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What the 70s can teach us all today

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INCREASING PRESSURE for strikes has led much of the media to talk of a \"return to the 1970s\". That period of working class militancy forms the centrepiece of the newly published collection of writings by Tony Cliff.
Issue 1796

Cliff was a founder member of the Socialist Workers’ Party. In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle is the second volume of his selected writings published since his death two years ago. Marxism’s core principle — that working class emancipation can only be won by the action of the working class itself — was always central to Cliff’s Marxism, but with a crucial emphasis.

He argued that Marxists must be ready to learn, and to change their strategies and tactics as the conditions of the class struggle change. Some workers always incline to militancy, and others to conservatism. Between them are a majority pulled this way and that by the force of the arguments from either side. At each new development Marxists face the problem of assessing what the current balance is.

How should socialists organise themselves in this period? Who is with us and who is near us? What is the balance of forces right now? What can we do to move it? The first piece, which is on the Labour Party, comes from 1962. At that time the level of industrial struggle was low. The Tories had won the 1959 election on the slogan, ‘You’ve never had it so good — don’t let Labour ruin it.’

In 1964 and again in 1966 Harold Wilson’s Labour Party won the election. But the party’s internal life became increasingly moribund. Cliff’s 1967 article ‘Labour’s Addiction to the Rubber Stamp’ shows how Labour-type parties were entering a new phase. They were increasingly parties that excluded the larger part of their MPs from significant decision making.

They were more concerned with disciplining labour to the needs of state monopoly capitalism than with winning reforms for the workers they represented. Meanwhile rising workers’ confidence manifested itself in strikes, most of them ‘unofficial’. Many workplace disputes involved fights not over pay, but over issues to do with workplace control, conditions of work and discipline. Cliff’s group, the International Socialists (IS), turned towards the new opportunities.

The Wilson government deepened a trend initiated by the Tories-state sponsored control over wage increases, or ‘incomes policy’. The ruling class was trying to control working class advances in a period of full employment. They could not hope to smash the unions, but they could try to contain them.

The short book Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards was written in 1966. The London Industrial Shop Stewards Defence Committee published it. Some 10,000 copies were sold, most of them to workers. The book discusses the changing conditions of capitalism, and analyses the condition and potential of the workers’ movement. Workers through the boom conditions of the 1950s and 1960s made considerable economic gains through ‘unofficial’ action on the shop floor. Elected rank and file representatives, the shop stewards, were central to the militancy.

The upside was that workers’ gains were dependent on local initiative. The downside was that workers faced little need to generalise politically. The movement was at once very fragmented and powerful. Industrial militancy could be combined with elements of racism and conservatism. Cliff interviewed hundreds of working class militants to write the book.

He was able to generalise from many sectional experiences, and gained an insight into the movement that few individual militants could possess. The bosses wanted to tame the unofficial strikes and the shop stewards who led them. Shop floor issues would become political.

It was possible to envisage the growth of a new working class based socialist movement rooted in workplace struggle. The later 1960s saw dramatic shifts. The student movement exploded in tandem with the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

In Britain for the first time forces to the left of the Communist Party were able to develop an independent campaign against the US war. In France the student and anti-war movements provided the spark that ignited the explosion of May 1968.

Cliff’s ‘On Perspectives’ article in 1969 offered a summary of the new period. As familiar signposts disappeared, so did the value of old socialist routines. Openings for Marxist interventions were suddenly expanding very rapidly. In the still emerging world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, initiative and perseverance by revolutionaries were at a premium.

Cliff wrote The Employers’ Offensive: Productivity Deals and How to Fight Them as a contribution to understanding how these political changes were transforming the workplace battle.

The book again proved an immense success among working class militants. Around 20,000 copies were sold, most of them to shop stewards in industry, often in bundles of anything between five and 50. Cliff and other IS members were able to speak to sizeable audiences of militant rank and file workers.

Central to the book was the argument that employers were developing a new method of countering working class organisation. During the 1960s ‘productivity deals’ spread to around six million workers. The ruling class was crafting new strategies to persuade workers to sell their working conditions in return for pay rises.

The union bureaucracies were actively promoting these deals. The Employers’ Offensive set out first to provide industrial militants with ideological arguments to undermine the appeal of such productivity bargaining. It was also a manual on how to resist.

In 1969 Barbara Castle, then minister of labour, produced a White Paper, ‘In Place of Strife’, proposing legal sanctions against strikes. It was withdrawn under protest. The Tories under Ted Heath were elected in 1970 and introduced new anti-union laws, setting the stage for a series of major confrontations. Five London dockers were sent to Pentonville prison for picketing in defiance of the law in 1972.

Flying pickets from the docks stopped the Fleet Street newspapers, and then spread the strikes. They compelled the TUC to threaten a general strike. The government was forced to back down.

Cliff wrote ‘After Pentonville’, mapping the balance of class forces in the wake of this important working class victory. While rank and file militancy provided the core of that working class strength, it remained fragmented in structure and episodic in appearance. The union bureaucracy sometimes lost the initiative to rank and file organisation, but equally it often regained it.

There was a heady mixture of successive victories and defeats. Cliff argued for the need to build a revolutionary organisation that could connect up the rank and file, strengthening its capacity for action independent of the bureaucracy. That theme took more concrete shape in the pamphlet Cliff wrote in 1973, Factory Branches.

The International Socialists, who had recruited significant numbers of industrial workers, had started to build workplace branches and rank and file groups across numbers of industries.

The pamphlet summed up what had been learned up to then. It offered advice to revolutionary workers’ groups about how to organise, agitate and educate. That was based on existing experience, explicitly aware that further developments in the struggle would teach new lessons. In practice most factory branches did not last long. The conditions of the class struggle became far less favourable after the re-election of a Labour government in 1974.

Labour dropped the Tories’ legal attack on unions. Instead it worked to bind the union bureaucracies, right and left alike, to itself through the ‘Social Contract’.

It relied on the union leaders to discipline rank and file initiatives. Not only did the government succeed in reducing real wages during most of the 1974-9 period, but in key disputes ‘left’ union leaders actively promoted scabbing.

The revolutionary left proved too weakly implanted to defeat these offensives, which accelerated under the Tories in the 1980s. In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle has a final article on how the working class movement could begin to recover after the landslide victory of New Labour in 1997.

The way the book analyses the previous upturn in working class struggle, and how socialists had to adapt, offers invaluable lessons today. nThis article is an edited version of Colin Barker’s introduction to In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle

In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle is available from Bookmarks on special offer at £12.99. Phone 020 7637 1848. Go to


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