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Ken Coates

Workers’ Control Conference

(October 1969)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.40, October/November 1969, p.40.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Raymond Challinor’s attack on the Workers’ Control Conference (IS, June/July 1969) Is really quite disgraceful. To deal only with the factual matters in it, is to confront so low a level of polemic honesty that it is difficult to remember any journal of the left, leave alone IS, having sunk beneath it.

To speak about ‘conference rigging’ at Sheffield is a complete travesty of all the facts. The Conference arrangements committee had full charge of the Conference, subject to the approval of the Conference itself. It consisted of six people, three of whom were nominated by the Institute for Workers Control, which organised the Conference; and three of whom were elected by the full Conference during its first quarter of an hour. The three IWC representatives were carefully chosen to represent a fair cross-section of opinion within the Institute, and included one IS sympathiser. The reason that they could not include an IS member is that the IS members we approached all declined to join in the work of the Institute, sometimes in spite of repeated invitations. The three representatives from the floor were all rank-and-file trade unionists, none of whom had any factional axe to grind. From the moment that committee took over ‘Coates and Co.’, far from manipulating’ the conference, were as completely in its hands as was Ray Challinor. This was so much the case that, although I personally had the very deepest reservations about one or two points in the final resolution, the fact that the Committee presented it meant, that I had no option but to speak to it as it was. I do not mention this fact in order to complain, but in order to establish what really happened.

Apparently this committee could not find time to discuss a motion submitted by Challinor on what he was pleased to term ‘Ford’s Sell-Out’. This is regrettable: but there was a representative contingent of Ford’s Shop Stewards at the Conference who not only did not complain about the decision of the Conference arrangements committee, but who apparently had never been consulted by this Lancashire teacher as to whether they wished Conference to consider any such motion or not. As for Challinor’s charges about resolutions, they are absolutely misleading. Such Conferences have never considered large numbers of resolutions, because they have been primarily discussion gatherings, hinged around a whole series of industrial seminars. These seminars are and always have been the hub of the whole weekend’s work, and they are totally self-regulating. Anyone can call for seminar time, and there has never been a single case of it being refused. More: the seminars discuss papers prepared in advance, and anyone can submit such a paper. All the papers which have ever been submitted in time have been duplicated and circulated to all conference participants. Needless to say, Challinor has never submitted a paper. It is perfectly obvious that no one could personally agree with all the vast volume of papers which have been circulated: but at the same time that he charges us with lack of democracy, Challinor reproaches us for publishing material he does not like. What should we do in such a case: suppress it?

It is a plain, bald, and disgraceful lie that ‘the rank and file found their time limited to an hour’. It would be nearer to the truth to say that there was, during the whole weekend, about an hour of platform time. Nearly all Saturday’s deliberations were in seminar, at which the rank and file had all the time. Sunday morning consisted of reports from seminars and discussion in plenary session of those reports. The ‘platform’ took note of that time. Sunday afternoon consisted of a speech by Hugh Scanlon, and a debate on the general resolution. Challinor reveals his total contempt for the democratic process when he says that this amounts to ‘an hour’ of rank-and-file discussion: what it means is that he doesn’t count the seminars as being rank-and-file discussion, because they talk about real problems, and not about what Challinor wants them to talk about.

For him, since he embodies ‘the revolution’ the only true rank-and-file time is that spent listening to himself. The internal democracy of the IWC, and of the Workers’ Control Movement, compares more than favourably with that of IS, or any of the other socialist groupings I have, encountered, in a rich experience of such bodies.

Challinor’s political points are almost equally dishonest. He misquotes Topham, or puts words into his mouth which he never wrote, and he takes quotations of mine totally out of their internal context, never mind their historical setting. Challinor cannot reproach me in ‘the slightest degree for my resistance to Wilsonism: my record is plain, and will stand comparison with that of any comrade in IS. Indeed, was it because IS was in the vanguard of the resistance to Wilson’s politics that I was expelled from the Labour Party, while Challinor and many other IS comrades, both militant and less than militant, were given a continued licence to prattle harmlessly on?

The basic political point Challinor makes is that he is against the fight for left unity. When Danny McGarvey attacked In Place of Strife, he deserved support in doing so, whatever criticism he had earned the day before. Criticism of such leaders as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon is perfectly in order, but it must be based on informed understanding and not witch-hunting prejudice. If Challinor really wants to help the working-class movement he should learn to distinguish between mistakes in leadership, which even he would make, and betrayals.

His quotations from Trotsky would be more impressive, if he explained why it was that after 1940, when further reforms were pronounced impossible (’the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms’) we then entered into two decades of the triumph of reformism, in which more reforms were made than ever before. The sociology he commits himself to is unbelievably crude and stupid. Today, it is perfectly true that the bases for reform are more attenuated than they have been for the past 20 years, which themselves, according to scripture, never happened: and it is surely true that the old reformist strategy will therefore no longer work. If he would get his head out of the scriptures, and think a bit, Challinor might be able to help us evolve a meaningful strategy of socialist struggle to meet this situation. At the moment, however, he would rather sprinkle holy water and hunt witches. Where does this neurotic search for conformity lead? After having cut the throats of the left centrists and social democrats, poisoned the Stalinist betrayers (by which he’ll mean the Wigan YCL) and opened fierce battle with the Pablo revisionists, what will he do next? Undoubtedly the logic is very simple: he’ll begin to purge the evil-doers and traitors within IS itself. First target will be all those comrades who have been trying to grapple with the real problems of productivity bargaining, in much the same terms as we ourselves in the IWC. After this, who knows? What is clear is that at the end of this great drive for purity, what he will confront is not the organised revolutionary working-class, agog for action, but something very different: his own sorry caucus, in which the only true reliable member will be the Challinor family dog.

The truth is that a working-class socialism, as opposed to a beatnik socialism, can only grow up in discussion and action within the factories and trade union branches, which can never be ‘purified’ in the way Challinor wishes. Drive out the unspeakable Coates, and you will still face the problem: the IWC talks with more workers than all the sects combined, because it carries a very minimum of preconceived ideas, and relies on the creative drive and imagination of the workers themselves: it learns from the Communist Manifesto, that

’the Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole’.

Instead of trying to wreck such work, IS comrades should be participating in it, for all they are worth.

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Last updated: 9.5.2012