ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Summer 1967


John Hughes

Letter from a Reader


From International Socialism (1st series), No.29, Summer 1967, pp.22-23.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


I must confess to a certain innocent enjoyment of Raymond Challinor’s article in IS 27. I had the same relish in reading it that I had when perusing Kidron’s attack on my views on incomes policy in Socialist Review, back in 1959, when Ken Alexander and I were exposed as ‘enlightened’ labour bureaucrats (the old hands can read our reply in New Reasoner 10). Both articles employ the same technique of death through a thousand quotations, and the same practice of deliberate distortion, and neither produce any coherent alternative strategy for socialism. In a labour movement in which so much is changing, how welcome this massive immobility of polemical method and content, this feeling that whatever else is unpredictable, the conditioned reflexes of Kidron-Challinor remain intact. Perhaps I should offer to write their next attack on Alexander-Hughes (in 1974) for them?

There was a certain falling away this time from the technique of highly selective ‘quotation’ towards outright misrepresentation. For instance, à propos the PIB:

‘The Board wants to restore the unchallenged authority of management and lessen the power of workers. This involves attacking shop-steward committees and other rank and file organisations. Yet, Hughes and Alexander support this approach, and it follows from their analysis’.

I quite see why there wasn’t an apt quotation from us at this point; it would be difficult to take misrepresentation further. If these are the standards of polemic in IS, how is it ever going to be able to criticise, e.g. the failings of the CP in this respect again? To take another example, your readers are told that I (and others) ‘in the columns of Tribune ... acted as invaluable allies of George Brown.’ The subsequent direct reference to me is ‘John Hughes attacked Tribune for criticising the National Plan’. Of course, Challinor may believe either that IS readers don’t read Tribune or that they forget entirely what they have read in Tribune. Michael Barratt Brown and I wrote a major and frontal attack on the Labour Government’s economic strategy – and put up an alternative strategy for the immediate crisis – in Tribune, 11 June 1965. We returned to the attack, and the statement of an alternative, in the issues of 21 and 28 January 1966. Challinor’s reference to me attacking Tribune for criticising the National Plan, refers to an article I wrote at Tribune‘s request, one that was sharply critical of the plan. In that article I disagreed with an earlier Tribune piece on the plan which had criticised the plan for (apparently) proposing a considerable increase in private consumption. I pointed out (a) that the plan had deliberately used figures that exaggerated the increase in consumption provided for, (b) that working-class and pensioner consumption was part of the total and presumably we stood for an increase in their consumption. Little did I know that Raymond Challinor was noting me down for criticising Tribune; but even that cannot be construed to mean that I was not myself a critic of the plan. As to MBB and I acting as ‘invaluable allies of George Brown,’ can I offer Challinor the counter-stroke of a quote from my own work (since he was so free with quotes)? It comes from the June 1965 article by myself and MBB:

‘We see no firm grip on the direction of the economy; we anticipate the cessation of growth; we see no major breakthrough towards a socially just incomes policy; we see no clear statement of economic and social priorities; we see no curb on the power of the giant oligopolies at home and overseas despite the Corporation Tax’.

On one matter I confess to having been an ally of George Brown. I was asked at the end of 1965 to join a Labour Party study group that was asked urgently by the Party to examine and report on the port transport industry. This group included other ‘labour bureaucrats’ like Ian Mikardo and Jack Jones. We reported after the most concentrated effort in studying the docks and their problems just in time for a (cautious) commitment to appear in the election manifesto. We advocated nationalisation, criticised in detail the whole Devlin and ‘licensing of employers’ approach, and recommended a measure of workers’ participation in executive management that at least broke new ground in Labour Party thinking. I think George Brown played a part in the setting up of that study group; stranger things have happened. (N.B. Raymond Challinor will note the excellent quote I have given him for his 1974 polemic against me: like this, ‘Back in 1967, John Hughes, in IS 29, wrote openly, “I confess to having been an ally of George Brown.”’)

There are one or two things to be said, more seriously, about the Challinor article. One is this. The approach to incomes policy I have argued for has always stressed a number of things:

  1. that one test of the progressiveness or otherwise of an incomes policy is how far it bases itself on a progressive redistribution of income. The Fabian Plan for Incomes that I wrote (with Ken Alexander) stressed that and stressed (and exposed in detail) the regressive shift in income distribution engineered by the Conservatives during their years in office. I have no doubt that the first two years of Labour government have involved further regressiveness.
  2. I have always argued for an extension of workplace rights, reinforced by statute (e.g. on safety inspectors), and for an extension of the subject area of collective bargaining to limit so far as possible the arbitrary power of management. If this is reformist nonsense, so was Marx’s intense interest in the successful working class campaign for the 10 Hour Act. I happen, for my sins, to be a member of yet another Labour study group that is trying to re-state the Party’s position on ‘Workers’ participation;’ so IS readers may shortly be able to judge themselves the reliability of Challinor’s suggestion that Hughes-Alexander want to ‘restore the unchallenged authority of management and lessen the power of workers.’
  3. I have argued the need to challenge the monopolistic power of large scale industry, to unveil the processes of ‘administered pricing’ and use pricing and other controls, to use the pressure of public purchasing and of an extending frontier of publicly owned production to limit the power of monopoly.

I am inclined to ask Challinor where he stands on all these things. I suspect his answer, which I think is question-begging, is the apparently ‘revolutionary’ one – but actually profoundly demoralising and defeatist one – that there would be outright capitalist resistance. Have I understood him right?

If so, a number of things follow. Firstly, we may be on the right (socialist) track, whereas if capitalists cheered and welcomed the approach we might have cause to doubt. Secondly, the effectiveness and nature of capitalist resistance has to be weighed. Why assume that it would be successful? The point of my 1957 New Reasoner analysis of steel nationalisation was to examine the profoundly important case of contested nationalisation where (’unconstitutional’) capitalist resistance was successful – and has put the Labour Movement’s advance back by a generation in that sector. But I didn’t and don’t draw the conclusion that necessarily capitalist resistance will be successful. Instead of making revolutionary-pessimistic noises I tried to analyse the situation and sketched out how next time steel nationalisation should be handled to limit and defeat capitalist resistance. In a number of important respects (timing, pre-vesting day preparation, breaking with the BISF) the present-day handling of steel nationalisation represents learning from past mistakes. If on this, why not on other things? What sort of ‘class struggle’ is it if you deny the possibility of piecemeal and partial advance in the frontier of the ‘political economy of the working class’ against capitalist resistance? Challinor retreats towards rhetoric, quotes Tawney, you can’t strip a tiger claw by claw. Back to the 10 Hours Act; the first victory of our political economy. Marx didn’t rule out the possibility of this advance (perhaps he hadn’t heard of tigers?); he showed how the victory was basically due to the particular tactics of the working-class campaign and the divisions in the ranks of the propertied classes.

Ah, says Challinor, but it is worse than that. You are being naive, self-deceived, a French philosophe, and lots more which I take it, pass for swear words in IS circles. The Labour Party and Government are reformist and conformist. Now this is at best over-simplifying. There are (thank goodness) socialist forces in the Party, and the involvement of the trade unions in the Conference and National Executive should not be disregarded. But let’s assume that mostly the government is opportunist, and chary of confrontation with business (but N.B. steel). All the more need for an explicit statement of alternative policies, for arguing within the movement as to our economic and social priorities, our next steps. Of course these ‘priorities,’ these ‘next steps’ can only be provisional or transitional programmes – like the one the old man advanced in 1848 in the Manifesto. But it is in very concrete terms of the here and now that we have to analyse, argue, challenge. I found myself recently lecturing at a packed meeting of steelworkers in Scunthorpe (and in Sheffield); they face very serious problems particularly of security, their unions are divided and often bitterly competing, there is a capitalist resistance, and they are concerned about questions of power, arid wanting to extend their own organised influence over the political and economic transformation of their industry. These are real people and real problems, and they need all the help they can get from critical socialist analysis, from a continuing discussion and study of tactics and demands. The immensity of the task is (almost) frightening. And that is only one industry, only one group of workers.

Yet Challinor can only sloganise and abuse:

‘The kind of gradual, bureaucratic transformation beloved by Hughes et al. is a chimera. There can be no substitute for a complete change – public ownership with workers’ control – carried out all at the same time.’

Really. And does that tell the Scunthorpe steel-workers what are the specific dangers they face, what opportunities there are now of using the transformation of their industry to strengthen the organisation and influence of the workers in the steel industry, what they should be trying to commit their trade unions to? Set against needs like this I am not at all sure that I can justify turning aside to reply to Raymond Challinor. But I do notice elsewhere in IS writers who are doing a real job of work in analysing and dissecting the institutions of our latter day capitalism and its labour movement. I think that Colin Barker’s material is outstandingly good, not least his critical study of the conclusions of the Prices and Incomes Board in IS 26. I expect to find myself in disagreement with IS, but I respect the seriousness of some of its writers, and it is out of respect for them that I reply.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 6 May 2010