Arthur Horner

Trade Unions and Communism

Source: Labour Monthly, February 1948.
Publisher: Proprietors, The Trinity Trust
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE gravity of the situation confronting the British people in 1948 is such as to require the fullest solidarity, the utmost measure of unity amongst all sections of the trade union movement. Food shortages, reduced intake of calories per head, rising prices, cuts in investments in housing and schools, unemployment growing along with a developing capitalist offensive—the situation is such as can be met only by the strength and determination of a united working class. This moment has been chosen by Mr. Morgan Phillips, the Secretary of the Labour Party, as the occasion to introduce tactics of splitting and dividing the trade union movement. This attempt to split the movement, this instruction to the trade unions from on high that they must drive out their duly elected officials if they are Communists, was hugely boosted in the capitalist press and applauded by the most reactionary newspapers.

What has actuated this attack? Does he bring forward any reasoned grounds, any facts on which an argument might be based? No, the facts are lacking in this inflammatory circular of 21st December. More, the one over-riding reason for this attack is not so much as mentioned, namely, that the American capitalists are intensifying their campaign against Socialism and trade unionism, first in their own country, then in France, and now in Britain. The rest is the heated imagination of Mr. Phillips.

That is why this circular contains no reasoning based on reality but much based on assumptions that have no validity. This is the old trick of setting up an Aunt Sally and then knocking it down. The Communist Party has voiced the feeling of rank and file trade unionists that they are not prepared to see the conditions of the workers and their families worsened while swollen profits keep mounting in industry after industry. Immediately Mr. Morgan Phillips soars into the realms of fancy and says “we can expect a campaign of sabotage . . . we can expect Communist inspired attempts to foment discontent in the factories . . . we can expect intensified attempts to undermine and destroy the labour movement from within.” Why does Mr. Morgan produce these “we can expect” phrases, these expectations of a heated imagination, instead of facts? Is it because he has no facts to produce? Is it because the Bevin-Cripps policy has caused a wave of discontent, which the Right-Wing want to stifle by ascribing its origin to the Communists, as employers used to ascribe discontent to “agitators” or as Hitler used to say “the Jews” are responsible for everything that had gone wrong?

Employers used to follow this up by pressing for anti-trade union legislation (and got it from Baldwin and Churchill in 1927); Hitler followed up his fantastic denouncing of “the Jews” by murderous pogroms; Mr. Morgan Phillips proceeds from his denunciations, equally without a factual basis, to urge “a great campaign against Communist intrigue and infiltration inside the Labour movement.”

After this riot of unbased assumptions, followed by incitement to a campaign of attack against Communists, Mr. Phillips refers to the “influence inside certain trade unions” of the Communists. This influence, he alleges, does not correspond “to their real strength,” and is gained through not enough trade unionists attending their branch meetings. “The Communists thrive on apathy” says Mr. Phillips, who then discovers the remedy for this alleged state of affairs in the need for “Labour Party members playing an active part inside their respective trade unions.”

Was there ever such topsy-turvy nonsense as this? Is it not a fact that while Morgan Phillips and the Right Wing leaders of the Labour Party were concentrating on other matters more to their taste, it was precisely the Communists who year in, year out, have urged all trade unionists, including Labour Party members, to play an active part in their unions? Is it not the Communists who, by themselves setting an example of playing an active part in union affairs, have won the respect of their follow members and have been chosen to represent them? Communist officials, truly and democratically elected long before Mr. Phillips was ever heard of, have kept urging full attendance at branch meetings.

The question goes deeper than this. Mr. Phillips’ circular is in essence a suggestion that the trade unions are unfit to manage their own affairs. I can remember before the first world war the same sort of suggestion coming from the Liberals, who because of their treatment of the working class were beginning to lose ground in the unions. It was false then and it is false now. The trade unions of this country have always been self-governing, have proceeded by democratic methods and by their methods have chosen men to represent their interests in area or district committees, executive councils and other offices. What has Mr. Phillips to say against the method by which Ebby Edwards or I myself were successively elected to the Secretaryship of the National Union of Mineworkers? Was it not by direct ballot vote? Was not this vote conducted in successive ballots (a far more democratic method, by the way, than Parliamentary elections, where victors often represent minorities), with the candidates lowest on the list dropping out at each stage, so that no vote was thrown away? I think my fellow-countrymen will agree that in the trade unions with the most fully democratic methods, the elections are a better expression of the will of the electors than the present Parliamentary electoral methods which Mr. Herbert Morrison was so anxious to retain. So far from trade unions being unfit to manage their own affairs, it is clear in such cases as those I have cited, they are more fit, more democratic, more imbued with the spirit of equal and free discussion than, say, the House of Lords—which Mr. Morrison is so anxious to retain. Only in those cases—fortunately they are few in number—where some twenty years ago certain trade unions altered their rules so as to restrict the free democratic choice of the members, or where a needlessly complicated structure has a similar effect in practice, has there been any departure from democratic procedure. Wherever it has happened, it has wounded democracy in the house of its friends. But it is not to these that Mr. Phillips is making reference. He is referring precisely to the unions that are most democratic in their structure. It is democracy and the beneficial results of democracy that appear to Mr. Phillips’ heated imagination as “intrigue and infiltration.”

Mr. Phillips does not belong to the generation that had to do the hard slogging work for Socialism, whose self-sacrificing efforts were described by Liberals in those days as “Socialist intrigue and penetration.” If he had ever had to do this hard work he might have been startled and ashamed to find that in the same week-end that he launched his circular, the Liberals and Tories were joining in the witch-hunt against working men whose opinions are Communist. “We must oppose,” they said, “Communist infiltration in the trade union movement and elsewhere, with all our heart and strength.” Who signed that manifesto, which was timed to come out simultaneously with that of Morgan Phillips? Who but Lady Violet, Bonham-Carter, the peeress daughter of the old Liberal Prime Minister Asquith? Who but Clement Davies, leader of the Liberal capitalists in the House of Commons? Who but Lord Vansittart of all men? These be your allies, Morgan Phillips, in your “great campaign” to prevent the trade unionists of Britain from choosing a Communist to sit on their branch committees or executive councils. Isn’t it a little too crude? Isn’t it obvious that when you are cheered on by the capitalists and even offered their help against Communists, it is because they know you are playing the capitalists’ game? The capitalist leaders represent those who are out for rent, interest and profits, who are out to throw the burden of the crisis on to the shoulders of the working class and to prevent Communists or anyone else shifting some of the burden on to those who are best able to bear it. That is why they join in with you, Mr. Phillips, and, provided you are against the Communists, they don’t care how rotten and baseless are the arguments you produce.

It is not arguments, however, which matter in this document issued with the authority of the Labour Party Executive, but the intention behind the arguments. The intention to introduce splitting tactics is the sinister feature. Faced by the growing resentment of the trade union movement at the abandonment of the General Election programme and the ill-concealed endeavours to keep wages pegged while profits riot unchecked, Right-Wing Labour leaders, so far from paying heed to those who elected them, have set themselves to disorganise the movement.

But there is a still more disquieting feature in this move and more sinister forces lie behind it. Irvine, Brown and other emissaries of the American Federation of Labour working hand-in-hand with the U.S.A. Department of State have their fingers in this pie. It is they who have urged and stimulated this move in Britain following on the moves they have made in other countries of Europe.

Therefore, the challenge to the unity and strength of the British trade unions has to be taken up with a full understanding of the dark and vicious transatlantic forces that are the original inspiration of this move. That is to say: the workers in the trade unions of this country will not resist this splitting move with full success unless they tackle also the policies that have been thrust upon them, or upon so many of their leaders. Let no one imagine that this splitting move arises from the spleen of a minor trade union official who suddenly finds himself occupying a post held for so many years by Arthur Henderson and then by James Middleton. The reasons lie deeper than that. The policy of Cripps has its own logic. Once the decision was taken to accept the proposals of the Federation of British Industries in regard to capital investment, etc., the rest of the outlook of the F.B.I. with its opposition to militant trade unionism had sooner or later to follow as a matter of course.

The foreign policy of Bevin after two years had its inevitable consequence in the internal policy of Cripps; and the policy of Cripps has its inevitable consequence in the policy of Morgan Phillips. Those who had cherished the hope that the Tory policy pursued in continuity by Ernest Bevin from 1945 onwards could be regarded in isolation and would have no effect on internal policy can now see how deeply they were mistaken. In 1945 the prospect of speedy advance to Socialism was opening out in Europe. Had the British Government and the British Labour Party joined with the progressive and democratic forces, both this country and all of Europe would be in a better position today; but by throwing this country into the arms of the American millionaires, the most profoundly anti-working class and anti-trade union forces in the world were given their chance, with the consequence that has been seen throughout Europe and is now becoming fully visible in this country. The Europe of 1945 was their chance and our chance for speedy socialism. What alarmed and frightened the capitalists of the United States should have been welcomed and supported here. The contrary course was taken and though it has not held back development in all of Europe, it has put this country at any rate in “Queer Street.”

In his party political broadcast on the 3rd of January, the Prime Minister recklessly attacked the U.S.S.R. in order to placate the millionaires in the United States, which he described as a country “standing for individual liberty in the political sphere and for the maintenance of human rights.” I have been in that paradise of Mr. Attlee’s, not so long ago. I saw something of that boosted “individual liberty” in the shape of unrestricted liberty of the big capitalists to exploit the mass of the people. In the Southern States I stew Negroes deprived of “human rights” and I learned of that practice of lynching which has made the U.S.A. a black spot in civilisation. I was, therefore, not altogether surprised when the capitalists of the United States the moment the war was over seized their opportunity to raise prices against us, to spread their bases all over the world and to constitute themselves “the heirs to the British Empire”, in Greece, Turkey, Iran, China and the Far East. Nor was I surprised when, this last year, the American capitalists imposed their Taft-Hartley Act aimed at crippling the trade unions to an extent beyond what Churchill and Baldwin achieved years ago, nor that they would follow this up by attempts to impose on the victims or their Marshall “Plan” a corresponding policy by legislation, as in France, or otherwise, as in Britain. But I must confess I was surprised that a Labour Prime Minister who knows these facts as well as I do should pay this tribute of fulsome compliments. The tribute we have to pay in dollars should be enough for him or any man!

This attack upon the U.S.S.R. has now been followed by that of Lord Vansittart on 11th January: taken together they demonstrate the broad unity of reaction from Right-Wing Labourites to extreme Toryism.

It is well that the younger members of our trade unions should realise what has been our past experience in these matters. Before the first world war in 1914 and up to the end of that war we had a united Labour movement in this country. Inside the Labour Party itself all shades of opinion were given expression and all tendencies existed. The Right Wingers amongst the leaders had not dared to initiate the policy of splitting on which they entered soon after the end of that first world war. The result of that policy was fatal in its effects for over a generation; Ramsay MacDonald and others who had followed him were able to drive the Communists out of the Labour Party amid the cheers of the capitalists, whose influence inside the Labour movement enabled the Right-Wing to do it and to whom MacDonald and other leaders of the Right-Wing openly crossed over in 1931. To curry favour with the capitalists Ramsay MacDonald drove Tom Mann, the outstanding figure of British trade unionism, out of the Labour Party in 1924 and pursued him with a vindictive imprisonment in 1932. A shame? Yes. But it is also a shame that for twenty years and more Communist members of trade unions been regularly paying their political levy without being allowed the rights or benefits to which that payment should entitle them.

It was in 1928 that the Trade Union Congress declared itself for Mondism, for the ending of class struggle, for going hand-in-hand with the Federation of British Industries and other employers headed by Sir Alfred Mond, then chief of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. The next year, 1929, saw the ill-starred decision to request trade unions to break their democratic principles and rule out Communists from holding office. This statement, though the vast majority of the unions had refused to change their constitutions, was reaffirmed in 1934 and had added to it the Black Circular which threatened to disaffiliate trades councils accepting as delegate anyone duly elected by his trade union branch—if he was a Communist. During that period from 1927 onwards, the workers of this country underwent many hardships, which they were unable to withstand effectively because their natural protection—from their trade unions—had been, enfeebled by undemocratic measures and by these bans and excommunications devised in the circles of Ramsay MacDonald, Philip, Snowden, and other Quislings-to-be of the Labour Movement.

In the coalfields in particular during those years there was such misery, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, occupational disease and increased accident rates as had not been known for generations. The difficulty during and after the war of obtaining sufficient manpower for the coalmines is the direct product of those years and the misery which burned itself into the minds of our mineworkers, so that mothers would say to their sons, “Whatever you do, don’t go down the mine”.

During those same years the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, now transformed into the National Union of Mineworkers, was at the lowest ebb of its fortunes and could do little to protect the working miners and their wives and families. There were many reasons for this, but amongst them is one outstanding reason that it is relevant to recall today: mining trade unionism was split; in several coalfields there were Yellow Unions, so-called non-political unions fighting against the County Associations of Miners. In addition many Communists who had fought and were again to fight hard on behalf of their fellows were expelled from the unions, some of whose officials hoped that thereby they would curry favour with the coalowners. I was one of those who, despite a long record of active service in the South Wales Miners’ Federation, was expelled. Did my expulsion make the South Wales coalowners soften their hearts? It did not, but I think I will not be accused of immodesty if I say that it weakened the resistance of the miners in the Welsh valleys. Why, as late as the beginning of this war Abe Moffatt, President of the Scottish Miners, was not allowed to belong to his union; he was a Communist. His services to the miners went for nothing; he had offended the powers that be. Yet so soon as this undemocratic procedure was removed, the Scottish miners, recognising his worth, elected Abe far above all other candidates for the Presidency of their union. What Ramsay MacDonald and other future Quislings did to Tom Mann and other militants years ago to the great detriment of the movement, the successors of Ramsay MacDonald, who seem to have taken on a double portion of his spirit, are once more trying to do in 1948.

It goes right against the fundamental principles of trade unionism The principle of trade unionism, as it has grown up in this country for nearly two centuries, has been to organise all the workers, in each trade or craft, industry or service. This principle over-rode all distinctions of religion or politics. Whatever a man might think on matters of religion, whatever views he might hold in politics, he was just as entitled as the next man to join his union—and, once joined, to enjoy the same rights and receive the same benefits as everybody else. This is democracy. Anything less than this is undemocratic, and as such opposed to the whole tradition and principles of British trade unionism.

Moreover, this type of attack on Communist members of the Labour movement not only poisons trade union principles but always precedes an attack on the working class. So soon as Ramsay MacDonald, Frank Dodges and the rest of that litter had in 1924 thrust the Communists out of the Labour Party, the way was open for Tory Baldwin in July, 1925, to proclaim that “the wages of all workers must come down” and to follow this up in the period of the General Strike and the miners’ struggle of 1926, with the Emergency Powers Act and the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927. Today also, this attack by successors of Ramsay MacDonald upon the Communists is a cover and a basis of attack upon the trade unions and upon the working class. Let anyone who doubts this remember the significant phrase of Mr. Phillips who “expects a campaign of sabotage . . . by the Communists and their fellow-travellers”. And their fellow-travellers! This serves notice on any militant trade unionist, any active fighter for his fellow-workers. Dare to query the wisdom of Bevin in squandering blood and treasure on the Royalist-fascists of Greece or in the Middle East, venture to have a doubt of Cripps’ cut in housing (on Christian principles), presume to cavil at Attlee’s kow-towing to the monopoly capitalists of the U.S.A., and you will at once become “a fellow-traveller,” a dangerous element, perhaps even “an agitator.” With the weight of Wall Street behind them, they want this time to make a clean sweep; and then to turn round to their Yankee “benefactors” and assure them that British trade unions are at last thoroughly tame.

The object of the Wall Street millionaires who dominate the United States Government, the object of the emissaries of the American Federation of Labour is one and the same—to break up the World Federation of Trade Unions or any of its sections. Therefore they drove hard against the C.G.T. (the French Trade Union Congress), and in the latter part of December the capitalist press all over the world uttered whoops of joy hailing the disruption of the French trade union movement. They rejoiced too soon. The workers of France have not been seduced from what, for them, is the relatively new experience of one main single trade union centre—only a handful followed the splitters. Nevertheless, even a partial split was a crime against this new-found unity. Had it been successful it would have delivered the working class over bound hand and foot to the tender mercies of American capitalism. In view of this history, how much worse would it be if in this country where for over a century there has been one single trade union movement, we should now have the introduction of political splits and divisions.

A strict comparison of the actions which could result from Morgan Phillips’ letter and the splitting activities of Leon Jouhaux yields the following conclusion: In Britain the supporters of the Labour Party made up a majority of trade union membership; in France the majority of the trade union membership are supporters of the Communist Party, in each case there are prominent unionists and trade union leaders who hold a minority standpoint and who, nevertheless, have been democratically elected to their positions. In France, the Communist Party, though in a great majority within the trade unions, within the C.G.T., held fast to the principles of democracy and never for a moment suggested that splitting tactics should be introduced. In Britain the Secretary of the Labour Party, also conscious of the majority of General Secretaries and trade union leaders as supporters, proposes to introduce splitting tactics and political discrimination: and he and his circle, while proclaiming that they are “against disruption,” applaud disruption in France. In France it was the minority who carried through the attempted split the sole result of which could be to weaken the working class. In Britain the minority, Communists or militants, are utterly against any split because their chief desire is to strengthen the working class.

Fellow trade unionists, you are part of a mighty labour movement, whose power lies in its unity and its democratic methods. Today that unity is in danger. The principles and methods of trade unionism are at stakes and thereby, our livelihood and our hopes of a better future. Stand firm against these attacks. Do not suffer these American-inspired attempts to play havoc with our trade unions, which our fathers built and which we should be proud to preserve. Stand firm.