Tony Cliff

Dark clouds and silver linings

(October 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 113, October 1988, pp. 10–11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

As the Tory attacks become more generalised a new mood of hostility towards Thatcher is growing among workers. A number of recent disputes suggests a growth in the confidence of workers. Tony Cliff, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, analysed these events at a recent national committee of the Party.
Here we reprint extracts from his speech.

WHAT IS the nature of the current political scene? Dominating it is the spectre of new realism, but at the same time there exists a new mood among workers. The existence of the two often leads to a feeling of manic depression. Strikes seem to take off, then are defeated.

But new realism and the new mood are not two separate phenomena which exist in isolation from one another. The two can co-exist at the same time within worker’s heads.

It is like a very dark cloud with a silver lining. The real question is not whether the cloud or the silver lining exist, they both do. But what is the dynamic of their relationship?

The most extreme expression of new realism in the last year was the Dover seafarers strike. It was sold out by Sam McCluskie and Ron Todd, there was no activity from other unions. The courts attacked it and not one word of protest was uttered by the TUC general council. In one form or another new realism continues to exert an influence.

The new mood is much less tangible. It comes in the form of anger round the NHS and against the Tories on other issues. People feel resentment towards Thatcher – she attacks the social services, the NHS, she gives to the rich and she’s behind the cold blooded murder in Gibraltar.

Where does the new mood come from? It didn’t exist two years ago. There are two reasons why it has developed since the last election. Its roots lie in both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Tories.

Firstly, it is the result of a total attack by the Tory government against workers. Until 1987 Tory policy was to apply “salami tactics”, attacking one section of workers at a time.

Even when they attacked the miners in 1984-85 they were very careful to give extra money to the railway workers and extra concessions to Liverpool council.

From 1987 onwards the attack became much more generalised. Issues like the poll tax and the NHS affect everybody, and an increasing number of people see them as a general attack.

This total attack comes from Margaret Thatcher’s confidence. She has won three elections and thinks she can walk over any opposition. Her confidence is important.

This subjective element should not be underestimated, history is made by human beings.

But this confidence masks an underlying weakness. The Tories need a general attack because British capitalism is simply not doing all that well. Production in Britain has only just reached its 1973 level. At the same time production in Japan is 49 percent higher, in the US 46 percent higher, in Italy 18 percent higher and in West Germany 16 percent higher. By comparison Britain is not doing very well at all.

The same is true of labour productivity. This has risen because rotten industry has been destroyed. But compared with other countries it is still low, for example the US produces two and a half times more per worker than Britain does.

North Sea oil is declining compared to a few years ago, the price of oil is $14 per barrel instead of $39. Sixty five million pounds came into the coffers over a period of eight years. Now income from oil will decline and so Britain is returning to the sort of balance of payments deficit that used to exist before the oil was discovered.

These strengths and weaknesses have created the Tory attacks, and because of them the attacks are here for the foreseeable future.

This means we have the black cloud and the silver lining. But the relationship between the silver lining and the cloud is not static but very dynamic. Behind the new mood there is an element of strengthening.

The main argument of the new realists is that workers cannot win. The miners’ strike seemed to prove it to millions of workers. The Wapping strike further reinforced the argument.

Since the last Tory victory however, there have been a number of radically different strikes. The Ford strike was sold short, but the strikers were not licked.

Vickers workers didn’t get what they wanted, but they were not licked. The fact that the welders stayed on strike for another four or five weeks after the strike proves they are not licked.

The postmen certainly were not licked. They went on national strike for one day and then stayed out. They broke all the Tory laws like secondary picketing and blacking, and there was no ballot. Somehow the government forgot about the law.

In all these cases the strikes were the result of the increasing number of jobs created. There was no danger of Vickers closing – they are still producing submarines even after the strike. Ford is not going to close, you just have to look at their profits to see why. The Post Office is not going to close. Their profits were £200 million and they took on an extra 18,000 workers.

Such things are important in terms of strengthening the determination to fight.

The rise in the rate of inflation will also increase the pressure from workers. Over the last few years the rate of inflation has been declining, so there was less motivation to fight over wages. Now, with inflation beginning to rise there are more likely to be wage battles.

Lastly there is the electoral impact of strikes, which can be very important.

The fear of mortgage rates going up didn’t affect people immediately. And millions of workers did gain a Little bit from the tax cuts in the budget. Millions lost, certainly, but millions gained. Now practically all those who gained are losing much more through mortgage rate rises than they got in the budget. Under the impact of these changes Labour can do quite well in the polls. This in turn can strengthen the struggle.

It is not true that if Labour wins elections then workers’ struggles automatically rise. There is not an automatic relationship between the two. But if Labour does a little bit better electorally and in the opinion polls, it can marginally affect the level of workers’ confidence to struggle.

Here it is important to understand that the attitude of workers to new realism is very different from that of union officials.

Of course many workers accept the new realism. It is not only Ron Todd who says workers cannot fight. Workers also believe this, but there is a difference.

Ron Todd is not too worried about this lack of fight. Some union leaders like Hammond or Laird are even happy about it. But workers are bitter because they can’t fight. Therefore there is a contradiction, and a very important one.

For example, when in 1968 the French events took place no one expected them. The workers were alienated and suffered defeat after defeat. They were new realists, they said we can’t fight. In France at the time average wages were the second lowest in Europe while profits were amongst the highest.

One expression of this alienation was that workers were even alienated from their own organisations. The Communist Party had a million members, attracted 5-6 millions votes, but the circulation of their paper was 200,000.

That meant members were loyal to the CP but it didn’t matter very much, they thought the CP couldn’t deliver. Under such conditions there was no barometer to judge what the workers were thinking.

Socialists judge the political situation by asking if workers come to meetings, go on strike, go on demonstrations and what papers they read. But if none of these things exist there is no barometer and nobody knows what workers are thinking.

This contradiction means the new realism has a tension in it.

That was obvious at a number of the union conferences, such as NUPE and NALGO. New realism dominated the conferences. Then suddenly as if from nowhere some left wing resolutions were passed.

They were passed as a result of anger and frustration. It is no good thinking that the new mood is one thing – the silver lining – and all the rest is cloud. That’s not true. The dark cloud has tension and contradiction within it. At some point it will burst in a way we don’t expect.

The contradictions within the situation make it difficult for socialists to get their activity right. If we don’t stand against the stream then we succumb to the ideas of new realism, and end up believing nothing can be done. But if we get out of the stream altogether and simply look in the opposite direction then we are also giving way to pressure because we are not relating to what is going on.

It is all too easy to swing from one to the other. Because the new mood – for instance round the NHS or on the picket lines – can seem very exciting, it is easy to exaggerate its impact and expect more possibilities for socialists than really exist.

We have to realise that the new mood may be having an effect, but so is the new realism. So people on strike or even on the picket line are not necessarily near socialist ideas at all. Workers learn from struggle, but how much they learn depends on the nature of the struggle.

If the struggle only lasts for a week, if the strike is passive and controlled by the union bureaucracy, then they learn something but it would be wrong to exaggerate how much.

The key for socialists is learning from the struggle, identifying with the struggle, but not expecting too much from it.

Socialists cannot relate to and intervene in struggle unless they are pan of the movement. That means being part of the fight against the poll tax, pan of the fight inside the unions and concerned with the issues that come up locally.

That means regular paper sales putting across socialist ideas not just in the shopping centre on a Saturday, but regular sales to individuals – shop stewards, Labour party members, and developing a regular contact with those around us.

It is very important that we talk to individuals and learn from them about what concerns people around the working class movement.

The revolutionary party is meant to be the memory of the class. But the revolutionary tradition is carried through human beings. People who have been part of the movement for years can play an important pan in that process.

The danger facing some socialists today is that they are so affected by the legacy of recent years that they miss the opportunities on offer. They react by becoming too dismissive of struggles that do arise. The experience of the past few years is overwhelmingly one of defeats.

But there is a danger in the tendency to approach every struggle which arises today as a defeat. It can lead to a dismissive attitude to struggles and lead socialists to argue about how they differ from those in struggle, rather than what they have in common. The approach should be to start from what is necessary to win, not what artificially divides us from those in struggle.

Only if we start in this way will we be able to win arguments about how the various struggles which occur can be successful. And we can only begin to engage in those arguments, and get a hearing from those around us, if we start from a basic identity with those who also want to fight.

Last updated on 4 October 2016