Another view on "Ramparts of Resistance"

Submitted by martin on 6 April, 2007 - 9:58

Tom Unterrainer's review (Solidarity 3/108) of Sheila Cohen's book "Ramparts of Resistance" sees the main reason for the British labour movement's defeats since the 1970s in "bureaucratisation" at workplace rep level.

"An increase in facility time, more negotiations away from the shop floor (often in luxury hotels) and the active cultivation of 'friendly relations' between stewards and the bosses... revolutionised... the trade union movement...

"As Thatcherism developed... the full implications of bureaucratisation revealed themselves... defeat followed defeat".

This, of course, is the argument about "downturn" developed by Tony Cliff of the SWP from the late 1970s through to about 1992 (when, curiously, the SWP ceased to think that "bureaucratisation" was a problem).

I think the argument is wrong.

It is also not, on my reading, what Sheila Cohen argues in the book. For her, the problem was too much "politicism" and not enough "economism".

"Few people thought in the 1970s that... workplace-based resistance and member-led democracy was worth preserving". "Lack of interest in workplace-based... struggles pushed committed activists... towards a diversionary 'prefigurative' programme of workers' plans, workers' cooperatives, and 'alternative economic strategies'."

I think that argument is wrong, too. Before proceeding, I should flag up the element of truth I see in both Tom's and Sheila's emphases.

Many veteran union leftists have come to put workplace organising in the "too hard" box and focus their activity primarily on such things as getting their union branches to affiliate to this or that campaign; putting motions on their favoured international issues through union conferences; and winning elections for union posts.

Many "facility time activists", even leftists, have become beaten down so that they collude in and adapt to a definition of "the union" as constituted by its corps of full-time officials and facility-time activists, something members pay their dues to not in order to facilitate collective action but in order to "buy" the services of those officials and officers for their individual employment problems.

Rebuilding union organisation has to start with the old workerist adage that "the alternative... exists as a murmuring among the proletariat", and continue with sustained, attentive listening to that "murmuring".

Developing a network of active, responsive workplace reps is central.

All that is true. It does not follow that the downfall of the rank-and-file militancy of the 1960s and 70s was due to stewards getting facility time, or being "led away from the workplace towards the broader political arena".

Both Tom and Sheila emphasise the existence in the late 1960s and early 70s of a large body of workplace reps - militant, confident, responsive, based on a confident membership.

They were seduced by facility time and visits to luxury hotels? But in the critical period of the late 70s and early 80s stewards were much more likely to be victimised, or have their workplace closed under them, by new harder-line managers, than to spend lots of time in luxury hotels.

And having union facility time at the workplace does not necessarily make you unresponsive to the members. At the Longbridge car plant in the high days of militancy, the senior stewards' office was sardonically referred to by workers as "the games room". Are facility-time union reps today - like Tom himself - more "corrupted" than that? I don't think so. More overwhelmed by individual casework, as a result of the weakening of collective combativity? Very likely.

Sheila Cohen's book starts by portraying 1968-74 as the high-tide of localised, unofficial militancy. There was much such militancy. It had been rising since about 1955.

What was new in 1968-74 was something different: the reappearance of big, national, official strikes, which had been almost entirely absent since 1926.

The old confidence about improving workplace wages and conditions through workplace militancy was spilling over into confidence about larger-scale action, and at the same time being challenged by the start of the larger-scope problems which have faced workers since the 1970s: mass unemployment, closures, privatisations, wholesale restructurings.

Working-class action at wider than workplace level was needed. It happened. It won. The Tory anti-union laws were crippled in July 1972; the Tory government was forced out of office in February 1974.

The larger-scale struggles made politics central, in a way it wasn't before 1964, when virtually the whole labour movement could share a rough perspective that improvement would be got by workplace efforts plus, eventually, the election of a Labour government which (perhaps requiring pressure to make it do so) would "finish the job" of nationalising industries and expanding welfare started in 1945-51.

The stewards of 1968-74 had ideas. Many, and especially of the "opinion-formers" among them, were Communist Party members or Labour leftists influenced by the CP; a fair number, equally "political", were Labour right-wingers.

The tragedy of the late 1970s and early 1980s is that those political ideas meant that the great "victory" of the movement - the ousting of the Tories in 1974 - produced a "defeat", the installation of the hopeless Wilson-Callaghan Labour government.

That defeat did not jolt the movement to a higher political level. It could not do so, because the advocates of other, Marxist, ideas were too few in number, too confused (sometimes), too divided, and too disrupted (sometimes) by tactical aberrations. All that was a matter of specific political failures - too long a story to reprise here - and not of some alleged universal indifference of political radicals to workplace struggles.

Instead - not all at once, nor without resistance, but cumulatively - we got the only possible alternative to that jolt to a higher political level: perplexity, disappointment, industrial defeat after defeat, de-politicisation, demoralisation, a retreat into "damage-limitation".

Sheila Cohen's book impartially dismisses and blames all radicals who have paid attention to labour struggles as people malignly leading the stewards "away from the workplace towards the broader political arena".

In doing so, she makes no differentiation between the schemes (such as the nationalist-utopian "Alternative Economic Strategy") pushed by the CP and its like, and the politics of revolutionary Marxists.

In fact, she praises the CP, suggesting that its "Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions" was pretty good until "in the mid 1970s" it was "subordinated to the CP's courting of left MPs and union leaders" (it was subordinated from the start, not just in the mid-70s!); and rubbishes the revolutionaries as lacking "conscious recognition of the value of everyday worker resistance".

The blurb on the back of the book is very strange. It describes Sheila Cohen as "involved in the trade union movement for two decades", and lists journalistic and lecturing activities since 1990. So this is someone too young to remember the struggles of the 70s and 80s first-hand? But who may be clearer because they can look at that history without any personal "baggage"?

Actually, no. Sheila was already a mainstream member of IS (forerunner of the SWP) in 1971, when I met her around the UCS shipyard sit-in.

She left IS with a group expelled in early 1973. The group, known in IS as the Right Opposition, continued as a more-or-less underground discussion group. In 1981-5 it reappeared as the ally of Gerry Healy's WRP in Labour Herald, the paper which the WRP (with its lavish funds from Libya, Iraq, etc.) helped produce to promote Ted Knight, Ken Livingstone, and the "soft" Labour local government left.

In 1985 the WRP collapsed, in great scandal. So, soon after, did Labour Herald. The discussion group expired.

As might be guessed from the offshoots of it alive today - David Yaffe's Revolutionary Communist Group (which split from it in 1975); Frank Furedi's circle (formerly RCP, a split from the RCG in 1976); and The Chartist, a soft Labour-left journal - the "discussion group" was, of all the currents of the left in the 1970s and 80s, probably the least interested in or appreciative of workplace struggles.

Its stock-in-trade was a promise to produce great "theory" and "perspectives", and an insistence that any plan of action must wait on that. It warned that "the militants" in the workplaces were running too far ahead of the masses. Insofar as it had politics, they were close to those of Ted Grant's Militant (a bit like Socialist Appeal today).

Sheila Cohen now rejects her politics of the 70s and 80s? Good. But instead of critically reviewing the record, in this book she simply inverts the approach of the "discussion group". In place of disdain for workplace militancy, we have a projection of it as all-sufficient - and a denunciation of those of us who attended more to that workplace militancy for allegedly not really cherishing it!

Constant attention to even the smallest seeds of workplace rebellion and re-emergent working-class solidarity is indeed necessary. But a revolutionary working-class consciousness cannot develop simply from instinctive reactions to workplace issues.

Even if it could do so "in vacuo" - in pure abstraction, if all parties were to agree to abstain from all "politicist" influences - in fact abstention by the Marxists would not in the least stop everyone else intervening in "politicist" fashion - the bourgeois media, the churches and mosques, the mainstream parties, the BNP, the kitsch-left.

Abstention by the Marxists would only ensure that the final political shape of the instinctive working-class consciousness arising from future big struggles would be determined by a balance or resultant of the influences of our political enemies.

Martin Thomas