Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Six:
Two rank-and-file movements

DURING the First World War a militant rank-and-file movement rose among the engineers, traditionally regarded as archetypical labour aristocrats. This was an ‘engineers’ war’, and as producers of vital munitions they had real bargaining power.

There was one factor which prevented engineering union officials from containing militancy in the same way as they had done before the war. The output of armaments in ever greater quantities required the lifting of all restrictions on production, and use of new machinery and work methods, and above all the employment of untrained youth and women on work formerly handled only by craftsmen. This last change was called ‘dilution’. To lead an effective fight against such trends the union leaders would have had to call massive strikes and virtually sabotage the supply of arms ‘to the boys in the trenches’. This they were not prepared to consider.

The engineering union bureaucrats could choose whether or not to struggle. But engineers in the workshops could not. By withholding the strike weapon the officials had given the green light to an employers’ offensive against all the customs and practices that engineers had painstakingly built up to make life a little more bearable under capitalism. Labour aristocrats they certainly had been, with better pay and conditions than many other workers. But now they were forced to fight and in so doing to take the lead in working-class struggle.

The officials had abandoned the membership. There was no alternative but to create an unofficial movement. Based on shop stewards, this came to challenge traditional trade unionism in a way even more fundamental than syndicalism. The first steps towards independent shop stewards’ organisation came in February 1915 when Clydeside stewards led an unofficial strike of 10,000 engineers for a twopence-an-hour rise. The leadership of the strike came to form the Clyde Workers’ Committee, which during Christmas 1915 was involved in a battle over the terms by which dilution would be carried out. The government fought back and broke up the committee, arresting its leaders and dispersing them around the country. The following year Sheffield set up a Workers’ Committee, and by 1917 a national organisation was in existence capable of leading 200,000 workers on unofficial strike. Independent stewards’ organisation existed in enough centres for national conferences to be held and a national administrative committee established to link them together.

Syndicalism had, for all its boundless militant energy, remained within the framework of unionism. The shop stewards’ movement represented something more. It consisted of assemblies of delegates elected directly from the rank and file on the shopfloor. Regardless of the particular union they were in, or who their employer was, they met together to represent the interests of all the engineers in the local area. In the days when bosses offered no perks, no offices, no facility time to their stewards, but only the threat of the blacklist, these delegates were the direct voice of the rank and file. They spent their time working alongside the people who elected them and experienced the same pressures. Unlike the officials, they were subject to recall should they cease to be representative of the members’ wishes, and received no special wages for their work.

The trade union members provided the base of the movement, for organised workers were the only source of collective strength. Shop stewards were also the lowest rung of the union machinery and still had the task of taking subscriptions. Nevertheless when they came together to form ‘workers’ committees’ they were not simply gingering up the union apparatus. Theirs was not an attempt to control the bureaucracy from below, nor an attempt to set up a pure revolutionary union in opposition to the established bodies. The movement’s attitude to the officials was deceptively simple and was summed up by the Clyde Workers’ Committee’s first leaflet, which we have already cited:

We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file. [1]

The claim to be able to ‘act independently’ and ‘immediately’ was no idle boast. The 200–300 stewards who met together every Sunday on Clydeside united the collective power of thousands of engineers. They had shown their influence in the February 1915 strike and were to do so in several victimisation cases soon afterwards.

The Sheffield Workers’ Committee, the most powerful of the English shop stewards’ bodies, was equally effective. Unofficial action began during November 1916 in defence of a young engineer named Leonard Hargreaves. He had been called up for military service in spite of the exemption engineers had enjoyed till this time. The Sheffield stewards issued an ultimatum to the government setting a deadline for Hargreaves’ return. As J.T. Murphy, then the leading Sheffield steward, recounted:

There were not less than two hundred shop stewards waiting for the stroke of four on this eventful day. Standing outside the Institute was a fleet of motor cycles with the cyclist shop stewards ready to be despatched to the engineering centres ... Four o’clock came. The government had not replied. The strike was called ... At five o’clock the strike was complete. Ten thousand skilled workers walked out of the factories. Then the government got busy with the telegraph wires ... The third day of the strike saw the capitulation of the government. [2]

The militants who organised such strike action in the middle of world war were socialists and for the most part revolutionaries. Only they dared to lead action that might disrupt the flow of arms. Before the war they had built up a tradition of rank-and-file action and initiative capable of withstanding the combined political and economic attack of government, police, courts, Labour Party and trade union leaders.

With the state and private capital working hand in hand it was possible to show many workers that there was a link between the changes workers were suffering in industry and the political aims of capitalism at home and abroad. There was the chance that economic grievances might be harnessed to a political challenge to the bosses and the state – through a revolutionary party. At the same time, with union leaders openly siding with the bosses, there was a good opportunity to overcome the obstruction formed by the union bureaucracy – by showing that the rank and file could only trust to their own collective strength and independent organisation.

All these possibilities were latent in the wartime situation, as was demonstrated in Germany. There a distinct revolutionary party was gradually to take shape, and out of this the mass Communist Party of the 1920s was to grow. Concurrent with this, engineering stewards’ organisation in Berlin became the prototype for a workers’ council movement that united the class, brushed the reformist bureaucrats aside and directly threatened state power.

For British revolutionaries to realise the full potential of the times they had to be clear about their tasks. Alas, as we have seen, the tradition of separating politics and economics, typified by the mutual hostility of ‘state socialists’ and syndicalists, left them ill-prepared. Individual socialists in the engineering workshops moulded workers’ militancy into an independent mass movement. But as yet no one had a theoretical grasp of how to connect socialist politics and industrial agitation. The shop stewards’ leaders were still in the habit of treating politics as something external to the factories and shopfloor unrest as simply an economic issue.

Jack Murphy, who led the Sheffield Workers’ Committee, was typical. As a member of the SLP he was committed to opposing the war and to the overthrow of the state that prosecuted it. But one could never have guessed this from his writings for the wartime stewards’ movement. Its best-known publication was Murphy’s The Workers’ Committee, a widely-read pamphlet of 1917. This contained a carefully thought-out plan for a national network of stewards’ organisations that would rise up as a rank-and-file alternative to the officials, an important development on the strategy of pre-war syndicalism. Yet in the pamphlet there was absolutely no discussion of the war. Doubtless Murphy was right to point out that:

None of the strikes which took place during the course of the war were anti-war strikes. They were frequently led by men like myself who wanted to stop the war, but that was not the real motive. Had the question of stopping the war been put to any strikers’ meeting it would have been overwhelmingly defeated. [3]

Skilled engineers would not automatically dissociate themselves from nationalist ideas or labour aristocratic pride. But if anything opened the way for arguments in that direction it was the extreme situation of the war and the abject failure of traditional reformism to defend workers’ wages and conditions in the face of an all-out attack by the state.

Murphy, Gallacher and the other leading stewards showed great talent in pioneering a mass movement which, for the first time, posed an organised alternative to official methods. But further progress depended on political leadership – the knitting together of that minority who through their experiences had come to understand the system as a whole – in other words it depended on building a revolutionary party. But this was not done. Gallacher, for example, might speak on anti-war platforms at the weekend, but at work he saw himself as a steward, a spokesman for rank-and-file opinion at a time when the majority were generally not against the war.

Even in terms of a healthy rank-and-file movement, political leadership was essential for long-term success. Take the question of craft sectionalism, which was under attack through the government’s promotion of ‘dilution’. Gluckstein has written elsewhere:

From their strong bargaining position, metalworkers could fight this in two different ways: either as a threat to the privileges of the elite of skilled men, or as the first phase of a war against the hard-won rights of all trade unionists. [4]

The elitist argument might mobilise the engineers’ sectional strength and delay defeat for the duration of the war, but once exceptional conditions ceased to operate in the industry, the ruling-class attack would be redoubled. The only hope for a successful long-term resistance lay in generating a class-wide agitation for militant trade unionism.

May 1917 saw the biggest strike of the war. It came after three years of mindless slaughter and the February revolution in Russia. The 200,000 engineers who stayed out for three weeks followed the lead of the national shop stewards’ movement. The strike was sparked off by the spread of dilution to work unconnected with the war effort. The issue was not that workers should refuse to sacrifice themselves to aid imperialist war, but whether a few private firms could join the profit-making jamboree. No one but skilled engineers were directly concerned and when the unofficial leaders were jailed the strike crumbled.

An opportunity to link politics and mass militancy came in early 1918. The Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, and withdrawn from the war. It was at this very point in time that the British army began baying for yet more men and insisting on wider powers of conscription. The stewards’ national administrative council put an ultimatum to the government demanding it scrap the new conscription laws and consider the Bolshevik peace proposals. But the threat of action was undermined by political confusion. Solidarity, the paper of the English stewards, carried the ultimatum in its columns, but the same issue stated:

If only we could be certain that the German workers would follow suit, we would have no hesitation in calling for an immediate policy of ‘down tools and damn the consequences’. But we are not in touch with our fellow workers in Germany ... It may be that the German workers would be willing to do the bidding of their warlords ... by attempting to invade these islands. In which case, they would get the surprise of their lives. [5]

With such weak leadership coming from their own newspapers, it was no surprise that the rank and file hardly responded with enthusiasm to suggestions for a strike. In the end the same weaknesses that defeated the Clyde strategy against dilution – the lack of a consistently revolutionary party and the habit of divorcing workplace issues from political ones – wrecked the chances of a strike against conscription.

Tragically, at the very moment Solidarity voiced its fear of German workers, 400,000 German engineers struck against the war, only to find themselves isolated internationally.

The refusal of Solidarity to extend its spirit beyond the shores of Britain came directly from the syndicalist split between politics and economics. Because the stewards failed to link the fight in the workshops to wider political questions it meant they were able to maintain militancy on workshop issues, but, by default of a political fight, bourgeois ideas prevailed. So instead of a strike for workers’ unity on an international scale many skilled engineers took up the labour aristocratic chant: ‘Don’t take me, I’m in the ASE’ (meaning the Amalgamated Society of Engineers).

The lack of a clear revolutionary leadership condemned the stewards’ movement to sectionalism in another way – by restricting their activity to the engineering industry.

These were not the only problems. The central body of the movement was never designed to give leadership. It was only established after much opposition during a 1917 conference of stewards:

Finally, G. Peet set the conference at its ease by assuring it that the national committee would be ‘an administrative committee’ and not an executive committee and all matters would be referred to the rank and file. This was confirmed by the perambulating title of the national committee, which was ‘The National Administrative Council of the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committees’. Thus the first national committee was formed, but held theories which prevented it from giving the leadership which the movement needed. [6]

This attitude to leadership was not an aberration on the part of a few prominent stewards, but a function of the rejection of politics, the element which could fuse a minority of the class who held revolutionary ideals into a party capable of suggesting initiatives to guide the struggle of the masses. The stewards understood neither the leading political role of a revolutionary party, nor its ability to guide the immediate industrial struggle of a rank-and-file movement.

Thus one of the main weaknesses of the engineering shop stewards’ movement was its opposition to all leaderships – whether from official or unofficial sources. Murphy wrote: ‘It matters little to us whether leaders be official or unofficial, so long as they sway the mass, little thinking is done by the mass.’ [7] The point was underlined by an article he wrote in Solidarity:

... one of the first principles of the shop stewards’ movement and workers’ committees, they obey the instructions of the rank and file and not vice versa. This repudiates the charge of the press and those good clear-thinking people who refer to those wicked shop stewards who bring men out on strike. Shop stewards do not ‘bring’ men out on strike, the shop stewards’ duties do not involve ‘leadership’. As a matter of fact the whole movement is a repudiation of ‘leadership’. [8]

Of course the wartime shop stewards were ‘guilty’ of leadership. However, the syndicalist blindness to politics in the grand sense also hid from the stewards the leading roles they themselves took in raising self-confidence among the rank and file. For it was leadership that they gave when they suggested initiatives which involved the broadest numbers or mobilised workshops in direct action. This was not comparable with bureaucratic authoritarianism or the pursuit of parliamentary careers, but it was a form of leadership nonetheless.

There was another unofficial movement at work at this time. It was centred in the mining valleys of South Wales and took the form of what we today call a ‘broad left’. It too was influenced by syndicalism, but operated in very different conditions from those of the engineers. The contrast between the two movements is instructive.

Mining trade unionism was based on the unity of the workplace, the community and the collective organisation, since the colliery, the union lodge, and the pit village were all found in the same location. Thus the nature of the industry discouraged the division into skilled and unskilled trade unionism that was found in engineering. Most organised coalminers were members of one body, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB). The engineering industry, by contrast, had more than 200 unions. [9] The unit of organisation of these numerous unions tended to be the geographical branch, not the workplace. This was because many members were in small workshops scattered over wide areas, and because each union organised just a section of the workforce in any one factory.

In mining, because there was no split between workplace and union branch, the grievances of the rank and file tended to be channelled directly into the official machinery, as were the efforts of militants. While this situation allowed for greater rank-and-file influence within the union, it inhibited rank-and-file action independent of it.

In engineering the union branch was poorly attended and bore little relation to the immediate concerns of the workplace. These were more effectively dealt with by shop stewards who, for much of the time, had to operate independently of the official structure in order to represent workers on day-to-day issues.

In engineering solidarity meant cutting across the sectional divides between skills and between factories. Miners were still organisationally separated from workers in other unions, but the MFGB was a very large section indeed, and solidarity in the pit was automatically translated into an effort to transform the lodge and district union. None were as skilful in this as the South Wales miners.

As early as 1911 the pit militants could claim a major success. By putting pressure on the machinery of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), they were able to dictate the manifesto by which the union campaigned for the fight for a national minimum wage. They could therefore claim some credit for the 1912 national miners’ strike which followed.

The militant miners were organised in an Unofficial Reform Committee (URC) established in May 1911. lts title tells us it was committed to reform of the union. Certainly this reform was from below, with the maximum mass pressure of the rank and file, but it was still reform of the union machine, not an alternative to it.

The most important publication of the URC was the famous pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step (1912), which proposed rank-and-file action and control as a counter to bureaucracy.

The Miners’ Next Step was subtitled ‘A Suggested Scheme for the Reorganisation of the Federation’ in South Wales. It stated that ‘the cornerstone of the whole scheme’ was ‘real democratic organisation’. Traditional trade unionism was to be turned upside down, with the rank and file in total control of the official structure.

  1. The lodges have supreme control – All the initiative for new proposals, policies and tactics, remains with the lodge. Nothing becomes law in the organisation unless it receives the sanction of the lodges, or a ballot vote of the coalfield.
  2. The executive becomes unofficial – As has been shown before, democracy becomes impossible, when officials or leaders dominate. For this reason they are excluded from all power on the executive, which becomes a purely administrative body; comprised of men directly elected by the men for that purpose.
  3. Agents or organisers become the servants of the men, directly under the control of the executive, and indirectly under the control of the men. [10]

From the same ideological starting point – syndicalism – the authors of The Miners’ Next Step had drawn different conclusions from those of the engineering militants.

Murphy’s pamphlet, The Workers’ Committee, was the clearest exposition of the engineering stewards’ movement. It put forward a complete national structure in competition with the authority of the existing unions. Such a position was logical for stewards faced with the multiplicity of engineering unions and their craft jealousies, just as the URC’s ideas were logical in terms of the mining industry and union.

Because The Workers’ Committee proposed a separate structure to the official apparatus, it had to be concerned with its own special forms of organisation. This had to embody a mass rebellion against the full-time officials and against union constitutionalism, since both of these reinforced sectionalism in the industry and crippled the workers’ fighting strength.

For the URC, on the other hand, the centre of their work was the miners’ union constitution, and how it could be improved to give full control from below. The strongest organising force was held to be the union itself. Of course, to function as an agitational current at all, the Unofficial Reform Committee had to hold meetings. The production and distribution of propaganda required some sort of limited centralisation, but the level of organisation could afford to be low, since the intention was not to substitute for the union, but to improve the union’s effectiveness. The internal life of the lodge, regional and national conferences were the real arena for URC militants.

A remarkably loose attitude to self-organisation ran right through the history of the Unofficial Reform Committee until the formation of the Miners’ Minority Movement in the early 1920s. Indeed to give a single name to the current of South Wales militancy is a distortion of the truth. In his excellent history of the movement, Mike Woodhouse has discovered a perplexing variety of titles under which the militants could be found to operate. [11] What was common to all of them was a belief in collective organisation as represented by the mass membership of the miners’ union, rather than any belief in the value of a separate organisation of militants.

The initial network of contacts seems to have been formed under the auspices of the Plebs League, a body that ran educational classes and was strongly syndicalist in its ideas. The Plebs League and its parent body, the Central Labour College, provided just the sort of loose discussion group atmosphere in which the unofficial movement could operate effectively and the URC returned to this form of link-up many times when more solid organisations crumbled away. The Unofficial Reform Committee itself followed in the wake of a strike at the pits of the Cambrian Combine, and it was the URC that published The Miners’ Next Step in 1911. A year later the militants were associated with the Rhondda Socialist Society, again a broad-based group in which a variety of opinions could be aired. Expansion in influence led to the South Wales Worker League in 1913. At the end of the year, contact with Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist Education League encouraged the formation of a Trade Union Reform League, soon renamed the Industrial Democracy League.

Even the war could not put a stop to the breakneck turnover in organisation and name. In 1915 a new body called the Pioneer League emerged to provide the necessary links. Then there was a gap until 1917 when a new revival took place, this time through Central Labour College classes. Two years later came the South Wales Socialist Society, and an expanded version of The Miners’ Next Step was published by its ‘Industrial Committee’.

This list is not advanced for pedantic reasons, but to show how little importance the URC militants attached to firm organisation outside the local union. It will be noted that most of the above names refer directly to South Wales. As long as the issues confronting mining trade unionism could be fought on regional lines (with occasional sorties on to the national stage, such as during the minimum wage campaign of 1911–12) there seemed little need for anything but a local network. The concept of a revolutionary party was ignored, as was the need for strong and independent rank-and-file organisation. URC supporters believed that what was needed was merely a link between militants, a propaganda outlet (most of these organisations produced their own newspapers – The Rhondda Socialist, South Wales Worker, Pioneer) and a room to meet. Anything as formal as membership cards or rigid constitutions simply did not seem worthy of consideration. As Woodhouse puts it:

The organisation of the URC was consequently of the loosest form. W.H. Mainwaring kept a book of about 200 addresses of contacts in South Wales, and in the MFGB generally, and it was through these that The Miners’ Next Step ... was distributed and the particular policies of the URC on specific issues taken into the lodges. [12]

That was in 1911. But ten years later, despite a series of major victories in shaping local and national miners’ union policies, nothing had changed. Hewlett, a current URC leader, had to explain the folio wing to the Scottish engineers, with their tradition of strong self-organisation through Workers’ Committees:

I know there is an idea abroad that South Wales is covered by a network of Unofficial Committees. This is not so. In fact, there is no permanent unofficial organisation in the coalfield. What does happen when it is necessary, is that the advanced or rebel element does meet and discuss matters, arrive at decisions, then goes back to their respective pit committees and lodges, put their views forward, have them thoroughly discussed, and if their opinions are accepted the delegates to the councils and conferences are instructed accordingly. [13]

At the base URC militants were linked with the daily struggles of the rank-and-file miners, which they channelled into the union for action. It was this that kept the unofficial movement alive through an extraordinary succession of events stretching from the Labour Unrest to the General Strike and right into the 1930s. This lifeblood flowed as long as these syndicalists maintained contact with each other and expressed the needs of the rank and file in struggle.

The URC was therefore deeply affected by the rhythm of unrest which, like human breathing, lifted the movement up and down ceaselessly.

Another factor reinforced this oscillation. The URC was not a one-way channel. It was influenced directly by the rank and file, but because of its orientation on reform of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, it was also influenced from the top downwards. If the aim is to reform an organisation then concessions from above have to be applauded. If the aim is to cajole officials into adopting a certain course, then good behaviour must be rewarded by relief of pressure. This meant that unofficial agitation was switched on or off depending on the current posture of the local union bureaucrats.

A brief survey of URC agitation brings these influences out clearly. In 1912 distribution of The Miners’ Next Step, and the union reform campaign that went with it, were halted for fear of disturbing negotiators during the minimum wage campaign. As the local press put it:

someone seems to have thought that publication of the scheme at this moment of crisis and negotiation was inopportune and likely to prove embarrassing. They hold that the minimum wage must be made secure before the conspiracy can be developed. [14]

The settlement that followed and the boom conditions of 1913 led to a collapse in URC activity after its promising start. The South Wales Worker is quoted as complaining:

The Rhondda during the past year has been a place of the dead ... so far as any public activity is concerned. No indication has been evident in the Rhondda of the seething unrest in the outer world. [15]

Yet the Rhondda was the core of the URC influence. The same year official acceptance of much of the unofficial programme dealing with the unifying of wage rates led to further passivity among the organised militants. Why organise separately if the union is carrying out the reforms demanded?

Both engineering and mining activists rejected the idea of leadership. While this was mistaken insofar as it meant denial of a role for revolutionary political leadership, the blanket condemnation was prompted by a thoroughly healthy abhorrence of trade union bureaucrats and parliamentary politicians.

Nevertheless there was a big difference between the miners’ aim of reforming officialdom and the engineers’ attempts to bypass it.

The Miners’ Next Step implied a certain strategy. If the scheme was adopted it could hardly be left to its opponents to carry it out. Working to take over and reorganise the union meant inevitably taking official positions at some point. While the Socialist Labour Party had placed an absolute ban on accepting union positions, the URC was, despite its fear of ‘leaders’, quite ready to put its best elements forward. As early as 1911 Rees and Ablett of the URC won places on the South Wales executive. Many others with even more famous names were to follow the same path. Thus Frank Hodges – who, as leader of the miners, contributed to the infamous sell-out on Black Friday alone with Jimmy Thomas and Robert Williams – began his career identified with the URC.

The entire history of the URC was one of constant friction between the younger generation of militants fresh from the collieries and those who, pursuing the aim of reorganisation, had gone into the official apparatus. The first evidence of hostility between the new and old militants came in 1914, when Ablett and other URC nominees on the South Wales executive were attacked by one militant in these terms:

They were pledged to abstain from supporting reactionary policies; they were not to take part in the administration of such policies; they were to keep revolutionary policies and militant programmes to the fore; they were to force the executive committee to take action along the lines laid down by the militant section of the coalfield. Have they done this? Unhesitatingly we answer ‘No’. They have ceased to be revolutionary except in words. [16]

Four years later George Dolling and Nat Watkins, soon to be prominent in the Miners’ Minority Movement, returned to the attack after a new attempt to revive the URC had failed. Their criticism laid bare one important reason for this failure:

Today there are those in the socialist ranks who, having grown respectable and law-abiding, act the part of the puppy dogs of capitalism.

Addressing the old leaders of the URC, they went on:

from you we expect better things. Act and live up to it by writing a line of encouragement so that this work may go on ... We write believing that amongst the number which comprised the URC there must be quite a lot who, like ourselves, are dissatisfied with the present state of affairs ... we ought to be a ‘Ginger Group’ constantly attempting to galvanise the executive committee into life, and focussing their efforts in the direction of our programme. [17]

But the old ‘ginger’ method had never been fully effective. The process of degeneration and rebirth was built into the method of the URC. Rank-and-file agitation was bound to throw up new and vigorous forces, but exclusive emphasis on reforming the union creamed off the best of them, and isolated them from their base.

A trade union official’s origins in an unofficial movement could not give a lifetime inoculation against the disease of bureaucracy. The falling away of direct links with the rank and file, addressing them from platforms rather than working alongside them and sharing the common experience, had its effect. The URC’s candidates inevitably were drawn into official ways of thinking after holding senior positions for some time.

The URC was a channel upwards for rank-and-file grievances, but it was also an escalator which carried the best militants up the structure of the union and dropped them into the bureaucratic mire when they reached the top. In a situation of mass reformism no other fate was possible for trade union officials out of reach of the politics and discipline of a revolutionary party.

Although the Unofficial Reform Committee was in favour of organisation and action separate from the official machine, unofficial strikes were never treated as an alternative to official ones. The URC itself organised countless unofficial actions, large and small, but apart from their immediate objective, the URC leaders saw them primarily as a means of shifting the officials in the right direction. They were not valued for themselves as evidence of rank-and-file self-reliance.

The Unofficial Reform Committee’s attitude meant that strike committees never took on a permanent existence apart from the lodge, in the way that engineering strike organisations had done. Thus the miners never developed their own workers’ committees.

Like the engineering shop stewards’ movement, the Unofficial Reform Committee was vague in its politics. It was felt that maximum unity to win official action on immediate issues was more important than the broader, more hotly disputed questions of the time. This attitude ran right through the various organisations which the Unofficial Reform Committee inhabited outside the official apparatus. It was well illustrated by The Rhondda Socialist, one of the URC’s temporary mouthpieces. When the paper was accused of being a ‘jumble of Syndicalism, Labourism and Socialism’, its editor replied:

Now there are various ‘schools of thought’ in the socialist movement ... But we are, as socialists, all united for one objective – we all desire to abolish capitalism and establish the socialist state ... Naturally we differ as to the best means of bringing it about. [18]

When the war broke out the political weakness of the Unofficial Reform Committee led to its complete paralysis. Not that there were no serious industrial disputes in the South Wales coalfields: in July 1915 and again in 1918 there was considerable unrest among miners, but in neither did the URC play a significant role.

The main cause of the paralysis that afflicted the Unofficial Reform Committee was the split in its ranks regarding its attitude to the war. Noah Rees, Frank Hodges and Will John, members of the South Wales miners’ executive, supported the war and participated in the recruitment drive. George Barker and Tom Smith, two of the closest supporters of the URC, did likewise, only moving to a position more critical of the war towards its end. Even Ablett, known for his radical views, made no ‘unambiguous statement of opposition to the war until 1917; indeed he advanced as a reason for accepting the Lloyd George terms [of July 1915] the need to assist the war effort.’ [19]

However things changed when the miners’ exemption from conscription was lifted in early 1917. The War Office began a ‘comb-out’ of unskilled men and in April the situation on the Western Front led it to step up its requirements. By early 1918 the miners were facing the same pressure for conscription as the engineers, with the government asking for 50,000 soldiers and 50,000 reserves. [20] But the revolutionary socialist current in South Wales was even weaker than in engineering, and when the Unofficial Reform Committee got around to raising the war issue it was most influenced by the policies of the Independent Labour Party.

The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was a thoroughly reformist party which rejected Marxist ideas of class war and preached a sort of ‘ethical socialism’. It was led by Ramsay MacDonald, who was a pacifist. But the tenor of his pacifism can be judged from the following quotation. Though he disliked war, he feared even more that strike action might disrupt its continuation:

under the present circumstances and during a war, purely industrial strikes have no connection with ILP policy ... They belong purely to the wage-earners’ industrial policy, and appeal far more directly to the materialised sentiments to which the war party trusts for working-class acquiescence than to the political and spiritual outlook of the ILP. [21]

Despite its shortcomings, when rank-and-file miners felt dissatisfied or union officials buckled under pressure from the employers, the Unofficial Reform Committee proved itself a superb fighting mechanism, because it was so deeply rooted in South Wales miners’ collective organisation. Like the shop stewards, this movement showed the potential for self-activity and mass struggle on the part of the rank and file.

The unofficial movements in engineering and mining were children of syndicalism. The similarities between them were great – industrial militancy, reliance on the rank and file, but also weakness of politics, looseness of organisation, and an inability to overcome the narrow horizon of their specific industry.

The shop stewards’ movement and Unofficial Reform Committee co-existed in time, but they never blended. Each retained very different approaches to trade unionism. Yet in spite of this they both held important lessons for revolutionary work in all trade unions.

The stewards’ independent rank-and-file movement fitted best where there was a self-confident workplace organisation which could be spurred into self-activity. The miners’ URC was appropriate when struggle was limited to official trade unionism. It embodied the very best of what a ‘broad left’ had to offer. Though, like all broad lefts, the Unofficial Reform Committee suffered from the constant influence of the trade union machine, it often proved invaluable in channelling rank -and-file initiatives.

The two movements were able to weaken the hold of bureaucracy by their intervention. Though different, together they offered a manual for effective revolutionary activity in trade unions. But to use these lessons to the full, a strong revolutionary party was essential.

Left to themselves both movements were pregnant with dangers. Without the guidance of a Marxist party with roots in a number of industries and areas, the stewards’ movement was easily isolated and smashed once the forces of the officials and government were freed from the constraints of war. The shop stewards’ concept of workers’ committees, when applied in unfavourable post-war conditions, led to a propagandist dead-end. In Scotland, for example, ‘social soviets’ were set up which pretended to be rank-and-file bodies when the real ones had disappeared. The URC’s method, on the other hand, resulted in successive generations of workers’ leaders being turned into bureaucrats, while the rank and file were all too often tied to official structures.

Only a revolutionary party could analyse the changing needs of each period, generalise from the different outlooks born of separate industries, and cure the blindness to politics. Industrial agitation had to be made part of a broader strategy for winning working-class power before it could achieve permanent results. The two unofficial movements could arouse mass action, but could not provide the necessary political leadership for it.


1. Beveridge Collection, section 3, item 5.

2. J.T. Murphy, Preparing for Power (London 1972), pp. 129–130.

3. J.T. Murphy, New Horizons (London 1941), p. 44.

4. Donny Gluckstein, The Western Soviets (London 1985), p. 70.

5. Solidarity, February 1918.

6. Murphy, Preparing for Power, pp. 152–3.

7. Murphy, The Workers’ Committee (London 1972), p. 14.

8. Solidarity, July 1917.

9. For details of the structure of engineering trade unionism, see B. Pribicevic, The Shop Stewards and Workers’ Control (Oxford 1959), p. 27.

10. The Miners’ Next Step (London 1973), p. 26.

11. M.G. Woodhouse, Rank and File Movements among the workers of South Wales, 1910–26 (Oxford PhD thesis, 1969).

12. Woodhouse, p. 76.

13. The Worker, 4 September 1920.

14. Glamorgan Free Press, 1 March 1912, quoted in Woodhouse, p. 82.

15. South Wales Worker, 10 January 1914, quoted in Woodhouse, p. 95.

16. South Wales Worker, 13 June 1914, quoted in Woodhouse, p. 112.

17. The Pioneer, 13 July 1918, quoted in Woodhouse, p. 149.

18. Rhondda Socialist, 1 May 1912, quoted in Woodhouse, p. 74.

19. Woodhouse, p. 142.

20. Labour Leader, 10 October 1918.

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

Last updated on 14 August 2014