Fred Hall

Guides to Action

(July 1972)

From Reviews, International Socialism (1st series), No.52, July-September 1972, p.42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism
by Richard Hyman
Pluto Press, 30p

Strikes: A Documentary History
by R. & E. Frow and Michael Katanka
Charles Knight, £1.25

Richard Hyman has compressed into fifty odd pages a valuable discussion of some of the basic problems of revolutionary work in the unions. Do industrial struggles lead, as Marx argued, to ‘the ever expanding union of the workers’, to the ‘organisation of the proletarians as a class’? Or was Lenin correct to argue, as he did in 1902, that ‘the spontaneous development of the working class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology ... trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie’? Or are neither of these positions generally true?

Hyman explains, and illustrates by means of well chosen quotations, the views of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Michels, Trotsky and Gramsci on this and related questions. There is a good discussion of the bureaucratisation of unions under capitalism and of the possibilities of resisting it. Trotsky’s well known view that under conditions of late capitalism the major features of trade unions ‘is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power’ is carefully examined in the light of subsequent experience.

Add to this a forceful criticism of the writings of the academic ‘lieutenants of the capitalist class’ and a cogent assessment of the current industrial situation in Britain and you have more of substance than in many a book of five hundred pages. It could be of great assistance to large numbers of trade union militants. Unfortunately, much of its value is offset by two serious blemishes.

The first is that the style and language is that of a piece written by an academic for academics. Here is a typical sentence. ‘The articulation of a strategy of incorporation in response to the chronic problems of the British economy clearly demonstrates the continued relevance of the first part of Trotsky’s argument’. I take this to mean the fact that the capitalist class and its governments try all the time to tie the trade unions to them by way of ‘consultation’, incomes policy, legislation to increase the power of the officials, etc, shows that Trotsky was right. Then why not say so in plain words? Words like ‘salience’, ‘overdetermined’, ‘parameter’ and ‘normative’ are no doubt the small change of sociological conversation but they are not part of everyday speech and their use, without explanation, is a hindrance to understanding. Having made this point I urge all our trade union members and sympathisers to make the effort to read and understand this pamphlet. It is worth it.

The other blemish can best be seen by comparing Hyman’s pamphlet with the Frow-Katanka book. There is very little theory in Strikes, indeed that is one of its main weaknesses. Yet its collection excerpts about forty-four disputes tells more about how things actually happen than any amount of learned discussions about ‘spontaneity’ and ‘consciousness’. What is needed is a bringing together of the two approaches. One of the most interesting things in Strikes is the Strikers’ Handbook – actually a communist policy guide of 1929.

Though completely ultra-left in its approach to the union leaderships and official organisations (it was written in the so-called ‘Third Period’) it is an illustration of the need for practical advice in the publications of a revolutionary socialist organisation. A few quotations will show what I mean.

‘A strike committee must on no account adopt the standpoint of “All or Nothing”. In the course of the campaign the strike committee must be able to estimate correctly the correlation of forces and to manoeuvre ...’

‘If wobbling is noticeable in the strike committee ... demand that the question be brought up for decision at mass meetings ...’

‘Regular strike committee meetings and regular reports on its sessions to the participants of the struggle.’

A modern version, free from the ultra-left absurdities of Third Period Stalinism, is badly needed.


Last updated on 20.3.2008