Sunday, 29 May 2011

Book Review – The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism by Tony Cliff

This book brings back a certain nostalgia. Long, long ago in 1977 I had just joined the Socialist Workers Party and, while not the absolute first, this was among the first batch of socialist books I read. Even then it had been superseded by Paul Foot's Why You Should be a Socialist, this being more a popular introduction to the SWP's politics. However the Cliff work was a longer and more detailed explanation and I found it more interesting. Curiously, even for the few connoisseurs of this political brand, it still appears to be one of Cliff's less well known works. For example it does not appear on the main online listing of Tony Cliff's works.

I have been outside the SWP for a number of years now, though I did not leave due to any grand political dispute. Rather it was simply the juggling of pressures of work, education and more that meant something had to give. So it was the SWP that had to make space for the rest of my life and I drifted away, without, it must be said, any great acrimony. Having been outside that organisation for some time now it's curious to discover how well this book – which influenced me so much – has stood up to the intervening years.
The Crisis: Social Contract or Socialism was written at the end of 1974 and published the following year in very different political circumstances to today. Then the first Wilson governments of 1966-70 had ended with attempts to constrain the unions with the hated In Place of Strife. Next came the 1970-74 Heath government which took a more forceful line and alienated the unions. It ended with the miners strike and Heath, famously, called a general election on who ran the country and was shocked to discover it was not him. The slippery Wilson came back. This book was a response to the resulting Social Contract where the Wilson government tried to impose wage restraint through a collective agreement with the unions.

Of course much has changed in the political and industrial landscape since this book was written. But I find it remarkable how much is still the same. The fundamental form of many of today's arguments are basically the same even if the surface details have changed. One example is the frequent argument that stronger groups of workers should hold back on pay demands so weaker groups can benefit. The strong should, the argument goes, hold back on claiming a larger share of the wages pie so weaker groups can get a bigger bite. Cliff destroys this mythology comprehensively. Firstly there is no mechanism for this transfer to occur. If computer programmers accept a lower wage increase how are these forgone funds going to be transferred to, say, nurses? There would have to be an increase in taxation on specific software development firms and this cash ring fenced for the health service. It would all become hideously complicated and no one suggests doing such a thing. All that happens, in reality, is management pockets the difference and laughs at the mugs who lost out. Secondly Cliff shows that low paid workers have done best when industrial militancy is at a high level. Then low paid workers have the confidence to press their own demands and solidarity from other workers is more likely.

Cliff also gives a useful description of the preceding years political trends. By the late 60s a kind of do-it-yourself reformism had grown up. Whether this was in campaigns, or among students, or on the industrial front. To some extent this worked and many people were radicalised. Cliff describes the industrial dimension in most detail. Here full employment meant a large degree of wage drift. In other words many workers were paid above nationally agreed rates, these being agreed by employer organisations and trade unions. And so wages were more dependent on local bargaining than on national agreements. Your wage packet depended, effectively, on the militancy of your local shop steward. By the late 60s, and the rise of significant levels of unemployment, employers could more effectively enforce national agreements and destroy factory or shop level organisation.

At first this lead to an explosion of militancy under the governments of Wilson, Heath and Wilson again. However, in the longer term, if the left was to succeed there had to be a much clearer political understanding and a strengthening of rank and file organisation. Cliff spends much of the book setting out what he thinks the components of this should be. Understandably he did not go into much detail about what would happen if this cooperation failed. With hindsight we can see failure occurring. There are enough scattered hints in the book to provide some explanation of why the far left failed in the late 70s and it's an explanation that does not require blaming individuals or groups. Today this is a good reason for reading this book.

There is much else in the shortish book that is interesting, such as overviews of the Labour and Communist parties, analysis of how the state works and a quick summary of the economy after WWII. While details are out of date, much of the analysis is useful and suggestive. Overall it stands up to rereading better then many other political books from the period.

Also there are some great cartoons in this book by Phil Evans. Many of these could be used today with nothing changed. A couple of Evans cartoons are shown alongside this post; however they are not from the book under review.

I think this book deserves to be better known. For more of Tony Cliff's (1917-2000) writings see here. Though the particular book under review here is not included.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.