Branko Pribićević 1959

The Shop Stewards’ Movement and
Workers’ Control 1910-1922

Written: as part of a PhD thesis at Nuffield College, Oxford, 1955-57;
First Published: by Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1959;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden 2006.

Chapter I: Introduction
The Movement for Workers’ Control

THE term ‘workers’ control’ as used in these pages means the replacement of the capitalist industrial system by a new industrial order in which the industries of the country will be controlled (partly or completely) by associations of the workers employed in those industries. Other terms have also been used, such as ‘democratic’, ‘workshop , works’, or joint control. On occasion, as win be shown later, some of these latter terms were employed in order to indicate that not complete or ‘sole’ control of industry was demanded but only a share, a voice or a say in the management. All these proposals, however, shared a common opposition to the existing system of private ownership and control in industry.

Certain proposals and schemes of workers’ participation in the control of industry therefore fall outside the scope of this study. First, those put forward by some enlightened employers and also some non-industrial organizations, to give the workers some (usually a very small) share in the management of privately owned and controlled firms. There was a number of such experiments, particularly in the engineering industry, in the later part of the war. In these proposals the idea was not to abolish the capitalist industrial system, but to consolidate it by attempting to create a feeling of joint responsibility and community of interests between the two sides of industry. The second category is that of so-called ‘craft control’. By 194, the unions in some industries, particularly in engineering, were strong enough to secure either formal or informal recognition by employers of their right to interfere with certain managerial decisions directly affecting the interests of their members. This was negative, external or ‘non-contagious’ control allowing the unions to intervene in, or even to veto, some decisions of management, but not to take any positive part in the process of management.

The purpose of this study is to examine the development of the idea of workers’ control in the engineering industry; to examine in particular the conditions in the industry which led to the assertion of the idea, the several practical proposals which were put forward by the engineers, and the relation of these schemes and proposals to the general doctrines of workers’ control advocated by different socialist schools of thought at that time.

The campaign for workers’ control in the engineering industry was part of a wider movement which developed in the second decade of this century. The years 1910-22 witnessed the whole process of inception, growth, climax and decline of this campaign.

Before 1910 the idea of workers’ control was advocated only by the Socialist Labour Party (henceforward S.L.P.), but, for various reasons which will be indicated later, this propaganda failed to make, impact on any trade union or labour organization. The movement for workers’ control was effectively launched in the summer of 1910 when Tom Mann started a vigorous, nation-wide syndicalist campaign, calling for industrial unity, an aggressive industrial policy and the establishment of a new society in which not only the industries of the country but the whole social life would be controlled by the unions. This propaganda had considerable influence on radical trade unionists in the mining, railway, engineering and transport industries. The Syndicalists largely failed, however, in their attempt to convert trade unions and other official labour organizations. The Labour Party and many unions repudiated it as an irresponsible and even anti-social doctrine.

Syndicalists were replaced by Guild Socialists about 1913 as the main advocates of workers’ control. Guild Socialism was more moderate in its demands and therefore more acceptable to the trade unions. It offered the unions a policy whereby they could achieve workers’ control of industry in a peaceful and gradual manner. Before long the question of the workers’ place in the control of publicly-owned industry was widely discussed at various trade union conferences. Some of the leading unions declared that they would demand joint control of publicly owned industries by representatives of the state and the workers. Others demanded a system of tripartite control in which the workers would share management with representatives of the state and consumers. By the end of the war, trade unions in the mining, railway, building and some other industries were converted to the policy of joint control. The Trades Union Congress passed a number of resolutions expressing full support for the demands for joint control in various industries and indicating support in principle for workers’ participation. The Labour Party, although not very enthusiastic about these new ideas, was brought to include in its 1918 Programme a demand for a “steadily increasing participation of the organized workers” in the control of the railway and mining industries once these were transferred to public ownership.

Whilst the official labour organizations supported the policy of joint control, various unofficial, left-wing groups demanded complete control. The most important of these were the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committee movement in engineering and the Reform Committees in the mining industry. It can be said, therefore, that the and for workers’ or joint control asserted itself by the end of the war as one of the most important political demands of the labour movement.

The climax was reached shortly after the end of the war. Such powerful trade union organizations as the Miners’ Federation and the National Union of Railwaymen included in their national programmes demands for nationalization and joint control. They seemed prepared to use industrial action to realize their demands. In building and engineering there were numerous attempts at establishing self-governing enterprises.

The decline of the movement was even faster than its rise. The various attempts to put the idea of workers’ control into practice failed one after another. The miners and the railwaymen were defeated by the combined forces of the Government and the employers. The self-governing enterprises in the building and engineering industries, organized on the Guild Socialist lines, were but very short-lived experiments. Several factors contributed to this rapid decline. The Government was opposed to any such profound change in the social structure. The opposition of the employers was to be expected. The trade slump which set in at the end Of 1920 severely hit the unions. There were also serious weaknesses in the workers’ control policy of the unions, which will be discussed in a later chapter.

By 1922 the unions were in full retreat. The miners, the engineers and some other sections of workers were completely defeated in the great industrial conflicts which took place in 192,1 and 192,2. As a result of these defeats and heavy unemployment the forward movement of the unions was stopped and they had to fight to preserve the most important of the improvements in the working conditions which they had secured at the end of the war. Any such bold demands as nationalization and workers’ control had, for the time being, to be dropped. it should be pointed out, however, that the idea of workers’ control was not dropped. The defeated and disappointed advocates of workers’ control realized that there was no hope of persuading or coercing the Government and the employers to concede their demands. They came to think that the return of a Labour Government was the essential prerequisite to the realization of their ideal. Another change was that few now demanded that the workers should have complete control of industry. The idea that the workers should have some share in the control of industry is still officially accepted by the Labour Movement. The forms of workers’ control and the methods of achieving it which were evolved in this period have been dismissed as impractical or unrealistic, but the idea itself has not. On the other hand it has not recovered the importance for the Labour Movement which it had in the years 1915-20.


Something must be said of the most important movements for workers’ control in industries other than engineering. In the railway industry it was intimately connected with the question of nationalization. The railway unions had sought nationalization for some time before 1910, mainly as a remedy for poor working conditions and bad industrial relations. They hoped that the change in ownership would result in better working conditions and bring them recognition.

The Syndicalists were the first to raise the question in this industry. The ground was prepared for them by industrial unrest culminating in the 1911 railway strike, by the manner in which the Government brought the strike to an end, and by dissatisfaction with the Conciliation. Scheme which resulted from the settlement. Quite a number of branches gave active support to some of the Syndicalist policies, and in the autumn of 1911 there appeared a monthly journal called the Syndicalist Railwayman. One of the main items in the syndicalist propaganda was an attack on the demand for, nationalization. They maintained that it would not greatly improve the lot of the railwaymen. Real emancipation would only be achieved when the railwaymen had complete control over the industry. And this could be achieved only through industrial unity and ‘direct action’.

A resolution on these fines was moved by Syndicalists at the 1912 annual conference of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. the largest railway trade union at that time. The resolution was passed and the A.S.R.S. thus became the first trade union to declare in favour of the workers’ control and the only union which was for a time committed to the syndicalist demand for complete control by the workers. The leading officials of the A.S.R.S., however, like other union leaders, were opposed to syndicalism and repudiated workers’ control.

This attitude of the officials began to change in the years 1913-14. The President of the Railway Clerks’ Association said in his address to the 1913 annual conference that the railwaymen’s claim for higher social status could not be achieved by ‘mere’ nationalization, but only by giving the railwaymen a share ‘in control. He suggested that nationalized railways should be administered by a board consisting of representatives of the state, consumers and the workers. A year later the National Union of Railwaymen passed a resolution stating that ‘... no system of state ownership will be acceptable to organized railwaymen which does not ... allow them a due measure of control and responsibility in the safe and efficient working of the railway system’. The idea of joint control had thus begun to emerge. The influence of Guild Socialists, the disappointment with the 1911 Conciliation Scheme and the Government’s moves towards railway amalgamation were the main reasons for this change ‘in the attitude of the officials.

It was not, however, until 1917 that the concept of joint control was clearly defined by the railwaymen. The greatest confusion appeared with regard to the functions of the proposed joint boards. Whereas the more radical elements demanded that these boards should be organs of control, the moderates maintained that they would be advisory to a management appointed by the Government. In the end the former view prevailed. There were also some differences with regard to the composition of the boards. First it was proposed that they should be tripartite bodies consisting of the representatives of the state, consumers and the workers. By 1917 it was held that there was no need for special representation of the consumers as their interests could be represented by the state.

As the war went on the railwaymen became more articulate in their demand for nationalization and joint control, and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen joined the other two railway societies in their campaign. An unofficial rank and file movement of the railwaymen, which sprang up during the war and took the form of local ‘vigilance committees’, urged the unions, particularly the N.U.R., to pursue the demand with more vigour. In 1917 the N.U.R., partly as a result of pressure from this unofficial movement, included nationalization and joint control in its national programme which was to be put before the Government at the end of the war. It was stated in the programme that ‘there should be equal representation both national and local for this union upon the management of all railways in the United Kingdom’.’ The next year the annual conference instructed the Executive to draft a scheme providing for joint control. The Executive produced an extremely ambiguous document, which was essentially a plan for a comprehensive conciliation scheme and not a scheme for joint control. In 1918 the R.C.A. produced a National Transport Service Bill. which dealt mainly with the financial aspects of nationalization and had only two clauses on the future system of administration. Control of the industry was to be placed in the hands of six commissioners, three of whom were to be nominated by the railway trade unions. The Bill was to have been introduced in the House of Commons by the Labour Party, but before this could be done the Government asked for its withdrawal as they were intending to introduce a Bill of their own.

Immediately the war was over the unions approached the Government with their demands, and for a time it seemed that they might be successful. Some members of the Government had publicly declared in favour of nationalization and the Government had announced its view that ‘the time has arrived when the workers, both officials and manual workers, should have some voice in management’ .2 In fact, however, the Government postponed the final reply to the railwaymen’s demands, so that negotiations dragged on for three years. The Government then declared that they would not nationalize the railways, but offered the unions a share -in control. The unions first refused to co-operate, but when they realized that the struggle for nationalization was lost, they changed their minds. Then the employers rejected the idea and the unions had to give way. An improved conciliation scheme, embodied in the 1921 Railway Act, was the only result of years of struggle for public ownership and democratic control of the railway industry.


In the mining industry also, workers’ control was closely connected with the demand for nationalization. For reasons similar in some ways to those of the railwaymen, the miners’ trade unions had demanded nationalization since the closing years of the last century.

The South Wales Reform Committee, an unofficial rank and file organization, was the first miners’ organization to raise the question. The Committee was strongly influenced by Syndicalism, but other influences such as Industrial Unionism and radical Socialism were also present. In 1912 the Committee published its policy in the well-known pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step. In the section of the pamphlet dealing with the future of the industry the policy of nationalization was repudiated. The authors argued that, far from improving the miners’ position, it would worsen it. Nationalization was, they maintained, the last bulwark of the employers in their struggle for the preservation of capital, and must therefore be opposed.

In place of nationalization they recommended an aggressive industrial policy which would force the employers out of the industry. Once this was achieved the industry would be placed under the control of the miners’ industrial union. Industrial unions covering all industries of the country would become the basis of a complete new social structure.

This policy was not acceptable to the leaders of the miners’ trade unions and it was repudiated at various conferences of the Miners’ Federation. The miners’ leaders, socialists and non-socialists alike, took no interest in the problem of workers’ control until the end of the war. Then, partly under the influence of Guild Socialists and partly because of disillusionment with tile war-time government control of the industry, the Miners’ Federation decided to revise its

policy on nationalization. At the 1918 annual conference it was decided that nationalization unaccompanied by joint control would be unsatisfactory to the miners, and the Executive was instructed to revise the Nationalization of Mines Bill, drafted by the Federation in 1912, so as to provide for joint control.

Nationalization and joint control were included in the national programme presented to the Government by the Federation at the beginning of 1919. The Government referred the programme to the Sankey Commission. In the course of the Commission’s proceedings the Federation submitted a fairly detailed scheme for nationalization and joint control. According to this scheme the industry was to be vested in and controlled by a Mining Council of twenty members, ten to be appointed by the Federation and ten by the Government, together with a president who was also to be Minister of Mines. In districts and coalfields there were to be District Mining Councils, and here again half the members were to be appointed by the Federation. These Councils, intended as local organs of control, were to be constituted by the National Council, which was also to determine their powers. At each colliery there was to be a Pit Council, half of whose members were to be miners chosen by the District Councils from nominations of the men in the pits. This part of the scheme was criticized by the radical elements in the Federation who maintained that the workers should have the right to direct election of their representatives on the Pit Councils. The functions of the Pit Councils were not made clear in the scheme. From evidence submitted by the Federation it may be concluded that the intention was to give them advisory powers. The actual management was to be in the hands of appointed managers. This was also considered as unsatisfactory by many advocates of workers’ control.

This scheme may be considered as the most important document produced by the British workers in their struggle for workers’ control. It was proposed by the most powerful trade union organization in the country. It was examined before a Commission of Inquiry whose proceedings were looked upon as a decisive conflict between Labour and Capitalism. Finally, it was one of the most detailed evolved by a workers’ organization.

As the miners could not get majority support for their proposals it was decided to give the six votes of the ‘labour’ side of the Commission to the scheme produced by the chairman of the Commission, Sir John Sankey. This provided for public ownership and a somewhat watered down system of joint control. In this way they hoped to secure at least some of their demands, particularly to prevent the return of collieries to the control of the coal-owners.

The Government, however, ignored the fact that the ‘Sankey Report’ was a majority report and rejected its recommendations. instead they asked the miners to accept their plan for joint control’ of the industry by the coal-owners and the miners. The share in control offered to the miners was so insignificant as to be quite unacceptable to them, and the Federation appealed to the T.U.C. for support. As the leaders of the T.U.C. were not prepared to strike for the miners’ demands, they agreed to join the Labour Party in launching a national propaganda campaign in support of the miners. The Government again refused, and after the failure of their final attempt to persuade the T.U.C. to vote in favour of a general strike the Federation had to admit defeat.


The miners, the railwaymen and the engineers played by far the most important role in the movement for workers’ control. Of the workers in other industries only the builders and the postmen need be mentioned here.

By the end of the war Guild Socialist propaganda was becoming increasingly successful in these two industries. A fairly large proportion of the union leaders joined the National Guilds League and some of the unions officially adhered to the Guild Socialist doctrine. The Union of Post Office Workers drafted a very comprehensive scheme for transforming the Post Office service into a self-governing service on Guild Socialist lines. (In the first stage the service was to be controlled jointly by representatives of the state and the workers.) In view of the Government’s opposition to any experiment in workers’ control the scheme was rejected by the management.

The most serious attempt to put the Guild Socialist ideas into practice was made in the building industry. S. G. Hobson, a leading Guildsman, and some trade union officials from the Manchester area decided in 1920 to establish a building guild. At first the attempt was quite successful. Large contracts for building houses were secured from the local authorities. Before long building guilds were set up in many towns and building centres. A National Building Guild, to co-ordinate the work of local guilds, was established in 1921. Thousands of houses were built by the guilds at lower prices thin those offered by the private contractors. Ambitious plans were made for the transformation of the whole industry into a self-governing service. The initial success of the building guilds can be explained by an enormous demand for houses and favourable credit terms offered by the authorities. When in 192,2 the Government radically restricted loans for housing, the guilds, without their own financial resources, quickly ran into financial difficulties. Apart from these financial difficulties, partly caused by the trade slump and the Government’s policy, there were also some weaknesses in the internal organization of guilds which hastened the process of disintegration. By the end of 192,2 practically all of them had collapsed.


In the subsequent chapters there are frequent references to three main movements or schools of thought which advocated workers’ control in this period and which had a considerable effect on individual movements for control and the form of their demands. It is necessary, therefore, to give a brief outline of these schools and of the main differences between them.

In the second decade of this century it was even more true than it is to-day that only a minority of workers concerned themselves with such large issues as Socialism and the emancipation of the working class. This minority was the ‘active rank and file’. In 1910 most of them looked for their solution to political action-either parliamentary or revolutionary-and therefore belonged to one or another of the then existing socialist or semi-socialist political organizations. Thus they joined either the Independent Labour Party, the Social Democratic Federation (British Socialist Party after 1911), the Socialist Labour Party or perhaps the Fabian Society or the Clarion Group.

Although differing on many questions of methods and tactics of bringing about the socialist commonwealth, all these parties and groups, with the exception of the S.L.P., were agreed on the following two fundamental principles. The first was that the new order could be established only after capturing political power, and that this could be achieved only by political and not by industrial action. This explains the great preoccupation of most of die militants and activists in the first decade of the century with building up the workers’ political parties. The second was that the fundamentals of the new social order were to be public ownership (state, municipal or co-operative) of all, or at least, the most important means of production, and the regulation of the social and industrial life of the community by the representative organs of the state or of consumers. This meant in particular that the industries would be administered by the managers appointed by and responsible to the state or co-operative societies. This reliance on political action and the notion of the all-embracing and benevolent role of the socialist state was equally characteristic of the Marxists in the S.D.F. and the reformists of the I.L.P. or the Fabian Society.

It was in direct opposition to these ‘orthodox’ socialist ideas that the new movements sprang up. The complex reasons for this rebellion against the established socialist tenets will not be discussed here. It will suffice to mention that the main argument of the ‘rebels’ was that the ten years of intense political campaigning had failed to bring any real improvements in the workers’ social and industrial conditions, and they accordingly dismissed such a policy as a sheer waste of time and energy.

There were three main doctrines in this rebel movement – Industrial Unionism, Syndicalism and Guild Socialism. Although the distinction between the first two might appear somewhat vague, and has sometimes been neglected, it is more correct to treat them separately.

Certain features common to all three movements must be mentioned . First, they maintained that political action alone would never abolish the capitalist economic system. Some believed that it was useless, others that it was inadequate. The main instrument, and some argued the only instrument, capable of bringing about this profound social transformation was the workers industrial organization. Second, the new society was to be organized primarily, or even exclusively, along industrial lines. The industrial organization would therefore become the foundation of the whole social structure, and industry would be under the full control of the workers’ industrial organizations. This was the only way to attain full economic freedom and equality. State ownership and control of industry was hardly less obnoxious to them than capitalist ownership and control. They dismissed both as only different forms of industrial autocracy, or ‘ wage slavery’ (their favourite term for an industrial system where the workers had no share in control).

It will be seen later on that the case for workers’ control was founded on the notions of economic or industrial freedom and equality. These were seen as the only safeguards for the free and full expression of the worker’s values and aspirations both as a human being and a producer of the world’s wealth. Any other system would deprive him not only of these rights and freedoms, but also of his rightful share in the division of the industrial product. Now let us see what were the main facts and distinctive features of the three movements.

Industrial Unionism

Industrial Unionism as a distinct socialist doctrine was evolved by Daniel De Leon, Eugene Debs and other leaders of American Socialist Labour Party at the end of the last century. In this country a group of Glasgow members of the Social Democratic Federation led by James Connolly took an interest in this doctrine and soon became its enthusiastic advocates. Having failed ‘in its attempt to convert the S.D.F., the group seceded in 1903 and formed itself into a new party, the Socialist Labour Party. The Party was intended to be the main organ of Industrial Unionist propaganda in this country. It failed, however, to exert much influence south of the border and remained confined to Glasgow and some other Scottish industrial centres. There for many years they conducted an active propaganda campaign, publishing numerous pamphlets and books and a regular monthly paper, The Socialist.

Being so intimately connected with American Industrial Unionists the British movement reflected all the main trends and developments taking place in America. Shortly after the American Industrial Unionists organized the Industrial Workers of the World as a practical step towards realization of their ideals, the S.L.P. called a meeting at which was formed a similar organization, the British Advocates of Industrial Unionism. Owing to different conditions in this country the B.A.I.U. failed to make anything like the same progress as the I.W.W. did in America. The B.A.I.U. was essentially a propagandist body and its main purpose to persuade the trade unions that they should dissolve in favour of all-grade, revolutionary Industrial Unions. When, in 1908, the I.W.W. split between anarchist and ‘political’ factions (the former being opposed to any kind of political action and therefore opposed to contacts with the American S.L.P.), the same split took place in the B.A.I.U.

The anarchist faction, being in the minority, left the B.A.I.U. and established the Industrial League., The latter claimed to represent ‘pure’ Industrial Unionism, which to them implied constant warfare not only against the employers but also against the trade unions and opposition to any kind of political work and organization. Sabotage and other forms of violence were also advocated. Owing to this extremist policy the League failed to make any impact on the Labour Movement.

on the other hand the B.A.I.U. continued to work in close co-operation with the S.L.P. In 1909 the B.A.I.U. was reorganized under the name Industrial Workers of Great Britain. The change was not only a change in name. The leaders of the B.A.I.U. had realized that their attempt to persuade the trade unions to dissolve was a complete failure. The new organization was intended as a ‘Recruiting Industrial Union’, established in opposition to the existing trade unions. The idea was to recruit into local branches all Industrial Unionists irrespective of the industry they might belong to until a sufficient number was reached to set up actual Industrial Unions.

Apart from these two factions, the Industrial League and the I.W.G.B., there were local groups of Industrial Unionists in some industrial centres unconnected with either faction such as the Industrial Group in Sheffield, the I.W.W. in Birmingham and the Revolutionary Industrialists in Liverpool. None of these, however, had much influence even in the towns where they existed. After 1910 some of them joined the syndicalist movement and the others disappeared.

The S.L.P. and the I.W.G.B. were certainly the most important and representative Industrial Unionist organizations in this country. They had some influence in Glasgow and Edinburgh, they functioned through the whole of our period and their policy was fairly clearly formulated. It must be remembered, however, that their doctrine was in almost every detail based on De Leon’s writings. There was little, if anything, original in the numerous pamphlets and other material published by the S.L.P., whose role was to present and popularize De Leon’s doctrine to the British Labour Movement.

The crux of this doctrine was that the workers should unite both politically and industrially in their struggle for emancipation. in the political field they should unite in a revolutionary workers’ political party (S.L.P.) which had to fulfil two main purposes: to educate workers politically so that their power of numbers would be manifest in the return of a majority to Parliament; and to advocate Industrial Unionism. In the industrial field the workers should, of course, unite in revolutionary Industrial Unions. Only by the parallel development of both political consciousness and industrial unity could the workers hope to bring about a ‘peaceful social revolution’.

The idea of ‘peaceful social revolution’ was conceived in these terms. A period of successful propaganda and education would achieve both political and industrial unity amongst the workers. On the decisive day the workers would vote political power into the hands of the Socialist Party. The same day the Industrial Unions would lock out the employers and take over all industries. Control of the political machinery would prevent the employers bringing in the armed forces of the State and smashing the unions. Immediately the unions had assumed control of industry the function of the workers’ political representatives in Parliament and the political state in general would be finished. De Leon said that the duty of the socialist majority would be to ‘adjourn. themselves on the spot’; any attempt to prolong the political movement in existence in the event of triumph would be ‘usurpation’., Therefore the political function was destructive and temporary, and the industrial function was constructive and fundamental.

This was the only way to bring about the workers’ emancipation. Nationalization was dismissed as only another form of exploitation.

The new society was to be organized along industrial lines. Industries would be administered by the Industrial Unions. A policy statement prepared by the S.L.P. laid down that Industrial Unions would ‘become the administrative machinery for directing industry in the socialist commonwealth. In addition, the whole social structure would be based on the unions. The S.L.P. declared that ‘Industrial Unionism by its departmental organization provides the skeleton structure of that parliament of socialism wherein the government of men ... gives place to the peaceful administration of industry’. Even though workers’ control was one of the main planks in their propaganda and the ultimate objective of the movement, there was no attempt to examine various aspects of the problem. Such important questions as the fixing of prices, national and local administration, the co-ordination of economic development, the financing of social activities and many others were not considered. They were regarded as ‘details’, and their neglect is probably to be explained by the belief of the Industrial Unionists in the unlimited potential for organization of the workers and their inability to appreciate the complex nature of the problem of industrial management. For this reason most of their writings on the problem of control appear naive and superficial.

All that can be said with certainty about their concepts of the organization of the future society is that the Industrial Unions would assume complete control of industry and serve as the basis of social administration as well.

In spite of vigorous and persistent propaganda by the S.L.P. and other Industrial Unionist organizations, the new doctrine made very little impact on the Labour Movement. The main reason for this failure was, no doubt, the dogmatism and extremism of Industrial Unionists, which was shown in the negative attitude adopted by all factions of industrial Unionists to trade unionism. The trade unions were considered as a ‘bulwark’ of capitalism, which should be destroyed. The official organ of the S.L.P., which had never represented the most extremist faction of Industrial Unionism, declared that ‘the hope of the British proletariat lies in the decay and death of trade unionism ... the death of Labour Party and the birth of Industrial Unionism’. No wonder the doctrine was not popular with the trade unionists. There was also a so-called ‘trade union rule’ in the constitution of the S.L.P. prohibiting members from taking up any office in the unions. This dogmatism was also manifest in the negative attitude they took towards the improvement of working conditions. They were in principle against ‘reforms’ under capitalism. AU efforts should be directed to the building up of powerful Industrial Unions. This policy, obviously, could have little success in a country where the working class movement developed through constant struggles for ‘reforms’ and had already achieved considerable improvements in working conditions.


The appearance and development of the Syndicalist movement in this country was of rather a meteoric nature. Syndicalist propaganda started in the summer of 1910 and in the years 1911-12 at the height of great industrial unrest, caught the attention not only of the Labour Movement but of the general public as well. It was discussed in Parliament and the national newspapers, and at trade union and Labour conferences. A number of books were published in which the main principles of the new doctrine were discussed. In most cases it was repudiated as an extremist, disruptive, even anti-social force. Most of the leaders of the Labour Party and the trade unions were at great pains to prove that their Socialism had nothing in common with it. Then in 1913 it rapidly disintegrated and before the war started had disappeared as a distinct element in the Labour Movement.

The Syndicalist doctrine was first evolved in France at the end of the last century. Its main feature was the notion that the workers’ emancipation could be achieved only by means of revolutionary industrial action. Political action and particularly Parliament were dismissed as a waste of time and energy. The doctrine made a great impact on the French workers and the General Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the largest trade union organizations in France, was controlled by Syndicalists for nearly two decades.

Tom Mann was the principal figure of British Syndicalism. For some time before 1910 he was an advocate of Industrial Unionism. in 1910 he met the French Syndicalist leaders in Paris, and was so impressed that on his return to London he declared that the ‘French policy’ would suit British conditions much better than Industrial Unionism. He did not, however, reject the latter in its entirety. He upheld the idea of ‘one union for one ‘industry’ as the essential prerequisite of the successful struggle for workers’ emancipation, but rejected the methods of the Industrial Unionists.

A Syndicalist campaign was launched in July 1910 with the publication by Tom Mann of the monthly journal Industrial Syndicalist, which gave its name to the movement which he led. The ‘intention was to show that it drew its ideas both from Syndicalism and from Industrial Unionism. By the end of 1910 a conference of all those who supported the doctrines expounded in the Industrial Syndicalist met at Manchester and decided to set up the Industrial Syndicalist Education League. The League was constituted in 1911 a d its purpose defined in these terms: ‘To educate Trade Unionists and the workers generally in the principles of Industrial Syndicalism for the purpose of conducting the class struggle on non-parliamentary lines.’

The League, although the main organ of British Syndicalism, remained until its end in 1913 a very loosely organized body. This was not important since it was primarily intended by Mann and his associates to serve as a propaganda platform.

There were two main aspects of the Syndicalist activity ‘in Britain. First, there was a remarkable propaganda drive designed to make the workers realize the need for industrial unity and the class struggle against the employers. Second, the Syndicalists took a prominent part ‘in various trade union activities such as strikes for better conditions and movements for amalgamation of the existing unions. Wherever workers were on the move, Syndicalists tried to assume the leadership. This attitude was based on the contention that the workers could immediately improve their situation if they took determined industrial action. Tom Mann maintained that unemployment could be abolished and a minimum wage Of 5s. a day achieved within a short period of time if the workers could be persuaded to act. He also insisted that the workers should not wait until they had Industrial Unions to improve working conditions.

Syndicalists were generally much more concerned with the burning questions of the day than with the distant future, much more with the methods and tactics of the class struggle than with its ultimate aims. Everybody who was willing to take part in the class struggle, regardless of his organization or his political views, was welcome in the Syndicalist League. They maintained that it would be idle to insist on theoretical distinctions at a time when the main body of the workers were engaged in practical class struggles.

This was, perhaps, the most important characteristic of British Syndicalism, and helps to answer a number of questions about its history. It explains first of all why Syndicalists, in those three years, made a much greater impact on the Labour Movement than the

Industrial Unionists did in two decades-they were much nearer to the problems facing the workers. Second, it explains the heterogeneous composition of the movement. Apart from a small body of convinced Syndicalists it included such diverse elements as anarchists, a section of Industrial Unionists, a number of left-wing trade unionists such as Ben Tillett, A. A. Purcell, and Robert Williams, and even a few ‘political’ socialists such as George Lansbury. For a brief moment the Syndicalist League became a focal point of all extreme left wing elements in the Labour Movement, disappointed not only with the existing social order, but also with the Labour Party and trade unionism. Third, it explains why the movement, once the industrial unrest was over, so quickly disintegrated. There was simply no common doctrine or outlook to keep together all these heterogeneous elements.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Syndicalists laid much more emphasis in their policy statements on the methods of abolishing capitalism than on expounding the principles of the new social order. The former was, in their opinion, the immediate task and they made it fairly clear how the struggle should be conducted. This part of their doctrine was roughly summarized in the words ‘Industrial Solidarity and Direct Action’. These were the watchwords of the movement.

The slogan ‘Industrial Solidarity’ had a double significance. In its negative aspect it stipulated that only industrial unity and action were needed. Political action, especially as manifested in party parliamentary contests, was considered to be irrelevant at best. It should be pointed out, however, that British Syndicalists did not go to the same extreme as the French. They decided at the Manchester conference that the Syndicalist League would be ‘non-political’, but it was left open for individual members to decide for themselves.

The second aspect was of greater practical importance as it involved their attitude to the Unions. British Syndicalists were fully aware of the various defects of trade unionism and were convinced that Industrial Unions must supersede the existing unions. Thus far they were -in full agreement with Industrial Unionists. But they opposed the policy of attacking the trade unions as ‘bulwarks of capitalism’ and forming new unions in opposition to and at the expense of the existing ones. They maintained that, under revolutionary leadership and within certain limits, the trade unions could do quite a lot for the workers and even serve as instruments of the class struggle. Industrial Unions were essential for the final emancipation of the workers but would have to be established through the amalgamation of existing unions. Syndicalists hoped that the unions could be persuaded to adopt this course.

Amalgamation would have to be achieved on a revolutionary basis. By this they meant that the new unions must be ready to engage in a permanent class struggle against the employers and the state. This industrial warfare would have to continue until the abolition of capitalism. This was the essence of the idea of Direct Action. Two aspects of this concept were bound to be unpopular with the trade unions. The Syndicalists demanded that the unions should abrogate all conciliation agreements and refrain in future from signing any long-term agreements with the employers; and they maintained that all kinds of violence were permissible in industrial conflicts, and urged the workers to employ such weapons as ‘irritation strikes, sabotage, boycotts and anti-militarism’.

The supreme manifestation of Direct Action was to be a General Strike. Tom Mann was convinced that there was nothing the industrially organized workers could not achieve by this weapon. The General Strike was seen as the final battle for emancipation. The employers would be ‘ousted’ and the Industrial Unions would take over.

How would the unions take over and how would the new order function? No British Syndicalist stopped to consider seriously these and similar questions. They, too, thought of these as ‘details’ which would easily be solved once the capitalist system was abolished. Various statements referring to the future syndicalist society were too brief and vague to be satisfactory. The fullest definition of Syndicalism by a British Syndicalist was this statement by Tom Mann: ‘Syndicalism implies a condition of society where industry will be controlled by those engaged therein on the basis of free societies, these to co-operate for the production of all the requirements of life in the most efficient manner, and the distribution of the same with the truest equity, a society in which Parliaments and Governments will have disappeared, having served their purpose with the capitalist system. ‘

This did not say who would own the means of production, how the product would be divided, or what would be the organs of control. The Syndicalists were, in fact, divided over the question of ownership. Tom Mann at first claimed that the workers should own the means of production, but in 1912 he declared that they should ‘administer their ‘industries and not own them as well’. Guy Bowman, the second most prominent British Syndicalist, maintained throughout that the workers would own the industries. It seems that the latter view was more popular amongst the Syndicalists.

There were no differences with regard to the organs of control. All Syndicalists asserted that the workers would have ‘direct control of industry’ by means of their industrial organizations. Here they had in mind not only Industrial Unions. Tom Mann said that ‘the organization of industry will take place through the national industrial unions and the Trades Councils of the different districts’., Trades Councils generally occupied a very important place in the syndicalist doctrine. Thus it was held that they were also to serve as organs of local government when the new system was established.

The main features of the future syndicalist society were indicated in resolutions carried at the London Syndicalist conference of November 1924. Trades Councils and National Industrial Unions were put forward as the basic elements of the syndicalist society. The next step was the linking up of all Trades Councils in a Federation of Trades Councils and of Industrial Unions in a Federation of Industrial Unions. These two Federations would then unite in a National Confederation of Trades Councils and Industrial Unions, which was intended as the supreme authority of the society. There is no doubt that in advancing this pattern of organization they were simply imitating the French pattern. The proposed Confederation was to be the British counterpart of the C.G.T. in France. In the Trades Councils they saw a parallel to the French Bourses du Travail.

The proposed Trades Councils, Unions and Federations were intended not only as the organs of control of ‘industry, but also as the foundation of the whole social organization. This was what Syndicalists meant by saying that the new society would be organized on industrial lines.

These were the main characteristics of Industrial Syndicalism. It was essentially an attempt to adapt to British industrial conditions

both the ideas of French Syndicalism and American Industrial Unionism, since neither of these two was applicable here in its ‘pure form. The final result of this combination was undoubtedly much nearer to the French than to the American doctrine.

The main differences between the French and British movements, apart from the fact that the latter were always propagandist rather than union leaders, were that the British Syndicalists had necessarily to put much greater emphasis on the national unions than the local organization, owing to the difference in the structure of the two trade union movements; and that the British could not adopt a completely anti-political. attitude, because the tradition of trade union political action was much stronger here than in France. Another point is that the idea of violence in industrial disputes was much less popular in Britain than in France, and there was less of it in practice.

There are two main reasons why the Syndicalist and Industrial Unionist movements in this country should be treated as distinct and separate movements. First, there were doctrinal differences. They differed on such important questions as the relative value and usefulness of political and industrial action, the use of violence, general strike, trade unionism and the possibility and desirability of ‘reforms’ under capitalism. The one important common feature was the contention that there would be no need for the state or any other political organization of the citizens in the new society. In both cases the new society was imagined as being entirely industrial in its organization.

The second reason for this separate treatment is that there were hardly any contacts between the two movements, let alone joint organization and co-operation. On the contrary, the S.L.P. and the I.W.G.B. spared no effort in attacking and denouncing Tom Mann and Industrial Syndicalism. Industrial Unionists did their best to prove that ‘Between Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism there is a chasm’.’

Guild Socialism

The Guild Socialist movement was effectively started in 1912, with the publication in the weekly journal New Age of a series of articles by S. G. Hobson called ‘An Inquiry into the Wage System’. In these articles the wage system was repudiated as being both morally unjust and economically inefficient. This system should be replaced by one in which the industries of the country would be organized as self-governing services to be controlled by National Guilds. These ideas attracted the attention of certain young but very able middle-class intellectuals who eventually formed the National Guilds League in 1915, under the leadership of G. D. H. Cole. The League was never strong in numbers, but owing to the ability of its leading members, its influence was always far out of proportion to its actual membership. The main activity of the Guild Socialist can be seen in the remarkable amount of publications they produced.

One of the main purposes of these voluminous writings was to evolve a comprehensive theory of social transformation based on the idea of workers’ control, which would be acceptable to the main body of progressive trade unionists, since it was their aim to convert the unions to Guild Socialist policy. By the end of the war this policy of permeation of the unions was beginning to produce results. Many leaders and even whole unions declared in favour of Guild Socialism. The years 1918-21 saw the climax of the Guild Socialist influence-the miners and the railwaymen adopted modified versions of the Guild Socialist concept of workers’ control in their national programmes, the builders and the Post Office workers adopted Guild Socialism in its entirety, and the T.U.C. passed a resolution declaring in its favour. The actual establishment of Guilds in building and some other industries and their initial successes took even Guild Socialists by surprise.

Only a few years later the whole movement disintegrated. This rapid decline was primarily due to the whole series of internal conflicts between the left and the right wing of the League, which were particularly manifest in differences on such issues as the Soviet system and the dictatorship of the proletariat and Major Douglas’ scheme of Social Credit. The second factor was the failure of the several attempts to establish Guilds.

Guild Socialists evolved in their writings a fairly comprehensive social theory dealing not only with the many aspects of the organization of the new society but also with the means and methods of bringing it about. Here only their views on the control of industry will be mentioned.

Guild Socialists maintained that the new society would have to guarantee full equality, freedom and the right to self-expression to all citizens. This could be achieved only in a society founded on the principles of functional representation and self-government, in which each sphere of human activity would be an autonomous unit. They thus repudiated the idea of parliamentary government on the ground that no man could be represented in all his interests and activities by any one representative.

If industrial activity was not to be autocratic, it must according to this functional principle be organized as an autonomous unit. In other words, it must be self-governing. The main principles of this industrial self-government were that the community would own all the means of production and hand them over to be administered by the workers, organized in National Guilds. The Guilds would in exchange have to pay a rent to the central co-ordinating organ of the society.

The National Guild was to be an Industrial Union, including all manual and brain workers ‘belonging’ to any particular industry. The term ‘belonging’ was used because they held that the Guild would consist of both employed and unemployed. All Guilds would be represented at the Guild Congress, which was intended to be the supreme industrial organ, a kind of industrial parliament. The Congress would plan and co-ordinate the economic development of the country, settle disputes between the Guilds and cooperate with bodies representing the people as consumers (and perhaps in other capacities) to co-ordinate the affairs of the whole society.

The National Guilds were to have almost complete control over their respective industries. it was only on the question of prices that some guildsmen thought that there should be -interference from outside through a joint consumers-producers’ body. All managing bodies from a workshop upwards should be democratically elected by, and subject to the control of, their constituents. This was the essence of their concept of democratic control. Guild Socialists particularly emphasized that this control would be complete and start from the bottom.

How could this state of affairs be achieved? Guild Socialists maintained that in most industries the desired transformation would be achieved by a process they called ‘encroaching control’. This was a policy of the gradual transformation of the trade unions into industrial unions, and the gradual extension of their share in the control of industry at the expense of the employers. The unions would press continuously for a greater share in control and the employers could not resist because the unions would have ‘monopoly of labour’. In the end the unions would take over almost complete control and in this way render the employers functionless. Then they could expel the employers and transform themselves into National Guilds.

In the mining and railway industries and perhaps some of the public services they thought that the process might be different. Nationalization might prove necessary. Their advice to the miners and the railwaymen was to demand that nationalization should be accompanied by a system of joint control by representatives of the state and the workers. This system of joint control would last until the workers became properly organized and gained the necessary experience to assume complete control.

Gad Socialism was essentially an attempt to adapt the doctrine of workers’ control to British conditions and thus to make it more acceptable to the British Labour Movement. in the process of adaptation the Gad Socialists shed some of the more extreme notions of the Syndicalists and Industrial Unionists. This led to important differences between Guild Socialism and the other two schools. The Guild Socialists proposed a peaceful and evolutionary transformation of society. Moreover, they did not intend to bad the new society entirely on industrial lines. The continued existence of the political state was an essential part of their new order.