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International Socialism, Winter 1968/69


Editorial 2

Politics and the Freeze


From International Socialism (1st series), No.35, Winter 1968/69, pp.2-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


If 1968 was, internationally, a year in which new potentialities were revealed and new initiatives taken, in the politics of British industry, the year was characterised by stalemate and the erosion of working-class positions.

The balance of class forces in British industry has been such that neither employers nor the State have risked any open and direct confrontation with the unions. Castle replaced Gunter: rhetoric for invective. Donovan, after two years and more of hum ... and ... hah, opted for avoiding open conflict and for cautious institutionalisation of plant relations. As the pound tottered on, squeeze and freeze continued, though when the going got rough (as with the Ford women) room was found for a degree of ‘compromise’.

Wage rates rose, but retail prices and rents more than kept pace. At the end of the year some workers were worse off than at the beginning, others had more or less kept their places on the treadmill and some had again managed to squeeze their extra couple of per cent through local bargaining. Left and Right, the union bureaucracies scrupulously kept to the rules of the game. Where they offered verbal militancy, nothing backed it up. The engineers’ non-strike was flawed from the start by the AEF’s total failure to do anything to mobilise its membership, whose apathy towards the new leadership mounted rapidly between the May one-day stoppage and the autumn non-offensive. The Transport Workers sent the busmen on the ‘productivity’ road, and did less than nothing to back the lorry drivers’ attempts to organise opposition to the tachograph. The builders complained slightly then took what could be had without trouble. The NUR, an old hand at the game, sold its members down yet another river. Official unionism kept its fists firmly in its pockets.

Yet the frustrations of industrial workers continue and develop. Industrial accidents maintain their awful climb (little publicised, they are responsible for at least 2½ times as many non-fatal injuries as road accidents). In the absence of any meaningful alternatives, workers have accepted the logic of productivity bargaining, that increased wages depend on the sale of controls and conditions, health, safety and welfare. Here and there there has been resistance (lorry drivers, Coventry car-workers, Merseyside construction workers) followed by hopeless defeat.

There should be no illusions: as far as productivity deals are concerned, the first round has been lost. The immediate danger is that the loss of positions may not even be recognised. Many managements (vide Donovan and the PIB) have little knowledge of what goes on on their own shop floors, knowledge that is vital if they are to negotiate real ‘prod’ deals and reassert their control. Many deals have initially been concerned, therefore, with the introduction of consultants, work study and the like (often with the additional aim of drawing stewards into the process). Workers who expected worse – immediate threats to conditions, speed-up and sackings – have sighed with relief and accepted, letting management clear the ground for the next round State and employers have clarified their position: the only way to get rises is through productivity bargaining. And, to date, workers have had no coherent reply to the attack. The old organisations, the Labour Lefts, the Communist Party, the ‘Left’ unions have no alternative strategies or ideas. Nor could they have. The only alternative now is revolutionary politics.

For socialists the implications are clear: we must fight in the unions for militant caucuses organised on a political basis: for socialist circles in the factories; for meetings and campaigns at the factory gates, on the estates, in the markets, wherever a working-class audience for socialist ideas can be had. The chief threat facing the revolutionary movement now comes from its own social composition – the threat of a petty-bourgeois (white-collar and student) revolutionary movement, cut off from, the industrial base.

A socialist movement that turns far more decisively than in the past to the industrial working class must be clear in its goals: the aim must be the re-grouping of the old militants, those whose level of consciousness poses less problems than their level of confidence, together with the thousands of young workers, confident as never before, who at present lack an articulate socialist consciousness. This second group, more numerous than in the heyday of the Young Socialists, lack precisely such a political focus as the YS. Ways of filling that void are urgently needed. In their different ways, these two groups must be brought together in a militant campaign against the politics of the freeze.

Such is the level of frustration, and such the decline of old inhibitory loyalties, that small avalanches may at any time be set off. Equal pay provides an example of an issue whose potential socialists can only guess at. The strategy must be organisation in the localities, propaganda and agitation to press to the maximum for economic demands that challenge the existing structure. Where precisely a breakthrough will occur we cannot predict, but a more coherent and active attempt to force a b reach must be the central task of revolutionaries in 1969.

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