[Classics] Where is Britain Going?

7. Trade Unions and Bolshevism

That the fundamental tasks of the labour movement cannot be assessed and defined from the formal and, ultimately, purely legalistic, standpoint of democracy is especially clearly evident from, the recent history of Britain herself, and particularly graphically so from the question of the trade unions” political levies. This question, at first sight purely practical, has as a matter of fact a huge importance in principle which, we fear, is not understood by Messrs. Labour Party leaders.

The trade unions have as their object the struggle for the improvement of the working and living conditions of wage earners. To this end union members make certain financial contributions. As for political activity the trade unions used to be formally regarded as neutral while in practice they most often followed at the tail of the Liberal Party. It goes without saying that the Liberals who, like the Conservatives, sell all sorts of honours to the rich bourgeois in return for a substantial contribution to the party’s funds, needed not the financial assistance of the trade unions but only their votes. The position changed from the moment that the workers, through the medium of the trade unions, created the Labour Party. Having once brought it to life the trade unions then found themselves compelled to finance it. To do this, supplementary contributions from the organised workers were required.

The bourgeois parties protested unanimously against this “flagrant infringement of individual freedom”. A worker is not just a worker but also a citizen and a human being, MacDonald teaches with profundity. Quite so, echo Baldwin, Asquith and Lloyd George. As a citizen, a worker, whether he joins a trade union or not, has the right to vote for any party. To exact from him an obligatory levy in support of the Labour Party represents an act of force not only upon his purse but also upon his conscience. It is after all a direct violation of the democratic constitution that excludes any element of compulsion in the matter of supporting this or that party. Such arguments must in themselves make a powerful impact on the Labour Party leaders who would gladly reject the obligatory anti-Liberal, almost Bolshevik methods of the trade unions were it not for this accursed need of £.s.d. without which one cannot, even in a democratic Arcady, gain a seat in parliament. Such then is the sad fate of democratic principles that £.s.d. gives them bruised heads and black eyes. Here lies the imperfection of the best of worlds.

The history of the question of the trade unions’ political levies has by now become fairly rich in turns and dramatic episodes. We shall not recount it here. It was only the other day that Baldwin rejected (for the time being!) a fresh attempt by his Conservative friends to ban the collection of the political levy. The Trade Union (Amendment) Act of 1913 [1], currently in force, while permitting unions to collect the political levy entitles every trade union member to refuse to pay this levy and at the same time forbids the trade unions to persecute members, expel them from the union and so forth. If we believe the estimates of The Times (6th March 1925) about ten per cent of organised workers avail themselves of their right to withhold payment of the political levy. In this way the principle of individual freedom is saved at least in part. The complete triumph of “freedom” would be achieved only where the contributions could be collected solely from those members who had themselves declared their voluntary agreement.

But at present where there is a union resolution to that effect all members are obliged to pay the levy. Only those are exempted who give notice of this on the appropriate form in good time. In other words the liberal principle is turned from a triumphant rule into a tolerated exception. But even this partial implementation of the principle of personal freedom was achieved, – alas! – not by the will of the workers but the force of bourgeois legislation upon the organisations of the proletariat.

This circumstance gives rise to the question: how does it come about that the workers who constitute the vast bulk of the British population and consequently of British democracy too, are driven along the path of violating principles of “personal freedom” in the whole course of its struggle, while the legislating bourgeoisie and the House of Lords in particular come forward as the bulwark of freedom, now categorically forbidding “force” against the person of a trade unionist (the House of Lords judgement on the Osborne case of 1909 [2]) and now substantially restricting such force (the 1913 act)? The crux of the matter is, of course, that the workers’ organisations, by asserting their anti-Liberal, “despotic”, Bolshevik right of enforced collection of the political levy, are in effect fighting for the real and concrete, and not a metaphysical possibility of parliamentary representation for the workers; while the Conservatives and the Liberals in upholding the principles of “personal freedom” are in fact striving to disarm the workers materially, and thereby shackle them to the bourgeois parties.

It is sufficient merely to take a look at the division of roles: the trade unions are for the unconditional right to the enforced collection of the political levy; the House of Exhumed Lords is for the unconditional banning of such extortion in the name of sacred personal freedom; finally the House of Commons forces a concession from the trade unions which amounts in practice to a ten per cent refund to the principles of Liberalism. Even a blind man can sense here the purely class nature of the principle of personal freedom which in the given concrete conditions signifies nothing but the possessing classes” attempt politically to expropriate the proletariat by reducing its party to nil.

The Conservatives defend from the trade unions the “right” of a worker to vote for any party – those same Tories who for centuries denied the workers the franchise altogether! For even today in spite of all that we have seen and experienced we cannot read the history of the struggle for a reform bill in Britain at the beginning of the 1830s without emotion. With what astonishing obstinacy, what tenacity and what insolence did the slave-owning class of landlords, bankers and bishops, in short, a privileged minority, beat back the assaults upon the stronghold of parliament by the bourgeoisie with the workers at their tail! The reform of 1832 was passed when it could no longer not be passed. The extension of the franchise was carried out with the specific intention of separating the bourgeoisie from the workers. The Liberals were in essentials in no way distinguishable from the Conservatives, for once they had won the electoral reform of 1832 they left the workers in the lurch. When the Chartists demanded from the Tories and the Whigs that workers be granted the franchise the opposition of the parliamentary monopolists took on a frantic character. Yet now that the workers have finally won the franchise, the Conservatives come out in defence of “individual freedom” against the tyranny of the trade unions.

This vile, revolting hypocrisy does not meet its true appraisal in parliament. On the contrary, the Labour MPs thank the Prime Minister for magnanimously refraining from tightening a financial noose around the neck of the Labour Party today while wholly and completely reserving the right to do so at a more suitable moment. The drivellers who amuse themselves with the terms “democracy”, “equality” and “individual freedom” should be sat down on a school bench and be forced to study the history of Britain as a whole and the history of the struggle to widen the franchise in particular.

The Liberal Cobden stated on one occasion that he would more willingly live under the rule of the Bey of Algiers than under the rule of a trade union. Cobden was here expressing his Liberal’s indignation at the Bolshevik tyranny implanted in the very nature of the trade unions. In speaking for himself Cobden was right. A capitalist who falls under the rule of a trade union will find it very tough: the Russian bourgeoisie will be able to tell a thing or two about that. But the whole point is that the worker has a perpetual Bey of Algiers over him in the form of the employer, and he cannot weaken the latter’s tyrannical regime otherwise than by means of a trade union. Of course the worker has to make some sacrifices for this, not only financially, but also personally. However his “individual freedom”, through the medium of the trade union will in the final count gain incomparably more than it loses. This is the class standpoint. It cannot be leapt over. From it there grows the right to contribute to the political levy. The bourgeoisie in its mass nowadays considers it essential to reconcile itself to the existence of trade unions. But it wants to restrict their activity to the point past which the struggle against individual capitalists passes over into a struggle against the capitalist state.

The Conservative MP Macquisten pointed out in parliament that a refusal by trade unions to make political levies is observable mainly in small-scale and scattered branches of industry; as for the concentrated branches of industry then there, he complains, “moral pressure and mass intimidation” is observable. This observation is in the highest degree interesting! And how typical of the British parliament that it was made by an extreme Tory, the sponsor of a prohibitive bill, and not a socialist. It signifies that the refusal of political contributions is observable in the most backward branches of industry where petty bourgeois traditions are strong and where, consequently, a petty bourgeois conception of individual freedom generally tied up with voting for the Liberal if not for the Conservative party is strong too. In the new, more modern branches of production the class solidarity and proletarian discipline reign supreme, and that is what appears as terror to the capitalists and their servants from the Labour renegades.

A certain Conservative MP related, as if delivering a thunderbolt, that in one trade union the secretary publicly threatened to display a list of members who refused to pay contributions to the party. The Labour MPS began indignantly to demand the name of this impious secretary. Yet such a course of action ought to have been recommended to every trade union. It is obvious that this will not be done by those bureaucrats who amid the howls of both bourgeois parties seek to chuck the communists out of workers” organisations. As soon as it is a question of the latter there is no more talk of individual freedom: at this point arguments about state security come on to the scene. One cannot, they say, let communists who reject the sanctity of democracy into the Labour Party.

Yet in the course of the debate on the political levy, the sponsor of the prohibitive bill, Macquisten, whom we are already acquainted with, let fall a phrase regarding this same democracy which the Opposition greeted with frivolous laughter but which they really ought not only to have engraved on the walls of parliament but to have repeated and explained at every workers” meeting. In using figures to illustrate the importance of the trade unions’ political contributions, Macquisten pointed out that prior to the Liberals” 1913 Act, the trade unions spent only about £10,000 for political purposes, but now, thanks to legalisation of political extortion, they had a fund of £250,000 in hand. It is natural, says Macquisten, that the Labour Party has grown strong. “When you have an income of £250,000 a year you can form a party for any end you like.

The furious Tory said a little more than he had intended. He openly admitted that a party is made, and that it is made with the aid of money and that funds play a deciding role in the mechanics of “democracy”. Need it be said that bourgeois funds are immeasurably more abundant than proletarian ones? This alone completely shatters the phoney mystique of democracy. Any awakened British worker must tell MacDonald: it is a lie that the principles of democracy form the highest criterion for our movement. The principles themselves fall under the control of financial resources by which they are distorted and falsified.

Yet, nonetheless, it must be admitted: if we stand by a formally democratic point of view and if we operate with a concept of an ideal citizen and not a proletarian, a capitalist or a landlord, then the most reactionary gorillas of the Upper House will prove to tie the most consistent. Every citizen has, damn it, the right freely to support with his purse and his vote the party that his free conscience dictates! The only trouble is that this ideal British citizen does not exist in nature. He represents a legalistic fiction. Nor has he ever existed previously. But the petty and middle bourgeois does come fairly close to this ideal concept. Today it is the Fabian who considers himself to be the yardstick of the ideal middle citizen. for whom the capitalist and the proletarian are nothing but a “deviation” from the ideal type of citizen. But there are not really that many Fabian philistines on earth, though there are still rather more than there need be. But in general voters can be divided into property-owners and the exploiters on the one hand, and proletarians and exploited on the other.

The trade unions – and here no amount of Liberal casuistry is of avail – represent the class association of wage labourers for the struggle against the greedy and, avaricious capitalists. One of the principle instruments of the trade union is the strike. Members” dues go to support the strike. During a strike the workers wage a ruthless struggle against strike-breakers who are exercising another Liberal principle – the’freedom to work”. During any major strike the union requires political support and is compelled to turn to the press, the parties and parliament. The hostile attitude of the Liberal Party towards the struggle of the trade unions was indeed one of the causes that forced them to form the Labour Party.

If you go into the history of the origin of the Labour Party it becomes clear that from a trade union standpoint the party in a sense forms its political section. It needs a strike fund, a network of officials, a newspaper and a trusted member of parliament. The expense of voting a member into parliament is just as legitimate, necessary and obligatory as that of a secretarial apparatus. A Liberal or Conservative trade union member may say: I punctually pay my usual member’s dues to the trade union but I refuse the extortions for the Labour Party as by my political convictions I vote for the Liberal (or for the Conservative). To this a trade union representative can reply: in the course of the struggle for improving working conditions – and that after all is the aim of our organisation – we require the support of the Labour Party, its press, and its MPs; but the party for which you vote (the Liberals or the Conservatives) in such circumstances always cracks down upon us, tries to compromise us, sows dissension in our midst or directly organises strike-breakers; we have no need of those members who would organise as strike-breakers! Thus what appears from the standpoint of capitalist democracy to be freedom of the individual is shown from the standpoint of proletarian democracy to be freedom of political strike-breaking.

The ten per cent rebate which the bourgeoisie have gained is by no means an innocuous item. It means that one out of every ten members of a trade union is a political, in other words a class, opponent. Of course, some of these may be won over, but the rest can prove an invaluable weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat at a time of serious struggle. A further struggle against the breaches made in the walls of the unions by the 1913 Act is therefore inevitable.

Speaking generally, we Marxists hold that every honest, uncorrupted worker may be a member of his trade union, irrespective of political, religious or other convictions. We regard the trade unions on the one hand as militant economic organisations, and on the other hand as a school of political education. While we stand for permitting backward and non-class-conscious workers to join trade unions, we do so not from an abstract principle of freedom of opinion or freedom of conscience but from considerations of revolutionary expediency. And these same considerations tell us that in Britain, where 90 per cent of industrially organised workers pay political levies – some consciously, others because they do not wish to violate the spirit of solidarity – and only 10 per cent decide to throw down an open challenge to the Labour Party, a systematic struggle must be carried on against this 10 per cent, to make them feel like renegades, and to secure the right of the trade unions to exclude them as strike-breakers. After all if the citizen, taken in abstract, has the right to vote for any party then workers” organisations have the right not to allow into their midst citizens whose political behaviour is hostile to the interests of the working class. The struggle., of the trade unions to debar unorganised workers from the factory has long been known as a manifestation of “terrorism” by the workers – or in more modern terms, Bolshevism. In Britain these methods can and must be carried over into the Labour Party which has grown up as a direct extension of the trade unions.

The debate on the question of the political levies quoted above, which took place in the British parliament on 7th March this year (1925), holds quite exceptional, interest as a typical example of parliamentary democracy. Only in Baldwin’s speech could tentative hints be heard as to the real dangers rooted in Britain’s class structure. The old relations have disappeared and today there are no longer any good old British enterprises with patriarchal customs – such as Mr. Baldwin himself ran in the days of his youth. Industry is concentrating and combining. Workers are uniting in trade unions and these organisations can present a danger to the state itself.

Baldwin was speaking about the employers” federations as well as the trade unions. It is quite self-evident that he sees the real danger to the democratic state only in the shape of the trade unions. What the so-called struggle against trusts amounts to, we know sufficiently well, from the example of America. Roosevelt’s noisy agitation against trusts proved to be a soap bubble. Trusts both in his time and afterwards have become even stronger and the American government forms their executive organ to a far greater degree than the Labour Party forms the political organ of the trade unions. Although in Britain trusts as a form of association do not play such a great role as in America, the capitalists do play no less a role. The danger of the trade unions is that they do put forward – for the moment, gropingly, indecisively and half-heartedly – the principle of a workers” government, which is impossible without a workers” state, as opposed to a capitalist government which can today exist only under the cover of a democracy. Baldwin is wholly in agreement with the principle of “individual freedom” which lies at the basis of the prohibitive bill introduced by his parliamentary friends. He also considers the political levies to be a “moral evil”. But he does not want to upset the peace.

The struggle, once started, can have dire consequences: “we do not in any event wish to fire the first shot”. And Baldwin finishes: “O Lord, grant us peace in our time!’ Virtually the entire House welcomed this speech including many Labour MPs: the Prime Minister had, on his own admission, made a “gesture of peace”. Thomas, the Labour MP who is always on the scene when a gesture of toadying requires to be made, rose to hail Baldwin’s speech and to remark on its truly human note; he declared that both sides would gain from a close intercourse between employers and workers; he quoted with pride the fact that quite a few left-wing workers in his own union refuse to pay the political levy in view of the fact that they had such a reactionary secretary as himself, Mr. Thomas. The whole debate on the question in which the vital interests of the two conflicting classes intersect was conducted in this tone of conventions, reservations, official lies and purely British parliamentary cant.

The reservations of the Conservatives had a Machiavellian [3] character; the reservations of the labour Party stemmed from a contemptible cowardice. The front bench of the bourgeoisie resembles a tiger that retracts its claws and half closes its eyes with affection; the Labour leaders, like Thomas, resemble a beaten dog which droops its tail between its legs.

The insolvency of Britain’s economic situation is reflected most directly in the trade unions. On the day following the end of the war when in the heat of the moment it seemed that Great Britain was the unbounded sovereign of the world’s destinies, the working masses, aroused by the war, poured in their hundreds of thousands and millions into the trade unions. The high point was reached in 1919: after that an ebb began. At the present time the number of members of trade union organisations has sharply dropped and continues to drop.

John Wheatley, a “left” member of MacDonald’s ministry, expressed himself at one of the March meetings in Glasgow to the effect that nowadays the trade unions are but a shadow of themselves and that they were equally unfit to fight or to conduct negotiations. Fred Bramley, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress spoke out in clear opposition to this estimation. The polemic between these two, theoretically perhaps equally helpless adversaries, does present an eminent symptomatic interest. Fred Bramley referred to the fact that the political movement by being more “rewarding” that is to say, by opening up wider career possibilities, draws the most valuable officials away from the trade unions. “On the other hand,” Bramley asks, “what would the party be without the political levies from the trade unions?’ Bramley does not in the end deny the decline in the economic power of the trade unions and explains it by reference to Britain’s economic position.

But we would seek in vain from the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress any indication of a way out of this impasse. His thinking does not go beyond the bounds of a hidden rivalry between the trade union apparatus and the party apparatus. Yet the problem does not lie here at all. At the root of the radicalisation of the working class and consequently of the growth of the Labour Party too, there lie those same causes that have dealt cruel blows to the economic might of the trade unions. The one is doubtless developing at the expense of the other. But it would be extremely shallow thinking to draw from this the conclusion that the role of the trade unions is played out. On the contrary these industrial alliances of the British working class still have a great future before them. It is just because there are no further prospects for the trade unions within the framework of capitalist society in Great Britain’s present situation that the industrial workers” unions are compelled to take the path of the socialist re-organisation of the economy. The trade unions themselves when reconstructed accordingly become the main lever for the country’s economic transformation.

But the necessary prerequisite for this is the taking of power by the proletariat – not in the sense of the wretched vulgar farce of a MacDonald ministry but in a real, material revolutionary class sense. The whole apparatus of the state has to become an apparatus subordinated to the proletariat. The working class, as the only class with an interest in a socialist overturn, has to win the opportunity to dictate its will to society. The whole administration and all the judges and public servants must be as deeply instilled with the socialist spirit of the proletariat as today’s public servants are instilled with the spirit of the bourgeoisie. Only the trade unions can provide this vital human personnel. It will be in the end the trade unions that will throw lip the management organs of the nationalised industry.

The trade unions will in the future become schools for educating the proletariat in the spirit of socialist industry. Their future role will therefore be immense. But at present they are in an undoubted impasse. There is no solution to it through palliatives and half-measures. The decay of British capitalism inevitably gives rise to the impotence of the trade unions. Only a revolution can save the British working class and with it its organisations. In order to take power it is essential for the proletariat to have a revolutionary party at its head. To make trade unions equal to their future role they must be freed from their conservative functionaries, from superstitious dimwits who are waiting for “peaceful” miracles from god knows where and finally, simply from the agents of big capital and renegades after the Thomas style. The reformist, opportunist, liberal Labour Party can only weaken the trade unions by paralysing the initiative of the masses. A revolutionary Labour party resting upon the trade unions will become in turn a powerful instrument for their recovery and resurgence.

In the compulsory, anti-Liberal, “despotic” collection of the political levies there is contained, like the future stem and car in a grain of wheat, all those methods of Bolshevism against which MacDonald never tires of sprinkling the holy water of his own indignant narrow-mindedness. The working class has the right and the duty to set its own considered class will above all the fictions and sophisms of bourgeois democracy. It must act in the spirit of the revolutionary self-confidence that Cromwell fostered in the young English bourgeoisie. The raw Puritan recruits were, as we have said, inspired thus by Cromwell: “I will not cozen you with perplexed expressions in my commission about fighting for King and Parliament. If the King chanced to he in the body of the enemy, I would as soon discharge my pistol upon him as upon any private man; and if your consciences will not let you do the like, I advise you not to enlist yourselves under me.” It is not bloodthirstiness nor despotism that sounds in these words but the awareness of a great historical mission which affords the right to annihilate all obstacles in its path. The young progressive class, sensing its vocation for the first time, speaks through the lips of Cromwell. If one is seeking national traditions then the British proletariat should borrow this spirit of self-confidence and aggressive courage from the old Independents. The MacDonalds, Webbs, Snowdens and others have taken over from Cromwell’s comrades-in-arms only their religious prejudices and combine them with a purely Fabian cowardice.

The proletarian vanguard has to combine the Independents’ revolutionary courage with a materialist clarity of world-outlook.

The British bourgeoisie takes unerring stock of the fact that the chief danger threatens it from the quarter of the trade unions and that only under the pressure from these organisations can the Labour Party, having replaced its leadership, turn itself into a revolutionary force.

One of the latest methods of struggle against the trade unions is the independent organisation of administrative and technical staff (technicians, engineers, managers, supervisors and so forth) as a “third party in industry”. The Times is conducting a very clever and a very ingenious struggle against the theory of “the unity of interests between mental and manual workers”. In this as in other cases the bourgeois politicians make very skilful use of the ideas of Fabianism which had been suggested by themselves. The opposition of labour to capital would be disastrous to national development, says The Times, in concert with all the Labour Party leaders, and from this draws the conclusion: engineers, managers, administrators and technicians who stand between capital and labour are best of all capable of assessing the interests of industry “as a whole” and of introducing peace into the relations between the hirers and the hired. For just this reason administrative and technical staff must be set apart as a third party of industry.

In essence, The Times here goes wholly to meet the Fabians. The position in principle of these latter is directed in a reactionary and Utopian fashion against the class struggle and above all coincides with the social position of the petty-bourgeois or middle bourgeois intellectual, the engineer or the administrator who stands between capital and labour, being to all effects a tool in the capitalists” hinds, but wants to imagine himself to be independent. The more he emphasises his independence from proletarian, organisations, the more completely he falls into the bondage of capitalist organisations. We can predict without difficulty that Fabianism, as it is displaced from the trade unions and the Labour Party, will increasingly merge its destiny with the destiny of the intermediate elements of the industrial, commercial and state bureaucratic apparatus. The Independent Labour Party will after its current momentary upturn he inevitably cast down and, as the “third party in industry”, will end up entangled between the feet of capital and labour.


1. The Trade Union (Amendment) Act of 1913, allowing unions to collect political contributions from members who did not object, was one of the few measures secured by the Labour Party in Parliament before the 1920s.

2. Osborne was a Liberal Party agent and member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants who proceeded successfully against his union taking political contributions from him. This aroused a depth of feeling against the courts in the working class movement comparable to the effect of the Taff Vale decision of 1901. Though it caused considerable financial difficulties it was effectively reversed by the 1913 Act.

3. The advocacy of duplicity in political matters allegedly advocated by Niccolo Machiavelli (1467-1527) in his book The Prince (1513).

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.