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International Socialism, February 1974


Andreas Nagliati

Towards a Rank & File Movement


From International Socialism, No.66, February 1974, pp.7-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A key issue raised by recent developments in the labour movement has been the attempt to build a rank and file movement of trade unionists. Twelve rank and file papers, produced by steelworkers. busmen, miners, teachers, electrical workers, civil servants, postal workers, local government and health workers, have called for a conference to discuss the possibilities of building such a movement. The conference is to be held on Saturday 30 March in Birmingham. This article explains why such a rank and file organisation is needed, the problems involved in constructing it, and the reasons why the International Socialists give full support to the work to make the March conference a success. The writer is industrial organiser of IS.

THE DEEPENING of the crisis facing British capitalism has already had dramatic effects in terms of the class struggle. The jail sentences imposed at Shrewsbury on building workers for picketing show that the ruling class is prepared to turn increasingly to purely repressive measures in an effort to weaken the ability of workers to strike. The imposition of three day working – effectively a national two-day-a-week lock-out-show the lengths it is prepared to go to hold back wages.

It knows that what is at stake is not only a solution to its short term problems – bad as these are with the threat that its massive balance of payments deficit will be nearly doubled by the increased cost of oil. Also involved is its long term viability.

It is vitally important that socialists take realistic stock of the present situation. We are at the beginning of a period of growing sharp conflict, in which a high level of trade union organisation is increasingly incompatible with the survival of British capital.

That does not mean that Armageddon is round the corner. But we are facing years of relative instability. The crisis the system has entered is serious, and most probably irreversible. We are at the beginning of a period of revolutionary possibilities.

Quite clearly, it is to exploit such possibilities that an organisation like the International Socialists exists. But periods of opportunity are also fraught with dangers and problems. The transition from a propaganda sect to an intervention party is difficult. We will be put to a real test.

But it is not revolutionaries only who will be put to the test. The crisis is acting as a litmus paper, revealing the problems of the working class movement as a whole. It is by the ability of revolutionaries to relate to and solve these problems that they stand or fall.

THE working class enters this period with considerable strengths. From the prosperous 1950s and 1960s it has retained confidence and a large measure of self activity. But it also brings into this period a number of problems which must be fully understood.

At a general level most workers continue to accept the conviction nurtured in those years that politics was largely irrelevant and that life would continue to improve. The seriousness of the crisis has not yet really sunk in. The economic situation is much worse than the working class’s awareness of it.

The traditional party of the working class, the Labour Party, is an empty shell organisationally and in terms of active involvement. Politically it is so discredited that even the Tories’ vicious anti-working class measures have not really restored it to working class favour.

The trade unions are much more significant in terms of organising workers. But here too branch meetings are deserted, often failing to achieve even a quorum. Ballots for elections involve a tiny percentage of the membership. The union journal is hardly read, and the general feeling among the majority of members is that the union is something separate and apart from them.

The reason for this lack of involvement and apathy is again rooted in a period when the all important struggle was taking place on the shop floor and the national union did not seem to fulfill an important role.

‘The strategy, if one may grace the chaotic spontaneous, tactically blind reaction of the industrial rank and file militants over two decades with this word, was simple: let the national leadership of the trade unions deal with industry-wide bargaining, fixing the floor of wages, and let the shop stewards deal with local bargaining to raise the ceiling. What the militant cared most about was the latter, wage drift. Bargaining within the individual firm took place over such matters as piecework and other forms of payment by results, addition to wage rates such as bonuses and local rules and practices including the manning of machines and demarcation questions.’ [1]

Typically, the strikes were short – in 1962-64 the average strike lasted two days only – and involved few workers, rarely extending beyond the individual section or factory.

‘Usually the management retreated under the duress of a short-lived strike. Capitalism was quite prosperous and the employers were ready to give way without prolonged and widespread battles.’ [2]

During a whole period the shop floor organisation existed alongside but relatively independent of the trade union machine.

‘If a strike goes on for a couple of days, the question of whether headquarters supports the strike or not is not of overwhelming importance. In many cases, a central element in the tactics of the militant was to win the strike before trade union headquarters heard about it!’ [3]

Democracy on the shop floor managed to coexist with bureaucracy in the trade union structure. This is not to justify or give excessive credence to syndicalist nonsense that the official machine was ever irrelevant.

‘The shop stewards’ committees always relied on the union machine in lesser issues against management (court cases about accidents and so on) and they often found it important to get official recognition for strike action in order to get.the support of the more backward members in their own place of work.’ [4]

Be that as it may, it is certainly impossible for militants to operate today in the isolation of particular workplaces. The individual employers show much greater resistance to claims from small groups of workers, and government intervention, whether with the Industrial Relations Act, the conspiracy laws, the statutory wage freezes or national lockouts, is designed to intimidate workers who feel isolated and weak. All these developments raise the question of a national struggle and national organisation.

The Union Leadership

BUT if workers cannot any longer rely upon their old, fragmented forms of struggle, they cannot rely upon the official national leaderships of the unions either. The more the problems of British capitalists have deepened, the more the breed of ‘left wing’ union leaders who rose to national prominence in the late 1960s have shied away from leading any struggle.

Although the ‘left’ leaders – and in some cases even the right – have given official recognition to many of the disputes of their own members that have developed in the last three years, they have avoided actions which would have deepened these struggles and instead have concentrated on trying to end them as quickly as possible.

But it has been the events of the last two months that have really highlighted the deficiencies of the official leaderships. They have turned from putting up ineffective resistance to the Tory government to offering it their active collaboration in solving the problems that beset British capitalism. After denouncing Phase Three when it was first introduced, both Scanion and Jones have now accepted it – Jones even going so far as to instruct his officials to force through agreements within its limits.

These ditherings and betrayals are not a product of the particular failings of individual union leaders. They flow from the very nature of the union bureaucracy, including its left wing.

The existing union leaderships, to a man, see their role as primarily a negotiating one. Insofar as they take it seriously, and do not merely regard it as a way of advancing their own personal position, they see their job as being to gradually build up strength of the union, ending

for it to accumulate funds, so that it can be used to exert pressure within the existing system to improve the condition of the membership. They may see a role for strike action, but always as a threat to be used to extract a few concessions from the employers, never as a means of destroying the power of the employers.

During a period of prosperity, it may be possible to hold such a view of the union’s functions and to speak the language of class conflict. Real concessions can easily be forced from the system with a minimal amount of fighting. But when the system enters a crisis state, this is no longer possible.

Every concession extracted from the employers and government threatens to increase the instability of the framework within which the union leaders are accustomed to operate. They begin to fear that unemployment and short time working will reduce their funds, that long strikes and lockouts will lose them members, that the government will hit out blindly with anti-union laws and fines. In desperation they try to arrange compromises with the government and the employers, even when these involve cuts in living standards. So as to protect the union’s machine, they sacrifice the interests of its members.

To behave otherwise they would have to have a conception of the struggle over wages and conditions developing into a struggle for control over industry and society. But this they are precluded from doing because of their reformist outlook and their position within the union bureaucracy.

The present ‘left wing’ leaders came to the top in a period characterised by a lack of struggle and by cosy chats with the government. Over the years they gradually worked their way up the bureaucratic ladder. To do so they had to make tacit live-and-let-live agreements with the right wing and to avoid disturbing an apolitical membership from its apathy by statements which might seem too left wing or militant.

Rarely were they required actually to lead their members in battle: few of the present members of the TUC general council have any recent experience of directly running local strikes, let alone an all-out national battle. All the present leaders view the rank and file from on high, as pawns to be manipulated in a game with the employers. The idea that under certain conditions the rank and file can show immensely more creative ability than themselves is quite anathema to them.

Most rank and file workers share the political ideas of the leaderships – indeed, are often to the right of the leaders. But under the impact of the sort of crisis we are entering now, the rank and file will be forced to question their existing attitudes and will be open to revolutionary ideas.

The trade union leaders, by contrast, will not experience personally the fall in living standards which is threatened: however ‘left wing’ their personal views are, they participate in privileges which protect them from the harsher realities of life. It is much easier for them than for their members to accept ‘small’ cuts in real wages or a ‘small’ increase in unemployment as the ‘lesser evil’ to the threat of an all-out crisis – as they have shown in their offer to accept Phase Three.

None of this means that we have to accept that the existence of national union leaders as such makes betrayal inevitable. But it does mean that anyone elected to an official position is subjected to immense pressures which immediately threaten to distort his view of the class struggle. Only commitment to a revolutionary view of the world and continual supervision by an organisation rooted in the rank and file can prevent this threat becoming a reality over time.

In the past, insofar as militants have had a perspective of going beyond their own factories, it has been based upon trying to get left wingers on to union executives and into full time posts. But such an electoral strategy has ignored the basic characteristics of the union bureaucracy. Indeed, the Communist Party, which has been the left wing organisation containing the largest single grouping of militants, has repeatedly insisted that getting leaders who make left wing noises is all that matters.

The growing crisis of the system and its effect in pushing the union leaders closer to the government, can only lead to growing confusion in the minds of militants who accept such views. Those who have been most forward in pushing uncritical support for the left leaders are now forced into a more or less open cover-up job for their betrayals.

The Morning Star, for instance, carried only one mention of a TV broadcast in which millions of people saw Scanlon say that his union would accept Phase Three if the miners were treated as a special case. It was by the Communist leader of the Construction Engineers, Eddie Marsden, saying that he personally did not believe the press reports of Scanlon’s statement.

The Need for a Rank & File Movement

THIS is not the first time that the working class movement has been faced with needing to co-ordinate its struggles nationally, but has been unable to do so through existing official structures. The same problem emerged during the last great period of class struggle in Britain, between 1910 and 1926. In that period the gap between the needs of the class and its existing organisations was solved by the development of a variety of rank and file movements – the reform movements in the mines, the shop stewards’ movement in engineering, and finally the Minority Movement.

These movements differed in a number of ways. The shop stewards’ movement was the product of mass struggles and based upon delegates from factory organisations, with no overt political affiliations (although its main leaders were, in fact, revolutionary socialists).

The Minority Movement, by contrast, was explicitly tied to the Communist Party, was born at a time when the class was weak and on the defensive after long struggles in the mines, building and engineering, and was based, in the main, upon much less significant union branch delegacies – its importance depended more on the standing of its leaders in the movement (Tom Mann, J.T. Murphy, Willie Gallacher and so on were all proven leaders of workers’ struggles) and the general influence of the Russian revolution than on it directly expressing the power of a major section of workers.

What they had in common, however, was the coming together of rank and file delegates from union bodies to form a nationally organised alternative leadership for workers which did not involve the dead-end of breakaway unionism. They enabled workers to forge a unity in struggle in contrast to the sell-outs of the national leaderships.

It is precisely this sort of alternative which militants need today, although clearly its precise form will depend on present day conditions and cannot be fitted neatly into one or other of the previous models.

The human material out of which such a national rank and file movement could be formed certainly exists. The localised militancy of the 1950s and 1960s means that shop floor organisation has blossomed on a scale undreamt of in the period of the National Shop Stewards’ Movement and the Minority Movement. There are now estimated to be 300,000 shop stewards, not only in engineering, but across almost the whole range of industry.

Many of the stewards and activists are, of course, right wing in their ideas, or even careerists (hoping they will be offered a foreman’s job by management). But the events of the last five years have clearly shown that among them is a substantial and growing militant minority which is capable of giving the lead to important sections of the class at key points.

It was this minority who implemented the call, from the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions and from one or two unions, for industrial action against Labour proposals for anti-union laws, In Place of Strife, in 1969 and the Tory Industrial Relations Act in 1970-71. It was this minority who ensured the acts of solidarity with the miners in 1972 – above all the massive picket at Saltley (when thousands of engineering workers forced 800 police to abandon their harassment of miners’ pickets).

It was this minority who carried into effect the TUC’s call for strike action and demonstrations on May Day last year (while the TUC did nothing but engage in secret talks with Heath). It was this minority, finally, that released the dockers from Pentonville in five days flat.

The trouble is that there is no solid organisation linking this minority of militants together on a day-to-day basis. In particular localities and industries there will be informal ties between individual militants. But any spontaneous national action is dependent at present on the information machine of the national press and the trade union leaders.

In the case of Pentonville, aggressive picketing by the dockers forced their struggle into prominence in the millionaire press long before the jail sentences were imposed. There was even a trial dress rehearsal a fortnight before the final confrontation. Most rank and file activists knew about Pentonville before they were asked to take strike action-although persuading the first group of Fleet Street printers to come out still required strenuous efforts by militants.

But conditions are not always that favourable. Shrewsbury has underlined the real dangers that exist. There has been a conspiracy of silence in the bourgeois press, arid the trade union leaders have refused to take up the case seriously. The North Wales builders are not nearly as powerful or as well organised as the London dockers and are not strategically placed to force people to take notice of them. Even today, after Des Warren has already spent the first month of his three year stretch, the majority of workers do not know about it.

Shrewsbury further demonstrates the difficulty of organising an adequate response, without an effective coordinating centre. The Liverpool Trades Council, the North Wales Defence Committee and some of the local defence committees chose different dates for action over the jailings. Contradictory calls have tended to dissipate the forces available. Quite clearly militants need a centre for the collection and distribution of information, capable of conducting campaigns and taking initiatives on all crucial issues confronting the working class.

The Liaison Committee

TRADITIONALLY, militants in industry have looked to the CP and its front organisations to provide a national perspective and leadership. Even those militants who had clear and declared political differences with the party have been reliant on it for initiative. This is why almost the whole of the left has in the past supported the Communist Party’s industrial organisation, the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU). However the Communist Party is no longer able to fulfil this role. The increased levels of struggle have laid bare the inadequacies and contradictions of the Communist Party.

The Communist Party has always had two souls industrially. The first is the mirror image within the unions of its Parliamentary Road outside. Over the years it has created a powerful electoral machine in a number of unions which swings into action to ensure the election of ‘progressive’ candidates. As a result there are a number of Communist Party members and fellow travellers in bureaucratic posts who are dependent, to an extent, on its support. But the dependence is by no means one way only. The Communist Party is in turn reliant on the good will of sections of the trade union bureaucracy. Without it the Communist Party’s weight would be dramatically reduced.

Gratitude is not an adequate basis for a lasting relationship. When the ban on Communists holding office was introduced in the ETU almost all the Party’s members who had official positions in the union, tore up their Party cards to retain their job. The Communist Party’s relationship with other bureaucrats is equally brittle. In no way can the Party afford to upset them too much, lest the vital link is severed. Thus in the last analysis the Communist Party plays a subservient role to the bureaucracy.

But the Party has also been traditionally a community of militants. For decades it has recruited thousands of rank and file militants who have behaved essentially as syndicalists, concentrating on shop floor activity without linking it to politics. It is this section of the Party which has maintained for it a ‘left’ face.

Increasingly the two constituent parts of the Communist Party are coming into conflict. The strain of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds, of being both with the bureaucracy and the rank and file, places an unbearable strain on the Party.

On almost all issues when rank and file militancy is directed against the bureaucracy the Communist Party is split, and openly so, from top to bottom. The result is often total paralysis.

There is for the Communist Party yet another problem. From 1966 a large number of productivity deals have been negotiated in industry. Measured day work is now in operation in large sectors of industry. The room for syndicalist shop floor activity is declining. Inevitably the relationship of stewards with their rank and file has been affected. It cannot be any longer based on the prestige and influence automatically resulting from the day to day negotiations on behalf of the membership on piece rates, bonus, and conditions. The importance of the steward has in the traditional sense declined.

Of course it is not argued here that the shop steward has become an irrelevant figure. On the contrary, the increased levels of struggle require greater levels of leadership. But the role of stewards must change. In a sense they have to become the representatives inside the shop of an outside movement. Their activity can no longer be self-contained. The relationship of the steward and his base has to be made political The members of the Communist Party are not able to provide this kind of political leadership, since above all today this entails a clear attitude towards the trade union bureaucracy.

Thus the LCDTU was able to build itself in the struggles against In Place of Strife and the Industrial Relations Act when its activity met with semi-official trade union support. The Party could represent and mirror the wishes of sections of the bureaucracy. It could swim effectively with the tide.

Since then the LCDTU has been a more or less defunct organisation. It did not organise the activity over the jailing of the Pentonville Five, and so far has not responded to the Shrewsbury trials. It has not campaigned and organised activity against the Tory freeze. It has organised no support for any of the many sections of workers who have fought isolated over the last two years. It has not organised over the imposition of massive fines on the AUEW.

The class struggle is not continuous, it ebbs and flows. Chances missed may never present themselves again, they have to be exploited. The LCDTU could, using the prestige that it enjoyed in 1970-71, have built local action committees. It could have used the Pentonville mobilisation to further extend its influence. But it was not able to do so because of its leadership’s concern not to upset friends in high places. But stultifying its growth made it incapable of ever retaining its past position. Both in prestige and influence it is now at a very low ebb.

The Possibilities

FORTUNATELY, a number of rank and file groupings have been developing outside the orbit of the Liaison Committee and its subordination to sections of the trade union bureaucracy.

Firstly, there are rank and file papers and organisations around them in a number of unions and industries. These vary considerably in their importance – some already have a substantial following and exert an important impact on the internal life of their union, while others still represent little more than the aspirations of the militants who run them. A minority are run by the CP-led broad left in its efforts to shake the hold of the leaderships in unions where the right wing are strongly entrenched; others operating in unions and industries where the CP and the Labour left are already integrated into the bureaucracy (such as the National Union of Teachers) wage campaigns against the whole bureaucracy for militant policies and union democracy.

In only a handful of unions (usually white collar unions) have the rank and file organisations reached the point of constituting a real alternative leadership to that provided by the established national officials. But these show what is possible over time in other unions and industries as well.

Above all these examples serve to demolish one of the hoariest myths put out by the right wing within the unions (and occasionally parroted by the CP) – that rank and file organisation means abandoning or even splitting the unions. They show that it is possible to combine militant unofficial activity with a struggle to reform the union and to get a militant leadership. That does not mean refusing to campaign for candidates for office, but rather that electoral activity be subordinated to the rank and file movement and not vice-versa. When candidates are put up for office, their programme should always include specific proposals for making the union more responsible to the rank and file activists. When candidates are actually elected, the rank and file organisation has to keep a constant eye on them, not being afraid to criticise their actions and being prepared to break openly with them if they succumb to the all-too-real pressures from the right. Such an approach stands in marked contrast to that prevalent on the CP-influenced left, where the main aim of any rank and file activity is to get uncritical support for full time officials who make left wing speeches.

Secondly, at different times in the last 20 years various combine committees have come into existence, usually to disappear rapidly with the passing of the particular dispute which occasioned their creation. However, a few, like the National Ports Shop Stewards’ Committee, have managed to achieve some sort of permanent existence.

Thirdly, there exists among the best militants a tradition of linking up informally on an ad-hoc basis. This exists in part because for many years informal contact was the main way in which CP and Labour left militants would learn who the ‘left’ candidate for union office was. But it has also provided an important basis for organising such activities as the strikes against the Industrial Relations Act and for the freeing of the five dockers in Pentonville.

The formation of an effective, on-going rank and file movement would involve the building of an authoritative national centre which could co-ordinate and integrate these existing groupings, so that an initiative could be taken over Shrewsbury, for instance, knowing that it would be acted on.

Ideally, such an organisation would be rooted in both strong rank and file organisation in all the main unions, and in committees in the localities which were genuinely representative of the key militant sectors and had the muscle to carry the organisation’s policies into effect. Only then would the organisation be able to provide the alternative national direction and co-ordination that the class struggle now demands.

The creation of such an organisation at present is probably beyond the ability of any of the existing rank and file papers or combine committees. Although the Liaison Committee could have developed in this direction, it refused.

However, that does not mean that militants can forget about the question of the rank and file movement. More modest steps are possible which can begin to lead in the required direction.

It is in this light that we should wholeheartedly work to back the rank and file delegate conference called for the end of March by a number of the rank and file papers.

This can contribute in a number of ways to build a viable movement. It can give a real impetus to the strengthening of the existing rank and file papers and to the initiation of rank and file organisations in new industries and unions. The present rank and file papers have a joint readership of more than 100,000. By bringing together their activists and by providing an indication of their strength in the labour movement (in terms of their ability to win official bodies to send delegates to the conference) it can increase their credibility and influence.

tt can provide a genuine opportunity for many militants to hammer out the problems which have been thrown up by theminers’ dispute, the attempt of the trade union leaders to capitulate to Phase Three, Shrewsbury and the state attack on pickets. In this way, it can press home the case, to the delegates and within the labour movement generally, for building a viable rank and file movement.

If the conference merely achieves these two tasks, it will make a valuable contribution to the preparation for the period of intense struggles which faces us.

If it is a real success, in terms of getting delegacies and commitment from important organisations at the factory level, then it can do more. Out of it can come the rudiments of an on-going structure for helping to co-ordinate defensive struggles such as that around Shrewsbury. By developing its own channels of communication between militants and beginning to formalise what is at present done on an informal, haphazard basis, it could provide invaluable aid in future.

But such success will depend upon not making an unrealistic over-estimation of initial possibilities. For instance, we have quite correctly criticised the Communist Party and the Liaison Committee for failing to build viable, delegate-based, local Liaison Committees. The criticism has been based on the recognition that the Liaison Committee and the CP had enough standing in the movement to bring together delegates from the most advanced sections of workers in particular areas – only the CPs reformist politics stopped them doing so.

However, the March conference will not, overnight, gain the same standing. And it is useless organising local committees that are no more than talking shops.

What will be needed from the conference will not be grandiose schemes but the sort of small, but concrete steps that can begin to establish its credibility as a centre towards which militants should orientate.

Discussion of the creation of a rank and file movement invariably leads to a mention of the Minority Movement of the 1920s. This is quite correct, in that the example of the Minority Movement provides both an example of what can be built and a criticism of the CP and the Liaison Committee for not building it. However, it is also important to recognise the difference between the situation now and that of the early 1970s.

When the Communist Party was formed in 1920, it brought together a whole generation of militants, who had already made their names as the activists in the movements of the previous decade: in the amalgamation and syndicalist movements prior to 1914, the shop stewards’ movement in engineering during the war, and so on. The men the Party deputed to found the Minority Movement had already proved in practice that they could provide real leadership in struggle to significant sections of the class. They had won the respect of many other activists who rejected their revolutionary ideas.

The delegates to the March conference are not the heirs to mass movements of the sort that grew up in the years 1910-20. We are at the beginning of a period of mass struggle, not its end, and the future rank and file leaders of the struggles are, by and large, unknown.

None of this implies that the rank and file movement cannot be built. It can be and must be. But a fully fledged modern Minority Movement is not going to spring out of nowhere as a result of a single conference. What the conference can do is provide the beginning of a development capable of culminating in such a movement.

Rank & File Movement and the Revolutionary Party

ONE SERIOUS source of confusion about the rank and file movement concerns its relationship to the revolutionary party.

If all those militants who were involved in getting support for the struggles against the Industrial Relations Act, for the freeing of the Pentonville Five and the Shrewsbury Three, and in solidarity with the miners, were revolutionary socialists who had broken completely with Labourism and Stalinism, and were ready to follow the lead of IS, then there would be no need for a rank and file movement. IS by itself would be seen by all other trade unionists as an existing national alternative to the TUC and would be able to organise resistance to the various attacks on living standards and organisation. But, of course, things are not at all like that.

Although IS is growing rapidly, we are not at present seen as a national alternative leadership for the class, even by most militants, and cannot by ourselves organise the defensive measures that the class needs to take.

Yet the beginnings of such a defensive organisation exist in the various networks of militants in each industry, union and locality. Some of these militants hold CP cards, others are on the left of the Labour Party, a few are revolutionaries. What can bind them together is a programme for fighting around certain minimal demands – against wage freeze and incomes policy, for an end to the Industrial Relations Act and laws against picketing, for democratisation of the unions, for a fighting policy on wages. In this lies the rationale for the rank and file organisation.

The revolutionary party is not built around such a minimal conception of what needs to be done. It goes further and sees the need to smash the state, to build a workers’ council state and so on. But it can participate in the building of a rank and file movement – both because such a form of organisation corresponds to the needs of the current struggle and because the fight to build it enables revolutionaries to prove the superiority of their ideas in practice.

In fact, in most past rank and file movements revolutionary socialists have had to play the major part of carrying the burden of organising the movement. The reason is simple enough. Any organising on a national scale demands the sort of high level of personal commitment that usually comes from a thorough-going socialist viewpoint. Non-revolutionaries may support the movement and welcome its activities, but the responsibility for initiating those activities usually ends up with committed revolutionaries.

In the same way, IS will have to play a crucial role if a rank and file movement is to be built in Britain today. It will be our members who usually have to take the initiative in pressing its demands, in making sure its activities are effective. We should not be ashamed of recognising this. It flows from the fact that our politics, unlike those of the CP and the Labour left, prevent us being bound in any way to the trade union bureaucracy. At the same time, however, a real rank and file movement cannot be our own private property. Thousands of workers who as yet reject revolutionary politics have to feel that it is their weapon for fighting the immediate defensive struggles.

In the initial stages of building a movement, there can be real problems. Because it is revolutionaries who usually take the initiative in calling for the movement, there is the grave danger that they set it up on a basis that makes it difficult for non-revolutionaries to participate. It is necessary to take concrete steps to prevent this happening: it is no good arguing about the need for the members of the rank and file movement to move towards revolutionary politics if there are no non-revolutionaries involved. Such arguments only make sense when the movement has already begun to gather some muscle and some base. In the early stages the greatest care has to be taken to involve broad support, even if it means revolutionaries keeping relatively quiet about their distinctive ideas.

Once the movement is really off the ground, the opposite danger can arise. IS members could be so involved in the mechanics of keeping the movement going as not to see the need to put their more general political ideas across. But precisely at such a point we have to insist that more is needed than a rank and file movement for fighting the immediate defensive economic struggles of the class. A revolutionary party is also needed, to fight the ruling class on every issue, to raise the level of consciousness of the advanced sections of the class, and to provide a combative leadership in the struggle for power. These are tasks which a rank and file movement, organised on a minimal programme aimed at involving rank and file CP and Labour Party members, can never do.

Indeed, in a period like the present, it is going to be increasingly difficult to be a good militant on the basis of militancy alone. Only a wider, revolutionary socialist understanding is going to enable militants to gain a perspective of what needs to be done.

In analysing the experiences of the Russian working class, Lenin wrote:

‘Partial improvements can be (and always have been in history) merely a by-product of revolutionary class struggle.’ [5]

‘The truth that reforms are possible only as a by-product of a movement that is completely free of all narrowness of reformism has been confirmed a hundred times in world history and is particularly true for Russia today.’ [6]

This was not the case in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. But we are now entering a period in which it is going to be more and more true. That is not to say that our brand of politics will automatically connect with the working class. For the first time since the war, revolutionaries will be put to the test, not in parlour debates, but in the class struggle. We believe that a vital part of rising to the test is the fullest possible activity in support of the rank and file conference in March.



1. Tony Cliff, On Perspectives, International Socialism 36 (April-May 1969).

2. Tony Cliff, The Bureaucracy Today, IS 48 (June-July 1971).

3. Ibid.

4. Tony Cliff, On Perspectives, op. cit.

5. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.26, p.170.

6. Ibid., vol.19, p.327.

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