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International Socialism, February 1975


Julian Harber

The Union Makes Us Strong


From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Union Makes Us Strong: The British Working Class, Its Politics and Trade Unionism
Tony Lane
Arrow, 70p.

HOW can capitalism be abolished? Whatever their disagreements over strategy and tactics, socialists in Britain have traditionally stressed the need for political organisation.

It is therefore somewhat curious to meet a book seeking to destroy the myth that the vehicle for the transformation of our society are the trade unions. Who in this country actually thinks they could be?

But perhaps it is better to treat the book as an attempt to show the limits of trade unionism – what it is possible to achieve within unions and under what conditions. An enterprise which if carried out successfully, present day socialist trade unionists would undoubtedly find very useful. But even here I think this work is a failure.

It is divided into two parts. A historical section entitled The Inheritance attempting to describe and evaluate the story of British trade unions and working class politics and a section entitled Living on a Legacy dealing with trade unionism today.

Of the two sections the historical is undoubtedly the worst. What is wrong with it is not so much the omission of crucial material, errors of fact and eccentricities of judgment – though all three are clearly present. Rather it is that he has no real feel for the movements he describes and no real appreciation of some of the things they achieved.

Those new to the study of working class history would never know from Lane, for instance, that the main stream of advanced working-class thinking for most of the 19th century was not socialism or trade unionism, but an aggressive and sophisticated radicalism centred around the demand for the demoralisation of parliament.

Nor would they guess that trade unionism was not the only durable working class achievement of the pre-1848 period. Also gained were substantial freedoms of speech, assembly, demonstration and publication: freedoms which taken together made Britain the least authoritarian country in Europe in the 19th century.

Even more importantly, they would never learn from here that there were periods in Britain, 1816, 1831-2, 1839, 1918-9, when the British working class put the fear of God into its rulers and the spectre of revolution haunted the country.

In the section on the trade union movement today, Lane shows a firmer grasp of his subject, guiding his readers through the complexities of workshop organisation and the corridors of the trade union bureaucracy.

But even here he is in places extremely misleading. White collar workers for instance hardly get a look in. And while his descriptions of the self-confident, self-reliant shop stewards’ committees of the fifties and sixties will probably get nods of assent from readers in Liverpool, Birmingham and Coventry, it is unlikely that workers in depressed areas like Rochdale, Bradford and Burnley will recognise in his descriptions much of their experience in these years.

What is most depressing of all is that even his chapter on the trade union leaders, on which he has obviously devoted a great amount of time and energy, is really inadequate. For while he shows an acute awareness of the social pressures that cause Jones, Scanlon, etc. persistently to rat on their members, he seems to be entirely unaware of the political reasons – their commitment to a gradualist, reformist road to socialism.

All in all this is a fatalistic book. The historical sections are permeated by a narrow economic determinism that assumes that everything that has happened, had to happen because of ‘the structure of industry’. The contemporary section presents us with a view that the present structure of trade unionism is inevitable and that trade unions cannot be changed. Which is clearly untrue. Within limits they can and have been.

Finally it is extremely male chauvinist. Women are mentioned only a couple of times in the historical section and not at all in the contemporary bit. And this despite the fact that women have been involved in many struggles in this country and have been one of the key sources of trade union growth in the last few years.

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