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Colin Barker

A Popular Front?

(Autumn 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.30, Autumn 1967, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Incompatibles: Trade Union Militancy and the Consensus
Ed. Robin Blackburn and Alexander Cockburn
Penguin/New Left Review, 6s.

Workers, Unions and the State
Graham Wootton
Routledge, 25s.

Blackburn and Cockburn have produced a mixed bag of essays on the problems of trade unions today. To some extent the mixture appears to reflect the editors’ lack of a clear view of what precisely they wanted the book to be. Some of the essays stand in flat contradiction to others, and there are some rather surprising gaps. Although there are occasional references, particularly in Tony Topham’s New Types of Bargaining, to the growing importance of shop stewards and the like in the bargaining process, there is no real discussion of the problems of union structure today. Nor, indeed, is there any attempt to asses the shape and potential of the contemporary labour movement – an omission that is somewhat surprising in a socialist collection like this.

Three of the articles stand out in particular: those by Robin Blackburn, Paul Foot and Tony Topham. Blackburn presents a scrupulously documented account of the continuing inequalities of British capitalism, and goes on to examine the roots of this inequality in the capitalist mechanism of exploitation. It is a first-rate piece of work, a model of its kind. Paul Foot presents what must rank as one of the best pieces of reportage on any dispute, in his The Seamen’s Struggle. Operating in the best muck-raking tradition, he presents a vivid exposé on the shipping industry, the NUS, the TUC, Wilson’s Government’s reaction and so forth. There are one or two real gems here: thus on p 192 we are told, in connection with Wilson’s allegations of a ‘red plot,’ that when Bert Ramelson (the CP’s industrial organiser) visited Jack Coward’s flat, he ‘surprised his hosts by advocating an immediate return to work.’ If Foot’s piece has a fault, it is perhaps that it strikes a slightly too heroic note; one would like to know how, after the undoubted militancy displayed by the NUS rank and file, the Left within the union could be more or less routed at this year’s conference. True, the voting rules are incredibly undemocratic, as Foot shows (some members have four votes each!); and there have been allegations from a London branch that their Conference delegates were forced on them by right-wingers from other branches who swamped their meeting. But – despite the obvious difficulties in doing this – some assessment of the extent to which militancy during the strike was further articulated in attitudes to the union machinery itself would have been useful. Tony Topham has re-written his excellent piece from ISJ, examining the new tendencies to long-term contracts and productivity agreements.

The other contributions are more mixed. Four of Michael Frayn’s pieces from the Observer have been brought together, and are pure gold. Ken Coates (Wage Slaves) has written a sparkling essay, but one that deals too much in abstractions; he seeks a bridge, or set of bridges, between the actual day-to-day search for the ‘fair wage’ and the abolition of the wages system itself, a bridge between ideas rather than between actual movements. We are left with a set of ‘ifs’ and the usual call for the elaboration of ‘a set of schemes for structural, anti-capitalist reforms’ (p.87), in which the link between these demands and the actual day-to-day struggles of our current fragmented movement is not examined.

Philip Toynbee and Claude Cockburn offer very lightweight pieces, both of them lacking Frayn’s bite. Robert Doyle, a printworker, presents a gritty and unromanticised picture of the situation in an IPC warehouse whose workers are faced with the prospect of redundancy. Bob Rowthorn gives a useful account of some of the root causes of British capitalism’s current problems, but his discussion of incomes policy is rather too abstract. Clive Jenkins puts the orthodox case for ‘More,’ and notes the official movement’s tired muscles.

One piece particularly seems out of place here. Jack Jones of the T&GWU argues a case for the 40 hour week, a £15 minimum wage, a standard minimum three-week holiday, etc, but completely fails to connect this worthy set of aspirations with any realistic view of the actual tendencies within the labour movement. His proposals amount to a simple list of good ideas, quite abstracted from actual social developments and possibilities and without any examination of the forces that might be summoned in support of these ideas – or in opposition. He wants a stronger TUC, but does not consider what the current moves to provide this mean; the demand for factory branches, today taken up most strongly by the Right, is also regarded in isolation from a context of increasing bureaucratisation. So too with his advocacy of productivity bargaining. Anyone looking for a classic example of the essential sogginess of contemporary ‘Left-reformist’ thought could hardly do better than read this.

The inclusion of Jack Jones’ article in this collection is symptomatic of its main weakness, the editors’ seeming unwillingness to do more than present a ‘broad left’ front of ideas, or to tie the contributions together with some assessment of their own of the nature of militancy or the actual tasks facing socialists at present. Only Robert Doyle touches on the level of consciousness of the average worker, or the forces that mould and change it. Perry Anderson argues a conventional case for the need for a revolutionary party, but does this without any serious evaluation of what such a party, or those seeking to build such a party, might be expected to be doing now.

In sum, at the level of proposals for activity this book is weak, and in a socialist collection this is a serious weakness. But there is much of value here, and comrades with six bob will not be wasting their cash.

Graham Wootton’s book is best left on the shelf, arguing a son of right-wing Young Liberal case for getting everybody educated to a greater ‘capacity to participate in some sense at some level,’ he contuses the state and society, assumes social problems to have psychological causes and moralises away at tedious length with, at times, hardly an empirical reference. Starting with the question, ‘What are the obligations of workers in their unions to the state’ he sounds a call for a swift return to some feudal industrial society. He hasn’t a clue what is actually happening. Strictly for laughs, this one.

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