In December 1983 the eruption of the Messenger Newspaper dispute in Warrington produced a crucial confrontation with the Thatcher government and the trade union movement. The National Graphical Association (NGA) was hit with massive fines under the new Tory anti-trade union laws after it defied a court order and attempted to shut down the scab operation run by publisher Eddie Shah.
Having been working on the assumption that the central stage of the class struggle had shifted away from the trade unions and to the dispute between the Tories and local government, the WRP was taken by surprise by this development. To make up for lost time—having virtually abandoned systematic work inside the trade unions—the WRP immediately formed an uncritical and, by definition, unprincipled bloc with the NGA bureaucracy.
Between November 25 and December 12, the NGA organized mass picketting outside the Stockport Messenger, in defiance of a court injunction. A subcommittee of the Trades Union Congress voted to endorse industrial action in support of the NGA, but this decision was overturned on December 14, 1983 by a vote of 29 to 21 on the TUC General Council. The NGA Executive then voted to call off the 24-hour national strike that had been scheduled to begin that day. However, it declared that it would not pay the fines which had been imposed by the courts and called on workers to participate in a mass demonstration in Warrington in January.
The WRP Political Committee issued a statement on December 9, 1983 which declared:
“The printing trade unions led by the NGA are now left with no alternative: they must organize a political strike to bring down the Tory government” (News Line, December 10, 1983)
However, as soon as the NGA decided not to strike, the WRP immediately changed its line to accommodate the trade union bureaucracy. With the editorial published in the News Line on December 17, 1983, the WRP fell to a new political low. Denouncing the SWP [the British state capitalists] for criticizing the NGA’s decision to call off its strike, the News Line wrote:
“The SWP‘s ‘policy’ is typical of this bunch of political adventurers. They want the NGA to call an immediate all-out national strike. [Just as the WRP had demanded one week earlier] This is the kind of ‘advice’ that was given to the PLO when it was trapped in Beirut last year and surrounded by the Israeli air force, navy and army. It is a call on the NGA to commit mass suicide just so the SWP revisionists can organize a monster weep-in.”
It is hard to say what was worse in this statement: its grovelling before the NGA leaders or its nauseating pessimism.
They even denounced trade union leaders who attacked the TUC for having betrayed the NGA.
“Unlike the revisionists, miners’ leader Arthur Scargill is inexperienced [?] and doesn’t understand the working class. He is another of those whose utter frustration leads them into fighting with their mouth.
“Scargill has claimed that the TUC decision not to support the NGA was the ‘greatest sell-out by the TUC since the General Strike of 1926.’ The implication is that it also means the greatest defeat of the working class as well.”
The WRP was now well to the right of a section of the trade union bureaucracy and was actually deflecting a fight against the TUC. It then offered a fantastic rationalization for this criminal policy.
“But the 1983 betrayal by the TUC comes in advance of the General Strike situation. It is therefore to the political advantage of the whole working class because it exposes the treachery of the reformist leadership and provokes the all-important discussion on building the leadership necessary to conduct a political strike against the Tories which will win.”
A new political category had been discovered by Healy: the pre-emptive betrayal This disgusting sophistry was answered in real life just a few months later when the miners went out—their strike weakened in advance by the TUC betrayal. It was therefore not surprising that Scargill was among the most vociferous critics of the TUC. This made Scargill, in turn, one of the chief targets of the WRP’s backhanded defense of the TUC:
“Scargill is another of those urging the NGA to go-it-alone into an indefinite strike. To follow this advice would be a recipe for disaster. It would lead to an employers’ lock-out, astronomical claims for damages in the High Court, probably a split in the union and the victory of the class collaborationist line of Murray and the right wing.
“Those who strike with their mouths are advocating that the NGA comes out on its own, and takes on the full force of the capitalist state. This would be industrial suicide. Having thought very seriously about its struggle, the NGA knows very well that it could be wiped out as a union and that the support of the working class is its main line of defense.”
Healy’s reasoning corresponded entirely to that of TUC General Secretary Murray and all his right-wing accomplices. Had Scargill accepted this position, there would have been no miners’ strike. In fact, this statement was an argument against all strikes except those which begin with a money-back-guarantee of victory. All the arguments marshalled by the WRP leadership were those of wretched political and physical cowards who for all their talk of the great anti-Tory struggle lived in deathly fear of any struggle against the state. For Healy the party had become a means for securing a comfortable old age; for Mitchell it had become a career; for Vanessa Redgrave it was a chance to impersonate Isadora Duncan; for Slaughter it was, as it had been for years, a hobby; and for Banda it was a millstone around the neck. Their collective inner rejection of the revolution found its expression in the following craven comment:
“The NGA...is a craft union of politically moderate opinion, not a revolutionary party as the revisionists seem to think. And under the exceptional circumstances of state persecution, we believe they are acquitting themselves extremely well.”
Such an apology for a motley crew of Stalinist and Social Democratic bureaucrats could only be made by people who had already given up on socialist revolution.
Moreover, despite their constant claims that a revolutionary situation existed in Britain, the WRP leaders’ attitude to every struggle which erupted proved that they really did not believe it at all. While writing in their Sixth Congress resolution of the “revolutionary tempo of events” and insisting that “the revolutionary struggle for power...is the essential objective truth which flows from all the conditions of the present economic and political crisis” (Resolution, p. 19), they were convinced that any struggle which erupted was hopeless and doomed to failure.
In justifying the action of the NGA, the WRP worked out a line—which had already been used in 1980 to defend Sirs—that amounted to an automatic apology for the trade union bureaucracy. All trade union leaders who do not claim to be revolutionaries should not be criticized for acting as reformists!
Incredibly, the line being given inside the membership bore no relation to the position argued in public—thus demonstrating how the leadership maneuvered with the rank and file to maintain a left cover for its betrayals. Privately the WRP leadership was reassuring the membership that the NGA leaders were committed to continuing the struggle. A Political Letter written by Banda and Healy, also dated December 16, 1983, addressed to all Central Committee members and branch secretaries claimed that “There is now a definite split within the TUC” and promised that “The NGA will not call off the strike with the ‘Stockport Messenger’ group and other unions will, one way or the other, become involved. The support for the TUC right wing is by no means fixed and the ground between the two camps will be constantly changing.” (Resolutions adopted by the Seventh Congress, Dec., 1984, p. 95)
The letter went on to stress the immense importance of the divisions within the TUC, claiming that the split on the NGA vote means that “the possibility for mass revolutionary work is now opening up for our Party.” (Ibid., p. 96)
This letter served only to distract the membership, build up its illusions in the NGA and TUC bureaucracy, and cover up the right-wing line of the WRP leadership.
In January leaders of the NGA were brought on to the stage of the Young Socialist 33rd Annual General Meeting where they were hailed like conquering heroes. However, the NGA spokesman startled the delegates when he said that while the union was dead against paying the Tory fines, he was not sure how long that powerful conviction would last. Banda and Healy immediately fired off Political Letter Number 2, dated January 9, 1984, to set the disquieted party members at ease: “The question which was posed by the representative of the NGA to the effect that whilst the NGA would not comply with the courts and perjure (sic) itself, he was not certain about the future, is the question of questions for what is in effect a reformist trade union movement. The working class cannot any longer live with the Tory government and its class laws, which are designed to destroy the effectiveness of its trade unions. This is why there is a great political explosion building up within the working class. This was reflected in the contribution of the NGA representative.” (Ibid., pp. 98-99)
Ten days later the News Line reported without comment that the NGA had decided to purge its contempt of court by paying £675,000 in fines and agreeing to halt all industrial action against the Stockport Messenger. A few days later, the NGA made clear its intention to completely abandon the struggle against Shah by calling off the scheduled demonstration at Warrington. The News Line, without naming any names, issued a pathetic verbal protest.
“By calling off Saturday’s rally the organizers have made a deplorable concession to the mood of doom and gloom which is permeating the circle of the petty-bourgeois revisionists, the Labour ‘fake lefts’ and the Stalinists.
“It tends to lower the militancy of the working class when everything must be done to intensify the class struggle against the Tory government, the anti-union laws, mass unemployment and the state.” (January 25, 1984)
The NGA leaders might have replied that if they were suffering from doom and gloom, it came from having read the previous issues of the News Line. As a matter of fact, this very editorial did not exactly end on an optimistic note:
“The NGA might be able to purge its contempt in the High Court to live to fight another day. No one is sure.”
Every aspect of the political line of the WRP on the NGA was contradicted by the actual course of events. In order to save face in front of the membership and pretend that everything had gone as expected, Healy produced an astounding analysis of the NGA struggle that was transformed into a unanimously-accepted Central Committee resolution. It proved that the events unfolded like dialectical clock-work in accordance with Healy’s most beloved logical categories. He proved, with an irrefutable assertion, that “the semblance of the new political situation began with the picketing of the Stockport Messenger at the end of November 1983” and that “The transition to Appearance began when Murray on behalf of the right wing of the TUC General Council denounced the validity of the committee’s decision on the morning of December 13, 1983.”
Healy’s dialectical locomotive was moving at full steam ahead. “Wednesday December 14, 1983 marked the negation of Semblance into Appearance when the General Council voted 29 to 21 to abandon the NGA and uphold the 1980 Tory Employment Act.”
Fortunately, the vote didn’t go the other way because it might have created a serious identity crisis for the categories, which had long before determined within the womb of the Absolute Spirit—which Healy alone could interpret—the necessary sequence of events:
“The Appearance manifested on December 14 continued to develop through a series of events which finally forced the NGA on January 19, 1984 to legally purge its contempt and pay the fine. At this point appearance as the unity of semblance and existence turns into actuality.”
In other words, Healy firmly established that responsibility for the betrayal of the struggle rested not with the NGA bureaucracy but with Messrs. Semblance, Appearance, Actuality and Essence. As for poor Tony Dubbins, Bill Booroff, Len Murray and the WRP, they were merely innocent victims of these pro-Tory logical categories.