From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.40, October/November 1969, pp.41-42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
I have no desire to become involved in a personal slanging match with Messrs. Coates and Topham. It would be a waste of time and space. Instead of indulging in such a negative exercise, I am concerned about debating the deep, underlying theoretical disagreements between us. Also I am concerned with seeing that future conferences on workers’ control are better than that held at Sheffield.
It is gratifying to hear that Messrs. Coates and Co. are in favour of democracy. In which case, let them and the other organisers see that a few elementary principles of democracy are applied at future workers’ control conferences:
Writing about the Sheffield conference, Coates says the conference arrangements committee ‘could not find time to discuss a motion submitted by Challinor on what he was pleased to term “Ford’s Sell-Out”.’ One might well ask whether such a committee could be as fair-minded as Coates claims if it even failed to discuss a motion submitted to it?
In fact, the resolution came from the International Socialism Group, which had about 35 delegates. It did not refer to Fords’ directly, but dealt with the question of penal clauses in industrial contracts. We thought these curtailed workers’ freedom and set a dangerous precedent. Now, conceivably, our view may be wrong. But, surely, the issue was sufficiently weighty to be considered by conference. Yet, IS comrades had the galling experience of being discriminated against, seeing other people’s resolutions accepted by conference arrangement committee while it could not even ‘find time to discuss’ our motion.
Speaking to members of other revolutionary socialist groupings, I discovered there was considerable feeling about the way things were being managed – or should I say manipulated? It was felt that strenuous efforts were being made to prevent all discussion of issues where there might be criticism of union leaders like Jones and Scanlon. Now I don’t expect Coates and Co. to accept this observation of mine about the widespread discontent: let them fail to apply the democratic principles already mentioned and they can be assured of a first-class bust-up at the next conference. In this context, Coates’ overtures to IS to join in the activities of the Institute for Workers’ Control appears to me to be grotesque. While, obviously, I can’t speak for the IS Group, I would argue that there would be three prerequisites for active participation: internal democracy within the Institute; an equal right with others to publication of material under the Institute’s auspices; and a principled discussion of relevant issues.
Having dealt with the first prerequisite – internal democracy – let me turn to the second. As Coates is aware, there are quite a sizeable group of talented writers connected with International Socialism. Would IWC be prepared to publish their material on industrial questions, articles which are almost certain to be critical of union bureaucrats both left and right? If so, then perhaps IWC could start by running an edition of Tony Cliff’s new pamphlet on productivity deals. This, in a highly detailed and comprehensive way, shows the limitations of the Scanlon approach and thus, if the Institute wants to be fair to both sides, it should publish to promote thoughtful discussion about the speeches of Scanlon it has already issued.
On the third prerequisite, let me say that IS members are revolutionary socialists. In our opinion, the aim of workers’ control can only be attained as part of a revolutionary struggle. For, to be meaningfully discussed, workers’ control must be considered in terms of its opposite – capitalist control. And to talk about capitalist control necessarily involves discussing the main instrument of capitalist control, namely, the state. The uncompromising hostility of the state to all forms of workers’ self-activity can only be effectively countered by an equally uncompromising hostility to the state. In other words, the furthering of working-class interests requires a revolutionary struggle.
Trotsky made this point in a different way, when he said: ‘The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.’ In all our work, IS comrades endeavour to make it clear that these are the only alternatives open. Consequently, if we entered the IWC, it would be with the declared aim of trying to transform the Institute from a ragbag of oddments into an organisation with a definite revolutionary orientation.
This would not require, as Coates appears to believe, a witch-hunt but standing by one’s political principles and demanding that others do likewise. For instance, Scanlon says he believes in workers’ control. Excellent. Workers’ control, like charity, should begin at home. If is no use hoping for the workers to control industries if they don’t control their own unions. One of the most important reasons for their failure to do this is that the union leadership is privileged, much higher paid, and therefore has an outlook on life that is different to, and antagonistic to, those of the men it is supposed to represent. In the AEF, Jim Conway, the general secretary, has recently received money from the AEF and bought a £16,000 house while members of the AEF national committee are to have hefty wage increases. Can we have Comrade Scanlon denouncing these retrograde measures, steps away from workers’ control of the union?
Not only is the idea that workers’ representatives should receive the average pay of the men they represent intrinsic to the concept of industrial democracy, but it is equally important that they should be subject to recall. Can we ask another friend of Coates , Jack Jones – to advocate publicly that when the rank-and-file membership think its opinions have not been truly expressed by a full-time official, then it should have the right to dismiss him? The adoption of this procedure would, in a dramatic way, transform the position in the unions, placing power on the shopfloor.
Until leaders like Jones and Scanlon take such moves, I suggest their support for workers’ control remains merely formal. It is very much akin to that of the trade union leaders who, in 1925, to give themselves a revolutionary aura, joined the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee. The following year their leftish reputations came in handy – it made it all the easier to betray the General Strike.
There are signs the movement for workers’ control is being used in a similar way. By providing bureaucrats with the opportunity to adopt a leftish pose, it makes it easier for them to deal with militants inside the union. Also, it enhances their value in the eyes of the Government. Barbara Castle would much rather have, say, a Danny McGarvey sitting on an official inquiry than a Les Cannon. It gives a better appearance, a semblance of impartiality, that is more likely to hoodwink trade unionists.
The IWC quotes McGarvey’s speeches with approval. Ken Coates says McGarvey deserves supporting for his attack on In Place of Strife. But Coates fails to mention that McGarvey’s opposition is not on a principled basis. Nor does he mention the large part played by McGarvey in the Fairfield shipyard sell-out or the Cameron inquiry into the Barbican, where he was an accomplice in the victimisation of militant building workers. And as I pen these lines. I hear on the television that McGarvey is on another Government inquiry, that at Port Talbot. It makes me think that Barbara Castle has a clearer understanding than Ken Coates: she knows who controls McGarvey and it’s certainly not the workers. She need have no fear that McGarvey will suddenly get up at the inquiry and shout,
’I know the answer to this industrial problem. Port Talbot for the Port Talbot workers’.
The fact is that McGarvey and the other ‘left’ leaders have compromised themselves up to the hilt. Without exception, they all backed the TUC plan for industrial peace. An editorial in the Socialist Worker (June 26, 1969) correctly said, this plan was designed ‘to curb the militants and the rank and file’. It went on to state:
’The TUC-Government agreement shows not only that the trade union leaders are opposed to any independent rank-and-file organisation, but that, when pushed, they are willing to be used against their own members.’
The TUC plan is the complete antithesis of the essence of workers’ control. Yet, unless I am mistaken, there has not been a squeak, a murmur of disapproval from the IWC. Nor has. it felt any need to reprove Jones, Scanlon and Co., who in theory believe in workers’ control while in practice doing the exact opposite. Instead spokesmen of the IWC have concentrated their attacks on people like myself, socialists consistent in their opposition to the TUC plan.
And the same was true when the Government first introduced its incomes policy. Coates and Co. did not criticise left Labour MP’s, the trade union leaders and Tribune for their highly equivocable attitude; rather censure was reserved for IS comrades, who called for an outright and total rejection of the incomes policy – a line which they characterised as negative and unconstructive.
In conclusion, I would point out that I cannot deal with the many minor points raised by Coates and Topham. If anybody thinks I have misquoted them, then let them turn to their writings, a serious consideration of which is likely to be to the discredit of its authors.
Last updated: 28.2.2008