Issue 262 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Labour history


Attacks on Labour and trade union leaders, as well as the occasional anecdote, makes Tony Cliff's second volume of selected writings essential reading says Ian Birchall

Mass meeting of Heathrow workers in the 1970s decide to go on strike
Mass meeting of Heathrow workers in the 1970s decide to go on strike

Before 1960 Tony Cliff established himself as a theoretician with books on state capitalism in Russia, China and Eastern Europe. But as a revolutionary Cliff could not be satisfied by this. To show that Stalinism had nothing to do with socialism was merely a negative statement. Cliff now wanted to negate this negation, to look forward to the rebuilding of an authentic socialist movement.

In the early 1960s, sensing a rise in working class struggle that would culminate in the great strikes of the early 1970s, Cliff abandoned books on Keynes and the collectivisation of agriculture, and devoted himself to writing two books on the industrial struggle in Britain, Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards (1966, with Colin Barker) and The Employers' Offensive (1970), both long out of print but now reproduced in this second volume of Cliff's Selected Writings.

These books transformed Cliff himself and other comrades who a year earlier had been discussing the finer points of Trotskyism with other factions in the Young Socialists but had to reach out to a new audience. I remember Sunday mornings trudging round the streets of Tottenham visiting shop stewards and persuading them to buy a copy of the Incomes Policy book or, better, half a dozen for their union branch or stewards' committee. The International Socialists (IS, forerunners of the SWP) had around 300 members--10,000 copies were sold.

Some people saw this as a retreat from 'politics' into mere trade unionism (I admit that in my naive youth I was one of them). We could not have been more wrong. In the 1950s most strikes had been very short--because they won quickly. There was no need to generalise. If capitalism had gone on offering full employment and rising living standards, socialism was dead. But capitalism couldn't. The Labour government of 1964-70, doing the bidding of its masters, sought to control wages and limit the legal rights of unions. It was this-not the manifestos of tiny self appointed vanguards-that brought politics back into the industrial struggle. The job of socialists was to take advantage of the new situation.

The Employers' Offensive, dealing with the then central question of productivity deals, was even more detailed. To read it 30 years on is to learn just how much the world has changed. Many younger comrades will have only a vague idea of what a bus conductor was. But this precisely proves Cliff's point. When one-man operation (as it was called in those days) was brought in, drivers got a substantial pay rise for taking on the sale of tickets. Today that increase has long been swallowed up by inflation, but the driver still does two jobs.

Despite the intricate detail, Cliff always kept the political point in mind. Firstly, the book enabled the IS to challenge the Communist Party's grip in industry. The trade union bureaucracy was deeply involved in selling productivity deals, and the CP's relations with the left bureaucracy meant it could not make an all-out attack on productivity deals, though many CP shop stewards were fighting them.

More generally, Cliff showed how even the smallest fight in the workplace embodied the fight for control, the assertion of workers' humanity against alienation. The book is full of concrete anecdotes and examples of such struggles--thus a (not surprisingly) anonymous steward described resistance to speed-up: 'I stand over the conveyor belt with a stopwatch in my hand. Whenever management dares to speed it up beyond what is reasonable, I, being responsible for quality control, do the following--I pick up a bottle, newly produced, raise it up towards the light, turn it this way, turn it the other way, for a time, until I'm sure that it is up to the required the meantime, the conveyor belt goes on...and tens of bottles are smashed to pieces. Then slowly I put the bottle down and pick another one up for a check of quality. In no time at all the supervisor rushes up to me and asks for an explanation, and then the speed of the conveyor belt is reduced.'

Collective experience

These books were not just written for the organisation but, in a very real sense, by the organisation. Though the IS was still small (around 1,000 at the time of The Employers' Offensive) Cliff had gathered around him a group of experienced trade unionists--Geoff Carlsson, Jim Higgins, Roger Cox, Ross Pritchard and others--as well as talented academics like Richard Hyman and Colin Barker. Hence he could draw on a collective experience.

Nobody should turn to Cliff's writings in the hope of ready made solutions or simple slogans. As he put it, 'Parrots have never made a revolution.' History does not repeat itself, and revolutionaries have to study the past in order to make the future. What we can learn from Cliff is method. Throughout these books Cliff immersed himself in the smallest concrete details yet never lost sight of the overall socialist perspective. Today we need a similar concrete revolutionary approach to performance related pay, opposition to privatisation or unionisation in call centres.

The volume also contains a number of Cliff's shorter pieces on the British labour movement. The opening article, on the Labour Party, will surprise many who do not remember the early 1960s. Cliff made a devastating attack on the Labour Party's dismal record, but concluded, 'Marxists should not set themselves up as a party...of their own,' and stay inside the Labour Party. At the time he was undoubtedly right. By 'entry' work in the Labour Party, especially in the Young Socialists, the IS accumulated the first couple of hundred members who made later interventions possible.

The Factory Branches pamphlet, written during the 1972-74 wave of industrial militancy, shows Cliff studying the needs of internal party organisation. It offers no simple recipes for a later period-in many ways the picture of workers as male, manual and engaged in productive labour is very dated. But some points are still valid. The advice on victimisation (don't play into management's hands by breaking petty regulations, and be as open as possible about your politics) rings true today. So does the stress on democracy: 'Obviously we would prefer to be in a minority getting, say, 100 votes among 500 workers at a meeting, to an IS majority of seven among ten workers coming to a meeting.'

The 1979 article 'The Balance of Class Forces in Recent Years' must have been very painful for Cliff to write. The 1970s had seen the growth of a rank and file movement. Many comrades thought things could continue advancing in the same way. As Cliff put it in his biography of Lenin, 'The revolutionaries are the last to leave the battlefield.' But Cliff had been raised in a tough school-one of his earliest memories was the way the Communist International had claimed that Hitler coming to power was not a defeat for workers. So he faced the facts and argued that a period of 'downturn' lay ahead. In so doing he prepared the party for the defeats of the 1980s, and helped to hold the organisation together at a time when the international left was going through a grave crisis.

The written word alone gives us only half of Cliff. Nothing on the printed page can reproduce the amazing mixture of passion, insight, jokes and bad English that you got in a face to face encounter. Yet these writings preserve many of Cliff's best perceptions, his ability to sum up a serious point in a neat image. Thus on 'benevolent' employers: 'There are many farmers who warm their cowsheds to get more milk. But we are still waiting to hear of the farmer who gives over control of his shed to the cows.' Or the lethal comment on left MPs, truer than ever today: 'Power corrupts, but lack of power corrupts absolutely.'

Cliff's inimitable style is preserved in the passage where he wrote that 'the ginger on the cake starts peeling off'. I recall asking Cliff what this meant. He replied, 'Tell me, Ian, what is ginger?' Cliff had a vast knowledge but never wasted a single brain cell on facts irrelevant to the struggle for socialism.

Every reader of Socialist Review should buy this book. Anyone who has all the originals must be entitled to winter fuel allowance-and like mine they are probably worn and battered with long use. For younger comrades these writings will enrich their understanding of past struggles and how socialists operated, thus preparing them for struggles to come.

Selected Writings Volume Two: In the Thick of Workers' Struggle by Tony Cliff is available from Bookmarks on special offer during April at 12.99 paperback/16.99 hardback

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