Tony Cliff

The state of the struggle today

(April 1986)

Interview in Socialist Worker Review, No. 86, April 1986, pp. 17–20.
Reprinted in Tony Cliff, In the Thick of Workers’ Struggle, Selected Works Vol. 2, Bookmarks, London 2002, pp. 423–30.
Transcribed by Artroom, East End Offset (TU), London.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Tories are in more trouble than they have been since Thatcher became prime minister. How significant are their problems?

In any war you have to start with the strength and weakness of our army, the strength and weakness of the enemy army, and the balance between the two. There is always a danger that we see only our side, and so we only see our weaknesses.

The splits in the Tories have to do with the extent to which the government managed to smash the working class. Westland is a relatively small company. Two million jobs have gone in manufacturing. Do they care if another 10,000 jobs go? You can’t explain it by looking at the thing by itself. It is a symptom of the failure of the Tory government to win the battles against the working class.

They won a lot of individual battles – they didn’t win the war. Far from it. When Margaret Thatcher came to office in 1979 she promised to create a lean and strong economy. Now she has a lean economy – it is suffering from anorexia nervosa.

When she came to office, Britain exported £5,000 million more manufacturing goods than it imported. Now Britain imports £4,000 million more than it exports. For the first time since the industrial revolution Britain is a net importer of manufactured goods. Britain was the workshop of the world. There is nothing to show for North Sea oil. Worse, they thought the money for the oil would go down slowly till the mid-1990s. It didn’t go slowly – it’s gone down by 40 percent in the last few months.

They are very unhappy because the key problem for them was to shift radically the balance between wages and profits. That was the aim of the operation in 1979. Real wages have risen since 1979.

Even the victories of the Tory government were not followed by a cut in real wages. In reality they didn’t win on the wage front, which was the key to solving all their other problems. The split in the Tories is about that – she didn’t deliver. They are not in good shape.

The Tories are in a mess. But the working class side is also in disarray, with the weakening in shopfloor organisation, the defeat of the miners, and now Wapping, where Murdoch has achieved more already than Ian MacGregor did in a year. How would you assess the balance of class forces today?

In the end any war is lost to the side that loses all the battles. But the cost of victory in every single battle can affect the total results.

If one side loses and the other side wins all the fights, but wins them with fantastic losses, then they can lose the war even if they won individual battles.

Up to now the workers have lost individual battles. Steel in 1980, hospitals and ASLEF in 1982, the NGA in 1983, the miners in 1984-85, now, even worse, Wapping in 1986. But it doesn’t mean that the Tories are winning. By and large the unions are still there. There are still 10 million trade unionists. There are still 300,000 shop stewards. So at the end of the day the ruling class are not sure that they are going to win the war.

Again, it is not simply a question of whether they use confrontation or collaboration, but what the proportion is between the two. If confrontation doesn’t pay in the long run, then they will switch to cooperation. They can’t wait 20 years because the British economy would disappear practically down the plughole. So then different policies would be put forward – wet Tory or right wing social democratic.

It is too simplistic to say that because they lose the individual battles they are going to lose the war. On the other hand, it is also far too simplistic to say that individual battles are not important.

What is necessary under such conditions? It is very important for socialists in general principle to despise the enemy – we are the many; they are the few. But in terms of the specific we have to show great respect to them – because we can be the few and they are the many. So fighting for individual shop organisation, collecting money – all the small things – are terribly important. Unless you tactically respect the enemy you are lost.

The main danger for socialists is that they go from the manic to the depressive because there’s very little fight.

You talk about respecting the enemy. But in recent years many people have made fantastic concessions to the enemy. They accept the ideas of those like Hobsbawm that all you can do is move into the terrain of the right. Look at the examples round the TUC – the acceptance of the EETPU scabbing operation at Wapping, the single-union deals. How do you think these ideas will develop in the next few years?

The defeat of 1984-85 was nothing compared to the defeat of the General Strike in 1926, because the number of miners was much bigger then. And in 1926 everybody participated. Today, because of sectionalism, the impact of the defeat is much less. Shop organisation is also much stronger at present.

Still, there is some similarity. If it was complete repetition you don’t need theory, you need memory, but there is some repetition. There has been a massive move to the right. At that time it was towards the Mond-Turner agreement – towards no-strike deals and arbitration. This time it is towards the “new realism” or pragmatism. This will continue for the coming 18 months or two years. I don’t see anything radically changing before the next election.

When it comes to a perspective there are two things a Marxist can do well – look at the very long term or the short term. If you come to the medium term – ten years – it is much more difficult to guess.

In the long term the crisis of capitalism is deeper and more fundamental than any crisis of consciousness in the class, or crisis of leadership. The crisis of leadership is important, but secondary.

What’s happening in the Philippines is fantastically important for us. If the regime is too disgusting there is a massive rebellion at the end of the day. The Philippines and Egypt show us much more than any place in the world. They are on the periphery of capitalism and so the contradictions are much deeper.

In the final analysis we know there will be a rebellion of the working class. All the talk from Eric Hobsbawm that the working class is finished is stupidity. The working class today is ten times bigger in Britain than it was in 1848. Then only textile workers were in factories of over 100.

The working class today is much bigger even than it was in the 1920s and 30s. The South Korean working class is bigger than the whole working class at the time of Karl Marx.

So in the long term we know the picture. In the short term we also know. In the mid-term I never like to speculate because there are too many unknowns.

For example, will a Labour victory raise the class struggle? It will not be a repetition of 1974 because it doesn’t come on the crest of the miners” strike and dockers’ strike. But if they repeal some of the union laws – like secondary picketing and the right of blacking, the financial liability of the unions – will workers be more confident now they are not being fined?

And although there is a division of labour between Neil Kinnock and Ron Todd, the division is not perfect. Ernie Bevin led strikes against Ramsay MacDonald and the 1924 Labour government. The TUC opposed MacDonald’s cuts in 1931. The unions didn’t agree with Labour in 1969 over In Place of Strife.

Under such conditions, will there be more strikes? The answer is probably yes. If there are then the present circumstances can change. I don’t think we should speculate about it. What we can say is that there is a move to the right, but not everybody moves to the right. Our slogan should be much more “Stop the retreat – organise the resistance.” We have to speak much more in resistant terms – not even stopping the retreat, slowing the retreat.

The manic depressive people terrify me. Instead of accepting from Gramsci optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect, they accept optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will. So everything’s marvellous in the garden, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Instead we say, “everything in the garden’s terrible, but there are things we can do.’

Why? Because there are minorities willing to fight. It’s not true the picture of the last six years is one big Tory walkover. If there was no resistance, Thatcher wouldn’t have trouble with Heseltine.

We should not be pessimistic about the potential of workers in the immediacy. They are slowing down the process of the attack.

The analogy of the war of attrition is very useful. The war of attrition means that every little skirmish is very important.

You talk about pessimism and optimism. We’ve been denounced as pessimists now for some years. A lot of that was based on the fact that most socialists saw changing the Labour Party as the way forward. The Labour left is now on the retreat. What would you say to those people who stay inside the Labour Party, and what do you think is the future of the Labour left?

We should always speak about the past. We’ve had nine Labour governments and we’re not one step nearer to socialism. But the danger always is that people say, “alright, it didn’t happen last time but it will happen next time. It is not proof that something happens nine times so it must happen a tenth time.” There have only been nine Labour governments. People say they were exceptions.

It is a question of understanding the nature of the Labour Party. The key to that is understanding the role of the trade union bureaucracy as the backbone of the Labour Party.

William McLean, at the second congress of the Communist International in 1920, said the Labour Party is the political expression of the trade unions. Lenin said no, it is the political expression of the trade union bureaucracy. Can you get rid of the bureaucracy this side of the socialist revolution? Can workers take over the block vote? This is what it boils down to.

Assume the SWP joined the Labour Party tomorrow. We took over all the 630 constituencies because Larry Whitty was asleep and Neil Kinnock forgot the word witch-hunt. The truth is we would have 630,000 votes – Rodney Bickerstaffe and Ron Todd have more than that. Gavin Laird has more than that. Can you break the trade union bureaucracy? Not this side of the socialist revolution.

The base of the bureaucracy is mobilising the passive majority against the active minority. And by and large, in the majority of cases, the majority of the time this side of the revolution, the majority of workers are passive. Revolution means workers are active and come into the arena of history, but otherwise they are passive.

In Russia, where the unions were very young – the printers’ union was established in 1903 – the Bolsheviks controlled the soviets in Petrograd and Moscow, the majority of factory committees. But when it came to the union machine the Mensheviks controlled it until after the revolution.

The Russian unions were very young. SOGAT is 203 years old. The NGA is two and a half centuries old. The AUEW is 134 years old. They are very old unions.

In Russia many of the bureaucrats finished in Siberia – here they finish in the House of Lords. In Russia they had to make the revolution to smash them. Here there is no way this side of the socialist revolution we’ll smash them.

The left in the Labour Party are dreamers, utopians, completely unrealistic, because they say they can use the block vote if they take it under their control.

Revolutionaries can take control over a district of a union or individual workplace organisation. They cannot take over the whole union machine. To do that you need the majority of workers to be activists and you can’t expect it in a non-revolutionary situation.

The Labour Party cannot be changed. People say Neil Kinnock is the problem. He’s not the problem. The problem is, why does he get the support of Tom Sawyer, Rodney Bickerstaffe or Ron Todd?

The bureaucracy is like a rusty wheelbarrow – it moves if it is pushed. And there is not massive pressure on Ron Todd to move to the left. In these conditions he’ll support Neil Kinnock.

The tragedy of Liverpool is that the comrades there didn’t understand it. They thought that controlling the shop stewards” committee in Liverpool was very good. It would be as long as you use the minority base to fight. They waited for the majority. John Edmondson intervened and broke the minority.

You mentioned earlier a return to consensus politics as an alternative to confrontation. But a lot of people, especially those new to socialist ideas, see the increase in policing, the way in which the unions are much more shackled by the law now than, say, ten years ago, and argue there is a much more repressive state. They say that the only way that can be changed is through the election of a Labour government to change the laws, impose democratic controls on the police, and so on. What do you think about that?

The ruling class never rules by persuasion alone. But the ruling class under bourgeois democracy doesn’t rule by violence alone. It’s a question of the proportion between the two. With the Battle of Warrington in 1983, what was the key problem? Was it the police in Warrington or the fact that Fleet Street was called back to work? No question about it – the key problem was the union bureaucracy.

The police are important as an alibi to the union bureaucracy. It is not true that because the union bureaucracy and the police both serve the same master they are friendly to one another. On the contrary, two servants can hate one another. The NGA is not happy when it is fined hundreds of thousands of pounds or when the police kick the hell out of print workers in Wapping. There is a contradiction between them.

But we have to understand what the relative relation is between the different factors. There are situations where the police are the most important thing in the world – in Franco’s Spain or in Chile. There are situations where the trade union bureaucracy is most central – for example, under the Social Contract. Today the police play a bigger role than, say, in 1974-79, but still it is very secondary.

Why was Sean Geraghty only fined £350 during the hospitals dispute? If they’d sent him to prison there would have been a national strike and the implications would have been very big. In reality they are quite pragmatic when it comes to the specific.

They talk about strong states. But when NACODS threatened to come out on strike during the miners” strike, Margaret Thatcher was much more worried about that than confident in the power of the police to give hell to the miners on the picket line.

The most important thing is the policeman in the brain, the one that controls the workers” thinking. And that is not the men in blue, but the Neil Kinnocks and Norman Willises.

What does all this mean in terms of building a revolutionary party? We are often described as unrealistic. We try to build an organisation, and now have 4,000 members, but have been at that figure for some years. People say, “you don’t get any bigger – what do you think you are trying to achieve?”

The argument that we are unrealistic had much more echo three or four years ago in terms of our members and periphery, because the Bennites were on the march. The last few years have proved that basically we are right.

Three or four years ago between us and the right wing were Neil Kinnock, the soft left, then the hard left. A whole number of those have moved to the right.

Remember the “dream ticket” of 1983 – Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley. The argument then was, “Kinnock is alright – it’s Hattersley who is the problem.” Now both of them are in the same camp. More important, the people in between are practically all in a terrible crisis. You have to ask yourself why the CP split, the WRP split, Labour Herald split, Socialist Action split.

Because of the wrong perspective about the miners” strike, expectations rose, and when those expectations were not realised then they started tearing one another to pieces. That’s why they are all splitting.

So not only is there very little between us and the right wing. What there is is split and weak. To some extent people don’t see it because they are in the Labour Party, which is structured in such a way that people can exaggerate how much they have.

If there are five people in the room you can pass a resolution in the name of 5,000 or 10,000. Therefore they don’t know the truth about themselves. But if you know, for example, that the print order of Labour Herald is only 2,000 then it’s clear that they represent very, very little.

So despite all the ups and downs – the up of the Bennites and the down after the miners’ strike – the rest were smashed. We were not smashed.

There were only two organisations that have kept intact – us and the Militant. The Militant are going to suffer much fraying at the edges because of the bankruptcy of their policy in Liverpool. They went from a demonstration of tens of thousands in Liverpool last year to only 400 after the surcharges last month. Because of that they will suffer as well.

Our prospect is the following. We are going to mark time to a large extent. What do we mean? We can increase our membership marginally. We can’t increase it very much because to the extent that people say we are on the margins of the class they are right.

A revolutionary party is not an exact reflector of the class struggle, but it cannot be independent from the level of class struggle. In 1972 I spoke to 6,000 or 7,000 steel workers in Scunthorpe. During the 1980 strike the biggest meeting of steel workers I spoke to was 100.

The level of struggle in terms of solidarity with the miners was much higher in 1972 than in 1984–85. The Fleet Street of July 1972 during Pentonville is not the Fleet Street of 1986 during Wapping. We cannot be independent of the base we relate to.

So can we grow to 6,000 instead of 4,000? Yes, but 50,000 doesn’t fit the level of struggle.

I think the organisation is in good shape because while our vision is never too low, we never make concessions on our assumption about the centrality of the working class. That remains central.

When it comes to the tactics, of course we fit ourselves to the level. We don’t say, “unless there are 6,000 steel workers, we won’t speak.” We’ll speak to 100, we’ll speak to 50.

When people say we are unrealistic, I say on the contrary that we are realistic – the rest are unrealistic because the rest offer a whole number of conceptions that lead to nothing, that lead to catastrophe. That’s why they disintegrate.

When conditions are tough, people who don’t fit disintegrate. The fact that we didn’t shows that we were right. It’s nothing to do with psychological toughness – in terms of toughness the WRP are the toughest in the world, but they disintegrated completely because they issued statements which didn’t fit the situation at all.

So what is going to happen? In Russia the Bolsheviks were shaped during the period of reaction after 1905. Things were very tough. There were ten members in Ivanovo Voznesensk in March 1917 – in July 5,440. Now, there is no guarantee that the ten will turn into 5,440, because you don’t know in advance there will be a revolution. But without the ten you won’t get anything. Therefore you always have to judge yourself on whether you relate to the struggle that takes place.

The main danger for us is that we can become abstract propagandists. We don’t simply say, “capitalism is bad, socialism is good.” Our statements on Wapping have been brilliant. Every issue of the paper talks about what is to be done – always very practical. The fact is we couldn’t deliver – but we still told the minority the only way to win was by getting mass picketing.

Let’s assume the print unions come to a compromise at Wapping. Of course Brenda Dean will benefit from a compromise like that. And of course the majority of printers will say, “we struck there for months – it’s better to save 1,000 jobs than none.” But a minority will say, “no, we could have done it – the SWP was right.”

I think many people will agree with everything you’ve said, except they’ll say it’s such a long way off that it isn’t possible. You have already said things are going to be very tough for revolutionaries. How do people hold themselves together?

It will be tough. We are not a mass party like the Bolsheviks in 1905. They went from 40,000 in 1907 to 200 in 1910. Because the upturn was so massive – they organised an insurrection in 1905 – the demoralisation after the defeat was incomparably worse than the demoralisation after the defeat of the miners” strike.

Secondly, because they had mass roots in the working class, when the periphery disappeared it pulled the members down. Our organisation is so much smaller that the events in the outside world don’t help us in the way that they helped the Bolsheviks. But they also don’t damage us in the same way.

You cannot build a mass party on questions. You build mass parties on action. But when it comes to small organisations, questions are very important. Why is this happening? Why is Kinnock moving to the right? Why wasn’t the miners’ strike victorious? The periphery of people asking questions is incomparably bigger than a year ago.

During the miners” strike, when we said, “there is not enough picketing or blacking – the strike is going badly,” people didn’t really want to hear us. There were other people – also left wingers, supporting the miners – who said, “things are not so bad – they are going well.”

Because of that people didn’t ask questions. Now they are asking more questions. We can build the organisation on the number of people asking questions. The trouble is, asking questions will recruit people – it’s not enough to keep them.

To do that you need to give them action. What do we mean by action? All the time there are strikes and activities. We have to relate to all of those. What is important is that we mustn’t be sectional. Today it can be miners, then Wapping, then South Africa.

We can build the organisation. Can it become a mass party? the answer is no, not at present. Say that in 1987 or 1988 there is a Labour government with very right wing policies. There will be disgruntlement in the Labour Party about it, and in the unions. But in terms of polarisation inside the Labour Party it is not on straight away.

If there is activity in the Labour Party we can be a bigger pole of attraction. We’ll be saying, “we are the alternative to Kinnock.” By that we don’t mean we’re in the same league – not at all. But our level of struggle is an alternative to the level of struggle of Kinnock. And if it comes to the specific, we are even in the same league.

When it comes to getting people to Wapping, the Labour Party mobilises hundreds, we mobilise hundreds. We’re not so separate in terms of leagues. Even during the miners” strike perhaps they were ten times bigger than us. They were not 100 times bigger. When it comes to elections, on the other hand, they are far more than 100 times bigger.

It depends on the specific issue where we choose the battle. We are the alternative because on these issues we are not insignificant. Why? Because an organisation of 4,000 is not as small as all that if it intervenes correctly in the specific struggles.

Last updated on 26 October 2019