From Workers’ International News, Vol.5 No.4, October-November 1943, pp.6-8.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The favourable turn for British Imperialism in the field of military struggle is accompanied by the beginning of a crisis in the field of arms production. The influx of American munitions has resulted in contraction in certain aspects of the British arms industry. In some of the large munition plants a slackening up of production is already taking place. The transfer of workers from one branch of production to another is accompanied with widespread redundancy. The ability of the capitalists to make profits out of war is hampered and they are no longer able easily to grant concessions, being forced to clamp down more definitely on the wages and conditions of the workers.
The first serious attempt to tighten up on wages, was indicated in the National Arbitration Award (No.326) for engineering workers. Behind the legalistic phraseology of the terms of this twice interpreted Award, the gains from which affected only a very small section of the workers (those working in establishments paying the ‘bare’ minimum), and which for the vast majority of the workers, meant no increase at all, can be seen an attempt to fix a “ceiling” on wages.
Faced with attacks on wage standards and the intensified exploitation through piece-work conditions; the added burden of income tax; the failure of Joint Production Committees to solve the problems of production except at the expense of the workers; the use of the reactionary Essential Works Order and the victimisation of trade union militants – a sharp discontent and radicalisation is transforming the outlook of the British working class.
This discontent has already-manifested itself in sporadic and ever-increasing disputes throughout the length and breadth of the country. Following the Betteshanger dispute in Kent at the beginning of 1941, a series of strikes swept the coal-fields. These were followed by small strikes on the part of dockers, of railwaymen, and of engineers. These later struggles, however, took place in relatively backward and unorganised areas. A contradiction existed in the fact, that, despite the deep feeling of dissatisfaction among the workers in areas such as the Clyde and South Wales, the workers in these parts had not yet participated in any major industrial disputes.
The Stalinists, who had entrenched themselves among the militant workers in these areas, used their stranglehold on the traditional centres of working class militancy to push their anti-working class and strike-breaking policy and put a brake on the working class struggle. Nevertheless, the Communist Party, which has become the most vicious strike-breaking force in British working class politics, cannot quell the rising tide of militancy among the working class. Nor, with the continuation of its present policy, will it be able to place itself at the head of any mass movement to divert it into harmless channels. It is already apparent that the hold of the Stalinists over the advanced workers is loosening.
The local nature of the early disputes resulted in the almost complete isolation of the strikers. But the third year of the war, 1942, witnessed the workers participating in more strikes than in any single year since the General Strike of 1926. By far the most important dispute of that year had taken place on the Tyneside, which. though traditionally a backward area, was the scene of a strike involving more than 20,000 ship-building workers. This strike marked the end of-a year in which the engineering workers participated almost half the total number of disputes, whereas previously the miners had borne the brunt of the struggle.
Despite the fact that more Labour days were lost in several of the “peace” years from 1926 to 1932 than in 1942, the increased number of disputes and the manner in which the workers are tending to spread the struggle, serves to remind the employers of the eruptions they will have to face in the coming days.
In 1943 the Transport Workers especially in the Midlands areas, joined with their brothers, in the coalmining and engineering industries in showing fight against the: employers. But it is now possible to perceive, not only a broadening out, but a general transformation in the nature of the struggle. Whereas previously the workers who were involved in disputes were isolated, the nation-wide support given to the Neptune Engine Works on the Tyne; the solidarity of the miners in the South Yorkshire and South Wales Coalfields over recent disputes affecting single collieries in the given areas; or the strike of 23,000 Nottinghamshire miners over the imprisonment of a lad – these are demonstrations that the workers are closing their ranks in solidarity. But the latter strike, in particular, is an indication of the political character that the struggle assuming.
Already the workers are realising the necessity of linking up with and gaining support of workers in other parts. The Committees that were established as the directing centres in all these disputes, are not as yet Soviets, but they point to the manner in which the workers, through the efforts of their local leaders, will create fighting Committees or Soviets on a regional and national scale in the future, More significant, however, is the fact that instead of the struggles being confined to the more backward areas as in the past, the recent disputes among the miners and engineers in South Wales and the Clyde point to the fact that the more advanced workers are on the move All these factors demonstrate that the main strategy of the revolutionary socialists in the field of industry must be to raise consciously, in the minds of the industrial workers, the necessity to end the industrial truce.
The effects of the industrial truce with the Government and the employers, which places the trade union movement in the clutches of the state. machine and gives the employers a free hand, are becoming obvious to the broad mass of the working class. Under the control of the present administration, the trade unions are rapidly becoming appendages of the capitalist state, with large numbers of trade union functionaries (starting with Bevin) in official government positions as labour officers, etc.
The foregoing is clear indication at all the objective and even the subjective conditions for tremendous explosions are maturing in the factories, mines and transport of Britain.
Arising out of the struggles that have already taken place, the question of leadership is being raised more and more sharply in the minds of the working class. The workers have learned, whenever they have been forced to stand and fight, that the Labour and Trade Union leadership, together with the Communist Party and the National Council of Shop Stewards, have deserted them and indeed, sabotaged their struggles at every turn.
But whilst the servile attitude of the trade union bureaucracy to Churchill and the capitalist class and their sell-out of trade union rights has aroused the anger of the rank and file only a small section is expressing its disgust by a conscious struggle for the removal of the leadership. Generally the workers in the trade unions are apathetic, the branches being poorly attended. This is assisted in no small degree by the Stalinists who, more skilful at putting forward their strike-breaking policy, are acting as props of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, this apathetic mood can only be a temporary one and will be overcome by the workers on the morrow. The attitude of the AEU members on the recent wage award which forced the bureaucrats to make hasty pious gestures to the rank and file, is an indication of what the leadership will have to face as the struggle develops. Our duty is to assist these workers, the vast majority of whom are hostile to the strike-breaking policy of the leadership, by providing them with the consciousness that will take them the next step forward in the struggle. The bureaucratisation of the trade unions and their class integration with sections of the ruling class dictates the strategy of in fighting to democratise the unions and replace the top strata with fresh elements; it dictates the need for an active policy of regular elections of officials every two years at most, as well as the need to pay the union officials no more than the average wage for the trade or industry.
The Barrow strike was remarkable for the magnificent co-ordination of legal and “illegal” activity: co-ordination between the local legal machinery of the unions, as evidenced in the AEU – the Branches and District Committee, and the “illegal” machinery: the “Council of Action, the Shop Stewards Committee and the Strike Committee. Backed by the high morale of the Barrow workers, it was the co-ordination of the legal and “illegal” activity which gave the “victory punch” to the Barrow workers’ struggle.
The experience of the Barrow strike destroys completely the theory of ultra left sectarians-who wish to turn their backs on the mass industrial organisations of the working class (the unions) and concentrate the whole energy of industrial militants on the building of ad hoc and factory organisations. This experience underlines the need to carry the fighting spirit of the factory organisations into the branches into the District Committees, and into the topmost organs of the trade unions. It emphasises the tremendous strength of the workers organisations.
The struggle in the workshops cannot be separated from the struggle in the unions, but inevitably assumes a more direct form. The actions of the bureaucrats in sabotaging the attempts of working class to defend themselves from the attacks of the capitalists, force the workers in the direction of seeking an alternative leadership. Once again they are setting up Committees more directly representative of the rank and file, and while it is not possible to foresee the exact form the movement will take some indication can be obtained by the recently formed Glasgow Committee, which adopted the historic name of the “Clyde Workers Committee.” Initiated by militants in that area, directly representative of the workers in their factories, this Committee adopted a fighting programme which included as the central point, the struggle for the independence of the trade union movement from the capitalist state machine.
More important, however, is the fact that these militants, recognising the need to link up with other militants, not only locally, but nationally, established a national federation of trade union militants now known as the “Militant Workers’ Federation.”
This Federation is not a paper organisation characteristic of Stalinism from 1925 to 1934, but already has a certain backing among influential workers’ committees, and genuinely reflects a tendency now developing in Britain. Whatever the form of the struggle in the various industries (the possible establishment of “consultative” committees in single industries or groups of factories), this national Federation has every possibility of becoming the focal point around which the workers will organise, when the coming storm, which will inevitably witness the most terrific industrial clashes in the history of British capitalism, breaks out. The Militant Workers’ Federation may not receive a mass response immediately, but it is already attracting the cream of the industrial militants who are aware of the false politics and corruption of the trade union leadership and of the Stalinists. Even if the stormy days of industrial strife engulf this Federation before it has had the possibility to harden its national connections, there is no doubt that it will play an important role in the future national struggles of the industrial workers.
The trade union leaders and Stalinists in particular are aware of this. That is the reason for Bevin’s recent outburst and his threat of new repressive legislation. It was a reflection not so much of the fear of the ruling class as of the misleaders of the working class in the field of industry. But whilst repressive measures both through the state machine and by expulsions from the unions may temporarily halt the forward march of the Militant Workers’ Federation, history demands this form of organisation. Repression can succeed only in consolidating the working class and establishing the role of the trade union fakers in the eyes of the organised workers.
The decision of the industrial militants to establish the Federation on a broad basis to include all industries, is fundamentally correct. In the present stage of development of monopoly capitalism and the closely knit character of British industry, when all the major problems that confront the workers in the engineering trade, also confront the workers in other industries. When the miners, transport workers, railwaymen are all crying out for a clear lead, the sectional policy advocated by the ILP of confining the organisation to the engineering industry, would doom it to the fate of the unofficial movement at the end of World War I. Moreover, in the final analysis, the correctness of broadening out the basis of the Committee will be demonstrated with the inevitable transformation of the industrial struggle into the challenge for power. To assist in this process, by waging a straggle against and ultra left, syndicalist, or sectarian tendencies, is the duty of the revolutionary socialists.
Towards the end of World War I. despite the low level of consciousness, and despite the lack of a conscious leadership, the workers were striving in the direction of a political solution to their problems. Since that period, however, the workers have experienced two decades of sell-outs on the part of the labour bureaucracy and the Stalinists. Consequently, we have the contradiction where today the workers are far in advance of their predecessors in the last war, with a higher level of political consciousness, but are tending to express their militancy on the industrial field with a distrust of all the established political tendencies of the working class. The effect has been the revival of a semi-syndicalist trend among the industrial militants.
But the integration of the trade union bureaucracy with the state machine, and the complete control of the state over Labour through the medium of the Essential Works Order and other legislation, creates the objective conditions whereby any militant industrial movement must inevitably come into conflict with the state machine.
At such a stage, the whole struggle, which is at present centred mainly on the wages question, will be raised to a political plane. The struggle against the striker breaking policy of the trade union bureaucracy and their new-found appendages, the CP, will coincide with the struggle for the ending of the industrial and political truce.
The organisation of this National Federation marks the turning point in the Labour and Trade Union movement: it is an earnest of the fact that for the third time, in an effort to release themselves from the stranglehold of the bureaucracy, the workers are attempting to create a movement with a national link-up.
The struggles of the engineers towards the end of the last war, saw the transformation of Card Stewards who merely acted as collectors and reporters for their respective unions, into a fighting shop stewards movement organised on a factory basis irrespective of trade union, its order to carry on the struggle abandoned by the union leaders. Nevertheless, after the glorious struggles on the Clyde and elsewhere, seeing in this movement a threat to their positions, the union leaderships were able, through the lack of conscious leadership on the part of the Shop Stewards movement, to absorb the movement within the legal frame-work of the unions. This was followed, with the exception of 1926 and 1931, by a period of almost 20 years of relative stability for British capitalism, which witnessed a slow, day to day process of struggle on the part of the rank and file in a second attempt to build up an alternative leadership to the trade union bureaucracy.
This. period was a favourable one for British capitalism in its attacks upon militant workers. It saw many of the finest types of militant workers crushed through isolation, victimisation, and subsequent unemployment, becoming disillusioned and dropping out of the struggle. When the National Council or Shop Stewards was formed in 1936, the most advanced elements of the working class gathered around it in the belief that at last they had found a solution to their strivings for a fighting alternative leadership.
The hold this body gained over the industrial workers has been utilised since the political turn of the Communist Party in 1941, to put forward an anti-working class. strike breaking policy. It now serves merely to implement the policy of the union leaders in the factory committees. The significance of this situation is that for the first time, the trade union bureaucracy has large numbers of direct agents in the factory committees, and where the CP is the strongest, the result is demoralisation and despair among the workers. But even this cannot last for long.
For 25 years the Shop Steward and Factory Committee form of organisation has been steadily extended throughout the length and breadth of Britain. From a few advanced, but isolated factories in World War I, the factory committee has extended to almost every factory throughout the country in World War II. Large and small, heavy industry and light industry, the factory and shop stewards committees have been built and extended to all fields of production. In essence these committees are embryonic soviets and a reflection of dual power inside the factories.
Due to the strength of the capitalist class and the relative stability of their rule, and as a reflection of the low tempo of the revolutionary movement, these committees play an essentially defensive role at the present period. But with the turn in the situation, the deepening of the crisis and the sharpening of the class struggle, these committee will inevitably assume an aggressive character and seek a dominating position, challenging the capitalist class for the control of the plant for the control of industry.
It is necessary consciously to extend these committees from one plant to another, from area to area and establish a firm national tie But our primary task in this field is to make the workers conscious of the real possibilities of these committees, not as defensive organisations of this or that group of workers, but as organs of control as organs of power. The more deeply we entrench these ideas among industrial workers, the easier the task in the future struggle, the surer the victory in the coming battle for proletarian-power.
The increasing radicalisation the organised workers is particularly underlined by the recent turn of the Postal Workers and the Civil Servants Unions and their struggle for affiliation to the TUC the challenge to the state which is contained in their recent actions. With the mass industrial conscription the working class has been united on an unprecedented scale. The women and the youth, inexorably drawn into the struggle side by side with the men, become an important factor in the struggle. In particular the women are fast losing the psychology of domestic drudgery, and are rapidly developing all the characteristics of class conscious proletarian fighters. The number of organised workers has reached its highest peak, having exceeded the year 1920 which was 8,000,000 workers in the unions.
These factors impose on the revolutionary movement all the more sharply, the necessity of orienting itself towards the trade unions and industrial movement. Just as Britain is the key to the international situation so is industry the key to the situation in Britain. The success of our work in this direction will be the yardstick by which we will measure the building of the party: As the movement finds expression in the industrial field fresh elements will be pushed to the fore. Constituting the cream of working class, unspoiled and uncorrupted, they will be among the fighters in the front line struggle. This strata will provide the new cadres for Bolshevism will become the recruiting ground for our party.
In spite of the numerical weakness of the forces of revolutionary socialism, our ideas are the most powerful ideas yet forged by the working class movement. We can play a decisive part in the coming struggles by giving conscious expression to the movement of the workers. This has already been shown in practice. With a correct policy on the issues which face the working class, we can raise the struggle to a higher level simultaneously drawing the best workers into our ranks to build the party of the Fourth International in Britain. But we will only succeed in this task of building a mass party and challenging the capitalist class power to the extent that we succeed in converting the mass industrial organs of the working class into instruments of the socialist revolution.
Last updated on 24.9.2005