capitalism, labourism and the ‘trade union party’

17 12 2009

Chris Ford introduces a 1974 piece by Tony Lane

The question of the trade unions and their relationship to working class political organisation has been an ongoing debate in the labour movement for many many years; it has become especially prominent in the last decade.  In 1974 Tony Lane wrote the thought provoking book The Union Makes Us Strong: The British Working Class and the Politics of Trade Unionism. By considering the history of the labour movement Lane looked at the political consciousness of the rank and file, and the ways in which union leaders at all levels tend to become isolated from the worker on the shop floor. In particular he explodes the cherished myth that the failure of socialism can be laid at the doors of a succession of leaders who have ‘betrayed’ the movement.

He argues that trade unionism did not develop a ‘class consciousness’ in the full and proper sense of the term, which could grasp the total reality of capitalism. He considered the Labour Party as the parliamentary expression of the unions’ way of looking at the world as doomed from the start and concluded that the power to force much needed social change must be spearheaded by a new socialist party. Lane raised interesting questions for today in terms of the difference between a Labour Party mark II or an actual new workers’ party which would be something very different.

Trade Unionism and Capitalism

“Are we sitting at the sickbed of capitalism, not only as doctors who want to cure the patient, but as prospective heirs who cannot wait for the end and would like to hasten it by administering poison? We are condemned, I think, to be doctors who seriously wish a cure, and yet we have to retain the feeling that we are heirs who wish to receive the entire legacy of the capitalist system today rather than tomorrow. This double role, doctor and heir, is a damned difficult task.”
Fritz Tarnow, a German trade union leader, speaking in 1931

‘The lessons learned related more with how to cope with capitalism, and less with how to overthrow it.’ That was the verdict on the period 1800-1850; a verdict that could have equally applied to 1972. Despite the hopes and the dreams, the dedication and unremitting energy of successive generations of trade unionists, the British political economy was still governed by the principles of capitalism. Trade union leaders of the 1960s claimed with pride to’ have some stature in the community: in similar vein had William Allan, secretary of the Engineers almost exactly one hundred years previous, spoken of the unions’ desire to be ‘respected and respectful’. Thus did the pro­minent men of organised labour speak across a century to each other in a political language not much eroded by time and great events.

The explanation of the historical development of trade unionism lies not in the actions of individuals who featured prominently in the events of importance. Trade unionism was what it was, not through the arbit­rary dictate of an individual in search of a definition, but because of a common appreciation that labour could only withstand capital if organised in collectivi­ties. As Marx said in his discussion of trade unionism amongst Lancashire cotton workers in the 1840s:

“The first attempts of workers to associate among them­selves always take place in the form of combinations. Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance – combinations. Thus combination always has a double aim, that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist.

“In the absence of a union, labour came face to face with capital as a mass of isolated individuals. Each worker, having only his labour-power to bargain with, confronted his employer alone; as an individual in a sea of others he was devoid of any bargaining strength. Bargaining required that the respective parties had the ability to employ sanctions, and the only sanction at the command of labour was its refusal at the offered price. But that sanction was worthless and empty when he was but one amongst hundreds or thousands. The spontaneous lesson from that situation was clear: only through a combination of workers did a threat of withdrawal of labour be­come real. Only through combinations did labour as a whole begin to meet the power of capital.”

The solitary worker, once organised in a union, had placed a buffer between himself and his employer – though the effectiveness of that buffer depended upon a great deal more than its mere existence. Much depended upon the general level of employment, the  scarcity of the skills of the workers in question, the legal status of the unions (restrictions on the use of the strike, on the use of funds, on the actions of officials etc.), the efficiency and responsiveness of the union organisation with respect to rank and file demands. Furthermore, not all workers found it easy to organise themselves into unions – which is to say that the spon­taneous response could only be activated in certain conditions. The American experience from the 1880s to the 1930s showed that ruling class hostility, as mani­fested through the repressive use of the law, the police, and the military could be extremely effective in break­ing some unions and severely retarding the growth of others. Trades typified by seasonal variations and the use of casual labour drawn from a large pool of unemployed made it relatively easy for an employer to resist trade unions – as seamen and dockers found in the 1890s and 1900s. Where a working force was small the objective relationship between employer and employed could be obscured and overlaid by close social relationships, and the exposed position of poten­tial activists left them open to swift victimisation. In other cases ‘labour-only’ sub-contractors stood between the worker and the capitalist. In yet others, especially in white-collar occupations and in rural areas, tradi­tional attitudes of deference stood in the way of soli­darity and unification. Overall, and at the back of these various modifying factors, stood the more general consideration of the level of unemployment and the degree of expectation of suffering unemployment: nothing inhibited trade union activity quite as much as mass unemployment!

Where trade unionism was established it was about wages and wage payment systems, about bonus and overtime rates, about who should do what jobs and with what manner of assistance, about redundancy and hiring and firing, about limitations on the exercise of managerial authority, about working conditions – in  short, about everything that immediately affected the worker in his mine, factory, warehouse, ship, office, or wherever. At its most elementary, trade unionism drew its inspiration from the desire of separate groups of workers to insist upon ‘rights’ attached to the job. It could exist quite independently of any organisation as H. A. Turner said: ‘. . . people of the same occupa­tion, who are regularly brought together in the same workplace or town, may acknowledge regular leaders, develop customs of work-regulation and systematic “trade practices”, and produce a disciplined observance of the latter, without embedding these procedures in any formal records . . .’

Thus trade unionism properly so called was, as Marx pointed out, a step beyond the taken-for-granted customs and practices of job con­trol, an attempt to by-pass (not eliminate) the divisive consequences of work-group practices and to empha­sise common interests. More generally, as even Allan Flanders acknowledged, trade unionism was about power: about the power of organised labour to con­front the power of organised capital and to insist on a regularisation of the relationships between them. Trade unionism was a standing and continuing assertion of a fundamental cleavage of interest, yet simultaneously, because of its insistence on the regulation of that con­flict, it could not be the vehicle of its abolition. Hence Perry Anderson’s comment: ‘As institutions, trade unions do not challenge the existence of a society based on a division of classes, they merely express it . . . They can bargain within the society, but not transform it.’

The trade unions could not transform society be­cause their very nature – as signified by their spon­taneous formation and the character of their aims -required them to work within it, to take it for granted. Thus trade unionism regarded the present as remedi­able; and to look upon the present in that way ensured that the unions remained anchored to it. The present  did not impinge upon the unions homogeneously, with an undifferentiated face. The variations within the political economy of competitive pressures, technolo­gies, skills etc., meant that the unions were, at any particular moment, faced with a bewildering variety of circumstances. The unions accordingly reflected the complexities of the face that capitalism, taken as a whole, presented to its workers.

What the unions saw was not capitalism as a system but capitalism as a range of separate and unique ele­ments, each of which threw up its own distinctive set of ‘problems’. It thus followed that the unions adjusted to capitalism in a piecemeal, ad hoc way rather than as a movement. The inability to act as a movement, coupled with its tenacious grasp of the doctrine of ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’, implicitly guaranteed the continuance of sectionalism.

The term ‘movement’ as used by trade unionists was merely a loose expression, a formal linguistic conven­tion for talking of unions in the plural. The term hinted at, and was redolent of, the dead decades of ‘new unionism’ when the progressive men and women looked upon the unions as being in the vanguard of socialist advance. Its continued usage thereafter was a sentimental nod in the direction of the aspirations of the past – and a not totally submerged belief amongst some that the unions remained, in some vague and unspecified way, an indication of a different future. ‘Movement’ implied a disciplined unity aimed at the fulfilment of a coherent and comprehensive strategy. If there were odd moments, such as 1926, when the unions achieved a temporary unity, that very unity was undermined by the absence of a political strategy. Precisely the same factors accounted for the failure of the unions in 1971 and 1972 to cope with the passing through parliament of the Industrial Relations Act.

Sectionalism was regarded as one of the cardinal sins by every conscientious trade unionist – and amply between becoming either a fixer or a man of the people. The logic of his situation demanded that he became the former no matter how distasteful he may have found it. That same logic also demanded that he played the part of the latter as well. Every trade union leader was two men; privately a man of the quiet and secretive world of power, and publicly a tribune of the people. This did not necessarily mean that he was a subtle practitioner of duplicity, for a public perform­ance in the role of the tribune could be used as a weighty backing for what he was negotiating privately. A show of strength from the grass-roots was often a decisive bargaining counter, for it could be essential to demonstrate that threats were not idle. This process of private and public dealings set the leader apart from his members. It made an oligarch of even the most scrupulous Communist who was of a type well-fitted to be appreciative of the political dangers of his situation.

Oligarchy was doubly present in the logic of trade unionism. The attainment of objectives required the leader to enter into durable relationships with poli­ticians, employers, and state officials both nationally and locally. And the effectiveness with which those aims could be pursued depended on the efficiency, the coherence, and the discipline of the union organisa­tion. These two factors were each different aspects of the same reality.

The necessity of negotiations had the effect of creat­ing a small cadre of activists – some lodged in the union machine, others operative largely in the work­place. Wherever located they took on the role of the representative and as such were, to a greater or lesser extent, isolated from the rank and file. The function of the representative had strong elitist tenden­cies built in to it. It assigned to the person elected or appointed the task of acquiring specialist skills and knowledge; it imposed the duty of moving in circles that had codes and patterns of interaction foreign to the experience of the ordinary constituents, of moving in circles whose inhabitants had interests running directly counter to those of the representative’s followers. The representative was marked out as a man apart, removed from the direct scrutiny of those in whose name he acted, he was nevertheless expected to remain loyal to them.

In that role he was afforded little protection. The acceptance of the politico-economic status quo, the acceptance of the enduring nature of capitalist institu­tions and the political apparatus that supported it, all combined to make the representative a supplicant -albeit a sometimes very powerful one. The lack of a developed political consciousness amongst his con­stituents underlined his potential weakness. The people who owned and controlled the means of production and dissemination of knowledge were from the same ‘thought-world’ as those with whom he negotiated. Thus, through their possession of the means of mass communication they could appeal over the heads of the leaders in terms subversive to his position. It was not only right-wing leaders who had the uncomfortable experience of being disowned by their members. Thus the leader’s basic weakness, founded in his acceptance of the logic of the economics of capitalism, was com­pounded by the political suggestibility of his members.

The people with whom the trade union leader had to deal were trained in the ways of abstractions and generalities, briefed by men of professional expertise, reared in an ethos which assured them of their right to rule and confident of the biddability of others, possessed of the subtle charm and courtesy that could be so beguiling to those brought up in a political culture admiring of aristocratic ‘coolness’. The union leader needed strong armour to find all that resistable. Yet if relatively few could withstand the culturally transmitted ‘allure’ of the mighty, it mattered not greatly that others could not. Either way deals had to be done, compromises had to be arrived at – and not infrequently by the techniques of secret diplomacy.

The union leader’s situation in the union machine also served to insulate him from the mass of the membership as his prime preoccupation came to be with union administration. And administration meant adjusting and balancing the competing sectional claims on the union’s resources. The unions could not afford to risk strike action in chase of every claim, nor could they afford to approve of every dispute that the members ventured into on their own account. Funds were finite, and most annual balance sheets delicately poised. Thus it fell to the leadership to survey the overall situation, to assess where resources should be allocated. Decisions were not, however, ‘rational’ in the sense that different claims were judged purely on their individual merits. On the contrary, decisions were determined by the balance of internal union politics, by judgements as to the future consequences on the mem­berships’ jobs through following a certain line.

Not all sections of the membership were equally well-organised, either on the ground or within the union. Those that were well-organised in the work­place and in their penetration of the lay apparatus of the union were disproportionately powerful: thus con­stituting blocs especially needy of attention and not lightly to be crossed. Still, even these could be flouted with impunity in the name of organisational survival. As Hugh Scanlon told a conference of the Engineers in 1971, by way of explaining his intervention in the Ford strike of that year: ‘There comes a time, particu­larly after a strike has been on nine weeks and when there seems not even a remote possibility of any meet­ing of the sides within the foreseeable future, when there are responsibilities on the president of this union that exceed .the responsibilities of anyone else.’ There came a time, that is, when even a trade union leader committed to militant policies found it necessary to tell a section of his membership: ‘I know what’s good for you better than you know yourselves.’ The trade union leader was in some position to say that with truth and conviction, for different sections of the rank and file did not generally know much about the affairs of the others and, moreover, were not much interested.

Naturally the union leader’s own position was bound up with the continuance of the organisation. But it would be altogether too facile to believe that as a consequence his only reason for preservation of the union was self-interest and self-aggrandizement. To believe that would be to attribute to him total domin­ance. Clearly leaders did play an important part in holding their organisations together, and the extent to which those with strong personalities could stamp their-own idiosyncratic views on union policies did influence the course of union development. There was, to put it briefly, an area of tolerance in which the union leader could go his own way and trample over objectors – an area which the conception of the leader-representative tacitly ceded to him. That area, though, was set in a wider complex of internal political groupings and shift­ing alliances that permanently featured in the leader’s calculations and definitions of the possible.

The significant thing about the factors that made for the insulation of leadership and gave it its area of autonomy was that none of them were ultimately rooted in the organisation as an independent entity. Michels told but a part of the story when he said: ‘who says organisation, says oligarchy.’ Organisations may have had relative autonomy but they did not exist in historical vacuums, sealed off from other aspects of the social structure. The form that organisa­tion took, and the sorts of roles it provided and defined were basically determined by the mode of adaptation to the society in which it operated. Where the unions were concerned, that mode of adaptation was one of parallelism. V. L. Allen put it this way

“Developments in the trade union movement were always, inevitably, responses to changes in the environment of the unions. When markets for commodities, including labour, were small and localised, so were trade unions. As indus­trial units grew and became more complex in their organisation so the tasks of unions became more com­plicated . . . The changes in the democratic structure of unions . . . were all responses to alterations in market structures which enabled firms to expand. The movement from complete lay administration to the employment of full-time officials was made necessary.”

Every stage in the development of capitalism, not excluding the more contemporary one of wide State intervention in overall economic management, created an enormously complicated matrix of institutions. And at every stage the trade union official was implicated, thus endowing him with more and more specialised knowledge and distancing him from the rank and file. The fact to seize upon, however, was not the distanc­ing, but the logic of the process that created it. As long as trade unionism was about remedying the present, so long was it inevitable that the union leader was abstracted from his roots, forced into the patterns and practices of ‘secret diplomacy’, the ‘shabby com­promises’ that so aroused the anger of the rank and file from time to time. If some union leaders proved less than resilient and fell victim to the reflected grandeur of the powerful, then that certainly proved that they hadn’t the character for the job. But it proved most of all that the possibility of corruption was inherent in trade unionism unsupported by a vigorous socialist movement. The oligarchic tendency was determined by the nature of trade unionism; corruption was but a possible side effect. Thus where moral condemnations were sometimes justified, they were quite out of place and counter-productive if not underpinned with an understanding of how it was that transgressions could be produced.

Blinkered politics: as it was in the beginning

Trade unionism in its contemporary form of a centralised bureaucracy and an established set of relations between its leading personnel and employers and politicians, waited upon two developments: first, the creation of a disciplined ‘factory’ proletariat, and second, the appreciation of the ruling class that trade unionism was not synonymous with insurrectionism or revolutionism. Before either of those two factors were noticeably present, forms of trade unionism fluctuated between foreshadowing the future and echoing the past.

The trade union ‘instinct’, the notion of combining for the settlement of a common grievance, certainly preceded trade unionism as it is now understood. The rick-burning followers of Captain Swing and the machine-breakers of General Ned Ludd were practis­ing, it has been suggested, ‘collective bargaining by riot’; a revealing and enlightening description. It corrects the historical record by pointing out that the destruction of property was not ‘senseless acts of violence’, but spontaneous responses to solid grievances that were resistant to resolution by other means. At a time when the labouring classes were not recognised as having a legitimate political existence, resort to violent direct action against property was an objec­tively legitimate tactic. These tactics echoed the past in that by the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a well-established tradition of rioting as a means of regulating the price of bread, the main com­ponent of the workers’ diet. They foreshadowed the future in two respects. First was the spontaneous combination accompanied by direct action, and second was the exertion of that action at the immediate source of complaint – the price of bread, the threshing machine, the steam-powered loom. Rioting, that is to say, was primarily economic rather than political in motivation, although underlying the destruction of property there was, in the words of Rude”,’. .. a “level­ling” instinct or the belief in a rough sort of social justice, which prompt(ed) the poor to settle accounts with the rich . . .’; instincts which were always present in the more organised strikes of subsequent decades. Nascent trade unionism was present in other forms, too: the informal practices of work groups in regulating their output, the thinly disguised activities of friendly societies to the same end.

In sum, wherever men were gathered together, or wherever grievances were commonly held and deeply felt enough to override differences of individual cir­cumstances, there was the ever-present tendency to combination and direct action. This tendency was eventually canalised into the organised trade union as the progress of capitalism required a stable work force working to fixed routines, and as the overall stability of capitalism required that this new disciplined force be accepted into political citizenship. At every stage in its development trade unionism as a formalised set of institutions drew on the spontaneous ‘urge’ to combine – which was never so apparent as in that great period of union growth, the 1890s and 1900s. In the 1890s the new unions grew out of strikes. If in some cases, such as the London dockers, a small nucleus existed around one small and relatively privileged group of workers, that nucleus became transformed into a larger and more generalised organisation as the strike moved from group to group. Thus the strike itself created the union by welding men together in an atmosphere con­ducive to the recruiting efforts of the organiser. In the 1900s the unions capitalised on strikes as new sources of membership. Although strikes were typically embarked upon by men who knew little or nothing of trade unionism, once ‘out on the stones’ with the first flush of enthusiasm somewhat lessened by a cooler appreciation of their audacity, they were ripe for the experienced counsel of the professional organiser. Thus did unions as permanent organisations at once capitalise on spontaneity and seek to harness it: to discipline workers in their own interests as capitalists sought to discipline them in theirs. The unions, however, never succeeded in extinguishing the will to direct action. In fact, if anything they broad­cast its efficiency by extending to backward areas the news of its success. This was especially true of the 1950s and 1960s when larger numbers of workers than ever before demonstrated their belief in the practices of their ancestors. The wildcat strike, far from being a new phenomenon, was the rock on which the unions were built.

With the development of unions as institutions, a new word entered the vocabulary – sectionalism – a word designed to express the failure of the unions to control and direct the source of their inspiration. The failure was endemic and ineradicable. The lack of a suitable politics meant that the plurality of the unions never gelled into a movement, and the inability to form a movement meant that groups of workers organised in different unions fell into conflict with each other. The presence of differences in the job situations of workers organised in one union made it impossible for that union to produce a common pro­gramme. Sectionalism literally wrecked the several ambitious attempts at all-embracing unions in the 1830s: the National Association of United Trades for the Protection of Labour collapsed within eighteen months of its foundation, the Operative Builders Union within three years, the Grand National Con­solidated Trade Union within a year. Sectionalism defeated the Triple Alliance in the 1920s almost a century later, and fifty years after that the attempts of the Union of Post Office Workers in 1971 and 1972 to get a united strategy among the unions in the public sector of employment did not even get a serious hearing. Always and everywhere small groups of workers and powerful national unions refused to sink their identities in a common cause. Sectionalism was at the root of many a conflict between trade union leaders and was the characteristic basis of rank and file rebellions, even accounting for the intrusion of other factors. The Shop Stewards Movement in the engineer­ing industry in World War I drew its strength from the tradesman’s fear of dilution of his craft, and even the thoroughly political Minority Movement of the 1920s sometimes found it hard to resist capitalising on sectional discontents. And finally the great wave of unofficial action of one sort or another from the 1950s onward was sectional by definition, being utterly devoid of any political intent. Despite amendments and reamendments of union constitutions, the only thing that proved capable of checking sectional action was mass unemployment.

The activities of the Communist Party notwithstanding, union leaders had a fairly quiet time in the 1920s and 30s.  So long as industry catered largely for local markets or was concentrated in small areas and not much differentiated, sectionalism was not a major problem for the unions: they too were localised, and their lay officers conversant with local conditions. But as soon as unions started to operate on a national scale sectionalism became a major problem – and necessarily so, for while the small local union could closely mirror local conditions it was quite impossible for the national union to do so. That the union had moved to London or one of the great provincial cities did not alter the fact that workers lived in specific places and worked for specific employers. From thenceforward there were continual struggles as the men in the locali­ties resisted the subordination of their powers to that of the centre, or attempted to closely circumscribe what central control they were ready to concede. In some unions the head office was moved around from town to town so that local men could take it in turn to act as the executive committee – and keep a close eye on the secretary. In others the national executive was drawn only from the area in which the national office was situated – acting on the principle that only local men had the time and the opportunity to keep a check on leadership.

In other unions the national secretary had his powers limited to that of acting merely as a means of keeping the various branches informed of their different activities. These and other devices -such as the referendum – were characteristic of the second half of the nineteenth century, but had nearly everywhere fallen into disuse by the early 1920s. As the unions grew in size to embrace a widening diversity of particular interests, sectional jealousies themselves ensured that more powers would accrue to the centre. The local executive did in many cases act as a con­siderable constraint on general secretaries or their equivalents, but at the same time it came under fire from men in other localities who complained – usually with cause-that their own interests were not being properly attended to. Eventually, then, the local executives were replaced by bodies composed of men from all areas. The new national executives, if much more representative of the spread of membership, greatly enhanced the power of their leaders. Meeting much less frequently – monthly or quarterly as against the weekly meeting of the local executive – the leader’s activities were much less visible, while on the other hand the explicit divisions within the union allowed him to play the role of peacemaker.

The pattern of evolution of leadership authority out­lined above applied mainly to the unions of the labour aristocracy. The story was somewhat different where the new unions of the semi- and unskilled workers were concerned. By the period of maximum union growth in 1890-1920 the aristocratic unions were established -the new members moved into an already well-defined structure of organisation. The new unions, by contrast, grew from scratch to mass organisations almost over­night. In those circumstances there was no opportunity for a period of ‘experimentation’ with different forms of government. While basic constitutional forms were borrowed from the old unions (the London Dockers in 1889 based their rules on the ASE), the commit­ment to a mass membership regardless of occupation dictated the immediate recruitment of full-time officials. From the outset the new unions had a pro­fessional bureaucracy of dimensions unknown (and unwanted) in the craft unions. These officials, because of their key role in organisation drives and their possession of skills barely present in the semi-literate workers they organised, immediately assumed positions of considerable authority: the setting-up of branches and the teaching of basic administrative skills was the province of the organiser. And once established in the role of mentor he was not easily displaced. Thus was the oligarchical tendency embedded in the fabric of the large general unions from the very beginning, and indeed continued to remain much more pronounced in them than the unions which remained nominally ‘craft’ in the decades that followed. Turner had cause for classifying the large general unions as ‘popular bossdoms’.

In the 1960s the search for constitutional answers on the part of union leaders to the perennial question of sectionalism was more or less ended. Only in a few odd unions like the Engineers and the Railwaymen did executive committees exercise a strong restraining influence. If that was at times personally frustrating for their respective leaders, they were really in no better case than other less trammelled leaders. With effective full employment, constitutional checks were mostly irrelevant to the activities of the rank and file in the workplace. Thus did attempts to check sec­tionalism take a new form. Sectionalism, it was decided, was a consequence of ‘wrong attitudes’, ‘mis­understandings’, ‘failures of communication’. So union journals were made more attractive, shop stewards sent on training courses and called to conferences, and more ‘experts’ employed in the union head offices. At the time of writing none of this had any visible pay­off, for rank and file militancy was on the increase rather than the reverse. It was obviously naive to think that sectionalism was just a state of mind, an aberration of people wedded to false precepts. Sec­tionalism, to repeat yet again, was the elementary consequence of a trade unionism that followed the cycles and contours of a capitalist economy.

There was no heroic age of trade unionism when the men who stood at the head of the ‘movement’ had superhuman qualities of courage and integrity. Trade union leaders, being professional compromisers, did not believe in leading epic lives for the sake of glorify­ing biographers of future generations. Neither did they believe, at least as a general rule, in using their positions to feather their own nests: those that did tended to set up in the business late in their careers when they swapped trade unionism for politics. Alexander Macdonald, the Miners leader in the 1870s, seems to have been one of the very few who made a modest fortune out of his incumbency; John Burns and Jimmy Thomas made theirs only when well-launched on their careers as Members of Parliament. There was, from the late nineteenth century onward, a steady procession of union leaders leaving the move­ment for State employment, particularly between 1945 and 1951 with the creation of the large nationalised industries. It was rare, however, for a man established as a general secretary or executive president to leave while still in office. He either took a job when he was at or near retirement, or much earlier in his career before he was within striking distance of the general secretaryship. The jobs were not usually handed out for services rendered – and were not usually accepted for acquisitive reasons. They were offered because the union leader had experience that could be of use to the State. And they were accepted because most union leaders were thoroughly imbued with the liberal ethic of ‘public service’. Thus did the offering and the accepting reveal the political conceptions of trade unionism as held by the ruling classes and the leaders of organised labour.

The co-option of the union leaders was not a crude and messy business, a process in which ambitious and avaricious union leaders sold themselves to Brechtian caricatures of capitalists (although there were, incred­ibly, situations that did not much depart from that characterisation at the local level of union officialdom). On the contrary, it was a much more gentlemanly business, even in the days of William Allan and Robert Applegarth when union leaders generally were looked upon as upstart clods. And it could be a gentlemanly business because the union leaders were not revolu­tionaries but patient reformers. Once this was under­stood by politicians – and it seems to have been done so from as early as the 1850s by many of those that counted – little stood in the way (except class pre­judice) of their political acceptability and subsequent offers of State posts.

The acceptance of trade union leaders was not, how­ever, to be confused with a complete and unequivocal acceptance of trade unionism. Trade union leaders could be amenable and personally related to. Trade unionism was a different sort of animal for it mobilised and at least partly disciplined the working class on its own behalf. There was at all times a fear, sometimes submerged, sometimes near the surface, but always present: a fear that trie working class might be mobilised as a revolutionary force.

From their very earliest days the trade unions were closely watched by some branch or other of the police. The most infamous spy in the history of the labour < movement was Oliver, so superbly described in Frank Peel’s book, The Rising of the Luddites:

“Oliver was a paid spy in the employ of the Government – only one of a great number – but the most wicked, unscrupulous, and infamous of the whole vile troop. He had had many splendid jobs during the year 1817, and had grown fat and scant of breath. The times indeed were rife for the informer and the detective.”

In later years spies and informers got cleverer and harder to detect, but they were still around right enough as some right-wing trade union leaders very well knew. Organisations were infiltrated, informers recruited, mail intercepted, houses watched, men followed, telephones tapped.

In 1918 the Shop Stewards Movement discovered that one of its most prominent members had turned police informer. In 1925 the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement found that one of its most active London branches was led by a man in the pay of the police. In 1926 Lord Citrine noted Jimmy Thomas as saying: ‘The government are well-informed. By God, you don’t know! When I was in the government the railway sectional strike was on … Well, do you know that I had on my desk every morn­ing full details, photographs of letters that had passed, speeches made at private meetings . . ,’ Will Paynter said that in the thirties ‘I know that my phone was tapped when I was a trade union official and active Communist in South Wales. And as active organisers of the Communist Party we used to get our post opened and investigated.’ And more recently, as Harold Wilson’s memoirs made plain, comprehensive reports were reaching the government of what was going on inside the National Union of Seamen during their 1966 strike.

In the 1960s most large strikes were observed and’ reported  upon  by  the  Special  Branch,  and  somemanagements used the Special Branch as a private detective agency for spying on their own employees. There was not much doubt either that certain trade union leaders got tipped-off as to the activities of their members and fellow officials. The very nature of this subject does not lend itself readily to proof or regular exposure: secret police naturally tend to be secretive. There are certainly some newspaper reporters who have a detailed knowledge of how the Special Branch and MI6 operates. They never reveal it of course because of their reliance on their contacts for tips. Detailed information is kept in Home Office files -which Office is notably reluctant to reveal to historians such information even when fifty years old.

The fear of what the working class might do has been evident in a number of other ways: the right-wing press’s love-affair with the agitator theory of industrial relations and the near hysterical insistence of some managements in the same belief. (A full year after the Pilkington strike some of that Company’s directors continued to believe that they had been the victims of a left-wing plot – despite their receipt of a Special Branch report assuring them to the contrary.) Even less politically naive employers and managers had a hatred of strikes that went beyond resentment at loss of profits. Hatred implied fear – and it was justified in some measure. Strikes were not just with­drawals of labour, refusals to work at the offered price and conditions – they were also temporary rebellions against managerial authority and thus an implied nega­tion of management itself. Strikes carried with them that ‘levelling instinct’ that Rude talked of in his dis­cussion of the motivation of rick-burners and machine-breakers, though it was almost unknown for it to break surface. That eventuality would have made strikes overtly political – and we have seen that the factory consciousness prevalent in the working class made it easy for struggles to be taken up and defused by unions which were the embodiment of that con­sciousness.

As a broad general rule the ruling class in different periods sought to exploit the divisions within the work­ing class. When there were no divisions of any con­sequence, then life was that little bit easier as in the years 1850 to 1890: a period of considerable prosperity until the late eighties; the socialists and ex-Chartists confined to their little debating clubs and societies; the labour aristocracy largely imbued with the petit bourgeois morality of thrift and self-help; members of the wealthy bourgeoisie prepared to assist in the short­lived wave of general unionism in the early seventies. In that climate the most visible and organised part of the working class did not seem in the least threatening – and altogether worthy of encouragement. Thus were the unions helped on their way with liberalising legisla­tion that removed impediments to their progress. Thus was the ‘respectable’ working class rewarded with electoral reform.

By the years immediately before the First World War the scene had changed traumatically from the point of view of the ruling class. The unions had cast aside their Liberal connection, strikes multiplied, socialist agitators got enthusiastic audiences and made an impact on union policies. Yet the ruling class did not panic. Its more intelligent members had the political nous to see that all was not as it superficially seemed. Ramsay MacDonald had formed a secret electoral pact with the Liberals in time for the 1906 election -and the trade union leaders who made up the bulk of the subsequent thirty Labour MPs rapidly proved themselves ‘sound’ and ‘moderate’ men. The willing collaboration of trade union leaders with government and employers during the War, proved conclusively to the ruling class that the men who led the unions were not to be confused with the Manns, Gallaghers, and Pollitts who agitated at the grass-roots. Policies were thenceforward adopted – by large employers as well as governments – of making sufficient concessions to the right-wing men of labour as to help them in their attempts to beat off the left. That policy was pursued right through to the 1970s with invariable success.

The recruitment of union leaders to State posts and the bestowal of peerages and the like were not in themselves important. Symbolically, however, those gestures were of immense significance, They showed that culturally the labour establishment had been incorporated into the ‘thought-world’ of the ruling class, and politically that the labour establishment was a highly effective instrument of dominance.

The ‘new model unions’ of the 1850s and 1860s were quite clear about politics – they wanted none of it. Mindful of the disasters of Chartism and of the petit bourgeois status of the labour aristocrat, they were insistent that the unions were not to be instruments of political change. The lobbying of parliament and the recruitment of political allies was legitimate; extra-parliamentary agitation was not. Thus was born the unions’ highly peculiar definition of politics, a defini­tion, incidentally, that has traditionally been associated with conservativism: people who were prepared to accept the status quo and work within it for piecemeal reform were not political; people who wanted to over­turn the established order were, in the words of Harold Wilson, ‘politically motivated’ – a very neat demagogic device for imputing neutrality to one’s own actions and bias to those of others. The men of the mid-nineteenth century would have understood Wilson perfectly.

Despite’the distortion of the English language in a manner that anticipated George Orwell’s ‘newspeak’ by a hundred years, the separation of the world into mutually exclusive spheres of politics and pressure group activity made a limited sort of sense. Pragmatic­ally, it gave the unions an aura of respectability which freed them from State repression at a time when repression was a very vivid memory. And logically it had a certain philistine appeal. If politics was about recasting the social order, and trade unionism was about doing deals with employers, then it followed that trade unionism was non-political. That logic, and the peverse definition that it rested upon, persisted with an unshakeable tenacity. It was employed with increasing frequency and growing shrillness after the tentative socialist revival of the late 1960s and early 70s.

With the trade union’s creation of the Labour Party in 1900 the unions were especially well-equipped to impose their definition of politics on their left-wing dissidents – they could be told that their proposals were the province of the ‘political wing’ of the move­ment, thereby revealing fully what they had always understood as being ‘political’. Parliamentary politics was not the same as agitational politics. If the limita­tions of the language required that the same term be used in conjunction with forms of activity greatly at variance with one another, everyone understood the nuances; parliamentarism was ‘good’, agitation was ‘bad’. The creation of the Labour Party reinforced this distinction.

The Labour Party was never a socialist party despite its claims to the contrary. That fact was guaranteed from the outset by its ideological and financial enslave­ment to the trade unions. The unions did not establish the Labour Party because of a commitment to a socialist society. They established it because the Liberal Party was no longer capable of coping with the growing demands made upon it by a more aggres­sive working class. The demands were reformist, but too radically reformist for a ruling-class party in which business elements dominated. Furthermore, the coa­lescence of the landed and industrial factions of the ruling class forbade the continuation of two ruling-class parties at a time when the working class was being welded together by the advance of monopoly capital. These were considerations not lost upon the more far-sighted leaders of the Conservative Party -nor for that matter upon the heads of some of the larger companies who had started to desert the Liberals for the Tories in the 1890s.* Different Liberal governments between 1906 and 1914 made determined populist appeals in attempts to contain the Labour Party and retain their slice of the working-class vote. They failed – as did further attempts after the War. Middle-class Liberals defected to the Tories, working-class Liberals to Labour: by 1935 the Liberals were politically dead.

The Labour Party, thanks to its trade union roots, was held doubly captive. The practice of trade unionism as an industrial activity led, as we have seen, to its orientation to the present. A present that was shorn of any time dimension, a present that had no past and no future. This compression of time simul­taneously cut off any attempts to look at society as a system caught up in a process of historical change and development, and ensured that attention would be exclusively focused on defects, on ‘social problems’ – social problems, that is, that were to be considered in themselves rather than as structural products of an historical process. The trade unions, to use a crude analogy, acted like a gauche motor mechanic who thought he could tinker around with the carburettor without understanding its relationship to the overall workings of the engine.

Other considerations also entered into the desertion. The monopolists, for solid economic reasons, preferred the restrictionist policies of the Tories to the free trade policies of the Liberals.  everyday practice of trade unionism in no wise suggested that there was any need of a social and political theory. What the trade unions saw were iso­lated problems – and what they sought were pragmatic solutions. Therefore, by their ‘ownership’ of the Labour Party, they were able to impose on the party their own stunted view of the world. What they wanted out of the Labour Party was in principle no different than what they had previously sought from the Liberals. This was why, for the entire decade of the nineties, the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee resisted all attempts from those to the left of them to form their own party. Why form their own party when they could, for the most part, get what they wanted any­way? Once the party was established, with the men of the ‘new unions’ proving themselves basically as con­servative as the men of the old, the liberal future of Labour was assured. So, too, was the absence of a socialist consciousness within the working class.

The Labour Party carried from its birth the concep­tion of politics as a pressure group activity – so that when it formed governments it attempted merely to carry out what it had previously pressed for, namely limited, ad hoc reforms. The fact that many of them were of immediate benefit to the working class should not, however, be allowed to obscure the further fact that the means of their attainment held back a socialist advance. The pressure-group conception of politics implicitly meant a rfe-activation of the working class. It meant a recognition of the established institutions of power, especially parliament, and thus a clear and sharp break between the party’s activists and its mass following. Effective pressure group politics depended upon the acceptability of its leading echelons, an accept­ability that could not have been forthcoming if that leadership was engaged in mass agitation. The practice of parliamentarism as an overriding principle therefore excluded agitation, i.e. the political mobilisation of the working class. The detailed practice of parliamentarism – the acceptance of its stylised courtesies, its archaic rituals, its bestowal of ‘confidential’ information, the sham conflicts of a debating society – served as a sub­sidiary reinforcement of the division between the activist and the mass. Parliamentary socialism could not on its own, unsupported by an awakened and politically conscious working class, be a serious busi­ness; not when it enabled close personal friendships across party lines, such as those between Aneurin Bevan and Lord Beaverbrook who. were stereotyped symbols of the Labour left and the Tory right in the 1950s.

The Labour Party became a more or less perfect expression of the sort of politics embodied in trade unionism. Creating no socialist consciousness amongst the working class, it ensured that the class remained locked up in the factory consciousness that developed out of collective action in the workplace. With the dominant institutions of the labour ‘movement’ as a whole bereft of any clear and coherent understanding of the historical processes of capitalism, it produced ad hoc ‘solutions’ to ad hoc problems and left the working class wide open to such reactionary mystifica­tions as nationalism, racism, and ‘benevolent’ capi­talism. That was the case in the 1900s. And it remained the case in the 1960s. Thus did trade unionism deny its non-political claims and work, directly and indirectly, as a powerful integrative and stabilising force.

That the trade unions proved an integrative force did not mean that they had been totally absorbed and incorporated into the State – despite appearances to the contrary and the implications of the stand-points of some right-wing trade union leaders. Paradoxically, there were times when in limited respects rank and file sectionalism proved a progressive force. At no time was this more evident than in the 1960s. In that decade ~ which extended into the 1970s – British capitalism was entering into a phase of deepening crisis which by 1972 had forced a Tory government committed to an unleashing of market forces to resort to an ‘incomes policy’ that it had hitherto despised. That crisis was due in no small part to the ‘wage militancy’ of the working class. The Labour and Conservative governments both tried, with varying degrees of ardour, to get the TUC to collaborate in operating ‘incomes policies’. Or put another way, they tried to use the unions as instruments of State policy. The union leaders, with widely varying amounts of enthusiasm, agreed. Their agreement was insubstan­tial and eventually revealed as utterly hollow – they could not control the rank and file which insisted on going its own way and taking a plastic market for all it would bear. The rank and file, in short, undermined at one stroke their leaders’ willingness to play ball demonstrating thus the fragility of their dominance. Trade union leaders could be as obliging as they liked in the committee rooms of Whitehall and the Cabinet room at No. 10 Downing Street – but they still had to keep half an ear cocked for the sound of the men dropping their tools. The insistence of the rank and file on job control, which in other respects concealed latent reactionary tendencies, in this respect at least effectively stopped the unions from becoming part of the apparatus of a corporate State.

And so the story may end as it was almost in the beginning:

“In a general way (the British workman’s) political thoughts and aspirations, though they scarcely recognise them as being strictly political, turn exclusively upon improving the position of labour in relation to capital. And this they seek to accomplish by direct action – as, for instance, by strikes and the strengthening of trades unions – and not by the establishment of entirely new social systems.”

That comment could have been written in 1972. In fact it was written in 1871 by Thomas Wright, a Liverpool man.

A Personal Postscript

Several friends who read this book while it was still only a manuscript with an uncertain future told me that I ought not to have finished the story at the point I did. While they broadly agreed with what I had done in the way of analysis, they thought that left as it was it seemed too negative. What needed to be done, they said, was a ‘What is to be done?’ I replied that I was too conscious of my limitations to aspire to be another Lenin, and that anyway what they were really asking for was another book. All this in a comradely spirit you understand.

What worried them was that the book as it stood might be understood as an attack on the unions and as a counsel of political despair; that it could be read as though there were nothing to be done. They appre­ciated that that was not my position. Indeed knew very well that implicit in my negative assessment of the politics of trade unionism was a very positive call for the urgent renewal of a socialist politics firmly grounded in a socialist party. They knew, too, that I had no intention of embracing a form of lunacy that would advocate the dismemberment of the trade unions. After all, I had chosen the title with some care.

To make the call, however implicitly, for a socialist politics is, in a way, to beg the question. What does it mean to make that plea?

A socialist politics requires both a theory and a strategy. A survey of the left-wing press reveals an abundance of strategies. It does not reveal, as yet anyway, any theoretical work with a finely-honed cutting edge. But to call for a socialist politics is to call for exactly that. Thus at one level what needs to be done is some intellectual work, some solid development of Marxist theory that will enable us to comprehend the reality of contemporary capitalism.

Notwithstanding the extraordinary virulence of sectarianism on the left in recent years – on a scale that bears comparison with the first few decades of the century – there are grounds for optimism. A bit nebulous perhaps, but grounds just the same. In the last ten years or so Marxism has at last started to make a serious impact on British intellectual life. (Our indebtedness to the various people associated with The New Left Review is profound.) The works of Marx, Engels and Lenin are once again being read for the first time on any scale since the twenties and thirties. And, furthermore, being read in the way those authors intended. Marxism is starting to emerge as a way of thinking, as a way of reflecting upon the world. This is something which is largely new. In earlier decades the Marxist writers tended to be regarded either as scriptural authorities, or as instant bases for ad hoc analyses. Although that tendency still persists, it is quite evidently waning. After the political deadliness of the 1950s and early 60s, so reminiscent of the same period in the previous century, there is room for hope once more. There is a world to win.

Tony Lane Liverpool June 1974

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One response

18 12 2009

On a similar note, Subversion’s ‘Labouring in Vain’ has recently been republished on Its worth a read. Link below.


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