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Colin Barker

Incomes Policy and Class Power]

(Summer 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, pp.22-23.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Time and space permit only a brief reply to Paul Derrick’s objections, and a reply that centres on his fundamental difference with us. Derrick raises again controversies that were aired a few years ago in the discussion that followed publication of John Hughes and Ken Alexander’s Socialist Wages Plan (cf. A Socialist Review, 1965). Now, as then, the lynch pin of the argument is the question of the socialist attitude to working-class power. On this depends everything else.

Here Derrick seems confused. Our booklet does attempt to make an (admittedly brief and schematic) analysis of the condition of the contemporary British working-class movement. It stresses in particular the growing integration of the trade-union bureaucracies into the machinery of the capitalist planning State, the decline in trade-union democracy, the essential fragmentation and narrowness of vision of the movement today. On the positive side, it points to the way in which the disaggregation and decentralisation of the processes of reform (wages, conditions, welfare, etc.) tend to throw workers back on to their own resources, diminishing their reliance on an increasingly impotent centre. From this analysis (which Derrick does not challenge) follow our political conclusions: the central problem is that of strengthening the shop stewards’ organisation, broadening their politics and further increasing their self-reliance. The booklet proposes a political ‘programme’ which, we believe, rests upon the actual tendencies of the movement today. The importance of Incomes Policy for the working-class movement lies in die general nature of the threat to the movement, from a united Government and capitalist class; here, in defence of the currently fragmented institutions of the movement, a point of general unity, a basis for overcoming fragmentation, can be found.

But Paul Derrick does not relate his proposals to the present condition of the movement. He is thus, of necessity, utopian. Our position rests upon the belief that only the working class can overthrow capitalism, that there is no substitute for the self-activity of the working class as an agent of change, and that all socialist politics begin with this assertion. It is because this necessarily revolutionary assertion is not at the heart of reformism that we oppose mere reformism. Given this assertion, that only the workers can emancipate themselves, through struggle, remaking themselves and history in the one process, it follows that all socialist politics necessarily begin with analysis of the actual condition of the movement, and with the attempt to develop tendencies actually present in the movement.

Parliament is an institution of capitalist society that is in decline. Capitalist planning of the type that is developing in Western Europe is fundamentally bureaucratic; it does not need Parliament. The executive increases its power at the expense of the legislative. Yet Derrick would – against these actual tendencies – have us make demands that centre on a declining Parliament: ‘... the really urgent need is for the workers to educate the Government into understanding that restraint in wage claims is bound to reduce the workers’ share of the earnings of industry.’ But which workers? Organised how? Does Derrick really think the Government doesn’t know? The whole point of the Incomes Policy, we argued, is that it is intended to achieve just this reduction of the workers’ share of the cake.

Derrick complains that we haven’t stated clearly how the workers should use their ‘power’, what they should fight for. He asks if we are in favour of supporting every strike in order to ‘create a General Strike in which the workers will occupy the factories.’ To this the answer must be that if the working class were in such a revolutionary ferment that they might even conceivably occupy the factories, we should call for and support such a General Strike. But it isn’t, and not being utopian socialists we make no such proposals. Our proposals are that workers should further strengthen such power as they have now, in a non-revolutionary situation, by extending and developing their most democratic and militant organisations, the shop stewards’, committees. This proposal, we think, is realistic, in today’s circumstances, and provides the most effective response to Incomes Policy.

Broad political demands are, generally, unrealistic, since the ‘power’ of the workers (their consciousness and organisation today) is not such that demands, like those Derrick proposes match the movement as it is now. Derrick proposes supporting TUC’s 1964 demand for controls over all incomes; he admits that it cannot be achieved, ‘... but that is no reason for not putting, forward the demand.’ We disagree: it is every reason. To make unrealistic demands is to further false consciousness and to foster dream-politics. Thus Derrick: ‘If the Government cannot meet the demand while industry is run on a capitalist basis they will obviously have to change the basis of industrial ownership. And about time too.’ Marvellous! And who will, make the Government do this? The working class, presumably. But, we argued, the working class today ... And back we go to square one.

And so on and so on, with Derrick moving continually back and forth, from reality to illusion. Wholesale nationalisation isn’t a realistic demand at present, says Derrick – it would lose Labour the next election. So, his, answer is that ‘Socialists and trade unionists should demand that company law should be changed so that companies are placed under the effective control of the workers who work for them.’ This, presumably, wouldn’t affect the next election result?

In the end, Derrick’s view of British society is one in which the Government is unfortunately ignorant of what it is doing, while the workers, ‘in a very strong position,’ can help ‘educate the Government in the “law of the situation” in which it finds itself.’ Derrick’s total failure to comprehend the actual relations of class forces in contemporary capitalist society, the actual levels of workers’ organisation and consciousness, leads him into cloud-cuckoo land. No one pretends that things are going to be easy for socialists in the coming period, but a touch of realism will help.

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