Jim Higgins

Revolutionary Trade Unionism
(Part Two)

Dual Unionism in Britain

(April 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.47, April-May 1971, pp.14 & 19-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The first part of this article, which appeared in our last issue (IS 46), dealt with the early development of trade unionism in Britain, and with the experiences of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in the US.

In 1903 the British SLP was formed from members of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). The immediate cause of the split was the support given by the SDF leadership (Hyndman, Quelch, etc.) for Kautsky’s compromise resolution on Millerand’s entry into a French government with Gallifet, the murderer of the French communards. The dispute was, however, much more far-reaching than this. Tom Bell indicates this in his book Pioneering Days [7]:

‘The main line of the opposition was against all reformism: exposure of the Labour Party and trade union officials as fakers; for socialist trade unionism; against the monarchy and exposure of the futility of Labour parliamentarism’.

This line the official SDF nicknamed ‘Impossibilism’. In short, it was more or less complete De Leonism. The social composition of the small British SLP was mainly industrial workers, with a few clerical workers. [8] The criteria for membership was absolute adherence to the programme and a refusal to be influenced by reformism, reformists or booze. The leading figures in the organisation were Connolly, Yates and Mathieson, all dedicated teetotalers. No official of a trade union was eligible for membership of the party. [9] Presumably there was not too much danger of this for the party had only 80 members at its founding conference (the majority of these in Scotland). [10] The members were excluded from dual membership in any other organisation which precluded any work in the Labour Party, where they might have had some chance of proselytising.

The main influence in the early period of the party was James Connolly. Connolly had returned from a trip to America in 1902 where he had come under the influence of De Leon. He became the first organiser of the SLP at a wage of 30s a week, when the money was available. According to Bell, Connolly toured all over Scotland recruiting for the organisation and it is, perhaps, as a result of his efforts that in 1904 the SLP reported a membership of 200 to the International. Connolly, besides being a brilliant organiser and speaker, was also an unusually accomplished writer. He wrote, handset, printed and dispatched copies of the party paper The Socialist. But despite the undoubted talent of Connolly, the singleness of purpose and dedication of the members, their exclusiveness

and insistence on complete agreement on all points would have made them as ineffective and irrelevant to the course of British socialist development as the SPGB had it not been for their adherence to industrial unionism and their efforts to spread these ideas to the Clyde.

With the founding of the IWW the British SLP decided to convene a conference in Glasgow to set up a propaganda organisation to popularise the idea of revolutionary industrial unionism. At this conference the Advocates of Industrial Unionism was founded. The programme indicated not only that De Leon’s advocacy of industrial unionism had been learned but also, and with much less reason, his attachment to dual unionism had been transported across the Atlantic. In the preamble to the programme this is made clear:

‘... the trade unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping to defeat one another in wage wars. The trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers. These sad conditions can be changed and the interests of the working class upheld only by an organisation formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry or in all industries if necessary cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.’ [11]

Mitigation of the full rigour of the SLP programme was a measure of compromise that even De Leon had to accept at the IWW founding convention. The propaganda of the Advocates around the Clyde resulted in some support in a few Glasgow factories (Argyle Motor Works and Albion Motor Works are two mentioned by Bell [12], and particularly the Singer Sewing Machine Company on Clydebank). Factory gate meetings were held and study classes begun. In time most of the Singer departments had a group of supporters of industrial unionism. The SLP, on the basis of this limited success, decided to turn from propaganda to organisation. The Advocates of Industrial Unionism was transformed into the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB). A vigorous campaign at Singer’s resulted in a large increase in membership (over 4,000 members). [13] The slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ caught on. The difficulty arose precisely on the basis of the slogan. The IWGB had proved that they could organise a union of sorts; they had to prove the efficacy of the slogan when someone was actually injured. One day a woman was dismissed. Strike meetings were held in all the shops and the management declared a lockout. Ten thousand workers were on the street and in the initial burst of enthusiasm many more joined the IWGB. But there were problems. The IWGB had little or no funds. The revolutionary phraseology of their leadership gave considerable offence to the large Catholic section of workers and gave a handle for the employers to drive a wedge into the workers’ ranks.

The company hit on the stratagem of sending a postcard to the workers on the firm’s books, whether they had worked there recently or not, asking them if they would like to return to work. The strike committee asked the workers to send in their cards to them and in all they received 4,000 cards. (This postcard ‘ballot’ shows an interesting similarity to events in the recent Pilkington’s strike.) Despite their opposition a return to work move began to gain steam. In a few days the strike was broken. Shortly after this the leading members of the IWGB and the SLP were sacked. The IWGB claim that these sackings merely served to disseminate the industrial union message to newer fields could not obscure the fact that the union had been defeated not least of all by the inadequacy of its programme for any struggle falling short of the socialist revolution.

The IWGB, after the Singer debacle of 1911, did not have another chance. Dual unionism, then as now, could only get a toehold in firms, like Singer’s, where the open shop principle applied. Even at Singer’s, the ASE (Amalgamated Society of Engineers – predecessor of the AEU) skilled tool makers did not join and worked throughout the strike. The degree of consciousness necessary among the members to make the slogan ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ stick across an industry, assuming that that degree of organisation can be attained, in reality presupposes an organisation that transcends unionism of any sort.

The SLP militants were not only active on the Clyde. They provided much of the theory behind the Labour College/Plebs League split from Ruskin in 1909. Connolly influenced Tom Mann in the direction of industrial unionism, although Mann was more influenced by French syndicalism. Mann, despite a thoroughgoing contempt for craft unionism and the trade union bureaucracy and an attachment to industrial unionism, firmly set his face against dual unions. In 1910 he was a moving spirit in the formation of the Syndicalist Education League. The resolution passed at the founding conference shows the line of the league: ‘Whereas the sectionalism that characterises the trade union movement of today is utterly incapable of effectively fighting the capitalist class and securing the economic freedom of the workers, this conference declares that the time is now ripe for the industrial organisation of all the workers on the basis of class, and not trade or craft, and that we hereby agree to form a Syndicalist Education League to propagate the principles of syndicalism throughout the British Isles, with a view to merging all existing unions into one compact organisation for each industry, including all labourers of every industry in the same organisation with skilled workers’.

At first sight the syndicalist approach seems much the same as the SLP. In fact there were differences, differences that sent the SLP into paroxysms of polemical rage. Not, only were they opposed to dual unionism, but the principle of the syndicalists, claimed the SLP, was the mines for the miners, the railways for the railwaymen, which denied the all-inclusive, working-class basis of industrial unionism. The syndicalists’ crimes did not end there. They also completely denied any validity in parliamentary politics. With the later IWW they believed in ‘direct action’, ‘sabotage’, ‘physical force’ and the ‘General Strike’. The SLP, following De Leon, believed in the ballot box to bring the SLP to a parliamentary majority, at which unlikely event the power would be handed over to the revolutionary industrial unions to organise society. (De Leon had said, in the American context: ‘Where the General Executive Board of the Industrial Workers of the World will sit there will be the nation’s capital.’)

In British terms Mann’s emphasis on ‘boring from within’ ensured a more lasting influence than the SLP. The movement for amalgamation began to gather momentum. The general propaganda on industrial unionism gave rise to developments in the trade unions probably unsuspected by the early militants. The post-1918 amalgamations gave rise to the AEU, the NUR and other federations. The discussion on the nature of the state and the form of socialist power induced a number of middle-class intellectuals to introduce the alternative blueprint of guild socialism. Hilaire Belloc climbed on the bandwagon, to hark back to the medieval simplicities in which the Roman Church had found its cosiest ideological niche, in The Servile State.

The period from 1910 until the war was one of unprecedented rank and file initiative. Each succeeding year saw an increase in the millions of days lost in strikes. An unwilling trade union leadership was forced into supporting and, if they could run fast enough, leading strikes. Max Beer, by no means a revolutionary socialist, describes the pre-1914 industrial unrest as follows:

‘The years 1911 to 1914 will ever be memorable in the annals of British Labour. The United Kingdom witnessed for the first time a class war in which all its component parts were involved. English, Welsh and Scottish miners, English railwaymen and Irish transport workers were joining hands across the borders and seas. Robert Smillie, Tom Mann, James Larkin and James Connolly, all born fighters, led the new forces in battle array. Nothing like it had ever happened before; neither in comprehensiveness nor in numbers had that Labour upheaval any parallel in British social history’. [14]

The growth of a movement of the working class for itself was in process. The imposition of French syndicalist theory, and IWW non-theory admixed with guild socialist vapourings gave the movement a specific flavour but did not fundamentally alter its course, merely changed its direction and assisted, up to a point, in clarification. The organisation of revolutionaries that could have given firm leadership and direction to the militants was missing. The movement had to wait some years and go through the carnage of 1914-17 before the possibility of such an organisation could arise from the example of the Russian Revolution.

The objective and subjective reasons for the failure of the post-war CPGB have been discussed in previous issues of IS. [15] The lost opportunities of the Minority Movement and the subsequent subordination of the Communist Party to Moscow in the 1920s betrayed a whole generation of socialist militants to futility and despair.

Third Period

The expensively bought and paid for experience with dual unionism in America and Britain were once more tried, at Russian insistence, in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The idiocy of the ‘third period’ (so called after the arbitrary division of post 1917 periods of the revolution: 1917-1924 Period of Revolutionary Offensive; 1924-1928 Period of Revolutionary Ebb; 1928-1933 Period of Renewed Revolutionary Offensive – after the collapse of the third period we were not treated to any nomenclature for the succeeding periodic pains) may have been a logical extension of Stalin’s campaign to destroy the Bolshevik party, and with it the old Bolsheviks, but it had no connection with the realities faced by any of the non-Russian parties.

By 1928 Stalin, with the assistance of the right, had effectively broken the Left opposition led by Trotsky. ‘United front’ tactics internationally had resulted in the subordination of the foreign parties to nationalist and non-socialist allies. In China the Communists, at Stalin’s direction, played second string to the Kuomintang and Chiang Kai Shek until Chiang had no further use for the Communists and massacred them in Shanghai. The Anglo-Russian Committee in Britain was dead. The right phase of the Russian Party and the Comintern was ending its usefulness, together with Bukharin, the theoretician of the right wing. The development of state capitalism in Russia called for an altogether more ruthless exploitation of the workers and peasants. Stalin’s struggle against the Bukharin wing of the party began. In the process the whole line of the Communist International (CI) had to be recast. The united front was jettisoned in favour of the ‘class against class’ policy. The Russian struggle against the kulaks was mirrored in the foreign parties’ struggles against social democracy. Social democracy became overnight the ‘left cover of fascism’, more deadly because more insidious; social democracy equalled social fascism.

In trade union terms this meant the end of the period of work in the reformist unions, to build meaningful industrial factions. The French and British parties were bludgeoned into line; in the German party it was necessary to expel the opposition of Brandler and Thalheimer.

The effect of the new line on the Minority Movement was catastrophic. Yesterday’s denials of splitting and dual unionism were contradicted by today’s insistence on independent activity. The instructions from Moscow demanded that the MM should always attempt to wrest the leadership of strikes from the union machinery. Alternative strike committees were to be formed to become the basis of continuing factory committees that would eventually be amalgamated to form new trade unions. In a pamphlet, published in May 1929, Harry Pollitt indicated the ultra-left dual unionist position of the MM.

‘The Minority Movement is now the alternative national centre for the industrial movement of the British workers. Those who want Mondism, class collaboration, company unionism, can get it from the General Council of the TUC. Those who want a policy based solely on the interests of the working class, a policy of militant trade unionism, look to the MM for their leadership.’

The Worker in July 1929 went even further.

‘The issue therefore of fighting independently the daily struggle of the working class ... means a complete break with all the old conceptions of continuing our activities within the constitutional framework of trade union branches, District Committees, etc. New forces have to be won, new forms of organisation found.’ [16]

The reference to new forces was a denial, again at Russian insistence, of the previous line that only bona fide trade unionists could join the MM. The Comintern, for some unaccountable reason, believed that in a country, with the tradition and history of the working class like Britain, the non-unionist could be drawn directly into revolutionary unionism without even a passing acquaintance with the reformist model.

The actual practice of the MM in the application of the new line was somewhat mitigated by the fact that its influence had declined from the point where it had some sway over a few national unions. (One MM report on the Austin strike of March 1929, indicated that although the Austin Birmingham strike committee was against the union leadership, they were equally opposed to the outside leadership of the MM. [17])

But, mitigated or not, the new line managed to throw away any of the gains that remained from the past. The main areas of strength of the MM had been the mines, engineering and railways. The Scottish miners’ union was in the hands of the right wing. This leadership was supporting an unrepresentative and undemocratic clique in both the Fife and Lanark unions. In the circumstances the MM needed little encouragement to make a foray into dual unionism. In mid-1929 they set up a new union, The United Mineworkers of Scotland (The official union was the National Union of Scottish Mineworkers, NUSM). The UMS was completely under CP control and although they claimed 14,000 members – mainly in Fife and Lanark – there were, in the words of one delegate to the MFGB (Miners Federation of Great Britain) conference in 1930, ‘loud speakers and very few listeners in’. The UMS fought two strikes against wage cuts, both unsuccessfully, and by 1933 were attempting to merge with the NUSMW. Their overtures were rejected and in 193S the UMS went into voluntary liquidation.

The drive toward dual unionism in the Scottish mineworkers alienated much of the MM support in the MFGB, the most prominent – if not the most important – being A.J. Cook, the secretary of the federation. Cook denounced the UMS and broke with the MM in 1929. Arthur Horner, although opposed to the new line, did not break with the CP, but when the MM turned its attention to the South Wales coalfield, as an area where their independent influence could be displayed in a way that would impress the Comintern with the dedication the British Section, Horner spoke out against the indiscriminate advocacy of dual unionism. He soon, however, confessed his errors and was, for his sins, excluded from the Central Committee of the party. In 1931 he accepted the chairmanship of the South Wales Central Strike Committee during the strike of that year. But he opposed an independent strike committee and resigned from the Central Strike Committee (on which no officials were allowed to sit). The strike was called off after 15 days and when the MM tried to prolong the struggle they were completely isolated from the miners who went back to work en bloc. Horner was arraigned, for his lack of faith in the masses, before the British Party and the Comintern. By some strange quirk of fate he was not expelled, perhaps because he was one of the few remaining experienced and capable miners left to the party. Stalin, with a few jokes about the crime of Hornerism, allowed him to remain.

In engineering and the railways the story was the same. The MM did not have the strength to organise any breakaway unions, but they were able to cause a fuss over the very real difficulties that workers experienced in a period of mass unemployment. The application of the line on the unorganised led to a development of the thesis of ‘never mind about union membership’. [18] The insistence that the union machine was rotten and that workers could really operate only outside its ambit was unconvincing at the congress of the CI and the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU); to workers who were recoiling from five years of defeats and mass unemployment, it was sheer lunacy. The emphasis on non-unionists and breaking with the unions was also deeply repugnant to most dedicated unionists who had fought hard to keep their organisation intact and to exclude the nons.

The purest expression, however, of the third period tactic was in a field where the party and the MM had always been strong, although it was a field well off-centre from the main arena of working class struggle – the Tailors and Garment Workers Union (NUTGW).

There was trouble in the tailoring trade long before the MM change of line. The introduction of the conveyor belt and machine cutting reduced the craft content of the job and increased the number of women employed. The NUTGW was based in Leeds and dominated by catholics. The largely Jewish and non-catholic membership in London were, with some justification, afraid that their problems were not being properly dealt with by the Leeds leadership. The London Organiser, Sam Elsbury was a founder member of the CP and the MM. When in October 1928, a dispute broke out over a non-unionist at the Rego factory in London, it was endorsed by the London District Committee. The unions national leadership would not sanction the strike because, they said, it was prejudicial to a new national agreement they were attempting to organise with the employers federation. The strike was well run with the strikers, mainly young women, holding marches, manning pickets and making street collections. Public sympathy was gained and considerable trade union aid forthcoming. After nearly three months the strike was settled with Rego’s recognising the union, but not the union shop, and the reinstatement of most of the strikers. At this stage the Leeds cabal took action against Elsbury, expelling him from the union and forcibly taking over the London office. In other times the CP and the MM would have mounted a full scale campaign for Elsbury’s reinstatement in the union, with some possibility of success. In 1929 such a course would have been to lose a glorious opportunity to strike a blow for independent revolutionary action against the rotten labour fakers. On the 7th March 1929 the United Clothing Workers Union (UCWU) came into existence. The new union recruited a majority of the London membership rapidly and a substantial minority of the Leeds membership. Elsbury was well satisfied with his work for the party line. What the new union needed more than anything else was a little time to consolidate the organisation and to build up the funds. Unfortunately it is a feature of all dual unions that they are never afforded the time to consolidate their position.

In the North London factory of Polikoff the overwhelming majority of members joined the UCWU and the management recognised the union. When NUTGW members applied for jobs in the factory they were informed they would have to transfer to the United Clothing Workers. The NUTGW complained to the Wholesale Clothiers Federation who successfully brought pressure to bear to withdraw recognition from the UCWU. Elsbury attempted to stave off the inevitable trouble, for his union was in poor shape to win, by insisting that his members were prepared to work alongside any trade unionist. Polikoff nevertheless refused to permit the collection of UCWU dues in the factory. Elsbury took his problems to the party. The Industrial Committee promised Elsbury that a sum of £500 would be available to meet strike pay, through collections and a subvention from the RILU in Moscow. Elsbury called a strike for union recognition. Arrayed against the UCWU were not only Polikoff (who according to most testimony was quite prepared to recognise both unions) but also the NUTGW, the TUC – in particular the T&GWU who threatened to black deliveries to Polikoff if the UCWU were recognised – the London Trades Council and the Employers Federation. The NUTGW were sending down their members to break the strike. A prominent member of the Executive Board of the UCWU, in fact the chairman, Dave Cohen suddenly acquired an affection for the NUTGW that had so recently expelled him from its ranks. At the same time he acquired the necessary finance to emigrate to Canada. The strike started on May 4th. By May 9th Polikoff s had applied to a magistrate for sixty seven summonses against UCWU strikers for breach of contract. Polikoff also indicated that they might find it necessary to apply for 500 or 600 summonses in all. Polikoff’s manager explained to the bench the reason for his actions:

‘It is very difficult for me to say but we want to teach these people a lesson. At the present time they are members of what is known as a breakaway union – a Communist organisation – and they are not members of the orthodox union which is recognised by the TUC. We want to recover from them the money they have lost us ... the damages must be at least a week’s wages ... they have practically shut our works.’

20 On May 10th Elsbury arrived at CP headquarters for his first instalment of £500. Nobody could tell him anything about the money. He was urged to come back tomorrow. Each succeeding day brought the same response. Elsbury demanded a meeting of the Central Committee to enquire into the failure to provide the promised cash. The general isolation of the CP at this time is indicated by the fact that although they called for collections in their press and J.T. Murphy, who had been seconded to the UCWU for the duration of the strike, spent most of his time raising money, the total collected nowhere met the £500 minimum. The strike dragged on. Polikoff secured a conviction on May 23rd against one of the strikers, who was fined £4 15s 0d, and asked for a further eighty eight summonses. The remaining sixty six cases were adjourned for a fortnight, although there was little doubt as to their outcome. The same day Elsbury called a meeting of the strikers and confessed his inability to provide funds for the strike or to pay the fines. Amid tears and recrimination the strike was called off. Each returning worker was presented with a document to sign in which he or she promised not to join or pay subscriptions to any organisation not recognised by the TUC. Membership of an unofficial union would be punished by instant dismissal.

Shirley Lerner comments on this in a way that cannot be bettered:

‘In trade union history, the “document” was an instrument which the employer used to prevent a worker from joining a union or to compel to join only a company union. As such it has been traditionally despised by the labour movement as a most obnoxious anti-union instrument. But in this case the “document” was used to compel the workers to abide by an agreement made by an established trade union and the employer; and therefore, there was no outcry against it by the official trade union movement.’ [19]

A few members rejoined the NUTGW, but most joined nothing. The whole brave venture had resulted in no profit to either union and a massive increase in apathy. A situation that kept Polikoff’s an open shop for over seven years.

The Communist Party had got the United Clothing Workers involved in a strike that Elsbury would have preferred to avoid, on the promise of funds. Elsbury expected a party enquiry to exonerate him; in fact the reverse was the case. Elsbury was ordered by the party to relinquish his post as secretary and to hand over to Pountney, a distributive worker, drafted in during the Polikoff dispute to assist as an organiser. Elsbury refused and resigned from the party, a resignation that was subsequently made official by his formal expulsion. The CP controlled Executive Board dismissed Elsbury from his post and forcibly expelled him from the UCWU office.

The election of Pountney was achieved at the inaugural National Conference, and the union affiliated to the MM, an unnecessary diversion considering that the union had until then, at least, been dealing direct with King Street. But the failure of the Polikoff strike, the brutal expulsion of Elsbury and the hostility of NUTGW in particular and the trade unions in general coupled to a chronic shortage of funds to pay provincial organisers denied the union any effective future. Pountney and the Executive attempted to lay the blame on the ‘renegade’ and ‘social fascist’ Elsbury, but the impetus was spent. The UCWU declined into a small East London Union of a few hundred dedicated adherents until, in 1935, it closed up shop completely. By the time of its demise the third period policy that brought it into existence had completely changed. The ‘Peoples Front’ was on the order of the day. With little or no explanation the ‘social fascists’ became important figures to be courted and made much of in the anti-fascist front. The MM that had started off with such high hopes in 1924, and such real possibilities, was quietly and unceremoniously interred. The very notion of a militant, class-war oriented, opposition within the unions was a thing of the past, best forgotten in the crusade to win friends and influence people in high places with the new soft, and soft headed, Russian line. This was the last time that the CP attempted to form a coordinated trade union opposition dedicated to a revolutionary purpose. Its decline into dual unionism was dictated not by considerations of British conditions or a genuine spontaneous movement of British workers, but solely at the behest of the Kremlin oligarchy. Since that time, despite an accession of new industrial cadres, the CP has been unable and unwilling to direct its industrial work in a coherent revolutionary direction.

In the post-1945 situation the CP earnestly pursued the industrial peace decreed by the continuation of the wartime alliance with Stalin. With the outbreak of the cold war the industrial factions moved neatly into line behind the ‘peace campaign’, and outbid the most extreme racialism of the Beaverbrook press in their anti-German and anti-American chauvinism. The partial cutting of the Russian leading-rein in 1956 rejuvenated nothing. The party was settled into a stagnant centrist rut, outflanked politically on the left by the growing left groups, not trusted – except in terms of vote organising – by the left trade union leaders. It has no role to fulfil except to stand in the way of the formation of a genuine revolutionary party. The CPGB is the only proof I know of, and that questionable, of the religious contention that there is some sort of life after death.


Where does this leave us? In general the attitude of revolutionaries should be against dual unionism. Does a re-examination of the past give us any reason to modify any of this traditional position? There can be little doubt that the lessons of Singer’s in 1911, through the MM’s third period to the adventures in the NASD [1*] and the most recent Pilkington’s dispute, show clearly that a dual union is not too difficult to form as there are, in all conscience, far too many good reasons why workers should be dissatisfied with their union; the problem is to nurse the union through its first difficult days without meeting disaster. None has succeeded so far.

The IWW was an inevitable development, not just because it is an historical fact, but also because the AFL was craft dominated, had high initiation and membership dues, and. was uninterested in the semi-skilled and unskilled, at a time when the massive consolidation of American capitalism was putting tremendous strains on the unorganised workers. The IWW was unable to fulfil its intentions because it failed to organise the industrial workers of the East. Not only did the IWW face massive repression but much of its effort was made nugatory by the basic theory it presented. The struggle was seen more in terms of the final combat with capitalism than in the economic terms of the workers. All this is understandable, if regrettable; the founding convention, in 1905, was held with the first Russian revolution as a background. The American militants, with some justice, thought that they were in a more favourable position to make the revolution than the backward Russian workers. They were wrong. The revolution is taking a much longer time to take place than they ever considered, and the vehicle for its consummation is not to be found in a militant industrial union isolated from contact with a revolutionary party. The CIO, that derived specifically from the experience of the IWW, had to employ many of the industrial tactics of the Wobblies without their revolutionary programme. John L. Lewis’s quarrel with the AFL and Roosevelt’s problems with the corporations meant that the money and the political climate was ripe for the CIO industrial union drive. Even at that the massive upsurge in mass, production industry nearly got out of the hands of the ‘responsible’ elements. A revolutionary party operating within and upon such a movement could have made all the difference to the eventual outcome. It is part of the unforgivable sins of Stalinism that a party did not exist.

There is no reason in principle why revolutionaries should be opposed, in all circumstances, to independent revolutionary unions, but it is difficult to conceive of the situation, while capitalism lasts, for them to exist. A trade union is, by definition, an all inclusive organisation. It must take its members, whether by trade or industry, as they are, not as some idealised image of the class conscious militant. Indeed if all workers had the same high level of consciousness we would not have a trade union but a revolutionary party. A revolutionary union today would be an organisation of friends, cosy perhaps, but without influence or purpose.

There is another, and more important, objection to the existence of a dual union, organised and directed by revolutionaries. The need for the maintenance of the independent existence of the union can spill over into an opportunist mitigation of the revolutionary politics.

In the 1930s the Dutch Trotskyists (organised in the RSAP – Revolutionary Socialist Worker’s Party – led by Henricus Sneevliet, a founder member of the Dutch CP) were in control of a small militant trade union federation, the NAS (National Labour Organisation) organising building workers, dockers and Amsterdam municipal workers, in opposition to the large reformist union federation. In Holland unemployment dole was paid by the government through the trade unions, including the NAS. For the Dutch trade unionist this was an important reason for maintaining union membership. In 1934 the government banned all municipal workers from maintaining membership of the red NAS. At a stroke the NAS membership was reduced from 25,000 to 12,000. The continued existence of the NAS depended on the tolerance of the bourgeois government. Sneevliet, a deputy in parliament, began to temper his criticism of the government. Trotsky wrote to him suggesting that whether the perspective was one of rising militancy or of increased repression the NAS should join the reformist trade union.

‘When the great strike wave will begin in Holland, which should be regarded as highly probable if not certain, the reformist trade unions will grow mightily, absorb fresh elements into their ranks and in such a period the NAS will appear to the masses as aji incomprehensible splinter organisation. In consequence the masses will become unresponsive to the correct slogans of the RSAP ... I must say quite openly: systematic, solicitously arranged agitation inside the reformist unions seems to me the only means not only of preserving the RSAP as a genuine revolutionary party (for by itself this hasn’t any historical value) but also of carrying it to victory ... If. ... the development in Holland without passing through a revolutionary upsurge, goes directly ... into the reactionary ... we nevertheless come to the same conclusion: The NAS policy must became an obstacle to the party. The first assault of reaction has already ... cost it half its membership. The second assault will cost it its life. The excellent workers ... will then have to seek the road to the reformist unions in a dispersed manner ... The trade union cannot lead an illegal existence that the party can. But by means of this blow the party will be terribly hit, for an illegal revolutionary party must have a legal and semi-legal mass cover ... and at the same time an arena.’ [20]

Sneevliet and the RSAP refused to listen, and Trotsky broke with them:

‘A party that doesn’t participate in the real trade unions is not a revolutionary party. The NAS exists only thanks to the toleration and financial support of the bourgeois government. This financial support is dependent upon your political attitude. That is the reason why the party didn’t, in spite of all our insistence, elaborate a political programme. That is also the reason why you, as a deputy, never gave a genuine revolutionary speech ... Your activity has a diplomatic and not a very revolutionary character ... The NAS itself is not a bridge to the masses but a wall separating you from the masses.’

The NAS was dissolved in 1940 at the beginning of the occupation; the RSAP split in 1942. Nothing remains of the NAS and not much more of the RSAP members. (Sneevliet was shot by the Nazis in 1942.)

The argument is often that opposition to dual unionism is alright in general, but in particular circumstances the union is so corrupt, so bureaucratised and the internal regime so draconian as to make work impossible. The argument is not new and begs the question – what about the members? The trade unions organise millions of workers, the majority of whom are at the lowest level of working class consciousness – a feeble and unenthusiastic grip on a trade union card. The task of revolutionaries is by patient, hard, painstaking work to influence and develop the consciousness of these workers. The nature of the bureaucracy and the extent of the harshness of the internal regime will determine the tactics but not the strategy of working in the mass trade unions. Lenin, in Left Wing Communism makes the revolutionary position clear, in his criticism of the German left communists and their predilection for revolutionary pure unions.

‘... These gentlemen (the reactionary leaders of the reformist unions – JH) will no doubt resort to every device of bourgeois diplomacy and to the aid of bourgeois governments, the clergy, the police and the courts to keep Communists out of the trade unions, oust them by every means, make their work in trade unions as unpleasant as possible, and insult and bait and persecute them. We must be able to stand up to all this, agree to make any sacrifice, and even – if need be – to resort to various stratagems, artifices and illegal methods ... as long as we get into the trade unions, remain in them, and carry on communist work within them ... When Zubatov, agent of the secret police, organised Black Hundred workers assemblies and working-men’s societies (in 1905 – JH) for the purpose of trapping revolutionaries and combating them, we sent members of our party to these assemblies ... They established contacts with the masses, were able to carry on then agitation, and succeeded in wresting workers from the influence of Zubatov’s agents.’ [21]

Whatever may be said about the EPTU or the GMWU they cannot hold a candle to the Zubatov societies. The call for breakaway unions is most often a measure of impatience, shocked horror at the bureaucracy’s affront to the norms of decent behaviour, and desire for a short-cut. To win the unions from the bureaucracy is not the main question, except that an honest administration is better in pure trade union terms and gives greater access to greater numbers of workers. The task is to explain and agitate, to patiently set in a political context the day to day struggles of workers. In a word, to build a revolutionary fraction of the party. To see the struggle in any other terms is to condemn trade union work to revolutionary phrase-mongering without working class response or to be forced into the same compromises with capitalism that finished Sneevliet and the RSAP. So long as the masses remain in the reformist unions no amount of sophistry will be able to deny that the place of revolutionaries is in those unions. Trotsky, as usual, sums up the problem with admirable clarity.

‘Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to win over the trade unions because the bureaucracy uses the organisation’s internal regime for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repressions and plain crookedness ... This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the bureaucracy as a pretext ... Why not abandon revolutionary work altogether, considering the repressions and provocations of the government bureaucracy. There exists no principled difference here, since the trade union bureaucracy had definitely become a part of the capitalist apparatus, economic and governmental. It is absurd to think that it would be possible to work against the trade union bureaucracy with its own help ... Insofar as it defends itself by persecutions, violence, expulsion, frequently resorting to the assistance of government authorities, we must learn to work discreetly, finding a common language with the masses but not revealing ourselves prematurely to the bureaucracy.’ [22]

It is, probably, unlikely that many revolutionaries today will be foolhardy enough to see in dual unionism any viable alternative to hard patient work in the mass reformist unions. The danger at present lies in the field of recently radicalised workes with little or no political experience seeing a breakaway as the only way to beat the bureaucracy and the bosses at the same time. It is the clear responsibility of revolutionaries to point out all the difficulties, all the problems to any workers who see this as the road to salvation.

In the final analysis salvation is to be found, not in one factory, not in one union, not in one union federation but in the mass movement of the whole class led and directed by a mass revolutionary party.


1*. The general opposition to dual unionism did not prevent the particular activity of certain ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists in involving themselves heavily in the NASD breakaway from the T&GWU in the Northern ports in the mid-1950s. Like other efforts in this direction there was little profit for the Trotskyists and none for the workers. See IS 2, R. Pennington



7. P. Renshaw, The Wobblies, p.37.

8. Bell, Pioneering Days, p.42.

9. Kendall, op. cit., p.68.

10. Ibid., p.63.

11. Bell, op. cit., p.72.

12. Ibid., p.72.

13. Ibid., p.73.

14. Beer, History of British Socialism, p.362.

15. On Strike, quoted in Roderick Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions.

16. The Worker, 19 July 1929. Quoted in ibid.

17. Quoted in ibid., pp.155-6.

18. Railwaymen’s MM Broadsheet, quoted in ibid., p.132.

19. Quoted in Shirley Lerner, Breakaway Unions and the Small Trade Union, from which much of this narrative is taken.

20. Trotsky, Letters on the Dutch situation.

21. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.31, pp.54-55.

22. Leon Trotsky, On the Trade Unions, p.55.


Last updated on 30.12.2007