Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter One:
Trade unions in Russia and Britain

TRADE UNIONS are deeply affected by the situation in which they operate. This is clearly shown if we compare the history of unions in Russia and Britain – one the home of the world’s first workers’ state, the other the first haven of mass reformism.

Trade union experience in Russia was very meagre. Before the 1905 revolution unions hardly existed. It is true that in 1901 a police chief called Colonel Zubatov organised a sort of union. In Petrograd it was called the Society for Mutual Aid for Workers in Mechanical Industries. Similar societies were founded in other cities. But when, after two years, these began to get out of hand, they were liquidated. The only authentic union established was that of the printers, founded in 1903.

However in 1905, under the impact of the revolution, a limited legalisation of trade unions took place. At the same time shop floor organisation mushroomed as starosty (shop stewards) appeared, along with strike committees and factory commissions. The latter were directly elected by the workforce and ‘began to take charge of all matters affecting the internal life of the factory, drawing up of collective wage agreements, and overseeing the hiring and firing of workers.’ [1]

The revolution also gave a massive impulse to the organisation of trade unions. But

even at the time of the 1905 revolution only a tiny proportion of all industrial workers in Russia – some 7 percent, or 245,555 in absolute figures – belonged to trade unions. The unions which existed were tiny. 349 out of a total of about 600 had less than 100 members; 108 had a membership in the range of 100–300; the number of trade unions with over 2,000 members was only 22. During the period of reaction, 1908–09, they ceased to exist altogether. In later years they picked up, but only to a limited extent. Nationwide trade unions did not exist at all. The few local unions that there were had a total membership of scarcely more than 20,000–30,000 throughout the country. [2]

In the period of reaction after the defeat of the revolution very few of the factory commissions or the starosty survived.

In the conditions of Tsarism, where unions were virtually illegal, there was no economic or political space for a successful reformist strategy to be pursued by a trade union bureaucracy, since up to the February 1917 revolution the unions had a shadowy existence at best.

After February 1917, however, they grew rapidly. ‘By October there was a total trade union membership of about 390,000 in Petrograd ... Petrograd had one of the highest levels of unionisation in the world.’ [3]

Unlike the British, the West Europeans or the Americans, the Russians built industrial unions. In the West many of the unions were organised on craft or at best trade lines. The term ‘craft union’ denotes a narrow, exclusive union of workers possessing a specific skill in common; the term ‘trade union’ means that workers of several related trades are covered; the ‘industrial union’ is a body which embraces all workers in a branch of industry regardless of their jobs.

In Russia the first national conference of trade unions in June 1917 decided in favour of industrial unions.

There was pressure from some quarters for ‘trade unions,’ but Mensheviks and Bolsheviks united to quash this ... The only major union to reject the policy of industrial unionism was the woodturners’ union – a ‘trade union’ rather than a strict craft union. [4]

At least 90 percent of trade unionists in Petrograd, the Russian capital, were therefore members of industrial unions.

In Britain the rise of rank-and-file organisation independent of the trade union bureaucracy – the shop stewards’ movement – took place generations after the establishment of the unions. In Russia shopfloor delegates, the starosty, rose at the same time as the unions or even preceded them. Furthermore, the factory committees they created were, from the beginning, the bastions of Bolshevism. Already in June 1917 the Bolshevik Party had a secure majority on the Central Council of Factory Committees.

In Western Europe it had become customary for workers and their organisations to see a division between the fight against the state, for political change, and trade union struggle to win economic improvements from employers. In Russia no such separation existed because of the repressive action of the Tsarist regime:

attempts at home-grown reformism never got very far, however, for the simple reason that even the most ‘bread and butter’ trade union struggles foundered on the rock of the tsarist state; all efforts to separate trade unionism from politics were rendered nugatory by the action of police and troops. In this political climate trade unions grew up fully conscious of the fact that the overthrow of the autocracy was a basic precondition for the improvement of the workers’ lot. It is true that there was a powerful moderating tendency in the trade unions represented by right-wing Mensheviks such as those involved in the Workers’ Group of the War Industries Committee, but even this tendency was verbally committed to a brand of socialist trade unionism which would have seemed dangerously radical to the ‘business’ unionists of the AFL in the USA [A] or the Liberals of the British TUC. It is thus important to bear in mind when analysing the conflict between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the Russian unions in 1917, that even the ‘right’ was fairly radical by Western standards since it was committed to socialism albeit at some indefinite time in the future. [5]

Russian unions arose at the same time, or even following, the establishment of the soviets, the workers’ councils. In Britain we have had trade unions for generations, and not yet a soviet. The soviets also expressed a fusion of economic and political demands that was common to the whole of the Russian labour movement. ‘The close link ... was summed up in the words of one spokesman of the 1905 Soviet: “Eight hours and a gun!’ shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker.’ [6] From this slogan it can be seen that the Soviet organised both workers’ economic struggles against the employers and the political struggle against the regime.

The influence of the revolutionary left – the Bolsheviks – made itself felt in every working-class organisation during 1917. Their control of the Petrograd factory committees was matched in May 1917 by a majority on the Petrograd Council of Trade Unions. Only the skilled labour aristocrats of the printers’ union resisted in the capital. Outside Petrograd, however, Bolshevik support was smaller, but significant. At the All-Russian Trade Union Conference of June 1917 the Bolsheviks had 36.4 percent of the delegates. In September, at the Democratic Conference, 58 percent of all trade union delegates sided with the party. By October all the trade unions in major industries supported the Bolsheviks except for the important railway workers’ association, the postal and telegraph union and the printers.

The experience of Russia was poles apart from that of Britain, where the beginnings of trade unionism were to be found as far back as the end of the seventeenth century. Permanent unions were in existence a few decades later: ‘... one of the earliest instances of a permanent trade union that we have been able to discover occurs’ in the tailoring trade in 1720, wrote Sidney and Beatrice Webb. [7] In 1894 they reported that unions ‘existed in England for over two centuries.’ [8] Of today’s unions a number have existed continuously, with only changes in name and composition, for one and a half centuries – although eighteenth-century trade clubs and societies were, unlike modern unions, local bodies and much more concerned with mutual aid than their counterparts are today.

By the First World War British trade unionism had already passed through four main phases. In the first half of the 19th century many trade unionists were inspired by the utopian socialism of Robert Owen and the demands for democratic rights embodied in the People’s Charter. After 1850 the conservative ‘New Model’ craft unions took centre stage. Their dominance was briefly challenged by the ‘New Unionism’ around 1889 and more seriously during the ‘Labour Unrest’ of 1910–14. At each stage the social conditions of the time played a role. The turbulent changes and economic instability of the early industrial revolution encouraged militant trade unionism and revolutionary politics. The economic boom of the mid-century undermined this movement. Unlike the general trade unions of 1830–34, the ‘New Model Unions’ were narrow and conservative in outlook. As the Webbs commented ‘The generous but inescapable “universalism” of the Owenite and Chartist organisations was replaced by the principle of the protection of the vested interests of the craftsman in his occupation.’ [9] This stamped the British labour movement with a deep-going sectionalism.

The fact that British industry was not challenged by any other country during much of the nineteenth century meant that the capitalist economy remained healthy. This gave employers much leeway for accommodating the demands of organised groups of skilled men. Although the craft unions had again and again to fight bitter battles against the employers to achieve economic security, when seen in a broad historical context, craft unionism inflicted grave damage on the working class, women and men alike. To the extent that it influenced the working class as a whole it created a tradition of narrow-minded conservatism. Under its influence skilled workers felt no need to generalise their struggle or overthrow the system.

Sectionalism became deeply entrenched in the British labour movement. To give a couple of illustrations: while Russian unions from their inception recruited both men and women, and in Germany women became members of the engineering unions some two decades after its foundation, in Britain, where hundreds of thousands of women worked in engineering, it took until 1943 – 91 years after the founding of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers – for women to be allowed into its successor, the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU).

The loss of Britain’s industrial monopoly in the 1880s, and the consequent attacks on wages and conditions, encouraged a wave of union building from 1889, when ‘New Unionists’ attempted to batter down the sectional barriers. But when the wave receded the craft and trade unions still dominated the scene. Still today there are only a few pure industrial unions in Britain – the National Union of Mineworkers being the most important.

Along with sectionalism a powerful trend in British trade unionism was a hostility to open class struggle. The post-1850 ‘New Model’ unions, for example, turned their backs on strikes:

The Stonemasons’ Central Committee repeatedly cautioned their members ‘against the dangerous practice of striking ... Keep from it,’ they urge, ‘as you would from a ferocious animal that you know would destroy you ... We implore you, brethren, as you value your own existence, to avoid in every way possible, those useless strikes ... ‘ A few years later the Liverpool lodge invites the support of all the members for the proposition ‘that our society no longer recognises strikes, either as a means to be adopted for improving our condition, or as a scheme to be resorted to in resisting infringements.’ ... The Flint Glass Makers’ Magazine, between 1850 and 1855, is full of similar denunciations. ‘We believe’ writes the editor, ‘that strikes have been the bane of trade unions.’ [10]

William Allan, who as secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was one of the most important union leaders of the century, told a Royal Commission in 1867 ‘that all strikes are a complete waste of money, not only in relation to the workmen, but also to the employers.’ [11] Even when forced to use the strike tactic, such unions made sure it was restricted to economic goals. In contrast Russian workers struck for the overthrow of the state.

Another feature in Britain was the complete separation of the economic struggle from politics. This dated from the decline of Chartism. The National Conference of Trade Unions of Easter 1845 decided ‘to keep trade matters and politics as separate and distinct as circumstances will justify.’ [12]

In Russia we saw how shop stewards appeared in strength at the same time as the founding of the unions. In Britain the shop steward began as ‘a minor official appointed from the men in a particular workshop and charged with the duty of seeing that all the trade union contributions were paid. He had other small duties.’ [13] This limited function was performed by Amalgamated Society of Engineers stewards after 1898, but it was only during the First World War that shop stewards came to play an important role in the labour movement.

Unlike the Russian trade unions, those in Britain were dominated by bureaucracy. Already in the 1850s the full-time official appeared in the arena. As the Webbs wrote:

During these years we watch a shifting of leadership in the Trade Union world from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity. [14]

The Webbs, being Fabians, welcomed the appearance of what they called ‘the Civil Service of the Trade Union world,’ because its influence was conservative. In the old craft societies full-time officials were a small proportion of the members and were usually elected to their positions. However it was typical for officials of the New Unions from 1889 to be appointed, and with the massive growth of organisation at this time, and especially during the 1910–14 Labour Unrest, the bureaucracy developed into a clearly-defined and distinctive group. Trade union membership rose from 1,436,300 in 1894 to 3,918,809 in 1914 but the number of full-time officials expanded at an even faster rate. By 1920 they numbered some three or four thousand. [15]

Writing in their History of Trade Unionism (1894) the Webbs said:

The actual government of the trade union world rests exclusively in the hands of a class apart, the salaried officers of the great societies. This Civil Service of the Trade Union world [was] non-existent in 1850. [16]

They describe well the way the officials became a ‘class apart’:

Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisan’s life gradually fades from his mind; and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable.

With this intellectual change may come a more invidious transformation. Nowadays the salaried officer of a great union is courted and flattered by the middle class [in the language of those days, this meant the capitalists]. He is asked to dine with them, and will admire their well-appointed houses, their fine carpets, the ease and luxury of their lives ...

He goes to live in a little villa in a lower-middle-class suburb. The move leads to dropping his workmen friends; and his wife changes her acquaintances. With the habits of his new neighbours he insensibly adopts more and more their ideas ... His manner to his members ... undergoes a change ... A great strike threatens to involve the Society in desperate war. Unconsciously biased by distaste for the hard and unthankful work which a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men’s demands, and eventually arranges a compromise on terms distasteful to a large section of his members. [17]

Another feature of British trade unionism which did not apply to the Russian situation was the integration of union officials into the state. The Webbs noted:

In 1890 trade union organisation had already become a lawful institution; its leading members had begun to be made members of Royal Commissions and justices of the peace; they were, now and then, given such civil service appointments as factory inspectors; and two or three of them had won their way into the House of Commons. But these advances were still exceptional and precarious. The next thirty years were to see the legal position of trade unionism, actually in consequence of renewed assaults, very firmly consolidated by statute, and the trade union claim to participation in all public enquiries, and to nominate members to all governmental commissions and committees, practically admitted. Trade union representatives have won an equal entrance to local bodies, from Quarter Sessions and all the elected councils down to pensions and food and Profiteering Act committees; an influential Labour Party has been established in parliament; and most remarkable of all, the trade union itself has been tacitly accepted as a part of the administrative machinery of the state. [18]

This integration reached a peak when the state felt itself most threatened:

... it was during the Great War that we watch the most extensive advance in the status, alike of the official representatives of the trade unions and of the trade unions themselves, as organs of representation and government. It is needless to say that this recognition was not accorded to the trade union world without a quid pro quo [a favour in return] from the trade union movement to the government. [19]

The trade union movement in Russia came into existence with the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In Britain the rise of trade unions was very much part of the ‘normal’ expansion of capitalism. The ‘New Model’ unions rose during the 1850s amid industrial expansion that for a quarter of a century was greater and steadier than in any other previous period. [20] The rise in unions was not smooth. It paralleled the movement of the economy but the peaks and troughs were more marked. The spring tides of trade union organisation in 1872–73, 1889–90 and 1910–18 were interspersed by employers’ offensives that cut the size of union membership in 1875–79 and 1892–93.

So trade unionism is not a fixed form. In Russia it showed itself capable of uniting masses of workers and joining them in the revolutionary struggle for power. In Britain it proved equally capable of sowing sectional divisions among workers, whether on the grounds of skill, industry or sex, and in so doing it limited class conflict to the narrow circle of wage demands. The Russian unions avoided the dangers of bureaucracy and brought forward leaders who were able to serve as an effective channel for the demands of the rank and file. Britain produced a layer of officials who were a block on workers’ struggles.


1. S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd (Cambridge 1983), pp. 57–8.

2. Tony Cliff, Lenin (London, four volumes, 1975–79), vol. 1, p. 331.

3. Smith, pp. 105 and 109.

4. Smith, pp. 107-8.

5. Smith, pp. 109–110.

6. Leon Trotsky, 1905 (New York 1971), p. 196.

7. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, A History of Trade Unionism (London 1920), p. 31.

8. Webbs, p. 1.

9. Webbs, p. 217.

10. Webbs, p. 199.

11. Webbs, p. 190.

12. Webbs, p. 489.

13. Webbs, p. 204.

14. Webbs, pp. 577–8.

15. Webbs, p. 466.

16. Webbs, pp. 468–470.

17. Webbs, p. 594.

18. Webbs, p. 636.

19. Webbs, p. 180.

20. [Not included in the Notes section of the book]


A. The American Federation of Labor was the main union federation in the USA, consisting of skilled men and dominated by the right wing.

Last updated on 20 August 2014