Duncan Hallas

The Decline of Reformism

(October 1972)

From unsigned Editorial, International Socialism (1st series), October-December 1972, No.53, pp.1-4.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The landslide victory of 1945 was the highest point of Labour’s success. It marked the maximum involvement of the working class in the Labour party. The enthusiasm of the mass of working people for Labour at that time cannot be doubted. The enthusiasm arose from a firm resolve that the conditions of the nineteen twenties and thirties should not be allowed to repeat themselves in the postwar period. The belief that the war effort was a struggle for a new world was not just the trite propaganda of the War Office. Of course, it was that too, but it was also the general belief of working people on all fronts and at home.

The elections of 1945 were therefore a statement of a classically reformist consciousness. The desire for change and the belief that change could be achieved through piecemeal reforms, that the elected representatives of working people could and would use parliament and the State to carry through these reforms these beliefs were almost universal. This was an essentially political and class response to a given situation.

Of course, all the reformist assumptions on which this perspective rested, were wrong. But the perspective itself definitely and powerfully existed. The Attlee government was seen as a watershed between unemployment, depression, the means test and the rest, and the better tomorrow, heralded in the Welfare State, the nationalization of basic industry and the achievement of a full employment economy. The new government was both a defence and an assurance against the ‘old world’ and the champion of the new. The next twenty five years profoundly affected this outlook. The ’fifties increasingly demonstrated that full employment and general prosperity were not the result of a new and enlightened political order, the gift of Labour politicians, but resulted from the working of the system itself, almost independently of the politicians.

The tradition of working class loyalty to Labour was not thereby ended, but the nature of the loyalty was radically changed. Nor could it really be otherwise. The belief that progress was now an almost implicit characteristic of the system rather than something to be struggled for politically permeated to a greater or lesser degree all sections of the labour movement.

Of course, the working class belief in the system, so emphatically expressed by the bourgeoisie until recently, should not be exaggerated. The reaction of working people in the last two or three years has shown that the fear of the dole, the evocation of the bleak image of the thirties, was always just below a thin crust of optimism and apparent satisfaction.

The Shop Stewards

In the new conditions, the breadth of working class activity shrank. The energies and activity of organised labour became increasingly directed to the immediate environment. The political receded into the background. Increasingly the struggle came to be seen as winning a better living within a favourable framework rather than attempting to come to grips with the framework itself. The vote cast for Labour became increasingly a reflex action, albeit a class one, rather than a statement or gesture of faith.

The trade unions became the recipient and intermediary for the aspirations of workers. And within the trade unions themselves it was the rank and file organisations which took the centre of the stage. The national political scene required no consistent attention; without any help from that quarter, workers struggled and often conquered their immediate environment. Shop steward committees in booming industries up and down the country took local management and the piece work system by the scruff, and came very often to exercise considerable control over both. In the process, wages and conditions improved dramatically. More important still, the shop-steward grew tremendously in stature as national agreements receded to the background; through plant bargaining, living standards and working conditions came to depend on the quality of local leadership. The increased confidence, the greater self-reliance which were acquired in those years inevitably influenced the struggle in the changed conditions of succeeding years. The new relationships established between organised labour and local management, the willingness to engage in unofficial action, the feeling that there was nothing that well-directed militancy could not achieve are also part of the positive traits of the period. They also vividly colour the present. The charmed world of ever growing progress was checked long before it became apparent to the organised workers that something was wrong with the system. The election of the Wilson government in 1964 marks a crucial turning point in this respect although the dominant trends were visible well in advance of this event.

The Wilson Experience

The Wilson government took over at a time of crisis. It took office with the support of much of the capitalist press which calculated that the special relationship linking the Labour party and the trade unions would result in a much more effective control of worker militancy than would be possible under the Conservatives.

The fact that the Labour government was deserted by these supporters when it failed to implement In Place of Strife should not blind us to the very real effort which it made in the preceding years to satisfy these influential backers. The point was not lost on considerable numbers of workers. The feeling that ‘there is nothing to choose between them’ which had for a whole period meant that no matter who was in power, workers would get much more of what they wanted, was stood on its head. It became: ‘no matter who you vote for. you always get clobbered’.

Politically workers became more cynical. Meanwhile, the attack was becoming ever fiercer, ever more of a kind which demanded a generalised political response. The rot had gone too far for the Labour leadership to make much of an attempt to restore its position. The posturing of a Wedgewood Benn was more than balanced by the firm commitment to the ruling class of a Prentice.

It was fortunate for Labour that the Conservatives replaced them when they did. It helped to save something. Labour has, by reason solely of Conservative behaviour, come to seem to be the embodiment of the old consensus at the parliamentary centre.

The Tories

The damage done to the old ‘Social Democratic’ society by the Wilson government by making demands upon the trade union leadership which, in the last analysis they could not fulfill, freed the Tories of what inhibitions they had possessed up until then. It is difficult to see how the Tories could have undertaken what they did without the preface of a Labour administration.

However, the hard edge of the Tory attack itself crumbled, over time, against the strength of the working class. All manner of ‘issues of principle’ had to be hastily converted into ‘matters of negotiation’ under the impact of working class responses. The lurch to the Right which Labour introduced certainly continued – the anti-trade union legislation, attacks on the welfare provisions, unemployment, rent increases and inflation – but increasingly checked at key points. The government relinquished – for the moment, at least – its general attempts to sell off the profitable parts of the public sector; where employment was at stake, business could be subsidized after all; regional policy was resuscitated; indeed, the government even moved towards assisting the appropriation of that symbol of the age, Centre Point. It is not impossible that, in the attempt to scramble back to the parliamentary centre and induce co-operation with the trade union leadership, there will be further concessions – on the Fair Rents scheme, by curbing Building Society loans to even reduce the inflation of house prices, on food subsidies, even private assurances that the Industrial Relations Act will not be used in ‘an extreme manner’.

The T.U.C.

Another face-saving move is the government’s use of the Confederation of British Industry. The CBI, on behalf of the government, had reinvolved the TUC in direct talks, and the TUC, without even a decorous pause after the Government released the dockers, has run for this protective cover. Already this direct class collaboration has produced new arbitration machinery, perhaps to sidestep some of the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act. No-one seriously believes this modest proposal will actually assist the settlement of the major battles. The CBI has agreed to renew its price restrain until 31 October (although the provisions of the curb have now been weakened), by which time, it is hoped, all this billing and cooing will have induced the TUC to overcome its squeamishness and its militants in order to enter a ‘voluntary’ prices and incomes policy.

It is not at all an impossible perspective, despite the astounding defeat it represents for the labour movement. All thos brave speeches to defeat the Bill and the Tories were strictly to blunt the edge of the Left within the labour movement. The TUC has been frightened by its brief experience of freedom off the government’s leash. There is no doubt that the TUC leadership sees no real alternative except collaboration. If it can get past the September Congress without making any hard and fast promises to its rank and file, it might then see it as practicable to become the government’s wage policeman. Provided the government can get through the autumn without a sterling crisis that forces the introduction of a statutory incomes policy, it might also be able to do a deal. The government is working to try and show that ‘responsible’ trade unionism can still offer rewards. Yet, so grave have been the errors so far, gaoling the dockers, fining the Transport and General, that this is a difficult task.

The Government’s Dilemmas

Indeed, the very viability of the government itself is not beyond question. Its loss of control over wages, now linked to swings in the external monetary environment, its inability to tackle the challenge of foreign competition and stagnant domestic investment, all just at the moment of maximum vulnerability for British capitalism as it enters the Common Market, places the greatest strain upon the Conservative party and its supporters. The disastrous course of events in Northern Ireland places yet a further burden on a group of Conservatives that, while normally not important, could be crucial in a fight. Small events like a scandal – corruption in the Cabinet, for example – could then produce entirely unexpected and, in terms of importance, disproportionate results.

If it were not the case that Britain’s entry into the Common Market depends at the moment on the continuation of the present government into next year. Heath would no doubt be very tempted to call a new election in order to find the basis for a much harder anti-labour policy. If the Tories were returned to office, it would constitute a major defeat for the working class challenge and show with extreme vividness the key weakness of the present movement of opposition. If Labour returned to power, then the process of dissolving what is left of the illusion of Labour as a working class alternative would be accomplished with accelerating speed. Attempting to map the immediate future is always difficult, but is peculiarly so now. The sheer speed of change of events, the volatility of workers’ reactions, and the element of accident in the ruling class response (one maverick container firm applies to the court, for example), all jeopardise prediction. Nevertheless, two factors stand out with very great clarity in all the possible projections.

The first is that the present movement of opposition lacks two key elements. The first is a genuine rank and file movement that can unite all sections of the class in struggle. The second is a political organisation that will unite the militants in the working class around a common political programme and in a common political organisation, a revolutionary party. The two are obviously interdependent. Without the unity of militants around a specific political programme for the transformation of society, the impetus for the formation of the rank and file organisation would be lacking. Without the broad rank and file organisation, the revolutionary party is isolated and cannot directly lead the working class. The second factor which stands out is that the immediate conjuncture is going to place maximum strain upon the existing leadership of the Left within the trade union movement. If the TUC is running for cover from its militants, what is to be the reaction of those who hitherto have claimed to provide an alternative?

The Trade Unions and the Communist Party

Nothing in recent years has conspired to expose with such clarity the role and function of the trade union Leadership as the Industrial Relations Act. Structures, relationships and positions long held at different points along the political spectrum have come to be seen in a new perspective. The response to trade union legislation from both Right and Left in the trade union bureaucracy has been uniformly, if unevenly, hostile whether the pill was prescribed by Labour or Tory physicians. Rightly so. For, whatever the balance of sweet and sour (to date, the balance has set too many teeth on edge), any legislation hems in the trade union officials’ room for manoeuvre. His function, his raison d’être, is to bargain, to bluff, to threaten and then sell the resulting compromise to his members. To the extent that legislation enters this informal process it reduces, in direct proportion, the union official’s basic function.

This is not all. Damage to free action in the traditional bargaining process carries with it an equal destruction of independence in the general power structure of capitalist society. Honest brokers, when subjected to the imperatives of contemporary capitalism, are forced willy nilly into a choice of one of the two sides in a very real and more apparent class war.

On the choice made depends a whole strategy developed by the Communist party and other radical friends of leading trade union Left-wingers. According to their view, the combination of the right man at the top, the right man at his elbow, controlled mass pressure and the objective difficulties of contemporary capitalism, will operate beneficially throughout the machinery of the labour movement, at the level of the TUC, the Labour party Executive and a Labour government (with Communist MPs). This is a consummation devoutly wished since 1951 and no closer to reality at its age of majority than when Stalin approved its publication in The British Road to Socialism.

The British Road to Socialism

Fabianism in the Webbs’ original model or in the contemporary version by John Gollan, remains at the same time, Utopian and reactionary.

The trade union bureaucracy does not operate at the outer limits of the system, beyond which point capitalism cannot concede and remain capitalism. Not at all. It operates within an inner perimeter whose limits are the overall wellbeing and profitability of the system. This applies with equal force to the trade union right of the Chapple-Lord Cooper ilk on the one hand, and the Jones-Scanlon tendency on the other. For all of them the idea of consciously leading the movement into conflict with the system is anathema. For the Right wing, the attitude flows from its basic conviction, for the Left, it is supposedly because ‘the members are too backward’, ‘not ready’, etc. The difference between the two wings are differences in their power base and May Day oratorical style. Yet fundamentally, they perform the same function and role: they are an estate within capitalism, locked into capitalist norms and objectives.

Jones responds to legislation not with defiance but with a plan for conciliation that the late unlamented Leslie Cannon would not have been ashamed to own. Total opposition to the Industrial Relations Act and all its works and agencies was transformed into abject surrender when the Transport and General was faced with Sir John Donaldson’s Court. With no more than the odd squeal of outrage, Jones sent his lawyers to the NIRC and then to the Appeal Court.

Scanlon, another Left winger, his reputation less tarnished because his decisive testing time is yet to come, managed to tie up his funds to minimise the financial depredations of the Act, and has, but this stratagem, also managed to reduce the money available to AUEW members for industrial purposes. To compound this, the AUEW wage strategy has been distorted and fatally weakened in order to avoid the possibility of conflict with the Act. Defiance that evades confrontation is no defiance at all. The government is not after revenue from fines but compliance with its policy. It is not too choosy how this happens.

If the struggle depended upon such forces, the prospect would be bleak indeed. But, haltingly and perhaps incompletely, certainly without direction, the working class has intervened. While the so-called Left wing was conspicuous by its silence, while the Right attempted to retard the movement, first the dockers, then the printworkers, then tens of thousands of other workers demanded to be heard. A movement developed that not only upset the plans of the other elements in the equation but also ensured that it could not be restored to the previous cosy relationship. Five dockers (it could as easily have been five printers, five building workers or any five workers) asserted the independent separate interest of the working class. Their response to the government’s assault was simple and direct, because they represent workers directly, because they embodied direct power, because, at certain decisive moments in history, to compromise is to accept defeat.

In a few short eventful days, the government, the courts, the trade union bureaucracy were confronted. The emperor was not only naked but obviously ill equipped.

Lord Denning’s Appeal Court decision, which was designed to shift the burden from the trade union machine onto the rank and file, paved the way for the failure of the TUC-CBI-government talks. The House of Lords obliged by reversing the appeal. But, though the ploy has gained time, it cannot solve the problem. The trade union leadership cannot ultimately compromise with an Act that makes them pay for the activities of a rank and file movement they cannot control. The Left wing cannot compromise with an Act that is seen to be ineffective in the face of determined opposition and retain any credibility or base in their unions. Yet at the same time they are unwilling and incapable of leading the sort of struggle that would defeat the Act and the government. For them, the rules of the struggle must always leave all the contestants alive and able to fight again another day. For victory, another quite different force is required: a party able, willing and anxious to offer real leadership to win battles of the class but seeing those battles as an integral part in the strategy that will win the war for the final elimination of capitalism.

The Tasks

Not for a very long time have the opportunities for building both a rank and file movement of opposition to the government and a revolutionary party been so promising. The ruling class is faced with a range of extremely grave threats as a result, on the one hand, of its drive to get the increasingly ailing British segment of world capitalism into the Common Market before the price of entry becomes prohibitively expensive, and on the other hand, the increasingly peremptory opposition of working people to the government’s plans. The political polarisation that is the result of the government’s offensive and its fumbling incompetence forces into the limelight the traditional Left-wing, in the trade unions and the Communist party. In less troubled times, Jones and Scanlon seemed like revolutionaries. Now as the options for rhetoric are closed off, the gilt wears increasingly thin. The traditional Left-wing is increasingly shown by events to have no answers to the crisis which preserve, let alone advance, working class interests. Indeed, in the heat of the battle, the Left is increasingly forced either into silence or into more or less shamefaced alignment with the ruling class. Jack Jones does both; faced with the scabbing of the Transport and General lorry drivers in the Transport and General dockers’ strike, the Transport and General secretary remained stolidly silent; meanwhile, he was busy with the Chairman of the Port Authority trying to find a hygienic method of getting the employers and himself off the hook of militancy. The power of the old authority structures that have dominated the Left, minds and organisations, for the past four decades, Stalinism and Social Democracy – the Communist and Labour parties – is beginning to dissolve under the impact of battle. There is still a long way to go, but the strains of this summer and next winter will be powerful solvents of what binds militants to these two forces. Precisely because the ruling class offensive puts such a premium upon clear, decisive, unequivocal political and industrial leadership, precisely because the militants are so dependent upon such leadership in the present crisis, the critical sensitivity of militants to every failure of leadership is rightly magnified. Even in victory, particular groups of workers cannot defend the gains made without generalising, without building generalising organisations that encompass many more sections of workers. Even the most massive wage increases cannot be defended against inflation and the multitude of other demands the State makes upon the wage packet. The forces which weaken the hold of the Communist party on the militants are also the ones which destroy the conservation, the fears and lack of confidence of the mass of workers. In the wake of the dockers comes an army, led by the building workers. Even the lump is joining both a union and the strike. Within the CP-dominated Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions, with a different Communist Party perspective, it would have, been possible in the short term to formulate a perspective for militants which would have led to great advances. Local Liaison Committees, built in the great upsurge of opposition to the Industrial Relations Act, could even now have been spreading their influence and organisation throughout the labour movement. Liaison Committees – Councils of Action – could have been the nuclei of a rank and file movement. Then the dockers and the building workers would have found their tasks enormously eased. In each locality, support, cash and publicity would have been available in every dispute; and between localities, a network of contacts would have helped to spread each dispute. As the movement of solidarity encompassed broad areas of the labour movement, so it would have been possible to take up a whole range of issues affecting working class interests – rents, welfare charges and benefits, unemployment, prices, the law.

This was the perspective that 150 IS delegates to the last national Liaison Committee conference were concerned to present. Without success. The fears of the Communist party leadership that it would be swamped by rank and file militancy, that its carefully fostered image of sober, reasonable pressure group politics would be jeopardised, that its members, allies and friends in the high places of the trade union movements would be embarrassed, all conspired to kill the idea that the Liaison Committee could grow into a real rank and file movement. Now the Councils of Action will have to be built, undoubtedly with the support and activity of many Communists if not the Liaison Committee’s national leadership, but without that excellent initial spring board of the campaign against the Bill.

The failure of the Liaison Committee to respond to the challenge will not be lost on many of those militants who responded with enthusiasm to its call. Now such militants will be looking for some alternative perspective and the means to achieve it. The opportunities for the revolutionary Left are there.

The International Socialists are the largest organised section of the revolutionary Left. They are the best equipped analytically, politically and organisationally and are also the only serious challenge to the position of the Communist Party in industry. Accordingly, they bear a heavy responsibility in the present situation for the future development and direction of the movement. All our members and their associates must work consistently in the immediate period ahead to generalise the struggle, to politicise the militants and assist in the building of a broad opposition movement. The essential and indispensable core of such a movement is the developing nucleus of the revolutionary marxist workers party.


Last updated on 3.10.2007