Duncan Hallas

In the beginning ...

(February 1984)

From Socialist Review, No.62, February 1984, pp.12-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Following the antics of the TUC of late, many socialists are looking to the election of left leaders to solve the problem. Duncan Hallas looks at the history of the bureaucracy and the role of its left wing.

When Marx died in 1883 the total number of trade unionists in Britain was well below a million. A considerable proportion of them were organised in small, often localised, craft societies and membership fluctuated markedly with the trade cycle. Collective bargaining, where it took place at all, was typically local, firm by firm, and sometimes, literally ‘piece by piece’, as in the boilermaking trades.

The union officialdom was not conspicuous, not an influential social layer, and had little national presence or cohesion (although the TUC had existed since 1868).

When Engels died, twelve years later, the situation had changed somewhat as a result of the mass strikes of the late eighties and the rise of the ‘New Unionism’, the organisation of the unskilled. By 1892 there were about one and a half million trade unionists, many in quite big unions, and although the numbers fell off for a while they were climbing towards two million by the end of the century.

Neither Marx nor Engels, therefore, had much experience of stable, mass working class organisation. Neither seriously discussed, a few casual comments aside, the question of the social role of the labour bureaucracy.

Understandably enough. They were concerned with the enormous transformation from the mass struggle and semi-revolutionary atmosphere of the early decades of the century to the conservative, ‘respectable’ (and weak) trade societies of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Of course the contrast can be overstated but it is real enough.


For Marx, it was due above all to the fact that Britain, the heartland of the new industrial capitalist order, was still the ‘workshop of the world’. In the 1880s, the little town of Burnley, up on the Pennine slopes, produced about 80 percent of the world output of machine made carpets. And much later, in 1913, 40 percent of the total new world tonnage of steam ships was built in British yards, 25 percent of it on the Clyde alone.

So Marx’s comment that Britain had produced not only a bourgeoisie but also a bourgeois aristocracy and bourgeoisified (to use a later term) proletariat, had a real, material basis. He was right to stress that, the main fact, which determined the immediate prospects for revolutionaries; equally right in predicting that this state of affairs must pass away. But the very concentration on these brute facts blinded Marx and Engels to the problem of the labour bureaucracy, even in the eighties.

Lenin too. Taking up and vastly developing Marx’s insight into the reality and consequences of uneven development, produced a theory of imperialism (1916), the operative content of which, in this context, was that ‘a whole layer of working men’, not only in Britain but in all the ten industrialised countries, had been ‘bought off’ – the famous theory of the ‘labour aristocracy’.

Lenin himself thought of this as very much a minority – a fifth, a quarter at most. But he thought that this layer was decisive in making opportunism and reformism dominant in the workers’ movement.

He was both right and wrong about this. Right in that the German pipefitter or the British boilermaker was objectively an ‘aristocrat’ in relation to ‘his own’ working class, let alone those of the Third World (in 1914 the rates of the British Engineering Union (ASE) for fitters and turners were exactly double the labourer’s rates). Wrong in thinking that this layer of skilled workers was therefore irrevocably conservatised.

In the event, the mass strikes of 1917-18 in Austria-Hungary, Germany and Britain, which shook the imperialist powers to the foundations, were, in the main, led by ‘labour aristocrats’. He was wrong too, in the belief that ‘the most exploited and oppressed’ would always be the most rebellious.

Naturally, the opposite is not true either.

Marx, because he had never seen a developed Labour movement, Lenin, because such a thing did not exist in Russia, laid too little emphasis on the problem of the labour bureaucracy.

It was, in fact, the pro-imperialist English Fabians, who first pinpointed the problem. The Webbs’ History of Trade Unionism (first edition, 1894) pointed to an important change in the, still very weak, 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 out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity.’

The Fabian couple naturally approved of this change but it never occurred to them to doubt that what they called ‘this Civil Service of the Trade Union world’ was essentially conservative. They wrote:

‘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 subjections of the artisan life gradually fades from his mind: and he comes more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable ...

‘Unconsciously biased by distaste for the hard and unthankful work that 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.’

The Webbs also noted how ‘insidiously, silently, unknown even to himself the official ‘insensibly adopts more and more of the vices of his middle class neighbours’.

Now note that all this was written about the British, the first institutionalised labour movement, when it was still dominated by craft societies, which, typically, had a rather low ratio of officials to members and in which the election, and regular re-election, of all officials was still the norm.


In fact it was a bit out of date by the time it was published. With the rise of the ‘New Unionism’ from 1889, and still more, in the years of the ‘great revolt’ of 1909-1914, union membership rose from 1,530000 (1894) to 4,145,000 (1914) and the numbers of full-time officials rose much more than proportionately. And, typically, the officials of the new unions were appointed, not elected.

From this time on the role of this new social layer has been crucial in the class struggle.

It expanded rapidly as union membership shot up during and immediately after the First World War (reaching nearly eight and a half million at its peak in 1918). Moreover, when the decline set in, in the early twenties, the officialdom did not shrink. Hinton and Hyman make the point that ‘while union membership fell drastically during the 1920s, the number, of full-time officials appears actually to have increased’ (Trade Unions and Revolution, p.18. This little pamphlet is factually valuable but marred politically by a too propagandist approach).

The influence of the bureaucracy was, of course, enormously enhanced by the growth of national negotiations and often very detailed national agreements, especially after 1914. Agreements which the bureaucracies fought to enforce on unwilling sections of the membership at the cost, often, of fighting against ‘unofficial’ action.

Even before 1914 this was apparent. ‘Practically every one of the great strikes from 1911 to 1914 was begun as an unofficial, spontaneous movement of the workers, spreading rapidly,’ 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 to semi-failure.’

It is something of a simplification but it will stand as an indication of the dual nature of trade unionism and the trade union bureaucracies under capitalism: on the one hand, a weapon of sections of workers against their bosses, on the other hand, a means of social control over workers in struggle by the bureaucracies in the interests, objectively, of the boss class.

This duality is always present, is inherent in the very nature of trade unionism, but, of course, the different elements are not always of the same weight. The balance of class forces, the moods of the working class, the actual course of class struggle have profound, and usually determining effects on the outcome.

The really spectacular, open sell-out is the exception, not the rule. The labour bureaucracy is not all-powerful, far from it, and its normal rule is one of ‘balancing’, of seeking a deal within the framework of capitalism, more or less favourable to the workers concerned according to the circumstances.

There have been periods, e.g. from 1940 to the middle fifties, when the bureaucracies have opposed practically all strikes. There have been periods, e.g. from the late sixties till very recently, when they have led a good many strikes – or misled them, but at any rate called them.

Nor is it the case that the officials usually want to lose disputes. The NGA leadership did not, does not, want to lose to Eddie Shah. They wanted, and want, a compromise without risking a general confrontation with the print bosses. In the given circumstances this is a self-defeating policy but that is a different matter.

The officials, as a social layer, are rooted in working class organisation. Without it they are non-existent. They seek, typically, to defend it in their own fashion – class-collaborationist, sectional and soon – but to defend it. Nor are the officials invariably forced into action by an insurgent membership. They often are, but Arthur Scargill today has pushed hard for the overtime ban which sections of the workforce are less than enthusiastic about.

The matter, then, is more complicated than a simple ‘the officials always sell out’ position suggests. What is true is that they have a built-in tendency to limit struggles and to class-collaboration – as a group, that is. What then, of the role of left officials? Undoubtedly there is a very real difference between Arthur Scargill and Frank Chapple and it is nonsense to suppose that this makes no difference to what their organisations actually do.

The question is, given the general nature of the bureaucracy, how can its conservative influence be most effectively countered? It is a very live issue. The Broad Left Organising Committee, which is calling a conference in March, puts the weight of its activity on electing left officials. The Socialist Workers Party has always put the emphasis on seeking to strengthen rank and file organisation. Both trends have a quite long history.

Writing of the pre-1914 syndicalists. Bob Holton noted:

‘With hindsight the most striking point about syndicalist industrial strategy was the belief that trade union reconstruction and dual unionism were the only options available. There was, as yet, no conception of independent workplace organisation as a third alternative. Unlike the wartime shop stewards and workers’ committee movement, the pre-war syndicalists failed to grasp the potential importance of this form of organisation, either as a means of moving from amalgamation propaganda to all-grades workshop action (on the railways – DH), or as a way of building a counterweight to trade union officialdom.’
(Holton, British Syndicalism, p 205)

Most of them believed in amalgamation to form industrial unions (organisations of everybody in the industry) as the means to overcome craft sectionalism, which they saw as the main problem. Union structure, rather than the conservatism of the officials, was the syndicalist target, indeed conservatism was seen as a consequence of the craft structure.

It is easy now to see the fallacy. The great syndicalist organisational success, the amalgamation which created the NUR, with its model ‘industrial’ structure, did not lead to a fighting union. The ‘non-sectionalist’ officialdom proved as class collaborationist as its sectionalist predecessors.

Questions of union organisation are sometimes extremely important. Sectionalism is a curse. But class collaboration has deeper roots. It is organic to the labour bureaucracy as a social layer, whether craft, industrial or general.

The shop stewards and workers committee movement of the war years did indeed make a great advance. It was forced on them by the active collaboration of practically the entire officialdom with the government and the employers. The famous statement of the Manchester conference in 1916: ‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers but will act independently immediately they misrepresent them’ is still today an excellent guideline.

The shop stewards and workers committee movement itself did not survive very long. The 1922 lock-out in the engineering trades, where its main forces were, finished it off. But out of it came an important section of the cadre of the Communist Party.

They carried over into it important elements of a critical understanding of the role of labour bureaucracies and an emphasis on rank and file organisation. Moreover, the CP’s attempt to establish a rank and file oriented industrial movement from 1924 on coincided with (and to a limited extent caused) the first period in which a group of left officials played a leading role in the TUC.

These officials, or some of them, had a considerable reputation for militancy and class consciousness. A.J. Cook, elected general secretary of the Miners’ Federation early in 1924, had been prominent in the bitter Cambrian strike in 1910 and had become one of the leading left wingers in South Wales.

George Hicks, who had been a leading militant in the building trades in London and conspicuous for attempts at amalgamation, was now general secretary of the AUBTW (bricklayers). Alf Purcell of the furniture trades had a long history of involvement in socialist causes in Salford. Alonzo Swales (AEU) had been prominent in the amalgamation movement and was reputed to be a reliable ally of the CP.

All these men (except Cook, who favoured biblical rhetoric) spoke the language of Marxism. Cook and Purcell had joined the CP at its foundation or soon after. Significantly, both had left as the party began to exert some discipline on party union officials.

Nonetheless, it was an impressive looking crop of lefts, certainly nothing quite like it had been seen before and, in the crucial years from 1924 to 1926, Cook, Hicks, Purcell and Swales played a leading role in the TUC, whose general secretary Bromley and his deputy Citrine were also reckoned as adhering to the left.

This leftish leadership was confronted by the ruling class offensive of 1925-26, which aimed, first of all, to break the power of the Miners’ Federation, then the biggest union, as a means of bringing the rest to heel.

It responded, at first, with apparent vigour. The mine owners’ ultimatum of June 1925, demanding pay cuts and increased hours, was met by the decision of a conference of executives to call for a total embargo on the movement of coal.

The government backed down to gain time. The mine owners withdrew their ultimatum and were awarded a subsidy for nine months to enable a Royal Commission to report. A temporary victory had been gained without a shot being fired.

Of course, the struggle had merely been postponed. The government set out to prepare systematically for the inevitable confrontation. The TUC, including its left wing leaders, talked left and did nothing at all. A combination of militant rhetoric (the September 1925 TUC was, in words, the most radical ever) and practical passivity prepared the way for the sell-out of May 1926.

The effect of the left leaders was twofold. They raised expectations and so, to some degree, willingness to fight and at the same time disarmed criticism and spread illusions. As Page Arnot, the first CP historian of the general strike, wrote in 1926:

‘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.’

When the general strike was actually called, the lefts collapsed completely and, with the exception of Cook, joined the right in the catastrophic sell-out of 12 May when the strike was ignominiously called off.

It was not a matter, as it might appear in retrospect, of a conscious conspiracy to sell out. There were real conflicts between the left and the right-wing bureaucrats but they were conflicts within the framework of trade union assumptions. The lefts, no less than the right, shrank from a showdown with the capitalist state.

Trotsky accurately described them a few months before the general strike:

‘The left faction of the General Council is distinguished by its complete ideological shapelessness and is therefore incapable of organisationally assuming the leadership of the trade union movement.’

Some of the lefts were intoxicated by their own rhetoric; all hoped and believed, or half-believed, that bluff and deception would shatter the walls of the capitalist Jericho. Sober calculation, realism and ruthless determination – all qualities displayed by the bourgeois leadership – were completely absent. And so, in the time of crisis, the left leaders proved worse than useless. They betrayed their own past as well as the working class and yet, at the same time, they were true to themselves. Left officials they had been, officials they remained.


The great crisis of the middle 20s led to a shattering defeat for the working class and a prolonged period of right wing dominance in the unions. Not until some forty years later, in the late sixties, did a new group of lefts, the Scanlon-Jones leaderships, become temporarily dominant in the TUC. The outcome was a less spectacular but no less real betrayal – the Social Contract and its result, the weakened and right ward moving TUC of today.

The point, for revolutionary socialists, is that the betrayals were not primarily the consequence of individual lack of moral fibre. They were a function of the very nature of labour bureaucracies of whatever political complexions and therefore of the necessity to build independently of the officialdom, without any ultra-left ignoring of the (real but limited) struggle in the union machines.

Trotsky’s brilliant criticism of the British CP’s policy in 1925-26 with its slogan ‘All Power to the General Council’ was not centred on the fact that the party supported the left officials against the right (it had to), but on its reliance on electing left officials at the expense of its own struggle for leadership through rank and file organisations. His summary of the outcome is very pertinent to the attitude revolutionaries must have to the Broad Left Organising Committee and similar operations.

‘(They were) actually subordinating the Communist Party to the Minority Movement ... The masses knew as the leaders of this movement only Purcell, Hicks and Cook, whom, moreover, Moscow vouched for. These “left” friends, in a serious test, shamefully betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion, sank into apathy and naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself, which has only been the passive part of this whole mechanism of perfidy and betrayal.’

It is very tempting, when shopfloor activity is hard, as it is today, to see the election of left officials as a short cut. We must remember where it is a short cut to.


Last updated on 1.12.2004