Tony Cliff

Shape the future

(23 January 1993)

Interview in Socialist Worker, No. 1326, 23 January 1993, p. 10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

SOME NEWSPAPERS say John Major has got through the worst of his crisis. Is this true?

NO. THE CRISIS of British capitalism is incomparably deeper than during the early 1980s.

In 1980 Britain was a net exporter of manufactured goods. Today Britain is a net importer. In the early 1980s Britain’s balance of trade was in the black, meaning it exported more than it imported.

Now it is £10 billion in the red and would be worse if there was any improvement in the economy because that would suck in more imports.

In the 1980s North Sea oil meant the government borrowed little. Economists now estimate that next year the government will have to borrow £50 billion.

The bosses’ Financial Times points out there is soon going to be pressure on inflation, and there is rising unemployment.

So John Major’s government is every bit as nasty as the governments of Margaret Thatcher because capitalism is in even deeper crisis. But, unlike Thatcher’s, this government is an extremely weak government.

WHAT EFFECT does this have?

THE CRISIS means Major’s government cannot afford to make concessions, and it cannot afford to wait.

This is very unlike Thatcher. She followed the Ridley plan – drawn up by Nicholas Ridley, later a cabinet minister – which said the Tories should pick off one group of workers at a time.

The first union to be attacked was the steel workers. The list ended with the miners, the dockers and the printers of Fleet Street.

Now the Tories announced their pit closure programme, but could not then wait a year before the next attack.

They almost immediately announced plans for hospital closures in London. They announced the abolition of wages councils, which meant five million people – mainly women – had the minimum safety net taken from them. And they announced that public sector wage rises would be limited to at most 1.5 percent.

It was one after another, and such concentrated attacks mean there is a concentrated reply.

There is always symmetry in every struggle. If someone shouts insults at me, I shout insults back. If someone uses a big stick against you, you hit them back.

Michael Heseltine assumed he could smuggle the 31 pit closures through. Instead he was astonished by the reaction.

The hospital closures sounded very simple, but the Independent on 28 December said:

“The government has been forced to rethink its strategy over the closure or merger of up to ten London hospitals after ministers’ plans to rationalise the coal industry were ruled illegal in the High Court.”

Because of the weakness of the government the big artillery of the ruling , class has stopped pounding.

WHAT ABOUT our side – the working class?

THERE IS massive anger – and it is not because of the 30,000 miners alone.

If everybody’s job was safe there would be sympathy for the miners but not such deep anger. People are angry because they feel they are in the same boat.

A study of Slough in the south east, a relatively prosperous area, found 10 percent unemployment. It also found 40 percent of families had somebody unemployed and 70 percent were worried about unemployment.

It means that there is generalisation. A general attack means a general reply is needed – hence the call for a general strike over the pit closures fitted.

Often the greatest anger is among those who voted Tory last year, because they feel the most betrayed. This is why the Sun gives you more of a feel for the anger than the Guardian.

The government could have been brought down when the pit closures were announced. The problem was the leadership of our movement. It is more right wing than I can remember.

The TUC invited the head of the CBI, Howard Davies, to speak to the Congress – the first time in the history of the TUC that an employer has taken the platform.

Even worse, the TUC decided to invite Gillian Shephard next year – the secretary of state for employment who has just abolished the wages councils. When it comes to organising action, look at the London Underground. Workers voted three limes for a strike, and on the third occasion by a three to one majority.

At the last minute their union leader Jimmy Knapp called the strike off – not because management withdrew the thousands of job losses or the cut in wages. He called it off simply because management agreed to speak to the union.


THE LEADERSHIP of the Labour Party are just as bad.

John Smith looks like a banker, sounds like a banker and has the heart of a banker. He is more to the right than Neil Kinnock, who was at least in favour of women’s abortion rights, which John Smith is not. Yet some 98 percent of the constituency parties voted for Smith.

Ten years ago all the seven Labour national executive members from the constituencies were on the left. Tony Benn is today isolated on the national executive committee of the party, without even Dennis Skinner to second his motions.

There is also a vacuum on the far left. Groups like the Labour left Tribune and the Democratic Left – the leftovers of the Communist Party – have dwindled enormously.

All this means there is a very deep crisis of leadership inside the movement. It means the big guns of the working class are also not firing, just like the big guns of the ruling class are not.

This cannot continue indefinitely. Precisely because the economic crisis is so deep, it is only a question of months before the government will face a confrontation. It is one thing to declare a l.5 percent pay limit. It is another to carry it through when inflation is 4 or 5 percent.

SO HOW do you assess the working class movement?

THERE IS pressure from ordinary workers on the trade union leaders.

The TUC called a 300,000 strong Sunday demonstration for the miners. They are not in the habit of calling demonstrations like that. The pressure was so massive that they had to do it.

When the employers fire their big guns again, there will be pressure on the trade union leaders to do the same things. The current situation is only temporary.

The class struggle hasn’t disappeared. Fights still take place and the role of socialists is crucial.

Imagine if we had 15,000 members of the SWP and 30,000 supporters: the 21 October miners’ demonstration could have been different. Instead of marching round Hyde Park, socialists could have taken 40 or 50,000 people to parliament.

If that had happened, the Tory MPs wouldn’t have dared vote with Michael Heseltine. The government would have collapsed.

This prospect is not unrealistic or romantic. The number of socialists organised together is important in determining the outcome of the struggle.

Over the last three months the Socialist Workers Party has recruited 2,500 people. We could have recruited many more because our ideas fit with the ideas of tens of thousands of workers. Every member is valuable because another confrontation like 21 October is coming.

WHAT SHOULD socialists do between the big confrontations?

THE GREAT Irish revolutionary James Conolly said, “The only prophets today are those that shape the future” – not those that talk about the future.

What you do now matters.

We face a problem.

It would be alright if Norman Willis and the trade union leaders were the only ones to suffer from new realism – the belief workers cannot fight and should cooperate with the bosses. If the other nine million trade unionists were all fighters unaffected by new realism, it would be simple.

Even if eight million trade unionists accepted new realist ideas and one million were fighters, it would be simple. You lead the one million to fight and by example you convince more and more of the rest.

However, it is not just a question of leadership. It is inside the head of individual workers. Workers want to fight but don’t feel confident to do so.

You can’t experience 12 years of new realism without feeling a hangover. As Karl Marx put it, the past hangs like a nightmare over the living.

You see the result in Socialist Worker’s industrial pages. The number of reports of successful strike ballots is high. The number of actual strikes is very small. Socialists have to recognise this situation to overcome it.

HOW DO we do that?

WHEN WORKERS look at their own workplace they are much more pessimistic about the potential than when they look at the potential of other workers.

If, for example, 21 October was only a miners’ demonstration, there would have been 20,000 or 30,000 extremely depressed miners. What raised the miners’ confidence was the 100,000 non-miners who participated.

So in every situation socialists have to generalise, to involve others in the struggle, to raise workers’ sights from their immediate concerns to the broader picture. Hospital workers, for example, shouldn’t be left fighting alone. Socialists have to participate in all the small battles.

The story of the University College Hospital occupation that stopped ward closures was good, but the fact that there were four SWP members in the hospital was crucial. Without them it would have been very difficult to organise the action – people recognised that because afterwards we gained many more members.

All the small battles are important. Not all of them win, but they prepare the ground for something bigger. Socialists want to see a working class revolution, but you can’t live by waiting for the revolution. We have to look to the big picture and then look to the small steps we can take to achieve it.


Last updated on 4 February 2017