Alex Callinicos




5 Reorientations

5.3 The experience of defeat

Britain in the late 1960s and the early 1970s seemed amply to bear out this perspective. The incomes policies imposed by first Labour and then Conservative governments led to the transformation of decentralized pay militancy into national strikes which increasingly took the form of confrontations between the trade-union movement and the state. In 1972 a miners’ strike run from below by rank-and-file activists led to the Heath government’s humiliating defeat, and was closely followed by dockers’ successful defiance of the Industrial Relations Act; a second miners’ strike at the beginning of 1974 brought the government down. In this climate of highly politicized industrial disputes, the International Socialists swelled by students radicalized by the annus mirabilis of 1968, grew rapidly, reaching at the time of Heath’s fall a membership of over 3,000, many of them shop stewards in militant factories. Their experience was by no means unique. The years 1968-76 saw the biggest upturn in class struggle Western Europe had experienced since the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution – the French general strike of May-June 1968, the Italian “hot autumn” of 1969, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5, the strikes which contributed to the death agony of the Franco regime in Spain. The European far Left was able in these circumstances to increase in size and establish a small but respectable working-class base. The greatest beneficiary was Maoism, the chief influence in Italy, for example, where the three main far left organizations at their height had 30,000 members between them and each produced a daily paper. Nevertheless, Trotskyist groups also experienced comparable growth – the International Socialists in Britain and the USFI sections in France and Spain, for example. (For a general account of the upturn of the late 1960s and its political consequences, see Harman 1988.)

Nothing was more natural than for the far Left to assume a continuation of this process, in which escalating workers’ struggles would make possible the construction of mass revolutionary parties capable of challenging the social-democratic and Communist parties for the leadership of the Western labour movement. Even the fairly detached trotskysant Perry Anderson (1976: 101) could write in 1974 that the “preliminary signs” of the “reunification of theory and practice in a mass revolutionary movement, free of bureaucratic trammels”, were “visible”. Such expectations were dashed in the second half of the 1970s. Instead of a progressive radicalization of the workers’ movement, new or revived social-democratic parties were able to establish themselves as the dominant force on the Left, containing working-class militancy and redirecting it towards electoral politics – a process which led to the victories of François Mitterrand in France, Felipe Gonzalez in Spain, and Andreas Papandreou in Greece (Birchall 1986). In Britain the 1974-9 Labour government was able, thanks to the Social Contract it negotiated with the leaders of the Trade Union Congress, to defuse the shop-floor militancy which had broken the Heath government. The International Socialists’ analysis of the decay of the mass reformist organizations had, while accurately capturing the latter’s erosion as the institutional framework of working-class life, underestimated the residual political loyalty of even militant trade unionists towards the Labour Party, which could play a crucial role in circumstances of economic and political turmoil. Looking back on the early 1970s Cliff (1987: 19) commented:

We understood the [political] generalization in terms of what workers didn”t want. They didn”t want incomes policy; they didn”t want the Industrial Relations Act; they didn”t want the Tories. But we weren”t at all clear what workers wanted in a positive sense. When they shouted “Heath out” we didn”t understand that they wanted Labour in. So we weren”t clear what the impact of a Labour government would be.

The revival of the traditional reformist parties in the second half of the 1970s was followed by the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies which, whether implemented by the Thatcher government in Britain or the Mitterrand administration in France, undermined many post-war reforms. This increasingly unfavourable political climate, combined with the disappointment of their earlier hopes, threw the European far Left into profound crisis (Harman 1979; 1988: ch.16). The Maoist organizations were worst affected, both because of the usually fairly crude Stalinist basis of their theory, and under the impact of the extraordinary reversals of Chinese politics after Mao’s death, but the Trotskyist groups also suffered. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, the French section of the USFI, lost one of its most talented leaders, Henri Weber, to the Socialist Party (see Weber 1988), and suffered a serious decline in its membership, cohesion and influence. The British International Socialists (SWP from 1977 on) went through an acute crisis at the end of the 1970s, in which the main issues were, first the very question of whether or not the upturn which had brought down Heath was over, and second, the problem of how to relate the “new social movements” responding to various forms of oppression (of women, blacks, gays, etc.) to the working-class struggle for socialism. Eventually these arguments were resolved and the SWP was able to weather ten years of Thatcherism with a membership of something over 4,000 in good political spirits. Some other Trotskyist groups also did not decline – for example, Lutte Ouvrière in France, the only organization of any significance to have stuck to the FI’s original position after 1945, according to which the USSR was a workers’ state and the Eastern European states bourgeois, an analysis so flagrantly inconsistent that Lutte Ouvrière cultivated a disdain for theoretical discussion and pragmatically concentrated instead on building up groups of its factory supporters.

Those Trotskyist organizations, such as the British SWP and Lutte Ouvrière, which emerged from the 1980s in reasonable shape found themselves in a considerably more difficult environment than that of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Western labour movement remained fairly quiescent, in part thanks to the long recovery which most advanced economies enjoyed from the recession of the early 1980s. Usually fairly right-wing versions of social democracy were politically dominant on the Left. The intellectual climate was characterized by the most strenuous rejection of Marxism seen since the days of the liberal anti-Communism at the beginning of the Cold War – a rejection which often took the form of a supposedly more radical “post-Marxism” or even “post-modernism”. The Trotskyists’ response was to argue that the 1980s were only an interlude, a temporary stabilization of Western capitalism whose foundations were far more fragile than those of the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s, and that further economic crises and social explosions lay ahead (see, for example, Krivine and Bensaid 1988; Harman 1988; Callinicos 1990). They could also say something else.

The socialist movement has been engaged, certainly since the turn of the nineteenth century and arguably since Blanqui challenged the gradualism of the Utopian socialists in the France of Louis Philippe, in a debate between the advocates of reform and revolution, between those who believe that it is possible peacefully to transform capitalism and those who argue that the working class will have forcibly to overthrow the bourgeois state. Eduard Bernstein and Rosa Luxemburg offered the classic statements of these two opposed cases, but it is an argument that has frequently recurred, for example in the controversy in the late 1950s provoked by Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism. Since the 1930s it has been Trotskyism that has provided the most consistent statements of the revolutionary case, for two reasons. First, Trotsky’s writings on strategy and tactics extended and generalized the arguments of earlier revolutionary socialists such as Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg. Second, the emergence of regimes that claim to be socialist but which are domestically oppressive and internationally conservative required the formulation of a variant of Marxism that offered both an analysis of these regimes and a strategy for their overthrow – revolutionary socialism could be maintained only by its extension to the critique of Stalinism as well as that of capitalism; once again, Trotsky initiated this critique. The political and intellectual heritage he left his followers was, as we have seen, by no means unproblematic. This book has been devoted to exploring the different resolutions of the dilemmas of this heritage made by the three main variants of Trotskyism. As with the alternative endings of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, my own view of which represents the most adequate response is indicated by my choice of which to place last. But however that may be, the fact remains that as long as the dialogue between reform and revolution continues, Trotskyism will claim its own place as the continuation of the classical Marxist tradition with its orientation on working-class self-emancipation from below. It would be a rash social theorist who declared the great debate over the transformation of capitalism over.


Last updated on 13.3.2001