[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

The Great Unrest

The imperialist epoch, the highest stage of capitalism, ushered in a period of intense rivalry, economically, politically and militarily. The key capitalist powers, especially Germany and the United States, were increasingly driven to extreme rivalry, between themselves and Britain, for the control of world markets, colonies and spheres of influence. In the thirty years prior to 1913 the political map of the world had radically changed; the total colonial area conquered by the imperialists had increased by 50 per cent. But some 86 per cent of this area was in the hands of just six Great Powers; actually the concentration was far higher than even these figure show since three powers alone possessed 81 per cent of the total colonial area. From these colonies vast amounts of tribute, minerals and raw materials were extracted by the imperialist powers. With their export of capital the imperialists also benefited from cheap labour on a vast scale. As one employer eloquently put it, “there are no Factory Acts east of Suez.”

International relations soon reached fever pitch in the global battle for markets and spheres of influence. Within a short time, these rivalries would reach boiling point and culminate in the bloody devastation of the First World War. This violent upheaval marked the age of imperialism and the re-division of the world by the leading capitalist powers. It was also to mark the beginning of the general decline and death agony of capitalism, epitomised by war, slump, revolution and the rise of fascism.

In Britain, despite the reforms of the Liberal government, the social gulf between the classes continued to widen dramatically. In a study by Chiozza Money entitled Riches and Poverty (1905), out of a population of 43 million no less than 38 million were categorised as poor. Money-wages between 1900 and 1908 had increased by only one per cent, while the cost of living rose steadily, causing real wages to decline. According to G. H. Wood’s calculations, quoted by Cole and Postgate[1], average real wage-rates were 4 per cent lower by 1910 than they had been in 1896. According to another source, average real wages probably fell by 10 per cent between 1900 and 1912. In contrast, profits and interest rose by 55 per cent between 1899 and 1913. Under such conditions of class polarisation, and a massive build up of grievances in the working class, strikes began to develop. “The fall in real wages was one of the causes of labour militancy”, noted Glyn and Sutcliffe.[2] In February 1907, following the introduction of the Trades Disputes Act, a strike of music hall workers won union recognition and improved conditions, when 2,500 pickets brought performances to a halt. This was followed by a seven-month strike of engineers, and major strikes by shipwrights and joiners, which lasted nearly five months.

In 1907, a Belfast strike over wages by dockworkers, carters and coal labourers, led by the great socialist Jim Larkin, hit the headlines. The strike united both Catholics and Protestants and almost culminated in civil war when 10,000 troops were drafted in to break the strike. The labour unrest that paralysed Belfast drew support from the Belfast Labour Party, the Independent Orange Order, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The struggle had split the Protestant Orange Order on class lines, and drew support from across the religious divide. The movement had driven back religious sectarianism, which was deliberately fostered by the bosses in order to split the workers. “Not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers stand together and don’t be misled by the employers’ game of dividing Catholic and Protestant,” read posters along the Falls Road. The situation deteriorated as a mutiny broke out within the ranks of the Belfast police force. This was eventually suppressed and practically the entire force was transferred to country districts in an attempt to isolate the troublemakers. The dockers went down to defeat, but despite this, industrial strife continued to reign on the docks. “There had not been such an upheaval in a hundred years, and there has not been one since”, states historian Emmet Larkin.[3]

In the rest of Britain, while the government leaned over backwards to appear democratic, the ruling class was engaged in an all-out, anti-union offensive against organised labour. The ruling class was alarmed at the growing strength and confidence of the Labour movement, and in particular its political wing. In 1909, a Liberal trade unionist and member of the Trade Union Political Freedom League, Mr W. V. Osborne, with the full backing of the employers, took legal action against the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants for using its funds for political purposes. After success in the Appeal Court, the matter was taken to the House of Lords. The Law Lords upheld the appeal, and declared in the Osborne Judgment that it was illegal for trade unions to finance Labour candidates or indeed any political objective. At this time, there was no individual membership of the Labour Party, which relied overwhelmingly on affiliated union fees. Given that finance is the sinews of war, the judgement therefore served to paralyse the Party’s activities.

Immediately following the Osborne affair, injunctions were issued against no fewer than twenty-two trade unions forbidding them to continue their political affiliations. Through the scraping together of financial donations, the Labour Party managed with extreme difficulty to fight two general elections in 1910. It was not until 1913 that the Liberal government, under intense working-class pressure, finally acceded to new legislation to redress the balance, but not without stinging qualifications. The Trade Union (Amendment) Act, while allowing trade union affiliation to the Labour Party, placed grave restrictions on this funding. The law now prevented general union funds being spent on political activities. Such finances could only come from a special political fund, which could only be set up after a successful ballot of union members. Anybody who objected to the political fund was allowed to “contract out”. Of course, none of these legal restrictions applied to the Liberal and Conservative Parties, which received their cash from big business, or any other organisation for that matter. It constituted a blatant class onslaught on the organised Labour movement, and despite several Labour governments since then, still remains the situation up to the present-day.

Despite these attacks and difficulties, trade union membership had grown to two-and-a-half million by 1910. The Lib-Lab approach of the parliamentary leadership, however, together with the class collaboration of the trade union leaders, led to growing discontent and frustration amongst the rank and file. This was to result in a growth of syndicalist and semi-syndicalist tendencies in many unions, a rejection of political parties, and the belief that trade union action alone was sufficient to resolve workers’ problems. While this was an erroneous view, this syndicalist ferment in the unions proved to be the precursor to a massive revolutionary upsurge of the British working class, known in Labour history as the “Great Unrest”.

By 1910, the prolonged upswing of world capitalism, ushered in after the defeat of the Commune, was drawing to a close. This period represented the peak of British imperialism’s power, which was now being relentlessly challenged by German and American capital. The loss of Britain’s privileged position forced the ruling class to rationalise its industrial base and cut back on the concessions that had underpinned the position of the “aristocracy of labour”. The birth of New Unionism in the late 1880s and early 1890s was a direct response to the new conditions that were being imposed. The mighty class movement of 1910-14, which reached a revolutionary fever pitch, constituted a qualitative deepening of this process. “It was not only the aristocratic status of British industry in the world, but also the privileged position of the ‘aristocracy of labour’ within Britain that was shaken”, wrote Leon Trotsky. “1911 to 1913 were years of unparalleled class battles by miners, railwaymen and other transport workers… In those days a dim spectre of revolution hung over Britain.”[4]

From 1910 until the outbreak of war, the number of working days lost in strikes rose to an annual total of more than 10 million or more, while membership of trade unions shot up from two-and-a-half million workers in 1910 to 4 million by 1914. In the same period, TUC affiliations rose from one-and-a-half million to nearly two-and-a-quarter million.

The “Great Unrest” began with the stormy South Wales Cambrian strike that raged from November 1910 to August 1911. It proved to be the first break in the dam, which would result in a deluge. The Cambrian Combine, headed by the coal baron Lord Rhondda, typified the reorganisation introduced by the coal owners. Their aim was to boost profits by means of driving down wages, speed-ups, and intensifying the exploitation of labour. For the coal owners, in an industry where labour costs represented 70 per cent of the total, this was a vital step in boosting profit margins. However, while the owners planned their attacks, discontented younger miners were pressing for militant action to secure a guaranteed minimum wage. A battle royal was being prepared throughout the coalfield. As expected, the Cambrian miners refused to accept the new rates offered to them by the so-called Conciliation Board and a strike took place. The following 10-months saw 10,000 Rhondda miners involved in a ferocious battles against state forces. In Tonypandy on 9 November, a miner was shot dead by troops of the Hussars and Lancashire Infantry dispatched to South Wales to crush the miners by the Home Secretary, a man who would become an infamous enemy of the working class in years to come – Winston S. Churchill. With considerable casualties on both sides, a touch of the unreality was lent to the proceedings by the King’s message regarding the “safety of pit ponies.” Although the strike was defeated, the struggle established the demand for a minimum wage as a central issue throughout the British coalfield, which was to culminate in the national stoppage of 1912.

By November 1910, the dockworkers’ and transport unions joined forces to form the new militant Transport Workers Federation, with left-winger Robert Williams as its secretary. In June 1911 a wave of strikes broke out over pay and conditions on the docks in Southampton, Cardiff and Hull. They were quickly joined by workers in Manchester and London. The London dockers were faced by an alliance of ruthless Port employers and the Liberal government, which refused point-blank to negotiate with the strikers. Once again, Churchill threatened to dispatch 25,000 troops to the docks to break the strike. The dockers’ leaders warned of armed conflict in the streets if troops were used to strike-break. Daily mass demonstrations were held throughout East London in support of the strikers, some numbering over 100,000 strong. The government, taken aback by the workers’ militancy and alarmed by the explosive situation, hastily persuaded the employers, headed by Lord Davenport, to concede a number of the strikers’ demands and avert an impending debacle.

In the city of Liverpool, the strike movement reached civil war proportions. A 70,000-strong transport strike, led by Tom Mann, assumed the character of a regional general strike, and crippled the city. The government rushed two war ships to the Mersey, their guns trained on the centre of Liverpool. 7,000 troops and special police were drafted in to deal with the strikers and break their resolve. The government had turned the city overnight into an armed camp. The aim of the government was to intimidate the strikers with a massive show of force. This failure led the government to bring matters to a head. On 13 August, a monster demonstration at St George’s Hall Plateau in central Liverpool was brutally attacked by the police and pitched battles spilled over into the streets. During the fighting two strikers were shot dead. The Manchester Guardian reported that it was “a display of violence that horrified those that saw it.” The following day the Riot Act was read, as virtual martial law was imposed on the city. “Let Churchill do his utmost, let him order ten times more military to Liverpool and let every street be paraded by them; not all the king’s horses with all the king’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea”, stated Tom Mann defiantly. By the end of the month, after Mann threatened national sympathy action from other sections, the employers gave in and sued for peace on the union’s terms. It was a proud victory against brutal employers and the Liberal government. As a result of the dispute, the membership of the Dockers’ Union rose from 8,000 to 32,000, as thousands rallied to its ranks.

In the same month of August, the leadership of the rail unions were forced to call a national all-out strike over the failure of the bosses to honour their 1907 agreement. In an attempt to defuse the situation, the government offered a Royal Commission, but the union swiftly rejected the ploy. The strike-call was answered by 200,000 rail workers, which brought the railway system to a complete standstill. This was a challenge the government could not ignore. “Then blood be on your own head,” retorted Prime Minister Asquith. Churchill this time mobilised 50,000 troops to key industrial centres. According to the Webbs, “a policy of repression had been decided on, and bloodshed was near at hand.” Amongst numerous disturbances, the troops opened fire on strikers in Liverpool and in Llanelli, South Wales, killing two strikers. “Strikes are assuming a mass character,” noted Lenin in the Russian paper Pravda.[5] Churchill with gritted teeth decided that it was “… a new force in trade unionism… The general strike that must be dealt with.”

Strikes Spread

But a general strike was something the government as a whole wished to avoid. Fearing that the strikes would spread and coalesce into such a strike, the Liberal government was forced to change tack and urged the employers to enter into negotiations. Eventually, after a further threat of strike action, both sides agreed to a compromise and a reform of the Conciliation Boards with joint trade union management representation. This move consolidated union recognition on the railways, and, more importantly, gave an impetus to trade union amalgamation in the industry. By 1913, a number of small rail unions, including the ASRS, took the bold step in forming the National Union of Railwaymen. Unfortunately, the craft union ASLEF remained aloof from the amalgamation, resulting a bitter inter-union feud, played on by the employers, that was to last until recent times.

As the rail strike came to an end, strikes again flared up in the coal industry over the minimum wage. The bitter strikes of the Cambrian miners continued into 1911 and served to highlight the guaranteed wages issue. This formed the background to a delegate conference of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain called to decide on action. The delegates sanctioned a strike ballot, requiring a two-thirds majority, based on a resolution declaring “a general stoppage” throughout the Federation “for the purpose of securing for all colliery workmen a definite guaranteed wage.”[6] The miners voted to strike on 1 March 1912 by a majority of four to one, a clear indication of the militancy sweeping the coalfields. It was to constitute the first genuine national miners’ strike involving almost one million workers. As Lenin graphically remarked at the time,

“If the railway strike of 1911 displayed the ‘new spirit’ of the British workers, the miners’ strike certainly marks a new epoch… In Britain a change has taken place in the relation of social forces, a change which cannot be expressed in figures, but which everyone feels.”[7]

The ruling class was certainly not blind to the processes unfolding, and this time the central government had learned its lesson. To deflect the crisis, it immediately proposed a National Minimum Wage Bill for the coal industry, which it preceded to rush onto the statute books. Although it did not fully concede everything the Miners’ Federation had demanded, it did establish the machinery for determining district minimums. But, to the consternation of the government, the majority of miners rejected the deal in a national ballot and continued their action.

“The most outstanding event in the past year has been the miners’ strike…”, wrote Lenin. “Those who know the British labour movement, however, declare that since the strike the British proletariat is no longer the same. The workers have learned to fight. They have discovered the path that will lead them to victory. They have become aware of their power.”[8]

Within a year, the membership of the Miners Federation had leapt by almost 160,000 to over 900,000, at this time the biggest and potentially the most powerful union in the entire world.

Throughout this period, the capitalists waged a constant rear-guard struggle against the unions. In May 1912, they managed to turn the tide when a new battle flared up on the docks over the attempted use of non-union labour. The Transport Workers’ Federation threatened a general strike on the docks over the twin issues of recognition and the fulfilment of the 1911 agreements. 80,000 London dockers answered the call, but the response from provincial ports was not as solid, mainly due to the gains of the previous strike. There was no common set of grievances that could bind the men together, and was regarded by many as dominated by sectional issues. There were insufficient preparations for national action, which proved a disastrous failing. The employers, led by Lord Devonport, sensing weakness, chose to dig in their heels. On Tower Hill, Ben Tillett led his workers in solemn prayer: “God strike Lord Devonport dead.” But Davenport remained alive and kicking, and continued to use blackleg labour to break the strike. The men were forced to return to work empty handed. As was to be expected, the employers used their temporary victory to victimise the main trade union activists and reassert their control over the industry.

Almost a year after the defeat of the dockers, in the summer of 1913, an industrial storm broke out in Dublin. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union led by the two great revolutionary giants, James Connolly and Jim Larkin, took on the might of the Dublin employers. Connolly was the greatest Marxist ever produced by these Isles, and provided a complementary figure to the fiery James Larkin. The Employers’ Federation had thrown down the gauntlet when workers on the Irish Independent were told to leave the union or face the sack. “The issue involved in the Dublin strike is a serious one,” argued the secretary of the engineering bosses. “A victory for the syndicalist leaders there would be disastrous for the employers not only in Dublin, but throughout the United Kingdom.” For the ruling class, Larkinism had become synonymous with militancy in the same way as Scargillism would become some 70 years later.

The printers chose to back the union and were therefore locked-out. This signalled a general employers’ offensive that led to a massive 25,000 workers being locked-out by September. The employers had no qualms about using the full might of the state to crush the Dublin workers; meetings were banned and workers arrested, including Larkin and Connolly.

“In Dublin, the capital of Ireland – a city of a not highly industrial type, with a population of half a million – the class struggle, which permeates the whole life of capitalist society everywhere, has become accentuated to the point of class war”, wrote Lenin in Severnaya Pravda. “The police have positively gone wild; drunken policemen assault peaceful workers, break into houses, torment the aged, women and children. Hundreds of workers (over 400) have been injured and two killed – such are the casualties of this war. All prominent workers’ leaders have been arrested. People are thrown into prison for making the most peaceful speeches. The city is like an armed camp.”[9]

From the ranks of the transport union’s pickets was organised a workers’ defence organisation, the Irish Citizen Army. This force sought to counter the terror of police violence that had resulted in the murder of two workers and the wounding of 400 in the course of the lockout. The Citizen Army was open to all militant workers, determined to defend the strikers and their organisations. In reality, this body constituted the world’s first Red Army, and conducted its military operations under the flag of the “Plough and the Stars”. Connolly had set up a rifle club to which his men contributed sixpence a week, from which guns were bought illegally from British soldiers in Dublin. Women helped to stitch and sew the Army’s dark green uniforms, and ex-regular army NCOs and reservists assisted in shaping the Citizen Army into an efficient fighting force.

“An armed organisation of the Irish working class is a phenomenon of Ireland”, stated Connolly. “Hitherto the workers of Ireland have fought as part of the armies led by their masters, never as a member of any army officered, trained and inspired by men of their own class. Now, with arms in their hands, they propose to steer their own course, to carve their own future.”[10]

The Citizen Army grew out of, and was organically linked to, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Its headquarters were in the union’s Liberty Hall. It was in reality a weapon of the trade union movement fashioned to defend workers from the violence of both employers and state. It was an extension of the picket line. The workers are not pacifists. They will fight with arms in hand if necessary to protect their rights and organisations. In a similar fashion in Britain during the 1926 General Strike, Councils of Actions established Defence Corps in certain areas to defend strikers. Such a development was in no way regarded as foreign or alien to our traditions, as can be seen from the history of Chartism, but grew out of the needs of the situation. Likewise, Connolly and the other leaders of the Transport Union were not prepared to stand aside in face of violence from the employers and their state. They had a duty to fight back and defend themselves in an organised fashion, and that is precisely what they did.

The effects of the Dublin lockout shook the British Labour movement.

“If revolution is going to be forced onto my people”, stated Robert Smillie, president of the Miners’ Federation, “by such action as has been taken in Dublin and elsewhere, I say it is our duty, legal or illegal, to train our people to defend themselves… It is the duty of the greater trade union movement, when a question of this gravity arises to discuss seriously a strike of all the workers.”

The Co-operative movement, which had grown into a large-scale trading company, sent shiploads of food to Dublin to feed the strikers and their families. The TUC voted a £5,000 donation to the Irish TGWU. Sympathy strikes, involving some 7,000 British railworkers, were the tip of an iceberg. The mood of workers across Britain was disposed to fight alongside their Irish brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, the TUC failed to translate this widespread sympathy into the blacking and boycott of Irish trade, as many of its leaders were opposed to Larkinism. A special TUC in December overwhelmingly rejected James Larkin’s call for sympathetic strike action. Nevertheless, mass meetings were called to hear Larkin in Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow and elsewhere.

“A great many of the trade union leaders seemed to think they existed to apologise for capitalism, to try and stop strikes and smooth difficulties over, to put a healing salve in the wounds and bandages with a salve”, stated Larkin. “It is a root remedy that you must apply. The poison is the employers’ power over labour. The power to exploit your flesh and bone and brain.”

The failure of the TUC to widen the dispute led to the undermining of the strikers’ resolve. The struggle was to last until February 1914, when the workers were eventually starved back to work. The Irish Transport and General Workers Union, however, remained intact. Soon afterwards, the Irish Trade Union Congress, reflecting the class struggles in Dublin, adopted the view that “labour unrest can only be ended by the abolition of the capitalist system.”

The spirit of the times was heartily captured in the slogan of the Daily Herald, “Strike and strike hard.” After a short run as a strike sheet in 1911, the Herald appeared as a daily in April 1912 devoted to the revolutionary cause of labour.

The depth of the strike movement at this time can be gauged from the strike figures:

1908 – averaged 30 disputes a month
1911 – averaged 75 disputes a month
1913-14 – averaged 150 disputes a month

Yet even these figures do not do justice to the real conflict between capital and labour. The explosive struggle was on an even higher level than in the late 1880s and early 1890s. It had a higher degree of aggressive militancy, sometimes violent and often unofficial in character. The fears of the ruling class were expressed openly in the capitalist press: “Perhaps the most salient feature of this turmoil at the moment is the general spirit of revolt, not only against employers of all kinds, but also against leaders and majorities, and Parliamentary or any kind of constitutional and orderly action.”[11] This refers not only to the growth of militancy, but a new creed within the ranks of the unions, namely syndicalism.

The philosophy of syndicalism had a powerful influence in these years. From 1900 to 1912, the social conditions produced by the impasse of British capitalism had pushed a whole layer of workers towards direct action and industrial unionism. The positive side of syndicalism was in its rejection of class collaboration and the crass opportunism emanating from the Labour and trade union leaders. “The most charitable thing that can be said about political action is that it is slow, so slow that it breaks men’s hearts”, said a member of the ASE. Syndicalism showed absolute distain for the antics of the Labour group in the Commons, which became a mere adjunct of the Liberal Party. This disgust with Lib-Labism, viewed as embodying the worse kind of reformism, led to a rejection of party politics, and a concentration on industrial unionism and rank-and-file movements.

Another key plank of syndicalism was the rejection of “official” leadership. This was most ably articulated in The Miners’ Next Step (1911), platform of the Unofficial Reform Committee in the South Wales Miners Federation. This platform, originally drafted by Noah Ablett, a Maerdy checkweighter, was born out of the miners’ bitter struggles of 1910-11. “Leadership implies power held by the leader”, stated The Next Step.

“Without power the leader is inept. The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption. 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.”[12]

This view arose out of the experience in particular of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, led by right-wingers like Mabon (president), William Brace (vice-president), and Tom Richards (general secretary), all of whom were MPs. These leaders had signed a five-year wage agreement with no real provision for abnormal places or small coal and gave into the demands of the owners for changes in working practices.

The aim of the Unofficial Reform Committee as a “no-leader movement”, laid heavy stress upon the need for unofficial action apart from the official movement. The proposals contained in The Miners’ Next Step created a furore in the South Wales coalfield, which soon spread to other areas. The old officials of the SWMF held up their hands in holy horror at these suggestions! Labour leaders of all shades attacked it. No such pamphlet had ever caused such a stir throughout the British trade unions as this. Despite its political weaknesses, the Next Step did serve to place industrial democracy at the centre of British working-class politics.

While the syndicalist school pointed to the need for unofficial action, it tended to regard such action as a principle, rather than an as alternative when the official movement acts as a barrier to struggle. The syndicalists tended to bend the stick too far in one direction as a reaction to the conservative role of the trade union bureaucracy. These ideas nevertheless found fertile soil amongst militant trade unionists, particularly the young fighters, and in such bodies as the Socialist Labour Party, the Syndicalist Education League and the Plebs League.

British syndicalism tended to be a mix of French anarcho-syndicalism and the ideas of industrial unionism promoted by the American socialist, Daniel De Leon. In Britain, the supporters of De Leon founded the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which was a split-off from the old SDF. The syndicalists embraced militant struggle and direct action as the way forward for the class struggle. For them, militant trade unionism should strive towards a general strike of all workers, leading to the overthrow of capitalism and the reorganisation of society on the lines of industrial unionism.

As James Connolly, who worked as an organiser for the syndicalist IWW in America, and was also a member of the SLP, explained:

“The light of this principle of Industrial Unionism, every fresh shop or factory organised under its banner, is a fort wrenched from the capitalist class and manned with the soldiers of the revolution to be held by them for the workers. On the day that the political and economic forces of labour finally break with capitalist society and proclaim the Workers’ Republic these shops and factories so manned by Industrial Unionists will be taken charge of by the workers there employed and force and effectiveness given to that proclamation …”[13]

This was a revolutionary outlook that correctly stressed the essential role of the class struggle in the transformation of society and the need for the working class to take direct control of the factories. If there is a weakness in syndicalism, it is in its lack of clear understanding of the essential role played by leadership and the party in the overthrow of capitalism. In their eyes, the role of the party was reduced to that of an educator and propagandist, rather than a leader of the working class. But the struggle for power is the most difficult and irreconcilable struggle in history. The old ruling class will do all in its power to sabotage and stymie the will of the majority. It will not give up its privileged position without a fight. “You can peel an onion leaf by leaf”, stated R.H. Tawney, “but you can’t skin a live tiger claw by claw.” And the capitalist class resembles a live tiger. Given the difficulties in the path of the working class, a dedicated and theoretically-tested leadership and party is required to draw all the threads together and channel the energies of the masses towards the conquest of political power. The working class is not completely homogeneous and is made up of different layers, which, having varying experiences, draws different conclusions at different times. The role of the party is to overcome these divisions and consciously draw together the different struggles of the working class. Essentially, its task is to make conscious the unconscious will of the workers to transform society. While Connolly, Luxemburg, and Trotsky were brilliant Marxists, it was Lenin, above all else, who grasped the importance of the party in these years. It was this understanding that allowed the Bolsheviks to lead the Russian Revolution to success in October 1917.

“Rank and Fileism”

Syndicalism’s rejection of leadership and concentration on “rank and fileism”, in reality, simply played into the hands of the right-wing leaders. Their fixation with the general strike as a weapon for changing society – which was a widespread view on the left – tended to ignore or down-grade the nature of the capitalist state. They imagined that such a display of force during the general strike would result by itself in the collapse of capitalism. Such was the classic view of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the United States. This was a profound mistake. While the general strike can be an important weapon, it serves to raise the question of power, but does not resolve it. In such cases, the solution lies in the conquest of political power by a party of the working class, based upon the movement of the masses themselves. The 1926 General Strike in Britain would demonstrate in practise the need not only for militant trade unions, but also a revolutionary leadership and party that would carry the struggle through to a successful conclusion.

The theories of syndicalism, in its different varieties, reflected at this time a certain political immaturity of the working class. It would take the experience of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, which attracted the enthusiastic support of the syndicalists worldwide, to clarify the way forward.

“The opportunist conduct of the MPs belonging to the latter party [the ILP] is giving rise, as is always the case, to syndicalist tendencies among the workers,” observed Lenin. “Happily these are not strong. The British trade unions are slowly but surely turning towards socialism…”[14]

Nevertheless, syndicalism did provide the revolutionary focal point for the struggle of rank-and-file militants, especially in the rail, mining and engineering unions. In 1911, Tom Mann founded the Industrial Syndicalist Education League. A year later, the Amalgamation Committee Movement was established in the engineering industry to work for industrial unionism, reform of the ASE, and to promote workers’ control. Rank-and-file Vigilance Committees were also established on the railways. Amongst the miners, the Unofficial Reform Movement was established. These movements helped to forge a number of amalgamations in the trade union field, especially on the railways and in transport. They also played a crucial role in the rise of the shop stewards movement during the war years and the left-wing Minority Movement during the 1920s.

Just prior to the First World War, splits in the SDF and discontent within ILP, left-wing Clarion groups, and others, led to realignment and the creation of the British Socialist Party (BSP). In early 1914, the BSP took the decision to affiliate to the Labour Party and seek a road to the politically organised workers. Militants in both the BSP and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) – people like William Gallacher (BSP), Arthur MacManus (SLP) and David Kirkwood (ILP), who led the famous Clyde Workers’ Committee – played an important role in promoting industrial unionism throughout these years. These experiences were of fundamental importance in shaping the outlook of the shop stewards’ movement right up to the formation of the British Communist Party in 1920.

In the years leading up to the First World War, the militant mood in industry was far from exhausted. A whole series of new demands were being made by miners, transport, and engineering workers. In July 1914, all of London’s building workers were out on strike. New political demands now came to the fore, such as nationalisation under workers’ control of the railways and the coalmines. Under the pressures of the rank and file, a new industrial body came into being, embracing some 1,500,000 workers: the famous Triple Alliance, made up of miners, railworkers and transport unions. Such a potentially powerful organisation posed a deadly threat to the ruling class. For the workers it represented a qualitatively higher level of struggle than ever before.

The growing crises in economy, in politics, and in international relations, were all symptoms of a general crisis of world capitalism. All were a manifestation of the fact that the system was reaching its limits, that the contradictions were intensifying, and that there was no peaceful way out of the impasse. As well as this international crisis, Britain was also consumed in a full-blown political crisis at home. The Liberal government was faced with an army mutiny in Ulster led by Sir Edward Carson (“the Curragh Incident”) over its proposals for Irish Home Rule. Carson was in turn, backed by a Tory-Ulster rebellion in Britain. The Tory leader Bonar Law, cast off his “democratic” mask, and was threatening civil war over the issue. This revolt caused Prime Minister Lloyd George to become increasingly alarmed at the unfolding crisis. At a meeting in the City of London on 17 July 1914, he stated that with intertwining of the Labour “insurrection” and the Irish “insurrection”, “the situation will be the gravest with which any government has had to deal for centuries.”

For the government, the threats of immanent civil war and revolution were extremely serious. Britain, by all indications, was heading for a social explosion. According to the Webbs, “British trade unionism was in fact in the summer of 1914 working up for an almost revolutionary outburst of gigantic industrial disputes.” However, within a matter of weeks, the situation had been cut across by events for which the working class was totally unprepared. The outbreak of warfare on a greater scale than ever seen before, was the clearest expression that the limits of the capitalist system were being breached. In an attempt to escape the increasing contradictions of capitalism, the major powers were taking to the road of military aggression and the imperialist re-division of the world. The insoluble contradiction of private ownership and the nation state, which placed the productive forces in a straightjacket, was coming to a head at a feverish pace. This world crisis would have a devastating impact upon all classes in society, but especially on the working class.


[1] Cole and Postgate, op. cit, p.485

[2] Glyn and Sutcliffe, British Capitalism, Workers and the Profits Squeeze, p.18, London 1972

[3] Emmet Larkin, James Larkin, p.35, London 1965

[4] Trotsky, op. cit, p.8

[5] Lenin, op. cit, p.119

[6] Quoted in Edwards, History of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, p.54, London 1938

[7] Lenin, op. cit, pp.151-2

[8] Ibid, p. 151 and 154

[9] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.19, p.332, Progress Publishers 1975

[10] Quoted in James Connolly Selected Writings, p.23, London 1973

[11] Quoted by Alan Hutt in British Trade Unionism, London 1941

[12] The Miners’ Next Step, p.19, London 1973

[13] Connolly, ‘Socialism Made Easy’

[14] Lenin, op. cit, p. 54