Summary of the book "Autonomous Class Struggle in Great Britain" by Cajo Brendel (Cajo Brendel)

Cajo Brendel outlines his book on history of the class struggle in Great Britain in the three decades after World War II.

Submitted by libcom on September 20, 2005

The autonomous class struggle which the book refers to is not even a specifically British phenomenon - it is a formula describing the increasing number of official and unofficial strikes in the first three decades of post-war capitalism all over the world. But because of the outstanding frequency which it reached in Britain it has become commonplace to characterize this development as the "English Disease".

Usually the trade unions are blamed as being responsible for it, and this kind of error of judgment even became a cornerstone of political ideology in Britain when at the beginning of the eighties the Thatcher government launched a series of attacks against traditional trade union rights. The author is firmly opposed to this popular belief of making the trade unions responsible for capital's problems, and at the same time he refuses to accept that the trade unions could be able to solve the problems (or at least some of the problems) of the working class. He sees things differently: The working class is well able to solve its problems itself, and in doing so it needs nobody's support.

To corroborate his views he has used a large number of British sources for writing this book on the autonomous class struggle in Britain: daily papers (among them The Times, the Financial Times, The Express, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Herald, etc.), party weeklies (among them the Socialist Leader and the Socialist Standard), different magazines (The Economist e.g.), books, pamphlets and oral information, given to him by some of his friends from the British working class. And having studied this bulk of material he has come to the conclusion that trade unionism has undergone a dramatic change in the post-war period pushing it to the very brink of its existence where it could no longer escape and no longer manoeuvre: Finally trade unionism has ended up in being in strict opposition to the working class and in being seen by the working class as such.

So the main thread that runs through 11 chapters in the original German edition or through 13 chapters in the (enlarged) French edition is that of a clear difference between the so-called organized labour movement and the spontaneous actions of the workers themselves, a difference that has turned into a contradiction. It might be useful just to list the headings:

1. New forms of working-class struggle
2. The "Labour government" against the workers
3. Myths of trade unionism
4. The strikes
5. Barbara Castle and the wildcat strikes
6. Strikes of the postal workers
7. "Work-in" at the Upper Clyde shipyards
8. The miners are swarming out
9. The failure of the Left
10. The railway workers' movement
11. A question of power

The book starts with a quotation from the Daily Telegraph, wrongly calling to mind the General Strike of 1926 when the strike wave of 1972 reached its climax in late July. Indeed the situation then could in no way be compared to that brought about fifty years earlier by the General Strike, which had been reluctantly proclaimed by the unions from above, and only because they were provoked by the government, leaving them little room for acting differently. In a realistic perspective the 1926 strike could only be characterized as the swan song of a past era: proclaimed from the top, broken from the top. In 1972, however, the strike movement originated on the shopfloor, and it was led by the workers themselves. The union could not avoid but support them if it wished not only to lose its face but also a lot of members. And while the National Union of Mineworkers pretended to be pulling the wires, the pitmen took over the initiative, employing methods of struggle which went far beyond the framework of the usual trade union practice. The same kind of situation prevailed in the railwaymen's strike and in the docks. It could be described as a general strike organized from the bottom, a sort of general "wildcat", which started not because of the will and the authority of a union, imposing its tactics on the workers, but because of the workers acting by themselves and for themselves and thus imposing their will on the union.

Consequently there is a clear dividing line between 1926 and 1972. 1926 was the last expression of the old, traditional labour movement in Britain. Then the British unions were, in fact for the last time and for particular reasons, forced to maintain their appearance as representatives of the working class. Later, and more and more clearly after World War II, they could no longer allow themselves the luxury of a big strike, not even one limited to a particular area or trade. This fact has ever since been a decisive factor in the behaviour of workers, their desire for self-determination and for the development of autonomous struggle, which forms the subject of a large part of the book.

Looking at the post-war history of the British labour movement (i.e. the organized movement), it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that this history has in fact been a kind of final judgment over its traditional organisations. All honest belief in them (whatever might still have remained of it) turned out to be pure and simple illusion; no myth which didn't lose its lustre; no political sense which didn't turn into absurdity; no social attainment which didn't become just the opposite of what people thought it would be. All too soon it became obvious that the policy of the third Labour Cabinet, formed in 1945, was not - as Prime Minister Clement Attlee had told the workers - "based on the brotherhood of man". "Brothers" in uniform invaded the London Surrey Docks to break a 'go slow' of the stevedores. The so-called 'workers government' sent troops against the workers, and afterwards did so again and again. Troops, yet more troops, always troops, this was Labour's constant reply to strikes.

Meanwhile the mines and some other industries were nationalised. It didn't take long for workers to find out that there was simply no difference between private and nationalised capitalism, or to be convinced that wage-slavery in the mines and in other nationalised industries would not be altered in any way, at least not for the better. When the miners of Grimethorpe Colliery in Yorkshire went on strike to express their total dissatisfaction with this kind of development, the union's president called them "criminals"; the National Coal Board brought a charge against 40 of them. Arthur Horner, the union's General Secretary (and a member of the British Communist Party) was a witness for the prosecution. Not only was this a great lesson about the true meaning of nationalisation, it also brought home to workers the true meaning of trade unionism.

But this was only a beginning. Increasingly workers discovered that in their struggles with capitalists and government their so-called leaders stood on the other side of the fence. The discovery was, of course, not a matter of somehow gaining some theoretical insight, but a matter of practical and often unreflected experience. In many cases these experiences were certainly still in conflict with workers' traditional views of the trade unions and the Labour Party. They may still have been little inclined to believe that the fundamental character of the organisations could be responsible for their opposition to the working class. They may still have tended to blame this or that individual of the moment for the failure of the organisations to support workers. But such views came heavily under attack in the post-war period and in the end became more and more undefendable.

What is more important, workers continued to act in accordance with their class situation, in accordance with their own experience on the assembly line or elsewhere at their workplace, as the situation demanded. And even if they often were not yet aware that what they were doing was in total contradiction with union practice and party principles, their struggles effectively created this contradiction and intensified it more and more. Sometimes their illusions went so far as to demand from bureaucrats to support their spontaneous actions. Not before they had realized a hundred times that this support was not forthcoming, did they reluctantly accept the truth about unions and Labour Party.

Because of all these and similar facts, unofficial strikes became daily events, especially in the post-war period, putting the unions and the Labour Party into a difficult position. For the union only has a significant role to play in industry as long as capitalist development still permits for mediation and as both workers and capitalists are more or less convinced of its value for each of them. The downfall of the unions was accelerated by the fact that the unions had less and less power to bridge the widening gap between themselves and the workers. The traditional ways of settling disputes failed increasingly. Therefore the unions were no longer able to exert their moderating influence on the working class.

At the end of the sixties it was clear that Britain was faced with a rising tide of strikes, for the greater part unofficial and more difficult to end than any official strike before. Ray Gunter, head of the Ministry of Labour in the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, disappointedly remarked that "union leaders have lost control". The independent action of the workers had increased irresistibly; the movement of the workers against capitalists and self-proclaimed friends of the working class had definitely gained momentum.

In the face of this development the British ruling class concluded that only a miracle could pull them out of their unpleasant situation. And in fact they were optimistic (or perhaps naive) enough to believe not only that such a miracle was possible but that it had suddenly occured. The miracle in question was supposed to be performed by Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in the Labour government of Wilson. She had concocted a White Paper under the telling name of "In Place of Strife", intended to be the starting point of the government's fight against any form of unofficial strike action. The White Paper drew up details about the opening shots to be fired, the numerous battles to be fought, and the rear-guard actions deemed necessary to win this fight against the unofficial movement. In fact Barbara Castle never came near to freeing Britain from the "plague" of the wildcats. As the Wilson government was forced to quit and the Tories moved into Whitehall, they for their part claimed to be able to finish the job: an 'Industrial Relations Bill' was presented to the Commons, becoming law in February 1972.

That was to become the signal for even fiercer struggles. The unions, because of the radical shifts of their position, had no intention (and no means) of fighting the law seriously. The workers, however, did fight it, even before the Tories' project became law. The first strike of a longer sequence was the one called for by the Union of Postoffice Workers early in 1971. In the late summer of this year the autonomous struggle of the British working class displayed new forms. The author dwells on the so-called occupation of the Upper Clyde Shipyards, which in fact was not an occupation but was far more realistically called a "work-in" by the workers themselves. There were lots of other struggles which did deserve to be called occupations. He cites the cases of the Plessey plant in Alexandria, the Allis-Chalmers plant in Mold, the Fisher-Bendix factory in Kirkby and other factories, basing his descriptions for a large part on first-hand verbal or written information by participants and eye-witnesses. In the course of 1972 the number of occupations increased continually, growing faster and faster and spreading to more and more industries. Workers showed that they had a whole arsenal of varying initiatives and instruments to fit the specific aims of their struggle. and they showed that they were not particularly impressed by the threats of the Industrial Relations Act.

Even though the Industrial Relations Act of the Conservative government under Prime Minister Heath had became law early in 1972, it proved completely useless for containing the intensifying class struggle. The hardest blow against it came from three major conflicts during the first seven months of the year. Strikes of the miners, the railwaymen and the dockers, one starting even before the other had finished, escalated to the point of a catastrophic showdown, a contest of strength indirectly between the British workers and the ruling class, and directly between the working class and the State. The major part of the book deals with a detailed analysis of the causes and effects of these conflicts. Though the strikes were in turn proclaimed by the unions, the rank and file went far beyond the limits of trade union policy and left the unions no chance of steering the strikes into calmer waters . So what formally looked like official action, in essence was not.

Nor did the Labour Party and the various radical groups left of Labour ever have a chance of leading (or just of moderating) the struggles of the working class. The willingness to struggle, the readiness to sacrifice and the stamina simply stemmed from the social relations in a capitalist system, from the everyday situation of the working class situation, not from some kind of correct consciousness to be instilled in them. Consequently the various 'left' groups offering their help to the workers were not marching in front of the workers and even not behind, but on a completely different road.

As far as the Labour Party is concerned, it claimed to oppose the Tory Bill, but wished to remain strictly within "democratic limits" the very moment that the parliamentary struggle against the Industrial Relations Act was definitely lost. Though the Independent Labour Party said that the power to defeat the Bill was in the hands of the workers, it nevertheless declared that the workers had to fight for the unions, thus ignoring the inactivity of trade unions in past decades, and also completely forgetting that just as a result of this inactivity the number of unofficial strikes had grown immensely. Anyhow, an assault on the bastion of the Industrial Relations Act by the traditional organisations was out of question.

At the same time the law remained without effect, because the workers did not respect it. In the developoment of their struggles the working class appeared to be ever stronger and bolder. Workers learned to lead independent struggles with a speed which surprised both friend and foe. In the course of those turbulent years the miners went on strike again in 1974. Prime Minister Heath was not inclined to satisfy any of their demands. It was this inflexibility which led straight to the overthrow of his cabinet. No sinister plot, no political manoeuvre, nor any parliamentary action contributed to his downfall, just the threat of working-class power. Ever since, British capitalism has never really recovered from the blows it received from the autonomous working- class movement in three decades after the war.

The historical analysis of the transformation of working-class struggles, of the role of trade unionism and the State, as presented in the book, ends in 1972 for the German version, in 1977 for the French version. The general conclusion is that as British capitalism tumbles from crisis to even deeper crisis, new forms of class struggle have developed, sometimes very manifest, sometimes scarcely visible, for which traditional forms of mediation through trade unions and political parties/the State have increasingly lost all meaning. At the same time this is to say that former differences between the capitalist class, trade unions and the State have also lost all meaning for the workers. Wherever workers have fought since the mid-seventies, they were met by the united forces of capitalists, unions and the State.

And this has certainly halted the forward march of the so-called labour organizations, but evidently not that of the working class. Indeed, identifying the working class and the "labour organizations" makes it patently impossible to understand this development at all.

Cajo Brendel