Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Rank-and-file Movements of the Thirties

(November 1958)

From The Newsletter, 15 November 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

Among the delegates to our industrial rank-and-file Conference there will undoubtedly be some who participated in the remarkable rank-and-file movements of 1933–35 on the London buses, on the railways, in the aircraft industry and elsewhere.

And it is to be hoped that they will pass on what seem to them the lessons of that experience.

There was a period when it looked as though rank-and-file movements would spread from industry to industry until the whole field was covered, and would begin to come together to co-ordinate their efforts.

Though these movements in the main began independently of the Communist Party (and at first the communists were taken by surprise and even put out by these spontaneous developments), members of that party soon began to play an active part in them.

That was why the trade union bureaucracy issued its Black Circulars, in an attempt to disrupt and weaken, the rank-and-file movements.

The attempt was a failure, and its principal effect was to give added kudos to the communists.

During 1936 and 1937 the drive behind these movements somehow flagged. They ceased to expand and consolidate. No national link-up took place. It proved possible for Bevin to isolate and break up the militants among the London busmen.

The whole industrial scene changed for the worse.

Had developments continued as they were beginning in 1933–35 perhaps there need never have been the war that broke out in 1939.

Why this change, and what can we learn from it for today?

Ted Hill speaks up for us

‘The continued attempts to isolate militants and rank-and-file committees are difficult to understand. From a trade union standpoint they are the very bulwark of organization, and without them trade unionism would be a fiasco.

‘The very existence of rank-and-file committees indicates the bureaucratic domination within a trade union, and such domination can only be removed by the revision of union rules permitting the organization of such committees ...’

‘Militants and rank-and-file committees are the very essence of success, and personally I would not be without them.

‘Whenever the opportunity presents itself most trade union officials relate with pride the history of the Tolpuddle martyrs – they inspire the worker to emulate the class consciousness of these grand old warriors; but when the worker responds and becomes a militant, he is persecuted by his very tutor.’
– Ted Hill, then London district organizer of the Boilermakers’ Society, in Labour Monthly, July 1936.

Limited outlook

‘The most hopeful, indeed the only, political development on the Left has been the entry of the former Bevanites into what was until then a small propagandist group, Victory for Socialism.’

Thus wrote John Saville in his London Letter for the September 1958 issue of the Australian socialist review Outlook.

Whether the co-editor of the New Reasoner regards the developments in connexion with The Newsletter which are now getting so much publicity as being ‘hopeful’ is perhaps questionable, but nobody can deny that they are political’.

Many would argue that they are at least as significant as Victory for Socialism, which has hardly justified some early enthusiasms.

I wonder if my old friend Saville would agree that he slipped up in his estimate of forces worth mentioning in the British Labour movement, when he wrote that London Letter – in which, though the New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review, are duly and properly featured, The Newsletter doesn’t get so much as a mention?

Prolier than thou

In The Brothers Yershov, which I mentioned last week, we are shown how some fine, hard-headed, disciplined Workers rout some nasty, spineless, tortuous-minded Intellectuals who try to draw too many conclusions from the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ said Dr Johnson. What the French call ‘ouvrierisme’ – the Cult of the Manual Worker – is always, the first refuge of the bureaucracy in the Labour movement, whether Stalinist or reformist, the Bevin type or the Pollitt type: ‘Out with your spanners, lads, and get bashing those egg-heads.’

This tactic served the leaders of the British Communist Party fairly well in 1956–57.

It has the disadvantage in the long run, however, of stirring up the class consciousness of the workers; in a period like the one we are in now, this means that the Pollitts arnd Gollans are digging a pit for themselves into which those who today are their most loyal supporters may-soon be disgustedly kicking them.

More Marx for Russians

As Stalin’s foreign policy came increasingly to resemble that of the tsars, he grew intolerant of those among the writings of Marx and Engels which critically analysed, and combated tsarism in the sphere of international relations.

After about 1934, publication of these Works in Russian ceased.

This is the background to the announcement that vol. x of the new edition of the collected works of Marx and Engels, which recently appeared in Moscow, and deals with the period on the eve of the Crimean War, includes twenty-five items which are published in Russian for the first time.

Old and true

‘The position of privilege, irrespective of capacity – a position occupied by many trade union officials – is becoming the most scandalous circumstance of the Labour movement.’
– Beatrice Webb, 1918 (Diaries, 1912–24, p. 109).

Old and —?

‘The trade union movement has become, like the hereditary peerage, an avenue of political power through which stupid untrained persons may pass up to the highest office if only they have secured the suffrages of the members of a large union. One wonders when able rascals will discover this open door to remunerative power.’
– Same writer, 1917 (same book, p. 89).

Last updated on 11.10.2011