Tony Cliff

Class Struggle in the 90s

(18 July 1992)

Text of a speech made at Marxism 1992.
Socialist Worker, No. 1300, 18 July 1992.
Reprinted in Chris Harman (ed.), In the heat of the Struggle, p. 277.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialists today need to understand the balance of forces between the working class and the ruling class.

We need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both sides to be clear about the opportunities for us.

On our side there is a lot of rubbish written about the decline of the working class and the decline of the trade union movement.

It is true the number of trade unionists has declined over the last 13 years. In 1979–82 there was a decline of 14 percent and between 1982 and 1992 a further fall of 13 percent – making a 27 percent decline in union membership overall. In fact this is far less than in previous recessions.

Between 1890 and 1893, for example, there was a 40 percent reduction and between 1920 and 1923 a 35 percent fall.

We are looking at a proportionately smaller decline this time, and a decline from a much higher level than ever before. In 1888 the total number of trade unionists in Britain was only 500,000. In 1893 it was 1.5 million. In 1933 there were 1.1 million. Today there are nearly ten million.

The proportion of the workforce that is unionised is also important. In 1990, 38.8 percent of workers were in a union – three times higher than in France, Spain or the US.

Real wages have risen over the last 13 years whereas in the US there was a 17 percent fall between 1973 and 1990. This is a clear sign of the strength and resilience of the working class movement.

However, there are real weaknesses as well. New realism – the idea that workers cannot fight – is widespread. It is not just the trade union and Labour Party leaders who express it, but rank and file workers.

It is not even that there are new realists on one side and those who want to fight on the other. The ideas exist together in the heads of many workers. The composition of the movement is also changing. This does not mean the working class is dead or shrinking, simply that it is being restructured.

The working class of Marx and Engels’ day was mainly made up of textile workers and engineers. In the 1930s many said the working class was dead as old industries declined and new ones arose like car and aircraft production and the electrical industry.

Today there is a similar shift taking place. The newer sections of workers are often less well organised and lacking in confidence. It takes time for these to develop. Now, if we look at the other side, superficially the ruling class appears strong. But they have real weaknesses.

In 1979 the employers’ magazine the Economist argued real wages had to be cut by 20 percent to restore the economic viability of British capitalism. They have failed to do this, and it is a sign of their weakness. We are in a war of attrition. They are not walking over us, but neither are we walking over them. It is trench warfare.

There is a balance between employers and the working class. This balance cannot continue indefinitely. It will turn one way or the other, and the change will come swiftly.

We cannot see when these qualitative changes will happen in advance. So what is our task? What we are able to do when the change comes depends on what we do before.

The Bolsheviks could grow to a million in 1917 because before it they had thousands. They could use the revolution as a springboard because they had something to spring from.

Before any upturn we will be marginal. But when an upturn comes, what socialists do can will be fundamental. We have to prepare.

Socialists cannot act purely as trade unionists. We must bring politics into the centre of the industrial struggle – the fight against the Tories and the role of the Labour and trade union leaders. I’m excited about the future, because I believe the other side is in terrible trouble. They cannot foresee anything – not the collapse of Eastern Europe, not anything.

What’s vital for us is that, when class forces are so evenly balanced, the push of a finger can be enough to shift the balance. The least thing can have a national impact.

Last updated on 29 March 2016