Why did working-class militancy collapse in face of Thatcherism?

Submitted by martin on 17 June, 2018 - 5:06 Author: John O'Mahony
Strikes from the late 50s to the early 90s

A small pamphlet published by us in 1989, reprinting extracts from Trotsky previously presented by us in 1983 with a new introduction.


For something like two decades, from the mid-1950s, trade union militancy in Britain increased in a succession of waves. There were ebbs as well as flows, of course, but each time the movement picked up again and rose higher.

That working- class movement frustrated a series of attempts by the ruling class to change Britain to their own advantage. It stopped the ruling class from ruling as it wanted to and as the needs of the profit-regulated capitalist system dictated it should.

Curbing trade unionism became an obsession with the ruling class and their press. Then, it was ‘wildcat’ unofficial strikers and unofficial agitators and troublemakers who were the villains, not - as in the Government and press mythology of Thatcher’s Britain - the trade-union officials. Those officials were the ‘good guys’ then. Tory and Labour Governments looked to them to curb the rank and file.

It was only after the downturn of rank and file militancy that an ungrateful ruling class turned on the trade union leaders and drove them from the temples and Government bureaux of British capitalism, out into the wilderness. In a famous speech to the TUC Congress. in1960, General Secretary George Woodcock had philosophised about the pattern of trade union history. It had, he said, taken the trade union leaders from the streets into the corridors of power. He was too complacent. The ruling class under Thatcher decided to drive the trade union leaders out again.

Before then, a series of attempts to get the trade union leaders to act as effective policemen against the rank and file had failed. The explosion of rank and file militancy against the Heath Government in the early 1970s had raised the trade union bureaucracy to a position of unprecedented power (or at least apparent power) under the Labour Government returned to office after the miners had driven Heath into a premature and misjudged General Election in February 1974. An opinion poll showed that many people believed TGWU leader Jack Jones to be more powerful than the Labour Prime Minister. Jones probably thought so too!

They were right in the sense that the Labour Government which came in on a wave of industrial militancy in 1974 could not have subsisted without the active collaboration and support of the trade union bureaucracy. As Trotsky had written over 40 years earlier: "From the example of England, one sees very clearly how absurd it is to counterpose.. .the trade union organisation and the state organisation. In England more than anywhere else, the state rests upon the back of the working class. The mechanism is such that the bureaucracy is based directly on the workers, and the state indirectly, through the intermediary of the trade union bureaucracy".

Not only the bureaucrats, but many workers, expected great things of the Labour Government. Many shop stewards’ committees petitioned Industry Minister Tony Benn to take their enterprises into public ownership.

They were all wrong about where real power lay. It lay with the owners of industry, commerce and finance, and in the capitalist state machine. The Labour Government was not the exercise of working-class power, but an exercise in dissipating our strength and effectiveness.

In the mid-1970s the Labour Government presided over a big demobilisation of the working class. It was the beginning of a prolonged downturn in working class militancy. There were episodes and partial refluxes in this tide, too - the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1978-9, for example - but it was a receding tide.

Demoralisation and disgust with the Labour Government; dismay at the Tory election victory in June 1979; the ensuing slump and .mass unemployment; and the Tories’ use of the state to legally hamstring the labour movement-- all combined to push industrial militancy into a prolonged decline.

The decline will not last for ever. Indeed, a revival may already have started. The steady rise of inflation now, and the drop in the unemployment rate (even if it is a smaller drop than the Tories claim) will probably lead to anew growth of industrial militancy in the period ahead.

Socialists must learn the lessons of the past in order to be able to consolidate permanent working-class gains from future militancy. Just as after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution in Russia, the whole revolutionary movement was shaped, and each faction was prepared for its role in 1917, by the work of sifting and analysing and drawing out the lessons of 1905- 7, so too the revolutionary movement in Britain is certain to be shaped by the work of sifting, analysing and drawing out the lessons of the' great wave of working-class economic struggle, 20 or 25 years long, that preceded Thatcherism. That work is now going on.

We reprint these excerpts from Leon Trotsky as a contribution to the discussion about the reasons for the downturn in working-class militancy. It is shown by Trotsky that there is no mechanical relationship between working-class militancy and boom or slump. How the working class reacts to something like the slump and the Tory onslaught it faced at the beginning of the 1980s is determined in large part by what the working class has experienced before and by the state of its organisations.

For example, the slump at the end of the 20s pushed the British working class down quite badly, because of its defeats in the General Strike of 1926 and after. But in the USA the same slump had the effect - after the initial shock had worn off - of helping to spark the working class for the first time into a magnificent and successful drive to create mass 'industrial trade unions.

Disappointment with the victories it won in the 70s shaped the way the British working class responded in the early 80s. So did the fact that in the 60s and 70s no adequate and stable organisations of a rank-and-file militant trade-union type had been built, and neither had a halfway serious revolutionary political organisation with substantial roots in the working class.

If those organisation had been built - as they could have been - in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, then the Thatcherites would have been faced with a tremendous working-class revolt when they used the slump to drive workers out of the factories. The anti-union legislation would have provoked working-class revolt - whatever the trade union officials said - and not helped beat it down. The proposal made by Socialist Organiser and by many rank and file militants in the early 80s, that the working-class answer to the Thatcherite assault should be a general strike, would have been the guide to action for millions of workers.

Instead, the Thatcherite counter-revolution was allowed to roll over an increasingly prostrate labour movement.

Prostrate - not dead. The labour movement will revive, and so will militancy. The job of socialists now is to prepare themselves and do a better job than we did in the years when working-class industrial militancy seemed all- powerful and self-sufficient.

John O'Mahony. 17 February 1989.

Click here for pdf: Trotsky on booms, slumps, and worker militancy.

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