ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Winter 1964/5


Pat Jordan

From Our Readers


From International Socialism, No.19, Winter 1964/5, pp.17-19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I was really surprised to see the first (and only specifically domestic) editorial of International Socialism 18 devoted to an attack on other left wing journals. As a regular contributor to the journal which received the main blows, The Week, I would like to comment on: (a) the merits of such attacks; and (b) the argument on incomes policy. I hope to give the readers of your journal a clearer picture of the issues at stake than they would get from merely reading your editorial.

International Socialism has been, in general, relatively free from the vice which afflicts so many left journals of devoting a major part of its space to denouncing its real or imaginary rivals on the left. It is to be hoped that the episode in question will prove to be an isolated incident. However, it is difficult once setting out on a course to draw back. Attack invokes counter-attack – and to ignore the parries of one’s opponents can be presented as a sign of defeat. I would add that I hope that the editors of The Week will refrain from retaliating in their columns. Let us nip this thing in the bud.

That is not to say that healthy polemic is to be avoided. Healthy discussion is the essential lifeblood of the process of checking theory with practice, of developing theory from practice and making theory part of practice. But there are two important qualifications: (1) this discussion must be concrete and related to the living movement; and (2) it must not challenge the socialist credentials of the participants unless there is ample evidence that they are on the wrong side in the struggle. (Is it also necessary to say that such polemic should not misrepresent the ideas of anyone concerned?) Otherwise polemic degenerates into hair-splitting and/or exchange of abuse. Your editorial as I have interpreted it (together with many others who do not necessarily support The Week) falls down on both counts. Many people when first making their acquaintance with sectarian mud-slinging have been puzzled by the fact that many of the groups on the left spend the greatest amount of energy in attacking precisely those people whose ideas are closest to their own (except when they are pursuing a ‘unity offensive’ tactic). The reasons for this apparent paradox are not hard to work out.

The essence of sectarian politics is that the interests of the working class are subordinated to those of the special interests of the sect. Two sects with similar political lines can be likened to two grocers who have the misfortune to be side by side in the High Street. Although they both sell virtually the same line of goods, they will be under very powerful pressures to ‘run down’ each others’ merchandise. Likewise with the sects: in competition to sell more copies of their papers, to grab a few more adherents or to win influence in some trade union branch the main enemy is not capitalism, is not the right wing of the Labour Party or the trade union bureaucracy, but the other groups. The closer they are politically and geographically the more ‘dangerous’ they are.

That is why in sectarian demonology the order of demons is in the reverse order to what the naive would expect. That is why the sectarian demonologist has to ‘prove’ that those closest to him are ‘really’ the farthest away. That is why he has to ‘prove’ that even if they say the same things as he does, they ‘actually’ mean something else.

Am I being too optimistic in believing that the members of the editorial board of International Socialism are too intelligent to go in for sectarian demonology? I trust not, and part of the proof will be the fact that they will publish this letter in full. Another more important proof will be the lack of similar editorials in the future.

In going over the arguments of the editorial on incomes policy it is first necessary to establish the terms of reference of the discussion. The point at issue is not as the editorial presented it: ‘for’ or ‘against’ a wage-freezing incomes policy. The issue is how to fight a wage-freezing incomes policy. Your editorial was being completely misleading when it spoke of Coates giving ‘qualified support for wage freeze ...’ Have not the editors of International Socialism read in The Week:

’There are only two ways to tackle this problem (Britain’s economic inefficiency) either the traditional one of “rationalising” and “modernising” the economy, which must be done at the expense of sections of the working class; or that of using socialist measures, which involve planning for and by the working class ... This is the reality behind the discussion around an incomes policy ... Unless Wilson chooses the latter he will face disaster.’ (Editorial, 28 May.) ‘Its (the UPW at the time of the postmen’s strike) present fight ought to lead us on to demand that protection for low-paid workers should be secured, not by allowing the state to carve up the better-paid workers’ pay-packets in the name of an incomes policy, but by allowing the workers to determine a real incomes policy which dips into the vast undeclared resources of capital.’ (Editorial, 20 July.) Finally, on 29 October (this was, of course, after the editorial had been written) [1] the editorial concluded:

‘Yet the danger remains that in their loyalty to “their” Government big sections of the working class and the trade unions will accept such a proposal (a tax on excess dividends as being the equivalent to wage restraint). It will appear to be advocating “restraint” and “sacrifices” on both sides. The left must find a way of opposing the incomes policy with slogans which will appear reasonable to these sections of workers. With due humility we would again put forward our particular slogan: “No negotiations on an incomes policy until the books are open to the workers.”’ (my emphasis)

Let us hope that these quotations will establish what the true position of The Week is. The editors of International Socialism are, I trust, big enough to admit their error. Having established our terms of reference we can consider the argument about opening the books. Is it true that ‘There is plenty of evidence that the employers will open their books’? Quoting what happens in the United States in one particular industry, with the US Labour Relations Board stipulation that such examination ‘must be reasonable’, is no argument at all. Neither is it an argument to refer to the fact that the nationalised industries have to present detailed accounts to Parliament. What was being proposed was not an accountant’s dossier on an industry in toto, but an examination of the books by the workers on the shop floor level.

But have the editors of International Socialism heard nothing of the row which is going on in the coal industry over the NCB allocating huge sums to meet future depreciation after having allowed over £93 million for current depreciation? This ‘fiddling’ of the books had the effect of reducing the ‘surplus’ from over £12½ million to a mere £100,000 in the midst of negotiations over a miners’ wage claim. (See The Week, 1 September for details of figures.) Access to the books by workers at shop floor level is the only answer to phoney depreciation. Don’t the editors know that access to the books by local miners would reveal that each pit (including the so-called unprofitable ones) made a profit before interest and compensation charges, and before the distributors got their hands on the coal? That access to the books would bring out into the open the scandal of industrialists being subsidised by the home consumers of coal? Surely they will agree, that this kind of access to the books would reinforce grass roots support for (a) ending compensation payments; (b) the nationalisation of coal distribution; and (c) the ending of indirect subsidies to industry by differing coal prices? This picture could be repeated in all the nationalised industries.

If I might be given the liberty of emulating one distinguished contributor to International Socialism and spice my dish with yet another quotation, I would draw your readers’ attention to the following which appeared in the Investors’ Chronicle, 23 October; in a letter, one Harry Ward, who described himself as one ‘knowing intimately the problems of a high percentage of fifty leading companies’ wrote:

‘The accountants of the world have made little progress these last 20 years in taking inflation into account ... One still knows of assets worth say £8 million valued in the books at £400,000, of assets saleable ... at £2 million ... valued at £2 in the account ...’

Whilst the taxmen who deal with bits of paper may be fooled by these deceptions, the workers on the spot can see and feel such assets. Do the editors of International Socialism really think that the employers will take the risk of all this coming out into the open?

But take this argument to its logical conclusion. Your article spoke of transitional demands: there is a development from the slogan of opening the books. If the books really show the employer to be losing money, OK, we will put him out of his misery. The workers are humanitarian enough to take over the factory (through nationalisation) to save him from losing all his wealth. Can any reader of International Socialism doubt what the answer of the employer would be to this ‘generous’ offer? If the battle to open the books was won it would have a profound effect in developing socialist consciousness on a mass scale. This after all, is the main problem which faces the left: whilst the majority of British workers support the Labour Party and call themselves Labour, they do not call themselves socialist in the sense of wanting a fundamental change in society. The problem of the workers’ transition from class consciousness, ie, the awareness of their special interests as a class, to socialist consciousness, ie, the awareness that the only fundamental and lasting solution to the problems that face them is through a complete overhaul of present day society, is the 64,000 dollar one. The process of the class (or decisive sections of the working class) learning this should not be confused with the process of individuals, or even groups of individuals, learning this lesson. One thing is clear: it will be achieved not by propaganda means but by masses of workers learning through their own experience that they cannot solve their problems within the framework of trade union or Labourite policies. Of course the books do not ‘contain a precise answer to every problem besetting the workers’ (Ken Coates never said they did – he said they contained a precise answer to problems about which unions wished to negotiate. Unions don’t normally negotiate about class society, do they?) Opening the books will not, of course, solve any major problem. But the changes in consciousness brought about by the correct use of this slogan will help to solve problems.

Your editorial says that transitional slogans like ‘opening the books’ (incidentally, if this is ‘ideologically acceptable but practically unobtainable’, how come your editors also say that ‘there is plenty of evidence that the employers will open their books’?) are magnificent banners in battle – ‘But where’s the battle?’ No one would say that we are on the verge of a revolution, but haven’t the editors of International Socialism been around lately? From January to September this year there have been 1,896 strikes involving 702,900 workers, with a loss of 1,883,000 working days. In the same period 8,417,000 workers have won wage increases amounting to a total of £3,797,100 per week, and a further 882,500 workers have won reductions in hours amounting to some 1,101,800 hours per week. All these figures are considerably up on last year; in the case of strikes 50 per cent up. This is not the scale of the general strike but this is action and it is up to the left to at least make a contribution to discussion about the strategy to be adopted in struggles on this scale.

The British workers show very good sense in rejecting the many messiahs who come along with all the answers in the book. They have assimilated the lesson that the trade unions and the Labour Party which they created are valuable weapons in their fight against the employers, in that these organisations deliver some of the goods. This is why they are reluctant to abandon these organisations just because some esoteric group of individuals tells them to do so – no matter how learned these intellectuals might be. When they do become disillusioned with their traditional organisations they do not automatically transfer their allegiance to more left-wing organisations (again I am talking of the behaviour of the class and not that of the individual). The usual result has been a swing to the right and apathy. This has been the experience in virtually all industrial countries.

Whilst carrying out consistent argumentation for fully-fledged socialist policies the left must also face this problem. Some of us pose as an answer to this dilemma the creation of an alternative left leadership within the framework of the traditional organisations. We believe that the development of such a leadership can shift the whole class to the left, along the road of socialist consciousness. Instead of the working class becoming demoralised when betrayed by the right it will retain its cohesion and self-confidence. But to achieve this the alternative leadership must be one which presents itself as a real alternative in the eyes of the broad mass of Labour supporters. Of course we are not prescribing a remedy for all times, for all situations, (unlike some on the left we do not think we have discovered our own brand of ‘absolute truth’) but one for the particular impasse the left finds itself in today.

Once this evolution had taken place there would be an inevitable differentiation – but on a higher level. The ‘left’ leaders of today would perhaps become the enemies of tomorrow. But our task is not to expose their possible or probable evolution in isolation from the experience of the working class. That is precisely the elitist view which International Socialism claims to oppose. We, of course, have the duty to make a political assessment of all tendencies in the working class movement – but the way to do this is not by hysterical denunciations of ‘centrists’, or by affixing the prefix ‘fake’ to all left-wingers in trade union and Labour Party positions. The political evolution of individuals must be explained in social terms, in terms of the class forces operating upon them, rather than in terms of their individual psychology.

All this may be a ‘conspiratorial view of capitalism’ to the editors of International Socialism, but can they suggest any alternative strategy for actually intervening in the struggle between capital and labour? And for actually helping to decide the course of events? Talk of ‘a sufficient body of workers’ saying ‘no’ ‘in unison’ is empty meaningless rhetoric. What body of workers? What is a sufficient number? How does one instil ‘a knowledge of mutual dependence and common goals’? By selling International Socialism, The Week, Labour Worker, Union Voice, Tribune, New Left Review? I wish that was the way – but if it was we would have already traversed that path. As for giving ‘unqualified support for leftish trade union leaders’, this is not an abstract question – as it is so often presented in sectarian literature. Let us be precise: when have the editors of The Week or Union Voice given ‘unqualified support’ to leftish trade union leaders when the latter have been on the wrong side in any struggle? Comrade editors of International Socialism read carefully back numbers of The Week and Union Voice and you will see that within the limits of their space these journals have continuously supported strikes and other struggles. To use an emotive expression: what strikes or other struggles have these two journals ‘sold out’ in order to remain in with ‘friends in high places’? Let’s have an end to this Talmudist nonsense! Readers and supporters of The Week, Union Voice and, so they tell me, International Socialism are sick of it. Instead of being hostile to each other (as would appear from your editorial) in practice one will find that in most living struggles supporters of International Socialism, The Week, Labour Worker and Union Voice (together with many others) will be found side by side on the same side of the fence. Let’s have some realism – the truth of the matter is, whether we like it or not, that a single militant move by the left wing leadership of the traditional workers’ organisations means more in terms of the development of the consciousness of the working class than a total year’s output of literature from the Marxist left. We do not like this state of affairs. Instead of ‘burying our heads in the sand’ some of us are trying to change it. Why not help us?


1. But please let’s not have a red herring dragged in that this editorial was written in response to International Socialism.

If we have misunderstood The Week, we apologise. We suspect though that we have understood only too well. Time will tell. Meanwhile Readers might think about the distinction we draw between books seen as a capitalist conspiracy to mystify workers and cheat them of their due under capitalism (The Week’s basic position) and books seen as a monitor of capitalism’s normal operations capable, in general, of revealing only so much as enters into a larger critique of the system (our position). They might also think about Pat Jordan’s penultimate sentence in which an unexceptional sentiment is marred by the inevitable, or so it seems, fixation on ‘the left wing leadership’. – Editor.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 6.9.2007