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International Socialism, October-December 1972


Richard Hyman

Communist Industrial Policy in the 1920s [1]


From International Socialism (1st series), No.53, October-December 1972, pp.14-22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


No subject is more important for a revolutionary marxist organisation than industrial and trade union work. No example of such work is more important for British revolutionaries than that of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1920s. Richard Hyman’s article gives the essential facts about that work, facts which should be known by every militant. It also questions some of the criticisms commonly made by Trotskyists of aspects of the Party’s policy. In the Editor’s opinion the article underestimates the role of the Communist International, both the ‘rightist’ period (1925-28) and in the subsequent ultra-left ‘Third Period’ (1928-34). Nevertheless, since left wing critics have tended to concentrate on the role of the International, an exposition of the purely British roots of certain features of Party policy is of importance. The second part of the article will appear in our next issue.

There is a healthy and growing interest in the early history of the British Communist Party, and in particular its policies and activities in the trade unions. Such interest is not simply academic: the perspectives and traditions of the early CP, before it succumbed to Stalinism, can still provide important lessons for revolutionaries half a century later. As our interest in this period develops, so the serious limitations in our knowledge become increasingly obvious. The published works provide only an unsatisfactory starting-point for understanding: Klugmann’s official history of the CP [2] succeeds, as one might expect, in being both long-winded and superficial; Pelling’s party history [3] is, of course, marked by its cold-war orientations and theoretical sterility, while Martin’s study of the Minority Movement [4] is cast in a similar mould; Macfarlane’s history of the CP in the 1920s [5], while far preferable to any of the works mentioned so far, gives only limited space to the industrial side of the party’s work; while studies by adherents of the various Trotskyist positions are often one-sided. This article aims, first, to give an outline of the trade union situation in the 1920s; second, to summarise the industrial activities of the party in this period; and finally, to evaluate the role of the party, raising some questions concerning the perspectives and assumptions implicit in its activities.

The Industrial Background

The British CP commenced its industrial activities at the onset of an unprecedented period of mass unemployment. A brief post-war boom collapsed suddenly at the end of 1920, and official returns showed 17.8 per cent of insured workers out of work by the summer of 1921. For the remainder of the 1920s the figure rarely fell below 10 per cent; while the crisis of the early 1930s raised the number of unemployed to three million, or 23 per cent. Wage rates were slashed – though this was to some extent offset by falling prices – and working conditions in many industries were under repeated attack. In such circumstances, trade union membership took an almost inevitable toll: numbers slumped from 8.3 million in 1920 to 5.6 million two years later, and by 1933 reached a low of 4.4 million.

This period was also marked by a series of major strikes and lock-outs. In the three years 1919-21, disputes accounted for an annual average of 49 million working days. Excluding 1926, when a record 162 million working days were recorded in stoppages, the following ten years involved an average of 7½ million working days – still a large number, measured against previous British experience.

Table I British Strike Statistics: Annual Averages







































The pattern of disputes was dominated by coal-mining. [6] In the immediate post-war period the miners had put forward an ambitious programme of demands, including the nationalisation of the mines, backed by the threat of direct action. But the miners’ leaders, for all their left-wing rhetoric, were confused in both strategy and objectives; the support of the TUC was lukewarm; and the unions were easily outmanoeuvred by the Lloyd George government. In the years that followed, the miners were to pay dearly for their vacillation in 1919. In the autumn of 1920 there was a fortnight’s national strike in support of demands for higher wages; this was called off on the basis of a temporary settlement. The dispute, according to Arnot, merely ‘drained the accumulated strike funds of the miners without yielding any lasting gain’. [7] Five months later came the fiasco of ‘Black Friday’. The economic depression had struck, and the government had abandoned its wartime controls of the mining industry. The owners lost no time in demanding drastic wage reductions; and the miners called on the aid of the railwaymen and transport workers, who had joined with them in 1914 to form the Triple Alliance. But the Alliance had proved unreliable in the miners’ previous struggles, and many of its leaders – notably J.H. Thomas of the NUR – had no stomach for a fight. On Friday, 15 April 1921, the other unions called off their plans for sympathetic strike action; the miners fought alone for three months, before conceding most of the owners’ demands.

In 1923 the miners launched a campaign to win back the losses of the previous defeat, and in 1924 agreement was reached for improvements in wages. But the gains were shortlived, for a year later the owners announced the most vicious attack yet on miners’ conditions. Plans for a new Industrial Alliance were hastily drawn up; and the TUC itself offered the miners physical backing, threatening to place an embargo on movements of coal if the owners carried out their planned lock-out. Unprepared for a major industrial crisis, the government intervened: the industry was given a nine-month subsidy to allow the lock-out notices to be withdrawn, while a Royal Commission (the second on the industry since the end of the war) was appointed to investigate the issues. This temporary success was hailed by the trade union movement as ‘Red Friday’. But the sense of victory was short-lived. The Royal Commission endorsed the owners’ demands for longer hours and lower wages, and its report was rejected by the miners. Lock-out notices were again issued in April 1926, and expired at the end of the month. Up to and beyond the last minute the TUC negotiated with the government in an attempt to reach a compromise – over the heads of the miners. But the Tory government, after nine months of preparation, was determined on a showdown; and the unions found themselves reluctantly committed to instructing solidarity action – now broadened into a General Strike. [8] Nine days later, on May 12, the TUC leaders – terrified at the implications of the struggle they had unleashed – unceremoniously surrendered. The miners’ lock-out lasted until the end of the year, when virtual starvation forced them also to surrender.

Other industries also experienced notable conflicts. In the metal industries there were a major strike of foundry workers in 1919; the 1922 engineering lock-out over ‘managerial functions’, which lasted two and a half months; and a series of stoppages in shipbuilding from 1922 to 1924. The railwaymen struck for nine days in 1919. In 1924 the building unions conducted their first national strike. In textiles there was a national dispute in 1921, and a further series between 1929 and 1932.

Yet the appearance of industrial militancy in the 1920s is in many ways misleading. From the onset of the depression, the number of stoppages recorded in each year averaged some 500 – only half the level of the previous decade. What pushed up the totals of striker-days was the occurrence of an unprecedented number of large-scale and protracted stoppages, often involving whole industries: and these were invariably defensive in character. Most of these occurred in the years 1921-23, when the sudden economic collapse brought a wholesale attack on wages and conditions. Thereafter the major disputes were far more concentrated industrially: in coal-mining in 1926, and cotton in 1929-33. In both cases the roots of the conflict lay in the painful readjustment of Britain’s traditional staple export industries to the loss of their dominating position in international trade. But coal and cotton were not typical of British industry between the wars: the more widespread pattern, even before the General Strike, was one of relatively stable and pacific industrial relations. Even coal and cotton eventually accommodated to this pattern. In the twenty years from 1933 there was not one single official national stoppage in Britain, and the annual average of striker-days fell below 2 million.

The Growth of the Bureaucracy

In line with the stabilisation of industrial relations, the 1920s represented a crucial stage in the consolidation of the British trade union bureaucracy. In this respect, there was a notable contrast with the offensive militancy and rank-and-file initiative of the previous decade.

One cause of increased bureaucratic control was the size of the main unions. Two factors were responsible: the massive growth in union membership between 1910 and 1920 (from 2.6 to 8.3 million); and the extensive movement towards amalgamation in the years 1910 to 1924. At the turn of the century the largest union with centralised control, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, had less than 100,000 members; by 1920 there were a dozen unions larger than this, many of them substantially so. In general, size renders a union particularly prone to bureaucratisatiin; and while the turbulent years before 1920 inhibited the consolidation of officialdom, the stabilisation of union structure and industrial relations in the subsequent decade favoured official dominance in the major unions. It is particularly noteworthy that while union membership fell substantially during the 1920s, the number of full-time officials actually increased. [9] A second important factor was the growth of national collective bargaining. Before 1914 the key level of collective bargaining in most industries was the direct, and negotiations were open to considerable rank-and-file influence if not actually control. The war brought rapid rises in the cost of living, affecting all parts of the country in a fairly uniform manner. As a result, national wage bargaining developed; and at the end of the war the Whitley Reports led to the setting up of Joint National Councils in many industries. In engineering, where no such bodies were set up, the war led to a vast increase in central conferences on local claims, followed by the introduction of formal national pay negotiations; and in the 1920s the employers’ federation prevented any return to district bargaining over wages. The result of these developments was that by the 1920s, the national bureaucracy in many unions had acquired an important role as negotiators. The importance of centralised negotiation was accentuated by the erosion of union strength on the shop floor. During the 1914-18 war, when the official trade unions acquiesced in an industrial truce and government attacks on working practices, a powerful unofficial shop stewards’ movement had arisen, particularly in engineering. But shop floor organisation was undermined, first by the disruption in production which followed the armistice, then by the depression which raised unemployment in engineering to a peak of 27 per cent during 1921. In the process, known militants were victimised wholesale. As early as 1920, an observer could write that: ‘the unofficial shop stewards’ movement is at ebb tide, because of the percentage of unemployed in the metal trades. The man at the gate determines the status of the man at the bench.’ [10] Soon it was a wry joke that the shop steward leaders of 1918 had become the unemployed leaders of the 1920s. The emasculation of the rank-and-file movement was succinctly stated by Jack Murphy, the leading theoretician of the wartime shop stewards, in a speech to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International at the end of 1922:

In England we have had a powerful shop stewards’ movement. But it can and only does exist in given objective conditions. These necessary conditions at the moment in England do not exist. How can you build factory organisations when you have 1,750,000 workers walking the streets? You cannot build factory organisations in empty and depleted workshops, while you have a great reservoir of unemployed workers.

The impact of economic depression on shop steward organisation is relatively well documented; its more general effects on the rank and file are more open to dispute. Nevertheless, there are many indications that the implications for self-activity and militancy were extremely serious. At worst, the experience of unemployment, lock-outs and deteriorating conditions of work led to demoralisation. At best, it resulted in an attitude of uncertainty and defen-siveness. For those who remained in trade unions, then, the growing self-confidence and self-assertiveness of the previous decade was checked, leading to a new relationship of dependence on the union bureaucracy.

While the consolidation of bureaucratic control was a general feature of British unionism in the 1920s, the nature and extent of this process varied considerably from union to union.

Table II The Principal British Unions

Union Membership (000):




Miners’ Federation (MFGB)



Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU)



National Union of Railwaymen (NUR)



Dockers’ Union



Workers’ Union


Transport & General Workers’ Union (TGWU)



National Union of General Workers (NUGW)



National Union of General
and Municipal Workers (NUGMW)



The most notable example of bureaucratic influence was provided by the general unions. The numerous tiny transport and labourers’ unions of 1910, sharing less than 100,000 members, had grown particularly rapidly to a combined membership approaching a million and a half by 1920. A series of amalgamations in the 1920s consolidated their organisation into the two giant general unions of today. The TGWU, formed at the end of 1921 by the amalgamation of the Dockers’ Union with many smaller bodies of transport workers, did contain sections with a tradition of rank-and-file militancy in the docks and London transport. But its first secretary, Bevin, was able to achieve a dominant position in relation to his lay executive; and the union had a large staff of full-time officials, all appointed from above. [11] In 1929 the TGWU merged with the Workers’ Union, which possessed a strongly entrenched central leadership and little tradition of rank-and-file activism. [12] The NUGW also possessed a long tradition of official dominance; there was a history of militancy in some areas, such as London, but this was outweighed by such areas as Lancashire, long controlled by Clynes. In the amalgamation which formed the NUGMW in 1924, conservatism was reinforced by the other two participants, the National Amalgamated Union of Labour and the Municipal Employees. [13]

In other unions the pattern was somewhat different. In the NUR, the wartime shop stewards’ movement had been paralleled by the development of unofficial ‘vigilance committees’ which exerted considerable pressure on the official leadership; but their influence declined with the end of the war. The formal structure of the union encouraged strong central control: the national executive (nominally a ‘lay’ body.

but effectively full-time) had extensive powers; there were national officials elected for life; while the official committees at district level were very weak. The two main officials, Thomas and Cramp, had many years’ experience in the union’s leadership before becoming joint general secretaries at the end of the war, and were able to wield effective control throughout the 1920s. Industrial relations on the railways had in fact been stormy as a result of the railway companies’ hostility to unionism, and the grievances resulting from wartime government control; but the Railways Act of 1921 ‘marked the beginning of a period of the closest co-operation between the union leaders and the railway companies’. [14] Thomas in particular became notorious as the most conservative leader of any major union.

The AEU, by contrast – formed by amalgamation in 1920 – had a strong tradition of decentralisation and rank-and-file influence. The districts held considerable power; there were relatively few full-time officials; and all were subject to regular re-election. Yet here too there was some increase in central control. Brownlie, the president from 1913 to his retirement in 1930, held a powerful position throughout the 1920s – which was accentuated by the erosion of workshop organisation and the replacement of district by national wage bargaining. [15]

The miners also had a strong tradition of decentralisation: indeed the national body was merely a federation of autonomous local unions. Many of these had a background of considerable rank-and-file militancy. Yet the MFGB too could be described as a ‘fortress of bureaucracy’. The major districts were larger than most national unions (South Wales, Yorkshire and Durham all had well over 100,000 members in 1920). Policy-making delegate conferences, at area and national level, were dominated by full-time local agents who were elected for life, though militant branches were able to mandate their conference delegates. One consequence was often a ‘right-wing leadership continually forced to pursue a “left” course which it did not in any way believe in, and which it consistently sabotaged’. [16]

Bureaucratic consolidation involved not only individual unions but also the central organisation of the trade union movement. For half a century the Trades Union Congress functioned as little more than a talking shop and a clearing house for lobbying politicians about proposed legislation. It avoided any involvement in industrial disputes, which were considered the exclusive concern of individual unions; the title of its central body, the Parliamentary Committee, indicated the narrow focus of its concern; and it was administered by a part-time secretary. But from the latter half of the war there were important changes: additional staff were appointed, a committee structure was instituted, and in 1921 the Parliamentary Committee was replaced by the modern General Council. In 1923 the first full-time TUC secretary, Bramley, took office, to be succeeded two years later by his own deputy, Citrine. Changes in the formal structure and personnel of the TUC were paralleled by a broadening in its functions. During the war the government, anxious for union co-operation in its industrial and economic policies, involved TUC representatives in a wide range of consultative and collaborative machinery. (It was partly the success with which union officialdom was thus domesticated that stimulated the growth of rank-and-file organisation.) This wartime relationship led naturally to the new TUC role of mediator between individual unions and the government in some of the massive post-war industrial disputes. [17] To some extent, these developments were the result of demands for a more powerful and effective TUC. The call for a ‘general staff of labour’ came in particular from militants and socialists, who recognised that a movement of sectional unions each jealously protecting its own autonomy was highly vulnerable to the growing concentration of capital. Conversely, the main opposition to more centralisation within the union movement came from the most conservative and narrow-minded of officials. Nevertheless, one consequence of these changes was the creation of a trade union super-bureaucracy, even more remote from rank-and-file control than the officialdom of individual unions.

To summarise this brief analysis of the trade union background: the role of the union bureaucracy was more central to industrial relations than in any other period of British labour history. The contrast with the decade before 1920 could not be more marked. Then, British trade unionism passed through a phase of almost unprecedented turbulence; industrial militancy, often with left-wing political undertones, emerged more or less spontaneously from rank-and-file self-activity; in many cases such militancy was detached from the official structures of trade unionism, which were themselves in a state of flux. But by the 1920s the official structures had become consolidated, while the scope for rank-and-file initiative was severely curtailed by the changed economic context. In this situation, the nature and the very possibility of industrial militancy was in large degree dependent on the official policies of the unions. Revolutionaries and militants could previously afford to treat the question of national union leadership as of marginal importance; now it had become central. The question of the correct strategy for a revolutionary party in the 1920s was therefore an immensely difficult one; and any criticism of the CP must take account of this fact.

Developing a Communist Policy

The Communist Party of Great Britain was formed during 1920 and 1921, the product of a painful series of negotiations between the various revolutionary parties and sects previously in existence. [18] The major component of the new CP was the British Socialist Party, the successor of the Social-Democratic Federation which was founded by Hyndman in the early 1880s; Hyndman, however, had seceded from the BSP with a pro-war minority in 1916. The traditional policies of the BSP had focused in large measure on parliamentary activities – though it was notably unsuccessful in electing members to parliament. It had no significant theoretical orientation to the trade union struggle, at least until the end of the war, and few prominent industrial militants were members; the most notable was Willie Gallacher, Chairman of the Clyde Workers’ Committee.

The second main component of the CPGB was the Socialist Labour Party (not all of its members – perhaps only a minority – took part in the merger). Originally a breakaway from the BSP, the SLP bitterly attacked its larger rival for opportunism and reformism. Central to SLP theory were the industrial unionist ideas of the American socialist deLeon, developed in Britain by James Connolly. From the outset, therefore, the SLP attached key importance to industrial activity. It was the dominant tendency within the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement, which sent delegates to the 2nd Comintern Congress in July 1920; and it provided the CP with its most prominent industrial militants, such as Jack Murphy; Tom Bell and Arthus MacManus. The industrial unionist analysis of existing unions as pillars of capitalism implied, at least, a refusal to seek office in them, and at most a policy of dual unionism; but the SLP’s original rigid position on this question had become moderated by the end of the war.

The tasks of the various CPs were spelled out by the 2nd Comintern Congress in its theses on The Trade Union Movement, Factory Committees, and the Third International. A three-fold strategy was required: first, communists should work within existing reformist unions to turn them into ‘efficient organs for the suppression of capitalism; second, they should build, lead and politicise factory committees; third, they should work to build a revolutionary trade union international, the Red International of Labour Unions. This strategy was, of course, founded on an attitude of revolutionary optimism which in turn depended on the assumption that international capitalism was in the throes of its final crisis. From this perspective, a double attack on reformist union bureaucrats could hasten revolution. Internally, the growing militancy and consciousness of the workers, organised in factory committees, would permit the removal of opportunist union leaders and the adoption of revolutionary policies. Externally the RILU and its national bureaux would provide a revolutionary alternative to the ‘yellow’ trade union international based on Amsterdam, offering ruthless criticism of the reformist leaders. The need for a revolutionary trade union international was agreed by the Soviet leaders in early 1920; hence the invitation to revolutionary unionists, including the British shop steward leaders, to attend the 2nd Comintern Congress. A provisional RILU was set up, headed by Lozovsky; its 1st Congress was held in Moscow in July 1921, coinciding with the 3rd Comintern Congress. It was agreed that the organisation of the two international bodies should be interconnected, and that the RILU should in effect be subject to Comintern discipline.

In Britain, a Bureau of the RILU was set up under Murphy in December 1920, and organisers were appointed in a number of districts. In line with the relationship at international level, the British Bureau was in principle subject to the control of the CPGB, though in practice co-ordination was less than satisfactory. In June 1922 the BB merged with the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement, by now little more than a formal shell of its previous strength, and took over as its official organ the SSWCM weekly paper The Worker. When the BB was in turn absorbed into the Minority Movement at the end of 1924, The Worker became the organ of the MM.

The industrial policy of the CPGB was first set out in detail at its 4th Congress in March 1922. (The first two Congresses, in July 1920 and January 1921, were stages in the process of founding the party; the 3rd, in June 1921, was concerned mainly with devising its constitution.) The policy followed closely the decisions of the Comintern, and have been summarised as follows:

(i) working through existing trade unions and seeking to transform them into revolutionary organisations for the overthrow of capitalism; (ii) participation in the day-to-day struggles of the workers to improve their conditions in such a way as to further the class struggle; (iii) the formation of workshop or factory committees embracing all the workers within any one establishment; (iv) the creation of party nuclei within the workshops and the trade unions at all levels; (v) assistance in the development of the RILU. [19]

The responsibility for achieving these tasks was to be discharged by the party executive through its industrial committee.

Yet by the time the CPGB had accommodated itself to the industrial policy of the Comintern, the demands and possibilities of the situation had altered. The revolutionary upsurge of 1917-20 had ebbed; the working class of Western Europe had suffered a series of disastrous political and economic defeats. In 1921 the Comintern still saw an immediate revolutionary offensive in response to unemployment and economic crisis as a practicable strategy: ‘the open treachery of the trade union leaders during the coal strike, the systematic capitalist attack on wages, etc. – all this has provoked a great agitation among the English proletariat, which is gradually becoming revolutionary.’ [20] But by November 1922, when the Comintern held its 4th Congress and the RILU its 2nd, the perspective had altered. Capitalism had survived the period of revolutionary crisis and had entered a second period of partial and temporary stabilisation; ‘the conquest of power as an immediate task of the day is not on the agenda’. Previously, the task of the communist parties had been to provide the masses with independent leadership, leading the masses directly into revolutionary trade unionism. In the new situation, it was necessary to wean the workers from their reformist leaders by degrees. Communist strategy must focus on the united front with the reformists. Revolutionaries must recognise that they were merely a minority within the unions, and for the immediate future would remain so; they must therefore organise as such, agitate around concrete transitional demands, cooperate with reformist leaders so long as these were prepared to fight, expose them whenever they proved unwilling to lead the struggle.

The implications of this strategy for the British party were spelled out by Lozovsky at the 4th Comintern Congress:

As far as Britain is concerned, we see clearly that it would be disastrous if the party were content to organise its forces only within its little Party nuclei. The aim here must be to create a more numerous opposition trade union movement. Our aim must be that our Communist groups should act as a point of crystallisation round which the opposition elements will concentrate. The aim must be to create, to marshal, to integrate the opposition forces, and the Communist Party will itself grow concurrently with the growth of the opposition.

This objective was re-emphasised, more urgently, at the plenum of the Comintern executive (ECCI) in June 1923. It was insisted that the CPGB should tighten its organisation and administration of industrial work; should reinforce the co-ordination with the RILU Bureau; and should launch an opposition bloc within the unions ‘by rallying all the various opposition currents and groupings’. [21]

The Comintern adoption of united front tactics coincided with a period of turmoil within the British CP. The original party constitution provided for an orthodox branch structure and an executive elected on a divisional basis; this clearly contradicted the principles of democratic centralism, and in practice proved inefficient. Party membership fell from the 4,000 claimed in August 1920 to little more than 2,000 a year later; while there was an evident lack of co-ordination in the party’s work, not least within industry. Critics led by Gallacher persuaded the 4th CPGB Congress in March 1922 to appoint a Commission on Organisation, excluding existing party officials and executive members. The Commission – composed of Palme Dutt, then a young newcomer to revolutionary politics, Harry Pollitt, a boilermaker and former BSP member, and Harry Inkpin, brother of the party secretary and also ex-BSP – reported to a special Congress in October. It was agreed to reorganise the party on Leninist lines, in particular replacing branches by working groups controlled by a district committee, and restructuring the central executive. In early 1923, following pressure from the ECCI, the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the British party was taken a stage further to involve major changes in leadership. Pollitt took over primary responsibility for trade union work; Gallacher and J.R. Campbell (another ex-BSPer from Clydeside) became joint secretaries of the British Bureau of RILU; while Dutt was appointed editor of Workers’ Weekly, the revamped party journal. Meanwhile ex-SLPers like Murphy and Bell, who had previously had particular influence over industrial policy, were eased into less powerful positions. While these internal developments delayed the opening of a campaign for the Minority Movement, the Comintern policy in fact followed quite naturally from the earlier industrial perspectives of the British party – or at least those with BSP background. As a response to the serious losses of union membership, and in particular those which followed the engineering lock-out, the BB launched a series of ‘Back to the Unions’ conferences in the autumn of 1922. The resolutions were virtually identical with the programme to be adopted by the MM two years later: higher wages and shorter hours; support for RILU; and the reorganisation of British trade unionism. The latter was to involve ‘the concentration of all local forces of the movement in the Trades Councils, the transformation of the existing unions into powerful industrial organisations, the concentration of the fighting power of the whole movement in the General Council of the TUC. [22] Industrial unionism was a long-standing objective of revolutionaries, though those with any realism recognised that it could be only a long-term goal; the wartime shop stewards’ movement in particular had emphasised that ‘unity from below’ would first have to be achieved. The other demands had been foreshadowed by sections of the BSP in 1919 and 1920, who had urged that the Triple Alliance should be broadened into a general staff of the labour movement which could act as ‘the executive committee of the class struggle’; and had also urged that the Trades Councils should be transformed into local organising centres of the same struggle. [23] The CP had considerable influence in a number of Trades Councils, and from 1922 began actively to cultivate these, launching a series of annual National Conferences. The perspectives underlying this activity were stated by the BB early in 1923:

if we cannot under present circumstances, with the unemployed so badly organised, build up all-embracing Workshop Committees, we can at any rate by joint activities of the unions and the Trades Councils create powerful nuclei around which the masses will gather as organisation amongst the unemployed improves. [24]

The demand for more power to the General Council was raised in the course of the engineering lock-out by Dutt, in his capacity as editor of Labour Monthly. It was taken up enthusiastically by Pollitt, a regular delegate of his union to the TUC. As co-ordinator of the small band of communist delegates at the TUC, he showed a particular concern with the mechanics of union decision-making from the branch to the General Council; and the aim of re-structuring the TUC fitted comfortably within this perspective, particularly against the background of the industrial timidity and theoretical bankruptcy displayed by the bulk of union officialdom at the 1922 and 1923 Congresses.

By the autumn of 1923, the campaign for a Minority Movement was formally opened. In August, Gallacher launched a series of propaganda meetings; a month later, The Worker (edited by Campbell) carried the banner headline ‘The Rank and File Must Build a Minority Movement’:

In every union the rank-and-file forces must be gathered (1) around a definite fighting policy, (2) around concrete demands for union consolidation and reorganisation, (3) around the necessity for creating a new ideology amongst the union membership, (4) around the necessity of training and developing a new leadership to replace the old. [25]

The RILU, it was announced, was already engaged in establishing sectional minority movements for miners, railwaymen, engineers, boilermakers and building workers. The Workers’ Weekly argued that the lack of direction shown by the TUC at its 1923 Congress proved the need for ‘a vigorous national left-wing movement to make an end of the existing bureaucratic stagnation’. Such a united front would need to be based on ‘a positive programme, and not a negative opposition’; and ‘the simplest and most obvious rallying point’ would be ‘the views of the TUC itself’. [26] The task of constructing the MM proceeded systematically; too slowly, it was clear, for the leaders of the Comintern; but scarcely more slowly than was inevitable if the project was to involve genuine rank-and-file initiative. [27] In mining, a series of district conferences were held at the end of 1923 in areas where the CP had particular influence; these paved the way for a national conference in January 1924 which established the Miners’ Minority Movement. A month later the MMM launched its own newspaper, The Mineworker. Action was also taken to form sectional MMs in engineering, but it was eventually decided to create a comprehensive Metal Workers’ MM. Some progress was also achieved in the transport industries. By April 1924 the groundwork had been sufficiently prepared for the BB of RILU to announce a summer conference to establish the National MM; for three years, it claimed, RILU had urged a united front behind a new programme of demands, and now the logic of this demand had been accepted by a number of prominent union leaders. [28] At the 6th party Congress in May, Gallacher as chairman reported on the progress of the campaign. Somewhat disingenuously, the role of the CP itself in initiating the formation of MMs was played down; and in its resolution the party adopted the posture almost of a detached adviser, warning that the campaign to be successful would have to culminate in the creation of a national MM.

The growing opposition movements now springing up in the leading trade unions, industries and the Labour Party, are the first expression of the concrete raising of the demands of the workers and of a definite challenge to the existing leadership. The CP welcomes these minority movements as the sign of the awakening of the workers ... (But) the various minority movements cannot realise their full power so long as they remain sectional, separate and limited in their scope and character. The many streams of the rising forces of the workers must be gathered together into one powerful mass movement which will sweep away the old leadership and drive forward relentlessly to the struggle for power.

The conference to establish this national movement, already convened by the CP through the BB, was held on 23 and 24 August 1924. 270 delegates attended, claiming to represent 200,000 workers. The aims of the new organisation were defined as follows:

to organise the working masses of Great Britain for the overthrow of capitalism, the emancipation of the workers from oppressors and exploiters, and the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth; to carry on a wide agitation and propaganda for the principles of the revolutionary class struggle, and work within existing organisations for the National Minority Movement programme and against the present tendency towards social peace and class collaboration and the delusion of the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism; to unite the workers in their everyday struggles against the exploiters; to maintain the closest relations with the RILU.

The programme, discussed in detail, covered a range of economic, organisational, and political issues. First there were demands for a minimum wage of £4 and an increase of £1 for all workers; and for a 44-hour week and the abolition of overtime. Then came proposals for a restructuring of the trade union movement: the formation of workshop committees, with representatives guaranteed against victimisation; the affiliation of Trades Councils and the Unemployed Workers’ Movement to the TUC, with representation on the General Council; and a General Council with full powers to direct the activities of the unions, and under an obligation to Congress to use that power. The political demands were for workers’ control of industry; workers’ control of the Labour government then in office, with working-class policies; repudiation of the Dawes plan on German reparations and a campaign against the danger of war (both issues were the focus of current CP agitation); and international trade union unity (i.e. a united front between the Amsterdam and Moscow internationals).

The Fate of the Minority Movement

For the remainder of the 1920s the MM was the main vehicle of the industrial policies of the CP. According to its constitution the MM was indeed an autonomous organisation, and publicly the CP normally insisted on its independence. Certainly there were many members, and even some minor officials, who were not in the party. But all the national secretariat (Pollitt, the secretary; Tom Mann, president; and Murphy) were leading CPers; so were the organising secretaries of the three main sectional MMs: Nat Watkins (Miners), George Hardy (Transport Workers) and Wal Hannington (Metal Workers). The BB of RILU, which had taken the main part in establishing the Minority Movement, quietly disappeared within the new organisation. And though never formally liquidiated, the MM was to disappear in the early 1930s once the CP had no further use for it. (Its parallel united front organisation in the Labour Party, the National Left Wing Movement, was more dramatically despatched in 1929 on the decision of the CP, against the protests of its non-CP members.) [29]

Given the organic links between the two bodies, a discussion of the work of the MM is inextricable from a discussion of the industrial work of the CP generally.

The decade of the 1920s can conveniently be divided into four periods. In the first, 1920-4, the CP established a significant industrial base from which it could develop in the subsequent period. The most notable area of influence was coal-mining. In the crisis of 1921 the CP urged vigorous resistance to the owners’ demands, warned against the possibility of betrayal by the Triple Alliance leaders, and bitterly attacked this betrayal when it became a reality. Unofficial Reform Movements had existed in many areas before the formation of the CP, and one of the first achievements of the new party was to co-ordinate these within a National Miners’ Reform Movement. Through this medium a vigorous campaign was launched for higher wages, shorter hours, and a single national union. The NMRM was readily converted into the Miners’ MM at the beginning of 1924. Within the Miners’ Federation, the most notable achievement was the election of A.J. Cook as secretary in March 1924; Cook was a former party member who still worked closely with it, and received its endorsement in the election.

In engineering the party had considerable, influence in a number of districts, and its pressure for militant policies had some influence on the official stance of the AEU. The CP played an important role in the 1922 lock-out, helping to reinforce a firm stand by the AEU, and using its organisation among the unemployed to prevent blacklegging. On the railways, CP members played a significant part in a rank-and-file campaign which led to the formulation of demands for ‘all grades’ increases. Among other unions, a notable intervention by the CP was its support for the unofficial dock strike of July 1923. In addition, the CP in this period achieved considerable success in its organisation amongst the unemployed. It also established a position of influence within many Trades Councils, and used this as a basis for demands for a broader role for the Councils within the labour movement. Moreover, the party gradually accommodated its own organisation to the needs of serious industrial work. The structure of working groups established in 1922 was a move in the correct direction; and the party Congress of May 1924 emphasised the importance within this structure of factory groups. A recruiting drive raised membership to 4,000, many of the new recruits being factory workers. [30]

The two years 1924-26 represented the most successful phase of the party’s activities in the decade. Membership reached 5,000 in June 1925, 6,000 in April 1926, and 10,730 in October of the same year. By this date the number of factory groups had reached 316. [31] Delegates at Minority Movement conferences numbered 683 in 1925, and a record 883 in March 1926, claiming to represent 957,000 workers. Since the strategy of this brief period is crucial to any criticism of the party’s industrial presence in the 1920s, it will be discussed at length in the following section. Here the CP’s perspectives may be briefly summarised as focusing primarily on generating ‘a fighting policy’ within the unions; in line with the united front strategy this involved co-operating with those non-communists, including union leaders, who were willing to endorse the party’s immediate demands. The main impact was again in mining. The party campaigned vehemently for united-working-class opposition to the owners’ attack in 1925; pressed successfully for the creation of a new Industrial Alliance; and insisted on continued readiness after the temporary truce of Red Friday. To this end it mounted a major, and fairly effective campaign for the creation of local Councils of Action; and when the TUC failed to prepare for the confrontation, the MM convened a special national Conference of Action in March 1926. Recognising that the logic of any general strike would be a confrontation between the unions and the full powers of the state, the CP directed propaganda at members of the armed forces; as a result virtually the whole party leadership was arrested in October 1925, and imprisoned for varying periods. Over a thousand party members were arrested during the strike itself. The vigour with which party members participated in the strike, their denunciation of the TUC for the betrayal of the miners, and their strenuous efforts to maintain solidarity during the protracted lock-out, all won the CP considerable respect; and a large proportion of the membership recruited in 1926 were miners.

In engineering, CPers played an important part in several local struggles, and helped prevent the AEU leadership from compromising on their national demand for £1 increase (though this in itself brought higher wages no nearer). In many other unions party members played some smaller part in the forward movement which the partial economic recovery made possible. But the context in which the CP, prior to the General Strike, considered its efforts most successful was the TUC. One central issue was the RILU campaign for unity with the Amsterdam international; most national affiliates of the latter opposed unity with the communists, and the MM was from the outset concerned to obtain the support of the TUC for international unity. The sympathy of British trade unionists towards the Soviet Union was indicated when Tomsky was invited to address the TUC in 1924, followed by the visit of a British delegation to Moscow. As a result the General Council set up an Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Committee in 1925. At the TUC in September in that year, A.B. Swales of the AEU delivered a presidential address cast in unusually militant language; a motion was carried calling for the creation of workshop committees as ‘indispensable weapons in the struggle to force the capitalists to relinquish their grip on industry’; a motion on increased powers for the General Council was referred, on the understanding that the GC would convene a special conference of executives if increased powers were through necessary; and a resolution was carried calling for a fight against imperialism and colonialism. Superficially, the character of the TUC had been transformed in a mere two years.

The period 1926-8 marked the adjustment of the united front policy to the reality of the betrayal of the General Strike. The perspective held by a minority of the CP, notably Dutt, was that the strike had revolutionised the working class; the ‘left’ trade union leaders had now been overtaken by the rank and file, and were moving steadily rightwards. It followed that the CP should ruthlessly expose the treacherous leaders, and most ruthlessly of all the ‘pseudo-lefts’, and should conduct organised activity within the unions for the election of reliable leaders in their stead. But most party members rejected these conclusions: the workers were not yet revolutionised, and the united front strategy must continue. Yet clearly the same reliance could no longer be placed on the official leadership as had been previously, and correspondingly greater emphasis was placed on ‘unity from below’. The slogan ‘all power to the General Council’ was retained, but this was explicitly ‘not because we believe in the present leaders of the General Council, but because we believe that a centralised leadership is a necessity of the movement’. [32] Criticism of union leadership was accentuated after the Mond-Turner talks on ‘industrial peace’ between the GC and leading employers, with former ‘lefts’ participating actively. The GC was now acting openly as agents for the capitalists, and ‘it is necessary to state quite frankly that there is no difference between the right-wing and the so-called left-wing on the GC leadership’. [33] A.J. Cook alone was exempt from this charge. The analysis of the majority did not, however, present a clear guide to action. Since rank-and-file trade unionists still held illusions in respect of their leaders, any unrestrained attack on these leaders would merely isolate the CP and MM. In practice the party obtained the worst of both worlds: it attempted to keep attacks on the union bureaucracy within bounds, but was nevertheless assailed for ‘disruption’. Even before the General Strike some union leaders had attempted to curb CP activities within their organisations; once the party sharpened its criticisms of union leaders and the MM began to act as an electoral machine, such attempts became more general. Several unions proscribed communists from office, including membership of TUC delegations. Others prevented branches from affiliating to the MM or being represented at its conferences. The TUC ended its links with the Russian unions early in 1927 after the latter had criticised its role in the General Strike; at the same time the General Council resolved to withdraw recognition from Trades Councils affiliated to the MM – a ruling that was overwhelmingly endorsed at the next Congress. The consequence was that the expansion of the MM was contained. The number of delegates at the annual conferences remained only slightly below the peak figure of March 1926; but the number of workers represented was no longer published, and almost certainly fell drastically. Despite vigorous efforts to broaden the Movement’s influence (for example, the publication of numerous factory, pit, and industry newspapers) its extension into new unions and new industries was effectively checked; at best the MM could consolidate its existing organisation. Within the party, membership fell by March 1928 to 5,500; losses were particularly heavy in the mining areas, where mushroom recruitment had occurred in 1926. More seriously still, the number of factory groups had fallen below 100.

The final years of the decade began the period of ‘class against class’. At the end of 1927 Stalin – who had now ousted Trotsky and was preparing to move against Bukharin – first enunciated the ‘left turn’ in Comintern policy. Capitalism had now passed through its second period of stabilisation into a third period of economic crisis. The class struggle would become accentuated; reformism would finally be revealed as bankrupt; and the reformist leaders of the working-class would go over to the bourgeoisie, demonstrating their ‘social fascist’ character. The united front must therefore be abandoned, and instead the CPs must offer the working class independent revolutionary leadership. The new line was endorsed by the 6th Comintern Congress which met in July 1928. The bulk of the leadership of the CPGB resisted this policy; but at its own 11th Congress in November 1929 the supporters of the new line, strongly backed by the Comintern, were victorious, and the party executive was purged. The new line implied a complete reversal in industrial policy: the formation of new unions in place of the existing organisations which were hopelessly dominated by reformist leaders; the creation of factory committees in which non-unionists could take an honourable place, since membership of a reformist union was no virtue; and the establishment of the MM as the focal point of working-class organisation in industry, a revolutionary alternative to the TUC. In practice, even enthusiastic new-liners balked at the implications of Stalin’s theses. On dual unionism, the 10th party Congress in January 1929 resolved to support breakaway unions where the left wing was threatened by right-wing leaders who were not supported by the majority of the membership. Accordingly, the CP encouraged a breakaway from the Tailors’ and Garment Workers’ Union in March 1929. The result was disastrous, for the party totally miscalculated the support which the NUT&GW leaders would retain among their members. A second breakaway, the Scottish Mine Workers’ Union, was supported a month later. Here there had been a previous breakaway in 1923, in the face of provocation by a right-wing leadership less extreme than occurred in 1929 – and in the face of opposition from the CP, which at that time strongly attacked breakaway unionism. It is doubtful whether the policy of the CP was a major factor behind the formation of the SMWU; and there were no other breakaways in this period. The new line did lead to a more or less adventurist involvement in strikes, together with attempts to form factory committees – notably in textiles; yet CP militants shrank from encouraging non-unionism. Indeed in one major stoppage, at the Austin works in March 1929, CP activists encouraged the largely non-union strikers to join the orthodox trade unions. Nor was there any serious strategy of presenting the MM as a rival to the TUC, as the RILU had once aspired to rival the Amsterdam international. But in the absence of such a strategy, the end of the united front campaign deprived the MM of any function; the last annual conference was held in August 1929, and thereafter the MM was virtually abandoned. When the new line was relaxed from the middle of 1930, the CP turned to other means of industrial intervention. By the end of the decade the membership of the CPGB had fallen to 3,200, and its industrial influence was at an all-time low. Though only half-heartedly applied, the perspectives of ‘class against class’ marked the demolition of the framework of organisation and activity carefully constructed in association with non-party militants. The isolation of the CP from the bulk of the working class reached its culmination.

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1. This article is based on a paper read to the IS Historians’ Conference on 22 April 1972. The coverage is selective; in particular, only limited reference is made to relations between the CPGB and the Comintern – the importance of which is commonly exaggerated. For details of Comintern policies throughout this period see J. Degras, The Communist International 1919-43: Documents. Vols.I-III, 1956-60.

2. J. Klugmann, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1969:Vol.I 1919-24 and Vol.2 1925-7.

3. H Pelling, The British Communist Party: a Historical Profile, 1958.

4. R. Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions, 1969.

5. L.J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party: Its Origins and Development Until 1929, 1966.

6. The most detailed account is by R. Page Arnot, The Miners: Years of Struggle, 1953.

7. Arnot, pp.231-2.

8. The General Strike is described in detail elsewhere. See for example J Symons, The General Strike, 1957.

9. H.A. Clegg, A.J. Killick and R. Adams, Trade Union Officers, 1961, p.38.

10. A. Gleason, What the Workers Want, 1920, p.184.

11. See A. Bullock, Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, 1, 1960.

12. See R. Hyman, The Workers’ Union, 1971.

13. See H.A. Clegg, General Union, 1954 and General Union in a ChangingSociety, 1965.

14. P.S. Bagwell, The Railwayman, 1963, p.412.

15. See J.B. Jefferys, Story of the Engineers, 1945.

16. A. Horner, Communism and Coal, 1928, pp.204, 213-4.

17. For these developments see V.L. Allen, The Reorganisation of the TUC 1918-27, British Journal of Sociology. 1960 (also in his Sociology of Industrial Relations, 1971) and Trade Unions and the Government, 1960.

18. For details of the party’s formation see Macfarlane, and W. Kendall, Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1969 (but see also the review of the latter by Hinton in Society for the Study of Labour History, Bulletin 19, 1969.

19. Macfarlane, p.113.

20. ECCI, Theses on the United Working-Class Front, December 1921.

21. Macfarlane, p.115.

22. Worker, 18 November 1922.

23. See for example T. Quelch in The Call, 16 October 1919.

24. Worker, 24 March 1923.

25. Ibid., 22 September 1923.

26. Workers’ Weekly, 28 September 1923.

27. See W. Gallacher, Rolling of the Thunder, 1947, p.48.

28. Workers’ Weekly. 4 April 1924.

29. Macfarlane, pp.226-9.

30. Ibid., p.89.

31. Ibid., p.302.

32. NMM, Is Trade Unionism Played Out?, December 1926.

33. NMM, What is the Minority Movement?, February 1928.

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