Chris Harman


Councils of action

(July 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.60, July 1973, pp.4-7.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The early twenties

During the last great period of industrial unrest in Britain, which culminated in the General Strike of 1926, the call for ‘councils of action’ was central to the propaganda and agitation of the revolutionary Left, organised at the time in the still-revolutionary Communist Party.

The official leaders of the labour movement themselves, for a brief period in the summer of 1920 gave the go-ahead for the creation of bodies that linked the different sections of the trade union movement and working-class political organisations. Lloyd George’s government seemed bent on war with Russia, and the official leaders felt compelled to organise protest action. The Labour Party and TUC leaders met together, announced the formation of a central council of action, and summoned all affiliated organisations to an emergency conference to discuss activity against the threat of war. Similar joint bodies were formed in at least 350 different localities, providing the framework for agitation against the war threat throughout the working class.

Lloyd George never risked putting the militant talk of the union leaderships to the test. In any case the defeat of the Red Army by Polish forces outside Warsaw removed the need for direct intervention by Britain. As the danger of war receded, the union leaders were able to tell their members that the councils of action, which had existed for a few days only (the mobilisation of workers against the war reached a climax around 8 August, and the defeat of the Red Army occurred on 17 August) had now served their purpose.

On numerous other occasions in the early 1920s, the sort of unity achieved around the councils of action would have been of immense value to the working class. But the official leaders of the labour movement feared a weapon in the class struggle that could all too easily get out of their own hands.

By the same token, rank-and-file militants seized upon the notion of councils of action as providing the basis for a unity which would not leave the power of decision with the official leaders. The Communist Party repeatedly raised the question of councils of action as the only way to build the unity needed in the face of governmental attack. The main lines of the strategy to be pursued were summed up in a letter from the Communist International in September 1921:

The workers of Britain are organised in trades unions, they are not organised as a class. They possess no class organisations capable of leading the working class to victory. The workers must take the task of unification into their own hands and see to it, first of all, that all shops and works are united, along the lines of industry. The workers’ committee is the foundation of working-class unity. The workers committees and the trade unions must form the local trades and labour councils with authority to act as the general staff of labour in the locality.

The Theses of the Third Congress of the Communist International in the same year contained the same emphasis. The key to transforming the struggle for partial economic demands by different groups of working people into a political struggle of the whole class lay in building the unity of the class from the bottom up round a militant approach to concrete struggles. By raising the question of united action in the correct way, the revolutionary socialist organisation could demonstrate to workers their own power, and challenge decisively the grip of the existing, reformist leaders of the movement.

If a number of local (trade union) organisations have been influenced to support the movement for the basic interests of the proletariat, under Communist leadership, they must be called together to general conferences, which should also be attended by special delegates of the factory meetings at which favourable resolutions were adopted. The new leadership, consolidated under Communist leadership in this manner, gains new power by means of such concentration of the active groups of the organised workers ... As the struggles become more intensified and general in character, it becomes necessary to create uniform organisations for the leadership of the struggles.

Where the combination of the isolated struggle has been achieved the common organisation of action must be insisted upon, and it is here that Communists must seek the leadership ...

When movements become widespread and owing to the onslaught of the employers’ organisations and government interference, assume a political character, preliminary propaganda and organisational work must be started for the election of workers’ councils which may become possible and even necessary ... In this propaganda, not the slightest consideration should be shown to the trade-union bureaucracy or to the old socialist parties.

Accordingly the young Communist Party campaigned continually for united action based upon organisations that spread beyond narrow craft and union divisions.

For instance, in January 1925, the party’s paper, The Workers Weekly, argued:

‘The miners’ agreement is ending in a few months. There are three alternatives: surrender, fight without allies, solid alliance with other workers.

‘Are the leaders of the NUR ready to fight? No. Nor are the leaders of the miners and the engineers. That is why the rank and file of these unions have got to get together. And the only effective unity can be built through the National Minority Movement and the Communist Party.’

The Minority Movement called upon the executives of the main unions involved in wage struggles to unite in an action council. But the stress in the propaganda was that unity had to be fought for by the rank and file in the factories and localities. In May The Workers Weekly told its readers of ‘reports from all over the country of the formation of councils of action to coordinate the forces of workers in demanding wage increases’. (1 May 1925)

There was no set formula for achieving the desired unity. As different groups of workers joined the struggle or were sold out, as trade-union leaders manoeuvred in different ways, the slogans expressing the aim of militant unity had to change. At one time the appropriate demand was for an ‘industrial alliance’ and committees to realise this at a local level, at another councils of action for the whole class. What mattered was not the particular form of words, but the emphasis on uniting those sections of the class that were being forced into struggle. Unity at local level alone could provide the basis for a national unity capable of withstanding the inevitable vacillations and betrayals by the official national leaders. Out of the struggle for militant unity a new leadership would emerge from below, in which revolutionary socialists would play a key part, able to unite the class for struggle regardless of the actions of the old leaders.

Unfortunately, before the decisive test came in 1926 this strategy was effectively abandoned by the British Communist Party, under the influence of the Stalinised Comintern. Instead, the party put its faith in the ‘Left’ trade-union leaders who, according to The Workers Weekly of 30 April 1926, ‘have sufficient courage to stand firm on the demands of the miners, but are totally incapable of moving forward to face all the implications of a united working-class challenge to the state.’ Local organisation became, not a means of building up a new leadership from below, but merely a method of putting into effect the course agreed by the union leaders at the top.

Nevertheless, the call for councils of action remained central for the party.

The General Strike

In the course of the General Strike, local committees for coordinating the efforts of different sections of workers grew up in many areas. The Workers’ History of the Great Strike [1], written soon afterwards by Raymond Postgate on the basis of local reports gives an outline of the national picture:

The controlling body in each town had various names. Often the trades council transformed itself into a council of action (at Ilford an ‘action committee’), and a central, or joint, strike committee sometimes would work in harmony (or otherwise) with it. In Basingstoke there was a vigilance committee, elsewhere there were generally separate strike committees for each industry – sometimes not accepting any joint control. The Scottish Trades Union Congress simplified matters for the ‘knuckle end of Britain’ by sending out, not only a specimen permit, but instructions to form strike committees on a uniform scheme – one delegate from each union affected and one from the trades council, the committee then ‘to sub-divide into the various industries, ie, transport sub-committee, building trades subcommittee, etc.’ These committees or councils remained local in character, and were not federated or regionally controlled, except at Merseyside, Dartford (a divisional council) and in Northumberland and Durham (a general council) ...

In many cases a single industry would dominate, generally the railways, as at Braintree, Bridport, Norwich, Stapleford, Wolverhampton, Wellingborough, and so on. At Chesterfield the railwaymen tried to draw the miners in, ‘but as is usual with the rank-and-file miner, he remained apathetic.’ At Blaina, Maesteg, Gwaen-cae-Gurwen and elsewhere, on the other hand, the miners dominated policy. Most committees were set up in great haste (though Preston’s was formed nine months before, Hull’s nearly as long), and in Coventry the council of action on Tuesday discovered ‘union branches of whose existence in the city we had no knowledge ...’

Where the strike committee had not sufficient authority there was always a danger that the private interests of the various unions would cross those of the general solidarity of the workers, as at Bradford, the seat of some of the textile unions’ headquarters. Here the central officials, especially the Dyers, seemed to be chiefly occupied with securing the transport that they needed. The sister town of Leeds was even worse. It possessed no less than four rival strike committees, mutually jealous, and must have been the worst conducted town in England. The trouble was in part due to the possession by certain full-time officials of a direct telephone line to London. They clustered round this and remained isolated and superior ...

The sub-committees set up by the committees varied. The Vale of Leven is more or less typical of a well-organised area. Its sub-committees were as follows: (1) organisation of strike; (2) propaganda; (3) commissariat – this presumably included relief to strikers; (4) defence corps (not a very common sub-division); (5) transport; (6) building trades. Each committee had a convener. Such organisation was common throughout the industrial district of Fife, Kinross and Clackmannan, from the Vale of Leven to Alloa ...

The potential power of the councils of action was shown most graphically in the Newcastle area.

Like many other districts, the north-east coast was late in moving. It was not till the 4th that a meeting was held to set up a directing body. The more extensive nature of the strike appears immediately from the list of the unions ... Under the shadow of the council and obeying its orders, a mushroom field of local councils of action shot up overnight. By Wednesday morning the whole of the north-east coast was effectively out (including the seamen) and effectively organised for the stopping of communications and other strike purposes.

On Wednesday the dockers handling food struck work. (The cause was an attempt to use members of the OMS [2] at the docks, under the guns of two destroyers and a submarine.) The result was that on Wednesday night, Sir Kingsley Wood, the government’s commissioner, came to three representatives of the strike committee with what was in effect an appeal for aid and an offer of partial withdrawal. He retired to consult his assistants, the others to report to their colleagues, and the conversations were continued next day. It then appeared that Sir Kingsley was offering at least a partial surrender; he was prepared to abandon any attempt to use non-union labour and to operate the docks ‘under dual control’ – himself and the union nominees. The committee was faced with a delicate choice. Had it been a free agent it might have decided to take a revolutionary course; to force Wood to further concessions, and in effect to take over his powers and use them in the interest of the workers (especially in the matter of food distribution). But the intention of the TUC instructions was clearly opposed to this.

Councils of action today

In the first 25 years after World War II the question of councils of action could not arise in Britain. The prolonged expansion of capitalism meant that most employers were prepared, year after year, to make limited concessions to workers, knowing that they would be able to maintain their markets and recoup their profits. Most strikes were short, and confined to particular factories or parts of factories. Militancy was fragmented and localised. Workers often saw little need for rank-and-file organisation extending beyond the confines of the workplace.

Attempts in recent years by successive governments to hold wages back below ‘norm’ and to undermine rank and file strength through legislative action have transformed this picture. Now there are unofficial strikes involving thousands – or even tens of thousands – of workers and official strikes of whole industries, as well as the old type of localised, fragmented struggles. Government action is forcing workers to see that even partial victories for particular groups demand united action by wide sections of the class. The question of how to achieve this unity is posed again, as it was in the 1920s.

At present the only unified leadership the working class possesses is the general council of the TUC. Yet it is clear (from the retreats of the last three months, if from nothing else) that the bureaucrats who sit on that body are incapable of organising real support for workers in struggle. It is not good enough for militants merely to pass resolutions demanding that the official leadership gives a lead. That might expose its lack of principles, but cannot provide workers with an alternative.

The call for councils of action suggests how rank-and-file trade unionists can begin to build real unity at local level without waiting upon the general council. It raises the question of united organisation of the strength of the trade-union movement, cutting across union and industrial boundaries.

Rank-and-file organisations in particular work places are much stronger and more widespread today than they were in the 1920s. Then shop stewards’ organisations were confined, in the main, to engineering, where their power was radically curtailed after the massive defeat in the lockout of 1922. Today, industries in which there is not some sort of stewards’ organisation are the exception.

The specific character of the present crisis of capitalism means it is more difficult for the employers to destroy on-the-job organisation than it was in the 1920s. In that period, trade-union organisation could expand at a great pace during a boom (as it did in 1919), but the inevitable slump which followed, bringing with it mass unemployment; made it possible for employers to drive militants out of the factories, slash wages and demoralise workers (as they did in 1921-22). Today what we are faced with is not the slump-boom pattern of classical capitalism, but the alternation of periods of stagnation and expansion that characterises the present phase of the permanent arms economy. Without really massive levels of unemployment it is difficult for employers to smash shop-floor organisation in a short space of time (which is why they are forced to resort to long-term stratagems like productivity dealing and measured day work). It is not the case, as in the twenties, that one or two really big defeats destroy rank-and-file organisation.

This also gives a certain character to the struggle. It is not an all-or-nothing combat between the rival classes. Rather it is a war of attrition which – as the employers and government attempt their long-term goal of weakening shop-floor organisation and holding down pay – suddenly flares up into large battles as one side or the other makes a breakthrough: the miners and the dockers defeating the government last year, the government successfully enforcing its freeze this.

It is when the clashes occur that the need for united and militant organisation is brought home. For it is then that the presence or absence of rank-and-file organisation transcending sectional divisions becomes decisive.

In such a period, militants have to press continually for forms of organisation that can unite the class from below. Inside the factories, this means strengthening joint shop stewards’ committees, cementing their links with the rank-and-file through regular report-back meetings and leaflets, and attempting to establish permanent combine committees. In the localities it means making propaganda for councils of action.

But the actual construction of such councils is more difficult. A real council of action would be a strike committee of the main sections of the class in the locality, made up of delegates with sufficient standing to ensure that its decisions stood a fair chance of being implemented by large masses of workers. To substitute for that an unrepresentative body, not able to ensure action from substantial sections of workers and therefore incapable of translating its words into action, would be worse than useless. It would involve setting up a caricature of a council of action, thus discrediting propaganda for the real thing.

What has to be done, in practice, is to build much more modest bodies, corresponding to the needs of the real struggle, that cut across sectional division within the class and point to a wider unity. In the struggle over the freeing of the five London dockers last summer, that meant pressing for action committees made up of representatives from stewards’ organisations and effective trade-union branches to organise for joint strikes and demonstrations.

During the struggle against the freeze this spring it meant pushing local union branches and stewards committees to form joint committees (public sector alliances) to organise united picketing and demonstrations, financial support for the weakest section (the hospital workers) and propaganda addressed to other workers in the locality.

By their very nature such committees lose their significance with the end of the particular struggles around which they are organised. As committees of action, they cannot function without the class being in action. The episodic nature of the struggles means that joint committees formed in the course of the struggle tend to fade away soon afterwards.

However, if they have been effectively developed around particular struggles, they prove the value of wider rank-and-file links to substantial sections of workers and should spring into life with much less effort the next time round. Small successes in building class unity at one stage prepare the ground for greater successes at the next.

At the same time, it is possible to build more enduring forms of organisation, based upon the already militant minority within the class. In the 1920s the Communist Party not only made propaganda for councils of action, it also built the Minority Movement. This was a body of rank-and-file militants, organised into fractions around rank-and-file papers in particular unions and industries, and holding regular national and local conferences. It provided an on-going structure which linked the struggles of particular groups of workers in particular unions to demands for a strong shop-floor organisation, for local councils of action and for a militant policy for the trade-union movement as a whole.

The potential for building such an organisation already exists today. In December 1970 hundreds of thousands of workers struck in protest against the Industrial Relations Bill, in defiance of the TUC. Last July an even greater number struck unofficially after the imprisonment of the five dockers. On the basis of such militancy the Communist Party-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions could easily have created a national structure of committees of militants in each locality and each union, capable of fighting for a unified class response to the various attacks of the employers and the government: at the time of the miners’ strike last year, against the imprisonment of the dockers, when the Industrial Relations Court imposed fines on the engineering union (in December) and in solidarity with the different groups of workers confronting Phase Two this spring.

It was not a shortage of militants that prevented the creation of such a structure, but the politics of the leaders of the Liaison Committee, who put friendship with Left and not-so-Left trade-union officials above the needs of the class struggle. It will be up to other militants to attempt to accomplish this task in the period ahead.

For accounts of the change in strategy see Chris Harman, The General Strike, in IS 48, and Brian Pearce, The Early History of the CPGB.


1. London, 1927.

2. Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies – a list of potential scabs was drawn up several months before the General Strike as OMS manpower.

Last updated on 26 April 2010