Peter Brooke

posted Feb 21, 2010, 6:40 AM by Dick Pountain   [ updated Feb 21, 2010, 6:41 AM ]

Since Nina Fishman died I have been revisiting some of the material she wrote in the early nineteen-seventies - under the name, Nina Stead - for The Communist, theoretical journal of the British and Irish Communist Organisation in Britain. Towards the end of 1972, after the miners' strike in which she had played an active role as a researcher working for the NUM, she was writing a month by month analysis of the politics of the day which led to a general theoretical statement published under the evocative name, The British Road to Socialism. This provoked a number of lively replies resulting in the long The British Road to Socialism - A Reply to Criticisms, and, eventually, in the B&ICO policy statement Workers Control in Britain, published in January 1974 and also mainly drafted by Nina.

I was astonished by these articles at the time and they are still astonishing. To the original astonishment at the force of the argument is now added astonishment at the gulf that has opened between what was politically possible then and what is politically possible now. I knew this intellectually of course, having lived through the process, but that process was gradual. Reading Nina's articles now obliges us to face up to it in a very abrupt manner. 

After 1945, successive British governments - Labour and Conservative - had made it their business to secure full employment - it was generally believed that to allow unemployment to rise above the level of 300,000 would be politically ruinous. As a result, without the fear of unemployment and with a strong possibility that government would intervene to save failing industries, the British working class through the trade unions found itself in a strong bargaining position. Governments had recognized from the start that this policy would require some form of regulation of trade union activities as well as a general policy regarding incomes, but these had proved impossible to secure. By the 1960s the situation was becoming radically unviable. Under these circumstances the instinct of the anticapitalist left was to press harder, to continue making economically unviable demands in the hope that the system would collapse. The collapse of capitalism would then lead inevitably to the establishment of socialism. 

That is of course putting it very crudely but with many variations that scenario was widespread among those who regarded themselves as Marxists or Communists, and it complemented the policy of the more 'right wing' section of the trade union movement which was not interested in political power but which wanted to concentrate on purely economic demands.  

For Nina such a strategy was grossly irresponsible and doomed to failure. Her attention was fixed on the single question of the advance of the working class to the position of ruling class. Such a perspective required a wide historical reflection on the process by which radical change had occurred historically in British society, most notably of course the long process of transition from aristocratic power to bourgeois power. Her central argument was that if the working class was to govern it had to develop the ability to govern, that is to be able to devise solutions to social problems as they arose. The working class would not merely fill the role of a passive cannon fodder to be used by the left leadership to crack capitalism in the hopes that once capitalism had collapsed the left leadership would then somehow know what to do. She envisaged the advance towards socialism as a gradual process which was already well advanced and which consisted in successively finding non-capitalist solutions to social and economic problems. She quoted many historical precedents to show that if such solutions were found, if they could be shown to be practical and if they commanded widespread, determined support within the working class, the bourgeoisie could be expected to give way, however reluctantly. 

By 1972 the state of the economy and the power of the unions had obliged the government - a Conservative government at that - to offer a deal. The Prime Minister Edward Heath had invited the TUC to join the government and the CBI in a process of centrally determining the general direction of the economy. This was not just a one-off offer - it was proposed as a continual process which amounted to a permanent shift of the centre of power and responsibility in the direction of the working class. Nina in the pages of this obscure Communist journal was one of the very few people on the left arguing that the offer should be taken up. While the left in general argued that this was class collaboration and would sully the purity of their socialist conscience, Nina argued that it was precisely by exercising responsibilities of this sort that the working class could learn to govern and thus develop the skills necessary to becoming a ruling class. 

I had come into contact with the British and Irish Communist Organisation in the same year, 1972, mainly through the material that had been published on Ireland. The B&ICO had produced the first credible account I had read of why the strange place I lived in, Northern Ireland, had come into existence as a distinct political entity, and why there should be such a contradiction of interests among the peoples living there. And for the first time I had the notion that Marxism - and a Marxism that presented itself as very conservative and dogmatic at that - could be a powerful tool for understanding historical and political development.  

It was however Nina's articles on British politics that finally persuaded me to join. I don't know why she herself had been attracted to the B&ICO. The B&ICO had a very distinctly Irish character but I don't think Nina was ever particularly interested in Irish politics, though she would certainly have felt that the moment when the British working class was on the verge of such major advances was hardly the moment to be wasting one's time trying to force the Ulster Protestants into a united Ireland. Perhaps she saw in the B&ICO a combination of two elements that normally might have seemed rather incompatible - on the one hand, loyalty to the mainstream Communist tradition she had inherited from her parents, an uncompromising opposition to the 'market socialism' that had become fashionable in the 1960s, and a commitment to the long term aim of Communism understood as a complete abrogation of the laws of capitalism; on the other hand a quite astonishing freedom of expression. There was no politburo laying down a party line. All members - even an infant still wet behind the ears as I was - could contribute on an equal basis to the debates. The only qualifications necessary were an ability to withstand a great deal of flack and a strong pair of lungs - both of which Nina possessed in abundance. 

The moment when I joined was more or less the climax of the battle over Nina's articles and I had never experienced anything like it. I've lived for over ten years in France and in this context it is a French word - houleuse - which comes to mind. The English equivalent would be 'stormy' but houleuse seems to capture the feel of it better. The end result, as I have already mentioned, was the Workers Control policy statement, published in January 1974. The British Road to Socialism had been mainly concerned with the national economy but the policy statement was primarily concerned with decisions to be made in the individual workplace. It was not a proposal to eliminate the existing bourgeois management. The knowledge and experience developed by the bourgeoisie would be necessary so long as they were not possessed by the working class. But the working class, whose lives were so entwined with the wellbeing of the enterprise, was, she argued, better placed to oversee the actions of management than the shareholders, only interested in the return on money invested which could be shifted about at will. If nothing else such oversight would have prevented the emergence of the autonomous and irresponsible managerial caste whose rule we are all suffering from at the present time. 

Nina's arguments complemented very well the findings of the Committee of Inquiry on Industrial Democracy chaired by Lord Bullock, published in January 1977. The B&ICO was, as I remember it and I'm open to correction on the matter, the only organised political group that gave it our wholehearted support. Even the Institute for Workers Control, which one might have thought had been created for this particular moment in history, could only complain that it wasn't radical enough for them. Never was the futility of the red revolutionary left more spectacularly put on display. 

We did what we could and Nina was part of it. Yet given her known skills and energy it seemed to me at the time that she was less active than I might have expected. I was not a member as she was of London branch of the B&ICO and again I'm open to correction on this. But if I am right the explanation may be found in the argument of these early writings. 

Her main argument was that major reform in Britain would only be possible if the working class - the real working class, not some supposed vanguard party of the working class - wanted it and would be willing if necessary to enforce it with extra-parliamentary action. She had said that the bourgeoisie would give way without any need for a storming of the Winter Palace, but they still needed to be pressed.  They weren't going to give way without any pressure whatsoever. The job of Communists, who claimed to be the most politically conscious section of the working class, was to persuade the class that such changes were both necessary in their own interests and - and this was crucial - feasible. But that work had not been done. It was possible that the mere passing of legislation based on Bullock - enabling representatives chosen by the workforce an equal say on the management boards with representatives chosen by the shareholders - would create the conditions for some positive development but the absence of any real pressure coming from the working class itself meant that the prospects were slim. She already knew in her bones that it wasn't going to work. 

The failure of the working class to take responsibility for their own affairs at that moment when it would have been so possible meant that inevitably, if the economic problems were to be resolved as they had to be, the bourgeoisie would have to do it. They would find their own solution in their own interests and that meant essentially abandoning the aim of full employment - giving the principle of competition its head and allowing unemployment levels to soar. And that in turn has led to the apparent destruction of the working class as a political power and the shocking gulf we can see between what was possible then and what seems to be possible now.