, they prove that they are not politically serious or stable people.