As the Communist Party marks its 100th anniversary year, Tom Morrison, Scottish Secretary of the CP, looks to one of its most influential periods in the ’60s-70s where grassroots alliances were key. This article first appeared in the Morning Star.
The most successful period of the Communist Party — now in its centenary year — in living memory is the 1960s, stretching into the mid-70s.
At this time, the CP, while not a mass party, nevertheless exerted mass influence in industrial politics.
Bert Ramelson was elected to the post of industrial organiser in 1965 and because of the impact of the industrial department under his leadership, he became the bogeyman of government and the capitalist press alike.
He and his comrades were denounced by prime minister Harold Wilson during the 1966 seamen’s strike while the papers demonised him as “the most dangerous man in Britain.”
Ramelson was clearly capable and influential, but to put the increase of communist advance in the trade union movement down to one individual shows a lack of understanding of how communists operate in what is a collective leadership.
Communist organisation in the labour movement had been building over the previous decade or so and was held in high regard by those who welcomed the commitment to left unity while it was feared by the right wing.
The intensification of industrial work, the building of workplace branches with politically trained trade union cadres, the politics of the anti-monopoly alliance, disdain of class collaboration, left unity, mass struggle and the politicisation of the official movement, proved to be an effective strategy.
The development of what became the Alternative Economic and Political Strategy. Building class consciousness and organisation in the workplace and working-class communities was key for communists.
The aim was transforming a “class in itself” into a “class for itself.”
The use of advisory committees working across industries rather than individual unions was an avenue to building alliances with left allies, and the creation of broad lefts led to shifting union and Labour Party policies leftwards.
Such organisation resulted in communists and their allies winning senior positions of influence in the trade union movement while at the same time agitating at the base.
Nowhere is this strategy better exemplified than through the creation of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) in 1966, which brought together shop steward committees, trade union branches and left trade union officials in the battles against attempts to weaken shop steward organisation and free collective bargaining, to introduce wage restraint and anti-trade union laws.
Along with Ramelson, communists such as Lou Lewis and Kevin Halpin (a future CP industrial organiser) provided leadership in the campaigns.
The LCDTU played the leading role in the major industrial disputes of the era.
Labour’s Donovan report bit the dust, the Kill the Bill campaign defeated In Place of Strife, there was a wave of strikes for higher wages, flying pickets, the postal workers seven-week strike, the building workers’ and miners’ strike of 1972 and Saltley Gates, and the miners’ strike in 1974.
The jailed Pentonville Five dockers (three of whom were communists) were freed after a threatened general strike and the successful battle against the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act, where the conditions were created to bring down the Tories in the “Who Runs Britain” general election. Every advance was defended.
The Communist Party and its allies through their influence and organisation in an increasingly politicised shop steward movement, were able to take effective unofficial action and press the TUC leadership to make these victories possible.
More CP members were getting elected to union executives, elected as delegates to represent their members at the TUC, the STUC and individual trade union conferences.
These victories showed in practice the leading role of the organised working class, and with left unity and mass struggle the power and strength of the working class could defeat the class enemy.
The major dispute of the period was surely the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in of 1971-72, in which the workforce, led by communist shop stewards, took over four shipyards and demanded the right to work.
These stewards took on and defeated the government defending their jobs and communities.
This fight gained acclaim across the world and sparked a series of similar work-ins across Britain numbering over 200.
It raised the whole question of ownership and the role of the state.
It saw the organised labour movement building alliances to break up the Tories’ political base of core support among the middle classes and small and medium businesses.
The stewards’ campaign was based on tactics and strategy which created divisions in the business class where elements at the lower end realised that their interest were tied up with the workforce and that monopoly capital exploited them also.
To a significant extent, due to the collectivist approach, narrow sectionalism among trades were overcome and the right wing in the official movement, who the government wanted to take control, were defeated.
Leading stewards injected socialist theory into the struggle which developed a view among some, but certainly not all workers, of the necessity for social and political change which challenged the power of the ruling class.
However, that view only gained traction because of the record of work the stewards had built up over the years, fighting for the interests of their members.
The communists and leftwingers were embedded in the workforce, they were “one of them” and spoke the language of the shop floor.
They were indeed a vanguard who understood the role of monopoly capital and the state in capitalist society and injected political education into the movement.
These successes did not of course go unnoticed by the state and there is plenty of evidence of it intervening to destroy these progressive advances.
There are many lessons we can learn from this period about how to educate, agitate and organise, but these advances were made decades ago and much has changed.
The point is that we cannot just recreate what was built then.
Rather it is a concrete analysis of the current situation, building alliances and linking the struggles of today with the working class as it is today.
The organised working class at its core, trade union and community campaigning, the anti-racist struggle, the environmental movement and not least the fight against women’s oppression. A new popular front?
Alliances are key. As Lenin said, communists should advance their aims by identifying the next stages of advance and the appropriate alliances required to consolidate them.