From International Socialism (1st Series), No.65, December 1973, pp.19-26.
Trenscribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
SHOP STEWARDS were simply card checkers first. The 1896 rule book of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, forerunner of the AUEW but at that time restricted to skilled tradesmen, recognised them solely for this purpose. Other craft unions had stewards as early or earlier. Tom Bell of the Scottish Ironmoulders recalled that in the West of Scotland in 1904 ‘every foundry had a shop steward. Within three hours of starting a job your card was collected’. It was a case of no clear card, no job. Outside the skilled trades in engineering and shipbuilding, stewards were then unknown.
Recognition by management was not an issue in these early days. The shop steward’s official job was to enforce the basic principles of craft unionism. They can be summed up in one word: restrictionism. No access to skilled work except for members of the appropriate society (and which was the ‘appropriate’ society was often the cause of bitter dispute). No admission to the society except, to quote the ASE rules as an example, for men ‘having worked for seven continuous years at one of the recognised trades.’ And even this was resented by the more traditionally minded craft unionists who were not really satisfied by anything less than the full seven-year apprenticeship and indentures to prove it.
Enforcement was by concerted refusal to work with non-society men. As to the labourers and the growing body of the semi-skilled, they might or might not be organised in unions of their own, but the important thing was to safeguard against any encroachment by them on the preservesof the tradesmen. Such was the spirit of craftism.
But by the end of the last century, the possibilities of this sort of trade unionism were being reduced. The ‘revolution in the tools’, the increasing introduction from the eighties onwards, of capstan and turret lathes, milling machines, grinders, the radial arm drill, the vertical borer and so on, all capable of being operated by semi-skilled men, undermined the position of the time-served centre lathe turner and converted a lot of fitters’ work into semi-skilled assembly. Naturally, the employers saw their chance to lower wages, substituting cheaper semi-skilled labour for that of tradesmen. This, of course, was a chief motive for introducing the new machines. With them came increased supervision and the beginnings of so-called ‘scientific management’.
The reaction of the traditionally minded liberal and tory right-wing within the unions was to argue that the semi-skilled machinists must be kept out of the industry, let alone the union. Their position was that all work once done by skilled men must<remain the monopoly of the skilled minority, irrespective of the degree of skill actually required. As to the labourers, they must be kept firmly in their place. (In 1914 the hourly district rates for labourers were half the turners’ rates.)
By contrast the socialist left argued that the answer was to organise the industry rather than the trades. The bitter sectional disputes among the skilled, for which the boilermakers were particularly notorious but which all the craft societies engaged in, should be overcome by further amalgamation. The semiskilled machinist should be accepted and organised into the amalgamated society. The most consistent left-wingers, mainly marxists, went further and advocated the inclusion of the labourers too.
Hand in hand with amalgamation and the organisation of the less skilled, the programme of the left wing called for an aggressive ‘trade policy’ of strike action to improve pay and conditions, ‘the true unionist policy of aggression’ as Tom Mann called it.
James Hinton’s book describes how, against a sectional and industrially defensive background, the shop stewards developed a movement which, as he says, ‘more than anything else, made possible the development of British revolutionary theory from its various pre-war (i.e. pre-1914) syndicalist manifestations to the “sovietist” ideology that underlay the formation of the British Communist Party.’ And more than theory. The best of the shop stewards became leaders of the CP in its revolutionary days.
The tale is well told. Its scope is wide and it has a wealth of detail which can be found in no other book. 
‘Workers, stand together for peace. Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self seeking imperialists once and for all. Down with class rule.’
(Declaration of Keir Hardy and Arthur Henderson for the British Section of the International Socialist Bureau. 1 August 1914.)
‘Whatever our view may be on the origins of the war, we must now go through with it.’
(Ramsey MacDonald. 8 August 1914.)
THE OUTBREAK of war on 4 August 1914, saw the collapse of the Socialist International. As Lenin wrote, ‘the majority of the official representatives of European socialism have succumbed to bourgeois nationalism, to chauvinism.’ In Britain, Arthur Henderson, who had denounced the impending war at the beginning of August, became, before the month was out, one of the three presidents of the ‘Parliamentary Recruiting Committee’. The other two were the Liberal Prime Minister and the Tory leader of the opposition! Soon he was to become a cabinet minister. In 1916 the Labour Party joined Lloyd George’s coalition government. This political support was invaluable to our ruling class but more was required of the trade union leaders.
The war required a huge increase in output, especially of the metal trades. To achieve this a massive state intervention in industry was needed. ‘By the end of the war the government controlled 90 per cent of total imports and the home production of food, coal and most other raw materials. It controlled shipping and rail transport. It controlled the distribution of food (through rationing) and of raw materials (through allocation)’. The engineering and shipbuilding industries were totally dominated by government orders and government controls. But the control of labour was the most important of all.
Early in 1915, Munitions Minister Lloyd George persuaded a conference of trade union executives to agree ‘there shall in no case be a stoppage of work upon munitions and equipment of war or other work required for a satisfactory completion of the war.’ This was the famous Treasury Agreement. The miners alone refused to sign. -In June 1915 this was given legal force by the passage of the Munitions Act which also provided for the prosecution of workers, for ‘losing time and other misdemeanours’. A system of ‘leaving certificates’ was introduced which prevented any worker on ‘war work’ (the Ministry of Munitions decided what war work was) from leaving his job except by permission of the employers. There was no corresponding provision to prevent employers sacking workers.
This system of state control and industrial serfdom was welcomed by the right wing of the labour movement. The TUC controlled Daily Citizen proclaimed, late in 1914, ‘Thus in the hour of its supreme need does the nation turn to the collectivist experiments urged for so many years by the Labour movement. And the experiments are not found wanting. They are abundantly and brilliantly vindicated.’ The reactionary view, nowadays common, that state control means socialism irrespective of whether the workers control the state, has a long and inglorious pedigree!
Such miserable flunkeyism was not universal. In April 19 IS, 200,000 South Wales miners went on strike for a new agreement. The strike was ‘proclaimed’ as illegal under the Munitions Act. It was then discovered that proclamations do not dig coal, and since that commodity was in acutely short supply, the government and the employers caved in after one week. The South Wales strike demonstrated that a group of determined and strategically placed workers could take on and beat the combined force of the state, the employers and the right wing labourites.
It demonstrated something else, equally important; the key role played by revolutionary militants with a long record of industrial and union activity and, negatively, the limitations of purely local groups. ‘It was A.J. Cook, Noah Abblett, W. Mainwaring and those associated with the Miners’ Reform Committees and the Labour College Movement who led the attack ...’ wrote J.T. Murphy in Preparing for Power. ‘But these revolutionaries had no contact with the Clyde group.’ Yet of the men who were to lead the struggle on the Clyde ‘there was hardly a prominent member who had not attended the Marxist classes held by John McLean.’  This lack of a unified national revolutionary party was to be a crippling weakness throughout the war.
‘It was obvious that no substantial degree of dilution could take place without involving some repressive action ... This was foreseen in the approved scheme, provided for in my report, and when the trouble came, action was taken on repressive lines.’
(William Weir, Director of Munitions for Scotland and Glasgow engineering employer.)
THE SHOP STEWARDS’ movement started on the Clyde. At that time there were no national wage agreements in engineering. At the end of 1914, on the expiry of a three
·year agreement, the Glasgow District Committee of the ASE put in for a rise of 2d an hour on the district rate. The employers rejected it. An overtime ban was imposed. The executive council of the ASE tried to persuade an aggregate meeting of members in early February 1915 to call off the ban. It failed. Then, on 15 February, a strike started at Weirs on another issue. It quickly snowballed into a general stoppage for the 2d. Some 10,000 engineers ‘from at least 26 factories’ came out. The district committee joined the executive council in trying to kill the strike and, after a fortnight, succeeded. The eventual arbitration gave 1d an hour as ‘war bonus’ plus 10 per cent piece rates. The remarkable thing about this dispute was the emergence of a new body, the Clyde Labour Withholding Committee, composed largely of ASE shop stewards, which was accepted as the leadership in the firms which joined the strike.
‘Every morning mass meetings were held in the areas arid the discussions arid decisions of the previous day’s committee meetings were reported. Every afternoon and evening the committee was in session, taking reports from the areas and considering ways and means of strengthening and extending the strike ... The organisation and contacts between the factories and the areas and between the areas and the centre was almost perfect.’ 
‘The CLWC was composed in the main of the ASE shop stewards who had previously met together in the officially recognised local vigilance committee. Although most of these shop stewards did not represent fully fledged workshop organisations, the leading group within the CLWC came from these factories which had already established workshop organisation as a bargaining force.’
The committee, was, of course, a wholly unofficial body and ‘most of these shop stewards did not represent fully fledged workshop organisations’. These did not, for the most part, yet exist. But the CLWC played a leading role and though the strike was no great victory, arbitration conceding only ¼d over the employers’ final offer, its effect ‘was to enhance the position of the shop stewards who had proved their ability to lead the struggle whilst the officials had proved their willingness to act as tools of the government.’
The CLWC was the forerunner of the Clyde Workers’ Committee. Under the cover of the Munitions Act the Clydeside employers, especially the shipbuilders, launched attacks on traditional practices as ‘slacking’. The dismissal of two shipwrights at Fairfield’s yard led to a short strike during which I7 shipwrights, all stewards, were fined £10 apiece under the Act. Three of them refused to pay and in October 1915 were jailed. Out of the successful struggle to free them the CWC emerged.
‘The Clyde Workers’ Committee originated in the failure of the union Executives, or District Committees, to place themselves at the head of the militancy of a section of the Clydeside engineers. From the Fairfield’s case the more militant of the engineers learned that if the Munitions Act was to be opposed root and branch, it must be opposed by an organisation and leadership able to act independently of the official trade union structures. The February 1915 strike had taught them that this organisation, to be effective, must be a delegate organisation based directly in the factories. Out of this experience the militants formulated and clearly expressed, for the first time, the principle of independent rank-and-file organisation which was to constitute the basis of the shop stewards’ movement.
‘“We will support the officials just as 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.”
From October 1915 until April 1916, when the Committee was smashed by the government, 250-300 delegates met every weekend in a hall in Ingram Street, Glasgow. In addition to the ASE shop stewards who had formed the basis of the Labour Withholding Committee there were delegates from many of the other engineering and shipbuilding trades. There were delegates from the mines, the railways, from the co-operative workers, and at least one schoolteacher. The Committee had no written constitution, and the statement quoted above-delegates from every lop-represented more an aspiration than established fact. “You could represent a minority in the Shop just the same as a majority even though the minority was one.” It seems probable that outside a few major arms firms the delegates represented minority militant groups rather than established workshop organisation. In practice the Committee fully recognised this position: each delegate would say who, if anyone, he was representing when he spoke.
‘The day-to-day work was done by “a small leading committee” elected at the delegate meeting and meeting two nights a week. Two things characterised this leading group. Its members were all shop stewards at one or other of the arms firms which had led the February 1915 strike and were to remain the backbone of the Committee through 1915-16. And they were all socialists.’
The committee gained strength from the strike of 15,000 shipyard workers on 17 November in support of rent-striking tenants threatened with stoppage of rent arrears from wages. The CWC was weak in the shipyards and did not directly lead the movement. But the lesson of successful direct action-the summonses were dropped and the government promised a rent restriction act-gave it great impetus.
The key issue facing the CWC was, inevitably, dilution. Its real base was amongst the skilled men in the arms factories. Its leadership was dominated by revolutionary socialists. The government was determined on massive dilution. What was to be the policy? As socialists the CWC leaders were bound to reject opposition to dilution as such. To take any other position would be to revert to the very defence of craft privilege they had been brought up to reject. The obvious course was to offer to accept the upgrading of semi-skilled and unskilled workers, under shop committee control, and on condition of their receiving the skilled rate.
This was not adopted. Perhaps the leaders believed it was too radical to receive support from the bulk of the tradesmen they represented. Certainly it would have required an intensive campaign to persuade them and a bitter struggle with the employers. Yet it was the only course of action which offered the possibility of creating an all-grades movement with some prospects of at least partial success.
In the event the CWC adopted the ‘ultimatist’ approach that they would accept dilution only on condition that ‘all industries and. national resources must be taken over by the government – not merely controlled – but taken over completely and that organised labour should be vested with the right to take part directly and equally with the present managers in the management and administration in every department of industry.’
It was, as J.T. Murphy said, ‘either window dressing propaganda or a complete over-estimation of the power and extent of the influence of the Clyde Workers’ Committee.’
But, Hirtbn points out, ‘however inadequate the CWC’s policy on dilution, at least it had a policy. This gave it a great advantage initially over the trade union officials, an advantage which it rapidly put to use.’ It was able to out-manoeuvre Lloyd George when he announced that he would visit the Clyde, with the intention of putting the government’s case on dilution to the workers through a tour of the factories and a meeting with local union officials.
The chairman and secretary of the committee, William Gallacher and Johnny Muir, toured the factories ahead of Lloyd George and succeeded in persuading most of the stewards to refuse to meet him. The rest of his visit was just as disastrous from the government’s point of view.
‘The celebrated meeting in the St Andrew’s Hall on Christmas Day 1915 served as an important morale-booster for the CWC: “Seldom has a prominent politican, a leading representative of the Governing Class, been treated with so little respect by a meeting of the workers. It is evident that the feeling of servility towards their masters no longer holds first place in the minds of the Clyde workers ...” wrote Vanguard (a local revolutionary paper). About 3,000 delegates attended, and gave Lloyd George a noisy reception, particularly towards the end when it became apparent that Muir was not going to be given time to speak.’
But the ultimatist character of the CWC’s policy on dilution left it open to the government’s counter-attack which was quick in coming. The government recognised that ‘to obtain a reasonably smooth working of the Munitions Act, this committee should be smashed.’
It sent three Commissioners to the Clyde to push through dilution. ‘They would meet with the stewards’ committee, together with the management, at the firm in question. The workers would be informed of the scheme and given two days in which to consult with the management further ... though any refusal to acquiesce in dilution would be ignored. On the third the scheme in its final form would be carried into force . . . In the event of a strike the immediate reaction would be to provide “police and military protection to all who are willing to work”, to make sure, if necessary by injunction that trade union funds were not used to support the strikers; and to “deport and bring to trial under Defence of the Realm regulations any person inciting to strike”.’
But ‘it was immediately clear to the Commissioners that any precipitate forcing through of dilution would at once provoke “a more or less general strike on the Clyde against the principle of dilution” ... It was therefore decided that “our right procedure was to convert and persuade the men at say half a dozen of the principal establishments to the advantages of dilution”.’
The CWC, with its ultimatist approach, was not able to respond adequately to such piecemeal tactics. As its policy collapsed, its leaders in practise acquiesced in dilution on the government’s terms. Indeed, Gallacher and Muir were later able to emphasise that’ the shops in which the president and other officials of the Committee are employed find that dilution is working smoothly and without a hitch.’
Once the principle of dilution, without the skilled rate for dilution, had been conceded in a number of plants, the likelihood of the whole Clyde coming to the defence of the CWC if it was attacked was sharply diminished. Already, certain repressive measures had been taken. Forward, the mild enough Glasgow ILP paper had been suppressed, as had John MacLean’s Vanguard.
Leading members of the CWC were being followed by police. Police raided the Socialist Labour Party, broke up its printing machinery and suppressed the next issue of its paper, Gallacher and the printer, Walter Bell, were charged with sedition.
On 17 March 1916 came the decisive provocation. The management of the Parkhead Forge, forbade the convenor, David Kirkwood, to visit sections other than his own shop. This was intended to produce a stoppage and it did. Following sympathetic action elsewhere, eight leaders of the CWC, including Kirkwobd, were arrested and deported from Clydeside. The strike movement collapsed. The CWC was dead as an effective leadership. Fines and uncontrolled dilution followed.
But, as Hinton correctly points out, ‘It would be wrong to pass a merely negative judgment. Despite great objective difficulties and great confusion among the leadership, the committee did succeed in initiating a new type of local independent rank and file organisation in the workshops and the shop steward system. The government could smash the Clyde Workers’ Committee, but not the idea it embodied. Indeed, the deportation of the leaders to find work in other munitions centres helped to spread the idea. What was done on the Clyde in the winter of 1915-16 made possible the subsequent development of the rank and file movement.’
‘The government was now concerned with man power for the armed forces and ... a series of measures were designed between November 1916 and May 1917. The most important were to alter the basis of exemption from military service, to extend dilution to private work, and to introduce payment by results on a wide scale.’
(Jeffries: The Story of the Engineers)
EARLY IN NOVEMBER 1916 a time-served fitter, Leonard Hargreaves, was called up to the army from Vickers Brightside Works in Sheffield, a plant employing a number of dilutees. The strike that followed inflicted a severe defeat on the government and laid the basis for the national shop stewards’ movement.
The Sheffield stewards had a number of advantages. They were in the best paid and probably best organised of all the districts. Co-operation between the different craft societies was much better than on the Clyde due to a powerful amalgamation movement. Most important of all, the organisation of the semi-skilled was fairly strong. Shortly before the war the ASE district committee had negotiated a local agreement giving the various semi-skilled categories from 76 per cent to 88 per cent of the skilled time rate, an excellent achievement for the period.
Moreover, the militants kept control of the district committee. Indeed, the drive to establish stewards in each factory, which was started by the amalgamation committee, proceeded under official district auspices so far as the ASE was concerned.
On 8 November a mass meeting was convened jointly by the shop stewards and the ASE district. The invitation was to all engineering workers, not simply ASE members. The government was given seven days to release Hargreaves, failing which all work in the Sheffield district would cease. The decision was unanimous. The district committee, knowing that the executive would order it to call off an illegal strike, handed over the leadership to the shop stewards’ committee. ‘This was possible’, says Murphy, because the majority of the members of the district committee were also shop stewards.’ These intelligent tactics enabled a flexible combination of official and unofficial instruments to be used.
When the deadline expired on the 15th, the stoppage was total. Excellent strike organisation and proper educational preparation ensured a simultaneous strike in all the organised shops. Accredited delegates were immediately sent to all the main engineering centres to put the case for support. Careful attention was paid by the stewards to the non-tradesmen and this fell on fertile ground because of ‘their (previous) powerful propaganda and activity in defence of the unskilled workers’ conditions.’ It was a model strike.
The government tried deception and bluster without effect. The delegates had persuaded a number of other centres to call mass meetings. In the Vickers company town of Barrow the engineers came out in support on the third day. That day the government capitulated. Hargreaves was released and an agreement was hastily concluded with the ASE executive, and then extended to the other craft societies, whereby the government accepted ‘trade cards’ issued by these unions as certificates of exemption from call-up.
This victory enormously strengthened the power of the stewards and the influence of the revolutionary minority among them. At the meeting of 1917 the Sheffield committee convened a further mass meeting to consider the way forward. For the first time, semi-skilled men were present in substantial numbers. ‘It says much for the prestige of the shop stewards at this time,’ wrote J.T. Murphy, ‘that they were able to get a unanimous decision from the meeting in favour of extending the organisation to include all workers in the factories, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, men and women.’
The idea was to establish workshop committees, representing all grades and sections, which in turn formed the Sheffield Engineering Workers’ Committee. The intention was to develop a national movement which could form the basis of an industrial union. However, this was ‘not in antagonism to the unions but to the existing leadership and form of organisation’. The stewards were expected ‘whenever possible’ to get union endorsement.
AN ATTEMPT was made to establish the national organisation at a conference in Manchester early in May 1917 but it was ineffective. That same month, however, saw the biggest engineering strike movement of the war. In April the government had returned strongly to the attack. The ‘trade card scheme’ was abruptly cancelled and a bill was introduced to compel acceptance of dilution on ‘private work’, i.e. commercial as opposed to government orders.
The Rochdale textile machinery firm of Tweedale and Smalley put women on to grinding machines and sacked the men who refused to train them. After fruitless negotiations there was a general walk-out in Rochdale. By 5 May, 60,000 engineers were out in South East Lancashire and the strike spread fast. There were sympathy strikes in nearly all the main centres; ‘the only two important engineering centres where the men remained at work were the one-time storm centre, the Clyde, and the Tyne.’ 200,000 men were out for three weeks or more and 48 towns were involved. The leadership was everywhere in the hands of newly created shop stewards’ committees. And now the beginning of a national leadership was created. A meeting of delegates was held at Derby and then at London.
‘One hundred delegates from 34 different districts duly assembled at the Fellowship Hall, Walworth, and remained in permanent session for the next three days. They exchanged information about the progress of the strike, producing a Daily Bulletin of news from the localities. Their main purpose was not, however, to extend the strike, but to open negotiations for a settlement.’
On 18 May the government took action to crush the movement, as it had crushed the Clyde, by arresting eight of the leading stewards. At this point the ASE executive, seriously alarmed at the scale of the strike, intervened and managed to secure the release of the stewards on condition of a return to work and further negotiations. That was on the 19th but it was not until the 24th that Barrow, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield returned to work. It was a defeat but only a partial one. The trade card scheme was not regained but the dilution bill was dropped. Moreover, the Ministry of Munitions was forced to make other concessions and in July and October substantial wage increases were conceded, in part at least due to the effect of the May strikes.
By this time a National Administrative Council of shop stewards had been established, based on conferences attended by affiliated organisations in at least 34 different localities, and in November a most important strike of 50,000 workers in Coventry, on the question of recognition of stewards for plant negotiations, led to a national recognition agreement between the unions (except the ASE) and the employers’ federation. Though the ASE would not sign, its stewards were in fact recognised. This important gain was to be the last big success of the war time movement.
‘The idea that a spontaneous movement of the masses will “spontaneously throw up” a leadership and a policy is moonshine. Leaders who come to the front in the hours of crisis have, invariably, years of preparation behind them, however obscure it may be.’
(Murphy: Preparing for Power)
THE YEARS 1917-18 saw the growth of widespread disillusionment with the war. The Russian revolution of March 1917 gave it a focus. In June 1917 over 1000 delegates attended a conference at Leeds to welcome the revolution. Ramsey MacDonald, future Prime Minister, moved the resolution congratulating ‘the Russian people upon the revolution ... which has liberated the people of Russia for the great work of establishing political and economic freedom on a firm foundation and of taking a foremost part in the international movement for working class emancipation from all forms of political, economic and imperialist oppression and exploitation.’ The conference went on to call for the establishment ‘in every town, urban and rural district, of Councils of Workmen and Soldiers’ Delegates ... to work strenuously for a peace made by the peoples of the various countries and for the complete political emancipation of international labour.’
Naturally MacDonald, Snowden, Anderson and the other Labour MPs who held forth on the virtues of revolution at Leeds had not the slightest wish to see British Soviets (Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates). They sensed the grassroots’ swing to the left and put themselves at the head of it in order to control and then to kill it. And they succeeded. The revolutionary left was too fragmented and inexperienced to successfully challenge them.
Hinton tells how
‘The attempts of revolutionaries to build the movement met with the sternest resistance from the authorities. Prior to the Leeds conference the Cabinet had refrained from repressive action on the grounds that it had been “too widely publicised”. After the conference, however, the government intervened to prohibit meetings, conscripted Quelch, the most active leader of the movement, turned a blind eye to the activities of mobs of soldiers in violently breaking up meetings, and was suspected of putting pressure on various people to prevent the hiring of halls, leasing of offices, and so on ...
‘Attempts were made to set up local committees in at least eight areas, including London, Tyneside, Glasgow and Sheffield. In London a very representative delegate meeting held on 29 July was broken up by a mob of “public house loafers” led by colonial soldiers in uniform, and incited by press headlines such as: “We shoot Huns at the front. Why are we more tender with the treacherous pro-Germans at home?” In Newcastle, where the local labour movement was predominantly “loyal”, only the ASE district committee supported the meeting, and it was similarly dealt with by “the violence of an indignant crowd”. “The people have given their answer!” cried the Sketch.
On the Clyde, where the Daily Sketch’s “people” were silenced by the overwhelming support of all sections of organised labour for the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council, the authorities banned the meeting called for 11 August. A protest demonstration was held instead, protected against hostile elements or police by a cordon of shop stewards. In Sheffield the Trades Council was late in deciding to set up a local Council, though virtually unanimous when it got round to it. However, nothing was done, and in September a meeting held in camera decided “to hold in abeyance the resolution re formation of a local W & SC until a more opportune time arises”.’
Could the shop stewards’ movement have done better than the Leeds movement did? Its leaders were revolutionaries, six of the eight members of the National Administrative Council joined the Communist Party when it was founded three years later. The opportunity came in 1918. The government returned to the attack.
In January 1918, it introduced a new Military Service Bill providing for a sweeping call-up without any exemption save those it arbitrarily allowed. This ‘united industrial unrest with the anti-war agitation’. Moreover, the movement – was greatly strengthened by the revivalof the Clydeside stewards as a result of a successful wages struggle in the winter of 1917-18.
‘The winter of 1917-18 saw a great extension of the basis of militancy, radiating out from the engineering vanguard. The isolation of the militant vanguard on die Clyde was at last broken. In Sheffield the rank-and-file movement now embraced semi-skilled workers. The potential of the movement had been further advanced by the establishment of a national leadership, and the extension of its influence into a large number of centres. In the middle of December 1917 the Ministry of Munitions anticipated that “the early months of 1918 may reveal industrial action with a view to the achievement of political ends in the termination of war conditions”.
‘The Military Service Bill succeeded where the Leeds Conference had failed: it united industrial unrest with the anti-war agitation. Inspired by the example of the Bolshevik Revolution, and in particular by the Bolshevik peace terms and Trotsky’s call for peace, the leaders of the rank-and-file movement were poised for revolutionary action against the war. On 5-6 January the shop stewards’ movement met in national conference at Manchester to discuss two major questions, food and manpower. Agitation over the former, as we have seen, continued throughout the crisis month. About 40 delegates attended, and “reports were given as to the feeling which exists in the ... large industrial centres ... The essence of all the reports submitted was to resist any further taking away of men to the army.” The conference recommended national strike action to prevent the passing of the Military Service Bill. At the same time it decisively rejected any narrow defence of the craftsmen’s privileged exemption, advising the movement to “demand that the government shall at once accept the invitation of the Russian government to consider peace terms”. No strike was called, but delegates were instructed to “ascertain from the workers in the districts, what form this action should take, and to at once acquaint the National Administrative Council”.’
‘The largest mass meeting of the crisis took place on Sunday, 27 January, when 10,000 skilled engineers, from several unions, rallied in the Albert Hall, pledged themselves to resist the Man Power proposals and demanded the opening of peace negotiations. The meeting made it clear, commented The Herald, “that the struggle really centres far more round the government’s war policy and the possibility of a democratic peace than round any question of preferential treatment.” The next day the Minister of National Service, Geddes, who had already been hounded by the Liverpool engineers, faced a meeting of 3,000 accredited shop stewards of Federated societies on the Clyde. The CWC had laid their plans and were well represented. Geddes was greeted with “the Red Flag” and could only make himself heard after Gallacher’s intervention.’
The National Administrative Committee had met to lay its plans on 25 January. ‘The Committee was well aware of the need for co-ordinated national action and knew that it was up to them to issue a definite call for a strike action. The delegates from London and the Clyde were keen for strike action, W.F. Watson telling the conference that “100,000 workers in London were ready to strike against the war.” But the decisive reports came from Manchester and Sheffield, where the views of the rank and file had been tested in workshop meetings: “They were opposed to strike action against the war.”
‘These reports presented the National Administrative Council with a cruel dilemma. Despite the great widening of the movement’s basis, despite the wave of revolutionary resolutions, militancy still, as in May 1917, posed itself as an alternative to class politics. A strike called to force the government to open peace negotiations would, it seemed, be easily sidetracked into a struggle by the skilled men in defence of their privileges in relation to conscription. To call a strike solely on the narrow issue would have been to invite the hostility of other sections of organised labour, to capitulate entirely to the craft orientation of the rank and file.’
In the event the NAC failed to give the call for a national strike against the bill.
‘The national leadership of the shop stewards’ movement may well have had no option but to abdicate responsibility for the mass movement. Nevertheless that decision proved a fatal blow from which the movement was never fully to recover.
‘The opportunity to initiate revolutionary action against the war was not to recur. Moreover, by backing down – however justifiably – at the height of the struggle the National Administrative Committee sacrificed its claims to lead militancy in the future.’
The leaders of the shop stewards have been sharply criticised for their failure to develop a new mass strike movement, such as that which took place in Germany around this time. ‘They were immersed in the daily life of the factories ... engrossed in the job of organising women ... breaking down the barriers between skilled and unskilled workers, fighting against every encroachment of the war machine ...’ And so, it is argued, missed the tide because of lack of political judgment and experience.
Maybe so. Yet an industrial movement which is not ‘immersed in the daily life of the factories’ cannot have real influence. It is too much to expect that, without the guidance of an interventionist revolutionary party, an industrial movement led by political militants can lead a revolutionary struggle to the point of challenging the government for power. The industrial movement is essential but it is not sufficient. The revolutionary stewards cannot reasonably be blamed for the failure of revolutionaries in Britain to develop a Communist Party prior to 1920.
Their achievements, after all, were very great. They made workshop organisation a reality for the first time on any large scale. They courageously and consistently fought for the unity of the working class under very difficult conditions. James Hinton concludes ‘it was the practice of the shop stewards’ movement which made the major contribution to the development of the idea of soviet power in Britain.’ Real soviet power, that is, workers’ power based on workers’ councils.
No man is an island and no movement either. The British Communist Party, which owed so much to the shop stewards’ movement, did not and could not develop in isolation from the growth of Stalinism in Russia. Stalinism eventually killed it as a revolutionary party. The soviet idea was abandoned for the parliamentary road. The torch had to be taken up by other hands. Those who carry it forward today, can gain inspiration as well as profit from this book.
1. In one respect only is there ground for serious criticism of James Hinton’ s book: he underestimates the degree to which craftism and sectionalism had been challenged and fought by left wing tradesmen long before 1914. Without the long years of agitation from the 1880s onwards – and the agitation was led by members of the socialist organisations – the shop stewards’ movement could not have developed as it did.
2. J.B. Jefferys, The Story of the Engineers.
3. W. Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, p43, quoted in Hinton, p.106. Subsequent quotes are from Hinton, unless otherwise indicated.
Last updated on 19.10.2006