Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Nine:
The Minority Movement

IN JANUARY 1921 a British Bureau of the Red International of Labour Unions was established. To carry its propaganda the Bureau took over from the Glasgow Shop Stewards’ Movement the journal The Worker, then from the beginning of 1922 published a monthly magazine titled All Power.

In the summer of 1922 the British Bureau of RILU, which worked as the chief industrial arm of the Communist Party at that time, organised a number of regional conferences around the theme ‘Back to the Unions’ and ‘Stop the Retreat’. They could not have been more timely. The haemorrhaging of union membership continued unabated, and in 1922 alone one-fifth of all union members quit.

The London conference, held on 23 September 1922, was attended by 300 delegates, who represented 176 trades councils and trade union branches. Resolutions were adopted on the fight to defend wages, to resist the lengthening of working hours, and on workshop rights and conditions. Similar conferences were held at Birmingham, Sheffield and Cardiff. These conferences had an aggregate attendance of 905 delegates, those from trade union branches representing 166,800 workers, and those from trades councils and district committees representing a membership of 851,840. Thus the Communist Party claimed 1,018,645 workers were represented at these rallies around the militant slogans of the British Bureau of RILU. [1] RILU’s peculiar method of accounting ignored the difference between revolutionary political organisations (where numbers represent an accurate assessment of committed activists) and elections of delegates through trade union channels (where bloc votes must be measured against the level of rank-and-file involvement).

Clearly it was an achievement to gather an important section of union stalwarts together to discuss stopping the retreat, but to be realistic in taking the campaign forward a proper estimate of forces had to be made. The Communist Party came to hold a distorted view of its own influence because it accepted bureaucratic methods of calculating strength in the class.

Under the initiative of the Bureau, a number of new organisations began to develop in particular industries. The most important was the Miners’ Minority Movement which started in South Wales. Even before the Minority Movement initiative, RILU had drawn its only mass support from the miners. Thus at the Blackpool conference of the MFGB in 1922 more than 118,000 votes were cast for affiliating to RILU in the name of the South Wales miners. [2]

The Miners’ Minority Movement established in South Wales was not a rank-and-file organisation. As Murphy explained:

It is not a question here, be it noted, of setting up a rival organisation. It is one of calling to officials and the rank and file alike to present a United Front against the capitalist offensive. [3]

This was an accurate description of the way the MMM took shape in South Wales. Its first public pronouncement was signed by a number of leading officials including Noah Ablett and Arthur (A.J.) Cook. It is quite likely that the gathering of such prestigious signatures was the only means of getting an unofficial revival off the ground in the tough conditions of the time. One correspondent in Scotland explained the problem:

In several of the collieries extreme difficulty is being experienced in finding men who are prepared to accept responsibility of local branch offices or to act on pit committees ... A deliberate line of policy ... is also badly required. [4]

In such a situation it was correct to assume, as the sponsors of the MMM did, that:

the rank and file at the pits dare not, for fear of victimisation, express themselves ... [but] conditions have forced men to think, and in every district an MM is being formed, this time with the help of full-time officials, who cannot be victimised by the powerful coal magnates. [5]

Soon after the miners came the Metalworkers’ Minority Movement, which was announced in the October 1922 All Power. It presented a programme of demands including:

Under the heading ‘Union Reorganisation’, the programme called for

joint committees [to] be formed with district committees and branches of other unions in the industry, in conjunction with the RILU to initiate an amalgamation campaign to secure ‘One union for the industry’. [6]

Such programmes were to be drawn up for each of the various Minority Movements which emerged in industries ranging from engineering and shipbuilding to transport, building, the railways and vehicle-building.

A fundamental weakness of the Minority Movement was the fact that the shop stewards’ organisation was now a shadow of its past self. This is evident if we look at the working of a local Minority Movement organisation such as the Coventry branch. [7] Its detailed minutes show that the branch was based on groups in the following organisations: Amalgamated Engineering Union, Workers’ Union, National Union of Vehicle Builders, United Patternmakers Association, Building Trades, Miscellaneous Engineering, Stoke Heath Women’s Guild, and the trades council. It seems that these were informal caucuses which met mainly to prepare for intervention at the branch meetings of these various bodies. Interestingly, there were no specific issues that were taken up for campaigning by the entire Coventry Minority Movement in the mid-1920s.

Aggregate meetings of the Coventry Minority Movement branch were held approximately monthly with roughly 20 to 40 people in attendance, and district committees occurred every other fortnight with some 12 to 20 attending. In the first three months of its existence there were two references to strikes or mass meetings. The minutes of the first meeting, on 25 November 1925, mention a report of a mass meeting of corporation workers protesting against the ‘attitude of municipal authorities in relation to superannuation scheme’, but no action was recommended for Minority Movement members. Then on 24 February 1926 we find a reference to a dispute involving the Musicians’ Union and that 12 comrades volunteered from the meeting to attend the picket. There is then a gap for three years and two months without a single mention of a strike – except for the General Strike and miners’ struggle which followed.

It is important to note that the secretary, a comrade Stokes, appears to have been a careful and prolific minute-taker (1,000 words per meeting on average) so the failure of the minutes to mention strikes carries some weight – it is not simply an omission.

So if the Coventry Minority Movement largely ignored strikes, what then did its members do? Partly they involved themselves in propaganda work. At various times they laid special emphasis on sale of The Worker. A certain amount of effort went into single-issue campaigns such as a ‘Free Speech Committee’ and a Back to the Unions Campaign Committee. An important area of work – indeed the very basis of the National Minority Movement – was in gaining official trade union support through winning affiliations from union branches. During the years that strikes were ignored, the Coventry Minority Movement members still found time to discuss the Co-op elections, in October 1926 announcing that three of their members were standing in the local elections on a trades council ticket.

What the activity of the Coventry branch and the rest of the National Minority Movement showed was that although it had been modelled on the successful efforts of South Wales miners, it lacked the same rank-and-file input but retained its orientation on the official union apparatus. This does not mean that the National Minority Movement had nothing to say about shopfloor organisation and the like: it always referred to the need for factory committees, but its chief policies militated against such work since they looked to officials to provide leadership on behalf of the rank and file. Without a clear understanding of the relative worth of official or unofficial activity it was not surprising that the hard, thankless grind of daily shopfloor agitation should be discarded in favour of the easier task of winning resolutions and affiliations.

Apart from in the mining industry there is little indication that the Minority Movement was particularly close to the rank and file. In the pages of The Worker only the builders’ section seems to have had shop steward support and that only in the London area.

Another sign of serious weakness in this area of trade union strategy was that when it came to questions of internal union democracy the National Minority Movement had very little to say. In the early days, Communists had proposed a number of safeguards against bureaucracy – the right to recall officials, that their wages should be dependent on wages in the relevant industry, regular elections and the like. But these were noticeably absent from the programmes of the various Minority Movements.

One measure of the movement’s official influence can be guessed from the number of union branches that supported the Communist Party in its attempt to affiliate to the Labour Party. In June 1923 support came from 17 AEU branches, 16 MFGB branches and four NUR branches – with the furniture trades union NAFTA and the shop workers’ union NUDAW both supporting nationally. [8] However, since the AEU branch was geographical the 17 branches meant far less in practical terms of rank-and-file influence than did the miners’ lodges. Experience showed that mining, and South Wales in particular, remained the bedrock of the National Minority Movement right up to the General Strike.

The industrial scene in 1923 and 1924 was not all darkness. There was a significant improvement in the economy. French occupation of the Ruhr and the protest strike by German workers increased the demand for British coal, so that in 1924 some wage increases were achieved by British miners. The percentage of unemployment for all industries fell from 13.6 in January 1923 to 7.0 in May 1924. The improvement encouraged workers’ struggle.

Soon, although struggles were being regularly defeated, they were bubbling to the surface more and more frequently. It took the personal intervention of Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald to resolve the builders’ lock-out in the spring of 1923. Naturally he forced a decision extremely favourable to the employers. But no sooner had the builders returned than boilermakers came out over the issue of overtime. The same week a dispute flared up involving vehicle builders who were demanding the recognition of their shop stewards’ committee, and the same union even dared respond to yet another employers’ call for wage cuts with their own campaign for a wage rise. [9]

At the end of April 1923 Tom Bell summed up the position when he said that ‘already signs are abroad of a recovery from the savage and brutal offensive of the employers ... The workers are gaining in confidence’. [10] The revival was sustained right through 1924, as this entry in The Worker which reviews the first seven months of 1924 showed:


Strike of locomotive engineer drivers and firemen which brought out into the open tremendous cleavage of sectionalism.


Strike of dockers.


London tramwaymen – all buses out in sympathy.


Unofficial shipyard strike in Southampton for nine weeks.
Failure of strike at Wembley exhibition.


Unofficial railway shopmen strike.


National builders’ lockout for six weeks. [11]

Two strikes that were particularly important for the Communist Party took place in the docks. The first unofficial strike in April 1923 was a precursor of a much larger explosion in July. A spontaneous walk-out against wage cuts led to the following editorial comment in Workers’ Weekly:

The officials of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (including members of our own party and supporters of the RILU) we regret to say, have, during the last ten days been using the whole apparatus of the union to drive men back to work who wanted to fight. Party, revolutionary pledges, responsibility of leadership have all been forgotten or given second place ... This is no new phemonena. [12]

This passage is very reminiscent of the repeated complaints by rank-and-file members of the miners’ Unofficial Reform Committee about their erstwhile comrades who had gone on to better and more bureaucratic things.

An article in the August edition of All Power gave a full history of the big unofficial docks strike of July 1923 which spread from Hull to London, Cardiff, Liverpool and beyond:

The strike has had all the characteristics of a widespread revolt. It has been completely unofficial. At one time there were over 100,000 men out on strike.

The article described the obstacles facing the strikers, among the greatest being the union officials:

From the beginning all the forces of the capitalist enemy have been consciously mobilised against the striking workers. The power of their union has been withdrawn from them. Their union officials have solidly lined up with the enemies against them.

But this hitherto excellent article drew the following ‘vital lessons’:

  1. That unofficial strikes begin wrong because they start off with a division of the workers’ forces – many workers who are good and loyal members of their trade union remaining at work out of very loyalty to the organisation.

The fact that many workers will passively accept union rulings on which strikes deserve support does not mean that the fight of 100,000 dockers was wrong. The willingness of so many to act in the face of tremendous odds should not have been condemned but welcomed.

Worse was to come:

  1. That unofficial strikes begin wrong because they leave the machinery of organisation in the hands of those who oppose the strike.
  2. That unofficial strikes begin wrong because from their very nature careful plans of campaign cannot be elaborated and clear objectives aimed at.

What did All Power think was needed instead?

a great clearing-out of disloyal and non-dependable leaders and officials in the trade union movement is necessary, and ... immediate steps should be taken in all unions to so circumscribe their officials with regulations as to ensure them faithfully carrying out the wishes of their members. [13]

Obviously revolutionaries do not always prefer unofficial strikes to official ones in whatever circumstances. There might well have been good reasons for arguing that the dockers’ strike could be more successful if it was official. But to line up in the middle of the dispute against unofficial strikes was wrong, and not simply because it showed a lack of solidarity. The argument for official action could have been put in this way: unofficial strikes in one industry, at a time when general rank-and-file confidence is still low, mean that there is no choice but to fight for maximum official backing, both in order to win strike pay and also to elicit solidarity from other sections too afraid to act without official sanction.

Given the balance of class forces in the summer of 1923 such a tactical judgement might have been justified. However, as it stood, the article must have been received as a condemnation of unofficial action. The author shows some remorse for the tone of his article when he says that despite his criticisms of unofficial action

the fight is on. The dockers are fighting for bread now. They are on the streets now. And it is the duty of all workers to aid them in their fight. [14]

The Communist Party indeed threw itself into the fight with all vigour and even produced a daily strike paper to assist.

The party’s attitude to unofficial strikes was not uniform. It was torn between its theoretical weakness and dependence on official leadership and its gut reaction as a revolutionary workers’ organisation. Thus, a year later a Workers’ Weekly editorial drew these lessons:

The unofficial strike of the railway shopmen stands out as an event of profound importance. Taking it in its bare facts – an ‘unofficial’ revolt ... This alone is a reminder salutary to all, of the fact that however completely the workers may seem to be crushed, the instinct to revolt against oppression remains an indestructible feature of human consciousness.

With all its organisational weakness an ‘unofficial’ strike, because of its sheer hopeless desperation, has a moral effect upon the whole working mass that official strikes frequently fail to convey ... [and defeat] adds to it since the prime agent of the defeat is not so much the boss as the official trade union machine against which a mass of impatient and imperative resistance is piling up every day.

Official trade unionism grew up, developed its policy, and solidified its conceptions in a period of expanding capitalism and latent working-class consciousness ... It therefore developed its officials for the special task of diplomatic wangling, from a boss fearful of losing his share of a boom period, the utmost possible in the way of concessions ... Now that capitalism has ceased to expand ... official trade unionism is in a cleft stick. They built up their power in demanding a share of the ... gains. What case have they against accepting a share of the ‘losses’?

The unofficial strike cuts right across the facile and treacherous philosophy of class-peace and class collaboration. The unofficial strike takes trade unionism itself back to the practical facts out of which it was born and reveals in a flash the ghastly contradiction between trade unionism as a living fact of the workers’ class struggle and the obsolete and cowardly doctrine which official trade unionism has sought to substitute for the genuine article. [15]

The fact that the same party could produce the dismal analysis in All Power and this magnificent piece of work was a sign of the inner contradiction developing in its trade union work – between serious revolutionary agitation among the rank and file, and the tendency to channel this towards officialdom.

The test of an approach to trade union work is its attitude to unofficial strikes. The aim of the National Minority Movement was to bring these into the official fold, not with the idea of giving the rank and file a chance to develop under the protective umbrella of official support so much as preventing what union leaders saw as dissipation of trade union resources. The intention was to make strike action bigger and more effective, but the party mistakenly looked to the officials to do this. Writing on behalf of the Metal-workers’ Minority Movement, Wal Hannington argued:

We aim not at unofficial but official strikes, in which the whole membership of the trade unions shall be pressed into the struggle against the organisation of the employing class. But when conditions force an unofficial strike, then we aim at broadening and continuing the struggle to make it an official one. [16]

Another Workers’ Weekly article which was published just before the founding conference of the National Minority Movement showed how the Communist Party wanted the rank and file to regard the movement:

... it is regrettable that the workers, though dissatisfied with the official leadership of the trade union movement, have so far been unable to unite their forces under a National Minority Movement that can bring unity of action ... The first organisational attempt to bring the active workers together under a common leadership will enable them to work inside their existing organisation ... This [Minority Movement campaign] would express itself in a more influential character upon the official leadership of the trade unions and would compel them by reason of its force to definitely take a move forward. [17]

No doubt the majority of Minority Movement members gave support to unofficial strikes, whatever their rights or wrongs. But the organisation to which they belonged did not look upon these actions in the light of their effect on the rank and file, whether positive or negative. Its attitude was that strikes should always be official. Today revolutionaries would argue that there are times when it is better that a strike if official, and times when it is best left free to develop unofficially. The deciding factor is always the confidence and success of the rank and file, not the needs of the trade union machine.

Towards the bureaucracy or the rank and file?

As we have said, by far the most important section of the Minority Movement was that of the miners. The Miners’ Minority Movement was closely tied in with the structure of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. This was particularly true in South Wales, where, according to Woodhouse:

A.J. Cook was publicly giving his blessing and that of other left-wing officials to the movement with the ingenious argument that the Miners’ Minority Movement was a necessary part of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in so far as the latter was officially too involved in day-to-day routine to devise effective policies to meet the needs of the rank and file ... This was a view [of] relevance to the South Wales situation where there was so well-established a tradition of ‘ginger group’ activity within the South Wales Miners’ Federation that movements of this type could well be considered an integral part of the union itself, a phenomenon whose existence was tolerated, even expected by the executive committee and rank and file alike. [18]

It was not just that perhaps as many as half the South Wales executive supported the Miners’ Minority Movement and looked at it in this light. Arthur Horner, who was the most prominent Communist Party miner, also saw the role of the Miners’ Minority Movement as being a means of helping to keep officials in touch with feelings at the base of the union:

At present, no lodge can have access to the executive committee of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, except through the district officials, whilst for, say, the general secretary of the MFGB to hear or do anything except through the stages previously mentioned would be considered guilty of such a breach of etiquette as to almost amount to sacrilege. [19]

At that time the Miners’ Minority Movement’s close relationship with officials was probably the only means of getting a mass movement off the ground in the face of bitter employer opposition. But what direction would this movement take once it could stand on its own two feet?

The Miners’ Minority Movement was pulled in two opposite directions: towards strengthening the rank and file for future struggles, or subordinating them to the official machine. The second was reflected in an article in the newly-established fortnightly, The Mineworker, by Tom Quelch who drew the following familiar lesson:

This time the lessons of 1921 must not be lost ... This time the miners must go into battle with the full and complete backing of the whole trade union movement ... When it is definitely known that a fight is inevitable, then the executive of the MFGB must enter into negotiations with the General Council of the Trades Union Congress and with the aid and lead of the General Council every vital section of the trade union movement must be rallied. [20]

Yet soon after this appeared, another article put the rank-and-file case excellently, pointing out the fundamental weakness of the bureaucracy and the fact that the real fight must come from those at the point of production whose power depended on their own self-confidence and organisation:

When are our generals and other officials going to prepare the rank and file of the miners for the coming onslaught? ... Are we going like lambs to the slaughter again? ... If not, then it is up to the rank and file to get busy themselves ... When is the British rank and file going to wake up and appoint men hot from the coalface to do battle for them. Men who will have a stake in the game and whose bread and butter depends on the settlement they get and who, whenever they win or lose, have to come straight back to the coalface and work daily under the agreement they themselves have made ... It is my contention that it is the rank and file who will eventually work out their own salvation ... The self-consciousness of the miners is now a vital part of the dynamism of social progress.

This is at once an explanation and the justification of the tactic of class struggle. [21]

The healthy instincts of many MMM members were again revealed when The Mineworker came to discuss the formation of workers’ unity through an Industrial Alliance of miners, railwaymen, transport workers and engineers. This body was a revamped Triple Alliance on an even bigger scale:

All we do know is that a committee has been established to look into the matter ... We do not suppose there is a single reflecting trade unionist in this country who is not certain in his own mind that this committee was appointed very much as Royal Commissions are appointed by parliament, to shelve the whole matter. The actual truth as far as those attending this particular conference is concerned is that while on platforms up and down the country, they mouth specious phrases about working-class unity, when it comes to actively establishing it they play the game of wreckers and saboteurs ... The class solidarity of the workers cannot be imposed from above. It has to be developed from below, amongst the rank and file. [22]

Several articles have been quoted here because they stand in marked contrast to the rest of the National Minority Movement. The other sections lacked the miners’ close relationship with struggle at the point of production and were more preoccupied with the official channels. Even this piece from The Mineworker, which accepted the now orthodox Communist Party line on centralised leadership, conceived of the process in far more active terms than usual:

The whole of the trade union movement must actively participate in the fight led by the General Council of the TUC ... The rank and file must speed up this coming together. Joint committees of all sections of workers who are now faced with struggles must be established in every locality. Deputations from the miners’ lodges should visit the local branches of the National Union of Railwaymen and the Amalgamated Engineering Union to discuss with the members of those branches how best the struggle can be waged and what steps can be taken to ensure the greatest cooperation and solidarity. Similarly, deputations from the NUR and AEU should visit miners’ lodges. [23]

This greater rank-and-file orientation was notwithstanding the deep penetration of the MMM into the structures of the official apparatus. A high proportion of articles in The Mineworker were written by full-time officials, who were known as ‘miners’ agents’. The election of A.J. Cook as MFGB secretary in 1924 was hailed as a victory of the MMM and his speeches and articles always figured prominently in The Mineworker. But this does not mean that it slavishly followed his every move, for remarkably little campaigning was actually done in its pages for his election, and it certainly was not turned into an electioneering sheet for him.

The close overlap of industry/union and community in mining provided the ideal conditions for this kind of grassroots agitation within the union machine. The combination of hard-won militancy and attention to detail in union matters made the Miners’ Minority Movement the healthiest section of the National Minority Movement. It therefore provided the model which other Minority Movement sections tried to emulate. But because they mostly lacked the network of rank-and-file activists, the fighting tradition and special conditions of the mining industry, none was nearly as successful.

A better understanding of the South Wales movement and the environment in which it functioned might have been a useful corrective to the politics of the National Minority Movement. It would have been a warning against reading too grandiose a design into movements in other unions which consisted of little more than a programme and campaign for branch affiliations or executive positions. Just as the criterion for establishing an independent rank-and-file movement was a high level of shopfloor militancy, so even a much lower level ‘broad left’ type operation required some activity at the base, if it was not to be a paper organisation.

Despite the mythology that has grown up around it, the National Minority Movement established in 1924 was not a rank-and-file movement, and it explicitly rejected that description. This contradicts a commonly accepted view on the left. However, the historical evidence for the period up to 1926 definitely refutes the idea that independent rank-and-file organisation was the aim.

Writing in 1923, Gallacher, a man who had been at the very centre of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, and who therefore knew just what a rank-and-file movement looked like, stated:

The movement that is springing up all over the country ... is not a rank-and-file movement, but rather it is one that reaches through every strata of the trade unions. The driving force must necessarily come from the rank and file, but we should never forget that local officials, district officials, and national officials (a few of them at any rate) have never been led away by the desire to settle the troubles of capitalism. [24]

A rank-and-file movement is not based on damning all officials, but on supporting them ‘just so long as they rightly represent the workers’, and ‘[acting] independently immediately they misrepresent them’, as the Clyde Workers’ Committee leaflet put it. [25] However the engineering stewards during the war had not seen their role as gingering up trade union leaders either. They fully expected the officials to fail in the struggle. They based this belief on an analysis of trade union bureaucracy that showed that official betrayal was inevitably built into the structure of unions. Neither had the workers’ committees been anti-union. They were, after all, based on the union dues collectors – the stewards. The Sheffield Workers’ Committee had, like others, included members of the local district committees, and the Clyde Stewards had cooperated with official elements in a joint committee during the 40-hours strike.

A refusal to have anything to do with trade union leaders did not make a rank-and-file movement, but the expectation of official betrayal and the independent organisation needed to counter this did.

We do not argue here that such a rank-and-file movement was possible in 1924. The lack of shopfloor organisation in many industries would strongly suggest that such a movement just could not have been built then. But this did not mean that what fighting spirit did exist should be marshalled behind left-talking officials. And this was the intention of the founders of the National Minority Movement. The following confused article from The Worker shows how the spirit of a rank-and-file revolt was present, but how it weighed less in the scales than what was seen as the membership’s duty to provide a crutch for overburdened ‘enlightened’ officials. This was the united front tactic turned upside down:

We do not mean to assert that all the officials are sabotaging progress, and all the rank and file are brave and progressive spirits. Such a picture is simply a caricature of the actual situation. What exists is a situation in which a small minority of the rank and file are struggling against the passivity and ignorance of the mass of the workers. Unless the broad popular masses can be reached and quickened through the activity of the left-wing, the enlightened officials are weighted down and cannot move. That being the case the struggle of the left-wing for leadership is not merely an anti-official struggle. It is much more than this. It is a struggle to reach the ordinary worker, to convince him of the need for new policies and new methods of struggle. The business of the Minority Movement is not merely to wangle positions for those who support its policy, it is the more fundamental task to capture the rank and file, of recreating the will to fight. Only by those who go into positions of authority in the union movement having behind them a solid basis of rank-and-file support will we be able to make progress. [26]

The Minority Movement approach, like that of the Unofficial Reform Committee, was a two-way bridge between the official structure of the union and the rank and file. Only with a clear understanding of the relative importance of the rank and file and officialdom (something which is patently missing from the article quoted above), could there be a guarantee that it would not be a bridge leading the rank and file into the arms of the officials.

It was all very well to accuse the majority of the rank and file of passivity and ignorance, but they alone had the potential to mount a real fight for working-class interests. If that was lost sight of, all sorts of dangers could ensue. If independent rank-and-file organisation had been the long-term goal, then the National Minority Movement could have been invaluable. It would have provided the opportunity for using the ‘enlightened’ officials to help relieve pressure on the rank and file. It is the latter who are ‘weighted down’ by the foreman and the boss and ‘cannot move’, not the officials!

Towards the machine

When Arthur Horner came to discuss how the National Minority Movement would achieve its programme his main proposal was that:

The National Minority conference ... pledges the NMM and all its supporters throughout the country to unceasingly work in the respective trade unions for the concentration of trade union power in the General Council of the TUC, and the alteration of the constitution of the General Council to admit the best, wisest and most aggressive fighters on behalf of the working class as members. [27]

Elsewhere Harry Pollitt explained what steps were necessary to make the TUC the centre of Communist Party industrial activity:

First, every member inside a trade union must pay particular attention to the date of nomination for delegates to the Congress ... [Then] 12 weeks before the Congress assembles [we must decide] the resolutions which we must aim at:

... We must learn too how to wangle and beat them at their own game. The ‘diehards’ and reactionaries will never be shifted by calling them names; it is elections and how to use them that matter. [28]

This was a classic example of what today is known as ‘Broad Left’ strategy.

Obviously the TUC lefts would not just fall into the arms of the Communist Party, so a two-pronged strategy was pursued: on the one hand appeals for a united front, on the other direct efforts by Communist Party members to win positions. There is nothing wrong with efficiency or attention to detail in trade union affairs. In bureaucratic organisations a knowledge of how they work, when and how to put resolutions, is valuable if one’s voice is not to be strangled by red tape. But there is a world of difference between on the one hand using such occasions as a platform, as a means of either verbally attacking the bureaucracy or using divisions within it to create opportunities for rank-and-file activity, and on the other believing that revolutionary change can be brought about by worthy TUC resolutions or the right men in the top posts.

Harry Pollitt converted the membership of the Communist Party, and that of the National Minority Movement, into a resolution-moving machine, whose chief aim was to give ‘increased power to the General Council’. The timing of the annual National Minority Movement conferences was highly significant. They were held a week before the TUC Congress and their main subject matter was resolutions for the TUC. Electioneering also became an important part of the work. The firm grip this had taken at party headquarters is demonstrated by the industrial activities listed by MacFarlane in his appendix on The Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1924/5. Half the activities mentioned are solely concerned with elections or TUC resolutions. These are as follows:

22 November 1924


Industrial department issued bulletins regarding the election of an additional organising secretary in the ASLEF.

26 November 1924

Industrial department circularised all party members in the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers re the nomination of members as delegates to the TUC.

1 December 1924

Industrial department prepared a resolution on Workers’ Control of Industry for the TUC ...

6 December 1924

Industrial department issued special bulletin re ... election for the Final Court of Appeal in the AEU.

6 January 1925

Industrial department issued bulletin re elections to executive committee of the British Iron, Steel and Kindred Trades Association and the election of delegates to the Labour Party Conference, TUC and the annual general meeting of the NUR.

14 January 1925

Industrial department issued bulletin to party members in the AEU instructing them which candidates to support.

22 January 1925

Industrial department issued bulletin re forthcoming elections in the Boilermakers’ Society and the annual conference of the Shop Assistants’ Union. [29]

The reader should not take from this the impression that rank-and-file Communists were totally absorbed in electoral work. The party had created, in Workers’ Weekly, a lively interventionist newspaper whose quality and agitational style easily outclassed the socialist press of the past. Through hard work its circulation had been built up to a regular 50,000 copies or so. In addition an impressive effort was put into overcoming the loose propagandist methods of pre-war socialism. The CPGB made itself into a disciplined, centralised party capable of taking its initiatives into the working class.

The turn towards Communist Party factory branches was evidence of this. In the summer of 1925 there were 68 such groups. Each produced factory bulletins which dealt with issues ranging from the workplace to national and international politics. These branches had from three members upwards, and by the time of the General Strike one-sixth of the party’s 6,000 members were involved.

However the following article, which urged the building of a serious revolutionary party with rank-and-file roots, was at variance with the main thrust of the leadership’s policies – which were orientated on the bureaucracy:

If we are going to create, not only a change of organisation, but a change of outlook amongst the rank and file, then we must get contacts with the rank and file in the workshop ... Only by this continual workshop contact and propaganda amongst the rank and file, only by gathering the rank and file around the active men in the party and the Minority Movement can we create that level of consciousness in the trade union membership that will prevent the large organisations from becoming merely the plaything of bureaucracy, a bulwark of reaction ... Without this, the various proposals for concentration of power in the trade union movement may conceivably mean not a concentration of leadership for class struggle purposes, but a Gompers [A] dictatorship in the trade union movement of this country. [30]

This argument was in direct contradiction to the general strategy of the party and in the end one side had to give way. The benefits of such things as the factory branches or the Workers’ Weekly were swamped by the false strategy of the party leadership. This ultimately prevented the party from playing the leading role that the exertions of the members had earned it.


1. Details in The Communist, 28 October 1922.

2. The Communist, 9 September 1922.

3. The Communist, 9 September 1922.

4. Communist Review, April 1922.

5. All Power, December 1922.

6. All Power, 7 April 1923.

7. Coventry Minority Movement Minute Book 1924–9, in Sara Maitland Collection, University of Warwick.

8. Workers’ Weekly, 30 June 1923.

9. Workers’ Weekly, 28 April 1923.

10. Workers’ Weekly, 28 April 1923.

11. The Worker, 20 December 1924.

12. Workers’ Weekly, 21 April 1923.

13. All Power, August 1923.

14. All Power, August 1923.

15. Workers’ Weekly, 4 July 1924.

16. Workers’ Weekly, 4 July 1924.

17. Workers’ Weekly, 4 July 1924.

18. Woodhouse, p. 281.

19. Quoted in Woodhouse, p. 317.

20. The Mineworker, 15 March 1924.

21. P. Cairns, Scottish treasurer of the Miners’ Minority Movement, in The Mineworker, 12 April 1924.

22. The Mineworker, 13 June 1925.

23. The Mineworker, 21 February 1925.

24. The Worker, 29 September 1923.

25. Beveridge Collection, section 3, item 5.

26. The Worker, 9 February 1924.

27. Workers’ Weekly, 29 August 1924.

28. Communist Review, October 1923.

29. J. MacFarlane, The Communist Party: Its Origin and Development until 1929 (London 1966), pp. 324–5.

30. J.R. Campbell, writing in Communist Review, May 1924.


A. Gompers was the extreme conservative leader of the ‘business union’ American Federation of Labor.

Last updated on 15 August 2014