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International Socialism, Summer 1964

Henry Collins

Mild and honest

From International Socialism (1st series), No.17, Summer 1964, p.30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

A History of British Trade Unionism
Henry Pelling
Macmillan, 42s; Penguin 5s.

Rank and file movements generally fail. Where they succeed they change their nature. This does not at all mean that they are futile, since they can act as a curb on bureaucracies and frequently provide a spur towards valuable reforms. But they are limited in their effects and it is unhelpful tor socialists to mike a fetish of them. ‘Worship of spontaneity,’ exaggerated ‘rank-and-filism,’ myths about ‘direct action, ‘syndicalism’ and – if one may add – the political line of International Socialism seem, to the present reviewer, to have this error in common, an error for which there is no warrant whatever in history. These and similar perhaps unhelpful thoughts are provoked by a reading of Henry Pelling’s latest History.

His opinions are hardly violent and he makes few overt value-judgements. His prose style is unexciting, his occasional prejudices mildly stated, and his facts honestly and lucidly displayed. He is not very fond of rank and file movements or mass campaigns and sometimes seems reluctant to give them their due. For instance he considers the free pardon given to the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1836 to have been ‘probably due more to the change of Home Secretary ... and to the greater dependence of the Whig Government on Radical support in the Commons, than to any extra-parliamentary pressure,’ as though the state of opinion in Parliament had nothing to do with pressures outside. Still, Dr. Pelling does not, as did some previous historians, grossly over-praise the Junta, and he gives the New Unionism of the 1890’s something like its due. The mass movement to organise the unskilled, which took off from the great Dock Strike of 1889, not only gave birth to new unions but also transformed existing ones, such as the ASE. It also, as Dr Pelling brings put, contributed substantially to the early success of the ILP in creating the first mass socialist party in British history.

Pelling’s careful and factual account is marred by a few small inaccuracies. The transfer of leadership in the Labour Party from Ramsay MacDonald to Arthur Henderson in August 1914 hardly signified the weakening of ‘Socialist’ influence. George Barnes, of the Engineers, was appointed Minister of Pensions, not Minister of Labour in the Lloyd George reorganisation of the Government later in the First World War. The 1944 White Paper, did not pledge the new government to the ‘continuation of the policy of full employment’ after the Second World War but to the maintenance of a high general level of employment, which is not the same thing.

These are comparatively trivial points. It is in dealing with more recent developments that Pelling’s judgment seems to falter. It is true that the ‘rapid growth of white-collar employment in industry was an additional factor obscuring the old division,’ but Pelling seems to miss the significance of another ‘rapid growth’ in the rise of the white-collar unions, such as DATA, NALGO and the NUBE. Nor does the fall in the Labour vote during the 1950s imply in any way that "working-class militancy" was becoming a thing of the past – Dr. Pelling, as a historian of American Labour, should know this better than most. And it is demonstrably wrong to say that the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers at any time ‘fell completely under Communist control.’

The author’s discussion of the workers’ control controversy virtually stops short in 1933, though he has a point when he says that ‘It seemed as if the constituency Labour Parties were keener on the idea of workers’ control or trade-union representation at all levels in industry than the unions were themselves.’ Finally, his book was apparently completed just as the controversy over incomes policy flared up again. The General Council’s decision to join the National Economic Development Council is mentioned, but not its refusal to join the NIC. which seems slightly lopsided But he is right to say that the dominant philosophy of British trade unionism is. in Kahn-Freund’s term, one of ‘collectivist laissez-faire,’ and that the movement is likely to go on trying ‘to impose definite limits on the power of the state, at least in the spheres in which the unions themselves operate.’

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