Alex Snowdon introduces Brian Pearce’s classic article about the history of rank and file movements in the trade unions and looks at the lessons for today.

Red Clydeside

There are two basic divisions inside the trade unions. One is the division between left and right – including contests between left-wing and right-wing candidates for leading positions in the unions. The other division is between the bureaucracy and the grassroots members.

Trade unions are the essential defence organisations of the working class inside capitalist society. They are necessary for us to protect pay and conditions against employers’ attempts to increase exploitation for their own profit. They bring together large numbers of working people, enabling us to take united action in defence of our interests – or in solidarity with other groups of workers.

It is therefore in the nature of trade unions – as mass organisations of the working class – to reflect the varied and contradictory ideas circulating in society. They are reformist organisations, seeking improvements or concessions within existing capitalist society rather than the overthrow of capitalism altogether. These contradictory ideas are inevitable: unions can only be effective if they involve large numbers able to take decisive action. They have to be broad-based working class organisations.

This means there will always be arguments and tensions – put crudely, between left and right – in the trade union movement. It also ensures that the unions are constantly vulnerable to making compromises with ruling class opponents. In this respect the trade union leaders play a particularly vital role.

Even the most left-wing union leaders are inclined to look for compromise in negotiations with the employers or government. The bureaucracy’s role is precisely to mediate between the members it represents and the employers.

Senior union officials are typically paid far more than rank and file members of their union. They work full time for the union and are therefore separated from direct contact with ordinary union members and from the day-to-day experiences of their working lives. They are therefore subject to pressures pulling them away from authentically expressing, and fighting for, the interests of rank and file trade unionists.

To a certain extent the culture of union officialdom affects every level of the trade union machine, including at local level, with a tendency to see union work as about compromise not confrontation, and as a professionalised activity removed from daily practices of trade union members.

In recognition of the limits of the trade union bureaucracy, many socialists since the birth of the union movement in the 19th century have sought to build rank and file organisations. This doesn’t mean abandoning trade unions as mass organisations; nor does it involve completely ignoring the often important left-right contests at the top of the unions. It’s about building the independent strength of grassroots members as a counterweight to the bureaucracy’s tendency to sell them short.

Here’s how Trotsky put it in 1938:

‘All sections of the Fourth International [i.e. revolutionary organisations] should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists ; but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organisations corresponding more closely to the problems of mass struggle in bourgeois society.’

Brian PearceThis quote appears at the start of Brian Pearce’s illuminating essay ‘Some past and rank and file movements‘, first published in 1959. This important essay was later part of a superb collection called ‘A History of Communism in Britain‘, a book of essays written by Pearce and fellow Trotskyist Michael Woodhouse, published in 1969 (and reissued by Bookmarks in 1995).

Below we republish the first half of this essay, providing both a Marxist account of the role and politics of rank and file movements and a potted history of three highly significant historical examples: the Great Unrest (1910-14), the shop stewards movements during World War One, and the Communist Party-led Minority Movement in the 1920s.

Pearce is not merely providing a trade union history; this is a profoundly political assessment with lessons for us today. He looks at the interactions between different elements, for example the relationship between organised socialists and trade union struggles. He doesn’t simply give us ‘history from below’, celebrating grassroots resistance, but examines how the rank and file interacted with the unions’ official leaders.

Pearce was a longtime member of the Communist Party in Britain, but broke from the CP – and became involved in Trotskyist circles – in the aftermath of the crisis of 1956, when thousands of CP members became disillusioned with the official Communist movement following the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian revolution. You can sense him rediscovering the radical history which shaped the formation of the CP in 1920/21 and then, with the Minority Movement, the CP’s early years when it was still a genuinely Marxist organisation. Pearce is also thinking through the political implications of the strikes and resistance of 1910-26, a period which reshaped both the British Left and the trade unions.

Today levels of strike action are low, and rank and file movements exist in no more than embryo form. If there is to be a renewal of the power of the union grassroots, we need to learn the lessons from history and also examine the particular circumstances we find ourselves in today. History won’t simply be repeated. We are re-publishing Brian Pearce’s contribution to our understanding of these issues as a means to learning from history, as the basis for exploring and discussing the tasks facing us today.

Brian Pearce: Some Past Rank-and-File Movements

The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat

(L.D. Trotsky, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, 1940).

All sections of the Fourth International should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists; but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organizations corresponding more closely to the problems of mass struggle in bourgeois society; not stopping, if necessary, even in the face of a direct break with the conservative apparatus of the trade unions. If it be criminal to turn one’s back to mass organizations for the sake of fostering sectarian fictions, it is no less so to passively tolerate subordination of the revolutionary mass movement to the control of openly reactionary or disguised conservative (“progressive”) bureaucratic cliques. Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution

(L.D. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Working Class, 1938)

The source of rank-and-file movements is the conflict between the struggle of the working class for better conditions and a new social order, and the increasing reconciliation between the leaders of the trade unions and the capitalist class, their growing integration into the upper reaches of bourgeois society. In Great Britain we find the first appearance of such movements in the years shortly before the first world war, and it is significant that this phenomenon was preceded and accompanied by a good deal of comment on the declassing of trade union officials.

In 1892 the ‘civil service’ of British trade unionism numbered between 600 and 700. After the Reform Act of 1867 and the Ballot Act of 1872 had created an important working-class electorate largely immune to older forms of pressure, the ruling class began to pay special attention to trade, union leaders. Engels observed in 1874 that ‘the chairmen and secretaries of trade unions… had overnight become important people. They were visited by MPs, by lords and other well-born rabble, and sympathetic inquiry was suddenly made into the wishes and needs of the working class’. [1] On the advice of the Liberal politician Mundella, the Trades Union Congress held at Nottingham in 1872 was officially welcomed by the city corporation, the delegates were banqueted and invited to the homes of leading citizens, and so forth – the first time such things had happened. Trade union leaders were pressed to accept seats on Royal Commissions, and in 1886 the general secretary of one of the most important unions stepped into a job in the Labour Bureau formed by Mundella as President of the Board of Trade, an organization from which the Ministry of Labour later developed. During the 1880s outstanding trade union leaders were more than once entertained by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) at Sandringham. In 1890 Broadhurst, secretary to the Trades Union Congress, was exposed as having accepted a gift of shares from Brunner, the chemicals industrialist, in return for political support at an election.

The years of comparative industrial peace, between the 1850s and 1880s, had seen ‘a shifting of leadership in the trade union world’, as the Webbs put it, ‘from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officials expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity’. [2] To the epoch of ‘defence, not defiance’, corresponded the emergence of a generation of trade union leaders of a different type from those who had laid the foundations in the bitter days of the Combination Acts and Tolpuddle. It was between these ‘sober, business-like’ men and sections of the capitalist class ‘that the political alliance was forged which, in different forms and phases, has been with us ever since – “the bourgeoisie cannot rule alone”. The system which J.H. Thomas admired for “making me what I am” was fairly launched’. [3]

These trade union leaders saw their task as essentially one of peaceful negotiation with the employers, and this gave rise to a whole network of social relations separating them off from their original class. Assured of a permanent position with a secure income, the trade union officials – ‘a closely combined and practically irresistible bureaucracy’, as the Webbs called them in their book Industrial Democracy [4] which Lenin translated while in exile in Siberia – soon found their different life-experience reflected in a different outlook on the class struggle. In the Webbs’ History of Trade Unionism the account of the career of a typical official given to the authors in 1893 by a member of one of the great craft unions is quoted:

Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisan’s life gradually fades from his mind; and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable.

With this intellectual change may come a more invidious transformation. Nowadays the salaried officer of a great union is courted and flattered by the middle class [i.e., in the language of those days, the capitalists]. He is asked to dine with them, and will admire their well-appointed houses, their fine carpets, the ease and luxury of their lives … He goes to live in a little villa in a lower-middle-class suburb. The move leads to dropping his workmen friends; and his wife changes her acquaintances. With the habits of his new neighbours he insensibly adopts more and more their ideas … His manner to his members … undergoes a change … A great strike threatens to involve the Society in desperate war. Unconsciously biased by distaste for the hard and unthankful work which a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men’s demands, and eventually arranges a compromise, on terms distasteful to a large section of his members.[5]

Brought constantly into friendly intercourse with well-to-do business men, civil servants and capitalist politicians, trade union leaders, the Webbs observed, were tempted to bring their spending power up to the same level as that of their associates by making ‘unduly liberal charges’ for their travelling expenses, and even ‘to accept from employers or from the government those hidden bribes that are decorously veiled as allowances for expenses or temporary salaries for special posts’. [6]

This situation, thus already recognizable in the 1890s, is still with us today. The authors of a sociological study of a Yorkshire mining area, published in 1956, write of the trade union bureaucracy: ‘These officials exist on salaries and with expense accounts which must be comparable with those of people with whom they have to deal from day to day [7]; they grow used, of necessity, to the same kind of life and entertainment as other executives in bureaucratic organizations.’ Men who as miners had virtually no prospect of ‘social mobility’ find themselves very differently placed as trade union officials:

Not only is there the possibility of promotion in the union itself, with at each level the various conferences and meetings in very pleasant places and good hotels, the chance, for those of such inclination, of coming into the public eye through public meetings, the Press, and even the radio and television. In addition, men with trade union administrative experience are more and more thought suitable for posts in management, particularly in the nationalized coal-mines. Here are real prospects of individual success.

As between the National Coal Board and the officials of the National Union of Mineworkers, ‘the personnel of the two sides becomes over a period similar to a greater degree than there is similarity between the interests of the officials of the union and its basic rank and file’. [8]

Parallel with the rise of the corps of permanent officials was the weakening, during the years of ‘the servile generation’ [9], in trade union democracy. Such institutions as the referendum and the initiative ‘withered away’. The shifting of the basis of the branch in many unions from the place of work to the place of residence helped to atomize the membership and increase their dependence on the officials. The Trades Union Congress of 1895 saw a conscious and open move by the officials to cut away a possible line of rank-and-file control over their doings, by excluding the representatives of the trades councils, the very bodies which, less than thirty years earlier, had summoned the TUC into existence.

The trades councils were in fact shut out partly in order to exclude ‘agitators’ whom the trade union leaders regarded as irresponsible busybodies, and partly in pursuance of a definite policy of centralizing industrial control in the hands of the national trade union executives. Obviously a Congress in which two or three million votes might have been cast by the delegates of local bodies would have been a great deal more difficult for the platform to manage than a Congress in which a very small number of national trade unions would cast, under a system of block voting, a majority of total votes. The TUC might have been a very different body if the trades councils had retained their original place in it. That, of course, is precisely why they were not allowed to retain [10]

Just as the emergence of a caste of privileged officials, cosily coexisting with capitalism, was reaching completion, a new phase of history opened, that of imperialism, passing into that of the general crisis of capitalism. The conditions characteristic of the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century were swept away for ever, and the workers found themselves under steady and intense attack, at first especially by means of rising prices. Round about 1909, when E.J.B. Allen published his pamphlet Revolutionary Unionism, wide sections of the workers became aware that the militant policy their new circumstances urgently demanded was being sabotaged by their officials. Allen listed a number of examples of what he called the ‘treachery of officials’ in preventing necessary strikes on various pretexts. He wrote:

This kind of business is notably on the increase, particularly since the workers have been fools enough to pay this kind of official £200 and more per year [1909 money!] to do nothing in Parliament except betray their interests and run around after different capitalist politicians … in order to be remembered when there are some government jobs going.

Fred Knee, of the London Society of Compositors, remarked bitterly in 1910 that ‘there are some trade union leaders who are so prosperous that they at any rate have in their own persons achieved the harmony of the classes’. [11]

The ‘Labour Unrest’, 1910-14

Growing dissatisfaction with trade union officialdom was coupled from about 1910 with a mood of disillusionment with parliamentary politics. This was caused by the functioning of the Labour group in the House of Commons as a mere adjunct to the Liberal Party, all other considerations being subordinated to keeping the Liberals in and the Tories out. Syndicalist ideas from America and France found fertile soil among British trade unionists, and such bodies as the Socialist Labour Party, the Syndicalist Education League and the Plebs League came into being and began developing rank-and-file sentiment for militant industrial policies in an organized way. Tom Mann, James Connolly, Noah Ablett, Richard Coppock, A.A. Purcell and A.J. Cook were among the leaders of the new trend. It was on the initiative of these men that the wave of great strikes began which shook Britain on the eve of the first world war.

The movement began with the unofficial strike of the Northumberland and Durham miners in the early months of 1910. These miners were bitter against their officials for having accepted a change from a two-shift to a three-shift system. The summer saw a similarly unofficial stoppage on the North-Eastern Railway, provoked by a case of victimization. Then, in the autumn, came the Cambrian Combine strike, begun against the will of the South Wales Miners’ Federation executive. Of the 1911 strike in the docks, Sir George Askwith, the government’s conciliation officer, observed: ‘The Labour leaders were taken by surprise. Some quickly headed the movement and tried to regain their lost authority. Others frankly expressed astonishment, and could not understand the outbreak.’ [12] The railway strike of 1911 began under unofficial leadership in Liverpool, ‘in spite of the fact that the executives of the railwaymen’s unions were opposed to any railwaymen leaving work or making demands, the officials arguing that they were tied down by the decisions of the conciliation boards, which they had accepted. [13] Finally, the general miners’ strike of 1912 began as an unofficial movement – and one of its results was the ousting from the South Wales miners’ executive of the leaders who had opposed the strike, and their replacement by syndicalists.

A number of economic gains resulted from these strikes, but the outcome fell far short of what might have been. ‘The vague shadow of revolution hovered over Britain in those days. The leaders exerted all their strength in order to paralyse the movement … strengthening the bourgeoisie and thus preparing the way for the imperialist slaughter.’ [14] Ralph Fox, writing during one of Stalinism’s Left zigzags, summed up the experience thus:

Practically every one of the great strikes from 1911 to 1914 was begun as an unofficial, spontaneous movement of the workers, rapidly spreading throughout the industry concerned. Only then did the reformist trade union bureaucrats lend the strike the official support of the union, while their swift acceptance in every case of the ‘mediation’ of the Liberal Government doomed the strike at once to semi-failure.[15]

Troops guard a signal box during 1911 rail strikeAmong the most important achievements of the ‘Labour unrest’, as the capitalist Press called it, were two moves towards the unification of the workers’ forces: the amalgamation of three railway organizations in the National Union of Railwaymen, and the formation of the Transport Workers’ Federation, the germ of the Transport and General Workers’ Union of today. Amalgamation was one of the chief demands of the militants, who wanted all craft and sectional interests to be subordinated to the needs of the working class as a whole, and had one union for each industry as their ideal. A metal, engineering and shipbuilding amalgamation committee was set up in 1912, to carry on ‘propaganda in the workshops and trade union branches with a view to bringing pressure to bear from below on the national executives’ [16], in favour of fusing the unions catering for workers in the industries named. Similar movements sprang up in other industries. This amalgamationist trend ‘was for the most part a “rank-and-file” movement of a Left-wing character, keenly critical of the attitude and conduct of the permanent trade union officials’. [17] Nowadays the concentration of the bulk of trade union membership into a few great, powerful amalgamations is taken for granted, and it is worth recalling that the struggle to bring this about was at first an affair of ‘Left-wingers’ and ‘unofficial movements’.

Coupled with the fight for amalgamation was the fight for workshop organization. In the early stages of trade unionism the branch had largely coincided with the place of work, but with the expansion of the unions a territorial basis for branch membership had been established in many unions. The militants believed that organization on the basis of the workshop made for greater effectiveness of the unions as fighting machines – and less ‘atomization’ of the rank and file in relation to that compact bureaucracy at the top which they had learnt to distrust. Before the first world war, the shop stewards in a number of centres had already begun to come forward as leaders of their members in conflict with the employers, and shop stewards for different unions had begun to come together informally, constituting an ‘amalgamated’ leadership at local level. The tremendous class battles of 1910-14 inevitably fostered this development, by revealing the inadequacy of the type of trade union structure which had set hard in the decades of relative social peace.

Linked with amalgamation of the unions and the building up of workshop organization was the aim of limiting the power of officials to go against the will of the rank and file, and subjecting these officials to more effective control from below. A comparatively moderate expression of this idea was given by a writer in Tom Mann’s journal the Industrial Syndicalist:

Our leaders must be elected by a ballot of the membership by direct vote, elected for a definite period with definite instructions, and they must prove their competency by being successful … We can afford no more lasting failures, even in high places. The only test of competency in this connexion is success.[18]

The Miners Next StepMuch more advanced views than this were widespread in the Labour movement at this time. A definitely anti-official, anti-leadership outlook was reflected in one of the rules of the Socialist Labour Party, which wielded great influence among Clydeside militants, that its members must not occupy any official position in a trade union. The most finished formulation of the extreme view is found in the famous pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step, brought out in 1912 by the Unofficial Reform Committee active among the South Wales miners. Trade union officials, it was claimed, were wedded to the policy of industrial conciliation regardless of their members’ interests. They were opposed to any increase in rank-and-file control over themselves, because their possession of arbitrary power gave them social prestige and ensured the ‘respect’ of the employers, with all that that implied. When the Cambrian Combine men had demanded a ballot on the agreement accepted in their name in 1910 the leaders had talked of a ‘growing spirit of anarchy’. The remedy was not to be found in a mere change of leaders, for former agitators who became leaders went the same way as those they supplanted. (The element of truth in this was to be seen in the later career of A.J. Cook, one of the co-authors of this pamphlet!) ‘Leadership implies power held by the Leader … All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions. No man was ever good enough, brave enough or strong enough to have such power at his disposal as real leadership implies.’ Consistently with this view, the authors demanded a reorganization of their union so that ‘all the initiative for new proposals, policies and tactics remains with the lodge’, and the executive (from which officials should be excluded) was to be reduced to merely administrative functions. [19]

The First World War and the Shop Stewards

With the outbreak of the imperialist war, which their braking of the 1910-14 struggles had helped to make inevitable, the trade union officials entered into an agreement with the government which virtually abolished trade unionism ‘for the duration’. In exchange for this they were taken on to all sorts of committees and given such social recognition as they had never enjoyed before. The war years were a period, wrote the Webbs, of ‘revolutionary [they mean, of course, counter-revolutionary] transformation of the social and political standing of the official representatives of the trade union world’, when the trade union machine was recognized as ‘part of the social machinery of the State’. [20] While prices rose steeply, wages were kept down and employers were allowed to chisel away at hard-won rights and safeguards on the plea that the ‘war effort’ necessitated sacrifices.

What the Judases of trade unionism, enjoying their statesmanlike status, looked like at close quarters we see in Beatrice Webb’s notes on the Trades Union Congress of 1915:

The Congress is no better, in fact less hopeful, than in old days, if we assume it to be representative of advanced working-class opinion. The leading men have grown fatter in body and more dully complacent in mind than they were twenty years ago; the delegates have lost their keenness, the rebels of today don’t get elected to Congress and the ‘old hands’ know. from long experience, that it is more of an ‘outing’ than a gathering for the transaction of working-affairs. What the delegates enjoy is a joke, it matters not what sort of joke so long as it excites laughter. Indignation, righteous or unrighteous, is felt to be out of place. There is no anti-government feeling, no determination to get evils righted … I listened to two officials over their big cigars in the hotel lounge this afternoon. ‘The wages are cruel: said one to the other, ‘perfectly scandalous.’ It was the largeness of the [workers’] earnings, it appeared, they were complaining of! … In so far as there is any feeling, it is reserved for jealousy between leaders or for the disputes between the unions.[21]

The workers’ impatience with the situation created by their traitor leaders broke through into direct action first on the Clyde in February 1915. ‘Amalgamationists’ among the engineers, together with members of the various Marxist groupings in Glasgow, took the lead in getting an unofficial ban on overtime imposed until the employers agreed to a wage increase that would meet the rise in the cost of living. When the union leaders opposed them, the workers concerned set up a Central Withdrawal of Labour Committee on which all the unions in the engineering trade were represented by their shop stewards, and called a strike. This lasted eighteen days before the combined pressure of the government and the union leaders forced the men back. The committee resolved to remain in being as the Clyde Workers’ Committee and its members actively promoted the formation in each workshop in the area of a shop stewards’ committee covering all sections. The, success of this movement caused tremendous alarm in capitalist circles, and pretexts were found to arrest the chief ‘agitators’ and deport them from Clydeside, and also to suppress the shop stewards’ paper the Worker. [22]

Hardly had the noise of battle died down on the Clyde, however, when it broke out in Sheffield. The calling up to the army of an engineering worker belonging to an exempt category was taken as a test case by the engineers of that city. Shop stewards improvised a local organization which brought 10,000 men out on strike in November 1916, and sent delegates to other engineering centres to have the strike extended. The War Office hastily released their victim in order to get the men back to work in the munitions factories. Out of this struggle emerged a network of permanent workshop committees in Sheffield, and a trend towards the unification of these into factory committees and into a workers’ committee covering the entire district. The struggle for amalgamation became primarily concerned with building up unity from below at the point of production: ‘Make the amalgamation of unions incidental, the amalgamation of the workers fundamental.’ [23]

All through the years 1916-18 there was a succession of strikes in one centre after another, particularly in engineering but also in other industries, notably in the South Wales coal-field, in every case led by unofficial groups. But there was little co-ordination between these actions. Thus, the engineers’ strike which began at Rochdale in May 1917 and spread rapidly, did not affect such important centres as Clydeside and Tyneside. The unofficial leaders faced enormous difficulties, every possible obstacle being put in their way by the government, the employers and the union officials. As they began to overcome them and to hold successful national conferences of shop stewards – and as news of the February revolution in Russia and its consequences began to come in, along with news of mutinies in the French army and other signs of the times – the official leaders of the Labour movement started to vary their tactics. Union officials intervened with the authorities to get arrested shop stewards released and concessions granted to various sections of the workers. The charade of the Leeds Convention took place, at which men like MacDonald and Snowden talked of setting up councils of workmen’s and soldiers’ delegates in every locality to work for peace and the emancipation of Labour. The unions of the miners, the railwaymen and the transport workers formed a Triple Alliance and made vigorous-sounding pronouncements about ‘conscription of wealth’, so that many workers looked to the leaders of this new official grouping of unions as the advance-guard in the war on capitalism, making unofficial, rank-and-file organization unnecessary. [24]

When a national leadership of the various shop stewards’ committees and amalgamation movements at last came into being, in August 1917, it was hamstrung by the syndicalist prejudice against any kind of effective leadership which their experience of corrupt officialdom had fostered in so many rank-and-file trade unionists. What was set up was a merely administrative council without any executive powers: all decisions had to be referred back to the rank and file before action could be initiated, and the council functioned as little more than a reporting centre for the local committees.

By allowing the official leaders of the working-class movement to make some ‘Left’ gestures, and by granting some real concessions, British imperialism was able, aided also by confused ideas in the workers’ ranks, to survive the war intact. But what would happen after the war, when the ‘patriotic’ considerations which had held back many workers during the hostilities with Germany ceased to apply, and the demobilized soldiers demanded that ‘land fit for heroes to live in’ which they had been promised? ‘With the coming of the Armistice in November 1918 organized Labour was left in what was probably the strongest position it had ever occupied … Moreover, for a halcyon breathing-space of eighteen months Labour was in a much stronger position than it had dared to hope.’ [25]

The ‘full-employment’ period which lasted until the slump began in the latter part of 1920 presented a wonderful opportunity to the militants, and the capitalists were hard put to it to fend them off. Though the opportunity was taken, with the ‘rephasing’ of the munitions industry, to get rid of as many shop stewards as possible and thereby break up the movement in its war-time strongholds, it continued to advance on a number of sectors of the industrial front and its ideas were widely discussed. The shop stewards’ movement, wrote a contemporary observer, ‘is at once the demand for greater autonomy for the rank-and-file workers as against the control of the central official, and for more effective organization against the power of the employer’ – demands which ‘are not easily separated for the second may depend largely on the first’. [26] In those days ‘it looked as though some fundamentally new form of trade union structure was going to replace the established forms’. [27] J.T. Murphy’s pamphlet The Workers’ Committee (1918) sold 150,000 copies. Its central idea was the election of workshop committees cutting across the boundaries between unions, but given official recognition by the unions; committees which should link up into district workers’ committees which ‘should not usurp the functions of the local trade union committees but attend to the larger questions embracing all the trade unions in the industry’. These committees would be ‘similar in form to a trades council, with this essential difference – the trades council is only indirectly related to the workshops, whereas the workers’ committee is directly related’. The formation of these committees, it was argued, would render the union machinery more responsive to the needs of the members ‘at the point of production’, and would facilitate the desired trend towards amalgamation. [28]

arrest of Clyde Workers' Committee leaders David Kirkwood and William GallacherAfter the head-on clashes which occurred in Glasgow and Belfast early in 1919 the main method followed by the capitalists, together with the government and the trade union bureaucrats, was the method of concessions, both real and apparent, to tide over the awkward period pending the slump. Railwaymen were given the 48-hour week, engineers and shipbuilders the same. A commission to investigate the possibilities of nationalizing the coal industry appeased the miners. Substantial wage increases raised the general level of real wages above that of 1914. An ‘Industrial Conference’ of representatives of trade unions and employers’ federations agreed upon an imposing programme of social legislation. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers made an agreement with the employers which accorded a definite status to that union’s shop stewards in the works. [29] The amalgamation of the ASE with other unions into the Amalgamated Engineering Union seemed to give promise of reorganization for battle on one important sector, while the Triple Alliance could be trusted to look after most of the others. Much of the workers’ confidence in the official machinery and leadership was restored.

Among the militants themselves the confusion of ideas continued. The National Guilds movement enjoyed a brief but deadly vogue, and led important groups of building workers into costly, fruitless and discouraging attempts to take over their industry by setting up in business in rivalry with private builders. Similar notions were widespread in other industries, diverting workers’ minds from the need for political struggle against the capitalist State. As regards the attitude to be adopted towards the trade unions, on the one hand there was the tendency, especially marked in the unions of the Triple Alliance, to confine oneself to ‘vigilance’ work, making propaganda for militant policies and warning against the danger of sell-out, while on the other, the prejudice against ‘leaders’ caused many outstanding shop stewards voluntarily to hold back from contesting union elections and fighting to win footholds within the official machine. [30] The principal Marxist groups did not come together into a united Communist Party until January 1921, and then remained very much under the influence of their sectarian traditions and did not try systematically to become rooted in industry until the reorganization of 1922-23 got under way. By then the slump had set in, unemployment existed on a mass scale, and a succession of industrial defeats (especially ‘Black Friday’ in 1921 when the Triple Alliance showed its true worth. and the engineering lock-out of 1922) had smashed what remained of the war-time shop stewards’ movement and compelled the militants to start painfully building up again almost from scratch.

The Minority Movement

Minority Movement PamphletThe regrouping of the militant forces took place under the guidance of the Communist Party, working mainly through what was called the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions, headed by Tom Mann. [31] The RILU fully understood at this time that there could be no question of forming new unions in Britain, nor was there much to be gained by campaigning for affiliation of existing unions to the RILU. The South Wales Miners’ Federation, where the ‘Reform Committee’ elements were strong, declared for affiliation in 1921, but retracted when threatened with expulsion from the Trades Union Congress. Under the guidance of the RILU communists began working, industry by industry, to rally the workers on the basis of specific programmes related both to the problems of the given industry and to the actual structure of the trade union machine. In sharp contrast to the attitude taken up in a later phase (1929-31), the fact that many workers had left the unions, either through fear of victimization in a period of slump or out of disgust with the betrayals by the bureaucrats, or for other reasons, was not seen as the end of the trade union epoch, justifying militants in turning their backs on the unions. On the contrary ‘Back to the unions!’ was one of the slogans of the British Bureau of the RILU, coupled with ‘Stop the retreat!’ which was a call to end the policy of surrender to the employers’ offensive. All Power, the Bureau’s paper, had a circulation by the end of 1922 of 12,000. Rank-and-file organizations, known as ‘minority movements’ – from a complaint by some bureaucrat regarding ‘the minority of troublemakers’ – were brought into being anew among the miners, the engineers, the transport workers and other sections, and these were eventually, in 1924, gathered together into the National Minority Movement.

I have discussed elsewhere [32] this movement’s record in 1924-27 and here wish only to draw attention to certain of its features. In the early phase great stress was laid on the need to make trades councils directly representative of the workshops instead of merely consisting of delegates from trade union branches which were often remote and unrepresentative, to secure the restoration of the trades councils’ representation in the Trades Union Congress, and in every way to strengthen the element of rank-and-file control in trade union structure, so as to ensure that the unions functioned for the purpose they had originally been formed to serve.

The task of the Minority Movement was to make the unity of the trade union movement a real one, to build up the shop and local organization which should be able to control from below this great mass machine, to fight at every step the apostles of ‘civil peace’, and uniting the workers, organized and unorganized, on the widest possible front in their everyday economic struggles, build up such a rank-and-file movement as should make impossible a repetition of ‘Black Friday’. [33]

Unfortunately, although the Minority Movement became an influential centre of propaganda and a ginger group which injected new life into many trade union branches and trades councils, and thereby forced the trade union leaders to put themselves at the head of strikes and to make various ‘Left’ gestures, as in 1917-20, it did little in practice to establish the workshop and factory committees of which so much was said. In the main it proved able only to spread the idea and urge it upon the official leadership. The root of the trouble here was probably that the transformation of the Communist Party on to a factory-group basis ‘was only begun in earnest towards the end of 1924’ and by May 1, 1925, there were only sixty-eight communist factory groups, embracing a mere 10 per cent, of the party membership. [34] By the time that the political driving force in the Minority Movement had organized itself sufficiently to begin setting up new kinds of mass organizations in the factories, the Anglo-Russian Unity Committee had come into existence, and the Stalinist leadership of the world communist movement had decreed that nothing be done that might disturb the goodwill of the ‘Left’ bureaucrats. At the party congress in May 1925 a Sheffield delegate observed:

A.J. Cook’s speech at the recent miners’ conference was completely out of tone with the speeches he had previously been making [i.e., before he had been elected to the secretaryship of the Miners’ Federation, with Minority Movement support]. After we have praised and said nice things about these Left-wing leaders, what will the masses say about the Communist Party when these leaders fail them? We must give the necessary qualifications to our support of these Left-wingers.’

TUC paper British WorkerA Glasgow delegate warned of the need to be suspicious of certain trade union leaders who were acquiring an easy reputation for ‘Leftness’ through prominence in the movement for international trade union unity. Pollitt replied that there was ‘just a little danger of overstressing this point … The Russian trade union leaders are interested, leaders who have proved their worth to the working-class movement and in whom we have complete confidence’. [35]

The end of this road was the betrayal of the General Strike, with the Communist Party and the Minority Movement unable to do anything against it but protest and call upon the traitor leaders to mend their ways. It revealed ‘the weakness of a Left which could only make propaganda, and which was not so firmly organized in the factories and localities that it could take the lead in action’. [36] A hint of realization that the movement had been shunted on to the wrong path in 1925-26 appeared in Wal Hannington’s pamphlet What’s Wrong in the Engineering Industry?, published by the National Minority Movement in 1927, where he wrote, after urging the need for a change of leaders in the unions:

To those who say ‘We have seen leaders turn before and what guarantee is there that they will not continue to do so?’ we reply, the Minority Movement must be strong enough inside the unions not only to make leaders, but also to break them, if and when they reject the policy upon which they were elected.

But Stalinist policy remained unchanged right down to the end of 1927, and the decision not to resist the TUC General Council’s ultimatum to trades councils to disaffiliate from the Minority Movement virtually killed it.

So died the Minority Movement, much as the General Strike had died. Ernest Bevin and his colleagues had called off the General Strike to avoid open warfare with the government; Harry Pollitt called off the Minority Movement to avoid open warfare with the TUC and many executives of trade unions. [37]

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1. F. Engels, The English Elections (February 22, 1874), Marx and Engels on Britain (1953), p.467.

2. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, History of Trade Unionism (1920 edition), p.204.

3. Dona Torr, Tom Mann (1941 edition), p.12.

4. 1920 edition, p.28.

5. History of Trade Unionism (1920 edition), pp.466-70.

6. ibid. pp.589-90. The authors, of course, saw this as a problem arising from the inadequacy of trade union officials’ salaries, with the remedy to be found in increasing them!

7. According to B.C. Roberts, Trade Union Government and Administration (1956), the total number of full-time officials of the eighteen large unions was in 1952 about 1,600. Roberts states that the commonest level of general secretaries’ salaries was between £800 and just over £1,200 a year, while the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress got £2,000 a year. Average annual payments to executive council members in attendance fees, hotel expenses, etc., ranged from such figures as £200 in the National Union of General and Municipal Workers to £1,172 in the National Union of Railwaymen (pp.288, 306, 367, 443).

8. N. Dennis, F. Henriques, C. Slaughter, Coal Is Our Life (1956), pp.114-16.

9. Raymond Postgate’s phrase, in The Builders’ History (1923). He uses it in the sense that in the period between the 1850s and 1880s the British workers in the main accepted the capitalist order and merely sought to protect or at most improve a little their position within it.

10. G.D.H. Cole, British Trade Unionism Today (1945), p.192.

11. In the Social-Democrat, November 15, 1910; reprinted in Labour Monthly, June 1950.

12. G.R. Askwith, Industrial Problems and Disputes (1920), p.177. For a good general survey of this period see G. Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (1936): see also Tom Mann, Memoirs (1923).

13. Tom Mann, From Single Tax to Syndicalism (1913),

14. L.D. Trotsky, Where Is Britain Going? (1926), p.3.

15. Ralph Fox, The Class Struggle in Britain, 1880-1914 (1932), p.71.

16. W.A. Orton. Labour in Transition (1921), pp.93-4.

17. G.D.H. Cole, Workshop Organisation (1923), p.17.

18. W.F. Hay, in the Industrial Syndicalist, November 1910.

19. Cf. James P. Cannon, Introduction (1931) to L.D. Trotsky, Communism and Syndicalism: ‘The slogan of “no leaders” – that slogan of demagogues who themselves aspire to leadership without qualifications.’

20. Sidney and Beatrice Webb. History of Trade Unionism (1920 edition), p.635.

21. Beatrice Webb, Diaries 1912-1924 (1952), pp.44-5.

22. The best accounts of this and other industrial struggles of 1914-18 are given in W. Hannington, Industrial History in Wartime (1940), and J.T. Murphy, Preparing for Power (1934). See also W. Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde (1949) and T. Bell, Pioneering Days (1941).

23. J.T. Murphy, quoted in W.A. Orton, Labour in Transition (1921), p.96

24. One workers’ leader who saw the fallacy of relying on the Triple Alliance – a mere pact between top officials – was James Connolly, who wrote in the Workers’ Republic, February 12, 1916: ‘The frequent rebellion against stupid and spiritless leadership and the call of the rank and file for true industrial unity seems to have spurred the leaders on, not to respond to new spirit but to evolve a method whereby under the forms of unity it could be trammelled and fettered … a scheme to prevent united action rather than facilitate it.’

25. M.H. Dobb, Trade Union Experience and Policy, 1914-18 (1940), p.24.

26. C.M. Lloyd, Trade Unionism (1921), p.244.

27. J.I. Roper, Trade Unionism and the New Social Order (1949).

28. Typical of the many committees formed unofficially in this period was the River Thames Shop Stewards’ Movement, which embraced all trades and grades engaged in shipyard work. It had a membership card, and formed local committees in each shipyard. The organizer was a boilermaker, the secretary an electrician, the editor of the movement’s paper a woodworker (H. Pollitt, Serving My Time, 1940, pp.92-3).

29. ‘The recognized shop stewards were representatives only of a particular union, and were precluded from acting with representatives of other unions, except with the consent of the union’s district committee. The shop stewards’ movement, where it survived, became officialized; it lost its revolutionary character, and its inclusiveness as a class movement’ (G.D.H. Cole, British Trade Unionism Today, 1945, p.169).

30. ‘The Workers’ Committee elements were in opposition to trade unionism! They saw the trade unions as centres of Labour corruption, and were obsessed by the enormous growth of the unofficial movement during the war and the power it had been able to wield. Lenin here insisted on the necessity of combating the corrupt leaders of the trade unions but also stressed the importance of work in the trade unions and recognition of the trade unions as the mass organizations of the working class’ (T. Bell, The British Communist Party, 1937. pp.58-9).

31. A.J. Cook and Richard Coppock were among the members of this Bureau.

32. Joseph Redman [Brian Pearce], The Early Years of the CPGB, Labour Review, vol.iii, no.1, pp.11-22, January-February 1958. See also Joseph Redman, British Communist History, ibid. vol.ii, no.4, pp.106-10, July-August 1957.

33. Ralph Fox, The Class Struggle in Britain, 1914-1923 (1933), p.82.

34. Report of the Seventh Congress (1925) of the Communist Party of Great Britain, pp.148, 201.

35. ibid. pp.29, 73-4.

36. John Mahon, Trade Unionism (1938), p.53.

37. J.T. Murphy, Labour’s Big Three (1948), p.137. The national executive committee of the movement reported to the fifth annual conference, in 1928, that ‘it has become increasingly clear that we made a grave mistake last year in recommending the trades councils to withdraw their affiliation from the Minority Movement’.

From Labour Review, Vol.4 No.1, April-May 1959, pp.13-24.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).