Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3
In the Thick of Workers’ Struggles
THIS is the second volume of the late Tony Cliff’s selected writings. The first was reviewed in Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no. 2. Unlike the first, which ranged over the whole international scene, this second volume is focussed almost entirely on Britain.
The first article, The Labour Party in Perspective, was written in 1962. The Socialist Review Group, of which Cliff was the leading light, had originated as a split from Gerry Healy’s ‘Club’ in the Labour Party. The basic political differences had been over the nature of the Soviet Union, which the Club considered a degenerated workers’ state, still to be defended, while Cliff’s group considered it a state-capitalist regime. I have in the past expressed the opinion that these theoretical differences did not justify a split, and could have continued to be debated within one organisation. In fact, it was the intolerance of Healy that was the main cause of the split, although it is also evident that Cliff and his supporters were not sorry to part company with the Club. Both the Club and the ‘State Caps’ (as Cliff’s group became known) were still committed to working in the Labour Party. Both groups advocated similar policies – extension of nationalisation under workers’ control and without compensation, freedom for the colonies, support of workers’ industrial struggles, etc. The immediate cause of the split was the Korean War which broke out in 1950. But though the Healyites were for the defence of North Korea as a deformed workers’ state, while Cliff’s group was not defencist, both were united on the immediate issue, opposition to the war and demanding the withdrawal of British troops from Korea. However The Labour Party in Perspective indicates clearly that, by 1962 anyway, the differences were on more than the nature of the Soviet Union, but encompassed a completely different analysis of the current objective situation in Britain and the capitalist world – particularly on the question of reformism. The Healy group, denying the reality of the postwar boom, continued year after year to proclaim the imminence of the revolutionary crisis, the imminent collapse of reformism, and the equally imminent (if not actual) radicalisation of the working class. The revolution was for tomorrow, and the building of the revolutionary party to lead it could not wait. In contrast, Cliff’s article was a sober assessment of the real situation. Acknowledging the continued hold of reformism on the working class, Cliff wrote: ‘So long as capitalism is expanding and the conditions of the workers are improving, and are seen to be able to be ameliorated within the framework of the present social system, reformism has stronger roots than revolutionary socialism.’ (p. 11)
In this same article, Cliff explicitly criticised the perspectives Trotsky outlined in 1938 and which were adopted by the founding conference of the Fourth International. Cliff argued:
During the 1930s, in the face of the deep world slump, unemployment and fascism, it looked as if the foundations of reformism were undermined for good. In that period and making a prognosis for the future, Trotsky wrote ‘In the epoch of dying capitalism, in general, there can be no discussion of systematic social reforms and the raising of the masses’ living standards, when every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petit-bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.’ If serious social reforms are no longer possible under capitalism, then the knell of bourgeois parliamentary democracy is sounded and the end of reformism is at hand. The war, as a sharpener of contradictions in capitalism, would, according to Trotsky, lead to the acceleration of these processes. But the obituary was written too soon. War and the permanent war economy gave a new lease of life to capitalism and hence to reformism in many of the Western capitalist countries. (p. 10)
One may question whether the theory of the permanent war economy was a sufficient explanation in itself for the continued growth of capitalism. But the rest of Cliff’s argument cannot be faulted. It is in sharp contrast to the parrot-like repetition of the 1938 Transitional Programme as if it were received wisdom for all time.
Cliff, in this article, also rejected Lenin’s argument that reformism had its roots in a ‘labour aristocracy’ bought over by crumbs from the imperialist exploitation of the colonies, and representing a minority of the working class. Cliff asserts that:
… the history of reformism in Britain, the United States and elsewhere over the past half-century – its solidity, its spread throughout the working class, frustrating and largely isolating all revolutionary minorities – makes it abundantly clear that the economic and social roots of reformism are not in ‘an infinitesimal minority of the proletariat and the working masses’, as Lenin argued. (p. 10)
Cliff’s explanation of reformism and its hold on the working class is still true today.
When Cliff wrote this article in 1962, the level of industrial struggle was relatively low, Cliff’s group consisted of only 60 or so members, and Cliff could see no other milieu to work in than the Labour Party. The next decade saw an intensification of industrial struggles and attempts by both Labour and Tory governments to tame the unions through legislation, which triggered mass strikes and protests. Cliff’s group changed its name to the International Socialists. There was no specific decision to leave the Labour Party, just a pragmatic realisation that there were more promising fields outside it, among the students and in industry. But the problem of combating reformism and overcoming the isolation of revolutionary socialists continued.
When the second piece in this volume was written, in 1966, Harold Wilson’s Labour government had been elected, and was trying to deal with industrial militancy and the problems of the competitiveness of British industry on the international market through its incomes policy. The pamphlet Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards was addressed directly to industrial militants. With an introduction by Reg Birch, an ex-Communist Party then Maoist activist prominent in the AEU, it was published by the London Industrial Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee, and reflected the organisation’s turn towards work in industry. According to Colin Barker, who co-wrote the pamphlet with Cliff, it sold 10,000 copies, ‘most of them to workers, themselves often Communist Party militants’. It argued that profits and prices could not be controlled while capitalism continued, and that the Labour government’s ‘incomes policy’ amounted to nothing more than an attempt to hold down wages and involve the top union leadership in the disciplining of their own members by the imposition of penalties on unofficial strikers.
Cliff and his comrades saw a new form of reformism in the growth of unofficial strikes led by shop stewards in opposition to the official union machinery. It was replacing the old ‘reformism from above’, when workers relied on their leaders to implement reforms through parliament, by a ‘do it yourself reformism’ characterised by the workers’ direct struggles and increasing self-reliance and initiative.
The pamphlet noted two weaknesses. The struggles were fragmented, consisting of isolated local struggles on a factory basis with little link-up across industries or regions. Aims were largely restricted to the narrow horizon of economic, trade union demands (p. 91). The pamphlet argued the need for a link-up of shop stewards across industries and localities into a nation-wide movement, and the broadening of their horizons to take up the concerns of pensioners, nurses and other non-industrial sections of the working class.
Cliff and his comrades were optimistic that this industrial militancy and new ‘reformism from below’ would supersede the old reformism and develop into revolutionary socialism. But they said nothing on exactly how this transformation was to be achieved. As Colin Barker admits in his introduction: ‘… as experience would suggest, that vision was rather foreshortened. The politics of the movement were most certainly decisive, but there was no automatic link between rising militancy and revolutionary socialism.’ (p. xxi)
The next article, Labour’s Addiction to the Rubber Stamp, noted the growing irrelevance of parliament. ‘Government decisions are not made in parliament. They are made at the points of intersection of industry, finance and the civil service, in the cabinet, the new “planning” bodies and so on – anywhere, indeed, except parliament.’ (p. 124) Since parliament, and also the parliamentary Labour Party, were now mere rubber stamps, the implication was that extra-parliamentary struggle in the factories and in the streets was all important. ‘In the present stage of planned state-monopoly capitalism social democracy enters its third stage. It is neither socialist nor even authentic parliamentary reformist.’ (p. 127)
On Perspectives, written in 1969, sought to draw conclusions from the events of May 1968 in France. Cliff explained the explosive and unexpected nature of the student movement and especially of the workers’ general strike by the ‘deep alienation’ of workers from their organisations.
If the workers in France had been accustomed to participate in the branch life of the trade unions or the Communist Party, these institutions would have served both as an aid and as a ballast preventing the rapid uncontrolled spread of the strike movement. The concept of apathy is not a static concept. At a certain stage of development – when the path of individual reforms is being narrowed or closed – apathy can transform into its opposite, swift mass action. (p. 134)
Unlike some of the other gurus on the left, he did not see the May events as the harbinger of imminent revolution. He continues: ‘By itself apathy, or a declining interest in the traditional reformist organisations (the Labour Party, Communist Party, trade unions, etc.), does not mean the overcoming of reformist ideology. For this a long struggle is necessary …’ (p. 134)
Comparing the revolutionary events in Russia in 1905 with those of France in 1968, Cliff quotes statistics showing that following 1905 wages in Russia rose rapidly from 1906 until 1908. He goes on to comment that on the basis of the Russian experience, Lenin concluded that ‘reforms are possible only as a by-product of revolutionary class struggle … of a movement that is completely free of all narrowness of reformism …’ Cliff adds:
Yet the stabilisation of Western capitalism … made it possible for reforms to be achieved over a long period independent of revolutionary politics. This is the basic difference between the background to 1968 France and 1905 Russia. This is the main objective factor making it possible for the PCF and CGT leadership to transmute a revolutionary general strike into a series of wage demands. The new phenomenon, the May–June mass struggle, has not wiped out the inheritance of 20 years … The new, the revolutionary, grew upon the general period of fragmentation, political lull and apathy. This explains, basically, how the greatest revolutionary struggle was channelled into the struggle for such puny, reformist aims. (pp. 133–4)
This sober assessment by Cliff compares well with the super-optimistic proclamations of other left currents, which saw May 1968 as a precursor to an imminent October 1917. Nevertheless, I wonder whether, despite all his reservations, Cliff was right in applying the adjective ‘revolutionary’ to the workers’ strikes. Were they really striking for revolution? If so, why did the movement subside so rapidly and France experience more years of relative stability? Was 1968 merely an interlude, though a dramatic one, in the long period of postwar capitalist expansion? It is true that every general strike of such magnitude has ‘revolutionary potential’. Certainly de Gaulle thought so, but there is quite a large gap between ‘potential’ and ‘actual’, and the constant use of the adjectives ‘revolutionary’ and ‘crisis’ to describe every blip on the graph of class struggle devalues the meaning of the words. How will we be able to describe the real ‘revolutionary’ situations and the real ‘crises’ when they actually occur?
In the 1970 general election, the Tories were returned to power. Wilson’s Labour government had been forced by the workers’ opposition to withdraw its In Place of Strife policies. The new government attempted to tackle the problem of industrial militancy by enacting an Industrial Relations Bill. The years of 1970–74 saw the most intense industrial struggles in Britain since 1910–14 and the 1926 General Strike. They also saw the most successful attempt by the International Socialists to develop bases in industry. In 1970, the IS produced a pamphlet, reprinted in this collection, The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them. Although written under Cliff’s name, it was a very collective effort based on numerous discussions and interviews with shop stewards and industrial militants. According to Colin Barker:
The book proved to be an immense success among working-class militants. Around 20,000 copies were sold, most of them to shop stewards, often in bundles of anything between five and fifty. Across Britain, Cliff and other IS members were able to speak to sizeable audiences of militant rank-and-file workers, some of whom were attracted to the IS group itself, laying the basis for the development of workplace-based branches. (p. xxii)
The Times of 25 March 1970 carried a half-page review under the title Militants’ Handbook. It is reproduced in this volume.
It is in my opinion one of the best pamphlets addressed to industrial workers. It is obviously well-researched, and it exposes in detail the aims of the employers behind the introduction of productivity deals and ‘measured daywork’. It is worth summarising the arguments. The pamphlet, continuing the theme of the previous pamphlet Incomes Policy, explained how, during the war and postwar period, the workers had, by strong organisation and militancy, turned piece-work to their advantage. Nationally negotiated agreements between the top union officials and the employers’ associations fixed only the general and basic rates of pay. But piece-work prices and bonuses were negotiated on a departmental or factory basis. The shop stewards and the workers, their confidence boosted by full employment, were often able to dictate prices and conditions. This resulted in ‘wage drift’. This was the tendency for actual earnings to rise well above the nationally negotiated rates. It also meant that the employers were losing control of the work process at the point of production. The balance of forces did not allow them to regain control by direct confrontation. Hence the ‘productivity deals’ favoured by employers and governments both Labour and Tory. In exchange for abandoning piece-work and agreeing to flexibility, the elimination of ‘restrictive practices’, concessions on manning, etc., the employers offered immediate wage increases, quite substantial in many cases. The pamphlet warned workers against being taken in. In return for wage increases, which, in some cases, they could have got anyway, workers were being asked to sign away concessions won in the past, agree to speed up, loss of bonuses, extension of shift working, etc. ‘Measured day work’ (MDW) was being introduced to replace piece-work. MDW was defined thus: ‘A fixed hourly rate payment system based on quantified performance standards which have been established by work measurement techniques. When operators fail to reach standards through their own faults, this becomes a question for discipline or retraining.’ Quoting extensively from statistics and verbal and written evidence, the pamphlet explained how this increased exploitation: ‘The workers often received less than half of the savings resulting from the increased productivity.’ (p. 161) It quoted an example given to the Donovan Commission of an agreement reached at CAV Ltd: ‘This bargain was very satisfactory to the company. It reduced the labour force by 17 per cent – one fifth of the savings secured as a result were paid out in the form of extra wages.’ (p. 162)
After the initial wage increase (to induce the workers to accept the deal), further wage increases were lower and often dependent on increased productivity. Often the deal did away with cost-of-living adjustments, bonuses, etc. The pamphlet warned that the aim of MDW was to reimpose management control over working conditions, and ‘eliminate traditional shopfloor bargaining and substitute bureaucratic joint bodies remote from shopfloor pressure’ (p. 178). This would reduce the rôle and influence of shop stewards, and increase that of ‘more reasonable’ full-time union officials.
The pamphlet focussed on the question of control, pointing out that most disputes, even the most mundane ones, for example, over tea breaks or washing hands time, were essential fights over control. Restrictive practices and craft demarcations (even those that seemed ridiculous) were at bottom an attempt by workers to retain some control over their working lives. Here the pamphlet tackled the difficult question of how socialists should deal with this. This was a problem I wrestled with myself during my short time as Industrial Organiser for Healy’s Club in Glasgow in the 1950s when discussing with shop stewards in the shipyards. The pamphlet argued that:
… it would be wrong, however, to make a fetish of every traditional practice employed by workers … In essence, the institution of the craft sets a section of workers apart from all others, as an ‘aristocracy’ with exclusive rights to a narrowly defined area of work, which must be jealously defended against the rest of the class … Clearly the objective for socialists should be the elimination of artificial barriers between different crafts and between craftsman and labourer … But equally clearly, this principle cannot be mechanically applied when the attempt to remove ‘craft restrictions’ is made by the employers as part of a productivity deal … Here the opposition to the employers’ attack must be unqualified. But such opposition must not take the form of unprincipled opportunism. Socialists must base their opposition firmly on class rather than craft arguments … To summarise, the following test should be applied … Workers must ask themselves, does this practice help make conditions more bearable? Does it help maintain our earnings or make our employment more secure? Does it add to our control on the shopfloor? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then naturally any concession would be dangerous … But if the practice serves no important defensive purpose, then there is no reason of principle to fight to retain it – though clearly workers will want to get the highest possible price for abandoning it. (pp. 194–5)
This passage is typical of the attempt to deal with real problems in a realistic way, in clear language and without sloganising. The same approach is used in discussing how militants should react in practice to productivity deals and MDW.
The pamphlet recognised the difficulties militants had in opposing the deals which often seemed very attractive to workers. ‘We have seen’, Cliff writes, ‘how many employers are ready to give really large wage increases in return for a seemingly worthless piece of paper that commits shop stewards to no more than future talks on “productivity”.’ (p. 296) Also in some cases, MDW, with its promise of doing away with large fluctuations of earnings from week to week under previous payment systems, ‘appealed to workers’ urge for security’ (p. 297). All this, the pamphlet says:
… builds up pressure on stewards to at least ‘have a look at’ a proposed productivity deal and to a situation where they have to consider the details of the productivity bargain … an inflexible rejection of any productivity deal can lead to a catastrophic division between the stewards and their membership which will be eagerly exploited by the employer and may lead in the end to the acceptance of a far worse deal than was necessary … Once we are forced to consider the details of a proposed deal the question arises of how to maintain the offensive, and how to destroy the worst aspect of the deal in the process. (p. 304)
The pamphlet goes on to describe guidelines elaborated in long discussions with many militants from various industries who had faced numerous productivity deals. The emphasis is on unity, organisation and combativity which can enable workers to fight back successfully; as was done by the Ford workers’ strike which forced the management to abandon penalty clauses and won considerable improvements in the deal (p. 197). All in all, this was a very good pamphlet, which well merited The Times’ description of it as a militants’ handbook.
The publication of this pamphlet, The Employers’ Offensive, in 1970 came at an appropriate time, the beginning of five years of the most intensive and extensive industrial struggles. These included a national building workers’ strike, the first ever national hospital workers’ strike, the first national teachers’ strike, an engineers’ strike against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill, and the Upper Clyde shipyards occupation which forced a government retreat. There were two national miners’ strikes. The first, in 1972, roused widespread solidarity action, including the famous strike and demonstration of thousands of Birmingham engineers that closed the Saltley coal depot. The second, in 1974, forced the resignation of the Heath government. There was the unofficial dockers’ strike that freed five imprisoned dockers (the Pentonville strike). This was followed by an official dock strike lasting three weeks. There were official and unofficial mass strikes and demonstrations against the Tory government’s Industrial Relations Bill in December 1970 and February 1971, and two official strikes in March 1971 by over a million workers. Two hundred separate factory occupations were recorded in these five years.
The International Socialists made valiant efforts to involve themselves in these struggles, and to build an industrial base. According to Jim Higgins, the IS membership had grown to 2,351 (of whom 613 were manual workers) by March 1972. By March 1974, they had 3,310 members, including 1,155 manual workers. The group decided to create factory-based branches. Cliff’s pamphlet Factory Branches, included in this selection of his writings, is an attempt to provide guidelines for the work of these branches. It too, as Cliff acknowledges, was the result of a collective effort. Cliff claimed some 32 factory branches at the time of his writing. Sections based on industries and trade union factions were also established. According to Higgins, there were, in 1971–72, six of the former and 10 of the latter and four rank-and-file papers with a print run just short of 12,000.
The real success story of the year 1971–72 was Socialist Worker. Over the period the average print order had gone up from 13,000 to 28,000, with a paid sale of around 70 per cent. It was calculated that the readership was in excess of 50,000. (Jim Higgins, More Years for the Locust, p. 95)
Even though most of the factory branches did not last long, as Colin Barker pointed out in his introduction, and even though the influence of IS, and the Rank and File Movement it inaugurated, never matched the influence of the Communist Party and its Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU), it was nevertheless great progress for a group that had numbered less than a hundred only a few years before.
On the question of the Communist Party and the LCDTU, Cliff gives it credit for its positive rôle in organising the unofficial movements against the Wilson government’s attempts at wage freeze and the Tory Industrial Relations Bill (p. 413). Elsewhere he is critical of the CP’s and the Broad Left’s concentration on winning positions in the union hierarchy and its ambivalent attitude to ‘left’ union leaders, especially over their acceptance of the ‘Social Contract’ introduced by the Labour government of 1974–79.
The next two articles, Ten Years On: 1969 to 1979 and The Balance of Class Forces, both written in 1979, review this decade. Cliff divides these years into two periods – 1969–74 and 1974–79:
If one compares the years 1969–74 with even the best period of militancy in Britain of 1900–14 there is no question that this time the struggle was on a much higher level, much more generalised, and the hatred of the government was all prevailing. This chapter ended abruptly with the victory of Labour in February 1974. The next five years were radically different. We did not have one national strike in any key section of the class, although we had national strikes of bakers, of lorry drivers and of provincial journalists. The struggle was incomparably more fragmented; the level was far lower. (p. 369)
Cliff asks why. He answers that the generalising and unifying element of the struggles of 1969–74 was a deep anti-Tory feeling. The alternative to the Tories was the Labour Party: ‘Once Labour was in power that general opposition collapsed.’ However, we should note that only five years had elapsed since 90,000 workers had been striking against the previous Labour government’s In Place of Strife. This implies that either the working class had short memories, or that it was unable, as yet, to break out of the system of the two parties alternating in power; with Labour being seen as the only alternative to the Tories despite all its anti-working class measures. Later, Cliff mentions the workers’ ‘loyalty to Labour even when Labour attacked workers’ living standards’ as being one of the factors explaining the workers’ retreat and the lower level of industrial struggle in the first three years of the 1974–79 Labour government; that is, until the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978–79. Should not this have prompted a re-examination of the advisability of Marxists abandoning work through the Labour Party?
Instead, the International Socialists decided to transform themselves into the Socialist Workers Party, seeking to present themselves as an alternative to both Tories and Labour, as well as the Liberal Democrats.
The fluctuating course of the class struggle in this period, a mixture of victories and defeats, advances and retreats, took place against a background of expanding capitalism interspersed with recessions, and accompanied by general inflation. But what was the result in terms of workers’ standard of living? Cliff includes tables which show that ‘under the Labour government of 1964–70, notwithstanding the incomes policy, real wages continued to rise, even if slowly’ (p. 385). They continued to rise from 1969 to 1974 under the Tory government. Underlining Cliff’s comments that the Labour electoral victory of 1974, and the trade unions’ acceptance of the Social Contract had undermined the workers’ resistance, real wages went down by two per cent in 1974, by four per cent in 1975, and by five per cent in 1976. Cliff writes: ‘Of course the slashing of wages could not go on. Workers’ resistance had to rise. In the fourth year of the Labour government (March 1977 to March 1978) real wages went up by five per cent, and in its last year by a further seven per cent.’ (p386)
Reviewing the 10 years, Cliff wrote:
In the first five-year period the International Socialists (at present the Socialist Workers Party) expanded from a group of a few hundred – mainly students and white collar – to an organisation of 3,000 to 4,000 members. Something like a third of these were manual workers. We managed to implant ourselves in a number of factories, in a whole number of trade unions … We were involved in the establishment of a whole number of rank-and-file groups, with rank-and-file papers … In the second five years the SWP found the going much tougher. With the Social Contract, not only the trade union leaders, but also the Communist Party – the main organisation of the left in industry – veered strongly to the right. The SWP decided quite rightly to steer to the left. The organisation was kept intact but quite a heavy price was paid. Its members found themselves very often isolated and they had to hold on by their finger tips to their positions in the movement. (p. 372)
It is at this point that we have to relate what was being written by Cliff and his co-thinkers at the time, reproduced in this book, with what was actually happening in his organisation according to other participants. It seems that up till then the IS had been one of the healthier Trotskyist, or neo-Trotskyist, groups. It had a democratic internal regime allowing genuine differences of opinion to be expressed. And it certainly had grown and was beginning to establish roots in the working class and unions, stimulating genuine rank-and-file movements and papers in various industries. Then, it seems, everything started going wrong. According to Jim Higgins, at one time National Secretary of the IS, and other people such as Roger Protz (one-time editor of Socialist Worker), the IS became riven by factional fighting, and there was a move to undemocratic centralism and the expulsion of oppositions. For an account of this, the reader should study Higgins’ book More Years for the Locust (London 1997) and various articles in New Interventions and What Next? by former members. One should be cautious and not accept these versions uncritically; after all they did have an axe to grind. But there is a sufficient weight of evidence to indicate that all was not well. It is a pity that this selection of writings does not deal with the questions that divided Cliff from the main opposition – ‘the IS Opposition’ – except for a reference to one issue.
This issue was whether IS should continue to aim at recruiting shop stewards and convenors and experienced union militants, or target relatively inexperienced youths. We have read how from the 1960s Cliff and the IS placed great hopes on shop stewards as the moving force in the workers’ militancy, providing leadership in the struggle against both bosses and the union bureaucracy. By the mid-1970s, it seems from Cliff’s writings that he now saw them, and particularly convenors, as becoming integrated into the union machinery. For example, on page 399 he mentions as factors in the worsening balance of class forces ‘the weakening of the independence of convenors and shop stewards’ as a result of productivity deals, and their integration into the trade union structure. Elsewhere, he mentions how full-time convenors, permanently away from the shopfloor in their offices with phones, constantly negotiating with management, enjoying perks and expense-paid trips, become alienated from their worker constituents (pp. 405–6). Therefore the IS and Socialist Worker should now concentrate their efforts on recruiting and approaching ‘young workers with very little political tradition, and quite often even with very little trade union experience’ (Cliff in Internal Bulletin, May 1974, quoted in Higgins, p. 151). In the next Internal Bulletin, a critic, Ruth Nelson, described this as a radical departure from previous policies. She argued:
IS had a clear answer to these questions. We must relate to the thin layer of politically experienced and class conscious militants, primarily shop stewards and convenors, who can in turn relate our politics to broader layers of workers … For revolutionaries a key part of the task of penetrating the advanced layer of militants is through engaging in joint activity with those militants who are in the CP or still looking to it for guidance. (Cited in Higgins, p. 152)
The IS Opposition also criticised the attempts to control the newly launched Rank and File Movement as if it was the property of the IS, and attempts ‘to call for actions which the National Rank and File Movement cannot play some part in implementing’, and which ‘can only serve to discredit it’ (cited in Higgins, p. 166).
To illustrate the point made by Ruth Nelson, the IS had 20 members in the AUEW in Birmingham, organised in two factory branches and an industrial branch. Among them were 10 shop stewards, two convenors of big factories, and six members of the AUEW District Committee – one of whom was the District President. All of them had several years’ membership of IS, and most were veterans of hard-fought strikes. Higgins relates how this promising group were expelled when they refused to obey an instruction from the centre to break an existing commitment to support a Broad Left candidate for the post of National Organiser in the AUEW and support the belated candidature of an IS member (Higgins, pp. 119ff.).
It seems that the IS reacted to the objective situation – the downturn in struggles from 1974 onward – and its inability to compete with the Communist Party and its LCDTU, by adopting an ultra-left sectarian attitude, thus negating the progress made until then.
However, let us return to Cliff’s writings. Despite his downbeat assessment of the IS’ situation in 1979, ‘its members isolated and holding on by their finger tips’, he ended on his usual optimistic note:
The Socialist Workers Party is much better poised at present to take a part in the new advance of the class struggle than it has ever been before … Now when the Tories are back in power, even if their policies are not harsher than those of Callaghan, they will raise incomparably more anger than he has done. The government, as the enemy, will help generalise the struggle. With the increasing and deepening crisis of world capitalism [where have we heard this before? – HR], the attack on workers is bound to come. The possibility of once more building a rank-and-file movement, far more independent of the union bureaucracy than in 1969–74, is with us. (p. 372)
Cliff was partly right. The attacks on the workers did come. The miners, the print workers and the steel workers were taken on by the Thatcher government and were defeated, but only after bitter struggles. Unfortunately, the rest of Cliff’s hopes were dashed. It’s true that Margaret Thatcher and the Tory government have been replaced. But by whom and what? Tony Blair and New Labour! We shall have to look at subsequent articles to discover how Cliff explained this outcome.
In The Balance of Class Forces, Cliff wrestles with the basic problem facing revolutionary socialists. In contrast to the orthodox Trotskyist insistence on seeing the crisis of humanity being merely one of leadership, he sees it also as a crisis of ideas. Quoting Marx and Engels’ assertion that the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the dominant ideas, Cliff writes:
Hence the overwhelming majority of workers have always believed in the ‘national interest’ … if one accepts without question that the rights of private property should apply to the means of production, the rules of capitalism must be accepted. Once one accepts the rights of owners of industry to dispose of their capital then the view that the workers are fundamentally dependent on their employers follows with inescapable logic. If capitalist ownership is sacrosanct then of course ‘there must be profit’ and if there is no profit there cannot be jobs. The concepts of ‘profitability’, ‘efficiency’, ‘viability’ appear as immutable, natural, common-sense rules. The fact that the profit system is natural and necessarily beneficial to the workers seems in contradiction to the fact that this same system brings mass unemployment and suffering. But the majority of workers have never seen the causal relationship between the capitalist system on the one hand and slumps and mass unemployment on the other … (pp. 415–6)
Cliff points out that this does not prevent the workers from going on strike. He points out that during the Second World War workers still went on strike despite supporting the war, and that workers’ loyalty to Labour in no way prevented them going on strike while Labour was in power. But this was because the workers were fighting what they saw as injustices within the system – unfair divisions between wages and profit, unfair relative wages, etc. And this explains the rational behind trade union leaders’ acceptance of compromises and cooperation between unions, employers and the state. It also underlies the workers’ continued support of Labour.
Referring again to the workers’ offensive on the economic front in 1970–74, Cliff recognises that ‘alas there is no automatic transition from economic to political struggle’ (p. 415). And one might add, alas, that we have a long way to go yet to overcome the crisis of ideas.
The next piece is a record of an interview in Socialist Review in 1986, in the seventh year of the Thatcher government. Asked how he would assess the balance of class forces after the defeat of the miners and now Wapping, where, according to the interviewer, ‘Murdoch has achieved more already than MacGregor did in a year’, Cliff gives an upbeat reply:
Up to now the workers have lost individual battles. Steel in 1980, hospitals and ASLEF in 1982, the NGA in 1983, the miners in 1984–85, now, even worse, Wapping in 1986. But it doesn’t mean that the Tories are winning. By and large the unions are still there. There are still 10 million trade unionists. There are still 300,000 shop stewards. [Even though they have since 1974 become corrupted and alienated from the rank and file? – HR] So at the end of the day the ruling class are not sure they are going to win the war. (p. 424)
Asked about the shift to the right of the whole movement and how he thought ideas would develop in the next few years, Cliff replied:
When it comes to a perspective there are two things a Marxist can do well – look at the very long term or the short term. If you come to the medium term – 10 years – it is much more difficult to guess. In the long term the crisis of capitalism is deeper and more fundamental than any crisis of consciousness in the class, or crisis of leadership … In the final analysis we know there will be a rebellion of the working class. All the talk of Eric Hobsbawm that the working class is finished is stupidity. (p. 425)
Asked what he would say to those people who stay inside the Labour Party, and what he thought of the future of the Labour left, Cliff replied: ‘The left in the Labour Party are dreamers, utopians, completely unrealistic… The Labour Party cannot be changed.’ (p. 427) Asked about the prospects of building a revolutionary party, Cliff replied:
We are going to mark time to a large extent … We can increase our membership marginally. We can’t increase it very much because to the extent that people say we are on the margins of the class they are right. In Russia the Bolsheviks were shaped during the period of reaction after 1905. Things were very tough. There were 10 members in Ivanovo Voznesensk in March 1917 – in July 5,440. Now there is no guarantee that the 10 will turn into 5,440, because you don’t know in advance there will be a revolution. But without the 10 you won’t get anything. (pp. 428–9)
Somebody once coined the phrase ‘Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’. This well sums up the Cliff attitude expressed here and throughout the book. Also somebody (I think it was George Orwell) opined in the dark days of the 1940s that one should be pessimistic in the short term but optimistic in the long. Cliff must have taken this advice to heart.
Nine years later, in the article In the Balance written in 1995, Cliff expressed the same optimism:
Above all, we have to create a network of rank-and-file socialists in the workplace. Any individual who plays a small rôle now will play a massive rôle when the struggle picks up … Now we are at a much higher level. Capitalism is in a much deeper crisis than it was in the 1970s so the struggle will be much sharper and more political. We are also in a much better strategic position, because in the 1970s the rank and file was organised by the CP, which hardly exists today. Therefore we will be in a much better position when the upturn comes. (p. 436)
The final article, Change is Going to Come: But How?, was written in June 1997 immediately after Labour’s electoral victory, and maintains the same optimism. Cliff asserts that in 1997 as in 1945 Labour voters voted for a radical change, that Blair promised (and would deliver) very little, and that the mass of the people were to the left of Blair on many issues. After analysing the contradictions in working-class consciousness, Cliff concluded:
But the contradictions that exist in the grey matter are less fundamental than those in the material world. To put it simply, because capitalism is in a deep crisis, in the final analysis this crisis will demonstrate the bankruptcy of reformism and show the need for a socialist alternative … The period ahead is very promising for socialists and very challenging for the whole working class. People not only want change, they want a vision of a better society. (p. 442)
Whether the policies adopted by Cliff and his organisation are the best for realising this vision cannot be ascertained merely from the writings reviewed here. As stated, they are ‘selected’ writings and only a fragment of a much larger whole. Also how they were selected must have been effected by the impression of Cliff they were intended to convey. To arrive at a more definite judgement requires a study of the whole of his works and how they match his actions and those of the IS–SWP. Bearing this reservation in mind, this volume is an important contribution to this understanding. We must hope that the future will vindicate him. This selection of writings is a worthwhile contribution to understanding Cliff and the political current he inspired.
Updated by ETOL: 22.10.2011