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International Socialism, Winter 1968/69


Bob Looker

Out of the Darkness – Into the Light?


From Polemic, International Socialism (1st series), No.35, Winter 1968/69, pp.32-39.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To be a revolutionary socialist in the 1950s was to be a political anachronism, a fossilised relic of a tradition extinguished in Europe, apparently for ever, some three decades previously. Crushed between the seemingly impregnable monoliths of Stalinism and Social Democracy, a traitor to both sides in the Cold War, the most one could hope for was to survive, for victory, however narrowly defined, was out of the question. For groups like International Socialism which emerged in that period, the task was one of preserving the revolutionary aspirations of Marxism through those new dark ages, until such distant time when it might once more emerge as a living force.

Judged by these very modest standards, IS was not unsuccessful. In its own refinements of the Marxist tradition, it managed to preserve its autonomy against any fatal compromises with the demands of its Stalinist and revisionist opponents. On the one hand, its analysis of state capitalism enabled it to avoid the metaphysical contortions of many socialists who, while recognising the full barbarism of Soviet ‘communism’, still sought desperately to discern in that system some working class presence. On the other hand, in its account of the permanent arms economy and the trend towards planned capitalism, it was able to provide a coherent answer to the revisionist thesis that Social Democracy had overcome the contradictions of capitalism, and it did this without resort to the ritual incantations of many of their contemporaries for whom ‘the coming crisis’ was a yearly act of faith. Above all, its account of the fatuities of substitutionism ensured that IS retained that sense of its own insignificance which is the necessary pre-requisite for preserving one’s sanity inside the confines of sectarian politics. Yet when all this has been conceded, the fact remains that, through necessity rather than choice, IS could seek only to analyse the world, when the point is to change it.

A decade later, we find the situation radically transformed. The impregnable monoliths are crumbling, the Cold War is in process of being replaced by a new Holy Alliance, and Marxism has once again emerged as a source of inspiration to a whole new generation of students, even if the workers are still largely untouched by it. In such changed conditions, the tasks confronting revolutionary socialists have been transformed, and IS, like some at least of its contemporaries on the sectarian Left, has itself been transformed in this process. From a handful of people commenting on events, it has become one element – and with only a thousand or so comrades, a tiny element – in the active process of seeking to change them. Yet the movement towards systematic activity, which in the case of IS dates from about 1966, requires us to bring to bear radically different criteria for assessing our own performance, and in the light of these changed standards, it is by no means obvious that we pass the test. If in the words of one recent internal group document IS is ‘the largest, the most flexible, and theoretically the most rigorous’ of all the groupings on the sectarian Left, this is more a testimony to others’ failures than to our success. For the experience of the last three years of activity has revealed within IS many confusions and uncertainties as to the nature of the task we are undertaking, and also about the quality of our response as an organised political group. Over the past six months this experience has begun to crystallise itself in the form of an internal debate which has covered a whole range of issues from the nature of Marxist theory in general and our Marxist analysis of contemporary capitalism in particular, to the organisational structure of revolutionary groups. This debate has so far been marked less by a clarification of the issues involved than by an articulation of our many confusions, and the purpose of this polemic is to review and comment upon some of these confusions. It is published here in the hope that the issues which have been raised inside IS may be of some interest to the wider audience that read this journal and who might themselves wish to involve themselves in it.

I. Marxist Theory

One of the most intellectually fruitful aspects of activity for a revolutionary socialist is that it provides him with the touchstone of practice against which he can test out, refine and develop, his understanding of Marxism. Unfortunately IS has so far experienced no such critical interplay of theory and practice: on the contrary, not only has our existing contribution to Marxism – itself largely the product of the 1950s – been left to stagnate, but our concern with theory as such has all too frequently been replaced by an empiricist pragmatism only thinly veiled in the language of praxis. When pressed to formulate their perspectives, many comrades have resorted to ritualistic phrases culled from the Bolshevik experience without pausing to pose even the simplest questions about the relevance of the pre-1917 Russian conditions to the radically different situation which exists in contemporary Britain. In reaction to this, other comrades have sought on the basis of their activity to offer genuine theoretical alternatives in these incantations, but while some promising questions have been raised – particularly in relationship to the ambivalent legacy of Lenin and Trotsky – the answers have frequently suggested some basic confusion about the substance of Marxist theory, and in some cases, have been in contradiction to it! Thus, far from providing IS with the material upon which to make theoretical advances, our activism now compels us to return to a consideration of some of the most simple, but fundamental concepts of Marxism. Let us examine some of these concepts which have, either implicitly or explicitly, been called into question by the various tendencies who for want of better terms will be called ‘the student substitutionists’, ‘the economists’, ‘the leadership cult’ and ‘the ideologists’.

1. Revolution and the Proletariat. The central tenet of Marxism, upon which the rest of its theoretical edifice depends, is the assertion that the working class is the sole historical agency for the achievement of socialism, and that it is upon its conscious practice that the possibility of revolution depends. It is for this reason that IS has placed such emphasis on the rejection of all forms of substitutionism, either that of Social Democracy, which separates the active leadership wielding state power from the passively supporting class, or that of Stalinism, which subjugates the free activity of the class to the despotic dictates of a self-appointed leadership. In the past, this emphasis on the industrial proletariat has led IS to stress the material constraints on the possibilities for socialism in the Third World, even to the extent of wrongly undervaluing the limited but genuine advances that have taken place there. Yet precisely at a time when the potentially revolutionary character of the working class is being once more demonstrated on the streets of Paris, we find a new embryonic substitutionism emerging in the form of a belief in student power, with universities taking the place of the factory, and Vice-Chancellors the role of the bosses! Even in its theoretically least objectionable form the model of students as the revolutionary catalyst for proletarian mobilisation derived from the May days in France can only serve to direct the attention of socialists away from what should be their primary concern, namely the question of the character of the experience and consciousness of the class which would make it likely to respond to such a ‘spark’. This is of course quite separate from the question whether the model is itself adequate even for the limited purposes of explaining the French experience, let alone its relevance to Britain.

2. Socialists and Workers. One of the mistakes of IS activism in the past has been its reluctance to carry its politics into its activity, but to seek instead a purely servicing role in the context of any particular struggle without seeking to generalise beyond it. While this practical economism has now been recognised for what it is, this has not prevented the emergence within IS of a tendency which seeks to complement it with a theoretical economism. According to this view, the objective structure of capitalism compels the working class into a series of struggles the result of which is to produce a socialist consciousness which reflects the objective character of class relations in capitalism and in turn leads to the emergence of genuinely proletarian organisations whose aim is the overthrow of the system.

Leaving aside the curious mixture of determinism and voluntarism which underlies this view, it is important to emphasise the practical consequences for action which derive from it. On this account, consciously socialist agitation – as opposed to servicing the struggle – has no part to play in working-class struggles in a non-revolutionary period either because

  1. it is anachronistic in that it needlessly anticipates the inevitable development of a class consciousness which can only emerge as a reflection of the struggle,
  2. it is unnecessary in that the struggle does not require a conscious socialist perspective to be raised to achieve success and might be disrupted if it were raised (alternatively, it is irrelevant because the struggle is objectively political in any case),
  3. it is elitist in that it seeks to impose outside views on the class.

It is hardly necessary to point out that this perspective necessarily involves the self-emasculation of socialist practice, but equally importantly it derives from a fundamental misunderstanding of the Marxist conception of the dialectical relationship between socialists and workers. (Indeed at the crudest level it treats as redundant all socialist ideas which do not emerge spontaneously in the mind of the workers and thus transforms Marxism into a self-contradictory absurdity!)

For Marx the possibility of revolution rests upon the conscious and free acceptance of socialism by the working class as the determinant of its practice, but what is important here is not the class origins of the individual or group which formulates the ideas, but the extent to which such ideas, once formulated, find general acceptance as relevant to the practice of the working class. (Kautsky’s and Lenin’s mechanical treatment of socialist ideas as necessarily coming from ‘outside’ the class is not so much right or wrong as irrelevant.) The rôle of socialists organised together in collective activity – and it matters very little whether they term themselves a ‘group’, ‘movement’, or ‘party’ – is therefore one of achieving a sharing of consciousness with the workers, by articulating their perspectives in a manner which is most likely to produce a conscious agreement by the class of their relevance to existing class practice. In so far as socialism is thereby transformed from the ideology of a minority into the guide for action of the class as a whole, revolutionary politics are also transformed from the concern of sects into the programme of a mass party which is the organisational expression of that generalised class consciousness. (While the question of whether this transformation is regarded as a pre-condition for the emergence of a revolutionary situation, or a process which only occurs in the revolutionary process itself is of vital importance, the prospect is itself still too remote to require any detailed exploration in the context of this discussion.)

3. Socialist Leadership. With the exception of the economistic tendency, most comrades in IS are now generally agreed on the need for a much more coherently political approach to the problem of ensuring a sharing of consciousness with the class, that is, of locating the point of relevant connection between socialism and the consciousness of workers. But beyond this point there is room for considerable disagreement, and in this respect one tendency, the ‘leadership cult’, have simply served to obscure the problem; their repeated calls for stronger political leadership – a concept they consistently fail to define – only serves to reinforce the doubts of the economistic faction as to the incipient elitism in current IS perspectives. What is socialist leadership? From the previous discussion, it should be clear that socialism depends in the last analysis not on the eloquence or tactical abilities of socialist sects but on the active embracing of these ideas by the class as their own ideas – the issue turns on the active interest of the angry giant, not on the persuasiveness of the pigmy! Given this basic relationship, socialist leadership can be given its quite specific and determinate meaning; it consists in pursuing the policies most likely to make the point of relevant connection with the class. In other words, socialist leadership is correct political practice! Unlike all other theories of leadership which rest their claims upon some principle which gives authority to a group of men to rule and therefore legitimates their decisions, socialist leadership can only be asserted in the name of, and be validated by, correct practice. (Any question of ‘trust in our leaders’ is therefore either vacuous or wrong, since the relevant issue is one of active agreement with correct politics, not that of a faith in any particular set of individuals.)

Once we give some determinate meaning to socialist leadership, the basic silliness of the ‘leadership cult’ becomes obvious, for their proposed solution – strong leadership-only re-states the problem of the need for correct Marxist politics, without however contributing anything to the answer! Indeed it has become a way of avoiding the real problem.

4. The Creativity of the Class. Of all the current tendencies in IS, the ‘ideologists’ are perhaps the most acutely aware of the need to re-think our theoretical perspectives and to offer a coherent political perspective for our activity. At the same time, and partly as a response to the economistic tendency, they have tended to describe all involvement in bread and butter industrial disputes as a form of economism, and have called for a much more explicitly ideological and general theoretical approach to workers. In part, this view derives from a Gramscian perspective which locates the stabilisation of capitalism as much at the level of the in-stitutionalisation of legitimating ideologies as in the trends within the economic system, and therefore requires that the confrontation should take place at the same ideological level.

The problems implicit in the ideologists’ case can be examined at a number of different levels. In one respect, the case rests on a tendency to dichotomise ideology and economy instead of conceiving them as mutually sustaining elements. But at a more fundamental level it flows from a neglect of the historically specific problematics of making the point of relevant connection – though they are much less guilty of this charge than many other tendencies as we shall see – and in the last analysis this rests upon a mistakenly abstract assertion of the creativity of the working class. (Curiously enough, the ‘total voluntarism’ element in the economistic case rests on precisely the same error.) What is the nature of this mistake?

For Marx, while men considered in the totality of their praxis are the conscious and creative subjects of history, at any given moment in time they encounter a world which is already given by the past practice of men. In the case of communist societies, this ‘given’ is encountered as the free gift of past human creation and also as the pre-condition for their own future creativity. In the case of class-divided societies, however, the ‘given’ is experienced as an alienated form, that is, as a constraint upon human action and indeed as that which dictates the direction and purpose of human activity. These constraints – as embodied in the level of productive forces and the modes of intercourse (the latter" including the ideological definition of reality both of the ruling class and the consciousness embodied in the traditions and organised life of the oppressed class) – collectively define both the material limitations of practice and also structure the consciousness of the socially contingent possibilities/limits open to class practice. Thus while the pattern of development of the class is never deterministically given, the abstract assertion of the creativity of the class cannot be used to justify a totally open-ended view of the possibilities which are available. Marxist analysis must therefore seek

  1. to locate the specific texture of the central variables of Marxist analysis as they are experienced in their own epoch,
  2. to discern the likely possibilities/alternatives for the development of class consciousness, and
  3. to relate Marxist activity to that analysis in such a way as to maximise the possibilities of making the point of relevant connection with the class.

It should be clear from this that the connection may need to be quite specific (e.g. a strike over wages) or quite general (e.g. an argument over ‘the national interest’) or both simultaneously: it all depends on the specific historical configuration. Thus Gramsci’s conception of the need for the proletariat to develop a hegemonic consciousness tacitly presupposes the existence of the kind of mass-based socialist movement in which he had grown to maturity. In the absence of such a movement, the strategy simply places socialist theorising in a vacuum.

II. The Analysis of Contemporary Capitalism and Perspectives for Action

In the light of this account of the formal criteria which an adequate Marxist perspective needs to satisfy, the question necessarily arises of whether IS’s current analysis of contemporary capitalism passes the test. Honesty requires us to admit that the answer cannot be given as an emphatic yes. Indeed, one of the most disturbing features of the past three years has been that our involvement in activity has produced, not a greater sophistication in our analysis of contemporary Britain, but on the contrary, has tended towards greater crudification. Instead of detailed Marxist perspectives, IS has increasingly relied on ad hoc responses to particular situations, responses which have been underpinned by hunches and guesses rather than analysis. In certain respects these past three years have seen regression rather than advance.

The ‘Instability-Confrontation’ Thesis

The position is perhaps best seen if we consider the ‘instability-confrontation’ thesis which has recently gained considerable support in IS and was eventually embodied in a document issued by the group’s Political Committee. Briefly, the argument runs as follows. The slow down in the rate of growth in world trade has had the effect of escalating the pressure on the international competitiveness of a British capitalism which is already facing major problems of structural adjustment caused by its general economic backwardness. The result of this escalating pressure has been to compel the ruling class to undertake a massive re-structuring of the pattern of industrial relationships which had developed in post-war Britain. In particular, the shop-floor bargaining power of the working class which developed in the relatively easy economic conditions of full employment and moderate inflation which marked the 1950s must now be subjected to a sustained coercive attack by the forces of capital, relying on its own direct economic power and also the organs of the state to achieve this end. This attack will in its turn produce increasingly serious confrontations between capital and labour as the workers find the gains of the past generation forcibly removed from their grasp. Finally, these confrontations will necessarily raise questions which go far beyond the particular disputes and will bring the issue of class power to the centre of the conflict.

The problem of this ‘instability-confrontation’ thesis lies in its essentially one-sided analysis of contemporary capitalism, a problem which arises from its neglect of two central dimensions of the subject, namely (a) the structural basis of the trends it seems to describe, and (b) the historical experience of the working class whose activities it purports to describe. In both respects, this failure of analysis constitutes a regression from the kind of perspectives which were current in IS some three years ago.

1. Structural Trends in British Capitalism: The first main error of this analysis is that it locates the source of the attack on shop-floor bargaining power as a direct consequence of capitalist instability, and thus ignores the roots of the process which lie in the structural pattern of development of contemporary capitalism. Thus it was argued in the Cliff and Barker Incomes Policy pamphlet that the emergence of an increasingly internationalised capitalism produced a trend towards the monopolistic integration of capitalist production, which resulted in its turn in a radical alteration in the context of industrial bargaining. On the one hand, it decreased the pressure of national competition in many sectors of industry and thus facilitated a shift from national union negotiations covering whole industries, towards a process of localised bargaining between shop-floor representatives and the monopolistic giants in which they worked. At the same time it produced a two-fold pressure on the corporations to obtain a much greater degree of control over their work-force than had hitherto been the case. Firstly, the growing inter-dependence of the system of monopolistic production means that a small disruption of production in any one sector can produce enormously multiplied chaos for the industry as a whole. (The recent Ford women’s strike was a good example of this process.) Secondly, the scale of resource-commitment by the major corporations necessitates a much greater degree of planned control over the national economy – in terms of rate of growth, level of demand, inflation, employment etc – in order to ensure profitability on both present production and future investment.

Thus in an economy marked by strong shop-floor bargaining power and consequential wages drift, the logic of capitalist concentration requires a radical re-structuring of the existing pattern of industrial power quite irrespective of the overall trends of growth in the world economy as a whole. Of course, no-one would dispute that the current prognosis for the rate of growth of world trade, combined with the chronic backwardness of British capitalism, will give this process added urgency in Britain, but the prognosis is only an extrapolation from current trends which are themselves quite capable of being reversed. Furthermore, even within the overall world trend it is quite possible that the restructuring process which the British economy has already undergone may well be sufficient to ensure several years of improved growth rates from 1969 onwards.

The purpose of this separation of structural trends from an instability perspective is not academic but on the contrary crucially relates to perspectives for activity. By focusing on the latter approach, its adherents are led to look for major confrontations and therefore to neglect the more subtle manifestations of the re-structuring process as it has so far developed in Britain. Interestingly enough, the proponents of a confrontation perspective recognise that their description only very imperfectly connects with the experience of the past few years in Britain. What we have so far witnessed is a state holding action in the form of a wages freeze and the incomes policy, which has served to set the stage for a much more subtle erosion of local strength through productivity bargaining, which is now rapidly establishing itself as the most ‘practical’ as well as ‘patriotic’ way of winning wage gains. In fact, apart from a few isolated incidents – and the significance of the Roberts-Arundel dispute in Stockport and the strike at the Barbican site was that they were isolated – the process has been marked more by the dull compulsions of ‘economic necessity’ than by the massive and coercive deployment of ruling-class power. Instead of confrontation we have had erosion, instead of coercion we have witnessed an ideological re-definition of reality by the ruling class which has achieved a degree of success which would have seemed incomprehensible to many socialists even a decade ago. (Who was it who said no government would dare to freeze wages, or use large-scale unemployment as a deliberate weapon of policy, or cut back the social services to the bone? – whoever it was obviously forgot ‘the national interest’ in whose name all things are possible, and even acceptable.) The point of this discussion is to indicate that nothing in the experience of the last few years leads one to anticipate a major shift in the ruling class strategy from a fairly successful mixture of state pressure, capitalist productivity schemes, and a general ideological re-definition of class relations, towards an altogether more coercive strategy. Significantly, the proponents of the instability-confrontation position .offer as evidence little more than an act of faith that what they term ‘this period of avoidance of mass confrontation’ cannot continue much longer.

2. The British Working Class 1945-1968: If the confrontation perspective is partly dependent on a one-sided analysis of contemporary capitalism, ‘it also depends on a prognosis of working-class reaction to these trends which ignores the historically much more sensitive account of the development of class consciousness which was offered by IS in the past under the rubric of ‘the shift in the nexus of reformism’. (Interestingly enough, it is precisely the same neglect of the historical dimension of class consciousness and experience which constitutes the most important single weakness in the Cliff-Birchall pamphlet on France, and also served to justify the simple-mindedness of IS’s ‘France today – Britain tomorrow’ slogan at the time of the May Revolution.)

(a) Trends in the Forties and Fifties: The period of the 1940s and 1950s is particularly important for the understanding of the British working class today, for the experience of those decades has had a decisive impact on the consciousness and organisational commitments of the class. Politically, 1945 saw a working class firmly wedded to the politics of Social Democracy return a majority Labour government committed to a policy of major social transformation, and decisively reject a Conservatism inextricably associated with the mass unemployment of the 1930s. If the experience of modest reformism and austerity surprised and disappointed many workers, Labour had at least apparently avoided a return to pre-war conditions, and the continuing loyalty of the class was confirmed in 1951 when the party secured its largest vote to that date. (It lost power largely as a result of the redrawing of constituency boundaries which took place prior to the election.) The experience of the new Conservatism of the Fifties came as a shock to both class and party. (In the latter case it was a primary cause of the agonised revisionist-fundamentalist debate which disrupted its internal cohesion throughout this period.) The predicted return to the slump conditions did not occur. On the contrary, full employment and economic growth were maintained, the social services were continued, the involvement of the trade unions in the state consultative machinery was if anything increased, and finally even the bulk of the nationalised industries were kept under state control. (In any case, nationalisation had made comparatively little difference to the situation of the workers in these industries – it had certainly not involved any shift in class power.)

The political experience of the Fifties cannot be said to have destroyed the Labour loyalties of the bulk of the working class. However, its demonstration of the comparatively small differences which existed between the parties as far as the texture of class life was concerned would have been sufficient of itself to deprive those loyalties of much of their substantive content. Equally relevant for many workers was the fact that the changed context of the fifties rendered the economic significance of national choices increasingly unimportant. In a full employment growth economy, a steadily increasing part of their living standards came to be determined by localised bargaining on the shop floor. At this level, the substantial gains in wages, fringe benefits, and even control which could be won rendered the performance of the national institutions of the labour movement increasingly irrelevant. Finally, the progressively bureaucratised integration of those institutions into the structure and assumptions of modern capitalism served to complete the circle by rendering it increasingly impossible for them to offer an autonomous appeal to class interests.

Thus the 1950s came to be characterised for IS by the so-called ‘shift in the nexus of reformism from Parliament to the shop-floor’. The irrelevances of the institutions of the labour ‘movement, whether party or national union, to the felt needs of the working class led to a progressive withdrawal from participation in those structures, as measured by falling attendances at branch meetings and the declining size of the constituency parties. The result was that by the end of the 1950s, the ‘organised labour movement’ belonged more to metaphysics than reality, and even the already peripheral act of voting was reduced to the level of a symbolic affirmation of traditional solidarities rather than an act rooted in the activity of the class.

(b) Consequences for Organisation and Consciousness: The withdrawal from the institutions of the labour movement by the most self-confident sections of the working class had the result of transforming the former into increasingly organisational husks, and thus facilitated their still further bureaucratisation and integration into capitalist society. At the same time it also involved the progressive attenuation of national class loyalties as purely local solidarities became dominant. This resulted in its turn in a de-politicisation of consciousness as a new generation of workers came to maturity in a context where traditional political loyalties seemed irrelevant to their lives.

Obviously, the processes described here represented trend? and tendencies rather than accomplished facts, and it is certainly true that the first intimation of the changing economic circumstances of the 1960s (trends perhaps best symbolised by the Selwyn Lloyd pay pause) provided the context within which the diffuse radicalism of Wilsonism was able to renew Labour’s electoral nexus with the class. However, what is really significant is that Labour’s subsequent performance in office has resulted less in an angry and articulate consciousness of ‘betrayal’, than the acceleration of the process of de-politicising the working class. Instead of massive revolt, we have witnessed a still further withdrawal into essentially localised solidarities whose strength is now insufficient to withstand the pressures of a new and concerted assault by the ruling class.

(c) The Present Situation: The present characteristics of the consciousness and organisation of the working class in Britain are thus extremely complex.

Politically, the virtual destruction of Labourism as a significant constituent in the consciousness of large numbers of workers has been more a process of attenuation than one of a decisive break, and has not in the main been succeeded by a conscious search for political alternatives. (Interestingly enough, it is precisely those areas which were least affected by the affluence of the fifties which have revealed any marked inclination to seek electoral alternatives in the form of the nationalist parties of the Celtic fringes.) Cynicism and anti-politicism rather than anger appear to be the order of the day. At the same time, the destruction of the Social-Democratic tradition allows for the possibility of a new experimentalism among workers, a new readiness to examine any ideas insofar as they have something relevant to say. Thus, hopefully, where a decade ago workers would have rejected the assistance of revolutionaries precisely because of their politics, today they are ready to discuss revolutionary politics because of the help we offer. More ominously, it is precisely because racialist propaganda is related to specific issues like housing, jobs, education, etc and does make some kind of perverted sense (eg the ‘overcrowded island’ argument) that dockers are prepared to march in support of Powell the Englishman, if not Powell the Tory. (This is quite apart from the extent that British imperial history has soaked popular consciousness with racist attitudes). Further, it is precisely this new receptivity to ideas that leaves the workers so susceptible to the ideological attack of the ruling class particularly when the ‘national interest’ is wrapped around package deals which involve big wage increases.

Organisationally, the class is fragmented into a complex of local units of widely varying strength which possess only the most tenuous links with each other. The relative ease with which large-scale capital can simply wipe out local units in the process of rationalisation is literally compelling workers to re-group, as in the case of the attempt to set up a national combine in the GEC/AEI complex following the closure of the Woolwich plant earlier this year. Nonetheless, the process is a slow and painful one and has no guarantee of success. The national unions, even if they were willing to provide the framework for a new regroupment, are now so enmeshed in the assumptions of corporate capitalism and so removed from the rank-and-file as to be virtually unusable. Watching the arthritic attempts of the AEF trying to remember how to go about the process of gaining members’ support for their recent strike threat, and noting the many reports of rank-and-file apathy and distrust, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this may well be the last attempt by a supposedly Left union leadership to mobilise its alienated membership bureaucratically.

(d) Some Conclusions on the ‘Instability-Confrontation’ Perspective: Even within the context of this schematic account of the last two decades, the one-sidedness of the ‘instability-confrontation’ perspective should be evident. Even if the crisis conception of ruling-class coercive attack proves to be correct, all the existing evidence tells against any predictions of snow-balling of localised resistance into a national class confrontation. Lacking all but the most rudimentary organisational linkages in the class., the most likely result of such an attack would be a successful process of picking off the localised areas of resistance one at a time. Nor can IS simply counter this situation by postulating a vacuum on the Left and then stepping somewhat immodestly forward to wave its flag in the hope that the class will then rally round it. True, there is a Vacuum as far as the work that needs -to be done by revolutionaries is concerned, but insofar as this conception also pre-supposes the existence of a conscious search by the class for some alternative politics, it is simply misconceived. With the admittedly significant exception of a number of industrial militants whose experience was grounded in the Communist Party or the Labour Left, there is a growing distrust and hostility within the mass of the class towards politics as such, a contempt which is firmly grounded on their experience of the politics of the past twenty years.

The task confronting revolutionary socialists is thus a fundamental one. It consists in nothing more or less than contributing to the rebuilding of the working-class movement in Britain, while accepting that this has got to be done virtually from the ground upwards. (The only consolation for us in this is that it is no more difficult to do this on the basis of a revolutionary programme than on a reformist one – when the old edifices have collapsed we are all compelled to start building again from the same level.) More specifically, this means that socialists cannot rest simply on offering their political alternatives but must rather seek once again to make politics as such relevant to the mass of the class.

It also means that our attention must be constantly directed towards the existing fragments of localised resistance, and our activity focused on assisting them in overcoming the limitations implicit in their localism. This cannot mean a simple economistic servicing function, for making the connection at a consciously political level is as much a prerequisite for success as its consequences. We seek to do this in circumstances where the rewards of success are very great, for the continuous participation of the state in the economy has destroyed what it has been in the past, one of the greatest obstacles to the development of revolutionary consciousness in Britain – namely a belief in the rigid separation of politics and industry which lay at the heart of Labourist ideology. The cost of failure is equally enormous, for the ruling class is fighting to win not only the external compliance but also conscious commitment of workers to the new corporate society it is in the process of constructing. Failure for socialists here will mean a return to a new dark age from which we will look back on the Fifties with wistful longing.

III. Conclusions

Matched against the enormity of the tasks confronting us, anything that IS has sought to do will inevitably appear trivial and ineffectual. Yet it remains true that even within the limitations of our own puny capabilities we have failed to match the occasion with our efforts. Our commitment to activity has been guided less by Marxist analysis than by ad hoc hunches. Instead of seeking to analyse the many failures we have encountered in the past three years – and several of them, like the campaign against the introduction of the grading agreement scheme in the electrical contracting industry, were necessarily failures – we have tended to delude ourselves with our own modest successes. Instead of building on the experience of those failures in an attempt to formulate new strategies for our work in uniting the fragments, and of making the point of relevant connection, we have been prone to put forward perspectives like the ‘instability-confrontation’ and ‘Vacuum on the Left’ theses, which solve the problems by assuming that they don’t exist. In its internal organisation IS has at last recognised the need for a much greater degree of national co-ordination of our local activities in the branches and cells, so that we no longer meet the fragmentation of consciousness and organisation in the class with a response that is often itself hardly less fragmented. Yet at the same tune as we seek to strengthen the political and executive capabilities of the central organs of the group, we are in danger of still further accentuating the problems created by the enormous unevenness of consciousness among the membership of IS. Having expanded at what is for us a fantastic pace in the past year, we now have a membership many of whom have only the vaguest conception of Marxism. (Part of the problem facing any Left fragment today is that in the absence of a large secondary network of youth organisations like the Young Socialists or the YCND, new members often come into the Left with no previous political experience.) Instead of confronting this as a simple problem of formal political education, we need to generate a structure which ensures the maximum argument and debate around the major political issues facing us, in an attempt to bring about that sharing of consciousness within the organisation that we seek to achieve with the class.

When it comes to the question of our relations as a group with the wider world in which we are involved, whether it is with the fragments of struggle in which we work, or in our contacts with comrades in other Left groups, we need the honesty to emphasise our weaknesses as well as our strength. Instead of the puffed-up self-adulation which accompanied IS ‘unity on the Left’ proposals, we need to cultivate a humility which admits uncertainties and confusions, which accepts that we may have as much to learn from others as we can teach them. Above all, we need to recover that sense of our own insignificance, which paradoxically, is the precondition for us to be able to take seriously either ourselves or the tasks which confront us.

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