J. T. Murphy

New Unions
and their place in the Revolutionary Struggle

A Reply to F. Jackson and Others

Source: The Communist Review, Vol. 2, No.8, August 1930.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
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.

WE were pleased to receive the article from Comrade Jackson, not because we agreed with its contents, but because we are sure he is expressing the views of more than himself, and it is high time these views were answered. His principal theme is that the time is ripe for forming new unions everywhere. He says, “Move we must. The situation in Europe demands this, the colonies are looking to us and, above all, the U.S.S.R. needs action and not so much sympathy. A real Revolutionary Working Class Movement to link up with the revolutionary opposition on the Continent, to really raise the colonial revolutionary struggle in home politics. . . . We must begin now for a Revolutionary Trade Union mass organisation.”

With the demand for action we cannot quarrel. But what if the proposals made by Comrade Jackson prevent action instead of getting it, diverts the attention of the workers from action, to words and schemes, what then? Comrade Jackson waxes indignant against the comrades who raised the question of “the struggle for power” in the woollen strike, and does not recognise his companions in distress. Both are trying to leap ahead of events. Both are impatient. Both are making the wish the father to the thought, neither of them attempting to show that the conditions exist which make their proposal the order of the day. The conditions which should obtain and govern the formation of new unions were very clearly defined in the 10th Plenum of the E.C.C.I. as follows:

“The formation of new trade unions is possible only at the high tide of strikes, only when the political struggle is very acute, when considerable sections of the proletariat have already grasped the social fascist character of the reformist trade union bureaucracy, and when these masses are actually supporting the formation of a new union. . . .”

Suppose we attempt to set up new unions when these conditions do not exist, what then? Then we isolate the revolutionary minority, strengthen the social fascist bureaucracy, bring despair into the ranks of the workers who see hope in neither direction presented to them. And please remember that once the new union is formed there can be no going back without paying a very heavy price indeed.


Do the conditions outlined above obtain in the cases cited by Comrade Jackson, e.g., in the woollen industry? He asks: “What attempts are being made by the M.M. to turn the Central Strike Committee into the provisional committee for a Textile Workers’ Militant Trade Union?” He asks this question without the slightest attempt to show that the conditions exist which make his proposition into practical politics. Let us see whether they do exist. Our Party and the M.M. played a great role in the Strike. There can be no question about that. They blazed a new path before the workers. They demonstrated that an alternative leadership to that of the trade union bureaucracy existed. But at no time was the Central Strike Committee in a position to determine the terms on which the Strike would end or be developed to a higher stage. The employers and the T.U. leaders in all cases of the return to work were in a decisive position, i.e., controlled the act and the conditions of returning to work. This meant that we had not broken the power of the bureaucracy. The masses were not yet sufficiently disillusioned in the T.U. bureaucracy. Not a single trade union leader was discarded throughout the Strike. Not one body of trade union workers threw over their executive and attached themselves in an organised way to the Central Strike Committee.

Two principal reasons for this stand out sharply before us in this situation. There were no mill strike committees. Our work inside the unions was exceedingly feeble. The Central Strike Committee had therefore no basic organisation in the mills, no organised foundations upon which to withstand the blows of the trade union bureaucracy and the employers, no means of wresting the actual authority from the T.U. bureaucracy. Had we had mill committees elected by the mass of the workers at each mill, or even in the most important mills, committees in which the workers had full confidence, then at every decisive stage of the struggle they would have been able to challenge the bureaucrats with the line of the Central Strike Committee. The Central Strike Committee, based upon delegates from the mill committees, could then have played a decisive role in the struggle. But mill strike committees were absent. Even today mill committees are practically non-existent, and at the same time the revolutionary work inside the unions remains exceedingly feeble. Hundreds of workers have left the unions in disgust, but this action has not created the basis for a new union. Instead of a mass drive against the bureaucracy and a strong foundation for the new leadership in the factories we have the picture as described above. We cannot form a new union on the basis of running away from the bureaucracy as an alternate to fighting it. The new union must be the product of mass action, “when the strike movement is at its highest, when the workers are disillusioned in the trade union bureaucracy, and are demanding the new union.” This is not yet the position in the woollen industry, and to create the new union without the pre-requisite conditions existing is to court disaster. The history of the I.W.W. and the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, and other experiments, have proven already the futility of attempting to build new unions on the basis of the revolutionary minority instead of the revolutionary mass in action.


Now let us examine the Mardy expulsion and its relation to the proposal for establishing the expelled branch from the South Wales Miners’ Federation as a branch of the United Mineworkers of Great Britain. Comrade Jackson says: “Here, in my opinion, was the opportunity for putting into practice the first branch of the U.M.W.U. in Great Britain.” How does such a proposition conform to the conditions which the whole International has recognised as necessary pre-conditions for new unions? First of all, the Minority Movement in South Wales is very weak indeed. There were not more than a dozen Communists present in the last South Wales Miners’ Federation Conference elected as delegates. The last Conference of the M.M. in South Wales was exceedingly small. There has been no campaign worth speaking about with regard to Mardy. A few lodges have protested. The S.W.M.F. leaders were able to promptly call a conference and confirm its expulsion. In short, neither the Minority Movement nor the C.P. have won the confidence of large bodies of workers. They are not yet leading the struggles of the miners. The miners of South Wales do not see in them as yet their new leaders. Large numbers are fed up with the bureaucrats and have left the Federation, but it cannot be said that even these have turned to the Minority Movement. They are as yet only potentials.

If therefore the expulsion of Mardy has not created any reverberations in the Federation, has not roused the mass in resentment against the bureaucrats and the revolutionary forces of the Minority Movement and the C.P. have not actively roused the masses in protest against the bureaucrats and laid the foundations of mass action in pit committees, where on earth would the Mardy branch of the U.M.W. of G.B. have been? Obviously in isolated little group buried in the Welsh valleys with the small Communist groups and M.M. groups propagating salvation through the new union.

“But,” says Comrade Jackson and others, “let us link up with the United Mineworkers of Scotland the fighting Miners’ Union.” Some supplement Comrade Jackson with the argument that the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain is a unit, that the establishment of the United Mineworkers of Scotland split the Federation exactly as the United Clothing Workers’ arose out of splitting the Garment Workers’ Union, and therefore the U.M.S. is a section of the U.M.B., and we are failing in our duty isolating the U.M.S., if we do not establish branches of the union throughout the coalfields and split off branches of the M.F.G.B. as recruits to this union.

This formal argument, based upon consideration of the structure of the unions, if applied could only result in the same situation being extended to other coalfields. Instead of winning the masses for struggles we would be busily engaged in isolating the revolutionary workers into a new union, and, contrary to the assertions of these comrades, actually isolating the United Mineworkers of Scotland instead of bringing them mass support.

Again, it is argued—“the mining industry is a single industry, the new union has been established for this industry by the formation of the U.M.S., and therefore we must extend it by recruiting members throughout the industry.”

But such a formal argument, if accepted and applied, could only bring the results indicated, and the comrades forget the actual conditions which gave rise to the U.M.S. It arose out of mass struggles. It arose when the miners were in revolt against the old leaders, when the revolutionary forces in the old union were so strong and active that Adamson, Smillie and Co. were voted out of office, when the Scottish miners were demanding the new union. Do these conditions obtain in the rest of the coalfields? They do not. Are we ousting the bureaucrats from office in any of the unions? We are not. On the contrary, they are successfully ousting our comrades from official positions, and as in Mardy, successfully expelling miners’ lodges who supported us.


What has to be done in these circumstances? Again we will refer to the conclusions of International Conferences, particularly the 10th Plenum of the E.C.C.I.

“This struggle against expulsions and other disruptive measures must be a struggle against the reformist policy of ‘industrial peace’ for unity on the basis of the class struggle, for proletarian democracy in the trade unions. The disruptive work of the reformist leaders has for its object the weakening of the organisational strength of the workers in the struggle for their economic and political demands and the isolation of the Communists and the revolutionary opposition from the organised masses. Therefore, one of the main tasks is to mobilise the widest masses of the workers against the disruptive activity of the social fascist trade union bureaucracy. At the same time, it is necessary to wage a decisive struggle against any form of capitulation. Capitulation before the trade union bureaucracy would not only discredit, but also destroy, the revolutionary opposition.

“The expulsion of entire trade union bodies should be replied to by active continuation of the work and a strengthening of these bodies, accompanied by a simultaneous struggle for their reinstatement under the slogan of unity on a class struggle basis. These expelled unions must not become the rallying points for expelled workers from other trade unions. When individual revolutionary workers are expelled, all efforts must be made to mobilise the workers in the struggle against the disruptive policy of the reformists. The struggle for the reinstatement of the expelled must be waged under the slogan of winning over the workers who are still under reformist influence to the side of the revolutionary opposition.

“The struggle against the disruptive policy of the trade union bureaucracies must be waged not by means of organisation of the expelled Communists and members of the revolutionary opposition in new unions, but by means of a more intense struggle for proletarian democracy in the unions against reformism, for the elimination of the reformist trade union bureaucracy.”

It must be clear, therefore, that new unions have their birth in great mass actions of the workers, that these unions once formed can only expand in the midst of struggle. The slogan of “form new unions” in Britain to-day is therefore not a slogan of preparation for struggle but a slogan for the consolidation of masses won in struggle. We cannot go to any section of the workers and tell them that nothing can be done until they have formed a new union or joined an old one. We cannot tell the miners of Britain that they cannot fight the Coal Bill and its “spread over” until they have extended the United Mineworkers of Scotland into the United Mineworkers of Britain. We cannot go to the wool workers and tell them that they cannot fight the application of MacMillan until they have added one more union to the many now existing. If we are to prove that the Minority Movement is the new leader of economic struggles, then we must have an immediate answer to the questions that are exciting the minds of the workers and give the immediate means for the workers to advance to the fight.

This is why we advance programmes of immediate demands. This is why we put on the order of the day “form action groups,” and build “committees of action,” “extend the Mardy Committee of Action,” etc. What is an “action group”? This is nothing more nor less than a group of workers on the job, whether in a pit or a factory, who unite together on the initiative of our Party members (the Party cell) or Minority Movement members, or revolutionary workers unattached, who agitate and organise their fellow-workers on the job on the questions arising immediately in the lives of the workers union, members and non-union members alike, to get them to elect a committee of action or a factory committee which will develop the situation further and lead the fight for the demands of the workers, it may be into strike action. Then such a committee of action obviously becomes a strike committee. This is not “mechanically sticking to a Committee of Action, openly exposing our own poverty,” as Comrade Jackson asserts, but facing the practical problems of the workers in a practical way here and now, and not relegating action to the days when the new union is established. This is the way to build the Minority Movement and establish it as the leader of economic struggle.


There is no short cut to the complete reorganisation of the working class on the basis of revolutionary industrial unions, just as there is no short cut to the social revolution. Indeed it is more than probable that the latter will precede the former. The complete reorganisation of the workers’ organisations can only be carried through under the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., when the power of the capitalists and reformists is completely shattered. This applies especially to those countries where reformist unions have been and are powerfully entrenched, as in Britain. Don’t forget that the Russian Revolution came before the reorganisation of the unions. Don’t forget that the struggle for power was on the order of the day in Germany at one period, and the trade unions had not been reorganised. New unions are not necessarily pre-requisites of the revolution, but may and do arise in the process of the mass struggles against the capitalist class and the social fascist trade union bureaucracy. The conditions under which they arise we have defined. Failure to observe these conditions and to be governed by them will bring defeat after defeat to the Revolutionary Movement. The creation of new unions is not the pre-requisite means of the revolutionary struggle, but the factory committees of action. We could not win the Wool Strike without them. We cannot conquer the factories without them. The measure of our success in leading the workers in the revolutionary struggle is commensurate with our success in developing factory committees to lead the struggle. This applies with equal force even where new unions have been established, as in the case of the United Mineworkers of Scotland and the Clothing Workers’ Union. To think that even these organisations can grow from strength to strength without pit committees and factory committees embracing over larger numbers of the workers in the struggle is an illusion. The moment these unions become content with recruiting members, as in the case of the reformist unions, that moment they will degenerate and weaken. They can only live by fighting the battle of the workers, and their fighting must be directed towards embracing the greatest mass of workers. The fight against the social fascists will be won in the pits and factories through the persistent massing of the workers on the factory front, behind the pit and factory committees. This line of action is fundamental to the course of the revolution, the coming of the Soviets, the mass weapons for the conquest of power. This is why we stress so much the importance of building our Party on the factory basis. This is why we stress so much the importance of uniting the committees for fighting unemployment, based upon the Labour Exchanges, with the factory committees.


But we cannot do these things effectively and neglect the fight within the trade unions. We cannot leave these organisations as a means for the free mobilisation of the workers against the revolutionary work in the factories and pits. To give such free play to the forces of counter revolution is criminal. The mass of the workers who joined the unions joined because they wanted a means of collective struggle, a means of uniting to defend their interests. And the great majority of trades union workers still believe this to be their purpose. The masses are not social fascists, and we must not confuse them with the bureaucracy which cleverly harnesses their beliefs for counter revolutionary ends. We must keep in our trades unions, fight to oust the bureaucrats, expose them at every step, and thereby strengthen our position in the factories. This is our line of battle.

But it is difficult, we are told. Yes, it is difficult. Then we must conquer the difficulties. And the first step in this direction is to find out why we make so little headway. It is useless for anyone to suggest that the workers will not fight. They are fighting even without our leadership and without new unions. Then the reason for this gulf between ourselves and the masses must be sought, either in our policy or in our methods of work, the translation of our policy into action.

If our policy is correct, and there is no challenge within our ranks on this score, then there must be something wrong with our methods. One of the outstanding defects at the present moment, in my opinion, is the flood of revolutionary phrasemongering that has been surging through the Party and the M.M. “The plans of the employers have been shattered,” “the wool strike is the struggle for power,” “call the political mass strike in circumstances when the best revolutionary action would have been to organise textile aid collections. “Form the new revolutionary unions,” “the East is calling for action,” “the West is calling for action,” “India is calling for action,” etc., etc., all of which leaves the workers looking upon us as a strange bunch of folk who know a lot of geography, have a terrific amount of voluble energy, but appear impractible. The sooner this is recognised as stuff which is standing in the way of the Party fighting the “right danger” with real mass leadership of struggles the sooner we shall overcome our difficulties.


How shall we begin? I will set out a few suggestions. First, listen to our fellow-workers. Stop talking at them. Discuss with them in their own language the questions which they raise. Second, talk with our fellow-workers as to how we together can do something. Suggest that we work as groups. Third, suggest a factory paper, which all of us can produce together, and get the other workers in the factory to join in. Fourth, discuss how it shall be sold without isolating the group and getting them the sack. Call in the help of the workers outside the factory, the unemployed comrades and the women who are not in the factory. Pave the way to a factory committee, not by putting the question of a committee as a formal organisational question. The factory committee must arise with mass activity around the questions which are agitating the minds of the workers in the factory, which have stirred the masses of the factory into demanding the ways and means of action.

Don’t thrust the “revolution” down the throats of our fellow-workers but explain the revolutionary significance of the issues.

If our Party cells work on these lines, utilise these means to bring to the workers the Daily Worker and its message as the leading organ of our Party, it will not be long before we shall find great masses of workers advancing consciously along the path of revolutionary struggle with our Party at their head.