Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Five:
British socialists and industrial struggle

THE FIRST Marxist group in Britain was the Democratic Federation, which was founded in 1880 and changed its name to the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in 1884. It was very sectarian. H.M. Hyndman, its leader, believed that socialism would come through propaganda and education which would go on until a majority of workers were convinced it was correct. Anything less than socialism was to be deplored as a diversion from the true path. Thus his attitude to trade union action of any kind was dismissive or downright negative.

The SDF paper Justice described the great dock strike of 1889 as ‘a lowering of the flag, a departure from active propaganda and a waste of energy.’ [1]

‘We are opposed to strikes altogether,’ wrote Hyndman in April 1903. ‘They never were a powerful weapon, and now they are quite out of date.’ At the time of the threatened railway strike of 1907 Hyndman wrote: ‘We of the Social Democratic Party and Justice are opposed to strikes on principle ... Political action is far safer, far better and far less costly.’ Even in 1912, the year of the greatest upsurge the working class had ever known, Hyndman repeated: ‘Can anything be imagined, more foolish, more harmful, more in the widest sense of the word, unsocial than a strike ...? I have never yet advocated a strike ... I have never known ... a successful strike.’

In the name of real socialism the SDF leaders scorned the industrial struggle of workers. Once a strike began, however, the Party would give its support in principle. This usually meant a lecture on the impossibility of making real gains while the capitalist system lasted. [2]

This does not mean that there were not several leading rank-and-file activists among its membership, but because the SDF erected a Chinese wall between the final goal of socialism and trade union activity it remained totally divorced from the real struggles of workers. As an organisation it was doomed to irrelevance. As one member put it:

Every organisation which has some ideals to translate into life, but is deprived of the possibility for action, is apt to degenerate sooner or later into a mere sect ... It ends by withdrawing from the world which it despairs of influencing. [3]

One cannot help sympathising with this cry of frustration from one activist about the ‘educational road’ taken by British Marxism:

What’s gone wrong with Britain? Here we have been preaching socialism for 20 to 30 years till we have everyone converted or nearly ... The man in the street admits readily enough, that Socialism is the only plan put forward to get him out of that blind alley; he will even agree that Socialism is bound to come if the world is not to go to entire smash; yet he will not join ... [4]

Thus the main Marxist current before the war was the unwitting victim of the very disease of reformism it wished to cure. Reformists always separate immediate issues, such as a wage demand or the winning of an election, from the final goal of social ownership of production, action for which has to be put off to some indefinite future date. The SDF turned this formula on its head and rejected involvement in existing struggles, and trade unionism in particular. In doing so, the SDF rejected the classical Marxist approach which saw a connection between trade union activity and political mass struggle. Nor did it have anything in common with the Leninist notion that the connection between politics and economics has to be consciously fought for by the intervention of a distinct revolutionary party in all day-to-day struggles.

In 1908 the Social Democratic Federation became the Social Democratic Party. In 1911, after fusing with other small groups, it became the British Socialist Party. It continued to be ineffective, with a paper membership of 11,300 in 1913. The BSP, like its predecessors, continued to focus on the politics of the street rather than the workplace.

Although the SDF chose to ignore workers’ struggles they welled up nevertheless. In the ‘Labour Unrest’ between 1910 and 1914 millions of workers went on strike. The origins of this agitation lay in the combination of many factors which had been accumulating since the turn of the century – economic growth leading to falling unemployment, inflation that cut wages, disappointment with the Labour Party’s performance and the conciliatory policies of union leaders. The fact that strike days shot up to more than ten million a year and trade union membership doubled in the period did not perturb the sectarians. The founding conference of the BSP in 1911 made it clear what the majority of delegates felt:

Their business at that conference was to constitute a political party to work primarily in the political field ... They were not a trade unionist party. [BSP involvement in union work was] something of an impertinent interference in a field with which they had nothing to do. The industrial field was already provided for. [5]

The BSP had no criticism of the union officials as such, since they rejected the whole union movement as irrelevant. One speaker declared:

as one who has been on the executive of a trade union he was convinced that there was no possibility of the trade unions striking for socialism. The Socialist Party was not out for the pettifogging reforms which the trade unions were striving for. [6]

The BSP contributed the bulk of the membership of the Communist Party at its foundation in 1920. But these members had practically no understanding of the trade union movement and considered the self-activity of workers to have nothing to do with the struggle for socialism. This attitude was to have important consequences.

Though the Labour Unrest passed the official ‘Marxists’ by, there was a live revolutionary current fighting in its midst. This went under the label of syndicalism. In contrast to the belief that change would come through political education and the capture of the state (state socialism as it was called), the syndicalists saw the immediate class struggle as all-important. Syndicalism gave a voice to genuine workers’ struggles, and because these varied from place to place and industry to industry, it too took many forms.

The most important syndicalist current before 1914 was represented by Tom Mann, a recent convert from state socialism, who established the Industrial Syndicalist Education League in 1910. His position was unequivocal:

The time is now ripe for the industrial organisation of all workers on the basis of class – not trade or craft ... merging all existing unions into one compact organisation for each industry, including all labourers of every industry in the same organisation as the skilled workers. [7]

Leading syndicalists such as Mann considered themselves to be revolutionary socialists. They believed that if such a union movement could be created it would have to be:

Revolutionary in aim, because it will be out for the abolition of the wages system and for securing to the workers the full fruits of their labour, thereby seeking to change the system of Society from Capitalist to Socialist. [8]

Although the framework of trade unionism was to be widened to encompass all workers in an industry, nevertheless the pull towards sectionalism (but with bigger sections) remained. Questions of class politics and the state began to appear increasingly minor to the syndicalists. Between 1910 and 1911 Mann, for example, moved from denials that he was anti-political to proud assertions of the fact. The attitude of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League was summed up in this way:

Politics, like religion, was a matter for the persons themselves; and it was of no concern to the workers whether other workers were Liberals or Conservatives. All that was necessary for workers was to understand the solidarity of their class. [9]

It did not occur to the syndicalists that anyone who was a Conservative might find it difficult to conceive of working-class solidarity except with hostility. On trade union issues the League saw clearly that the existing unions were bogged down by years of conciliation and bureaucratic domination. They directed their fire principally against the sectionalism of the craft unions and the disunity in action that this could lead to. However there was no underlying analysis of why trade unionism had got into this position, nor of the role of the union officials. The nearest the League came to an analysis was this offering from Mann:

The unions came into existence by means of men who were partially class-conscious only, and they are composed now of men who are partly class-conscious only. But they are truly representative of the men, and can be moulded by the men into exactly what the men desire ... And I am for moulding all the organisations ... We should not say we will have nothing to do with the old organisations. [10]

Another major strand in syndicalism before the First World War was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). Founded in 1903 as a breakaway from the SDF, it too was marred by sectarianism. It took an even harsher line than the SDF towards involvement in the struggle for reforms:

The hope of the British proletariat lies in the decay and death of trade unionism, the death of the Labour Party and reformist socialism, and in the birth and growth of Industrial Unionism and the development of a revolutionary political party of socialism. [11]

The Socialist Labour Party took its line from the American socialist Daniel de Leon. Having seen American business unionism at close hand, de Leon called the trade union officials the ‘labour lieutenants of capital’. The SLP saw their task as dual in nature. The political party was to destroy the offensive power of the state. But the most important job fell to industrial unions which were to seize control of production from the bosses and institute socialism. They judged that the existing unions could not be adapted for such a task, and while SLP members usually worked within these, they hoped to construct completely new revolutionary unions to take their place. Repeated attempts at forming such industrial unions failed miserably, since their rivals were powerful and well-established.

The SLP clearly recognised the problem of sectionalism and bureaucracy within the trade unions. They sought to wish these difficulties away by setting up their own incorruptible versions. But in Britain, where the best section of the working class was still found in the established trade unions, despite all their failings, this strategy was a sectarian non-starter. During the First World War, however, a number of SLP members were to transform their outlook and take a lead in mass struggles, so that by 1920 this tiny party brought to the Communist Party some of its finest working class leaders.

To sum up the situation in Britain before 1914, the official Marxist position on the trade unions was abstentionist. By accepting the narrow sectional definition of trade union struggles put forward by the bureaucrats, the BSP implicitly accepted the domination of these bureaucrats over the unions. The main syndicalist currents, on the other hand, offered a demand for bigger and better trade unions, or an appeal for new revolutionary unions in conditions where such a call was doomed to failure.

The disease of reformism had taken its toll on the British revolutionary movement. Although its members were dedicated and courageous, and many syndicalists showed tremendous skills in leading day-to-day struggle, they were crippled by political feebleness. The official Marxists were equally impotent when it came to genuine workers’ movements.

The crisis of wartime, however, was to create a totally new situation which offered greater potential for recovery and growth than ever before.


1. Quoted in H. Collins, The Marxism of the Social-Democratic Federation, in A. Briggs and J. Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History, 1886–1923 (London 1971), p. 55.

2. Cliff, Lenin, vol. 4, p. 80.

3. T. Rothstein, quoted in W. Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain (London 1969), p. 12.

4. Vanguard, publication of the Scottish area of the British Socialist Party, July 1913.

5. Proceedings of the Socialist Unity Conference, 30 September and 1 October 1911 (no date or place of publication given). p. 18.

6. Socialist Unity Conference, page 12.

7. The Industrial Syndicalist, December 1910 (reprinted with an introduction by G. Brown, Nottingham 1974).

8. Industrial Syndicalist, July 1910.

9. A.G. Tufton, speaking at the Industrial Syndicalist Education League’s founding conference, Industrial Syndicalist, December 1910.

10. Industrial Syndicalist, December 1910.

11. The Socialist, March 1910.

Last updated on 14 August 2014