Fifty years ago, the class struggle was on the rise internationally. In Britain, this was reflected by a big shift towards the left in the trade unions and Labour Party, especially in its youth wing, the LPYS, where Militant (CWI) made big gains. Workers debated how the economy should be run – ‘workers’ participation’ or ‘control’?
Today, we also see renewed strikes in Britain and other countries, as again the working class faces a cost of living crisis. The appeal of socialist ideas is once again on the rise. The threat from reaction was also a factor in the situation in 1972, whipped up by sections of the ruling elite to counter the militant working class, in the form of the National Front.
There are important differences from half a century ago, of course. For example, the British Labour Party, following the routing of Corbynism, holds no attraction for working class militants. A new mass party of the working class needs to be built in Britain and many other countries.
In the following extract from The Rise of Militant (CWI in Britain), Peter Taaffe looks at the latter part of the year 1972, in Britain and internationally, from which we can draw lessons today about the need for strong Marxist leadership in the workers’ movement and among youth.
In Britain, the Labour Party conference in October 1972, reflecting the huge shift towards the left in the trade unions and the Labour Party, passed a Militant resolution.
By 3.5 million votes to less than 2.5 million, the conference voted for a programme which included the demand for ‘an enabling bill to secure the public ownership of the major monopolies’. The conference called on the executive to
“formulate a socialist plan of production based on public ownership, with minimum compensation, of the commanding heights of the economy”. “This is an answer to those who argue for a slow, gradual, almost imperceptible progress towards nationalisation.” (1)
The conference was moved when Pat Wall declared: “No power on earth can stop the organised labour movement!” He concluded by calling for Labour to win the workers to a programme of taking power by taking over the 350 monopolies which controlled 85 per cent of the economy.
Ray Apps seconded the resolution. He was to become almost a permanent fixture at Labour Party conferences, so much so that when the purge of Militant took place in the 1980s, The Times happily concluded that the conference had become an “Apps-free zone”.
Ray pointed to the ‘excellent reforms’ in Labour’s programme but observed that “they cannot be carried out”. At this conference, Patrick Craven, a well-known Militant supporter, received 51,000 votes in the election for the NEC, which reflected the support of between 45 to 50 local parties.
The week before the conference Militant recorded the significant growth in its support: “From a four-page monthly to an eight-page weekly in 13 months.” Commenting on the progress which had been made it stated:
The first eight-page Militant is out! This is the greatest achievement of our paper in its eight-years’ life. In just 13 months it has been transformed from a monthly four-page paper, with excellent articles, but poorly produced and drab looking, to a magnificently produced weekly eight-page paper. Politically we believe that Militant has always carried the best reports and clearest analysis of events in the labour movement and the world. The great handicap has been space. (2)
The Times had “looked hopefully towards 1972 as an improvement over the previous year”. They commented that 1971 “was not a good year for Conservatives”.
1972 was even worse. The miners had shattered the government’s eight per cent wage norm, winning an increase of 22 per cent. In the miners’ strike 65,000 miners out of 280,000 were involved in pickets. In answer to this, Tory Home Secretary Carr promised to set up “mobile squads” of police to counter the actions of the workers. The Heath government did not quite manage to do this but Thatcher, who followed him, learnt the lessons of the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes and prepared the police in a paramilitary fashion to crush the miners next time they went on strike.
Indicating the power of the labour movement, even Vic Feather, the general secretary of the TUC in 1972, had declared: “No-one can do anything to the unions that the unions don’t want done.”
Militant pointed out that
the relationship of forces between the capitalist class and the working class is overwhelmingly favourable to the latter. But they are bound and gagged by their own leadership. (3)
Even after these tumultuous events, the general council of the TUC were still engaged in talks with the government!
From out of the sewer – the NF
Militant warned that the path was not going to be smooth so long as capitalism remained. In December 1972, the National Front, the latest version of a fascist organisation in Britain, polled 12 per cent of the vote in the Uxbridge by-election.
Northern Ireland is sufficient proof of the fact that lodged in every capitalist society are the psychopaths, sadists and maniacs who could make up the shock battalions of fascism under the ‘right conditions’. (4)
Militant did not fall for the nonsense peddled by some, that the National Front and its leader, Webster, were on the eve of taking power. Only after a series of defeats of the working class, and after a base had been created amongst the ruined middle class and a section of the declassed workers, could fascism pose a big threat. Even then, it would not take the classical form of Hitler or Mussolini as had been the case pre-war. In the modern epoch, fascism would only act as an auxiliary to a military-police dictatorship.
Indicating the big changes which had taken place in Britain, Militant’s last issue of 1972 carried a table of strikes from 1963 to 1972. In 1963, 1,755,000 days had been lost in strike action. This had risen to almost 11 million by 1970. But, in the year 1972 this had doubled to over 22 million days lost in strike action. This was just one indication of the convulsive mood. It was no accident that it was precisely in this period when the working class was moving into action that Militant had made such decisive strides forward both in the expansion of the press and in the number of supporters who filled out our ranks. But, if anything, 1973 was to exceed in scope and importance even the events of the previous year.
Then, as now, with the rise of unemployment and the worsening of social conditions, the fascists and neo-fascists also began to gain some support. We reported:
In the 1970 election, the ‘Yorkshire Campaign Against Immigration’ as it then was, recorded votes of over 20 per cent in several wards. Significantly, at a time of growing militancy, this vote fell sharply in 1971.
Yorkshire was one of the areas where racism was on the rise. Militant, dealing with the conditions in Bradford, stated:
It is obvious that in these circumstances, pious appeals to brotherhood and racial harmony from the well-heeled do-gooders are worse than useless… It is not Race Relations Boards that are required, but positive action by the labour movement. (5)
Calling for workers to mobilise against the danger of racism in the area, Militant declared:
Many Labour leaders think if they ignore the issue it will go away. Other local leaders pander to racial prejudice thinking that will prevent ‘racial extremists’ from gaining support. No greater or more fatal mistake can be made. The movement must be mobilised now, locally and nationally. It must be geared to an anti-Tory, anti-capitalist campaign. (6)
As a result of the pressure of Militant supporters within the labour movement, and particularly the Labour Party Young Socialists, the national executive of the Labour Party sanctioned a national demonstration in Bradford, which took place in May 1974. This was the first national mobilisation of any section of the official labour movement against racism.
Growth of the LPYS
The Labour Party Young Socialists, as a result of the general radicalisation of working-class youth and the consistent work of the Marxists, grew by leaps and bounds during the period of 1972-73. This was shown at the 1973 conference of the LPYS in Skegness where over a thousand delegates and visitors attended.
The democracy of this conference is a shining example to the labour movement. The minority of the National Committee [non-Marxists and anti-Militants in general] submitted their own documents to the conference for discussion. Differences were dealt with in a comradely way by the majority of delegates. Young Socialists must fight for similar rights for minorities in the trade union and Labour Party conferences. (7)
At the Skegness conference, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the ideas of Marxism underlined by the biggest ever Militant public meeting held at an LPYS conference up to then. All the fringe meetings were well attended, as was the week-long rally which followed the conference. Militant, however, still only had 397 organised supporters by March 1973 despite its growing influence. By July of the same year it had grown to 464.
It was not just at conferences of their own organisation that the weight of the LPYS was felt. The representative of the LPYS on the NEC of the Labour Party, Peter Doyle, was a key member of the Left who succeeded in getting the NEC to adopt a programme for the public ownership of 25 of Britain’s top companies. The day after the NEC, Harold Wilson threatened that the shadow cabinet would veto its inclusion in the next election manifesto.
Is national conference the supreme policy-making body of the Labour Party, or is it just a rally to cheer the politicians at the top? The NEC should be inundated with resolutions of support to strengthen its hand in defending party democracy.
At the same time we must ask why the NEC has not insisted on the full implementation of the Shipley resolution? Which 25 companies, and why only them? Is it the intention to nationalise their assets or as originally proposed only for a state holding company to buy a 51 per cent share in them… If public ownership is the best system, then it applies to the entire economy. We do not want to take over every barbers’ or fish and chip shop, but the giant monopolies that dominate the economy, numbering some 250-300. (8)
Interestingly, Militant quoted in the same issue the comments of Denis Healey:
We are all agreed with the need for a massive extension of public ownership… establishing comprehensive planning control over the hundred or so largest companies in Britain… and to extend public ownership in the profitable manufacturing industries. (9)
Roy Hattersley, the leading right winger, also “argued in favour of nationalising North Sea gas and oil, development land and rented property.”
This decision to propose the nationalisation of the 25 companies was carried with the decisive vote of Peter Doyle, LPYS representative on the NEC. This indicated the crucial role which the LPYS, and through them the Marxists, played in shaping the policy and the direction of the labour movement at this stage (and later, as Militant supporters, Nick Bradley, Tony Saunois, Laurence Coates, Steve Morgan, Frances Curran, Linda Douglas and Hannah Sell did over the next 15 years).
1973 seemed to demonstrate an almost unstoppable movement towards the Left within the labour movement.
In June of that year, Militant again reported on the progress of the Clay Cross struggle. John Dunn, a Clay Cross LPYS member and a future Clay Cross councillor, reported:
Had other authorities built houses at the same rate as Clay Cross, we would have had the figure of one and a half million new houses being built every year. The complete municipalisation of all rented property is rapidly seeing the end of all landlords capitalising on second-rate property… No child in Clay Cross has missed his or her free school milk since ‘milk-snatcher Thatcher’ tried to take it away. (10)
Meanwhile, the Clay Cross councillors were being dragged before the law courts for refusing to implement the Housing Finance Act. The effective leader of the struggle, councillor David Skinner, appeared before the High Court on Monday 9 July, when judgement was reserved for two weeks. Writing in Militant, he declared:
Our opposition was based on being honest with ourselves and the people who put us there and because, even in local government, it is possible to assist in changing society. To hear most councillors talk one would imagine they are incapable of organising resistance to the impositions of the central government. If all the Labour councils followed the example of Clay Cross it would be impossible to carry out the Housing Finance Act.
He went on:
By not implementing the Act we have saved the working-class ratepayers £70,000. We do not look after only the tenants but the council employees as well. The unions claimed a one-third increase in wages which we have granted. (11)
Later they were surcharged and banned from office.
Workers’ participation or control?
At the same time, Militant devoted considerable space to dealing with the key political and theoretical questions which had been raised in the ranks of the workers’ organisations. Because of the tendency towards sit-ins, big strikes and the question of ownership of industry being raised in the course of this movement, the question of workers’ control and workers’ management featured very highly on the agenda of the labour movement. Mixed up with this were the ideas of workers’ participation pushed by employers’ representatives and also by sections of the trade union leadership.
On workers’ ‘participation’ Militant pointed out:
If union officials were to rub shoulders more often with the capitalists on joint committees, swig their whiskey, etc, then they may be more disposed to take a ‘responsible’ attitude towards redundancies, rises in prices while wages are held down, and all the other crimes of capitalism. This is the fond hope of Heath and his crew. When stripped of all the fancy language, this is the real essence of ‘participation’ as envisaged by the capitalists and their hirelings.
Amongst leftward moving workers, however, there was a keen interest in workers’ control. There was confusion over the demands for workers’ control and management which was reinforced by some on the left. Militant explained:
Both demands apply to different stages of the class struggle. Workers’ control is only possible on a mass scale in the period which immediately precedes or just after the socialist revolution… Workers’ control means that the workers exercise control over the capitalists, checking the outgoings and ingoings, having access to all the books and accounts of the capitalists… Workers’ management, on the other hand, comes from above and is exercised by the workers’ state, that is, the centralised soviets representing the workers as a whole. (12)
Some right-wing Labour leaders at the time sought to discredit the ideas of workers’ control and management by denouncing them as ‘syndicalism’. Militant argued that:
The ideas of the syndicalists, that after the socialist revolution each industry will be managed and controlled by the workers in that industry, is completely utopian. Its implementation would lead to the complete breakdown of the economy and society, with one industry pitted against another. It would be impossible to implement a national plan, without which industry, science and technique could not develop. (13)
To read more of The Rise of Militant click on the link below: