Duncan Hallas

Where do we go from here?

(An interview)


From Socialist Review, 20 April-17 May, 1980:4, pp.9-11
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

What are the prospects for the socialist left after the longest big national strike for more than 50 years and after nearly 12 months of the Tory government? What is the significance of the national “day of action” called by the TUC for 14 May? These and many other questions have been in the minds of many militants over recent weeks. Socialist Review talked to Duncan Hallas, of the SWP Central Committee, to get his opinion.

What do you think is the balance of defeats and victories in the fight against the Tories over the last year?

The election itself marked a significant shift to the right, the lowest Labour vote since 1931. Naturally, the result was not very surprising, given the abysmal record of the Wilson/Callaghan government, and it might well be reversed in an election now.

Much more important is the evidence of deep erosion of shop floor leadership and the ability of the government anti employers to use the media to influence workers against both stewards and Unions. There has been a decline in solidarity.

The magnitude of the defeat with BL’s successful victimisation of Derek Robinson should not be glossed over. Of course, as Socialist Review has shown in detail, the rot set in long ago but the demonstration of the impotence of the towards against the combination of Edwards, Duffy and the media is itself iii important victory for the capitalist class.

How does the steel strike fit into what you have said so far?

It showed the government on the offensive. The government provoked the strike on the calculation that it could defeat and humiliate a major section of organised workers, It was meant to be a re-run of the defeat of the Postmen in 1971.

Of course, the thing backfired. The magnificent determination of the steelworkers ensured that the result was not a repeat of the UPW defeat. BSC was forced to substantially up its offer – remember the UPW was forced back on exactly the terms offered before the strike.

At the same time, the outcome could only be regarded as a partial victory, in a strictly defensive sense, and a three months strike was a very heavy price. And the closures still threaten.

Two things stand out about the strike. It showed that there are limits to what the government can get away with. Given sufficient provocation, workers will fight and fight with great tenacity – this strike was easily the longest national strike since the war.

The other thing is the speed with which rank and file consciousness can change quickly and elements of rank and file organisation develop. The ISTC will never be the same again, and the SWP can justly claim that its intervention around Real Steel News played a certain role here.

At the same time we have to say – lack of solidarity dragged out the strike. Effective solidarity could have won it in six weeks or less.

What do you see as the prospects for the industrial struggle now?

Immediate outlook uncertain. We should be cautious about detailed prediction. A great deal depends on the calculations – and miscalculations – of the other side and of the union bosses. Some of us were very sceptical about the prospect of last years engineering strike taking place at all – I certainly was. Well, we were wrong.

We had this discussion in the SWP about the balance of class forces – the whole upturn or downturn argument. It was necessary and important to come to a realistic appreciation of the situation and that meant recognising the reality of the downturn. But we should not suppose that this general appreciation, which is undoubtedly correct in my opinion, enables us to predict very specifically.

It does not. No assessment does or can. There are two sides in the struggle (and the union leaders are another half of a side) and the interactions are complicated.

What can be said in general terms is that, though the enemy has scored some victories and the state of our forces is not what it might be, the government has not been all that successful in its own terms.

The average level of wage settlements, whatever the detailed arguments about the statistics, is unacceptably high for the government. It is more or less in line with the rate, of inflation. Thatcher and Co. have not so far been able to repeat the success of Callaghan and Co. in actually reducing average real wages.

They will certainly keep trying. Therefore conflicts will occur. But where and in what form will only become clear as events unfold.

What is your reaction to the TUC call for a day of action on 14 May?

It is very important. A real national mass strike, even though a one-day affair, can make a big difference to the confidence of militants and can begin to shift the consciousness of large numbers of workers.

The demonstration on the 9th was big but not very militant on the whole. There is deep scepticism about the TUC leaders – well justified scepticism. But a successful action on the 14th can change the mood into a more aggressive one.

We have to work hard, in every workplace and union body we can reach, to make the 14th big and militant. The Employment Bill will become law. The fight to prevent its implementation will be greatly strengthened by a national strike.

Should the slogan of a “general strike” be central to our agitation and propaganda around 14 May?

Let’s call it a national strike. A one day stoppage is really a particularly militant form of demonstration. That is the objective, not an easy one but a realistic aim. For Marxists in our tradition general strike has the connotation of an unlimited mass strike to decisively defeat the government. If that were on the cards, even remotely, at present we would of course make the general strike slogan central. It is not. This may change in the future. The point is to try always to raise the relevant slogan, relevant to the particular situation. Of course we won’t quarrel with people who are actively working for the 14th but use the general strike slogan to mean what we mean by national strike.

With rising unemployment, the question of the right to work is once more moving to the fore. How do you see the Right to Work Campaign responding? Are there any lessons we can learn from the experience of past years?

The Right to Work Campaign has taken the decision, I believe, to organise a march from South Wales to London and Brighton later this year. No doubt other schemes will be considered too.

There is a difference, isn’t there, between 1980 and the years of the Labour government? Then the Right to Work Campaign was, most of the time, the only body raising the right to work. Now big sections of the labour movement are beginning to denounce the government on the issue. And the economic outlook is grim. The whole Right to Work issue is going to grow. Perhaps a much broader operation will be possible in the near future. Certainly the Right to Work Campaign itself will work for one.

The Labour left seems much more significant now than it did in the years of the Heath government. Do you think there is anything qualitatively different about the Labour left now and what we’ve known in the past?

During the Heath government the Labour left was quite successful in terms of objective it set itself. The aim was to get a left-wing programme adopted and Labour Programme 1973 was described by The Times as “the most radical platform ever put before the British electorate”. Naturally, it was junked once the Labour Party regained office in 1974.

There is a change this time because the lefts are trying to weaken the organisational hold of the right on the party – re-selections of MPs and so on: It is also clear that the people around the Labour Coordinating Committee see the need to build their own machine on a national basis. How successful they will be is another question.

The really crucial thing is what happens to the active membership of the Labour Party, especially its working class membership. It has been declining for a quarter of a century and this decline was not reversed during the years of the Heath government. If- this long decline is really being reversed, as various people claim, then maybe the. lefts can recover the sort of constituency base the Bevanites had in the fifties. But we should not confuse a drift of tired Trots and weary ex-revolutionaries into the wards with an influx of radicalised workers.

There is an enormous gap between the appeal of Benn’s ideas – they do appeal, I am convinced, to hundreds of thousands – and the extremely feeble organised forces of the Bennites.

Past Labour lefts – in the twenties, thirties and fifties – rested to a significant extent on the CP influenced union left. That is weaker now – weaker, indeed than during the Heath government. And the Labour Party youth, always important for the left, seems to be well sown up by the Militant so the “genuine” Labour lefts have an uphill struggle even in LP machine terms.

Politically they have not changed. They are the same left reformists. They are our competitors. Naturally, this does not exclude cooperation on specific questions. it necessitates it. We will stress united actions, e.g., the fight against the Employment Bill, the Right to Work and so on.

How big the Labour left will turn out to be in the end is not yet determined. At the moment, the SWP probably has as many activists as they do. Personally I tend to think that only criminal mismanagement can prevent them growing with Thatcher in office. But a qualitative difference with the past? That would mean a real centrist current, moving left, it is not apparent so far and it is by no means inevitable that it will appear. A lot depends on our own rate of growth. If it is big enough we may be able to short-circuit the process.

The SWP is easily the biggest group on the revolutionary left. But at the “debate of the decade” between Tony Benn and Paul Foot a sizeable section of the audience was clearly more attracted to the sort of non-party notions preached by the Beyond the Fragments people. How do you evaluate such currents?

How many were attracted in a positive sense is a question, but there is no doubt that Beyond the Fragments has become a focus for “apartyist” and indeed anti-party sentiment.

Perhaps focus is not quite the right won. it implies something too definite, too clear. In fact there are at least three different strands or tendencies that, for the moment, rally behind or at any rate use the Beyond the Fragments banner.

There is the specifically feminist current which thinks primarily in terms of sex rather than class. They are, for the most part, highly educated, highly articulate, petty-bourgeois women who are in a relatively privileged economic situation with respect to the vast majority of working class women and also with respect to the majority of working class men as well.

Unlike the so-called “radical-feminists” they have some insight into the realities of class society, but they have a foot in each camp – the camp of the female half of the educated “professional” class (represented very well in The Guardian’s women’s page) and the very different camp of the strikers at Chix or Grunwick.

Some of them can perhaps be won to revolutionary politics; the majority cannot. Like the corresponding men, their “rebellion” is limited, constricted, by their class situation. Individuals can transcend this; social layers cannot.

Then there is a quasi-libertarian trend which provides most of the substantial arguments for Beyond the Fragments.

There is nothing peculiarly feminist about them. Most of the arguments they use were put long ago by either Proudhon or Bakunin against Marx himself. They are the arguments of the (male dominated) nineteenth century anti-Marxist left. Nowadays these arguments are called “anti-Leninist” although most of them were advanced before Lenin was born. Their social basis was, and is, petty bourgeois.

“Have these gentlemen (and ladies too – DH) ever seen a revolution?” asked Engels over a century ago, “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will on the other by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon – authoritarian means, if such there be at all ...” There is really nothing that can be added to this – from a revolutionary point of view.

However, the most important component of the “apartyist” current rallying Beyond the Fragments belongs to neither of these two trends. This majority component is what Paul Foot calls the NANA – non-aligned, non-activists.

Amongst the children of 1968 and their successors there are many, a great many, who have made the transition from radicalised student to “lefty” – or not so very lefty – polytechnic lecturer, civil servant or whatever) Some have broken completely with their past but many seek to reconcile the revolutionary aspiration of their youth with their present growing income, comfort and conservatism.

The solution? Formal leftism (and often “academic Marxism”) combined with a sharp, even venomous, hostility to any serious revolutionary organisation – which means, above all, the SWP.

The future of the Beyond the Fragments current? Insofar as it is a question of building a serious tendency – and a conference is being called for this purpose – we can say with complete confidence that it will come to nothing. It will come to nothing precisely because of the divergent trends within it, the majority NANA trend being organically and violently opposed to any revolutionary organisational commitment, however libertarian’, and this trend has a real social basis, it is not merely a difference of views. Many, if not most, of these people will end up supporting the Labour Party.

But as an unorganised political current Beyond the Fragments will survive its organisational collapse. It will survive for a long time because it is one of the more important forms of “left” hostility to the revolutionary party and therefore has its uses for various reformist tendencies, left and not so left.

How do you see the SWP building in the months ahead?

I would rather talk about a year or two ahead. Nobody has a reliable crystal ball and short-term predictions are peculiarly unreliable.

What is quite clear is that the immediate prospects for the left, reformist and revolutionary alike, are uncertain but that enormous possibilities are opening up for us in the years ahead.

Possibilities are not certainties. We need to remind ourstlves of Trotsky’a words, written to certain ex-revolutionaries who were relapsing into centrism (half-hearted left reformist) or left reformism as such, because they thought “the masses” were going that way.

You can have “revolutionaries” both wise and ignorant, intelligent or mediocre. But you can’t have revolutionaries who lack the willingness to smash obstacles, who lack devotion and the spirit of sacrifice.

Naturally, will-power alone is not enough to build a movement. If the circumstances are unfavourable then revolutionary will can only create an organisation of cadres. That is itself a very important step forward. But now we are in a situation where, over a year or two, much more is possible. Given the “willingness to smash obstacles”, given “devotion and the spirit of sacrifice”, the SWP can and will become the real heart and centre of the hard left in the British workers’ movements.

Of course that is itself only a step towards the overthrow of capitalism in Britain. But it is an essential step forward. It is the step we have to fight like hell to achieve in the next year or two.


Last updated on 15.8.2003