Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Ten:
Tailing the left leaders

AT THE TUC Congress in Plymouth in September 1923 a whole number of left speeches were made by union leaders. Such militant words had been heard before and proved worthless. But now the Communist Party was only too ready to accept them at face value. George Hicks, a member of the TUC General Council, was quoted approvingly in the party’s newspaper:

What is needed is for about half-a-dozen trusted men to draw up a programme clear and direct, which can be the acknowledged trade union platform, and then a properly organised campaign to preach it.

Harry Pollitt of the Communist Party echoed this sentiment:

A few leading men, if they would only see the opportunity before them, could at this moment achieve anything by coming together on a clear definite programme and rally all the active elements in the trade unions.

The Workers’ Weekly gave the following explanation for the emergence of a vocal left current in the bureaucracy at this time:

... inexorable facts. The pressure of the economic situation, and the refusal to struggle on the part of the old leadership, is compelling all the elements which stand for even the bare minimum of the working-class struggle to come out into the open, in co-operation with the Communists in heralding a revolt ... It does not matter how limited may be the immediate aims of the movement, or how open to question the associations or previous record of some particular leader within it. These tendencies none the less represent a real movement within the working class ... they represent the breaking of the ice; they are the heralding of the Spring.

Into such a movement for the rallying of the working class the Communists will throw themselves wholeheartedly, without fear for the future, for they know that the struggle itself must bring clearness. [1]

The insistent reference to the ‘old’ leadership and the ‘inexorable facts’ driving the unions leftwards suggest that there must have been a ‘new’ leadership in the making. The ‘old’ lot were a ‘reactionary set’, while the new leadership’s main fault was its lack of clarity, which would be sorted out in the struggle. We will deal later with the underlying theory behind this emphasis on ‘left’ versus ‘right’ or ‘new leaders’ versus the ‘old’. But it is worth noting how short the memory of the Communist Party was. The new leaders made no speeches as remotely revolutionary as those of Robert Williams, nor was there a syndicalist-sounding Triple Alliance bestriding the land. Yet such an editorial could be written when the disaster of Black Friday was just two years past.

Of course the rallying call of some TUC lefts could prove extremely useful in promoting a revival of militancy on the ground, but to develop that further one could not dupe oneself, and the workers, that such ‘left’ tendencies could be embraced ‘without fear for the future’. To do so was to disarm criticism of the inevitable sell-outs that would occur once a serious revival got going.

Pollitt’s campaign for unity consisted of promising the leaders indemnity from having their left credentials questioned as long as they made the correct noises. The ‘rancour’ of the workers would be quelled and the ‘associations or previous record’ would be wiped from the slate. In other words the rank and file would be told to forget that these men played the role of trade union bureaucrats.

Purcell, who had now broken with the Communist Party, clearly wanted the memory of his renegacy obliterated – and demanded that as his price for supporting a party initiative:

I would readily associate with it for this purpose [rallying the unions] but if it is merely to be used as a vehicle for personal attacks upon certain individuals, then I must continue to await the ‘petering out’ of this absurd and puerile method of agitation. [2]

A week later his indemnity was granted.

But the memory of some rank-and-file party members was not quite as short as those of the party leaders. The edition of Workers’ Weekly that carried Purcell’s letter included these brief comments, the second of which came from a Staffordshire miner:

It is no earthly use looking for help from above – this will come from below.

It is the militant element from amongst the rank and file that will save the trade union movement.

In the eyes of the leaders of the CPGB, who had now lost the point of production and the rank and file as their central means of reference, the comings and goings of the bureaucracy and the details of official policy acquired an inordinate importance.

By 1925 the party was tied to the coat-tails of left trade union leaders such as Purcell, George Hicks and Alonzo Swales, who spoke patronisingly of the Minority Movement. Thus in January 1925 Swales, then president of the TUC, stated:

Like all countries we in England have our militant section, our extremists ... We have met abuse sometimes and discipline was upset. But only good comes from this new blood. Most of my colleagues were young firebrands, but responsibility has sobered them down. I hope to remain a rebel against present-day society.

Instead of expelling these young people, we allow them to come in and take their share in the movement. [3]

Throughout 1924 Labour Monthly, under the editorship of Palme Dutt, encouraged practically all of the ‘lefts’ to contribute their thoughts on ‘new policy’ for the trade union movement. The results were an appalling testimony to what the best of the bureaucracy had to offer, and give a rare insight into the workings of the bureaucratic mind.

A.A. Purcell (TUC Chairman): Now all these programmes, platforms, policies and manifestos have their place. I have been in at the drafting and distribution of millions of them, but never once did I believe they would do the thing the enthusiasts desired. [4]

Will Lawther (Durham Miners leader): Every few years ... new movements spring up, manifestos are scattered broadcast, all urging the same object ... and yet after the new movement has had its vogue, something further has been discovered, and that is that no progress has been made. [5]

Some even dragged out the corpse of Karl Marx for their justification:

George Hicks: It is impossible under capitalism to get away from the Marxian law of wages. I do not apologise for studying commercial practicability. As a trade union official I am forced to live in a real world. [6]

Month after month the same dross was churned out, and eventually Palme Dutt was forced to draw a veil over the whole business. His Postscript tells us that:

The series of articles ... has constituted a serious and important experiment in working-class discussion ... from representative and responsible leaders. [But] it is impossible to read this series of articles and to consider all that they imply without a sense of tragedy. [7]

Palme Dutt actually went further than most Communist Party members in questioning the current strategy of wooing such people. For these bureaucrats offered

nothing but an endless succession of vague generalities, about ‘old policies’, ‘new policies’, ‘programmes’, ‘solidarity’, ‘unity’, ‘ever- improving standards of life’, etc. , etc. [8]

And tucked away in the footnotes, Palme Dutt gives this gem about Robert Williams, former Communist and as transport workers’ leader a co-architect of Black Friday. Williams explained the value of left phraseology to the union bureaucrats in this way:

Only recently a wealthy shipowner asked a colleague of mine: ‘Why is it your friend Williams will make those wild-cat speeches on the platform when he is so able in conducting negotiations at the conference table?’ I replied by saying: ‘Convey my compliments to the gentlemen, and say that perhaps a few more wild-cat speeches would bring a little more success at the conference table.’ [9]

The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee

The decisive shift of the Communist Party to the right was spurred on by the establishment of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee. [A] This was all part of the policy of the new ruling group in Russia, around Stalin, which was searching for bureaucratic allies abroad.

A delegation of Russian trade unionists attended the Hull Congress of the TUC in September 1924, following which six delegates of the TUC went to Russia. On their arrival discussion took place with Soviet trade union leaders, and it was agreed, subject to endorsement, to set up an Anglo-Russian Committee to work for international trade union unity. Responding to the Russian policy, the CPGB enthusiastically campaigned to secure the General Council’s endorsement of this proposal. On 26 January 1925 the Minority Movement organised a conference on International Trade Union Unity, which was attended by 617 delegates representing 600,000 workers. [10]

Palme Dutt waxed eloquent at the prospect of unity between RILU and Amsterdam:

A new force has appeared upon the horizon of the British working-class movement to raise a note of challenge. The inscription that it bears upon its banner is International Trade Union Unity ... To oppose it is to oppose the workers’ common struggle, and therefore to oppose the victory of the workers. [11]

The words of the TUC bureaucrats were now no longer to be regarded as hollow phrase-mongering. They must represent a mass movement among the workers. Pollitt wrote in Workers’ Weekly:

The suggestion of the formation of an Anglo-Russian Unity Committee is not the result of a happy inspiration of certain left-wing trade union leaders but is the outward manifestation of ... the simple fact that experience in the class struggle has more and more convinced the workers that only by united action nationally and internationally can their struggle be successful. [12]

The idea that the bureaucracy might have its own reasons for making such moves does not appear to have crossed the minds of leading Communist Party members. They had completely lost touch with reality, thinking that when the bureaucrats talked left the masses were pulling their strings. In fact, it was the other way round, and they had only to look at the size of the revolutionary movement in Britain, a few thousands only, to see this.

Now the task had changed: from achieving a ‘general staff of labour’ by replacing the General Council with avowed revolutionaries (a doubtful tactic in the first place), it was now to push the current General Council forward, giving it the confidence to uphold the international unity campaign – confidence that they would not be criticised by the Communists. In an article ironically entitled Our Principles, George Hardy, organising secretary of the National Minority Movement, answered the question whether the fight against reactionary leaders such as J.H. Thomas was more important than a TUC/Russian union deal. For Hardy criticism of the likes of Thomas was secondary:

we do not make the above a condition of international unity. If we did, we would probably preclude many a trade union official who is now supporting us. We would be erecting an obstacle against unity itself. [13]

Every great crisis in the labour movement forces the unions to readjust, and in the process argument and splits may occur. At the outbreak of the First World War the sharp rightward pressure of imperialism not only smashed the political parties of the Second International, it paralysed the international trade union movement. Within individual states unions were rent by open divisions, often between bureaucrats and organised rank-and-file movements. The leftward impact of the Russian revolution and post-war crisis also caused splits, witness the division between RILU and the Amsterdam International, or in France between the right and left-wing union confederations.

Trade union unity is always an important question. The working class is only strong because it is a collective class which creates the wealth of the world through social production. Trade unions are based on collective action such as strikes. Obviously, anything which increases the numbers involved in collective action is to be welcomed. The old adage ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ is the fruit of long and bitter experience. However unity of the class is not the same as an Anglo-Russian union committee, nor a more powerful TUC General Council. And it can only appear to be so if one is blind to the existence of the bureaucracy.

The first priority in every question always has to be the unity and fighting capacity of the rank and file. All other aspects of trade unionism have to be subordinated to this and judged in its light.

The attitude of revolutionaries to trade union unity at the official level can be complex. There are occasions when bureaucrats use the threat of a right-wing breakaway as an excuse to blackmail the left into abandoning principles and accommodating to reactionary pressures. Here the price of unity is a paralysis worse than the disease it was meant to cure. At other times different conditions apply. A split in a union or friction between unions may lead to division where it counts, among the membership, who are thus weakened at the point of production.

The effect of establishing the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee was not to strengthen the rank-and-file trade unionists of Russia or Britain. The rising Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia were in favour of this move for reasons of political expediency. It hoped that the committee would ‘play an enormous role in the struggle against all possible interventions directed against the USSR.’ [14] As Trotsky was to point out, the only realistic defence of a workers’ state is to spread revolution internationally.

The committee did not do this. In fact its tendency was to weaken the truly revolutionary forces in Britain by granting the lefts on the TUC General Council a false radical credibility at very little cost. The Anglo-Russian Committee demanded nothing of them except a few worthy statements in the press. The credibility the TUC1efts gained was used to discourage independent rank-and-file initiatives during the 1926 General Strike.

Tragically the highest sentiment of revolutionaries – the feeling of international solidarity – was being perverted. The Communist Party and Minority Movement became cheer-leaders for left bureaucrats. The prestige the Bolsheviks had rightly won by their revolution was being used to enhance the reputation of reformist bureaucrats in Britain, and assist the manoeuvres of Stalinist bureaucrats in Russia.


1. Workers’ Weekly, 21 September 1923.

2. Workers’ Weekly, 12 October 1923.

3. Workers’ Weekly, 9 January 1925.

4. Labour Monthly, volume 6, pp. 268–9 (May 1924).

5. Labour Monthly, volume 6, p. 167 (March 1924).

6. Labour Monthly, volume 6, p. 467 (August 1924).

7. Labour Monthly, volume 6, p. 457 (August 1924).

8. Labour Monthly, volume 6, p. 464 (August 1924).

9. Labour Monthly, volume 6, p. 467 (August 1924).

10. J. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain (London 1969), p. 22.

11. Labour Monthly, volume 7, p. 79 (January 1925).

12. Workers’ Weekly, 26 December 1924.

13. Workers’ Weekly, 12 December 1924.

14. Theses of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, quoted in Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (London 1974), p. 101.


A. In their book Trade Unions and Revolution: The Industrial Politics of the early British Communist Party (London 1975), James Hinton and Richard Hyman argue two main points.

Firstly, they deny Trotsky’s thesis that the British Communist Party was ‘misled and corrupted by the Stalinist bloc within the Comintern’. Indeed, they say, ‘almost always the CPGB itself stood to the right of the majority in the International’ (p. 72). This argument is wrong. While the Comintern made many left pronouncements, the logic of its search for reformist allies on the TUC inevitably distorted the trade union policy of the British Communists. Of course there were opportunist tendencies in the CPGB before the rise of Stalin. Already in previous chapters we have documented false ideas dating from the British Socialist Party. But there was an equally powerful tradition of hatred towards the union bureaucracy and an understanding of the need for rank-and-file independence. The success of opportunism in the British Communist Party was guaranteed by the Russian leaders’ promotion of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee and the smothering of debate inside the International.

The second argument put forward by Hinton and Hyman is that during the early 1920s ‘a cadre party placing primary emphasis on the quality rather than the quantity of its membership could alone have succeeded in sustaining the British revolutionary tradition in such unfavourable circumstances (p. 73).

Duncan Hallas has refuted this point: ‘“Quality of membership” for what? The “high quality” members of a revolutionary organisation are those with high ability to lead their fellow workers in the class struggle. They can in no case be developed apart from the struggle for mass influence. Give up that, and you revert to the status of a propagandist sect ... It was the historic achievement of the CPGB to overcome this tradition of abstract propagandism.’ (Duncan Hallas, The Communist Party and the General Strike, in International Socialism, first series, no. 88 (May 1976).)

Last updated on 15 August 2014