The Revolutionary Communist Party and the Shop Stewards
This report was written on 19 May 1955 for State Capitalism and World Revolution, the journal of ‘a Marxist group’ published from 1954 onwards at Christianson’s address in Welwyn Garden City. It was intended to organise a group in Britain supporting the ideas of CLR James.
Alan Christianson, who was born in 1917, had an involved political itinerary. He came from a working class background, but dropped out of his studies when he became attracted to revolutionary politics. Before the Second World War he was a member of the circle around CLR James in Boundary Road in north-west London, but he went to Coventry on the eve of the war to gain trade union experience, and worked with the Leninist League. Then he joined the Revolutionary Communist Party, but was expelled at the end of 1944 for indiscipline. He was afterwards readmitted as a probationary member for 12 months, working with the RCP in Liverpool and Manchester until 1949 (Harry Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, London, 1994, pp120,151-2), during which time he was regarded as a loyal supporter of the majority leadership.
IT MUST have been about 1956 when I met up with Alan Christianson again. He spoke to me with enthusiasm about the ideas in the article below. I interrupted him, saying that the ideas about shop stewards in it were the same as those that I had put to him in Coventry in 1938. He said no more. Of course, one forgets (see the article on the apprentices’ strike of 1937 in Revolutionary History, Volume, 3, no 1, Spring 1989).
It was in Coventry in 1938 when I first met Alan. He had arrived back from London, where he had won a scholarship to do a degree in science. His time and money had been spent with various Trotskyists in Boundary Road in St Johns Wood. The group there — CLR James, Ajit Roy, Gerry Bradley, Ann Walker, Maxie, Cliff Stanton — were much more Bohemian than the cosy group down in Balham.
Alan was looking for a job. After a spell in a casting factory, he got into the Armstrong Whitworth factory where they made the Whitley bombers. His first job there was to assemble the starting handles for the engines. The factory convenor was Ernie Roberts, who was to be elected Assistant General Secretary of the AEU in 1957. Also working there was a colleague of George Orwell, who had fought with him in Spain, and was mentioned in his Homage to Catalonia. Orwell at the beginning of the Second World War was in favour of a crude version of Lenin’s theory of defeatism. This character took the same line.
The Secretary of the Leninist League had arranged for me to visit contacts in Paris over the Easter holiday in 1938. Alan came with me, as he spoke French and I didn’t. He was a great help.
Our first call was at the office of Lutte Ouvrière, the organ of the French Section of the Fourth International. There was no sign of life, and the post box was overflowing onto the street. The proprietor of the bar next door told us that the editor had not been there for several weeks.
We spent a day discussing with Witte (Dimitri Giotopoulos) of the Greek Archeio-Marxists and the representative of the POUM on the London Bureau. We argued against the centrism of that organisation. The discussion was in English. We were impressed by Witte’s quiet confidence. He had been served three expulsion orders by the French government.
We visited the Union Communiste group, which published the monthly organ L’Internationale. The editor was G Davoust (Henri Chazé). We were well received, and were invited to dinner with the group. At this dinner there were about 20 members. They told us they were caring for a group of refugees from Spain, members of the Friends of Durruti.
We asked a girl at our end of the table what the prospects were in France, and we were surprised when she said ‘black’. She was closer to the momentum of events. After the dinner, it must have been about one in the morning, and we were arguing over the character of the Russian state. Davoust believed it was state capitalist, but I argued for Russian Bonapartism. With an amiable smile, he assured us that we would come round to his position, and wished us good night. I have wondered whether he ever came across the document State Capitalism and World Revolution, and if so what he thought of it.
Next day a member of the group introduced us to a meeting of the printers’ union. We were given a file of its paper, which is now unfortunately lost. (On 26 January 1946 the printers’ union was to strike against the de Gaulle-Stalinist government.)
At the end of 1939 or the beginning of 1940 Alan resumed his studies in Bristol. During the war in London, he was a member of different Trotskyist factions. After the war, he was a member of the Majority faction of the Revolutionary Communist Party. He then worked with coloured glass, which involved trips to the USA and Canada. He worked for a year in Canada as an electrician building radar installations in the Arctic Circle.
After CLR James arrived back in Britain in 1953, Alan resumed relations with him, and took up his position on state capitalism. In February 1957 I received a letter which Alan had sent to James, in which he, whilst upholding the principles of State Capitalism and World Revolution, broke off personal relations with him.
About this time we had the ‘hippie’ movement, in which the youth opted out, as did some old-time left wingers. Alan was to be seen on a Vespa motor scooter, singing Bob Dylan songs. After a period in the depths of rural Wales, he arrived in Gloucestershire, where after several wives, children and grandchildren, he married again, suffered a serious illness and an operation. Now at 78 years old, he is a member of the local Labour Party, and a regular at his local pub.
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THE RELATIONS between the trade unions, the Labour Party and the factory committees have been very complicated, very variable and very obscure, in the history of the last 20 years. But nobody has been under any illusions that three strands existed in the movement. It is clear, however, today that the shop committees have matured to the position that the official trade unions and the Labour Party are regarded as ancillaries. The shop committees are the mutual meeting place of all tendencies in the movement, and in which the discussion takes place which leads to action. Once the phase of nationalisation and statisation became the rule in Britain, the committees perforce embraced all functions, political, trade union and economic. The most highly paid, satisfied and apathetic miners, in face of trade union and Labour Party opposition, have embarked in the last period on a bitter war against the state-appointed, trade-union-and-Labour-Party-supported Coal Board. They could not have done this unless there had previously arisen the miners’ panels of rank and file delegates, on the pattern of the shop stewards committees. As you know, there have been 266 strikes in Yorkshire in the first three months of this year. And the issue involved is quite simple. The miners say that the local managers should have power to negotiate piecework rates. The trade union and Coal Board bosses say that these things are high policy. It is a question pure and simple of workers’ control (the miners know that they can control the local managers).
Everywhere there is unrest, and a mounting wave of strikes. And in nearly every case the leadership is in the hands of the committees. The basic issues are always issues of control. Sometimes it is a fight for control between union bosses and committees, sometimes it is a matter of control in the factory or place of work, sometimes it is both. But throughout, in recent months, in countless strikes, it has been shown that the rank and file, panels, shop committees, or in general, the job committees, the committees in general are moving steadily to a position of power, ‘power’ meaning the only power position which counts, that is, power in the management and control of industry...
Militant British Workers have Rejected all Parties
The whole conception [of soviets] is meaningless for Britain, where, at a conservative estimate, 90 per cent of workers already have their shop stewards committees, and where the problem of organising the fringes is a bagatelle. Not once [in Trotsky’s Transitional Programme] is it stated clearly that the left political parties as such would be represented in such soviets. The ‘struggle for leadership’ posed in this section is nothing less than the Russian events of 1917 rehashed, with presumably a victory of the party of the Fourth International and its leadership over the masses. In my opinion, such a course implied in the Transitional Programme is ruled out in Britain, and I believe now in any advanced European state. I believe that the obscurity of this whole section is one facet of the failure of Trotskyism to elucidate the general question of nationalisation and workers’ power, and is an example of Trotsky’s vacillation stemming from the past. It is noteworthy that in Britain from 1939 onwards, by universal consent of all of us, the formulation of the Transitional Programme on soviets and the committees, was quietly suppressed. In the document Tasks and Perspectives of September 1942,1 which confirmed that the turn to the masses was already under way, and which was the basis of the rise of Trotskyism in Britain, soviets are not mentioned once; Trotsky’s formulation is completely side-tracked, and the entire emphasis of the struggle for power is placed on the factory committees.
Revolutionaries versus Shop Stewards
Neither Grant nor Haston, nor any of the British Trotskyite leadership, could possibly advance beyond the position adopted in 1942, which was the high water mark of theoretical preparation for the mass struggle. On the basis of that turn, some hundreds of the best proletarian militants joined the Trotskyists. But two or three years later the party was compelled to turn away from the mass struggle, as I have attempted to detail in the account of the decisive events of Regulation 1AA and the Militant Workers Federation.2 The British Trotskyite party, the deeper it penetrated, and the more it activated serious struggles, the more the organisation was subjected to the devastating effects of the independent organisational and political power of the committees. The influence of the Stalinists upon the shop stewards organisations had always been very tenuous, and the Communist Party of Great Britain for all its existence had a bitter struggle to retain its best cadres, particularly in times of crisis.
The Trotskyite party met this problem in a far more acute form. The shop stewards, young, enthusiastic, with immense prestige in their organisations, joining the party, or supporting the Militant Workers Federation, regarding the Revolutionary Communist Party as the natural leadership of the entire class, could see no difference between their leadership of struggles in their factories and industries, and their duties as members of the revolutionary party. After 1944, within less than a year of the formation of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the party had in actuality become a coalition of worker militants on the one hand, and ‘party’ men on the other. When I talk about ‘the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolutionary Communist Party’, it is this to which I refer. From the standpoint of the ‘party’ men, the work of the militants in the industries was a waste of time, because it produced few results in sales of the paper and new members. Moreover, the shop stewards took up too much of the time of the party branches with the discussion of strikes they were engaged in, instead of discussing the canvassing of the Socialist Appeal, and the interviewing of contacts, and in general their — the ‘party’ men’s — idea of building a party.
In the year’s long-drawn-out struggle on whether to break up the independent party and enter into the Labour Party, the entrists insisted constantly that the preservation of the party as an organisation demanded a policy of fraction building on the political programme of the Fourth International. They denied that the industrial activists were of any use at all in the building of the party organisation to which they, and the Revolutionary Communist Party formally, were committed. Not a single entrist3 attached any importance to the mass struggle. Although many of them were shop stewards and union leaders, they were only in such positions insofar as it gave them prestige in the Labour Party apparatus. The entrists maintained that the Revolutionary Communist Party apparatus and the leadership were prisoners of the adventurist strike leaders and putschists. The opponents of the entrists were largely the worker militants who had come to the party in the mass struggles, in the battles in scores of factories and shipyards and mines in which the Stalinists and Labour Party bureaucrats had been ousted. They came to the party with an outside base, their stewards committees. Most of them in any case represented local unions or Labour Party management committees. Above all they were striving for the building of the self-acting committees, the shop stewards committees... To them entrism meant death. Life was in their mass committees, the shop stewards committees.
Party versus the Workers
You could not, and cannot, build a vanguard party apparatus out of the revolutionary shop stewards and strike leaders. After the separation of the entrists, the struggle began between the leadership and the militants all over again. When I say ‘leadership’, I mean the party apparatus men in the localities, and their friends on the Political Bureau. At the end, the cadres which had made Trotskyism a living force in Britain, became the greatest enemy of the party as conceived by the bureaucracy it had built. From the standpoint of the party leadership, a new member fresh from the mass struggle, an enthusiastic shop steward, was a liability. The ideal party member was not to be actively engaged in struggle. A clerk, or a quiescent type in the Labour Party or in the trade union, a good canvasser of contacts and a seller of the paper from door to door, was the ideal party type: I could give scores of actual examples which I have witnessed where a fine young militant, a veteran of many strikes, some of which he has led, has been tongue-lashed for his lack of revolutionary zeal by an apparatus man who has never known a strike, let alone led one, but who did know, however, that the leadership regarded him as the blue-eyed boy because he sold more copies of the paper than anyone else (the shop steward being busy on the irrelevant work of his committees).
To sum up. There was no place in the Revolutionary Communist Party towards the end for the revolutionary militants. The Revolutionary Communist Party regarded the work in the factory committees as so much waste of time; and the shop stewards and their committees and their attitude appeared as rivals to the work of building the party. The leadership drove the party in the direction of ‘high’ politics, precisely the field in which the greatest debâcle took place. Let us not forget that the political line of defencism in regard to the Soviet Union (because of the Socialist character of nationalisation, regardless of the oppression of the workers) in all its ramifications and implications, had the effect of providing a sort of theoretical sanction to the hostility of the leadership to the ‘irresponsible’ worker militants. The relegation of the rôle of the factory committees to a minor place in the historical process carried with it a further raising of the importance of the purely apparatus men, the only ‘reliable’ cadres for the building of the party which alone could prevent the future degeneration.
There was thus a permanent political struggle in the party which increased in intensity as the party recruited more and more from the shop stewards and worker militants, and because of the predominance of this stratum, the bureaucratic hold of the party men, Haston, Grant, etc, had to become progressively tighter, and less flexible and more oppressive.
The political question was concerned with the most fundamental questions of the revolution, but neither side had any idea of this fact. There was unanimity throughout the party in support of the Leninist methods of party organisation, and general theoretical agreement on the political line, except for the small entry fraction. Comrades who thought like me, all activists, formed dozens of informal, almost secret blocs, criticising the leadership on countless points of alleged inefficiency, and hinting at bureaucracy and dictatorship, and so on. The Haston leadership always demanded to know what were the differences in party line, but there were none, and the criticisms thus took on the appearance of an attempt of individuals to become party leaders. It was easy for the leadership to brand our best militants as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘disloyal’, and frighten them into silence. All we could do was miserably niggle at the leading committee on organisational questions, trying to show that as people they were preventing greater mass penetration by their inefficiency. The internal bulletin on the dock strikes of 1945 is an example. It is noteworthy that the entire Liverpool membership except the apparatus men supported that document against the leadership.
As I stated above, the party organisational objectives received no advantage from the mass struggle, and in fact the party organisation was endangered by too vigorous a pressing of the mass struggle. The party was compelled by its methods and objectives to turn away from the mass struggle towards ‘peaceful’, ‘political’, ‘all-sided’ apparatus activity.
There was also, however, at least as powerful a tendency of hardening opposition to the party shown by the proletarian militants, in which their own specific organisational ideas were being threatened by the party leadership. These ideas were not formulated by these militants, who to a man stoutly defended the ideas of the Leninist party, but they were nonetheless real, just as Haston and Grant would deny that they had ever turned away from the mass struggle. Comrades like myself, I know of dozens, were constantly being accused of ‘unreliability’ and ‘disloyalty’. (I was even expelled for a period because I placed personal integrity above a demand of the Political Bureau via Haston that I sign a confession whose truth I denied. Haston saw the case as one of flagrant unreliability and disloyalty, and placing one’s personality higher than one’s revolutionary duty.) We stoutly denied these charges, but in fact Haston & Co were dead right. As an example, in my case just mentioned, notwithstanding a circular to all branches of the party from the leadership announcing my expulsion on charges of ‘disloyalty’ and ‘unreliability’, with an instruction that no party member should associate with me politically or personally, the fact is that immediately on my arrival in Liverpool I commenced regular meetings with the party proletarian militants. In fact, I attended every meeting of the party’s industrial fraction, and was the de facto leader of the Liverpool locals in the mass work in shipbuilding, and on the docks during the strikes; I read every internal document of the party via its leading militants.
The party leadership knew all about this, although not the details, because the party work was reorganised in Liverpool in such a way that the apparatus men were excluded from the industrial fraction meetings I always attended. The leadership could do nothing, and could not expel the proletarian militants in Liverpool for disloyalty, because such an issue would have split the party. These militants were lifelong revolutionaries, nearly all shop stewards with immense local prestige. They included the secretary of the shop stewards committee of the biggest ship repair yard in Liverpool, and the most vigorous and respected dockers’ leader. All of these shop stewards had been won to the party in the war period of mass struggles, and in battle against the Communist Party. Yet all, including myself, had no political differences with the party, and regarded ourselves, myself included, as loyal party members. This type of ‘disloyalty’ was endemic in the party. Occurrences of this character showed how in a negative sense the proletarian militants were threatening the party structure. The objective class reason for this has become very clear to me.
These revolutionary militants had grown up in the school of the rising power of the shop stewards, and had matured as conscious revolutionaries in the process of the increasing establishment of these committees as independent centres of working class mobilisation against the class collaborationist trade union machines, against the employers, and independent of a rotted, moribund Labour Party. In the shipyards, the railways, the steel mills, the trucking industry, and in industry and factories in general, the united energies of all the workers were pooled in this process. It was the revanche, the revival, the new dawn after long years of unemployment and defeat. The trade union bureaucrats could not seriously hamper this process. It took place at the machine, the ship, the garage, the goods depôt, away from the stranglehold of the trade union bosses in the union branches, away from the ward committees of the Labour Party, hidden away from all the demoralising influences of the past. The best energies of all the most experienced and active workers were devoted to this task. Workers who had been through the school of the early Communist Party, some of whom were active Stalinists, some Labour Party supporters, some young, some old, united universally in this task.
The Classic Human Virtues
The source of this unity and immense creative strength lay in the very nature of the shop stewards committees, in that they were completely democratic. All shop stewards have an equal voice, and all workers, with the right of immediate recall, and the immediate report-back meeting. There is no apparatus, no executive committee, no functionaries, no officials. The place of work is the centre of activity. No shop steward may be expelled from a committee for the unpopularity of his views. There is no constitution and no punishment. These committees are schools, debating chambers, action committees against the bosses, mouthpieces of all the workers, fountains canalising the strength of the class as a whole, uniting all tendencies and currents in the class, and focusing them for action on the job in hand. Above all, the shop steward is responsible to the rank and file, as is the committee as a whole. Never can any shop steward rely upon any sanction of the tradition or rule to give an order, except to a foreman or to a potential blackleg. The forces of the working class thus unleashed press inexorably towards social power, the control and management of the class. Every active, serious Socialist aspires to serve on the committees, consciously to help in the process towards the new society.
If anyone wants to know how to organise without repression, how to debate without crippling action, or how to make possible the participation of all in the affairs of government, the shop stewards committees are there to study as the living example. As the years have gone on, in varying degrees corresponding with the maturity of the industry, factory, or the varying factors of the militancy of the class leadership and the impact of political events, more and more the committees are seen to be springs of a new way of life, and becoming extraordinary social factors in the life of ever-widening circles of workers, making them see the utter breakdown of the established traditional organisations, and showing them a way out to new forms. Particularly from this aspect thousands of workers see daily the fraud of the management, and become completely convinced not only that the working class is stronger than capitalism, but wish to overthrow it and manage their own affairs. Parallel with that knowledge, they conceive of an almost derisive contempt for the way of life and social forms which have kept them in subjection, and wish more and more consciously to establish the social relations which have been growing apace under the aegis of the growth of the shop stewards committees. No shop steward has any doubts about the ability of the workers to manage industry.
It would be impossible concretely and in detail to show in the space of a few pages how the growth in power of the shop committees in turn enabled the most advanced Socialists to begin to see the growing up of a new way of life and organisation (I think this is what State Capitalism and World Revolution4 means by ‘human relations’). But one concrete example is in the very centre of the clash of classes, at the negotiating committees between the shop stewards and the managements. It can be a shattering and highly formative experience to observe, week in and week out, that there are two different ways of life on either side of that table, and that the overwhelming preponderance of all the classic human virtues is on the side of the shop stewards. In an average works committee meeting, the managing director is in the chair at the head of the table. On one side of the table will be the convenor of the shop stewards, and five or six other stewards elected to represent the shop stewards committee, and through them every worker in the plant. On the other side will be, say, the works manager, production manager, a chief of the planning department, the deputy of the works manager, the head of the drawing office, and the sales manager. An amazing dialectical revolution takes place.
The Shop Steward is Free
The shop stewards, workers to a man, all of them, fitters, turners, production line workers, are no longer employees; they are no longer under the orders of the managers, or even the managing director; they are the equals of the managing director. But the managerial side of the negotiations, who are the managers, are the employees. The shop stewards are free and equal men, deriving their authority from the workers they represent. The managers are mere employers hired and fired by the managing director. The policy of the managers’ side is set by the free discussion and free vote of the shop stewards committee. It is usual that there is, as there is always, a majority and a minority in the shop stewards’ debates; always a spokesman of the minority is included in the negotiations to see that the majority, in negotiating with the management, is not unfair to the minority. No minority in a shop stewards committee ever feels oppressed, there is free discussion, and democratic decision. The management knows there are divisions always on the workers’ side, and always tries to use that knowledge. But never, in all the negotiations with the employers at which I have assisted, or which I ever heard of, has the workers’ side ever shown the employers anything but a completely united front.
Management is Tied and Bound
On the employers’ side there is the unanimity of bankruptcy, because with them they have a boss who alone ultimately tells them what to do. If the advice of a works manager and his policy over weeks or months is accepted by the managing director, the boss, and it turns out wrong, he is sacked. Every individual manager is always under this strain. But the shop steward negotiators are free men, who are never penalised in this way. There are no bosses and no sackings in the shop stewards committee. The average shop steward glories in the battle in the negotiations, he gives of his best always; there is no boss breathing down his neck. It is a matter of common knowledge that the shop stewards in negotiations are ruthless, never to be satisfied, and can always drive wedges into the artificial monolithism of the management. If a works manager is a reasonable man, you praise him to the director, and make him suspect. If he is a harsh disciplinarian, you accuse him of provoking strikes. All these things are difficult to detail; but the total result is that the shop steward method of organisation, with everything that it involves, proves itself in every way superior to the way of the management. The shop steward who thinks, who is a revolutionary, values highly the system which has made him what he is.
No Party Can Organise Workers
I am trying to show that when such a man enters the revolutionary vanguard-type party, such as the Trotskyite party in Britain, the clash with the apparatus is inevitable, because the whole conception of the organisation of such a party is far more akin to that of the management rather than of the workers. The Leninist democratic centralism inside the party always and inevitably leads directly to bourgeois forms of managerial organisations. As long as the conception is of a party of revolutionary theoretical leaders only, possibly democratic centralism might be democratic. But today in the West the workers want to come in, and the party establishes inevitably a hierarchy. But the form or organisation in which the revolutionary workers entering the party have been trained is the complete antithesis of Lenin’s democratic centralism. For in all workers’ committees without exception authority is from the bottom up. Without this necessary factor, from which everything else flows, it is impossible for the workers even to begin to set up the immensely powerful organisations which are moving today to break into pieces great centres of centralised power. It is no accident that the apparatus men of parties like the Revolutionary Communist Party are all petit-bourgeois. To them the theory of the vanguard party is the only reasonable one. It is a theory which in the present stage of the revolution is bourgeois to the core. There are two vital points to be dealt with in the cosmology of the vanguard party. Firstly, the idea that only the party can see things sufficiently as a whole so as to be able to organise vast movements to one coordinated goal, and, secondly, the idea that the working class cannot carry out the revolution because industry today needs so many technicians and scientists, and these are not workers, or can sabotage the revolution.
I have separated the two questions, because from the practical point of view I want to discuss them separately. But in reality of course they are one. On page 42 of The Invading Socialist Society5 the long quotation of the IKD brings both questions together. We can say quite definitely today that the whole of British Trotskyism, in varying degrees, succumbed to the IKD positions therein expressed, and the highest leadership broke quickest and furthest, along with the petit-bourgeois elements and the party apparatus types. It will be no news to you that the ideas conveyed in that quotation were the ones that I could not answer after 1950, and believing them to be correct, I went out of the movement, because I knew full well that those ideas of the IKD meant the end. When I first began to read the material of State Capitalism and World Revolution, The American Worker, The Invading Socialist Society, etc, and came across page 42 in that pamphlet, I was scared that you wouldn’t be able to answer them. But I was reassured a little that you had not hesitated to fight head-on the most dangerous attack. After reading all the documents I could see that here at any rate, even if one disagreed with State Capitalism and World Revolution, it was clear that historically the ideas there are the only consistent opponents, to the end, of the IKD ideas. Thus one had to re-read very carefully.
Now here we come to an important characteristic about myself, and I think of most revolutionary workers. Even though I personally did get some extra education, my whole real, formative education was in the workers’ movement, in the factory committees. It is that I know very well that I can only think in terms of actual possible events, or in concrete examples. The worker is not under any illusions that he has got to produce the damn things, so the revolutionary worker always says: ‘How do we get Socialism?’, ‘How do we expropriate?’, ‘How do we get these things done?’ My own generation of militants always had to see clearly the actuality. The revolutionary worker never thinks in abstract ideas of revolution. He has to see the actual struggle. For this, and other reasons, I have been of the conclusion for years that the power of abstract intellectual thought, and independent philosophical discovery, is one which I possess in small degree, and most of the revolutionary militants likewise. It is the historic task of the workers to organise, to act, to concretise, to establish the new society, and their conditions of life make them see everything political and social in that light. Now knowing these things, and knowing full well that the petit-bourgeois intellectuals can do precisely the operations of abstraction and philosophic independent thought which can save a lot of mistakes, and can help along the process of the revolution, I always looked upon the intellectual as an equal co-partner of the struggle, helping in the forging of new arms for the battle. But the last years of the Fourth International ended a disillusionment begun in 1940, maybe before, when it seemed to us in Britain anyway that the leadership was always 100 per cent intellectuals, battling with each other over abstractions, and in the end they led us to disaster. So here on page 42 was this quotation of the IKD.
I didn’t know for years what to say about it. I knew certain disconnected truths and had some disconnected convictions, that is all. You know maybe better than I do that in Britain today the worker militants are still pinned down by these IKD ideas and have shown only a few tentative signs of getting off the hook (the Federation of Marxist Groups6 is one). Now the curious fact emerges that it was again yet another group of intellectuals which has shown the way out of the chaos left by the utter collapse of the Fourth International. Yet still the documents of State Capitalism and World Revolution, etc, were to me another set of theoretical positions, deserving of careful examination. It was only when I had grasped what was theoretically implied that I could use the ideas to elucidate the events and currents; and only then, and solely then, did I fully understand the theoretical positions, and even now of course in a limited sense...
The Magnificent Manner Workers Organise Themselves
If only the theoretical positions are given first, they would have to go through the same process as myself. They will see the theoretical questions more quickly and clearly if their own experiences, yesterday and today, are illuminated by the searchlight of state capitalism.
Now in relation to that point 1 and the IKD position, about the impossibility of the working class organising army and industry, national and international politics, agriculture and trade, etc, I had to think very hard about events in the light of state capitalism, and I have suddenly realised that I’ve been half thinking about this question in the same ways as the IKD! For a long time I had been thinking about the thousands of regional, industrial and nationwide associations of shop stewards committees, and observed of course that only with great difficulty do the unions succeed in partially bureaucratising one or two of them. In particular I have in mind the Central Committee of the Textile Machinery Industry. This is a meeting of shop stewards from all factories manufacturing spinning machinery, largely one large cartel. It meets whenever a factory committee thinks it necessary, but usually once a month in a small public house in a back street in the centre of Manchester. Now this committee is quite typical of all such committees, which exist in hundreds of different shapes and sizes corresponding with the conditions in the factories and industries for which they cater.
There are only a few informal rules, which can be and are changed to suit the convenience of stewards attending. There are only very shadowy officers and functions, and its decisions are not binding on any individual factory, which can accept or reject them. Votes are rarely taken; when they are, one factory, no matter what the size, counts as one vote. Sometimes as many as 20 factories have been represented, sometimes only, say, half a dozen. Any shop steward may attend, although the committee of a factory will delegate one or two stewards to present any special views it wishes to have discussed. This Central Committee always met on a Sunday. Stewards would arrive from all the little Lancashire towns from midday onwards. The landlord allotted the big assembly room for our deliberations. From midday until 2pm all drink beer and exchange conversation about anything and everything. Sandwiches and pies are bought from the pub for lunch. At 2pm on Sundays the pubs have to stop serving beer, although everyone takes the precaution of ordering an extra pint at 2pm to help their throats in the coming session. So at two o’clock the chairman opens the meeting. The agenda is made up on the spot. The secretary reads any correspondence. The minutes of the last meeting are approved. There is a minimum of business. The whole time until seven o’clock is taken up with resolutions and discussions. At seven o’clock the meeting closes, when it is opening time. Thereafter there is informal continuation of discussion in groups, and very often political debate until 10 o’clock when the pub closes, when everybody goes home having had an enjoyable day.
Except of course we Trotskyists, who were scandalised at the sloppy way of running things, and we couldn’t seem somehow to get the stewards to be organised under our control. The Stalinists from their factories signally failed at the same task, and the only consolation for either faction was that by a tacit agreement the Stalinists and the Trotskyists were allowed about half an hour of mutual hate talk in the course of the meeting. Now I’ve no doubt that the IKD types will point to the factory managements with their hierarchy of superintendents and foremen and managers, and the coordinating boards, and the hundreds of executives trained in all these things, and they will ask us how our public house meeting is going to replace all that (I have given the details of a typical meeting of this particular committee which I know well; other central committees have similar but probably different customs). But the cold hard fact is that that committee was and is the leading committee of an organisation which with the expenditure of not one per cent of the time, with no full-time and highly paid trained managers, organised the entire labour force of those factories down to the last apprentice. I don’t mean ‘organised’ in the sense of trade union membership, I mean actual organisation in the same senses as the IKD’s, except organisation to the IKD types only means leaders and bureaucracy. Here, in 1947, with the bourgeoisie ‘organising’ their own factories, the separate shop stewards committees examined every plan of the management, and where changes of plan affected the whole industry, the problems were dealt with by the Central Committee, which arrived at agreed decisions. Within 24 hours every worker in the industry knew all about it, every shop stewards committee was considering the application of the agreed line, and every management was requested to meet its committee right away, where the stewards would make known how far they would agree, or the extent of refusal, etc. Of course, there was strife, permanent struggle between committees and management. But the extent of management ‘organisation’ in greater or lesser degree also depended on the attitude of the workers: at the level of the machine, what the worker thought right; at the level of foreman, the shop steward; at the level of the management of a factory, the shop stewards committee; and at the level of the whole industry the Central Committee. Of the two parallel organising functions, the one of the workers was and is incomparably more vigorous, and in every respect superior.
It is noteworthy that this Central Committee of Textile Machine Shop Stewards has no recognised existence. It is completely outside any union machinery or jurisdiction, and the employers do not and will not negotiate with it. It is an informal meeting of delegates from factories; yet it is the power which faces 20 boards of directors, and which will tomorrow, with the greatest of ease, abolish them (ease in an organisational sense, please note IKD). The same thing is so for nearly all such committees. It is also of note that in the constitution of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, in which nearly all the unions concerned are federated, there is no provision for such central committees, and shop stewards and committees are not mentioned. But it is a matter of fact that whenever any serious questions arise locally, that is, on a district committee basis, the district committees invariably call unofficial ‘advisory’ meetings of all shop stewards and committees concerned. Real policy is decided at these meetings; they also carry it out, and once called in session for serious emergencies they invariably meet very frequently, at least once a week. I enclose a copy of the rules of the Confederation. Note Rule 5 of Objects on page 2.7
Workers and Technicians
Now the IKD types are going to turn to part 2 of this question, that is, they will say that you cannot organise production without the scientists, technicians, and so on. (By IKD types I mean all the nationalisers, Grant, the Trotskyists in general, etc.) All these people not only want the nationalisations of their precious plan, but also the scientists and technicians are going to be unleashed properly then. These people are all for workers’ control, but when you try to find out the rôle of the workers, what they are going to control, you find it is not the plan (that’s for the party and union bureaucrats [reformed]), and not the execution thereof, it is the positioning of the coat hangers in the cloakroom.
It is quite astounding to me to observe the complete failure of these people to be able to see this technician-scientist question in its concrete setting in industry today. As a matter of fact, I think that no one can understand this question who thinks of state power from the top, and who cannot see the burgeoning power of the workers. Already, even today, whenever the factory committees are pushing for more and more power, this question is being solved now. The shop stewards are facing and fighting the capitalists, the state boards, and the policy controllers. They are not fighting the technicians and scientists for power. The latter even more than the workers perhaps are desperate at the way in which they and their work are used by their employers.
When the workers, with their own unique methods of organisation, take the whole power in industry, and for the first time in history can thus willingly cooperate with the technicians and scientists to use to the full their specialised knowledge, the technicians and scientists will be only too glad to work under the rule of the workers. They cannot fail to note that the workers’ leaders in the industries not only grow in confidence and ability, but have a way of life which can show the middle class a way out of their peculiar problems. In daily life the organs of the workers’ power in the plant prove that they are not going to crush the technicians as the present employers do. Only if the workers feared to take power because of this bogey would the scientists and technicians turn against the workers, and completely ally themselves with the state. As a matter of fact, the workers are far more fully aware of the importance of this question than the IKD thinks. It has been the settled policy of the shop stewards committee as long as I can remember to include all the design staffs, draughtsmen, technicians and scientists of all kinds under their protection whenever they need it. It is true that these approaches have to be tactful and often under cover, for obvious reasons. But for years now the struggle for the leadership of the scientists and technicians has been opened, in varying degrees according to the characteristics at work in various industries.
Lines of Development
I wish to make it clear that the positions I have tried to develop in these two letters are the lines of development as I see them in Britain... It has happened by a whole series of historical events that the shop stewards committees are today the channels of the revolution in Britain... It does not mean because the shop committees in Britain are leading the class, that in the USA the same organisation must be the vehicle. I am passionately interested in the American factories, and I’ve got a feeling that the class may be cooking up some higher and specifically American forms of struggle. In France and Italy again it is necessary to find out. The forms may be different, but the content will be at the same historical stage, that is, the stage of the self-acting democratic proletarian committees, embracing the functions of government, the regulation and management of production, and the guardianship of a new system of human relations.
About four years ago, after the dissolution [of the RCP] several comrades, including myself, who had refused to be commandeered into the entry fraction on the grounds that the whole of the basic ideas of our epoch as expressed by the Fourth International had collapsed, were demanding an honest discussion with the entrists in Manchester on the whys and wherefores. Naturally we didn’t get it, and one of the comrades, a Polish revolutionary,8 requested me most earnestly to commence a history of all the events from the beginning before the war, to serve as the axis of a serious national debate. But although there was all the time in the world, I tried and tried, and I couldn’t write a page. After months of stabbing at it, I realised that the whole attempt was doomed to failure, because a history is not a set of disconnected facts, there must be some proportion and relation between facts, and events as well. And the utter breakdown of the Fourth left us without any means of seeing connections or proportions. That is the reason why none of the old gang has ever published any analysis of the collapse of the only revolutionary tendency ever to become a force in Britain outside the Communist Party, and why not one of them cuts any ice today.
Now I can evaluate those events. I find that far from not being able to write at all, there is a very strong desire to tackle any of the questions of the past, to arrive at an estimation of the present, and the line for the future. And that in the last nine months everything I have written and thought has not just been a connected narrative but a development of the inner dynamics of the class tendencies, a far more important necessity. Now, instead of mere sniping at the Trotskyites and their tendencies, it is possible to demolish them root and branch from a coherent position, to tackle every event in Britain in the last 15 years in its historic context, to analyse the class tendencies, and to base the new turn on a solid ground in the British working class struggle. The whole spirit and essence and tradition of Marxist thought demands this essential task, without which our ideas could be shot to pieces at the first shock of events...
I must apologise for the verbose and repetitive way in which this letter is written. As you will realise, I am writing mainly to clarify my own ideas... I have deliberately refrained from making any concrete suggestions as to what I think may happen, because very careful discussion on trends must be continued. It is remarkable, however, how our initial prognoses of six months ago have indicated the trends in the struggle with remarkable accuracy. The superiority of foresight over amazement has been amply demonstrated in respect of the Trotskyites at least. How the powers that be must sigh for the Trotskyite ‘apathetic and satisfied’ proletariat.
Please write to us if you can provide us with any of these
Tariq Ali, Redemption
Belfort Bax, The Legal Subjection of Men
Mika Etchebehere, Ma Guerre D’Espagne a Moi
Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs
VI Lenin, Collected Works, part ii of index
Sidney Lens, Unrepentant Radical
James Malloy, Bolivia: The Uncompleted Revolution
Grigori Maximov, The Guillotine at Work, Volume 2
Ivan Maistrenko, Borotbism: A Chapter in the History of Ukrainian Communism
J Moneta, La Politique coloniale du PCF (1921-1965)
Peter Petrov, The Secrets of Hitler’s Victory
John Reed, The War in Eastern Europe
Arthur Rosenberg, The History of the Weimar Republic
Arthur Rosenberg, A History of Bolshevism
David Rousset, The Other Kingdom
Jorge Semprun, The Second Death of Ramón Mercader
Léon Trotsky, Oeuvres (French), first series, volumes 22 to end; new series covering 1928 onwards, all volumes.
Albert Weisbord, The Conquest of Power, Volume 1
Robert Werth, Leon Trotsky
1. The reference here is to the document of the first national conference of the WIL on 22-23 August 1942 contained in Preparing for Power. See S Bornstein and A Richardson, War and the International, London, 1986, p66.
2. On the Militant Workers Federation and Regulation 1A(a), see Bornstein and Richardson, pp70-1, 122.
3. The Minority of the RCP led by Gerry Healy entered the Labour Party with the sanction of the International Secretariat in 1947, see Bornstein and Richardson, pp194-6.
4. CLR James, State Capitalism and World Revolution, first edition 1950, third edition, published by Facing Reality, 1969.
5. CLR James, F Forest (Raya Dunayevskaya) and Ria Stone, The Invading Socialist Society, first edition 1947, reprinted Bewick Editions, Detroit, 1972. The quotation referred to in the text appears on pp42-3 of this new edition. On the IKD, the German Trotskyists in exile, who developed straight reformist positions during the war, see Rodolphe Prager, ‘The Fourth International During the Second World War’, Revolutionary History, Volume 1, no 3, Autumn 1988, pp23-4; RJ Alexander, ‘German Trotskyism During and After World War II’, in International Trotskyism, 1929-1985, Durham (USA), 1991, pp425-8; and D North, The Heritage We Defend, Detroit, 1988, pp101-7.
6. The federation of Marxist groups to which this refers was the Socialist Workers Federation set up by Eric Heffer, whose Secretary was Ken Tarbuck.
7. We have not included this text here.
8. This was Stan Gelblum. See Harry Ratner, Reluctant Revolutionary, London, 1994, pp120, 123.