4 Trade Unions and Industrial Organisation
The basis of the anti-parliamentary communist critique of trade unionism was that trade unions organised workers within the capitalist system, as 'The Pimps Of Labour' bargaining with the capitalists over the sale of the commodity labour power [1]. The anti-parliamentarians, however, wanted to see workers organised against the capitalist system, for the abolition of wage labour. The anti-parliamentarians sought the replacement of trade unions with revolutionary organisations, whose primary function would be to overthrow the capitalist system and thereafter administer communist society. In keeping with the anti-parliamentary communists' views on how the revolution would be carried out, these organisations would be constituted in such a way as to enable the vast majority of workers to organise and lead themselves. These views help to explain the particular criticisms which the anti-parliamentarians levelled at trade unionism, and the alternative forms of organisation that they proposed. 1. Workers' Dreadnought, 30 October 1920.
One of the features of trade unionism criticised by the Dreadnought group was the opposition between the unions' leaders and officials and the rank and file membership. This was partly explained in material terms: Sylvia Pankhurst described full-time officials as 'respectable, moderate men in comfortable positions', [2] whose salaries, status and security of position elevated them to the ‘middle class’ and gave them a political outlook different from that of shopfloor workers. Since the trade union officials' privileges depended on the continued existence of capitalism, they had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and opposing revolution: ‘material interest ranges the Trade Union officials on the side of capitalism’. [3] Thus CP(BSTI) secretary Edgar Whitehead wrote: 'It cannot be too strongly impressed by Communists upon all workers that T.U. officials, both by their secure position and their enhanced salaries, serve the maintenance of capitalism much more than they serve the cause of the emancipation of the workers.' [4] 2. Workers' Dreadnought, 13 September 1919.

3. Workers' Dreadnought, 15 February 1919.

4. Circular concerning 'Activity on the Industrial Field' from E. T. Whitehead, CP(BSTI) Secretary, to Party branches, 12 July 1920, file 124, Pankhurst Papers.

The Dreadnought group also drew attention to the officials' common contempt for their members. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote that 'the apathy of the membership produces the officials' lack of faith in the capacity of the membership, and, even apart from other causes, is a source of the cynical contempt for the rank and file which so many officials display'. [5] Yet there was nothing inevitable about the rank and file's 'apathy': it was a condition which the union officials deliberately fostered, since one of the ways in which they could maintain their own positions of power and privilege was by excluding the rank and file from participating in union affairs. The officials were assisted in this by the form of trade union organisation : 5. Workers' Dreadnought, 21 April 1923.
The members . . . resign all their authority, all their rights and liberties, as far as the Union is concerned, to the Union officials. This is an essential feature of Trade Unionism . . . The Parliamentary form of the trade unions, which removes the work of the Union from the members to the officials, inevitably creates an apathetic and unenlightened membership which, for good or evil, is a mere prey to the manipulation of the officials. [6]
6. Workers' Dreadnought, 21 April 1923.
Guy Aldred also observed the antagonism between the unions' officials and rank and file and the differences between these two groups' power. He explained this by reference to the trade unions role as permanent negotiating bodies within capitalism. Unions could not hope to bargain successfully with the bosses unless they had the disciplined backing of their entire membership. Since criticisms of the union by the rank and file, or rank and file actions which the union had not sanctioned, would undermine the leaders' position vis-à-vis the capitalists, the leaders were forced to urge caution on the members and suppress any criticisms coming from the rank and file. In short, successful bargaining required the members to relinquish all power and initiative to their leaders; the more they did this, however, the greater would be the scope for the leaders to betray the members. Thus it was the trade unions' role as bargainers and negotiators which led to the growth of oligarchic leadership and to the likelihood of the rank and file being 'sold out'. [7] 7. G. Aldred, Trade Unionism and the Class War (London: Bakunin Press 1919), p. 7.
The anti-parliamentary communists also criticised the way that unions organised workers on the basis of their sectional differences (according to craft, trade and so on) rather than on the basis of what they had in common: 'instead of preserving the vaunted unity of the working class [the trade unions] prevent it by dividing the workers into watertight compartments'. [8] Since capitalism could only be overthrown by a united working class, organisations such as trade unions, which divided the working class, were obviously counterrevolutionary. Guy Aldred argued, further, that even in reformist terms 'trade unionism has accomplished nothing so far as the well-being of the entire working class is concerned', since the effectiveness of unionisation depended on excluding other workers (such as the unskilled) from its ranks, for example through apprenticeships and the closed shop. [9] This sectional and divisive mentality also led unionised workers to spend as much time fighting each other over issues such as demarcation disputes as they spent struggling against their common enemy, the capitalists. 8. Workers' Dreadnought, 28 July 1923.

9. G. Aldred, Trade Unionism and the Class War (London: Bakunin Press 1919). See Author's Note to 1919 edn. and Section 11 (emphasis in original).

A final significant criticism of trade unions made by the Dreadnought group was that 'their branches are constructed according to the district in which the worker resides, not according to where he works'. [10] The point of this particular criticism was that since the unions did not organise workers where they were potentially most powerful -- that is, at the point of production -- they did not measure up to the requirements of the sort of revolutionary organisations sought by anti-parliamentarians. 10. Workers' Dreadnought, 4 February 1922.
During 1917-20 the Dreadnought group proposed certain measures to overcome the problems outlined above. First, reactionary or reformist trade union officials should be replaced by revolutionaries: ‘The first thing you must do, if you really want to overthrow the capitalist system and to establish Communism, is to get rid of your reformist and palliative-loving leaders.’ [11] 11. Workers' Dreadnought, 19 February 1921.
Secondly, action should be taken to 'alter the structure of the Unions so as to allow the Rank and File to have complete control'. [12] Sylvia Pankhurst sought the introduction of 'The Soviet system within the trade union movement'. [13] Instead of each section of workers being represented by full-time paid officials, all workers in each workplace would meet in general assemblies to elect and mandate delegates who could be recalled and replaced at any time. As the Dreadnought explained in 1923 : 12. Circular from E. T. Whitehead, CP(BSTI) Secretary, to Party branches, 10 June 1920, file 125, Pankhurst Papers.

13. Workers' Dreadnought, 12 July 1919.

the rank and file of a trade union cannot control its officials, cannot even watch them efficiently. The trade union machinery does not allow of it. The workers can only control an organisation which is a workshop organisation, with, when necessary, delegates appointed for specific work, instructed, subject to recall. remaining still as fellow-workers in the shop . . . The work and power of the organisation must not pass into the hands of even such delegates : it must be an organisation operated by the workers in the shop. [14]
14. Workers' Dreadnought, 28 July 1923.
Thirdly, a resolution drafted by Sylvia Pankhurst for a Rank and File Convention in March 1920 proposed that 'an industrial union shall be established which shall admit all workers in the industry, regardless of sex, craft or grade'. [15] Instead of being divided among several competing trade and craft unions, all workers in each industry would belong to a single union. This was intended to promote working-class unity. 15. Resolution XI, Rank and File Convention Draft Agenda, file 32e, Pankhurst Papers.
The Dreadnought's view during 1917-20 was that these changes could be effected through building a rank and file movement within the trade unions. The group's attitude at this stage was essentially one of critical support for the existing unions, rather than outright opposition and hostility. This was an approach which had been summed up most succinctly by the Clyde Workers' Committee, when it had declared at the time of its formation in l915 that it would 'support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but . . . act independently immediately they misrepresent them'. [16] 16. Quoted in J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards Movement (London: Allen & Unwin, 1973), p. 119.
The Dreadnought group was influenced strongly in its attitude towards the trade unions by the shop stewards' movement which emerged in Britain during the First World War. Not long after the beginning of the war most trade unions had agreed to renounce strike action for the duration, and to accept any changes in established working practices and conditions needed to increase production. Consequently a shop stewards' movement, based mainly in engineering, arose to take over the defence of workers' basic interests. Many of the leading shop stewards belonged to organisations such as the SLP and BSP, and they regarded the shop stewards' movement as a form of organisation which would not only be able to defend workers' interests within capitalism, but which could also be used to overthrow capitalism and reorganise production on a socialist basis.  
The most cogent expression of the shop stewards' movement's ideas was J. T. Murphy's pamphlet The Workers' Committee (1917). This discussed most of the critical points which would also be raised in the Dreadnought's articles about trade unions: 'the conflict between the rank and file of the trade unions and their officials'; the unions' 'constitutional procedure' which demanded that 'the function of the rank and file shall be simply that of obedience'; the absence of any 'direct relationship between the branch group and the workshop group'; and the way in which the unions' sectionalism divided workers 'by organising them on the basis of their differences instead of their common interests'. In The Workers' Committee Murphy also outlined an alternative structure intended to bring about 'real democratic practice' in workers' industrial organisations, so that every member could 'participate actively in the conduct of the business of the society [union]'. Apathy towards union affairs -- 'the members do not feel a personal interest in the branch meetings' -- would be overcome by establishing a 'direct connection between the workshop and the branch'. All power would reside at workshop level : committees elected to represent the workers would exist merely to 'render service to the rank and file' and would 'not have any governing power'. These changes would be carried out as far as possible within the existing unions : Murphy emphasised that 'we are not antagonistic to the trade union movement. We are not out to smash but to grow, to utilise every available means whereby we can achieve a more efficient organisation of the workers.' [17] 17. J. Murphy, The Workers Committee (London: Pluto Press, 1972).
Besides the engineering shop stewards' movement, the Dreadnought group's attitude towards trade unions was also influenced by the miners' rank and file movements, particularly in South Wales where the Dreadnought group had established close links with radical workers. [18] Militants within the South Wales Miners' Federation had addressed many of the problems of trade unionism outlined above. The most widely-known expression of some of their ideas on these issues was The Miners' Next Step, a pamphlet published in 1912 by a small group of socialist miners calling themselves the Unofficial Reform Committee. The Miners' Next Step criticised the SWMF's 'conciliation policy', which 'gives the real power of the men into the hands of a few leaders'. The more power was concentrated in the hands of the officials, the less power the membership had in deciding union affairs. (This was the argument that Guy Aldred had put forward a year earlier in the first edition of his pamphlet, Trade Unionism and the Class War). Rank and file control of the union was far too indirect, while the 'social and economic prestige' of the leaders raised them to a position where 'they have therefore in some things an antagonism of interests with the rank and file'. Another criticism of the union was that 'the sectional character of organisation in the mining industry renders concerted action almost impossible'. 18. See the 'Communist Party Notes' published in the Workers' Dreadnought from July 1920 onwards.
This critique was accompanied by constructive proposals for reforming the union. The pamphlet proposed a single organisation for all mine and quarry workers in Britain, which would enable them to achieve 'a rapid and simultaneous stoppage of wheels throughout the mining industry'. Proposals for democratisation of the union were also outlined, so as to enable the rank and file to 'take supreme control of their own organisation'. All policy initiative and ratification was to rest with the lodges, and the union executive was to become an unofficial, 'purely administrative body; composed of men directly elected by the men for that purpose'. If these reforms were carried out there would be a growing recognition that 'the lodge meetings are the place where things are really done'; rank and file apathy would disappear, and the lodges would become 'centres of keen and pulsating life'. The long-term objective of these proposals was 'to build up an organisation that will ultimately take over the mining industry, and carry it on in the interests of the workers'. This aim also applied to all other industries: the authors wanted to see every industry thoroughly organised, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry'. [19] 19. South Wales Miners' Federation Unofficial Reform Committee, 1973.
The strong influence of such ideas on the Dreadnought group's attitude towards the trade unions, and in particular the insistence of militant mining and engineering workers on the need to work within the trade unions, shows that some accounts of the Dreadnought group's attitude have been factually mistaken. For example, it is not correct to suggest that 'Pankhurst's group . . . was unable to prevent the Communist Party, formed in late 1920, from pledging to work within the existing trade union structure', [20] since the fact is that the Dreadnought group supported such a strategy. The CP(BSTI)'s programme stated that the party should aim to 'stimulate the growth of rank and file organisation' and 'undermine the influence of reactionary Trade Union leaders over the rank and file' by forming a CP(BSTI) branch within every local trade union branch and workplace. [21] 20. R. Peterson, 'The General Strike: Fifty Years On' in World Revolution, no. 6 (March 1976), p. 26 (emphasis added).

21. Workers' Dreadnought, 3 July 1920.

A circular to CP(BSTI) branches stated that the party's 'most urgent need' was 'the speedy addition to the ranks of the party of genuine class fighters from the ranks of the proletariat, especially of the organised industrial proletariat, so that the party may exercise increasing control and influence inside the organised Unions of Workers'. [22] A CP(BSTI) Industrial Sub-Committee submitted a report suggesting how this might be achieved. It stated : 'Branches should make the closest distinction between work through the NON PARTY MASS ORGANISATIONS OF OUR CLASS, and through the PARTY ORGANISATIONS.' CP(BSTI) members were to oppose 'Party Organisations' such as the Labour Party, but try to exert every possible influence within 'Non Party Mass Organisations' such as trade unions, shop stewards' and rank and file movements, and unemployed workers' organisations. In order to gain influence within such organisations party members were instructed to 'accept delegation from branches of their industrial organisations to all such bodies as Trade Union Congresses, Trade Union Executives, or to any Trades and Labour Council or similar body WHERE SUCH ACCEPTANCE OF DELEGATION DOES NOT NECESSITATE DENIAL OF THEIR COMMUNIST PRINCIPLES'. Wherever possible, party members were to 'take full and active part in building up Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movements, and in all Rank and File Movements which weaken the power of officials, and lead to Rank and File Control, Mass Action, and the development of the Class Struggle'. Agitation within trade union branches was also intended to spread communist ideas, attract militant union members into the CP(BSTI), and expose the trade unions' inadequacies as revolutionary organisations. [23] 22. CP(BSTI) Suggested Circular to Branches, Number Four, no date, file 125, Pankhurst Papers.

23. CP(BSTI) Report of Industrial Sub-committee, Draft for Final Revision, no date, file 5a, Pankhurst Papers.

All of which demonstrates the complete inaccuracy of the claim that the Dreadnought group 'despised . . . participation in the work of the trade unions'. [24] 24. J. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, vol. I (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1968), pp. 20-1.
One of the several significant differences between the Dreadnought group and Guy Aldred concerned their respective attitudes towards the shop stewards' movement. Aldred was imprisoned repeatedly after the introduction of conscription in 1916, because he refused to fight in an imperialist war from which only the capitalist class would profit. His opposition to the war also led him to oppose those workers who were not only churning out the munitions which millions of workers in uniform were using to slaughter each other, but were also seeking to profit from their strategically important position by bargaining for wage rises, reductions in working hours and so on. In Aldred's view the engineering shop stewards' movement's aims  
contained no suggestion of not erecting capitalist institutions, of not engaging in armament work, of asserting any sort of class-consciousness against the war. Indeed, the workers' committee flourished on war . . . The idea was merely that of improving the worker's status in the commodity struggle and not to develop his revolutionary opposition to capitalism. [25]
25. G. Aldred, At Grips With War (Glasgow: Bakunin Press, 1929), p. 83 (emphases in original).
Aldred criticised those 'revolutionaries' who separated their industrial agitation from their opposition to the war, leaving their 'revolutionary' politics behind when they entered the munitions factory. Aldred described Willie Gallacher, for example, as someone who had 'made munitions during the war, and atoned for this conduct by delivering Socialist lectures in the dinner hour'. [26] 26. Word, August 1939.
Aldred's attitude towards the shop stewards' movement has led one critic to dismiss him as ‘a character marginal to the organised labour movement on Clydeside' because 'he condemned the munitions workers as "assassins of their own kindred" ’. [27] But Aldred's attitude was shared by another figure less frequently dismissed as 'marginal' -- John Maclean too was 27. A. Campbell, review of I.MacDougall (ed.), Essays in Scottish Labour History in Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, no. 39 (Autumn 1979), p. 87.
opposed to the way the Clyde Workers' Committee and the socialists on it were behaving . . . Most of the shop stewards were socialists and anti-war, but they had submerged their politics in workshop struggles and were not even mentioning the war inside the factories . . . This meant that no anti-war fight developed inside the factories; the men were making guns, shells and all kinds of munitions, but the all-important question was never raised. [28]
28. H. McShane and J. Smith, Harry McShane: No Mean Fighter (London: Pluto Press,1978), pp. 77-8.
David Kirkwood, the shop stewards' leader at Beardmore's Park-head Forge in Glasgow, was an outstanding example of the type of stewards criticised by Aldred and Maclean. Although he claimed to oppose the war, Kirkwood's own account of the war years scarcely mentions him engaging in any sort of anti-war activity. He was a willing collaborator in any scheme to increase munitions output, so long as it did not adversely affect wages and conditions, and relished the quips that it was really he (Kirkwood), and not the owner Sir William Beardmore, who was actually in charge of running Parkhead Forge. [29] The attitude of stewards such as Kirkwood led John Maclean, in his famous May 1918 speech from the dock of the High Court, Edinburgh, to condemn not only worldwide capitalism -- 'the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed' -- but also those workers who sought to exploit their powerful bargaining position in the munitions industry : 29. See D. Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (London: George Harrap, 1935), Chapters 8-10.
David Kirkwood . . . said that the Parkhead Forge workers were then prepared to give a greater output and accept dilution if they, the workers, had some control over the conditions under which the greater output would accrue . . . Since he has got into position he seems to have boasted that he has got a record output. The question was put to me : Was this consistent with the position and with the attitude of the working class? I said it was not . . . that his business was to get back right down to the normal, to 'ca'canny' so far as the general output was concerned. [30]
30. See G. Aldred, John Maclean (Glasgow: Bakunin Press/StricklandPress,1940), pp. 52-64.
When the war ended, however, there was no longer any political reason for Aldred not to support the shop stewards' movement. In August 1919 he expressed his approval of the forms of organisation created during the war by the movement, writing of the need to abandon 'the unwieldy, bureaucratic, highly centralised Industrial Union idea of peace-time [class] war organisation' in favour of 'a living unit of organisation in every workshop, and a federation of living units, mobilising, according to necessity, the real red army. This will be accomplished by developing our Workshop Committees.' [31] Around the same time, the Communist League, in whose formation Aldred participated, was arguing that communists should enter the workers' committees and councils and by their agitation and education develop and extend the growing class consciousness’. In time the workers' committees would overthrow the capitalist System and then function as the administrative machinery of communist society. [32] This was basically the same position which the CP(BSTI) put forward in more detail in 1920. 31. Worker, 2 August 1919.

32. Spur, March 1919.

So far this chapter has concentrated on the anti-parliamentary communists' ideas up to 1920. During 1920-1 these ideas began to change, mainly in response to fluctuations in the pattern of the post-war class struggle. In Britain the shop stewards', workers' committee and rank and file movements were largely the product of certain groups of workers' militancy during the war and the short post-war boom. If the level of class struggle declined these forms of organisation were likely to disappear, along with the revolutionary expectations vested in them. This is precisely what did happen in Britain after 1920.  
The high level of wartime demand for their products kept unemployment among engineering, shipbuilding and metal union workers below 1 per cent during 19l5-18. [33] During the short-lived post-armistice boom (1919-20), the unemployment rate among these workers was still only 3.2 per cent. In 1921, however, unemployment shot up to 22.1 per cent, and then to 27 per cent the following year. At the same time the wage gains which engineering workers had made during the war began to be eroded. This was the background to a decline in engineering workers' militancy, reflected in the downwards trend in the statistics for strikes in the metal, engineering and shipbuilding industries (see Table 4.1). 33. Statistics in this section are from the Board of Trade Statistical Department, 1926.


Table 4.1 Disputes involving stoppages in the metal, engineering and shipbuilding industries. 1919-24
  Working days 'lost' Workers involved
Source: Board of Trade Statistical Department, 1926. 

The exceptional figures for 1922 were the result of a three-month engineering workers' lock-out; Harry McShane describes what happened :  
the engineers were defeated . . . and they returned to much worse working conditions. The union's defeat meant a reduction in wages, not only for them but ultimately for all trades and labourers as well. After the war I got £4 8s. a week as an engineer, but after the lock-out engineers' wages went down to £2 13s. [34]
34. H. McShane and J. Smith, Harry McShane: No Mean Fighter (London: Pluto Press,1978), p. 136.
This was the general pattern throughout the rest of British industry. Unemployment increased from 1.5 per cent in the autumn of 1920 to 18 per cent by December 1921. Cuts in wages were only partially offset by a fall in the cost of living. The number of working days 'lost' in disputes involving stoppages in all industries decreased, as did the number of workers involved (see Table 4.2).  


Table 4.2 Disputes involving stoppages (all industries), 1919~24
  Working days 'lost' Workers involved
Source: Board of Trade Statistical Department, 1926. 
The sections of the working class which had been at the forefront of the class struggle were the ones hit hardest by the onset of the post-war depression. The national rate of unemployment in August 1922 stood at 12.8 per cent -- compared with 27 per cent on Clydeside and 32 per cent in Sheffield. Engineering and shipbuilding workers accounted for 65 per cent of all unemployed workers on Clydeside, while iron, steel and engineering workers made up 70 per cent of the total in Sheffield. In Wales as a whole 44 per cent of unemployed workers were miners -- a percentage which was obviously much higher in the coalmining areas themselves. [35] In his Presidential address to the South Wales Miners' Federation in July 1923, Vernon Hartshorn remarked that 'he had never known a period when the workmen had been more demoralised than they were during 1922 . . . Wages had been low, unemployment had been extensive and the owners had taken advantage of the general position to attack standard wages and customs which had been in existence for many years'. [36] 35. Regional and occupational figures from J. Astor et al., The Third Winter of Unemployment (London: P.S. King, 1922).

36. Quoted in H. Francis and D. Smith, The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1980), p. 32.

During this period the generalised class struggle of the years before 1920 gave way to defensive battles in which sections of the working class were isolated and defeated one by one. The year 1921 illustrates the change. In April the railway and transport workers' union leaders withdrew their promise of support to the miners, leaving their Triple Alliance partners to fight a three-month struggle which ended in defeat. Of the 85 million working days 'lost' in 1921, nearly 80 million were accounted for by locked-out miners. In 1921 almost two and a half times more days were 'lost' in strikes as there had been in 1919, but more than a third fewer workers were involved (see Table 4.2).  
These circumstances saw a rapid decline in the rank and file activity of the shop stewards' movement. As unemployment rose known militants were frequently the first to lose their jobs through victimisation by employers: ‘Soon it was a wry joke that the shop steward leaders of 1918 had become the unemployed leaders of the 1920s’. [37] The decline of rank and file activity saw power within the trade unions shift back in favour of the full-time officials, a trend consolidated by a number of major union amalgamations (which on grounds of sheer size created conditions for greater bureaucratisation) and by the spread of national collective bargaining. As Sylvia Pankhurst observed in 1922 : 37. J. Hinton and R. Hyman, Trade Unions and Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1975), p. 14.
Undoubtedly a strong move is being made by the Union officials to secure greater power in the Unions and to thrust the rank and file still further into the background . . . the Unions become more and more bureaucratic, more and more dominated by the capitalist influence upon the Trade Union leaders, still further removed from rank and file control. [38]
38. Workers' Dreadnought, 10 June 1922.
The victimisation of shopfloor activists during the 'employers' offensive' was complemented by state repression of 'subversives' : 'In 1921 over 100 "communists" were arrested and jailed for variations on the theme of sedition.' [39] A leaflet issued by the APCF in 1921, in connection with the prosecution of the Glasgow Communist Group for publishing the 'seditious' Red Commune, referred to the 'concerted effort on the part of the ruling class . . . to suppress ruthlessly every serious advocate of social transformation in order to preserve the present iniquitous and unjust system'. [40] 39. J. Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse (London: Paladin,1978), P. 303.

40. Leaflet issued by John McGovern, Treasurer, APCF Defence and Maintenance Fund, Shettleston, 1921, bundle 2, Aldred Collection.

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