Duncan Hallas

The CP, the SWP and the Rank and File Movement

(February 1977)

From International Socialism (1st Series), No.95, Februar 1977, pp.10-4.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘IN CONCLUSION, I want to raise the question of the political attitude of Communists towards IS, an important question since IS cannot be dismissed as yet another ultra-left sect ... We should be clear that while Communists consider IS policies and strategy incorrect and potentially very dangerous, this does not rule out cooperation where the interests of the movement demand it. Indeed, in such cases we should actively seek unity, even when faced with a frankly opportunistic motivation on the part of IS.’ (Geoff Roberts, The Strategy of Rank and Filism in Marxism Today, December 1976)

IT IS good to read, in the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, a call for united action ‘where the interests of the movement demand it’. The interests of the movement surely do demand unity in the fight against the Social Contract, against the cuts, against unemployment, against the reactionary policies of the Labour government and its supporters in the union leaderships.

There is, on the face of it, considerable scope for active cooperation between members of the Socialist Workers Party (as IS has become) and members of the CP (together with others, of course), and indeed for action by the two parties. Both are publicly committed to oppose the whole political and economic course of the Callaghan-Healey cabinet and the TUC General Council’s collaboration with it.

We for our part, will energetically support all initiatives by the CR, or by CP-influenced bodies such as the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, that seek to mobilise workers against wage-cuts, social service cuts and unemployment. We are one hundred per cent behind the call of the Right to Work Conference for united actions with the Liaison Committee and the National Assembly of Labour along these lines. We welcome the decision of the Liaison Committee to call a conference and pledge ourselves in advance to support to the hilt any decisions that conference makes for positive action.

We are for unity in action with all those in the working class movement who are willing to fight, even when the agreement about objectives is only partial and temporary. This includes, of course, unity with whatever sections of the ‘official leaderships’ can be induced to collaborate in particular actions. Contrary to the CP claim, we are not ultra-lefts.

However, to cooperate with left-wing union leaders – and indeed with right-wing ones where possible – for particular ends is by no means the same as relying on them. Still less is it the same as believing that ‘progessive officials’ can ever be a substitute for organised rank-and-file activity. This is the basic disagreement between the CP (and most of the Labour left) and ourselves on industrial and trade union issues.

We believe that active and effective rank-and-file movements are indispensable. The CP once thought so too. Now it puts the emphasis on the ‘left political alliance’, the core of which are the ‘left officials’. The difference is not an accidental or transient one. It is fundamental. That in no way alters our determination to strive for unity in action. Nevertheless, let us look at the ‘left political alliance’ inaction.



The ‘Lefts’ and the Social Contract

‘... the strategy of the Communist Party is one of strengthening and galvanising the left trends throughout the movement in order that the Right, which has for so long held a dominant position, might be decisively challenged. To this end genuine left alliances, are sought within each union and at national level.’ (Geoff Roberts, The Strategy of Rank and Filism)

WHAT is the most important success of the right-wing in the movement during the period of this Labour government? Without a shadow of a doubt it is the Social Contract.

As James Callaghan puts it, the Social Contract is ‘the bedrock of the government’s very existence and the best guarantee of the nation’s recovery’. [1]

What is the essence of the Social Contract? his the support of the TUC and of the national leadership of nearly every union for government policies of cuts in real pay, savage attacks on the social wage and a level of unemployment which they still call ‘totally unacceptable’ but expect us to accept. All this, in the interests of an ‘industrial strategy’ which stakes everything on boosting profits to strengthen capitalism.

What has been the role of the ‘left trends’, the ‘left leaders’, in this profoundly reactionary development? With very, very few exceptions they have supported the Social Contract. Even their criticisms of this or that government policy – and the lefts, like some right-wingers, have made criticisms now and then – are couched in terms of the government ‘endangering the Social Contract’!

Geoff Roberts asks: ‘Why are the Jones’ and Scanlons so different from the Chapples?’ [2] and goes on to suggest that the difference is indeed fundamental.

Where have you been these last three years, Geoff? Jack Jones is well known as the architect of the Social Contract. Hugh Scanlon supports it as firmly as Frank Chapple. And even before the return of the Labour government Jones and Scanlon both supported (in 1973) talks with Heath about ‘pay restraint’ and, that same year, ordered their members to cross the electricians’ picket line at Chrysler during an official strike for more pay which Chapple (for his own reasons, of course) was supporting.

Since then, these two chosen samples of ‘the left trends’ (apart from Chapple they are the only union leaders mentioned by Geoff Roberts) have defended and voted for the £6 limit, the 4½ per cent limit and the whole Social Con Trick. Of course, Jones and Scanlon favour an ‘alternative economic strategy’. So do David Basnett and Len Murray. Does that, then, qualify them too as ‘a healthy trend within the trade unions’?

As with Jones and Scanlon, So with Daly, McGarvey and so on. We are not dealing with a fewindividuals. It is a question of the whole top layer of the Morning Star’s lefts’. The facts are so notorious that Geoff Roberts feels obliged to offer some comment.

Here it is:

The left forces involved are by; their very nature characterised by diversity and fluidity-a fact manifested in the sometimes contradictory role in the class struggle played by particular elements at particular times. On the one hand they play a part in the struggle for a new economic strategy and, on the other, they accept the Social Contract. One example we could point to is the negative role being played by some sections of the left’ in relation to the present Labour government’s economic policy. But at core they constitute a healthy trend within the trade unions around which can develop a powerful movement for change in the unions. [3]

So ‘the left forces’ support the Social Contract. ‘Some sections’ (in fact, nearly all) play ‘a negative role’ in the struggle against government economic policy. Yet ‘at core’ they are a ‘healthy trend’!

What would an unhealthty trend look like? What makes these forces ‘left-wing’ anyway? It cannot be their actual (‘negative’) practice as union leaders. Would it be too unreasonable to suggest that it is the willingness of many of them to contribute the occasional article to the Morning Star? The truth is that the CP judges by words and not by deeds, by willingness to make ‘left’ gestures. It is now totally uncritical of the union ‘New Left’ in the public sector, Alan Fisher and Co.

But there is one valid and important idea in all this, though Geoff Roberts expresses it none too clearly. It is that the trade union bureaucracy, as a whole and not just the left, plays a ‘contradictory role in the class struggle’. It does indeed and it does so necessarily, as a consequence of its position in society, and not simply because of ‘considerable heterogeneity in ideology’.

It is impossible to operate as a revolutionary in the working-class movement without understanding this contradictory role and knowing how to exploit it.



The Trade Union Bureaucracy

‘In the IS schema attention is focussed upon that which differentiates trade union leaders from their members; namely, material privilege, social environment and institutional location. There can be no doubt that such factors as these do play a part and an important one at that. In the hands of IS, however, their importance is inflated and distorted to an almost incredible degree.’

‘Apart from the obfuscation of real problems and issues the focus on a largely mythical bureaucracy carries with it the enormous practical dangers of diverting the movement down blind alleys and the isolation of revolutionaries from those forces in the trade unions with whom unity should be sought.’ (both from Geoff Roberts, The Strategy of Rank and Filism)

LONG AGO, the nature of the ‘largely mythical bureaucracy’ of the unions became an issue in the working class movement. In 1894 the first edition of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s History of Trade Unionism appeared. It pointed to an important change in British trade unions in the last half of the nineteenth century. ‘During these years we watch a shifting of leadership from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity.’ [4]

The Fabian couple naturally approved of this ‘shifting of leadership’ but it never occurred to them to deny that the outlook of the full-time officer tended to differ considerably from that of the active members. Quite the contrary, they welcomed the growth of what they called ‘this Civil Service of the Trade Union world’ precisely because its influence was conservative.

‘Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisan’s life gradually fades from his mind: and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable’ they note (quoting with approval an unnamed official) ‘... Unconsciously biased by distaste for the hard and unthankful work which a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men’s demands, and eventually arranges a compromise on terms distasteful to a large section of his members.’ [5]

The Webbs also noted how ‘insidiously, silent, unknown even to himself’ the official ‘insensibly adopts more and more of (the) views’ of his middle class neighbours. These Fabians understood Marxism rather better than some contributors to Marxism Today!

Now the Webbs had in mind, chiefly, the old craft societies which had, typically, a rather low ratio of full-time officials to members. With the rise of the New Unionism from the 1890s and the big. growth of trade union membership in the great struggles before 1914 (trade union membership was 1,530,000 in 1894; 4,145,000 in 1914) the numbers of full-time officials expanded much more than proportionately. And, typically, the officials of the new unions were appointed, not elected as were the officials of the craft societies.

From this time on the role of this new social layer, the trade union bureaucracy, has been absolutely crucial in the class struggle. Surveying the period between 1890 and 1910, Bob Holton writes:

‘To many it appeared that the incorporation of union officials within bargaining institutions had succeeded in defusing their earlier radicalism ... Officials relished their recently expanded bargaining status in respect of management and were increasingly unwilling to jeopardise collective bargaining recognition by resort to direct action. Rank-and-file disatisfaction with the process flared up periodically over the years ... Such unrest led to a greater incidence of “unofficial strikes”.’ [6]

It was in this period of intense class struggle, and during the 1914- 18 war when the trade union bureaucracies were effectively ‘incorporated’ into the war machine, that the working-class pioneers of the British CP were largely formed politically. And they were formed in struggles in which the problem of the class-collaborationist bureaucracies was an inescapable issue.

‘Practically every one of the great strikes from 1911 to 1914 was begun as an unofficial, spontaneous movement of the workers, rapidly spreading throughout the industry concerned’, wrote the CP historian Ralph Fox. ‘Only then did the reformist trade union bureaucrats lend the strike the official support of the union, while their swift acceptance in every case of the “mediation” of the Liberal government doomed the strike at once to semi-failure.’ [7]

Aside from a rather misleading use of the work ‘spontaneous’ – much of the rank and file leadership came from politically conscious militants-this is broadly correct. From this period until today any attempt to understand the class struggle which does not take into account the bureaucracy as a distinct factor in the situation leads only to absurdity.

Naturally, the ‘reformist trade union bureaucrats’ were not and are not all hewn from one block. There were and are left-wing officials as well as right-wing ones. What is the significance of this fact?



Left Officials and Rank-and-File Militants

‘Knowledge of the existence of this Left Wing was at once a stimulant and a narcotic for the masses. It gave them a rallying ground lent confidence to their leftward mood; but, then, it put vigilance to sleep and led to overtrustfulness. So when the breakdown of May 12th came, workers in the localities were looking at one another in dismay, naming individual leaders of the Left and complaining that it was these men who were responsible in chief ... The point which should be clearly understood is that the General Strike, and the manner of its ending, had definitely ranged the left along with the Right, had wrought complete solidarity amongst the General Council members, and where the powerful influence of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement had been weakened or divided, it was now (apart from the miners) to be built up as a consolidated influence. That influence was henceforth to be thrown in the scale against a revolutionary policy.’ (R. Page Arnot, The General Strike)

PAGE ARNOT was writing in the immediate afermath of the general strike (the Foreword of his book is dated December 1926), in part to justify the CP’s opportunist policy of excessive reliance on the ‘TUC lefts’ of the period before the strike; hence the ‘henceforth to be thrown in the scale against a revolutionary policy’. Note, nevertheless, he takes for granted the existence, the ‘powerful influence’ and the separate political role. of the (non-mythical) ‘bureaucracy of the trade union movement’. To deny these central facts in an account of the general strike and its betrayal written at the time would be too preposterous.

What concerns us here is Page Arnot’s shrewd and accurate assessment of the effect of the TUC lefts-Purcell, Swales, Hicks etc in 1925 and 1926: ‘at once a stimulant and a narcotic’. For there was a difference between Purcell and Thomas, between Swales and Pugh and so on. It was that the lefts spoke in the language of the class struggle and struck left poses. [8] They were prepared to associate, in varying degrees, with the C P-led Minority Movement and with other party approved ventures. Not only was there a real difference between left and right officials. There was a real conflict between them.

And this fact undoubtedly stimulated sections of workers, as Arnot says. It undoubtedly helped the Minority Movement. It helped to create a climate of opinion in which the CP’s agitation reached much larger numbers.

Roberts says that we ‘deny that there is any real difference (between left and right officials – DH) and brush aside the professed ideals of left trade union leaders as left rhetoric of no consequence except in so far as it provides a smokescreen for real intentions and actions.’ [9]

Not so. ‘Left rhetoric’ can in some circumstances, have significant consequences. And whether it is ‘sincere’ or not is neither here nor there. Splits in the bureaucracy – within a union or between unions – can indeed ‘weaken or divide’ the conservative influence. A revolutionary party has to know how to exploit them to strengthen its base, to develop rank-and-file initiatives, to improve the confidence and cohesion of militants arid expand their numbers.

But in no case can it rely on the left officials it seeks to cooperate with and supports against the right. Theory and experience alike demonstrate that reliance on the left officials, ‘overtrustfulness’ as Arnot put it, is absolutely disastrous from a revolutionary standpoint. The difference, the real difference between the TUC lefts and rights in 1926 was also only a secondary difference. Faced with the prospect of a showdown with the capitalist state, left and right united to capitulate and to denounce ‘the reds’ and to enter into the closest cooperation with the employers and the state.

But perhaps this is just ancient history? Not at all. 1926 was one of the decisive turning points in the process of integrating the trade union bureaucracy with the capitalist state. Of course, this integration is necessarily incomplete. The trade union officials, right wing included, play a dual role because, along with the integration, they retain (as a group) a vital interest in the preservation of their organisations, working-class organisations, which are the source of their importance in society, their incomes and their prospects. It is this fact that makes possible, in some circumstances, a degree of cooperation between revolutionary socialists and officials. For we too have a vital interest in the preservation of the unions. However, this does not alter in the slightest the fact that the bureaucracy as a whole is a conservative layer, as indeed are all bureaucracies.

From 1927 on to the late 1960s official strikes were extremely rare. The overwhelming majority of disputes were unofficial. The integration of the officials went very far. But with the impact of the statutory incomes policy (introduced by the Wilson Labour government in 1966) powerful unofficial wage movements developed. Sections of the bureaucracy began to put themselves at the head of some of these in order to control them. The dustmen’s strikes, initially unofficial, are a good example. The Pilkington strike, in which Basnett of the NUGMW collaborated completely with the employer, so shook that right-wing union that, for the first time since the I 920s, it started giving limited support to some of its members in subsequent disputes instead of automatically denouncing them as wreckers.

Then came In Place of Strife, the Labour government’s attempted legislative curb on the unions which drove the TIJC into a degree of opposition. The Heath Tory government (form 1970) pursued, for two years, the ‘confrontation’ policy to force the acceptance of ever lower pay settlements (‘n minus one per cent’) which forced section after section of the bureaucracy – even its Tom Jacksons – into reluctantly leading (or misleading) official strikes. And the Tory Industrial Relations Act resulted in an official TUC policy of ‘non-cooperation’.

Now none of those reactions happened automatically or without sharp conflicts inside the unions. To suppose otherwise would be ultra-left stupidity. The TUC, and in varying degrees the national leaderships of most unions, moved leftwards as a result of rank-and-file upsurge and a sharp struggle between left and right at all levels-including the upper reaches of the bureaucracy. The two things went hand in hand and necessarily so. Scanlon, and to a lesser degree Jones, were then in opposition to Chapple. But that did not prevent them, at the same time, from seeking to limit, to curb and to control militancy. [10]

The Communist Party went along with this. It covered-up for the lefts, especially as they started moving rightwards again in 1973. And then came the new Labour government and the Social Contract. The CP saw its ‘left trends’ collapse into the arms of the right. Still, in its obsession with the left officials, it tried to keep up the pretence that somehow, in spite of everything, all was well. As late as October 1975, Marxism Today (in its customary editorial on the September TUC) spoke of ‘the growth of left influence’ and ‘further left and progressive gains’ in the General Council elections! [11] Objectively, the CP helped to obstruct the fight against the right wing.

Geoff Roberts is now employed to justify all this. But in order to do so he has developed a theory of the ‘revolutionary party’ which is, in fact, completely reformist.



What is the Party For?

‘A strategy for defeating reformism in the labour movement can only be successful on condition that it forms an integral part of a general counter-hegemonic strategy in society at large. Hence, there is no reason to expect that the end of the possibilities for reform will herald a decline in reformism.’ (Geoff Roberts, The Strategy of Rank and Filism)

INDEED! So there is no connection between workers’ experience – are reforms, improvements, actually won or not? – and their collective thinking – ‘reformism in the labour movement’. Workers do not learn in struggle, do not learn from experience. They can only be led to challenge capitalism by means of something called ‘a general counter-hegemonic strategy’, by ‘a hegemonic battle on the terrain of civil society in order to establish a consent for a new social order’. [12] In plain words, workers (and all the ‘anti- monopoly’ classes) have to be convinced by propaganda, by ideas. By implication, experience and activity have little to do with the matter. Neither, apparently, does struggle to break the power of the employers and the capitalist state. It is a question of winning ‘consent for a new social order’!

Marx, as is moderately well known, thought otherwise: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being’ he wrote, ‘but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.’ Changing consciousness is primarily the result of changing conditions and of the activity that is both cause and consequence of changing conditions. Propaganda, argument, explanation, all play a role in this process insofar as they lead to activity of the desired kind. But to argue that there is no connection between the strength of reformism and the achievement of reforms, is, for a marxist point of view, simply absurd. If there were no such connection then historical materialism would be nonsense, marxism would have to be written off.

Why does Roberts get himself into such contradictions? Because to justify the CP’s opposition to the fight to build militant rank- and-file movements he gives ‘the revolutionary forces’ (his expression) an almost entirely propagandist role. Their job is ‘bringing about a transformation of mass consciousness’ by winning the battle of ideas rather than by fighting for influence and leadership in working class struggles. That the one is impossible without the other, that, as Marx put it, ‘for men themselves to be changed on a large scale ... can only occur in a practical movement, in a revolution’, does not occur to him. Which is understandable enough, given the CP belief in the ‘anti-monopoly alliance’, ‘strengthening the left trends’ and the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’.

This retreat into propagandism is given a ‘left’ gloss, of course. The SWP is accused of ‘economism’, ‘spontaneism’ and ‘scarcely-veiled contempt for the theory’. ‘Significantly’, we are told, the What We Stand For column published in Socialist Worker every week contains no hint whatsoever of the fact that IS is a supposedly marxist organisation basing itself on marxist theory’! [13]

However, this emphasis, indeed gross overemphasis, on the role of ideas disappears altogether when Geoff Roberts turns to examine the role of trade union officials. Here all is determined by ‘social environment and institutional location’. The officials are in the iron grip of circumstance. Their personal beliefs (and party affiliation?) play no role at all. Ideas are irrelevant. He quotes Hobsbawm: ‘even the most revolutionary must fight the battles for improvement and reform according to the nature of the terrain, which is that of “realistic” calculation in a capitalist economy and a capitalist state. That is to say they must compromise, make allies, and in general act as reformists.’ [14]

To compromise is not, in itself, to act as a reformist, of course. Compromises are forced on revolutionaries all the time. But what are Hobsbawm and Roberts saying? That it makes no difference whether an official is a reformist or a revolutionary because ‘even the most revolutionary’ must ‘act as reformists’. Why then, we may reasonably ask, does the CP run candidates for union office? Because it is a reformist organisation?

Never mind. We can agree with Hobsbawm to this extent: that there are very great pressures on left officials to conform to the norms of the bureaucracy. It is exactly for this reason that the left officials cannot be relied upon, exactly for this reason that powerful rank-and-file movements are essential.

Naturally, Geoff Roberts will not have that conclusion. It is really all the fault of the members who are not ‘advanced’ enough; indeed of ‘the inherently contradictory and ambivalent nature of trade unionism under capitalism’, of ‘the logic of the situation’. [15] But tell us Geoff, if that is an excuse for the ‘left trends’, why isn’t it an excuse for Frank Chapple and Lord Allen?

From the supremacy of ideas (‘transforming consciousness’) to the iron necessity imposed by conditions (‘the logic of the situation’)-back to the supremacy of ideas! One of the greatest sins of the SWP, says Roberts, is ‘workerism – the natural accompaniment of the rank and fileism, spontaneism and economic reductionism ... The point is, of course, that an organisation’s political practice is determined not primarily by its social composition but by its programme.’ [16] Consciousness determines being!

Our view of the party is different. It is that proposed by Lenin and Zinoviev and unanimously adopted at the Second World Congress of the Communist International: ‘A really determined minority of the working class, a minority that is communist, that wants to act, that has a programme, that is out to organise the struggle of the masses-that is precisely what the communist party is.’ [17]

To this kind of party, the development and support of rank-and- file movements in workplaces of all kinds and in the unions is the natural and necessary means of attempting to ‘organise the struggle of the masses’. The CPGB originally set out to build just such a party, a ‘party of a new type’. That is why it subscribed to the Communist International resolution declaring that: ‘The basis of party organisation is the party cell in the factory ... Emphasis in the party’s political organisation work must be shifted to the factory cells. By taking the lead in the struggle of the working masses for their daily needs, the factory cell should guide them forward to the struggle for the proletarian dectatorship.’ [18]

The CP has dropped the struggle to achieve this because it has dropped the aim of the struggle, workers’ power. So Geoff Roberts can sneer at ‘workerism’, at ‘acute overemphasis on the workplace as the site of proletarian struggle’. [19] It is all of a piece with reliance on the left officials and all manner of ‘progressive forces’ rather than on the class struggle.

A final point. Geoff Roberts calls the Right to Work Campaign a ‘“Front” organisation in the classic mould’. By ‘classic mould’ he means, presumably, that developed by the CP: namely a means of manipulating and using ‘innocents’ to further ends quite different from the declared ends of the ‘front’. The accusation is entirely misplaced. The ends of the RWC are exactly those stated. But SWP members play a very large role in the RWC? Yes indeed, and one reason for this is the unwillingness of the CP to take up a serious agitation around the right to work. if the CP threw itself into this field, the relative importance of the SWP in the campaign would be reduced because the whole campaign would be much bigger.

What about it? Isn’t this a case for ‘cooperation where the interests of the movement demand it’? The SWP is for unity in action on this issue, on the fight against the Social Contract, against the cuts in the social services. We are not the splitters




1. Sunday Times, 2.1.1977.

2. G. Roberts, The Strategy of Rank and Filism in Marxism Today, December 1976, p.379.

3. G. Roberts, op. cit., p.379.

4. S. & B. Webb, The History of Trade Unionism, 1920 Edition, p.204.

5. S. & B. Webb, op. cit., pp.469-70.

6. B. Holton, British Syndicalism 1900-1914, London 1976, p.33.

7. R. Fox, The Class Struggle in Britain 1880-1914, quoted by Brian Pearce in Some Past Rank and File Movements reprinted in Communism in Britain, London 1976, p.111. Pearce’s article is outstanding.

8. See practically any account of the run-up to the general strike. A summary outline is given in Duncan Hallas, The Communist Party and the General Strike in International Socialism 88.

9. G. Roberts, op. cit., p.379.

10. See, for example, J. Deason, The Broad Left in the AUEW in International Socialism 79.

11. Marxism Today, October 1975. p.289.

12. G Roberts, op. cit., p.378

13. G. Roberts, op. cit., p.381.

14. G. Roberts, op. cit., p.377.

15. G. Roberts, op. cit., p.377.

16. G. Roberts, op. cit., p.382.

17. J. Degras, The Communist International 1919-1943, Volume I, p.131.

18. J. Degras, op. cit., Volume II pp. 80-81.

19. G. Roberts. op. cit., p.382.


Last updated on 19.10.2006