Duncan Hallas

Reality, not the myth

(April 1986)

From Socialist Review, No.86, April 1986, p.30.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926
Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein
Bookmarks £6.25

THE General Strike itself was a textbook demonstration of bureaucratic methods and the harm they can do. The path that led to this catastrophic defeat posed the problem of how a revolutionary party should function in a non-revolutionary situation and orientate towards trade unionism.

This book goes deeply into both questions, starting with the nature of trade unionism. Naturally this cannot be reduced to a rigid formula. There are enormous differences between the unions created in the violent upsurges of the eighteen-thirties and forties in Britain, the craft societies that were the core of British trade unionism from the fifties to the eighties and beyond, and the big organisations of more or less unskilled and semi-skilled workers that had become numerically dominant by 1926.

The differences are compounded by the fact that two very important sectors of nineteenth and early twentieth century unionism in Britain, textiles and mining, were decidedly atypical. At .one level these differences are expressed in forms of organisation: craft, trade (which is by no means always the same thing), industrial and general. Organisational forms matter. But they matter less than the context in which they operate, a fact commonly under-estimated by left wing militants.

Thus the ‘revolutionary’ unionism of the early period had a similar structure to that of the general unions which, in the twenties and right through to the sixties, were regarded by the left (with some justification) as pillars of conservatism. Conversely, the NUR, ‘the model industrial union’, was more consistently class collaborationist than the craft society of locomotive engineers and firemen – the opposite outcome to that expected by the militant fighters for industrial unionism.

The key questions are, as this book vividly demonstrates, the conditions in which the unions were formed and consolidated (or typically not consolidated in the period before 1850), the intensity of the class struggle, and the role of the labour bureaucracies.

The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation. Like the god Janus it presents two faces: it balances between the employers and the workers. It holds back and controls the workers’ struggle, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent ...

The authors go on to look at the different pressures on the bureaucracy.

The trade union official balances between different sections of the unions’ own memberships. He keeps in check the advanced sections of the union who are the more active and rebellious by relying on those who are more passive, apathetic or ignorant ...

But there. are also the conflicts between internal and external pressures. Here the authors argue that:

The relative strength of the internal and external forces bearing upon the union shifts and fluctuates. In certain periods the pressure from below is of overriding effect; in others the pressure from the capitalists and the state predominates. On occasions both sets of pressure may be comparatively weak, allowing a large measure of autonomy to the trade union bureaucrat. At other times both may be powerful and the bureaucracy appears trapped between irreconcilable forces ...

The authors see a very important factor emerging from all this:

The fundamental fact, overriding all differences between bureaucrats, is that they belong to a conservative social stratum which, especially at times of radical crisis – as in the 1926 General Strike – make the differences between left and right bureaucrats secondary. At such times all sections of the bureaucracy seek to curb and control workers’ militancy.

The key question for revolutionaries is how . to relate to and, under favourable circumstances, transform this state of affairs. Nothing is more important for revolutionaries in a country like Britain.

The first requirement is to recognise the problem. Unfortunately many on the left do not recognise it but talk glibly about the ‘labour movement’ inexorably going forward.

Others do understand something of the role of bureaucracies, often from bitter experience, but see the solution largely in terms of changing the personnel. The experience of the General Strike – the reality, not the myths – is invaluable here.

Given the nature of the bureaucracies, its defeat was inevitable unless the revolutionary party (the Communist Party at this time) had been able to understand the social nature of the bureaucracies, to exploit its divisions and to overcome its leadership. It failed. In practise the CP came to pursue a policy of near-total reliance on ‘left’ bureaucrats – with disastrous results.

Why? There is no doubt that the party’s own theoretical heritage was weak, a fact amply demonstrated in this book, and not to be underestimated. Yet it was not without some strengths. The CPGB had, at least, emancipated itself (with the help of the early Comintern) from the passive, sectarian, propagandistic tradition of pre1920 British Marxism and that was a considerable advance.

It was more or less free, in this period, from parliamentary cretinism and had at least some insight into the dialectical relationship between the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’, the struggle within the system and the struggle to transform the system.

Nevertheless a major, probably the major, influence on the party’s course in the crucial years 1924 to 1926, was the line of the Comintern. That body, especially after the formation of the Anglo-Soviet Trade Union Committee (between the TUC and the Russian union centre) in September 1924, pushed strongly towards reliance on those ‘friends of the Soviet Union’, the left-wing officials temporarily dominant on the General Council of the TUC.

The CP was politically disarmed. The criminally wrong slogan “All Power to the General Council” was adopted. The CP ceased to act as a force independent of the bureaucracies.

There is some very interesting material in this book about the weakness of the Comintern leadership’s grasp of trade union problems even in its best days under Lenin’s personal guidance, a weakness rooted, say the authors, in the relative lack of experience of entrenched labour bureaucracies in pre-1917 Russia.

Yet there is a qualitative difference between the mistakes of the Comintern in the period of the first four Congresses and the wooing of left officials, ‘progressive’ nationalists, etc., in and after 1924-25 as the Russian bureaucracy under Stalin gained strength.

No doubt the new line met a ready response from much of the CPGB leadership. That in no way diminishes the responsibility of Stalinism. The Stalinists, more or less in control of the Comintern by 1926, could have pulled the CPGB leftwards. Instead they pushed it hard to the right.

The detailed description of the course of events, up to and after the debacle of May 1926, given in this book is excellent. Even those familiar with the period can learn a good deal from it. It is the integration of this material combined with a sustained and sophisticated analysis that makes Marxism and Trade Union Struggle indispensable reading. For, of course, the book is a guide to action for today.


Last updated on 8.11.2003