From Socialist Review, No.62, February 1984.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde for the Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
We publish here a transcript of Chris Harman’s speech to the January National Committee of the SWP summing up the lessons of the NGA dispute at the end of last year.
The period of the NGA confrontation at Warrington was almost like looking back ten years. In terms of the way the party had to operate, in terms of the whole tone of our politics, things were quite different for a period of two or three weeks than they had been in the two or three years before, and certainly than they have been in the month or so afterwards.
Suddenly, for a two or three week period, the party was operating in a different environment. There was mass leafleting, mass agitation, arguments on a mass scale. The whole tone of politics was radically different. And not only for revolutionaries. All through that period on the front pages of the newspapers – when there were newspapers – there was Eddie Shah and Tony Dubbins. The question of the confrontation, of the trade union law, was suddenly central to the whole of British politics.
That wasn’t true in November and it isn’t true now, but for a brief period it was crucial. We have to look at that experience because it gave the party for a very short time, a glimmer of what an upturn can be. It was a glimmer of what it means for the things we argue to be central to politics.
Put it another way: for most of the last few years, in terms of political argument, Labour Party members have had the running over us. I’m not saying that they’ve won the arguments, but that what they have had to say has, for most people, seemed practical: votes, elections, don’t let Thatcher back in, go out and canvass, and so on and so on.
We have been swimming completely against the tide. Then suddenly, the things we talk about – industrial confrontation, the working class is not finished, the working class has the power to change society – suddenly all that fitted. The things we said made sense. The things the Labour Party said didn’t. In terms of Warrington, the Labour Party was a nullity. Kinnock was very careful to keep his mouth shut about the Warrington confrontation until it was over, when he said he wished it hadn’t taken place.
For a very brief period, politics was the politics of the working class struggle. But there is a problem, because that period was just an interruption in the downturn. It was like something in brackets. You have the downturn before it, and then after it. What I want to do is to examine the character of the struggle and the political lessons we draw from it.
When we talk about the downturn we mean a series of defeats, each one sapping the confidence of workers so that it is easier for the employers to inflict a further defeat. Each defeat deepens demoralisation, destroys confidence. Each defeat deepens sectionalism, because if you go on strike other workers don’t come out and support you and show solidarity. There is a feeling that you are isolated before you even begin the struggle. You look to the trade union bureaucracy for support, because they seem to be the only force capable of offering support, and then they don’t support you, and you are even more demoralised than before.
If you look back over the past four years, this was the character of the steel workers’ strike four years ago, it was the character of the railway strikes eighteen months ago and, at the end of the day, it was the character of the hospital workers’ strike. This was the character of the Telecoms strike too. There was strike after strike and defeat after defeat. But when we say all this, we have to add one thing. None of these defeats has been decisive. The reason none have been decisive is that none of them have destroyed the basic organisation which workers have.
The fact is that there are still around 200,000 shop stewards in Britain. If an employer wants to sack a shop steward, he still has to think about it, to go away and worry about it. Personnel managers still have nervous breakdowns worrying about how they can get rid of individuals from the factory. The fact that they do get rid of them, is of course a sign of the downturn. But there are limits to the downturn.
I’ll use an analogy, a military one, first used by Gramsci. At the beginning of the first world war, all the powers thought it was going to be a three month operation, a blitzkrieg with the armies marching on each other’s capitals. Instead, what happened was that when the armies broke through the front line of the enemy, they found a network of trenches. It took days to fight ten yards. That went on for four years, and the end came not because one side finally broke through, but because the effort of continuing the war finally caused the German military machine to collapse.
Now from the point of view of the British ruling class, when they look at the working class movement they see something like a network of trenches. They smash the steel workers, but there are still 80,000 or 100,000 shop stewards in engineering. They smash the railway strikes, but they still have to negotiate over the one-man operation of the St Pancras-Bedford line trains. They get it, but they have to negotiate. It still takes a year to get that in operation, even after they have smashed ASLEF. They smash the hospital workers, but they still face a series of small disputes in the hospitals over conditions, health and safety and so on. Every time the ruling class break through they face a ‘network of trenches’.
It is true that each breakthrough makes the next one easier but nevertheless they feel bogged down in this long drawn out war of attrition. Faced with a world capitalist crisis, they are some help in dealing with the profitability problems. But despite all these victories of British capitalism, they feel themselves no nearer to solving these problems.
The victories of Thatcher are very impressive, until you compare them with the needs of British capitalism. The Financial Times says that British capitalism needs to cut wages by 25 percent in order to restore the rate of profit. Yet in the last year, wages in private industry have gone up by 8 percent compared with inflation of around 5 percent. Wages in the nationalised industries have also gone up by 8 per cent. In the rest of the public sector wages are just keeping pace with inflation at around 4 or 5 percent.
So one large chunk of the working class is just maintaining its living standards, another large chunk is seeing them rise. But British capitalism requires an enormous cut in living standards.
In their efforts to break through you get situations like the NGA, where really the ruling class has to send its troops over the top, into battle, and take the risk of what may happen. It is then that you have the possibility of the piecemeal resistance suddenly generalising itself.
Let me illustrate what I mean. In the last year or fifteen months there have been four mass strike movements in the Western world, all approaching general strikes.
There were mass strikes approaching general strike proportions in Quebec, in Canada, and the same in Belgium. A mass strike in British Columbia – one worker in ten in the province on strike with all the television and papers discussing whether a general strike was going to break out.
In Holland, there were a series of sectional strikes building up, again the mass strike phenomenon.
In each case there was a situation where the ruling class were pushing much harder than it normally would. It was taking the risk of pushing harder because it was under pressure to solve the profitability crisis. When it took that risk, it suddenly touched a nerve inside the working class and there was a fightback. You suddenly saw a passive, acquiescent working class movement coming to life, and got a glimmer of what real mass strike action is about.
People often think these countries have better working class traditions than Britain. In fact they are by and large worse. Take Belgium, where there has been a downturn for about ten years. The working class is very split, not only on sectional lines, but is also divided by the hatred between the two national communities.
The government announced cuts. A group of railway workers walked out on unofficial strike, and within three or four days you had a general public sector strike.
Suddenly out of nowhere you had the glimmer of the upturn.
Again, in British Columbia, after four years of extreme right wing Thatcherite government in which the trade union leaders retreated again and again, the government announced massive cuts, and suddenly mass strikes were taking place.
Forty thousand government workers were out on strike. Forty thousand teachers had a ballot on strike action. The ballot went 55 percent for the strike, 45 percent against. Despite that the strike went ahead.
In spite of predictions by the press that the strike would be unsuccessful, there was one hundred percent support. Every school was picketed, even though the strike was illegal. Picketing was illegal, but if you went to the picket lines, teachers would say things like ‘Really, we shouldn’t be picketing here. Will you take my place so I can go and picket down the road?’
There was a generalised ferment in Vancouver. Every night groups of four or five hundred workers – in a city of about a million – would be discussing how to organise, how to carry the strike forward.
So you can see how this mass action can develop in the midst of downturn. The basic organisation of the working class is still there. The network of trenches is intact. When the ruling class goes a little over the top, then they spur resistance.
When the resistance starts to take place, then you find that all the confusion and demoralisation temporarily disappears. Once people begin fighting, they stir other workers to action and confidence begins to pour back at a tremendous speed.
Looking at the NGA dispute in those terms, it didn’t amount to mass strike. What is however clear is that the ruling class faced a problem.
In order to weaken the defensive network of steward organisation, they need the industrial relations laws. When they introduced those laws – the Prior and Tebbit laws – they had to think very carefully about how to bring them in so that they would not immediately be tested in practice.
It is important for us to understand that the main purpose of the laws was to threaten people, not for the laws themselves to be used in the first place. The ruling class lived in fear that there would be a confrontation early in the Tory government, when the law would be used and a massive group of workers would defy it and bring the law into ridicule. This is what happened in 1972.
The theory behind the Prior and Tebbit laws was this. Use it first in little, niggling ways. That establishes its credibility. Then strengthen the law. Use it on more important things. Again, establish its credibility and use it on more important things still. At the end of the day it’s chopping the movement up completely.
All through this process they were thinking that if the law was to be tried in practice, they would far rather it was used against, for instance, six building workers in North Wales than the general secretary of a powerful union in central London. They wanted to establish its credibility over a series of small disputes.
The union leaders would see it working and become afraid for their funds. They would be frightened of coming up against the law and therefore would do the job for the ruling class.
The law wasn’t designed to smash the union leaderships. It was designed to pressurise them. To do that the law had to be demonstrated to work without it being seriously tested against any major group of workers, at least in its early stages.
In the case of the NGA one individual, Eddie Shah, backed up by a minority organisation within the ruling class, the Institute of Directors, really felt that this general approach was too slow.
For Eddie Shah, the calculation was: ‘I’m a small printing employer. If I can smash the NGA, I can become a bigger printing employer, at the expense of other print employers.’
In the case of the Institute of Directors, the calculation was: ‘The CBI and the Engineering Employers’ Federation have been pussy-footing around for far too long. The employers can get away with much more than they are doing. We can use Eddie Shah to confront a major union and raise the stakes. If we raise the stakes, the rest of the ruling class will be forced to back us up.’
So the ruling class didn’t sit down and decide to confront the NGA. They were forced into battle by a minority on their own side on terms and in conditions the mass of the ruling class would not have chosen. If anyone doubts that the ruling class were afraid of the battle, they should look at the evidence. Robert Maxwell, head of the British Printing and Communications Corporation, the largest non-Fleet Street printing employer in Britain, offered four million pounds to Shah to withdraw the action against the NGA.
Look at the speed with which the attempts by the Fleet Street employers to get a lock out collapsed at the beginning of December. You can see that the mass of the ruling class weren’t really ready for the confrontation and wouldn’t really have chosen it.
Nevertheless they were forced into it. That was because they needed the anti-union laws to try to solve the profitability crisis of British capitalism. But once they have the anti-union laws they are vulnerable to all sorts of accidents, to maverick employers starting to use the law and forcing the rest of the ruling class to fight over it. That’s what happened. The result was that they provoked resistance and there was an infusion of confidence into the minority of the working class who want to fight.
For three weeks the minority suddenly felt that they could fight the Tories, that they could really struggle. It was the glimmer of the upturn in the midst of the downturn. Not on the same scale as the general public sector strikes in Belgium or British Columbia or Quebec, but an inkling of it.
But we also saw something else which holds very important lessons for us. When we talk about the mass strike, we must not confuse two distinct kinds of mass strike action. When Rosa Luxemburg wrote her marvellous book The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions she was talking about a mass strike in the period of the upturn.
That is when workers start fighting, usually over some quite small economic issue, the fight gives the confidence and they move to the political. There is generalisation and one struggle leads on to another. It is a brilliant description of how you can get this elemental upsurge of workers’ struggles – like Poland in 1980, or France in 1968.
In these upsurges of struggle the impetus comes from below. Almost invariably the organisation comes from the bottom. The mass strike of the upturn is organised and carried through from below upwards.
But there is another kind of mass strike that we have seen lately. I would call that the ‘bureaucratic’ mass strike. It is not that there is never an element of pressure from below in it, but what happens is that the offensive of the ruling class touches a chord of resistance in the working class and the trade union leaderships move very very rapidly to generalise it in order to control it.
There are historical examples of this kind of mass strike. In Britain in 1926, the general strike took place after five years of bitter downturn. The basic organisation of the class was still there, though weakened by the downturn. The consciousness of resistance to the ruling class was there, but the element of leadership from below which could have provided an alternative focus to the bureaucracy in the organisation of the strike had decayed during the period of downturn.
The shop stewards’ movement by 1926 was infinitely weaker than it is today. That element of organisation from below was very weak indeed.
There has always been a paradox which has puzzled many Marxists and other historians. On the one hand the fantastic solidarity of the strike, the fantastic power of the strike, the fact that many more workers took action than anyone expected. On the other hand the bureaucracy could turn the strike on and off just like turning a switch at a power station. The complete control over the strike which existed from above is one of its most remarkable features.
The mass strikes which have occurred recently in Belgium, Holland, British Columbia, Quebec – have this character. The years of defeat have sapped the confidence of workers in their own forms of rank and file organisation. They lose confidence to rely on themselves when it comes to struggle. They are forced into struggle. The bureaucracy takes control in order to ditch the struggle, and is able to do so because of the absence of the traditions of organisation from below.
Look at two British examples: contrast the NGA dispute with Pentonville ten years ago. The difference certainly didn’t lie in the behaviour of the trade union leaders.
When the dockers were in Pentonville in 1972, the then head of the TUC was constantly on to them, trying to get them to appear before the Industrial Relations Court, begging them to recognise the court. We know that Jack Jones, the head of the Transport and General at the time, was putting every pressure on them to appear before the court. They didn’t. The reason they didn’t was because the organisation was from below.
Not all the dockers were so well organised, but there was a minority of militants and activists who were organised independently of the bureaucracy and who could, on important occasions, carry the mass of dockers with them.
In terms of spreading the action, they didn’t see it as lobbying the general council of the TUC or knocking on Bill Keys’ door – or even Vincent Flynn’s – and saying, ‘Spread the strike for us’. They saw it in terms of going straight from the docks to the newspaper chapels in Fleet Street, straight from the London docks to places like Sheer-ness and the docks on the Humber, taking and spreading the action themselves.
The reason was that they came out of a period of 20 years of struggle, a period of lots of small victories – 20 years of the consolidation of organisation in which they relied upon themselves. This meant that when the generalisation came they relied upon themselves.
The NGA dispute came after seven or eight years of demoralisation and defeat. When the generalisation came you didn’t find Fleet Street workers going to the docks off their own bat, or even going to Warring-ton off their own bat. The whole thing was organised by the bureaucracy.
No one knows the names of most of the people who organised the resistance over Pentonville. With the NGA dispute it all centres on Wade and Dubbins, the lefts and rights on the General Council and so on. All was done from above.
Because of the downturn you didn’t have the rank and file organisation which can blossom into an alternative leadership during a mass struggle.
The mass strike of the upturn and the bureaucratic mass strike are different, but this difference should not be exaggerated. There isn’t a Chinese wall between the two.
If you look at the mass strikes in the Western world, over the last eighteen months, and at the NGA dispute, and ask why the bureaucracy settled so quickly, the answer is only partly fear of the law. The other reason is fear that the confidence generated by mass strike action will throw up forces of rank and file organisation which will take control of the strike away from the bureaucracy.
In the British general strike of 1926, the strike could be turned on and off, and a crucial reason why it was turned off was because the bureaucracy was in fear that the councils of action which were springing up in the localities could form an alternative leadership to take control of the struggle.
In the NGA dispute, the bureaucracy called it off mainly because they were afraid of the implications in terms of the law to their funds and so on. But they also called it off because they live in fear of any movement from below which could take control and spread confidence among workers that they no longer need the bureaucrats.
Although there is this difference between the bureaucratic mass strike and the mass strike led from below, one can lead into the other. This is absolutely crucial for us.
One historical example of this is May 1968. That began with the student protests. That was an initiative from below, but not from workers. Then the union bureaucracy, in order to salve their consciences and show that they were prepared to do something about the students’ struggle, called an archetypal bureaucratic mass strike.
The two union federations, the CGT and CFDT, called a one day general strike. The workers were to be marched through the centre of Paris and then put back on the coaches and sent home. The bureaucracy would have then done its bit for the students. The problem was that the workers began to feel their power and instead of going back and sitting at home they occupied factories, spread the action and generalised it.
There can be a move from the bureaucratic mass strike to the real mass strike. Our activity in any such situation must be to try to achieve this and to break down the barriers between the two and create the new elements of organisation from below.
This leads back to everything we have said about the downturn. You can’t build the elements of generalisation if you assume they are already there. Understanding the downturn is absolutely crucial to understanding how you intervene in these types of actions when they do break out. What we have been saying about rank and file organisation in the downturn is that the basic elements aren’t there. You don’t have the individual militants who are confident because they know they can carry the shop floor with them, who have been putting over clear political arguments and who come together in some kind of spontaneous organisation to take control of the strike.
When you have the phenomenon of mass action in the downturn, you see that politics is absolutely central. If you don’t have that basic organisation from below which can coalesce to provide an alternative to the trade union bureaucracy, then you have to talk about something else taking its place. Hard political organisation becomes extremely important.
The NGA dispute made me go back and look at the twenties, the Minority Movement and the general strike. What is clear is that the idea that you could create an alternative leadership in the downturn by revolutionaries coming together with reformists in some kind of rank and file organisation didn’t work. You were not talking about reformists who were all leaders in their areas and who were confident in their own abilities to mobilise. They were reformists even at the rank and file level who relied upon the ‘lefts’ in the General Council.
They relied on the lefts on the General Council in 1926 because they did not have the confidence that they could lead things in their own factories. What engineering shop stewards that there were in 1926 did not have that confidence and they looked instead to the left wing union leaders, the Purcells, the Swales and the Hicks. They absorbed then-speeches, but when it actually came to the general strike Purcell and the rest ran to the right at the speed of light.
That’s why the experience of the 1920s is important. If you read Trotsky on 1926, he says:
’What was the result of the Stalinists’ British experiment? The Minority Movement, embracing almost a million members, seemed very promising but it bore the germs of destruction within itself. The masses knew only the left leaders, and these left friends in a serious test shamed and betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion and sank into apathy. They naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself.
’The Communist Party was only a passive element in the whole mechanism of betrayal. The Minority Movement was reduced to zero. The Communist Party was restricted to the position of a negligible sect.’
What he was actually saying is that when you talk about that sort of uprising taking place, unless you prepare for it with very, very hard politics during the period that precedes the upturn, during the downturn itself, then when the upturn takes place people will look towards the left leaders. The left leaders will betray them, and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.
If you look at the NGA dispute and ask how did militants outside the ranks of the SWP see it, you find that they thought that suddenly there were these people they had never heard of before, Wade and Dubbins, taking a clear stand. They were being militant and leading the thing forward. The militants were enthused into activity. Wade and Dubbins ratted, and as soon as they did the whole thing collapsed.
The only way to avoid that is by having a clear political organisation. Politics is much, much more central in the situation of 1984 than it was in the situation of 1972. Politics was much more central in 1926 than it was in 1905.
This might seem odd when you think that 1905 in Russia was so near revolution. But 1905 was marked by continuous agitation from below, spontaneous activity from below. 1926 was a fight forced upon the working class by the bosses’ offensive. There were only two alternatives: either it was led by the trade union bureaucrats or there was a political organisation in the working class capable of leading and carrying the thing through.
Let us look at the outcome of the NGA dispute. For the employing class the outcome was a victory that they never expected. When Prior and Tebbitt sat down to draw up their laws they did not think: ‘We are going to screw the NGA good and proper.’ That was the last thing in the world they thought about.
The right wing of the TUC, the left wing of the TUC and the NGA leadership delivered them a victory that they did not even dream they would get.
The right wing of the TUC is hardly worth talking about. The Chapples and the Duffys and so on are barely worth mentioning.
The left wing of the TUC behaved very, very cleverly. They only made one mistake – they got a majority at the EPOC meeting. But even when by accident they got that majority they then allowed Len Murray to walk out of the meeting and state that there would be no support for the NGA. You did not get Moss Evans standing up and contradicting him. You did not get Bill Keys, the Chairman of the TUC, who could claim the constitutional authority to overrule Murray, using his credentials to contradict Murray.
At the meeting of the General Council, you had Dubbins saying that if the NGA lost the dispute it was important how they lost. The best way for them to lose, of course, was to blame it all on the General Council. The left could get off the hook by claiming they were in a minority. The NGA leadership could get off the hook by claiming that it was all the fault of the TUC.
If you look at what happened in the dispute, the TUC left did not behave any differently from the right. I am not saying that there is always and invariably no difference between the left and the right, but the fact is that the bureaucracy did not even vacillate towards the left.
No one can produce even one circular from the TGWU National Office explaining the importance of the NGA dispute to the members. There was not one leaflet from the Docks section of the TGWU to dockers arguing that if the closed shop went on Fleet Street it would go on the docks. The ‘lefts’ did not even do the minimal things.
Having got a victory they did not expect, the ruling class are now in a stronger position than they were before the NGA dispute. The union leadership will now use the defeat of the NGA as an example to try to stop any other group of workers trying to break the law.
Before the NGA caved in it seemed quite likely that there would be a strike by the NUJ about Dimbleby and his scab newspapers. After the NGA defeat I am willing to bet that the NGA will not fight on the Dimbleby business. The NUJ leadership have the perfect excuse. They will argue that if the powerful NGA can’t win then the NUJ has got no chance at all.
The employers will exploit the breakthrough that has taken place and take advantage of it. The terms imposed on the shipyard workers are a result of the defeat of the NGA. If Fleet Street had been out in all-out opposition to anti-union laws then you would not have seen the shipyard leaders cave in in the way that they did. Even the shipyard employers would not have dared issue the demands that they did. They quickly took advantage of the employers’ victory.
That will create real problems for our organisation. When anyone suffers a big defeat they really hope that things will be nice and quiet for a bit. You hope to have time to rest, recover and restore yourself.
The general climate will move to the right. Workers will be more demoralised after the NGA experience than before. Any battles that take place will be fought under much harder circumstances.
People sometimes think that if you have a defeat then workers learn the lessons of the defeat automatically and move to the left. It does not work like that. Defeats actually breed defeatism. They breed demoralisation.
During the NGA dispute revolutionaries could feel very confident arguing with reformists because there was a concrete example of activity. I am told that all the ‘lefties’ working for the GLC were going around saying that maybe the working class does exist after all and tearing up their copies of Farewell to the Working Class. Now they will be sticking them together again. They will now say that the NGA defeat proves that they were right. They will say the working class can’t fight, that they are sectional, that there is no resistance.
We face a war of attrition on even more difficult terms. Marx analysed the difficulties: "The enemy are moving forward, forward, forward. You are on the retreat, more and more closed in, more and more defeatism in your own midst. A resistance too prolonged in a besieged camp is demoralising in itself. It implies suffering, fatigue, long periods without rest, illness, and the continual presence, not of that acute danger that tempers, but that chronic danger which destroys.’ That is going to be the mood inside much of the working class in the period ahead. The danger is that it will influence revolutionaries too; that we ourselves come to believe that every battle will end like Warrington. That is not the case. Because the ruling class is so cocky they can actually provoke battles on the wrong ground for them. Unfortunately, no-one knows whether they will slip up tomorrow or in a year’s time or in ten years’ time, but we must prepare now for that conflict.
Last updated on 28 March 2010