Leafleting on the Manchester Ship Canal*

Submitted by Anon on 25 March, 2006 - 12:36 Author: Rachel Lever, Sean Matgamna and Harold Youd

This article was based on the experience of Workers Fight, from which AWL has developed and which worked inside the International Socialists (predecessor of the SWP) at the time. It was part of a drive to turn IS towards production of factory bulletins at the end of the 1960s. It has been abridged. It was written by Rachel Lever (Rachel Matgamna), Sean Matgamna and Harold Youd. Memory suggests that Rachel was the main author. SM.

The “turn to the class” by IS is currently using the methods of factory leafleting. Presented here is a short report of the experience of using this method on the docks in Manchester.

Leaflets have been published in the Manchester docks for about three years, at first by the old Workers’ Fight group. At the start these dealt with big issues, such as Devlin [radical reorganisation of the terms and conditions of employment on the docks], Powell and the dockers [when London dockers struck in support of racist Tory MP, Enoch Powell], strikes etc, and they appeared irregularly.

With the last issue we expanded the bulletin into a mini-paper of four sides called Ship Canal, which is sold for a penny or just given away. It contained, in the main, a treatment of the coming redundancies planned in the ports, and a programme of demands for fighting them.

The response has been the most encouraging yet. The mini-paper has now called forth articles, cartoons, jokes— and an offer of racing tips.

From the start the leaflets have had to appear in opposition to the existing industrial vanguard.

In the port of Manchester there is, and has been for over 15 years, an unofficial committee which is also the leadership of the small trade union branch of the NASD [a minority union]. Despite a certain Catholic Action influence on them, these men are good from a syndicalist point of view.

But they are permanently caught in the toils of “backstairs” negotiations and deals with the management; they have a limited trade union outlook, a one-port parochialism and no perspective other than “getting a little more butter on the crust”. Consequently they vacillate in strikes; they had no response whatever to Devlin, nor do they have against the current limbering up of the company for massive redundancies.

In the course of a number of struggles, we found the relationship with this “vanguard” to be one of extreme conflicts . Their conceptions remained fixed at the trade union level, and they opposed actions against Devlin. In the 1967 strike [against Devlin] they acted as a brake. The same again this year on the question of the May Day strike [against the proposed anti-union legislation by the Wilson Labour government], which was carried against their inclinations.

And yet had we simply come upon the situation from the outside without knowing much about it, we would have been happy to work with these people. At the time of the struggle against Devlin this would have meant following the line of simply collaborating with Devlin — perhaps even listening in sympathy when they complained that “the men wouldn’t do anything”. In these circumstances this would have been a complete abandonment of any serious attempt to do what should be the purpose of our industrial work — to create a collaboration of the militants with a Marxist group so as to really struggle against the system.

Necessarily such a group must be in advance politically (in its analysis and programme) of even the militant industrial vanguard.

Perhaps the [idea that IS might have worked blandly with the existing workplace leaders] is hypothetical, perhaps a caricature. But we do know of leafleting work by IS which is not much different, even now — and of course the entire philosophy of IS industrial work up to about a year ago decreed that anything more assertive was elitist, substitutionist (for the working class by the socialists) etc.

This attitude is far from eradicated, not least in the ranks of the IS leadership.

Nor is the simple lack of such an attitude much of a safeguard, when the mechanics of a small group (or isolated local branch striking out on its own unguided initiative) falling into the “servicing” trap (producing, typing and duplicating service for activists that never politically rise above good trade unionists) are all too easy.

Normally the most favourable experience of the leafleting work we are now turning to is to make contact with the existing militantly trade union leadership in the factory “the vanguard” — get their collaboration and proceed to leaflet.

Trotsky long ago warned of the danger that an adaptation to the existing level of the working class could become an adaptation to conservative trade unionism. Given inexperience and no central political guidances this is particularly likely. In fact unless we have our political understanding to contribute, it is arrogance to think we have anything else to give: “servicing” of this sort is justified by very little — other than literacy and a duplicator.

The above is an argument for recognising that the work of turning towards the class is too vital to be done casually. It is an argument that the only “guarantee” of avoiding the pitfalls Trotsky described as “'tail-ending” (behind even some of the relatively advanced elements of the class) is to be found in the seriousness of the organisation involved — in its education, its cohesion, its discipline, its relative independence even of the class, and above all in the political responsibility of its leadership. (Which is where the responsibility rests, and not with the young, new comrade doing his best with little guidance or criticism.)

IS is still so loose — without serious structures, a centralised organisation, a detailed supervision of the politics of the industrial work by the politically most advanced people in the group — that the dangers inherent in this type of work are tremendous. When IS helped to produce in 1967 the Dockworker paper — a particularly bad example of economism — a new and inexperienced member was entrusted with the work. When challenged about its badness, the leadng member of IS responsible for this — Tony Cliff — thought to excuse himself by saying he “hadn't read it”. More than anything else, this was a self-indictment.

Thus, the turn to the class must be accompanied by a struggle for a more serious IS: or what we will expand is not the scope of our serious work, but the scope of our blunderings.

Harold Youd, Sean Matgamna. IS Group Internal Bulletin, August-September 1969

* The Manchester Ship Canal no longer exists. In the 1960s, 2,000 dockers worked there.