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Syndicalism, Communism and the Trade Unions in Britain, 1910-1926

Mike Woodhouse

This article was first published in Marxist, Vol.4 No.3, 1966. Marxist was the magazine of the Leeds University Marxist Society, a student organisation of the Socialist Labour League. Mike Woodhouse is co-author, with Brian Pearce, of Essays on the History of Communism in Britain.

AT THE time of the General Strike in 1926, Trotsky commented that the British Communist Party was "barely emerging from the position of a propaganda group of the extreme left" and that it needed to develop revolutionary methods and habits, and "a spirit of irreconcilability towards opportunist leaders of all hues and varieties". This observation was directed at the policy of compromise with the "official left" of the Trades Union Congress General Council which was then the current policy of the Comintern, but it also drew attention to the inherent weakness of the British party which derived from the past traditions of the extreme left in the British labour movement, and particularly from the propagandist and syndicalist background of the various groups that came together to form the CP in 1920-21. The aim of this paper will be to examine the largely syndicalist background to the British CP, and indicate how this background decisively affected the party’s work in the trade unions in its early years by encouraging tendencies to adapt to the "rank-and-filism" that appeared in the ranks of the trade unions in the 1920s.

The CP developed from two related tendencies in the labour movement of the 1900-1920 period; the upsurge of militant rank-and-file movements in the decade before the founding of the party was a reaction to the growing opportunism of the trade union and social-democratic leaderships, and largely found its expression in the theories and methods of syndicalism. This growth of syndicalism was attended by the growth of various Marxist propaganda groupings, chiefly the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party, which maintained a formal opposition to the opportunism of the Labour Party, and which, in terms of their practical effect, were largely involved with, and to a large extent identified with, the syndicalist movement of this period. This characterisation of the socialist groupings applies in particular to the SLP, which played a leading role amongst the Scottish shop stewards during the war, and which built up a large amount of support for its particular form of syndicalist theory. The role of the BSP was more complicated. A fusion of the old Social Democratic Federation and a small section of the Independent Labour Party "left", the BSP had no definite concept of organised work in the trade unions. The furthest it got in defining the relationship of party members to the unions was to advocate that all BSP union members should "carry on a vigorous campaign on behalf of socialist principles and also in favour of the ultimate amalgamation of all unions on the basis of class and not craft".1 This was a purely abstract and propagandist concept. In practice it left the BSP members free to adapt to the leftward tendencies of the trade union bureaucracies, or to the syndicalist currents among the rank and file. In fact, where the latter tendency asserted itself, the BSP became submerged in purely syndicalist forms of struggle, as it did in its work to create the unofficial reform movement amongst the Scottish miners in the later part of the war.

Of the tendencies which converged to form the CP, that of syndicalism was thus the strongest, and arose not just from the revolt of the unskilled and poorly organised workers of the pre-war period, but as much from the most organised and strongest sections of the trade union movement – the miners, engineers and railwaymen. In this case, syndicalism as a philosophy of action developed amongst a rank and file that was in increasing opposition to the adaptation of the trade union leadership to capitalism, either directly through the medium of conciliation machinery designed to promote peaceful industrial relations, or indirectly through the medium of the Labour Party. In the period immediately before the war the leaders of these unions formed a distinct official clique, increasingly separated from the rank and file in social background, and separated from the immediate problems of the union membership at the point of production. Their approach to industrial struggles was conditioned by years of comparatively peaceful bargaining with the employers, and from the turn of the century onwards, by their increasing interaction with government departments as the state became involved in the regulation of industrial relations. Accepting the permanence of capitalism, and the position of the unions within it as bargainers for limited economic improvements, the leaderships of the strongly established unions looked for some working relationship with capital that would secure these improvements without the need for sharp industrial struggles. In the last resort, in the face of failures to induce the employers to accept the logic of their proposals, the trade union leaders saw the state, particularly when administered by a Liberal government, as the necessary means for the adjustment of class relations in a progressive direction. The creation of the Labour Party did not alter this tendency. The Labour Party was seen by the unions as an additional means for putting pressure on and extracting concessions from capitalist governments.

The terms in which this relationship with capital were conceived were well expressed by Enoch Edwards, President of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, in 1907. "Our society", he said, speaking of the Miners Federation, "has no quarrel with capital.... Our great union has helped to bridge over, and is steadily bridging over, the great difference between profits on the one hand and wages on the other. We are not seeking the ruin of anybody – we are seeking the uplifting of everybody...."2

This attitude was an ideological reflection of the ability of the trade union leaderships to establish a stable relationship with the employers in a period of general expansion for British capitalism. The significant fact, however, was that this relationship had been achieved as a result of past struggles for reforms, and that despite the objective ability of British capitalism to make further concessions to the working class, these could only be obtained through decisive struggles in the industrial and political field. However, the growth of bureaucracy in the trade unions, and the subordination of the Labour Party to the Liberals in Parliament, meant that with the hardening of the attitude of the employers and the Liberal Party towards labour from 1909-10, the policies and methods of the Labour leaders were inadequate either to extract worthwhile concessions or to measure up to the aspirations of the rank and file. The reaction of trade unionists to this process was the formation of strong rank-and-file movements in unions like the Miners’ Federation, which expressed the hostility of the rank and file to the opportunism of the leadership, and which pressed for militant action on immediate issues. These tendencies found theoretical expression in syndicalism, and it was largely syndicalists who directed and organised the rank-and-file movements that appeared amongst the miners, railwaymen and engineers in the 1910-20 period.

Although it arose from a reaction against opportunism in the trade union and Labour Party leadership, syndicalism itself represented a form of opportunism in the labour movement in that it arose from a one-sided analysis of developments in society, and thus sought to correct the failings of the political representatives of the working class by an assertion of the strength of militant trade unionism, and a rejection of all forms of political struggle as inherently futile and ultimately corrupting. In practice this meant an adaptation to the spontaneous activities of the trade union rank and file, and a failure to provide any effective leadership except on immediate economic questions or issues involving trade union organisation.

Yet, despite this, syndicalism provided a focal point for rank-and-file militants who wished to fight against the growth of bureaucracy in the unions: in this sense, the syndicalist movement laid the basis for revolutionary tendencies in the trade unions, which the CP later inherited at its formation. The characteristic feature of syndicalism was its concern with the control of trade union organisation both as an antidote to bureaucracy, and as a means of ensuring that the union would be used to fight both for the workers’ immediate interests, and for the eventual expropriation of the employers and control of industry. The Miners’ Next Step, the publication of the Unofficial Reform Committee of the South Wales Miners, brought out these points very clearly. Analysing the growth of bureaucracy in the union, it indicated that the prestige and social pretensions of the trade union officials derived from the relationship built up with the employers through the medium of the machinery of collective bargaining.

The Miners’ Next Step, and the syndicalist movement in general, drew the conclusion, however, that bureaucracy was inherent in the institution of leadership as such; the only way to avoid the danger was to abolish leadership, and create a form of trade union organisation which would provide effective rank-and-file control. The South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee in fact referred to itself as a "no leader movement", while the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee movement was organised on the same principle. Thus despite the emphasis of syndicalism on the need to create industrial unions on class and not craft lines for the ultimate seizure of control in industry, the effective form the syndicalist movement took was that of loosely organised groups of militant trade unionists, united on immediate trade union issues, and acting as rank and file pressure groups on the existing union leaderships. A group of South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee members made this clear in the years after the publication of The Miners’ Next Step – "we claim", they said, "that we ought to be a ‘ginger group’ constantly attempting to galvanise the executive committee into life and focussing their efforts in the direction of our programme, using any and every legitimate means that the circumstances of the movement seem to justify".3 The concentration on immediate economic issues and the looseness of organisation of the local sections of the movement were supplemented by a purely propagandist approach to the revolutionary aspects of syndicalist policy. In none of the syndicalist literature of the 1910-13 period was the question of how the Industrial Union would be used for revolutionary purposes seriously considered. In areas like South Wales, where religious traditions were strong among the rank and file, the ultimate aims of syndicalism could be presented in what were virtually millennial terms, and in general the exact forms of the syndicalist revolution were not considered important by the movement. The revolution would proceed automatically from the very process of creating strong unions, and educating the rank and file in syndicalist principles. This was the concept held by the most developed form of the syndicalist rank-and-file movement of the pre-war period in South Wales.

In a manifesto in 1913 the Unofficial Reform Committee set out its aims as follows:

"1. To strengthen and equip existing trade unions by every means in their power to get better conditions, higher wages, and shorter hours for the working class here and now.

2. To make the unions powerful enough to force the control and ownership of the mines, railways, factories, docks, shipyards, etc.: in short, the whole of the means whereby wealth is produced and distributed, from the hands of the employers, and to take them over on behalf of the working class.

3. To so change the organisation and procedure of the trade unions that they become a training ground where the working class learns gradually by practice and in the very struggle to gain control, how to manage in an efficient manner the industries by the workmen who are employed therein."4

The most important consideration in this scheme was that of changing the consciousness of the rank and file so that they would see the need for Industrial Unionism and the ultimate control of industry by the working class. In the syndicalist concept, power could be won by a constant struggle of the unions to encroach on the power of the employers. The employers’ profits and eventually the employer himself would be eliminated by the process of increasing wages and shortening hours, all this to be achieved through the creation of industrial unions. The change in rank-and-file consciousness would thus proceed from the immediate struggle for better trade union organisation and conditions and from the assistance of the syndicalist propaganda groups. "The crying need of the hour", stated the Unofficial Reform Committee, "is to show the working class how to get power [i.e., strong trade union organisation]. Once they have this power, they will inevitably use it in the directions indicated above [i.e., to create Industrial Unions to take over the control of industry]. Therefore we believe that we can campaign successfully to every earnest trade unionist whether he agrees with our final objective or not."5

This last point provides a key to the understanding of the nature of syndicalism in this period. If, as the syndicalist argued, the process of constructing unions on class lines and the ultimate seizure of control of industry were automatic reflexes to the development towards monopoly capitalism, no revolutionary party of the working class was needed for the conquest of power, neither was any elaborate form of rank-and-file organisation. Syndicalism could unite a diversity of tendencies in the trade union movement around the struggle for immediate objectives because it was maintained that despite the policy differences between these various tendencies, the very fact of their participation in militant struggles assisted the inevitable development towards the syndicalist revolution. Both nationally and locally, therefore, the syndicalist movement was characterised by its diffuse form, and its ability to cater for various groups in the labour movement whose only basis for agreement rested on the failure of the Parliamentary Labour Party to act as an adequate vehicle for reform, and the need to build up trade union strength to force the concession of reforms from the employers and the state by direct action. Thus Tom Mann’s Syndicalist Education League was able to unite groupings ranging from the revolutionary nuclei in South Wales, who later came into the CP, to orthodox trade unionists like Purcell, and left-wingers in the Labour Party like Lansbury. A similar situation existed in the South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee, which constituted an alliance between syndicalists, members of the local ILP and Labour Party, and uncommitted rank-and-file trade unionists. The main issue holding the South Wales alliance together was the agreement on the need for the minimum wage for mineworkers. Once this had been achieved by the national strike of 1912, the alliance, and the Unofficial Reform Committee began to decline and break up. Much the same was true of the Syndicalist Education League. Little more than a propaganda body, it could act as a focal point for militant trade unionists only in the specific conditions of the immediate pre-war period. At a time when British capitalism was able to make concessions to well-organised sections of the working class, syndicalism appeared as a very militant form of reformism, and drew its strength from the major industrial struggles that developed in the 1910-13 period. Once these had passed away, however, the conditions for a national syndicalist movement disappeared and the Syndicalist Education League declined to an insignificant sect that vanished with the outbreak of the war.

The one exception to this was the Amalgamation Committee Movement in the engineering industry, which provided the basis during the war, along with the Clyde Workers Committee, for the creation of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement. The movement was characterised by its intense concern with immediate trade union issues and the very high degree of organisation it built up to deal with these issues. Describing the meetings of the Amalgamation Committee in Sheffield, J.T. Murphy recounted that "the questions under discussion were very practical – the encroachment of unskilled workers onto skilled workers’ jobs; the new machine processes and the division of labour that was going on apace in the workshops; the wages question; the hours of labour, overtime, and the speed-up and our organisational weaknesses".6 Despite the revolutionary aura that surrounds the activities of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement, this movement too was as much concerned with the issues listed by Murphy as the Amalgamation Committee Movement, and its considerable power over the period of the war rested on the fact that it was the only organisation that could defend workshop conditions once the trade union leadership had virtually signed away trade union rights and customs at the Treasury conference of. 1915. The structure of the shop stewards’ movement and the firm attachment of its leadership to the methods of syndicalism meant that the movement only appeared as a real alternative leadership in the unions under the special conditions of wartime production. Thus the syndicalist prejudice against leadership and the predilection to adapt to spontaneous rank-and-file activity tended to detract from the strength of the movement. The National Administrative Committee’s lack of executive power and its consequent inability to provide firm national leadership meant that during crucial struggles, as in the great Clydeside strike of 1919, it was unable to rally the forces attached to the movement. At the same time a unique chance to capture the leadership of the engineering union was lost. Because of the syndicalist association of the trade union leadership with corruption, there was a strong disposition in the shop stewards’ movement against contesting official union posts. "It is quite certain", commented J.T. Murphy, "that had the leading shop stewards of that period, when the workers were supporting them, really made a planful effort to win the leadership of the engineering unions, they could have succeeded in the course of a few years."7 As it was, the failure to do this, and the failure to create a strong, centralised leadership, meant that the shop stewards’ movement began to decline with the passing of the special wartime conditions from (to quote Murphy again) "the independent positions as fighting organisations to that of propaganda bodies within the trade unions".

Yet it was across this period, 1919-22, that leading members of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement (e.g., Tom Bell, Murphy, Macmanus, Gallacher, Campbell and Tanner) were involved in the negotiations that led to the establishment of a unified Communist Party in 1921, and which produced, inter alia, some definite proposals for the reorganisation of the unofficial movement in the trade unions under firm Communist control. The recognition of the need for the subordination of activity in the trade unions to the overall direction of a revolutionary party, however, was not achieved without considerable struggles against the traditions inherited from the past syndicalist methods of work.

In the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement the British CP inherited the only significant unofficial movement that existed in the trade unions. From the end of the war the movement had been endeavouring to extend its scope; it was under its influence that the Miners’ Reform Committees were established in the Northern and Scottish coalfields, the South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee revived and brought into the national unofficial movement. From 1919 the movement was bringing forward representatives from mining, engineering, and the railways at its national rank-and-file conferences, and was moving towards a position where the old inhibitions about centralised leadership would be broken down. This process took place largely as an empirical reaction to changing conditions beyond the control of the shop stewards’ movement. From the end of the post-war boom in 1920 the economic conditions that had nurtured syndicalism over the previous decade disappeared rapidly. In one industry after another (e.g., the mines in 1921, engineering in 1922, the docks in 1923) frontal attacks on the conditions secured in the years of economic expansion were launched, and in each case, particularly the miners’ lock-out, the power of the state was clearly deployed on behalf of the employers. This sharp change in the character of class relations promoted a fundamental re-thinking of the main tenets of syndicalist theory. In purely practical terms it was apparent that in a period when the working class as a whole was under attack the limited and localised forms of rank-and-file struggle that had hitherto characterised unofficial movements in the trade unions were valueless. To meet the employers’ offensive nationally organised rank-and-file movements were required that would be able to link together workers in various industries in a common struggle. At the same time, the direct intervention of the state in the post-war struggles and the evidence of the Bolshevik Revolution destroyed the idea that trade union militancy alone was sufficient to take the working class to power. The experience of the October Revolution was absorbed in both an idealist and an empirical sense, however. The leaders of the shop stewards’ movement conceived of the Soviets as institutions that could be applied directly to British conditions, and not as forms of organisation that were developed in the course of actual working class struggles. A national conference of the movement, in January 1920, claimed that the workers’ committees were equivalent to the Russian Soviets, and that the role of the shop stewards’ movement could be equated with that of the revolutionary party.8

This new concept of the role of the shop stewards’ movement was underlined by Jack Tanner, the movement’s delegate at the Second Congress of the Comintern. His exposition of the policies of the shop stewards’ movement made clear the hostility to political action that persisted in the movement, despite its decision to adhere to the Third International. "We understand and realise", he stated, "that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be wielded by a minority – the revolutionary minority of the proletariat as expressed through the Shop Stewards’ Committee Movement.... A number of those who are active in the shop stewards’ movement", he added, "are not greatly concerned about the formation of the party, because they have been convinced from their experience in other parties that it was a loss of time to share in the work of such parties."9 Tanner’s statement thus indicated not just syndicalist opposition to the concept of revolutionary political action, but a deep-rooted hostility to the type of propagandist socialist parties that existed in Britain. It was the work of the Second Comintern Congress and the subsequent negotiations to form the British CP to break down the misconception that the revolutionary party was a glorified version of the Socialist Labour Party or the British Socialist Party.

However, perhaps inevitably, the understanding of the nature of the revolutionary party and the role it could play in the trade unions which was developed by the leaders of the shop stewards was largely formal. Despite the fact that there was general agreement by 1921 that the shop stewards’ movement should work closely with the CP, the tendency to regard the shop stewards’ movement as the more important of the two persisted, and an undercurrent of opposition to centralised organisation of the unofficial movement under party control continued up to the formation of the Minority Movement. The work of the party fractions in the trade unions during the early years of the party revealed very clearly how the old syndicalist habits – the inclination to rely on "ginger group" tactics, the tendency to become submerged in localised and spontaneous rank-and-file movements, and the very strong belief in the power of pure propaganda – remained in force, and were tacitly condoned by the leadership.

In 1921 the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement was reorganised at a national conference of all unofficial organisations and a constitution adopted which committed the movement to the closest organisational ties with the CP: in fact, within a year, the movement was completely merged with the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions. The particular importance of this reorganisation conference was that it laid down a general perspective for the unofficial movement in the trade unions which involved for the first time a plan for serious communist work in the union branches to win them both on immediate economic questions and on wider political issues to the policies of the CP. "The fact that industrial struggle develops into the political struggle", stated the thesis adopted by the conference, "demands that the workers’ organisations shall be under the guidance of a centralised, disciplined party of picked revolutionaries, the Communist Party. Such a party must establish its party groups in the union branches and in the workshops with a view to capturing the organisations there for communism.... It is the work of the extra-union organisation to gather together in the workshop and the branch all elements who are prepared to work for the consolidation of the workers’ industrial forces, the break-up of the reactionary bureaucracy, the acceptance of workers’ control and management of industry."10 This statement was very correct, and an accurate translation of the suggestions made by the Second Congress of the Communist International on trade union organisation. Its wording, however, suggested that it was accepted in a purely formal and propagandist sense. This was very apparent in the massive struggle that developed shortly after the conference. The conference had taken place on the very weekend that the national miners’ lock-out began, yet there appears to have been no plan of campaign worked out for the unofficial movement during the lock-out, despite the strong representation of the Miners’ Reform Committees. The role of the CP during the lock-out was, in effect, not to attempt to seize the initiative in the districts against the betrayals of Hodges and the Triple Alliance, but to stand on the sidelines with the admonition to the miners: "Watch your leaders." Throughout the lock-out the Communist carried no reports of the activities of the party in the districts, and this reflected a lack of any definite leadership by the Central Committee. Moreover, although in many districts there was a high level of activity by communists, this was of a spontaneous and uncoordinated nature, and reflected the persistent tendency to regard the Workers’ Committee Movement and not the party as the essential element in the struggle. At the Third Congress of the Communist International, Radek commented on the British situation: "In many places the party appears on the scene under the cloak of the "Workers Committees" and any success that is achieved by the propaganda does not bring the masses near to the CP.... We consider it our duty to say the following, even to the smallest CPs: you will never have any large mass parties if you limit yourselves to the mere propaganda of the Communist theory."11

The role of the party during the engineers’ lock-out in 1922 seemed to indicate that it had learned from the experiences of 1921. The work of party members in the Amalgamated Engineering Union was strictly controlled and co-ordinated by the British bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions: a fighting programme for the engineers was issued and some success achieved in working for sympathetic action outside the engineering industry. As a result, although the engineers were defeated, the party extended its influence among various sections of the AEU rank and file. Yet despite this correction of the mistakes of 1921, the party was faced with increasingly difficult conditions for the conduct of unofficial movements in the trade unions. The defeats of 1921-22 had caused widespread demoralisation, which was reinforced by massive unemployment. As far as the party leadership was concerned, this seemed to destroy all hopes of creating any real basis in the working class around the organisational proposals adopted by the rank-and-file conference in 1921. In short, the leadership adapted to the current mood of the working class. The work of the British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions assumed purely propagandist form from 1922, and the number of trade union branches supporting the Red International stagnated at about 50. The reorganisation commission set up by the Fourth Congress attempted to correct this stagnation in the trade union work of the party by advocating the formation of a Central Industrial Committee, but the great fault of the Reorganisation Commission was its failure to provide any political perspective for this reorganisation. As a result the trade union work of the party continued to stagnate during 1923, and the organisation of this work assumed increasingly chaotic forms at the very time when sections of the working class were beginning to recover from the demoralisation of the previous period. In its report to the Sixth Congress (May 1924) the Control Commission gave some indication of the decay that had affected the party’s trade union organisation. The industrial department had been bandied around from one person to another, and had failed "to get down to the elementary task of ascertaining the strength and co-ordinating the work of the party members in the trade unions and Trades Councils". At the same time, from the end of 1922 there had been virtually no contact between the CP executive and the Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions, and little working co-operation in the districts.

Reviewing the work of the British Bureau at the Third Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions, the Executive Bureau strongly criticised its sectarianism and lack of positive work, and was hardly exaggerating when it stated that "During the whole period under consideration the Executive Bureau was repeatedly forced to note that the work of the British Bureau does not keep pace with the requirements and possibilities of the present labour movement of Great Britain." In fact, the paralysis which was affecting the trade union work of the CPGB in 1923 was only overcome by the direct intervention of the Red International of Labour Unions, and by a complete reorganisation of the unofficial movement to allow for the development of a mass basis among rank-and-file trade unionists in a period of rising trade union militancy. The Executive Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions had reached the conclusion that the British Bureau, with its concentration on propaganda for the Red International, was, as Lozovsky expressed it, "an absolutely unsuitable" form of organisation. In the course of negotiations with the leadership of the CPGB, and in particular with its trade union organisers – Pollitt, Campbell and Gallacher – the executive of the Red International of Labour Unions stressed the need for the formation of revolutionary minorities in all sections of industry and their organisation around a strong national leadership.12 In accordance with this, the industrial work of the party was reorganised. The composition of the British Bureau was changed, and Gallacher put in charge of the organisation of ’minority movements’ and in particular the convening of a national conference of these movements.

These changes were intimately related to the changing character of trade union struggles from 1923, and the possibilities that now existed for the development of mass unofficial movements under Communist control. In the leadership of the CP, however, there was considerable reluctance to alter the methods established over the previous years, or to accept the need for unofficial movements that would fight to win mass support around the immediate economic issues facing trade unionists. Reviewing the attitude to the Minority Movement in this period, a commentator in the CP later wrote: "at the beginning of the National Minority Movement considerable time and energy had to be expended to fight down the belief that there was no room for a movement dealing with immediate and ‘narrow’ economic issues ... and that such an organisation would stand in front of and hide the party from the workers. Sneering descriptions of the NMM were given in the party as an ‘attempt to dress a red man in a pink cloak’."13 The underlying opposition to the change of tactics in rank-and-file organisation was further shown in the considerable delay of Gallacher in calling a national conference of the Minority Movement; this did not take place until August 1924 when Minority Movements had been successfully organised for some time among the miners, transport workers, railway workers and engineers and when the working class had experienced nearly a year of the Macdonald government and were moving into increasing opposition to it.

Despite the tardiness in creating a national organisation for the Minority Movement this change in the industrial work of the CPGB went a long way towards correcting the former weaknesses of the party, and set it on the path to becoming a mass party instead of a propaganda grouping. The main purpose of the Minority Movement, as indicated above, was to unite rank-and-file trade unionists in strong national unofficial movements around struggles for immediate improvements in conditions. With the experience of Black Friday and the break-up of the Triple Alliance in mind, the intention was to make the Minority Movements instruments for asserting rank-and-file control over the union leaderships and over the General Council of the TUC. To realise this, the Ist Annual Conference of the Minority Movement (at which 200,000 trade unionists were represented) passed resolutions calling for the establishment of workshop committees in factories on which organised and unorganised workers alike would be represented: it further called for representation on Trades Councils directly from these committees instead of from the union branch which was often remote from the point of production. Such proposals were designed to give life to local trade union organisation, and to the Trades Councils, which in many areas were virtually defunct. Their effect would be to assert rank-and-file power in the unions, and make the union apparatus directly responsible to the wishes of the membership. Above all, it would permit the control of the directing force of the trade union movement, the TUC General Council. This consideration was to the fore in the business of the conference. Accepting a proposal for the strengthening of the power of the General Council to allow for the waging of a common struggle, the conference warned that this would be valueless without a parallel strengthening of rank-and-file control.

"The reactionaries desire a General Council which will cheek and dissipate all advances by the workers. We of the Minority Movement desire a General Council which will bring into being a bold and audacious General Staff of the trade union movement.... We can guard against the General Council becoming a machine of the capitalists ... by, in the first place and fundamentally, developing a revolutionary class consciousness amongst the trade union membership, and, in the second place, by so altering the constitution of the General Council as to ensure that those elected thereon have the closest contact with the workers."14

This concern with a strong General Council closely controlled by rank-and-file trade unionists had featured in the trade union work of the party from its inception; the establishment of the Minority Movement and the beginnings of organised work at the Trades Union Congress from 1924 brought the issue within the bounds of possibility. It was fully appreciated by 1924 that a powerful national rank-and-file movement could only be effective if its struggles for immediate gains and internal democracy in the unions were linked to clear and decisive political leadership by the CP. The past experience of the party’s trade union work had indicated the danger of party members becoming submerged in amorphous rank-and-file movements in the absence of leadership from the party centre. At the 6th Party Congress, before the policy of reliance on the TUC "lefts" had come into vogue, it was appreciated that without the leadership of the party, the Minority Movements would be little more than a rank-and-file movement of the old type. A resolution adopted at the conference affirmed that "the opposition movements can go forward only under the leadership of a powerful communist party which can unite its forces and carry through the struggle to its revolutionary goal". To achieve this it was essential that communists should play a leading role in the movement, and inspire its activities; but the party should at the same time remain quite separate from it as an organisation.

The essential factor for the realisation of the policy of the 6th Congress was the establishment of the party on a firm basis in the factories. The factory branch, as distinct from that on a geographical basis, would have the opportunity to play a leading role in the workshop committees, whose establishment the Minority Movement had envisaged, and on the Trades Councils. It would, in effect, become the nucleus around which the local organisation of the Minority Movement would revolve. In this respect, the reorganisation of the party on a factory group basis and the consequent strengthening of the local units of the Minority Movement was only partly realised by the time of the General Strike, and certainly not on a wide enough scale to allow the party to assume the initiative when the General Council decided to abandon the strike. Of the 6,000 members of the party on the eve of the General Strike, 1,000 were organised in factory groups, the strongest concentration being in London where 20 per cent of the membership were so organised. In areas where factory branches did exist, however, they had considerable influence. Many of these branches, particularly in mining areas, issued factory or pit papers which had a combined circulation of 50,000 by 1926. On the other hand, the considerable degree of success achieved at national level through the Minority Movement, particularly in the influencing of "left" trade union leaders like A.J. Cook, induced a certain complacency towards the local organisation of the movement and the need for party influence in it, and in fact at the enlarged session of the Executive Committee of the Comintern at the end of 1925, the British delegation admitted that there had been a tendency not to form party fractions in the Minority Movement because of the strong Communist representation on the leadership.

Despite these weaknesses, the Minority Movement commanded increasing support from the rank-and-file trade unionists across the period leading up to the General Strike. Representation at the annual conferences increased rapidly, reaching nearly one million (a quarter of the organised workers in the country) at the conference of March 1926. At the same time, the Minority Movement sections, which were concentrated in the mining, engineering and rail and transport unions, were able to force the union leaderships increasingly to the left, and to get significant parts of the programme of the Minority Movement adopted as official union policy. It was largely because of the strength of the Minority Movement, moreover, that the union leaderships were forced to ally themselves with the miners in July 1925 and thus induce the government to retreat over "Red Friday".

However, the tactics and methods of the movement began to change significantly in 1925. Increasingly the Minority Movement Is activities were directed to pressurising the trade union bureaucracies to adopt left policies, and less to building up the local strength of the movement. The outcome was to be that the Minority Movement lost the initiative it had seized in 1924, and declined to the position of a militant "ginger group" where its role was that of ensuring that the "left" trade union leaders maintained their left positions. The fact that this resulted from the decision of the Stalin-Bukharin bloc in the Comintern to depart from the perspective of world revolution and to rely on progressive forces to "neutralise" the hostile capitalist governments of the West is well known. The publication, in February 1925, of the report of the TUC delegation to Russia, with its praise of the incipient Stalinist regime, seemed to indicate that the TUC was now a leftward-moving force, and that it could be used to neutralise the anti-Soviet tendencies of the Baldwin government. As a consequence, the whole of the resources of the CPGB were mobilised behind the progressives on the TUC General Council to guarantee the continuation of the leftward trend.

This change of line was a complete reversal of the type of united front campaign the party had hitherto been carrying out. In 1924 it was appreciated that some tactical alliance with the TUC lefts would be necessary, but only in so far as they identified themselves with the demands of the rank and file and actively fought for the policies of the Minority Movement. It did not take a great deal of shrewdness to conjecture that the militancy of the TUC "lefts" was largely the result of an adaptation to the current mood of the working class for purely careerist reasons. Throughout 1924 the party press carried warnings of the unreliability of the TUC left, and stressed that an alliance with them could in no way provide a substitute for a strong Minority movement. Thus Campbell in the Communist Review for September 1924: "It would be a suicidal policy ... for the Communist Party and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on what we have called the official left wing"; and he went on to urge the formation of working committees to counteract the power of the bureaucracy. From the spring of 1925 the position changed radically. Criticism of the General Council lefts died away, or became innocuous. The drive to build up strong local sections of the Minority Movement, directed by party branches in the factories, slackened, and the left-wing officials of the trade union apparatus were presented as the leadership that would lead the working class to success against the employers’ offensive. Dutt’s assessment of their role was fairly representative of the views of the party leadership:

"The left trade union leaders occupy at present the position, not only of the workers in the immediate crisis, but also of the spokesmen of the working class elements in the Communist Party – it might also be said, an alternative political leadership – in the present stage the language of the left trade union leaders is the closest indication of the advent of the British working class to revolution."15

One is forced to ask how this incredible statement, in effect a call for substitution of orthodox trade unionists for the leading role of the party, could be made on the eve of the revolutionary upheavals associated with the General Strike. The simple answer that it stemmed directly from the Stalinist line of the Comintern in fact answers nothing. Basically, the docility of the CPGB in 1925 towards the directives of the Comintern derived from the general theoretical backwardness of its leadership. The earlier part of this paper indicated how the various changes in the work of the party in the trade unions had resulted from empirical adjustments to changing conditions, and often formal acceptance of the admonitions of the Comintern. By 1925 the leading members of the party appeared to be unable to analyse the real nature of the growing crisis of British capitalism and the radicalising effect this was having on the working class. Thus instead of being able to work to develop the necessary revolutionary understanding in the working class which would provide it with a chance of success in the forthcoming General Strike, the party adapted to the backwardness of working class consciousness by tailing along behind the official left wing on the General Council. Moreover, to have worked out a clear revolutionary perspective in 1925 would have meant a sharp struggle against the growth of Stalinism with its theory of the stabilisation of capitalism. In actual fact, there was scarcely a murmur of support for, or even discussion of, the policies of the Left Opposition. Where theoretical struggles in the French, German, and Polish parties on the theses of the opposition were taking place in the mid-20s, the British party merely passed dutifully anti-Trotskyist resolutions and gave the theoretical issues no consideration. It is scarcely surprising that the CPGB was hailed by Stalin as a model party.

The outcome of the position adopted by the party in 1925 was that it was totally incapable, when the General Strike took place, of providing any effective alternative leadership to the General Council and the left trade union leaders. Yet the need for such a leadership became increasingly clear during the period that led up to the strike. In accordance with the alliance with the official trade union left, the party directed its attentions to urging the General Council to prepare the struggle. Previous demands for the democratisation of the General Council were dropped, and the General Council as it stood was asked to prepare for common action by the unions so that the demands of all sections could be realised. Despite the campaign of the Minority Movement, this was a total failure. The General Council, including its left wing, made no preparation at all for the General Strike until the last possible moment. The same applied to the attempt of the Minority Movement to induce leading trade unions, particularly the miners, railwaymen and engineers, to form an industrial alliance to take the place of the defunct Triple Alliance. The Alliance that was called into being on the initiative of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain collapsed by the end of 1925 as a result of disagreements amongst the constituent union bureaucracies. These developments made clear the futility of relying on the official union leaderships to meet the capitalist offensive. Yet the general line adopted by the party on the eve of the strike gave the fullest support to the policy of the General Council that the strike was purely constitutional and concerned only with economic issues. Writing in the Workers Weekly, 30 April 1925, Murphy summed up the party’s attitude:

"Our party does not hold the leading positions in the trade unions. It is not conducting the negotiations with the employers and the government. It can only advise and place its Press and its forces at the service of the workers led by others. And let it be remembered that those who are leading have no revolutionary perspectives before them. Any revolutionary perspectives they may perceive will send the majority of them hot on the track of retreat."

The role of the party during the General Strike was thus characterised by intense militancy by the membership in the localities coupled with a complete breakdown of the leadership nationally. Not accepting the revolutionary implications of the crisis, the leadership had not prepared to work underground during the strike – police raids thus cut off King Street from the districts and the Minority Movement shut down completely. The argument that the party could not meet the revolutionary demands of the situation because of the repressive actions of the authorities thus collapses. The party could be prevented from functioning precisely because it had failed to appreciate the approach of the revolutionary crisis. Despite its weaknesses there is little doubt that the party could have seized the initiative in many districts given the correct policies. In nearly all major industrial areas party members played a conspicuous part: party fractions existed on all important Trades Councils and committees of action, and in some districts, e.g., in South Wales and the North East coast, the party had the preponderant position, and formed the effective leadership. Yet however great its influence, the party rank and file was effectively paralysed by the policies of the party which did not allow it to go beyond the purely constitutional trade union position. Moreover, when the strike was called off, and the role of the TUC left in the betrayal made clear, there was great reluctance to break from the alliance and to disrupt the routine that had been established. In fact, in June the Central Committee of the party warned: "There will be a reaction within our party against working with left-wing leaders. We must fight down this natural feeling and get better contact with these leaders and more mass pressure on them."16 This was too much even for the Executive Committee of the Communist International. In a statement on the General Strike it ordered the CPGB to carry out ruthless denunciation and criticism of the "left capitulators" on the General Council. At the same time, whatever value this injunction had was negated by the refusal of the Comintern to break from the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee.

The reaction of the CP to the role of the General Council "left" was therefore purely empirical. It was the TUC left, after all, who had broken from the Alliance and not the CP. Therefore with each move of the Purcell-Hicks tendency to the right the party press produced an appropriate denunciation, but no overall analysis of the role of the "official left wing" was ever made, and attempts were made to preserve something of the old alliance through the support given to the Cook/Maxton campaign in the later 20s. The persistence with the old policies was not the outcome of any weakening of the party’s trade union influence after the General Strike. Up to 1928 the conferences of the Minority Movement secured representation from some 800,000 workers and still represented a formidable opposition movement in a number of unions. For the party leadership, however, the Minority Movement had come to represent a revival of the old syndicalist methods in the trade union work of the CP, and the terms in which Pollitt described the movement in 1928 might well have applied to any one of the old syndicalist groupings of the previous decade:

"The Minority Movement is an organisation of trade unionists and co-operators.... It is not a competitive trade union. It is an attempt by common effort and leadership to get the Minority Movement policy adopted by all the organisations to which its members belong. It consists of trade unionists who are also Communists, ILPers, Syndicalists, Labour Party members, co-operators, etc...."17

From 1925, then, the role of the Communist International which hitherto had been to help the CPGB escape from its syndicalist past, was to revive all the traditions of ginger group methods and adaptation to spontaneous rank-and-filism at the very time when the British party was breaking from these traditions and was beginning to establish the conditions for its emergence as a mass party. The lessons of the General Strike, properly assimilated, could have provided a further opportunity for establishing a mass basis, but only through a theoretical struggle both against Stalinism and to understand the history of the party. The failure to do this condemned the British CP to remain a small, if highly influential ginger group.


1. British Socialist Party annual conference, 1910.

2. Annual conference of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, 1907.

3. Merthyr Pioneer, 13 July 1918.

4. cf. South Wales Worker, June-July 1913.

5. Ibid.

6. J.T. Murphy, New Horizons, p.35.

7. Ibid., p.81.

8. National Rank and File Conference, 10-11 January 1920.

9. Proceedings of Second Congress of the Third International, July-August 1920.

10. ‘British Trade Unionism and the Revolution’, Thesis adopted by the National Unofficial Conference, March 1921.

11. Communist Review, December 1921.

12. cf. E.H. Carr, Socialism in One Country, Vol.3, Part 1, pp.121-22.

13. Communist Review, Series 3, Vol.4, 1932.

14. Resolution adopted by the 1st Annual Conference of the National Minority Movement, August 1924.

15. Imprecorr, August 6, 1925.

16. Workers Weekly, June 4, 1926.

17. ‘Pollitt’s Reply to Citrine’, issued by NMM, August 1928.