"Ramparts of Resistance" author, Sheila Cohen, replies to Tom Unterrainer and Martin Thomas

Submitted by Anon on 9 May, 2007 - 9:34

Sheila Cohen responds to two reviews, by Tom Unterrainer and Martin Thomas, of her book on trade unionism, Ramparts of Resistance: Why Workers Lost Their Power, and How to Get It Back (Pluto Press, 2006)

For Tom Unterrainer, click here
For Martin Thomas, click here

Unfortunately, I have to begin this review-of-reviews with an irrelevance: the question of my personal political involvement since 1970. This surely uninteresting issue is raised by some distressing and inaccurate comments in the second of the two reviews, "How we lost", Soli/WL 19 April 2007, p10.

Amusingly, its author implies that, rather like some ageing "celebrity" trying to deny her true age, I am deliberately encouraging people to assume that "this [ie, me] is someone too young to remember the struggles of the 70s and 80s first-hand". Well, no. I'm quite prepared to admit both my chronological age - almost 60 - and also my political age as someone who most certainly does "remember the struggles of the 70s and 80s first-hand" - in fact was present at many of them.

Curiously, I didn't think to spell this out on "the blurb at the back", mainly because the kind of direct involvement I had in the movement through initiatives like Trade Union News did not in fact start until, as the blurb duly specifies, a couple of decades ago - but also, perhaps, because I had no idea anyone would be interested.
Unfortunately, this otherwise mystifying preoccupation with my early political life is used to make some damaging guilt-by-association statements of which only the following - "Sheila was already a mainstream [!] member of IS…in 1971. She left IS with a group expelled in early 1973. The group, known in IS as the Right oppsition, continued as a more-or-less underground Discussion Group" - bears any relation to the truth.
Just for the record, whatever the relationship between any individuals within the Discussion Group and the WRP, I have never had any connections whatsoever with that organisation. Similarly, while David Yaffe and Frank Furedi did indeed form sectarian splinters from the Discussion Group, I never had anything to do with either of those - nor, indeed, with The Chartist.

I joined IS in 1970 because of its "turn to the class". Ever since then, I have been "turned" to that class. Nothing much else, politically, has ever mattered to me. So Martin's suggestion that "Sheila Cohen now rejects her politics of the 70s and 80s" is about as inaccurate as everything else he has written in this part of the article.

OK, now to the politics. One important point of debate between the two reviews of my book - Martin's and an earlier contribution by Tom Unterrainer, "How militancy was sapped from below", seems to be Martin's contention that Tom's review supprts some form of the infamous SWP "downturn" thesis. In response, he argues both that the thesis is wrong, and that it's not what I was arguing in my book (agreed on both counts). Instead, Martin contends, what Ramparts identifies as "the problem" is "too much 'politicism' and not enough 'economism'."
In fact, all three of these issues - whether there was a "downturn", whether the workplace bureaucracy which Tom emphasises as key to the defeats of the '80s is definable in terms of that "downturn", and what the most useful political analysis of that bureaucratisation might be - can be brought together in a deeper consideration of Martin's rather robust characterisation of my take on the problem.

Too much "politicism"? Not enough "economism"? It sounds counter-intuitive, to say the least. But in the analysis of class consciousness offered in the next-to-last chapter of Ramparts , I looked in depth at examples of the overall failure by strong workplace union organisations to effectively resist the hard cop-soft cop offensive of the late '70s and 1980s; and what these examples seemed to reveal was not a lack of political consciousness or broader awareness, but of something both simpler and much, much more difficult - the ability to apply conscious class politics to that crucial crucible of class relations, the workplace. As I concluded that section:

"The target for capital’s most insidious and most profit-generating tactics, from Taylorism to multiskilling, from ‘quality circles’ to ‘team concept’ and ‘lean production’, the workplace is also where labour is strongest, most nourished by its roots in the concrete issues and contradictions facing the working class. This strength is the foundation for wider struggles, for major strikes, for the possibility of classwide solidarity. In its failure to recognise the central class meaning of its most valuable asset – rank-and-file resistance and membership support – the ideology of left reformism ultimately failed the movement as a whole" (p183).

By "left reformism" I meant, perhaps controversially, the tendency for even the most "open socialists" in the workplace - and there were, as Tom points out, many of those - to resort to a politics of protest and morality rather than addressing themselves to the hard but crucial questions of workplace issues, resistance and organisation during the crucial years when the ruling class was recovering itself and developing the most devious and aggressive policies of profit recovery in - where else? - the workplace. Its success in that arena was, unfortunately, only too solid a foundation for its success in all the other arenas we now know about.

The "Murmuring"
But don't let me dominate the argument. Martin himself puts it beautifully: "Many veteran union leftists have come to put workplace organising in the 'too hard' box and focus their activity primarily on such things as getting their union branches to affiliate to this or that campaign; putting motions on their favoured international issues through union conferences; and winning elections for union posts." I couldn't agree more that, by contrast, "Rebuilding union org has to start with the old workerist adage that 'the alternative…exists as a 'murmuring' among the proletariat".

I'm glad we agree on that - as does Tom, with his clear advocacy of the rank and file perspective advocated in Ramparts. The difference is revealed within Martin's argument that "It does not follow that the downfall of the rank and file militancy of the 1960s and 70s was due to stewards getting facility time, or being 'led away from the workplace towards the broader political arena' ". Here the difference in approach is all in that or.

What I have tried to argue in Ramparts was that the "downfall" was down to a third factor - the failure to build a network out of the militancy and activism of the upsurge period that could have consciously and deliberately worked out a class politics based on two simple but crucial principles: class independence and rank and file membership involvement.

What Might Have Been…
It is this failure to build on what was already there and take it in a focussed and class-based direction which, if not responsible for the defeats of the post-upsurge period , certainly allowed for the wounds to go much deeper, for the false bargain of class collaboration to be bought less critically, less knowingly. And, perhaps most tragically of all, it was a failure which could have been avoided, which was in the process of being avoided until Cliff's eagerness to "build the party" cut across the earlier, non-sectarian - and until then successful - IS project to build a rank and file movement.

This is why, in my analysis of the 1968-74 upsurge (and rejection, of course, of the concept of "downturn"), I focussed on what might have been in terms of two valuable rank and file networks then existing at the roots of the class. My brief endorsement of the LCDTU - "networks like the Communist Party’s Liaison Committee for the Defence of the Trade Unions (LCDTU) mobilised thousands of shop stewards in organising against anti-union government policies" was not - does this really need spelling out? - "praise…[of] the CP". Instead, like my equivalent "praise" for the then IS-initiated rank and file movement (or beginning of one) it was offered in order to lament the so-rapid passing of that non-sectarian move to consolidate, to build on the baisis of the crucial cross-class workplace-based networks then in existence.
In this context, I disagree with Martin's analysis that "What was new in 1968-74 was…the reappearance of big, national, official strikes". Statistically, Martin may be right. But in fact the renewed confidence and power of the movement in the upsurge period stemmed precisely from the energy and combativity at the unofficial end of the movement. As Ramparts shows, it was unofficial and "unconstitutional" strikes which were seen by the Labour government of the time as the real curse of the period.

This fierce militancy, and what I described in Ramparts as the "raw" wkplace democracy of the 1960s, in which members steered their own stewards rather than the other way round, was crucial in combating the deadly tendency towards institutionalisation which began to take over in the 1970s. For this very reason, it is crucial for class-conscious activsts to recognise and explictly place barriers in the way of the routine progress of yesterday's militant to today's bureaucrat. Such recognition could again have been part of the awareness and education developed within a rank and file movement surviving beyond the early 1970s - as indeed, it was and is in the case of the US Teamsters for a Democratic Union .

A Network Now?
However, Ramparts argues, it isn't too late. An important piece of the book's strategic argument is that "Through all the manifold attacks on independent workplace organisation in both Britain and America, a residue of activists has remained to pose some form of opposition against the unmitigated might of capital…the existence of this layer, standard bearers of militant class unionism within the movement, poses the possibility of building an in-class network of committed activists able to survive periods of ‘downturn’ and…lead the next ‘upsurge’ – from the ground up" (p211).

Martin's critique of this strategic focus, by implication, is that it "impartially dismisses all radicals who have paid attention to labour struggles", and with them the influence of the Marxist ideas necessary to take struggle beyond "instinctive reactions to workplace issues". All true as far as it goes. However, the point missed here by so much of the left, including those more pessimistic elements which entirely dismiss "economistic" concerns and struggles, is that the relationship works the other way. It is not a question of the undeniable truth that revolutionary consciousness does not simply develop out of working-class struggles, but of the fact that such consciousness does not, on the whole, develop within the working class without experiences of and struggles against the impact of exploitation in the workplace.
Thus the argument is not that workplace struggles are a sufficient condition of revolutionary consciousness. It is that they are one of the very few experiences which open up those without, to quote from the Introduction, "the luxury of a formal political education", to a critical overview and deeper understanding of the nature of capitalism - not to mention a deeper commitment to the struggle against that system.
Much of the historical content of Ramparts is an object lesson in how, even beyond the culture of resistance that characterised the "upsurge", workers in both the labour movements studied were galvanised into resistance and transformed in consciousness from conservatism to outraged opposition against a system which had so betrayed them. What galvanised them? Highly prosaic issues, like, indeed, the "punctuation marks" of Trotsky's print workers in 1905:

"The typesetters at Sytin’s print-works in Moscow struck on September 19. They demanded a shorter working day and a higher piecework rate per 1,000 letters set, not excluding punctuation marks. This small event set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike – the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism".
The political issues in which the bourgeois media, the mainstream parties, the BNP etc will indeed continue to intervene, as Martin rightly points out, are in fact the kind of issues in which radicalised workers do tend to intervene, once radicalised. But this kind of political change of direction, worthy as it may be, fails to secure an ongoing seachange in the consciousness of the working class to the extent that the workplace-based issues which generated the politicisation are then neglected by radicalised workers - not to mention the revolutionary left.

What is required is not an "either-or" position of attention to broader political issues versus economistic struggles, but a fusion of Marxist political understanding with the general concerns of workers who are perhaps too preoccupied with the problems of everyday living - and understandably suspicious of "politicians" - to seek or receive an analytical overview of the nature of the system. It is work-related struggle which opens them up to receptiveness to such ideas - and that opening-up must include continued attention to the isisues of exploitation, rather than leaving those (and their fellow-workers) behind.

It is the Simple Thing…
Bertold Brecht's poem "In Praise of Communism" finishes with the lines, "It's not the riddle
But the solution.
It's the simple thing
That's hard to do".

What Ramparts is recommending is a very simple thing, but it seems to be a hard thing to do for the left. One current example of this is the RMT-based initative to create a National Shop Stewards' Network - a promising idea which has not exactly been overwhelmed with support from the revolutionary left. So far the steering committee has had to postpone the launch conference at least once due to disorganisation - perhaps not entirely unrelated to the fact that both the leading political groups on the steering committee have other, more "party"-oriented agendas.
Why is it so hard to do something (relatively) simple? When I was editing Trade Union News and contacting workers and strikers to build support for a cross-class workplace-based initiative, it was like pushing at an open door. Union activists seemed to know what the paper was almost before I sent it to them. It's not a lack of interest and acceptance among shopfloor activists that holds back such initiatives - it's the (largely revolutionary) left.

In this context it's interesting that Martin Thomas' overview is headed "How we lost" - an accurate summation of Ramparts' concerns. But who, in this context, are "we"? Are we the revolutionary left - or the strikers who sang "We are the working class" as they marched up the hill to Pentonville in support of the jailed dockers in 1972?

The answer, of course, is both. When workers lose, socialist ideas and the potential they hold go with them. This simple truth relates to the fact that yes, it really is all about the working class. The working class is the revolutionary agent, the socialist left is the ideas machine. It's very hard to get that relationship right - but one way of doing it is not the only-too-traditional lefty way, in which we produce a correct programme, put it to the workers, and get miffed if they don't agree. A caricature, of course. But isn't it time we started actually looking at where the working class is, rather than where we might like it to be - and building from there, from the ground up? A start would be to simply turn our energies to supporting and consolidating what already exists - the invaluable network of committed trade union activists in the workplace. The call to turn in this simple direction is the central message of Ramparts. As I said at the end of the book - "I hope it works."

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