Theses on the Class Struggle in Britain
Over the last 40 years, the ICC in Britain has maintained a regular analysis of the situation in Britain – economic crisis, political manoeuvres of the bourgeoisie, the UK’s imperialist role, and in particular the class struggle and the history of the workers’ movement. We are republishing here one of our first efforts to develop an overall understanding of the class struggle in the country where capitalism initially had its most impetuous development (from World Revolution No7, July 1976). The text addresses one of the main problems which still confront the class movement today – how to pass from immediate struggles of economic defence to a more global and political struggle based on a perspective of revolutionary social change. The ‘Theses’ provide some solid arguments about why this problem has been particularly marked in the working class in Britain, while at the same time examining the connection between this difficulty and the relatively weak tradition of revolutionary marxism in the UK. Subsequently, we have published a number of further studies which go deeper into this issue, but the basic approach in the Theses remains valid. Indeed, point 9 of the Theses could still be confidently written about the political milieu in Britain today: “....Sectarian rivalries between the different revolutionary groups; attachment to outmoded social democratic and syndicalist conceptions; above all the inability to understand the need for centralised organisation and political coherence were to obstruct the efforts of the British revolutionaries....”
The text was written during one of the short periods of retreat in the class struggle which marked the period between 1968 and 1989. It predicts that the austerity measures then being introduced by the Labour government would provoke a strong reaction from the class – a perspective verified by the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979, and confirmed by subsequent movements of the class against the continuation of these attacks on its living standards orchestrated by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government. However, as with other analyses of the class struggle by the ICC during this period, there is a tendency to underestimate the depth of the problem which is precisely the main focus of the Theses – the problem of politicisation – and thus to end with the hope that the passage to a higher level of class struggle would be far closer than it has turned out to be in reality. This is why we intend to produce some sequels to this text, aimed at elaborating a balance sheet of the class struggle in Britain in the four decades since the Theses were written – a period which has been marked by even greater challenges to the working class (the conscious counter-attack on the class mounted by the ‘right in power/left in opposition’ manoeuvres of the 80s, the defeat of the miners’ strike, the dismantling of traditional centres of working class militancy, the ideological offensive around the collapse of the eastern bloc after 1989, and the onset of the phase of capitalist decomposition).
- The evolution of the proletarian class struggle in Britain has been fundamentally determined by the fact that Britain was the motherland of industrial capitalism, the first capitalist nation. From the first trade clubs and combinations of the late eighteenth century, the British proletariat pioneered the struggle to resist the ferocious exploitation of early capitalism. The British proletariat evolved the form of organization most suited to this defensive struggle: the trade union, and thus set a heroic example to the workers of the whole world. But just as the global generalisation of capitalist relations of production was, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, to leave Britain lagging behind younger, more vigorous capitalisms, so the political development of the working class movement in Britain was to be severely retarded by the very factors which had been a source of strength for the movement in an earlier period.
- The depth and tenacity of the trade union tradition in the British proletariat, the long period of struggle on an economic and reformist terrain, should not obscure the often violent political struggle which the proletariat of this country did embark upon in its early days. The secret armed associations organized by the Luddites; the ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartist movement: these and other tendencies testify to the existence of a genuinely insurrectionary tradition in the British working class and amply refute the notion of the eternally 'docile’ and ‘peaceful' British worker. Nevertheless, the political revolutionary element in the British workers’ movement has always been, at best, a secondary one.
- The main reason for this was the strength and stability of British capitalism in its ascendant epoch. The British bourgeoisie, having made its political revolution at a very early stage of its historic development, was able to boast the stability and self-confidence that comes from long years of peaceful domination. This was in profound contrast, for example, to the French bourgeoisie, which was still engaging in violent struggle against feudal and reactionary elements until the second half of the nineteenth century, giving the French proletariat an experience of insurrection and confrontation with the state long before the epoch of its own social revolution had dawned. Over this period of stability and prosperity, in which Britain was ‘the workshop of the world’, the British bourgeoisie was able to evolve a political apparatus eminently suitable to the peaceful containment of the class struggle: the regime of parliamentary democracy. Above all, the strength of British capital enabled it to make substantial concessions to the working class on the social, economic and political fronts: systematic rises in real earnings, reductions in the working day, education, electoral and trade union rights, etc. The huge successes obtained by the British workers’ movement, through trade union struggles and through supporting progressive factions of the bourgeoisie in Parliament, were able to create in the workers’ movement a strong conviction in the immutable efficacy of these methods. In the leadership of the movement, the bourgeois ideas of empiricism, gradualism and compromise were to penetrate so deeply that Marx and Engels sometimes despaired of creating a communist minority within the British labour movement.
- The development of communist ideas, of proletarian political theory and organization, thus did not find its most important expression in Britain, but in other national sectors of the workers’ movement. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, marxism as the theory of the proletarian revolution was developed by the revolutionary social democrats of Germany, Russia, and elsewhere. In Britain, the social democratic movement in its marxist form had but shallow roots. And despite the importance of organizations like Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation and William Morris's Socialist League, their main reaction to the dominant empiricism and reformism in the British labour movement was a sectarian purism, an abstract disdain for the day-to-day struggles of the class. These attitudes tended to isolate them from the class movement and thus to enforce its economism.
- In contrast to other nations, where the social democratic parties had been largely instrumental in setting up the trade unions, Britain did not acquire a mass social democratic party until the trade unions were faced with the necessity of creating an independent political party to defend their interests in Parliament. Because of the deeply conservative tendencies of the trade union leadership at that time, the emergence of the Labour Party in 1908 as the political wing of the trade unions could only accentuate the reformist character of this party. But more important, the Labour Party was established at a time when the revisionist, gradualist, and class-collaborationist tendencies of international social democracy had all but completed its effective integration into bourgeois society. In contrast to the Social Democratic Party of Germany and parties elsewhere, the Labour Party at its inception had no pretensions to be a revolutionary, or even a socialist party. The Labour Party was created too late to serve as an organ of reformist struggle of the class, but early enough to be used as a powerful weapon of bourgeois mystification in the era of capitalist decline that was clearly dawning by the beginning of this century.
- In reaction to the growing bourgeoisification of the craft-based trade unions, but in essential continuity with the anti-political current which had grown up in the British workers’ movement, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a considerable development of Syndicalist tendencies within the British working class. Syndicalist and industrial unionist ideas played an important part in the struggles which gave birth to unskilled workers’ unions in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and in the process of amalgamation and centralization which led to the creation of big industrial unions in the 1900s: miners, railwaymen, transport workers. The militancy of the syndicalist current was amply demonstrated during the huge strike waves which swept the country between 1910 and 1914; and the influence of syndicalist ideas on the revolutionary minorities of the class could be seen in the programme of the De Leonist Socialist Labour Party, the emergence of a British section of the IWW and the penetration of industrial unionist ideas into other socialist organizations. The shop stewards and workers’ committee movement, which emerged during World War I as an elemental class response to the integration of the official trade union apparatus into the imperialist war machine of the state, was in essential continuity with this syndicalist tradition.
- The imperialist war of l914-18, which put a temporary halt on the preceding strike waves, gave shattering proof of the integration of the unions and the Labour Party into the capitalist state, in common with the unions and social democratic parties of the world. By calling for an ‘industrial truce’ for the duration of the war - a truce which was a prelude to the militarization of labour and the outlawing of strikes - and by calling on the workers to sacrifice themselves in the interest of the ‘nation’, the unions and the Labour Party proved their value to the bourgeoisie at this critical juncture, but were irrevocably lost to the proletariat.
- But if the war marked the definitive passage of the unions and social democracy into the camp of the bourgeoisie, it also demonstrated the inadequacy of syndicalism as a response to the new conditions of class struggle posed by the advent of capitalist decadence. As in Russia, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, the proletariat in Britain began to engage in a bitter class resistance as the barbarity of the war stripped it of most of the gains it had made in decades of reformist struggles. The munitions, engineering and miners’ strikes during the war, and above all the massive general strikes in the Clyde and Belfast in 1919, were a formidable part of the revolutionary wave which swept the world after l917. Together with the stirrings of revolt in the army and navy, these struggles showed that a revolutionary situation was maturing in Britain as well as in continental Europe. The bourgeoisie’s recognition of this was demonstrated as much by the sending of troops and tanks to the Clyde in 1919 as by the government‘s ignominious climb-down in the face of the movement against British intervention in Soviet Russia in 1920. But if the bourgeoisie was able to recognize an objectively revolutionary situation, the leadership thrown up by the class struggle - the shop stewards and militants of the different socialist groups - proved unable to recognise it. Syndicalist ideas of seizing or gradually taking over industry as a way of abolishing capitalism; localist prejudices; the failure to link up the workers’ strikes to the revolts in the armed forces; above all the inability to see the necessity for the working class to centralise its struggle into a political assault on the capitalist state, into a fight for the soviet dictatorship: all these shortcomings were to make it impossible for the mass strikes in Britain to take on a clearly insurrectionary character and thus link up with the proletarian revolution in Europe and Russia. These failings in the leadership of the class in turn reflected the inability of the British class as a whole to break out of the limitations of a trade unionist and reformist tradition, and to face up to the revolutionary tasks imposed by the new epoch.
- The hesitancy of the general class movement in Britain was also reflected in the difficulties encountered by revolutionaries in this country in regrouping themselves into a centralized organization with a clear communist programme. As in Germany where the Communist Party was not constituted until the revolution had already got underway, so the Communist Party of Great Britain was not set up until 1920-1, when the main wave of struggle had already passed its peak. Sectarian rivalries between the different revolutionary groups; attachment to outmoded social democratic and syndicalist conceptions; above all the inability understand the need for centralised organisation and political coherence were to obstruct the efforts of the British revolutionaries to form a really effective Communist Party. And when the CPGB was finally established, largely thanks to the intervention of the Communist International, it was to be profoundly marred by the signs of degeneration that were already clearly apparent in the International. With the full support of the Comintern leadership, the CPGB adopted a programme shot through with opportunist tactics: participation in Parliament and trade unions, application for affiliation to the Labour Party, etc. The left wing communists were isolated and finally pushed aside, while the CPGB leadership became one of the most loyal travellers along the CI's path to class betrayal. When the Stalinist counter-revolution finally delivered the coup de grace to the International, the CPGB could only lamely follow the rest of its parties into the camp of the bourgeoisie.
- In the struggle for a coherent revolutionary regroupment in the years 1914-24, there were some notable exceptions to the general confusion that prevailed in the British workers’ movement: in particular the left wing of the British Socialist Party under John Maclean, who took a clear revolutionary defeatist position against the imperialist war; and the group around Sylvia Pankhurst's Workers‘ Dreadnought, which led the fight against the opportunist tactics of the CI and the CPGB. In the years 1917-24, the Dreadnought provided a vital focus for the elaboration of communist positions. Pankhurst’s was the first tendency in Britain to establish real links with the Bolshevik Party and the Comintern; and it was the first to provide a forum for the struggle of the left communists against the degeneration of the CI; in particular the Russian left communists, the KAPD (the Communist Workers‘ Party of Germany) and the KAI (Communist Workers’ International), with which the Pankhurst group attempted to regroup through a British Communist Workers‘ Party (CWP, subsequently the Communist Workers’ Movement). But if the Dreadnought was a real expression of proletarian resistance to the growing opportunism of the Third International, it has also had severe weaknesses on the theoretical plane, expressing themselves in a tendency towards syndicalism and immediatism. These weaknesses made it impossible for the Pankhurst group to sustain itself after the revolutionary wave had subsided, to carry on the new tasks imposed by the onset of the counter-revolution. In other words, to carry out the theoretical reflection and preparation which are the work of the communist fraction in a period of reflux. The disappearance of the Workers’ Dreadnought in 1924 was also the disappearance of any real left communist tradition in Britain until today, a factor which has weighed heavily on the newly emerging communist movement.
- The weakness of the revolutionary movement in Britain, in conjunction with the momentary advantages won by British capital through its ‘victory’ in the imperialist war, allowed the British bourgeoisie to avoid a catastrophic confrontation with the class in the immediate post-war period. Through a series of temporary concessions, and through the counter-revolutionary manoeuvres of its left-wing agents, British capital weathered the revolutionary storm. But in fact the war had effectively deprived British imperialism of its former world supremacy. Lagging far behind its more dynamic US rival, British capital was struck with considerable savagery by the 1921 world economic crisis. In this situation the British bourgeoisie had no alternative but to launch a massive counter-offensive against the proletariat, in order to regain a competitive position on the world market. This attack - in the form of wage-cuts, lock-outs, and redundancies - was bound to lead to a new confrontation with a proletariat that had not yet suffered the huge physical defeats undergone by the Russian and European workers. This confrontation was narrowly avoided in 1921, due to the ‘betrayal’ of the Triple Alliance on ‘Black Friday’, and again in 1925 when the bourgeoisie retreated from a major clash in order to prepare its repressive forces (the so-called ‘Red Friday’). In the context of a declining world revolutionary wave, these delays could only function to the advantage of the bourgeoisie. The final confrontation came when the revolutionary wave had almost entirely exhausted itself in Europe: 1926.
- The General Strike of 1926 was thus the last flicker of the revolutionary wave in Europe, but the British proletariat went into battle with all the forces of the counter-revolution ranged against it: not only the Conservative Government of Baldwin and Churchill, which had meticulously prepared itself to deal with the strike - but also the so-called ‘workers’ organizations’, the trade unions and the Labour Party, which did everything they could to keep the strike within the bounds of a respectable ‘industrial dispute’. The Stalinised Communist Party meanwhile provided a ‘left’ cover for this counter-revolutionary concert. Despite the militant spirit of the workers, despite local attempts at self-organization and at raising the level of struggle, the class found itself caught up in the sheer impossibility of a simple ‘general strike’ in the epoch of decadence. Failing to go onto the stage of insurrection, the strike could only fall back in defeat. Because of the isolation imposed on the struggle by the decline of the international revolution, the workers found it impossible to shatter the stranglehold of the forces of the counter-revolution in their own midst, and were finally abandoned to their fate by the shameless retreat of the unions. The demoralization and disarray caused by this defeat were to weigh heavily on the consciousness of the class for decades.
- Its spirit finally broken by the collapse of the 1926 strike, the working class in Britain found itself almost completely incapable of resisting the effects of the 1929 world crisis, which began to hit Britain with appalling intensity in 1931. The utter prostration of the class movement was symbolised by charades like the Jarrow Hunger March, in which the workers were reduced to begging capitalism for the meanest crumbs. Along with the rest of the world proletariat, the workers in Britain found themselves being beaten further and further into the ground by the depression years, until they were ready for mobilization into the imperialist war of 1939-45, capital’s ‘solution’ to the crisis. In the work of mobilizing the class with the call to ‘defend democracy’ and ‘fight fascism’, the unions and the Labour Party once again proved their importance as organs of the bourgeoisie; and this time they were ably assisted by the Communist Party, the newly-reconstituted shop stewards movement, and the Trotskyists, all of whom demanded the defence of the ‘socialist fatherland’ in Russia.
- Having learned its lessons from the 1917-23 revolutionary wave, the world bourgeoisie did all it could to make sure that the end of the 1939-45 war did not give rise to another proletarian outburst. It thus combined a savage repression of the isolated workers’ revolts that did occur (Italy, Germany, East Europe, Vietnam), with a series of conciliatory methods aimed at convincing the proletariat that its struggle against fascism had not been in vain. It became necessary to integrate the class into the running of society: in France, the Communist Party was brought into the government to encourage the workers in the ‘reconstruction’ of capitalism, while in Britain a Labour Government came to power, pledged to the building of a ‘Welfare State’ for the benefit of the working people.
- Despite the austerity of the post-war years, the reconstruction gave world capitalism a breathing space of unprecedented length. In Britain the temporary expansion of markets gave rise to all the illusions of prosperity, of a ‘consumer society’. The 1950s and early 1960s was thus the period in which the workers were told that they ‘had never had it so good’, a period of social calm and stability presided over by a complacent Conservative administration. During this period, which was actually one of ever-increasing rates of exploitation in exchange for a few consumer ‘perks‘, there was an important development of unofficial strikes, especially in the car industry, where the militant spirit of the workers set an example for the whole class. But the impact of these strikes could at that time be absorbed by economic concessions which removed the threat of their breaking out of local and sectional confines.
- The re-emergence of the world capitalist crisis in the late 1960s led in Britain, as it did all over the globe, to a resurgence of class struggle on a scale not seen for nearly fifty years. The high point of this resurgence was the year 1972, the year of the national miners’ strike, the building workers’ strike and the London dockers’ struggle which exploded into an unofficial general strike that filled the bourgeoisie with near panic. In these and other strikes, the class began to engage in forms of struggle which extended the autonomy and scope of the strikes towards open confrontation with the repressive forces of the state: occupations, flying pickets, unofficial strike committees. In particular the antagonism between the class and the trade unions was more and more revealed through these struggles.
- Since 1972, however, there has been a definite decline in class combativity with the notable exception of some large-scale outbursts - like the miners’ strike and the Scottish strike wave of 1971 - and certain localized strikes in which workers have achieved some autonomy from the union apparatus (Imperial Typewriters 1974), or come directly up against the state (Glasgow firemen 1973, Glasgow dustmen 1975). 1975 saw the lowest number of strikes since the onset of the crisis, and this despite the huge growth in unemployment, continually rising prices and increased exploitation which is the lot of the class in Britain as everywhere else today.
- Even at its highest points, the new wave of class struggle in Britain has not yet reached the same level as it has in countries such as Spain, Argentina and Poland. This is in great part due to the strength of the democratic and trade union apparatus in which the British bourgeoisie, one of the most sophisticated and experienced ruling classes in the world, is still able to imprison the proletariat. The continued importance of the electoral circus, and more particularly of the Labour Party, as a means of sabotaging the class struggle, was demonstrated by the 1974 election which put an end to the dangers posed by the miners’ strike and the three-day week. And although the majority of strikes are unofficial and are opposed by the trade union bureaucracy, they do not often elude the control of the shop stewards who remain the indispensable ‘shock absorbers’ of the unions and thus of the state within the factory. Although this is basically a reflection of the persistence of sectional and localist illusions in the class, the active role of the shop stewards in derailing and containing the workers’ struggles must be recognized and denounced by revolutionaries; in the same way, the activities of the various leftist groups – Stalinists, Trotskyists, etc - must be attacked as so many ways of mystifying the class and diverting its struggle towards reactionary and fraudulent goals (nationalisations, self-management, the ‘right to work’, etc).
- If the struggle of the British proletariat has in a general way been held back by democratic and trade unionist mystifications, the sector of the class in Ireland has been more particularly kept in line through the mystifications of nationalism and religious chauvinism, both of the ‘Loyalist-Protestant’ and ‘Republican-Catholic’ varieties. In a historical epoch in which so-called national liberation struggles everywhere can only have a reactionary character, the struggle between different factions of the bourgeoisie in Ireland seeking a 'national’ solution to the ‘Irish problem’ can offer nothing to the working class. On the contrary, the continuing inability of the British and Irish bourgeoisie to establish a political framework capable of mediating these conflicts expresses the historical weakness of capitalism in this region and its inability to face up to the hammer blows of the world economic crisis. The result of this is a barbarous social decomposition in which the working class in Northern Ireland is caught in a murderous crossfire between the different nationalist gangs (UDA, IRA, etc) and the ‘official’ forces of state repression. To support any of these forces is simply to participate in the mobilisation and slaughter of the proletariat; the only way for the working class in Ireland to extricate itself from this impasse is to find its own class terrain, rejecting the national and religious divisions imposed by capital and integrating itself into the mainstream of the international class struggle. This necessarily implies a merciless struggle against all the nationalist forces and all forms of bourgeois state power.
- British capital is one of the weakest of all the advanced capitals. The brutal intensification of the crisis in this country is something that no government can possibly avoid, no matter how many measures of state intervention or financial juggling it resorts to. Today the British bourgeoisie, gaining in confidence because of the low level of class struggle, has felt able to begin the frontal attack on the working class which the crisis demands, although the full brunt of this attack is yet to come. With the full co-operation of the unions, the Labour government has launched a programme of wage freezes, lay-offs, and cuts in social welfare spending. For the moment the reaction of the British working class has been cautious in the extreme; it is as though it is waiting to see whether by ‘pulling in its belt’ for the time being, it will be able to benefit from the ‘upturn’ in the economy which, as the bourgeoisie never tires of saying, is ‘just round the corner’.
- But since the crisis will not disappear with the prayers of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat will sooner or later be forced to realise the uselessness of going along with the austerity measures of the bourgeois state; similarly it will more and more discover the ineffectiveness of sectional struggles as a way of defending its living standards. Although the transition to a higher level of struggle may not be on the immediate agenda in Britain, when it does occur it will probably be very brusque and unexpectedly violent, shattering the myth of the ‘moderate’ British working class. This is precisely because of the fact that, while the democratic and trade union apparatus has been used to such good effect by the British bourgeoisie, the very utilization of these weapons over such a long period of time is now more and more revealing their rottenness and decay. The workers’ awareness of this decay has built up over the decades in a gradual, almost subterranean way, expressing itself in a widespread cynicism and disillusion with the 'workers’ organizations’. But once this merely passive cynicism is transformed through a series of bitter struggles into a conscious and active political understanding of the nature of the so-called ‘workers organisations’, it will become clear that the lessons of the last sixty years have not been lost to the class in Britain.
- When this transition to a higher level of struggle does occur, it is bound to confront the trade union apparatus with considerable fury because of the identification of the unions with the whole regime of austerity which is currently being foisted on to the class. The overt confrontation with the unions will be the signal for the appearance in Britain of those radical forms of struggle which have already sprung up in other countries: mass assemblies, wildcat strike committees completely outside the control of the stewards, generalized struggles affecting whole towns and regions, direct conflict with the repressive forces of the state.
- In these deepening struggles, the proletariat in Britain will forge the consciousness of the necessity to join together with the workers of the whole world in the violent assault on the capitalist state. In the battle to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat on a world scale, the proletariat in Britain will at last realize its immense potential strength, and will constitute one of the most important bastions of the world revolution.
WR July 1976
 See in particular the book by Mark Hayes, The British Communist Left 1914-1945, a contribution to the history of the revolutionary movement, available from Amazon.co.uk; a complement to this book is the series ‘The Struggle for the Class Party in Britain’ published between 1997 and 2000. So far only the following article from the series is online but we intend to make the whole series available soon:
‘History of the workers movement in Britain’, covering the early phase of the movement
For the first decades of the 20th century
‘Notes on internationalist anarchism in Britain’: