Revolutionary syndicalism in Britain

Actually the organized labor movement in Britain is dead. This is due to the fact that parliamentary socialism is no longer trusted by the worker owing to the record of the two Labor governments. The workers have come to realize that parliamentary socialism supports Imperialism and Empire and is not the road to their emancipation, and [anti-]parliamentarians feel that this has justified their criticisms and prophecies of the past thirty years.

This result however is barren or purely negative, because the workers do not appreciate the relation between parliament and trades unionism. It stands to reason that the workers could not be betrayed on the political field unless they were also betrayed on the industrial field. Reformism is the essence of trades unionism and it is reformism that reconciles the worker to the Capitalist system. The joint nature of the betrayal of the working-class was demonstrated in the mis-called General Strike of 1926 when the very persons who had previously betrayed the workers through parliamentary action also betrayed them at the time of industrial action through the medium of the General Council of the Trades Unions.

The classic example of the parliamentary and capitalist nature of trades unionism was found in the case of the late John Turner who was an anarchist and also General Secretary of the Shop Assistants Union. First as organizer, and later as secretary, John Turner’s duties compelled him to support parliamentarism, whilst his approach towards Revolutionary Syndicalism was purely academic.

The history of trades unionism in Britain proves beyond doubt that the Labor Party is the child of the craft union. Kier Hardie, for example, only obtained standing as a labor leader when he identified the Independent Labor Party with the trade union. During the war the bloc vote of the trades unions robbed Ramsay MacDonald of his leadership of the Labor Party. Under James Maxton the influence of the ILP has dwindled to nothing because the trades unions are behind the Labor Party. Every vote in parliament of the Labor Party, and of its different elements, can be traced to this or that unions represented by the particular member speaking or voting. Today therefore, the task of anti-parliamentarism as such is to pass from its excellent criticism of parliamentarism as such to make war on trades unionism on the industrial field. The time has come to unfold the banner of revolutionary syndicalism and so give practical expression to the ideas of libertarianism or true revolutionary socialism.

It is only necessary to relate the details of trades union history in relation to the more important workers struggles to understand the reactionary role played by the British trades union leader.

Trades Union Activity

Let us begin with the demarcation disputes. These prove that the purpose of trade or craft unionism in Britain has been not to pursue the class struggle or to inaugurate socialism but to better the lot of one section of the workers at the expense of another section in a perfect cycle of futility. here is the record of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers from 1865 to 1904 inclusive.

1865 - Dispute with boilermakers over A.S.E. men working as angle iron-smiths.

1881 - Fight with shipwrights

1889 - Blacklegged fellow Trade Unionists during the strike at Silver’s Works, Silvertown.

1890-2 - Persistent demarcation disputes with Tyne plumbers and boilermakers.

1894 - Demarcation disputes with scientific makers at Weymouth

1895 - Similar quarrel with steam-engine makers at Burton-on-Tyne. [Burton upon Trent?]

1896 - With milling machine hands and brass finishers at Earl’s of Hull, and Thornycroft’s of Chiswick.

1897 - Historic struggle with master-class; supported by machine workers and steam-engine makers. Blacklegged by moulders, smiths and boilermakers. Last mentioned blacklegged because their funds were invested in Armstrong, Whitworth and Co.

1899 - Demarcation fight with smiths on the Tyne.

1904 - Same with Electrical Trades Union in Harland and Wolff’s Yard at Belfast.

Time remedied none of these grievances. These demarcation disputes continued down to the very outbreak of the war. There are records of disputes over the studding of armour plates between boilermakers and engineers in which the employers were called upon to settle the dispute. Similar disputes arose over the making of bulwark stanchions and rudder quadrants.

Then there were disputes between the engineers and the plumbers over pipe fitting. In every case the employer settled the differences between the unions. In some cases strike preceded the settlement; not strikes by the workers against the employers but strikes by the workers against each other. There is the classic statement of the secretary of the Portsmouth Branch of the Coppersmiths and Metalworkers who complained “of the activity of the boilermakers, plumbers, etc., in claiming work that had been done hitherto by coppersmiths.” This report declared that the purpose of the organization was “to prevent coppersmiths walking the streets whilst men of other trades are employed on work previously done by us.”

No comment is necessary to show how thoroughly reactionary has been the role of trades unionism in Great Britain. From 1912-1914 the Herald of Revolt, the anti-parliamentary “Organ of the Coming Social Revolution,” described in detail this phase of Trades Unionism.

Organized for Defeat

That trades unionism is unable to organize the workers’ struggle has been demonstrated by the history of the great dock strike. Ben Tillet whose political and parliamentary record is that of a war jingo has retained his hold on the Labor movement purely and simply through ignorance and illiteracy of ordinary British Trades Unionists. In July, 1912, he published a manifesto on behalf of the dock workers giving the history of Trades Unionism since 1893. In that manifesto he showed that in 1911, the dock workers struck without holding a trade union card, paralyzed shipping and won their strike. The following year they were organized into a trade union, struck again and were completely defeated. Further, in the second strike the trade union dockers of one port handled the goods sent by blacklegs from another port with the result that the workers were thoroughly demoralized.

The thing that brought about the defeat on that occasion has operated several times since, particularly among the railway workers; the accumulation of funds and the investment in the very industry an which the strikers were employed. As Dominion Secretary, Mr. J. H. Thomas persuaded the National Union of Railwaymen to invest its funds in a vast network of British Imperial finance that identified trades unionism with the ruling-class interests of the British Empire. In 1923, the peculiar organization for work and wages outlook of British trades unionism was demonstrated when the Clyde workers rejoiced at the promises made by Stanley Baldwin that the Government was placing more ship orders on the Clyde. At Tyneside the trades unionists protested that the warship orders should go to the Tyne. This is an index to the mentality and outlook of trades unionism.

We can pass over the General Strike. Supported by the Communist Party, the General Council of the Trades Union [movement] finally betrayed the workers’ struggle and turned what was actually a revolutionary situation into a triumph for reaction.

The 1926 strike was the last word in the betrayal of the British miner that began with the Datum line struggle in 1921. From that date to 1926, the Miners’ Federation steadily retreated. The miners threw up one leader after another and each leader betrayed them in turn.

In 1925, the mine bosses were in despair and the Government granted a nine months subsidy. Instead of rejecting this concession the parliamentarians and the trade union leaders rejoiced at a bogus victory, at a peace that was a capitalist preparation for war.

In 1926 came the strike and the debacle. This should have ended the history of trades unionism in Britain. It has not done so because the mind of the British worker is still reformist. He is afraid. Fear is the explanation of parliamentarism and trades unionism. It is our business to awaken courage and develop syndicalist activity.

Syndicalist Revival

There is some promise of such awakening in the Omnibus Workers’ Strike in the spring of this year. The Transport industry, so far as the road traffic is concerned, was completely paralyzed and it was admitted that the strike was directed not only against the company but also against the Transport [and] General Workers Union. The trade union officials repudiated the Strike Committee and made agreements behind the backs of the workers with the ‘bus chiefs and government traffic commissioners. The unofficial action was 100 per cent and the trade union leaders had a rough passage. Although the strike was finally broken there is not the least doubt the transport workers will rally again. The United Socialist Movement intends to develop powerful syndicalist activity among these workers. It should be pointed out that there are four opposing unions canvasing for the Transport Workers. Just consider what a chaos of organization, or rather disorganization this implies.

The condition of the Transport Workers in Scotland brings us to a complete indictment of current Labor Parliamentarism. In Glasgow there is a Labor majority in the Town Council, a Labor Lord Provost and a Labor City Treasurer. This Labor majority has decided to have an Empire Trading Exhibition in Glasgow during the coming year. The parasites of the world are being invited to visit Glasgow. This creates a tremendous transport problem. It was necessary to keep the workers quiet. Accordingly, with their Marxist understanding of economics the Labor majority met the Transport Workers Trade Union leaders and came to an agreement. The question of hours, which owing to its tax on the nervous energy of the worker, is a scandal never dealt with. The agreement conceded to the Transport Workers from the age of 14 to 19 and increase of one shilling per week; and to those over 19 and increase of two shillings. This agreement is binding for two years. It covers the period of the Empire Exhibition and the union pledges the workers not to strike. this is trades union treachery up to date.

The United Socialist Movement, which is an anti-parliamentary body and continues the tradition of the old anti-parliamentary movement founded in 1906, is entering the field of industrial action with a view to forming an Industrial Union of Direct Action (I.U.D.A.). The purpose of this activity and method of organization is not industrial unionism in the sense of a vast centralized body outside the workshop, although it is opposed to the craft form of trade unionism. Its theory and method is syndicalist and it intends to organize along the lines of solidarity, spontaneous action and no agreements with employers. In other words its activity is preliminary to revolution and its conception to what has become to be known historically as Bakuninist and not Marxist.

The Industrial Union of Direct Action was first mooted in 1906 but was discarded for intensified anti-parliamentary agitation on the political field. The workers did not seem to be ripe for syndicalism. this organization, the I.U.D.A., is being revived to meet the situation. Glasgow which is a highly industrialized center and a port and is a center of the highly important Lanarkshire coal-fields is the very place in which to build syndicalism. The coming Empire Exhibition, and its support by the labor parliamentarians and trade union leaders is our opportunity.

It may be that in the development of our activities here, the workers on the Continent may be able to give us great support. We should endeavor by economic action to throw up forces that will challenge and paralyze the Empire Exhibition. If we are successful in organizing the strike at which we aim we shall need the support of the Continental workers in proclaiming a boycott. Declarations to this effect by the French workers would assist our organization here. Not only is there an opportunity of evincing the power of syndicalism in Britain but the intention to re-open the Paris Exhibition would also afford a splendid opportunity to the French Workers to strike. In this way a united syndicalist movement of action pioneering an entirely new era of struggle could be built in France and Britain. By this action, French and British workers are brought into line.

by Ethel McDonald

The author is a member of the United Socialists, a British Anarcho-Syndicalist movement. She was in Barcelona for some time after the commencement of the civil war and edited the English radio broadcasts. After the events of last May she was deported, it is presumed on the initiative of the Communist party.

From: One Big Union Monthly (IWW), March 1938 .