In a chapter on ‘Politics’ in British Capitalism, Workers and the Profit Squeeze footnote1 , Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe express the hope that their book will make a contribution to the political struggle for socialism. footnote2 Towards this end they have gathered together and analysed a great deal of statistical information in an original and important study. Before we begin what will be a critical review of the book, we should say that the Left can only be very grateful to the authors for making what must be the first serious empirical contribution towards an analysis of the present crisis of British capitalism. Their claim is that the capitalist crisis in Britain is converting the fight for the rights, wages and conditions of the workers into a simultaneous fight for a revolutionary political strategy inside the labour movement. With the recent check on the tide of working-class militancy, as witnessed by the collapse of the fight against Phase II, and with the British economy now experiencing one of the fastest growth rates since the war, the present time is a suitable one to examine critically the central arguments of the book.

Scientific socialism differs from other ‘socialisms’ in that for Marxists the historical ‘necessity’ of the new society (socialism) is shown in the contradictory development of the old society (capitalism). This is what we mean by the materialist basis of the revolutionary standpoint. We can put our argument in another way. If the capitalist mode of production can ensure, with or without government intervention, continued growth and full employment, then the most objective argument in support of the revolutionary socialist position breaks down. The reformist perspective then becomes a reasonable one.

The revival and remarkable growth of capitalist production since the Second World War has given impetus and apparent support to those who reject the Marxist perspective. The prospect of a capitalist system developing and functioning without serious interruption seemed to such reformists a real possibility. Social and economic stability was to be maintained by state intervention in the economy and with suitable government policies the last pockets of poverty and despair could be slowly reformed away. However, the last few years have given this perspective a severe blow. The intensification of international competition, the international monetary crisis, chronic rates of inflation approaching the levels of the Korean War and the trend towards increasing unemployment with the crisis of profitability, indicate that the post-war boom is rapidly coming to an end.

The question remains, do the recent inflationary-led booms in most capitalist countries alter this view? Was the crisis of the last few years merely the preparation for a new expansion of production? Or did it signify, once again, the extremely crisis-ridden nature of capitalist production, that is, of capitalism as a decaying system and one that has long outlived its historical ‘mission’. What perspective does a Marxist analysis of ‘late’ capitalism hold for the revolutionary movement in the next period? These are critical questions.

It is against such a background that we must judge this book. Does it in any way adequately combat the reformist perspective? Will it bring home to the trade union leaders the ‘contradictions between the workers’ demands and the ability of the system to meet them’? footnote3 What perspective does it offer for a revolutionary strategy in the coming period?

Unfortunately, where the book offers a consistent position, its central thesis is quite compatible with reformism. It does nothing to combat the ideological offensive of the ruling-class on the issue of inflation. On the contrary, it gives credence to the view that high wages are a primary cause of inflation. That the authors support the union drive for higher wage demands footnote4 in no way mitigates this failing. Radical reformism is reformism nonetheless. Wage constraint is only the other side of the radical coin. From the left side we have Glyn and Sutcliffe’s position: ‘but when the wage struggle does threaten the survival of the capitalist system . . . it is time for workers not to moderate their wage demands but to destroy the system which exploits them.’ footnote5 From the other side of the debate, we have the right-wing social democratic response. In the words of Wilfred Beckerman: ‘as the inflationary threat is greater (than ever) so never before has the need for restraint been so vital.’ footnote6 Both positions share common ground but diverge in evaluating the capitalist system. Neither position, in any coherent sense, is able adequately to invalidate the other; it is a matter of attitude.

Glyn and Sutcliffe underestimate the strength of reformism. Their exhortation that workers ‘must see through the argument that they should reduce their wage claims in the national interest’ footnote7 is too simple. The leadership of the tuc believes that the ‘national interest’ can be satisfied through a ‘high growth, high incomes’ government strategy. That is why they are once more engaging in talks with the Conservative government. They have never challenged outright the simple equation; large wage increases necessitate price increases. All that the tuc leaders want, is a ‘fairer’ policy, which they, and most trade unionists, believe to be possible with changed government policies, or for that matter, a changed government.