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Revolutionary Road

Alex Callinicos

The Revolutionary Road to Socialism

Where We Go from Here

The Class Struggle in Britain

It’s difficult for many socialists to have faith in the ability of the working class to change society. The defeats of the past few years, the triumphs of Thatcherism, seem to have set workers’ power at nought. Labour’s defeat in 1983 is explained by some on the left with claims that the working class is disappearing.

Similar claims were made in the 1950s, when Labour lost three elections in a row. It’s easy to forget what came in between. Between 1970 and 1974 the Tory government under Ted Heath launched a large-scale attack on the British trade-union movement. There ensued the biggest labour struggles for half a century. Indeed, the labour historian Royden Harrison has described the outcome of those years as ‘the most extraordinary triumph of trade unionism in its long conflict with the government’:

The Labour Unrest of 1970–1974 was far more massive and incomparably more successful than its predecessor of 1910–1914. Millions of workers became involved in campaigns of civil disobedience arising out of resistance to the government’s and 1974 alone and many of them attained some or all of their objectives.

Strikes in the public service became more frequent and prolonged. Some of them began to exhibit an ominous concern with conditions of distribution as well as production. (Thus, some Health Service employees refused to supply privileges for private patients in public hospitals.)

But it was the coal miners, through their victories in the two Februaries of 1972 and 1974 who gave to this Labour Unrest a structure, a final roundedness and completeness which their contribution of 1912 had failed to supply to their earlier experience. First they blew the government ‘off course’; then they landed it on the rocks. Finally, they compelled the Prime Minister to receive them in 10 Downing Street – which he had sworn he would never do – and forced him to concede more in 24 hours than had been conceded in the last 24 years. Then two years later their strike led him to introduce the three-day week ... for which he was rewarded with defeat at the General Election. Nothing like this had ever been heard of before!

How is it that an even more vicious Tory government under Margaret Thatcher did not meet the same sort of resistance? Let us look at the record.

During the long economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s strong shop stewards’ organisation was built up in industries such as cars and engineering. The basis of this organisation was workers’ economic power. Employers with full order books were prepared to buy off their workers with concessions on wages and conditions. Profits were high enough to permit a steady rise in real wages.

In the 1960s things began to change. British capitalism was under increasing pressure from foreign competitors. In response to this, with their share of world trade and profits falling, an offensive was launched by the employers and the state against shop-floor organisation. These attacks took a variety of forms – the Labour government of Harold Wilson imposed wage controls, while productivity deals were imposed by bosses in an attempt to remove the degree of control over production which some groups of workers had achieved during the boom.

The Heath government of 1970–74 merely took this process a stage further, introducing anti-union legislation whose main target was the shop stewards. Rank-and-file trade union organisation proved strong enough to beat off this attack, and indeed it spread to workers who had not previously elected shop stewards – civil servants and health workers, for example.

But shop stewards’ organisation could not escape from the general limitations of trade unionism. It was, in the first place, sectional. During the boom, it had often been possible to win concessions from the bosses by downing tools within a particular section, without bringing the whole plant out. There was no tradition of shop stewards in different factories and industries linking together to form a wider organisation.

Secondly, shop stewards’ organisation accepted the separation of economics and politics which is typical of trade unions. It sought to improve the situation of particular groups of workers within the framework of capitalism. Battles in the workplace had no political perspective. In the 1950s and 1960s they didn’t need to. Workers could improve their position without taking on the state.

These limitations posed increasingly serious problems for shop stewards’ organisation in the changed conditions of the 1970s. With employers and the state launching a general offensive against them, rank-and-file organisations had to develop a political strategy of their own.

Even with the victories over the Heath government in 1970–74, this didn’t really happen. Shop stewards’ political strategy, such as it was, amounted to: ‘Kick out the Tories, vote Labour.’

After Heath had fallen in 1974, this left the workers’ movement very vulnerable to a new and much more insidious attack. For the Labour government of 1974–79 sought to achieve by stealth what the Tories had been unable to win by frontal attack. Their chief weapon was the Social Contract, a deal struck between the Labour cabinet and the trade-union leaders which led to the imposition of drastic wage controls in the summer of 1975.

Although the social contract was signed at the top, between Wilson, Callaghan, and Healey for the Labour government, and Jones, Scanlon, and Murray for the trade unions, its spirit spread right through the movement. The idea of class collaboration – of government, bosses and unions working together – was accepted by shop stewards as well as full-time officials.

The result was that many shop-floor leaders were drawn into close co-operation with management. More and more senior stewards and convenors were now full-timers, and had become almost as alienated from their rank and file members as trade Industrial Relations Act and, to a lesser extent, its Housing Finance Act. Over 200 occupations of factories, offices, workshops and shipyards occurred between 1972 union officials. Workers’ participation schemes involved them constantly with management. Productivity deals took away in many workplaces the stewards’ most fundamental role – that of bargaining over wages and conditions.

By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, rank-and-file organisation in key industries was much weaker than it had been five years earlier. Now the chickens came home to roost.

Two examples will illustrate this. One of the most dramatic ‘successes’ of workers’ participation was at BL Longbridge, where the Communist Party convenor, Derek Robinson, worked very closely with management. He played a crucial role in heading off a rank-and-file rebellion against wage controls in 1977. But once he had served his purpose of weakening stewards’ organisation, management could afford to take a much tougher line. Michael Edwardes, the new hard man appointed by Labour to head BL in 1978, and kept on enthusiastically by Thatcher, sacked Robinson. Thanks to the demoralisation of the workforce, and the cynical manoeuvres of the trade-union leaders, he succeeded.

An even more important case was that of the miners. It was they, after all, who had brought down Heath. But in 1977 the Coal Board, with the support of Energy Secretary Tony Benn, introduced a new bonus scheme. The aim was to divide the miners against each other, since under the scheme workers in highly productive pits would earn much more than their fellows elsewhere. Although rejected in a national ballot, it was imposed by the Miners’ Union executive.

The success of the scheme from the employers’ point of view was revealed in 1983, when miners in the declining South Wales coalfields were abandoned to their fate by workers in other, better-off areas.

So we are now paying the price of five years’ Social Contract. Rank-and-file trade union organisation, weakened and demoralised by the class collaboration of the Wilson and Callaghan years, has not been able to face up to the offensive mounted by the tough, rabidly anti-working-class Thatcher government.

Workers’ organisations have also been undermined by mass unemployment. During the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, unemployment was negligible. This gave workers the confidence to take on the employers. The whip of mass unemployment is now being used consciously by the Tories and the bosses to discipline workers and clear militants out of the workplaces.

Economic crisis also raises the stakes. During the boom, going on strike didn’t mean taking on the system. The ‘national cake’ was growing, and workers and profits could take a larger share of it. Now the cake isn’t growing, and many sections of industry suffer acutely from falling profits. To fight now against the closure of an unprofitable factory, for example, means rejecting the whole profit system. Most workers, influenced as they are by the politics of class collaboration, are not yet willing to take this step.

Goodbye to the working class?

There will be those who still insist that the British labour movement has suffered more than a temporary defeat. Many despairing socialists argue that the decline of manufacturing industry in Britain means that the working class is vanishing. Others claim that Thatcher’s rule amounts to ‘creeping fascism’.

All this shows how important it is for us to keep our heads. Even though, in line with other advanced capitalist countries, the share of manufacturing industry in the workforce has declined, there are some five and a half million industrial workers in Britain today. There are millions of other manual workers – for example, those employed in the Health Service, who in 1982 fought a heroic six-month battle against the Tories.

There are also some ten million white-collar workers in Britain. The overwhelming majority are in the same basic position as manual workers. Many are women in low-paid and boring jobs such as clerical workers and shop assistants. They are as much part of the working class as miners and engineers. Indeed, recent years have seen a rapid growth in militancy and trade-union organisation among white-collar workers.

Nor have trade unions disappeared. Although the number of trade unionists has fallen, the main reason has been the rise in unemployment. There are still ten million trade unionists in Britain.

The Tories have only weakened, and not destroyed workers’ organisation. A truly fascist regime would set out physically to smash the trade unions as Hitler and Mussolini did – seizing their assets and buildings, murdering thousands of leaders and activists, jailing tens of thousands. Far from getting rid of the unions, Thatcher has depended in every victory she has won on the trade-union bureaucracy. The 1980 steel strike was lost, crucially, because of the failure of other unions, especially the Transport Workers’ Union, to mount effective blacking. The 1982 Health Service dispute was doomed to defeat once the union leaders had refused to call an all-out strike. These examples could be multiplied.

And there have been victories. The water workers humiliated the government in their first all-out strike. The Fleet Street electricians closed down the national press for a day in solidarity with the health workers, and successfully defied the Tory Employment Act, showing that the spirit of 1972, of a fighting and united working class, is not dead.

The dwindling Labour vote represents, not the disappearance of the working class, but the crisis of Labourism.-Three periods of Labour government have left the structure of capitalism little altered. Again and again, Labour governments have cut public spending in areas that benefit workers, such as hospitals and schools, and attacked workers’ living standards through wage controls.

It’s little wonder that many workers feel little loyalty to the Labour Party. Of course, Labour promises things will be different next time. But why should anyone believe them? Every government since the 1960s has left office with unemployment higher than when it was elected. Labour appeals to workers to rely on the state at a time when the state seems to have less and less power to manage the economy effectively.

The Tories have been able to exploit this disillusion. They have also been helped by the defeats of the past few years. With the level of industrial struggle so low, workers have few opportunities to acquire confidence in their own ability to change society. Thatcherism has fed off this mood of despair.

But the present downturn in the class struggle will not last for ever.

The experience of the international labour movement shows that there comes a point when some slight change in the situation – industrial recovery, or a political crisis – can spark off a great wave of strikes. The anger and humiliation built up in years of defeat boils over, and bursts into the face of the employers and the state. The most recent example of this was May 1968 in France.

The more intelligent representatives of the ruling class know this perfectly well. The Financial Times anxiously monitors every strike, wondering whether this will be the beginning of the upturn in the class struggle, asking themselves whether this may not be the time to replace Thatcher’s policy of open confrontation with another round of social contracting.

Socialists need to have at least as much foresight. We have to be realistic about the present situation, recognising just how bad things are, not giving way to fake optimism. At the same time, we have equally to resist phoney despair. The British working class is far from finished, and our job is to prepare for the upturn in the struggle when it comes.

There are those who argue that focussing in this way on the working class means ignoring problems other than those faced by people at work. What, they ask, about the oppression suffered by women – not just the lousy, low-paid jobs they get, but also the burden of housework they carry, the violence to which they are subjected at home and in the streets? What about the endless attacks that black people suffer – from racist immigration officers, police harassment and fascist hooligans?

Of course capitalism doesn’t only exploit people at work. It oppresses us in many different ways – as women, as black people, as Jews, as gays. Capitalism isn’t just a disaster as an economic system. It distorts and ruins people’s lives sexually, culturally, psychologically.

The question is, though, what do we do about all this? It’s very easy to pay lip service to what are sometimes called the ‘autonomous movements’ of blacks, women, and gays. This is what the Labour Party does, for example. But what do its policies amount to? At best they come to ‘positive discrimination’. In other words a few token, well-educated, middle-class women and blacks will get top jobs. The mass of working-class women and blacks will get nothing.

The reason is a simple one. Racial and sexual oppression are so closely bound up with capitalism as to be inseparable from it. This means that the only way to get rid of racism and sexism is to get rid of capitalism. And the Labour Party isn’t in business to do that, whatever politicians may say at the conference rostrum.

It all comes back to the question of power. Granted that we want to do away with racism, sexism, capitalism and what have you, who’s actually going to do it?

The answer is, only the working class. The capitalist system rests on the exploitation of workers. By bringing workers together in large workplaces in order to exploit us, capitalism ultimately gives us the collective strength to paralyse, and overthrow it.

The tragedy of oppression is that it deprives people of power. Housewives are a fearfully oppressed group, isolated, condemned to drudgery, denied any positive role in society. But above all, they are powerless, a collection of isolated individuals without collective strength.

Black people at least are oppressed as a community. But even this gives them little power. The most a community can do is riot. And the state has long experience of dealing with riots. It may be taken aback by a sudden outburst, such as the 1981 riots in Brixton, Liverpool and Manchester, but given time it learns its lessons, develops new tactics, buys off or isolates militants.

In the 1960s the United States was shaken by a wave of great ghetto risings – Harlem, Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington. The slogan of ‘Black Power’ was raised by revolutionary groups such as the Black Panthers. In the 1970s the state remorselessly crushed the militants, murdering and imprisoning them. The ‘moderates’ were given a few concessions, and left with the invidious job of running America’s decaying inner cities.

Where people have power is at work, in the collective organisations they build to fight the employers. That is where socialists have to concentrate their efforts. Does this mean ignoring women and blacks? Of course not – they are a crucial part of the working class. A higher proportion of black men work in manual industrial jobs than of white men. Women are over two-fifths of the workforce. It is at work that women and blacks too can develop the consciousness and confidence needed to sweep away their own oppression along with capitalism.

The Socialist Workers Party

Everything thus turns on the future struggles of the working class. If we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past, we must learn from those mistakes. If one had to sum up the reason why the British labour movement passed from the triumphs of the early 1970s to the abject condition of the early 1980s in one word, it would be Labourism.

More than anything else, it was the commitment of shop-floor militants to the Labour Party and its parliamentary road to socialism which laid the basis for the weakening of rank-and-file organisation. Support for the Labour government, desire to keep it in office, caused workers’ leaders – from the TUC General Council down to shop stewards in the smallest workplaces – to accept the argument that they should damp down their members’ militancy and rely on Labour’s Social Contract. The ideology of class collaboration penetrated every corner of the movement.

The danger is that this lesson will not be learned. Labour now stands for a ‘national economic assessment’ involving employers, unions and government. This is just a code-word for wage-controls. It means that a future Labour government would repeat the disasters of the 1960s and the 1970s.

So when it comes to trying to rebuild rank-and-file organisation, this must be done on lines different from the past. We need workplace organisation whose horizons are not those of the section or the single workplace, but which reaches out to unite workers across the class. We need workplace organisation that understands and relies upon its own strength – for so long as it is tied to the Labour Party, the same old mistakes are likely to be repeated.

Merely rebuilding shop stewards’ organisation can’t solve these problems if it continues to operate within the limits of trade unionism. The only way in which workers can become politically independent of Labourism is through the development of a revolutionary socialist party.

Building such a party means going against what most socialists in Britain are doing. They are to be found in the Labour Party, trying to push it leftwards. This is a hopeless task. Every attempt to win Labour to genuine socialism has failed, with the left defeated or absorbed into the mainstream.

The future of socialism in Britain depends upon the creation of an independent revolutionary party. We in the Socialist Workers Party believe that we have made a start at building such a party.

The origins of the SWP lie in the revolutionary socialist tradition. For a generation, from the 1930s to the 1960s, the working-class movement was dominated by Stalinism and social democracy. Socialism was identified with the power of the state, with socialism from above, imposed on people by parliament or party. The authentic Marxist understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class was preserved only by a handful of revolutionaries on the very margins of the working-class movement.

These revolutionaries drew their inspiration from Leon Trotsky, with Lenin the leader of the Bolshevik revolution. For opposing Stalin’s dictatorship, Trotsky was removed from all his posts and eventually expelled from Russia in 1929. For the rest of his life he struggled to keep alive the flame of the October revolution, until he was murdered by an agent of Stalin in 1940.

Trotsky’s fundamental idea was that revolution could succeed only if it spread internationally. Confined to one country, it would succumb to the forces of international capitalism. This analysis has been amply confirmed by the fate of the Russian state, and of other ‘socialist’ countries.

Nevertheless, the years of the economic boom that followed 1945 were bad ones for revolutionaries, during which it was hard for us to get a hearing. Trotsky had predicted that the Second World War, like the First, would be followed by a wave of revolutions. He underestimated the hold of Stalinism and social democracy on the mass of workers after twenty years of defeat. When these revolutions did not happen, Trotsky’s followers splintered into a myriad of tiny squabbling sects.

One of these was the Socialist Review group, formed in Britain in 1951. Its members were distinguished by their rejection of Trotsky’s view that Russia was a ‘degenerated workers’ state’. They argued that it was, rather, a state capitalist society. They also soon recognised that Western capitalism had been able temporarily to stabilise itself, thanks to massive arms spending, and predicted that the boom would give way to a new period of crises.

For most of the 1950s the Socialist Review group had only a handful of members. Renamed the International Socialists (IS) in 1960, it began to grow very gradually, until by 1968 it had some four hundred members. IS doubled in size that year, as students involved in college occupations and in opposition to the Vietnam war joined the group.

The election of the Heath government in 1970 led to dramatic confrontations between workers and the state, and by the time of Heath’s fall in March 1974 the International Socialists had 4,000 members, and our paper, Socialist Worker, was selling 30,000 copies a week. The change of name to the Socialist Workers Party came in 1977. For the first time since the degeneration of the Communist Party in the late 1920s, revolutionary socialist ideas had a working-class audience in Britain.

The past ten years have been far more difficult. But our voice is still strong, and as we have shown, a voice for revolutionary socialism is more necessary than ever. The question is how to make that voice more widely heard. Building a revolutionary socialist party will be a task in highly unfavourable circumstances in the next few years. The defeats suffered by the working-class movement mean that only a small minority will want to take on the Tories.

The Socialist Workers Party seeks to relate to that minority. We do so by holding regular political meetings, selling our weekly paper, Socialist Worker, and working around whatever workers’ struggle there is.

Our aim in all these activities is the same, to widen the audience for revolutionary politics. In every battle that takes place, we do not merely strive for victory. We seek to encourage workers to learn the lessons of the struggle, and to place it in the wider context of the confrontation between capital and labour. By so doing, we hope that more will come to understand that there can be no final victory without the overthrow of the capitalist state.

The returns of this work will for the time being be small. We have no illusions of grandeur. Membership of the SWP is unlikely to rise above a few thousand in present circumstances. But we can create a network of militant socialists who are prepared to listen to us, and to follow our lead in struggle.

Such a network will be of decisive importance in the future. For, as we have already seen, the anger and frustrations built up over the years of defeat will at some time fuse with renewed confidence to cause an explosive upturn in the class struggle. The presence within the labour movement of a revolutionary party with a periphery of militant socialists would mean then that revolutionary socialists could actually influence the outcome of the struggle and give socialist ideas and socialist action a chance.

A socialist revolution has four elements – a mass strike, workers’ councils, an insurrection to overthrow the existing state, and a revolutionary party. Even in the difficult circumstances of today we can prepare for each of these aspects of the upturn.

The key to the mass strike is the workplace. Here socialist activity must be rooted. There are no short-cuts to be made by capturing ward Labour Parties or trade-union executives.

Workers’ councils emerge only when the entire class in on the move. But we can begin even now to prepare for workers’ councils. Such councils unite the working class as a whole, breaking down the divisions between men and women, black and white, skilled and unskilled. We can start the work of overcoming these divisions by continually arguing for, and striving to achieve solidarity between these different sections of workers.

An insurrection depends on the active and willing support of a majority of workers. But the key to its success lies in the relationship between socialists and their fellow-workers. Even in the smallest strike we can learn how to draw the less militant workers in struggle, to open their minds to revolutionary ideas, to advance and retreat as the situation dictates.

Finally, during a lull such as the present we have the time to create the precondition of any revolutionary party – a body of activists who both understand the basic ideas of revolutionary socialism and share considerable experience of the labour movement.

The two great revolutions at the end of the First World War, in Russia 1917 and Germany 1918, illustrate the importance of this. The Bolsheviks in Russia had been trained by fourteen years of victory and defeat. The revolutionary left in Germany broke with the ‘old house’ of social democracy only in December 1918, after the revolution had begun.

The Bolsheviks multiplied rapidly in numbers and influence. Those who had been on the edge of the party before the revolution now joined, and brought with them others who were now thrust into politics for the first time. At the same time, the party had a stable core of experienced revolutionaries.

The German Communist Party in the crucial months of 1918–19 lacked such a core, and did not have deep enough roots in the labour movement to draw many workers into its ranks.

The existence of a revolutionary party made the difference between victory and defeat at the end of the First World War. In the long run, whether we work to build a revolutionary party now in Britain could make that sort of difference for socialism tomorrow.

There should be no mistake – the stakes are very high. It isn’t just that the world economy stumbles from brief boom to long slump without any sign of a genuine recovery. The shadow of nuclear war hangs over the planet. Each time before that world capitalism has found itself at an impasse, its tensions have been resolved through world war. The same tensions are all around us. Two vast power blocs confront one another, each with enormous nuclear arsenals, profound economic difficulties, and restless subjects. If the conflicts of world capitalism again turn to war, this time the outcome will be total destruction.

During the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg said that the choice lay between socialism and barbarism. We now know the face of barbarism well, after the death camps of Auschwitz and the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima. Only the world working class, by tearing the wealth and weapons from our rulers’ hands, can save humanity from the prospect of crisis ended only by annihilation.

With socialism, we can go on to use the world’s resources, and human beings’ accumulated knowledge and skill to change the face of the world, to create a world in which poverty, exploitation, and war are only bad memories.

It is with that goal in mind that we in the Socialist Workers Party set out. We have no illusions about the scale of the task, or about the limitations imposed by our size, influence, and talents. We don’t regard ourselves as the elect, the bearers of the truth. We know that only the working class can transform society. We don’t seek to put ourselves in place of that class. We seek only to make workers conscious of their interests and their power, and to direct that power at the capitalist state.

We appeal to all who agree with us, to join us in building a revolutionary socialist party. We ask those who will only go part of the way, to work with us. Together we have a world to win.

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Last updated: 2 June 2015