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International Socialism, November 1975


Ken Appleby

The Rank and File Movement:
Yesterday and Today


From International Socialism, No.83, November 1975, pp.10-17.
Transcribed & arked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Historically, we find that rank and file movements have emerged during those periods of increased struggle by the working class, at specific times when the trade union leadership has most clearly collaborated with the employers and government. Given that the working class faces exactly such a situation now, then it is worth examining previous rank and file activity in an attempt to draw some lessons.

The Shop Stewards’ Movement

THE YEARS between the 1850s and the 1890s were significant on two counts. Firstly, they had been relatively peaceful years with few strikes, but more importantly this period was used to consolidate the grip of the bureaucracy in the unions. Recognising the potential threat presented by the unions, the ruling class had begun to ‘court’ the leaders to ensure their loyalty. This ‘courtship’ was organised by the liberal politician Mondella – trade union leaders were invited to official receptions, offered seats on Royal Commissions and given jobs in the Labour Bureau (later to become the Ministry of Labour). The trade union leaders of course responded – they saw their job as that of peaceful negotiators, as ‘respectable’ men. Finally, in an attempt to ensure that ‘agitators’ were excluded, the 1895 Trades Union Congress decided to exclude delegates from Trades Councils. The ‘block-vote’ had arrived.

However there was growing dissatisfaction on the shop floor with the role of the trade union officials – the turn of the century saw a crisis of capitalism, the workers were under attack, in particular from rising prices, and the militancy of the workers was constantly sabotaged by the officials. This was coupled with unease at the role of the Labour group in Parliament, which saw its role as keeping the Liberals in power, so as to keep the Tories out. It was against this back-cloth that a huge wave of strikes was to pound the country, right up to the outbreak of the first World War. First into action were the miners of Durham and Northumberland, who fought an unofficial strike at the beginning of 1910 against the introduction of the 3-shift system, which had been accepted by their union leaders. They were followed by unofficial strikes of north east railwaymen, South Wales miners, dockers and further, general, rail and miners’ strikes.

Practically every one of the great strikes from 1911 to 1914 was begun as an unofficial, spontaneous movement of the workers, rapidly spreading throughout the industry concerned. Only then did the reformist trade union bureaucrats lend the strike the official support of the union, while their swift acceptance, in every case, of the ‘mediation of the Liberal government doomed the strike at once to semi-failure.’ (Fox – The Class Struggle in Britain 1880-1914,1932).

Three important factors emerge from this period. Firstly, shop stewards had begun to emerge as leaders in the work place, not only against the employers but often having to fight the union officials. Secondly, these same shop stewards had also started to meet together locally, as ‘amalgamationists’, in an effort to propagandise on the shop floor, for one union in each industry. This was a demand of the militants, .in an attempt to cut across craft and sectional interests and was ‘for the most part a rank and file movement of a left wing character, keenly critical of the attitude and conduct of the permanent trade union officials’ (Cole – Workshop Organisation 1923). Thirdly, the sell-out tactics of the union leaders had provoked a bitter reaction against ‘leadership’ in general. The Socialist Labour Party, which was particularly strong on Clydeside, forbade its members to occupy any trade union official position. The South Wales miners also argued:- ‘Leadership implies power held by the leader ... all leaders become corrupt. . . No man was ever good enough to have such power at his disposal as real leadership implies.’ (Unofficial Reform Committee – The Miners’ Next Step 1912).

This anti-leadership feeling whilst understandable was to have unfortunate repercussions a few years later.

When, in 1914, the trade union leaders were ob-sorbed into government committees to help run the war, the trade unions became ‘part of the social machinery of the state’ (S. and B. Webb – History of Trade Unionism 1920).

Prices rose steeply, wages were kept down – all in the name of war effort.

Clyde Workers Committee

IN DECEMBER 1914, a claim for 2d an hour increase was lodged on behalf of Clydeside engineering workers, and in February 1915 the first big strike of the war commenced. The workers were in a militant mood, not only had they gone through several months of fighting the bosses over a closed shop agreement, but just prior to the strike the union executive had accepted three farthings an hour, pending a ballot. The men rejected the offer by a 10 to 1 majority and struck. The District Committee ordered the men back to work and refused to pay strike benefit. It made no difference, within four days 10,000 engineers were out. From the outset a determined effort was made to organise. On 18 February the ‘Central Labour Withholding Committee’ was formed. (This was to be the forerunner of the Clyde Workers’ Committee of October 1915). After intervention by the government, with help from the union, the men returned to work on 4 March, pending arbitration (which later awarded Id and 10 per cent on piece rates). The CLWC did not remain as a permanent committee, but valuable lessons had been learned. Then came the introduction of the Munitions Act in June 1915. This Act was designed to give more control over labour, strikes on wage work were made illegal, workers were not allowed to ‘restrict the rate of production’. The CLWC was to lead the resistance to the Act. After successfully fighting prosecutions under the Act the committee formed itself on a permanent basis and re-fitted itself as the Clyde Workers Committee. The experience of the February strike had shown them the need for independent action and the need for effective organisation, based on direct delegacies from each factory.

From October 1915 until April 1916, when the committee was smashed by the government, 250-300 delegates met every weekend in a hall in Ingram Street, Glasgow. In addition to the ASE Shop iStewards who had formed the basis of the CLWC there were delegates from many of the other engineering and shipbuilding trades. There were delegates from the mines, the railways, from the Co-operative workers, and ‘at least one schoolteacher.’ (Hinton – The First Shop Stewards’ Movement 1973).

This committee in one of its leaflets of November 1915, was to give that oft quoted, near perfect, description of the relationship between the union officials and a rank and file movement of union members.

We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them’.

In January of 1916, Asquith stated that the government intended to force more ‘dilution’ (the introduction of women and semi-skilled men into jobs normally done by craftsmen and paid below the rate for the job). Dilution Commissioners were sent to each of the main industrial areas. As far as Glasgow was concerned, the government had clear intentions, to force through massive dilution and to subsequently smash the CWC. Initially the plan was prepared by William Weir, Director of Munitions for Scotland and part-owner of Weir’s of Cathcart. He intended for dilution to be enforced, backed-up by ‘police’ and military protection to all who are willing to work ... to deport and bring to trial.. . any persons inciting to strike’ (Beveridge on Munitions vol iii). However the Commissioners who arrived in Glasgow were more subtle – they intended to set up joint committees of employers and shop stewards in each factory, starting at Parkhead, where Kirkwood, the shop stewards’ leader, agreed to meet them. Kirk-wood was a member of the CWC and thereby effectively sabotaged the CWC’s demand for central negotiations. By August over 10,000 dilutees had been introduced on the Clyde.

The government still wanted to smash the CWC – on 2 February the Socialist Labour Press was raided, the printing press broken up and The Worker suppressed. On 7 February Gallagher, Bell, and Muir were arrested, together with John McLean (Forward and Vanguard also having been suppressed). By the next day strikes had broken out all over Clydeside, involving over 10,000 workers. All except McLean were released on bail.

So the CWC lived on, but it had to radically revise its tactics against dilution and now had to adopt a compromise. The CWC drew up their own model dilution agreement and circulated it to all factories, attempting to retain all possible control. They also continued to insist on central negotiations between themselves and the Dilution Commissioners.

The Commissioners refused to negotiate with the CWC and, on 17 March, the final act commenced. Following the introduction of soldiers into the shell department at Parkhead, the management suspended the convenor’s right to move about the works. Ironically, the convenor was Kirkwood, the same man who had been the first to accept dilution. 1000 engineers came out on strike and the strike spread rapidly to other plants. On Saturday 25 March five strike leaders were deported, including three members of the CWC. Later five more were deported and thirty strikers prosecuted under the Munitions’ Act and fined £5 each.

The Commissioners had played a trump card. The strike was relatively small, and the CWC was split on the issue. At its first meeting after the deportations the Chairman, Willie Gallagher, ruled out of . order a resolution for a strike in the Clyde District. Later, Gallagher issued a press statement disassociating the committee from the strike at Parkhead. Instead of a strike Gallagher decided to go to London with Muir (Barr & Stroud convenor) and try to negotiate over the deportations – they were sent packing by Lloyd George. The CWC had failed. The reins were handed back to the District Committee and to Glasgow Trades Council.

On 14 April Gallagher and Muir were sentenced to a year’s jail on The Worker charges. Not until the summer of 1917 were they and the ten deportees able to begin to build the Clydeside Shop Stewards’ Movement.

Sheffield Workers’ Committee

WITH THE collapse of the struggle on Clydeside, attention was transferred to Sheffield. Here a fight had also taken place over dilution, though from the beginning the principle had been accepted. The need to control dilution had shown the urgent need for shop stewards, able to negotiate the details at workshop level. By the Autumn of 1916 a local Engineering Shop Stewards’ Committee had been formed, linking most factories, but under the control of the ASE District Committee.

It was a sectional craft issue which was to launch the Sheffield Workers’ Committee in November 1916. All through that year the District Committee had dealt with the problem of conscription of ASE members. Over 300 supposedly exempt skilled workers had received call-up papers. Although they were released the District Committee was annoyed and also worried that the employers might use conscription to discipline workers. Their fears were justified. In October a local fitter was conscripted, unable to appeal because his employers had withheld the necessary paperwork. On Sunday 5 November the District Committee called a mass meeting, 3,500 workers attended. At that meeting the Engineering Shop Stewards’ Committee assumed control, so as to avoid ‘legal problems’ for the District Committee, though prominent ESSC members were also on the District Committee. A resolution was passed and strike action promised if the fitter was not released within a week. During that week the number of shop stewards in the Sheffield district rose dramatically from about 60 to over 300. On Thursday 16 November 12,000 workers struck – a few hours later the fitter was released by the War Office, but it was not until he was presented to a mass meeting on the following Saturday that a return to work was agreed. This success added solidarity to the existing growth in the number of shop stewards and in January 1917 the committee was extended to include workers not in the ASE and re-named the ‘Sheffield Workers’ Committee’.

The National Workers’ Committee

THE IDEA of local shop stewards’ committees had spread, ironically assisted by the original deportations from Glasgow as the deportees moved to other industrial areas and immediately set to work, helping to build local committees. Some of these committees gained strength and credibility by leading action over wage claims, as in their main objective the fight to prevent an extension of dilution into private industry.

In November 1916 the first national meeting of militants from the various committees was held in Manchester. That meeting issued a manifesto (modelled on the Clyde Committee), and decided to print membership cards. However, their syndicalist, anti-leadership tendencies led them to elect only administrators, without any executive powers.

Their next meeting was not to be until Easter 1917. Events were to overtake them – in March 1917 a textile firm near Rochdale sacked 500 engineers for refusing to train women workers transferred from shell production to commercial work. Though the Rochdale ASE district committee backed the men, it moved slowly. The initiative was eventually taken, on 29 April, by the Manchester Joint Engineering Shop Stewards’ Committee who called a strike in support. On Saturday 5 May the second National Conference commenced in Manchester, by then the strike covered the whole of Manchester and Lancashire involving over 60,000 workers. Again, there was reticence on the part of the militants attending.

They could have taken control of the dispute and presented a national lead.instead, as they had met only to discuss the setting up of a national organisation they called for a further separate national conference of strike delegates. This insistence on calling conferences must have seriously delayed any chance of effective co-ordination. Though the strike continued to escalate, Sheffield 15,000 out, Coventry 30,000, this was solely because of the individual area and was not the result of central leadership. Significant areas did not strike, like Glasgow, Birmingham and Tyneside. Strike delegates met (for their second separate meeting) on 15 May; from the outset they were intent on settlement, not on escalation. Attempts at direct negotiation with the Ministry of Munitions failed and they were forced to ask the ASE executive to ‘go with them to the government.’ The executive refused. While they argued with the executive, warrants for the arrest of ten of the strike leaders were issued. Finally the strike delegates were forced to leave negotiations to the executive, who had known all along about the intended arrests.

On Saturday 19 May the ASE executive reached agreement with the Ministry, which was ratified by the Prime Minister – it was solely an agreement that promised a return to work in exchange for a promise of release pending trial, of those arrested. The agreement contained nothing about the issues on which the strikes had been called. The capitulation of the strike delegates was not, however, a reflection of rank and file feeling. The strikes continued in many areas, notably Sheffield, where most of the main factories stayed out another week until charges against strike leaders were dropped.

This set-back was not to be the end of the shop stewards’ movement, in the months ahead it was to expand its base and elect a National Administrative Council (NAC). Its efforts were concentrated around the issue of food prices and equal distribution, with many localities calling strikes and demonstrations. Local committees were also to become involved in the campaign to have a wage award for skilled workers of 12½ per cent passed on to all grades and this was to go a long way in breaking down traditional craft barriers. However, the crunch was yet to come.

In January 1918 the government introduced the Military Service Bill – they wanted men from the munitions factories for the trenches. The shop stewards’ movement met in national conference on 5 and 6 January and decided to sound out the localities, recommending strike action against the bill. Not only that, it called on the government to consider peace terms! Support was quickly forthcoming from many areas, notably Clyde, Sheffield, Barrow, Coventry, Erith, London – all threatening to down tools and all adopting a definite anti-war stance. On 25 January the NAC met again to decide whether or not to make a strike call but the meeting was split and no strike call was made. The resultant delay was fatal, it allowed local ASE officials to assert themselves, deflecting militancy back to the defence of craft privilege against conscription.

The anti-war struggle never got off the ground.

Though local committees continued to organise and fight, the NAC was rarely involved and had abdicated from any position of leadership. Three more conferences were called before the end of the war, but were not geared to action and were reduced to empty debate and propagandist resolutions against the war.

The NAC were now seeing their role as more and more ‘political’. Events in Russia had, naturally enough, made their impression and the January 1920 conference passed an NAC resolution affiliating to the 3rd International. Delegates were also appointed to the next Comintern Congress.

That summer, Murphy, Ramsey, Gallagher and Tanner went to Moscow for discussions. In September the NAC endorsed their promise of affiliation to the new Trade Union International and agreed to ‘assist in the furthering of Communist unity in this country’.

A final conference was convened in Sheffield during April 1921, this confirmed the alliance with the Communist Party and adopted a new name for themselves, the National Workers’ Committee Movement (NWCM).

At this time the miners were on strike, against the employers intended wage cuts. They had called on the transport and rail unions to honour the ‘Triple Alliance’ and they were due to strike, after a postponement, on Friday 15 April. When the miners’ executive rejected speculation about possible conciliation the rail and transport leaders used this as an excuse not to strike. Thus the triple alliance was shattered on ‘Black Friday’ – a major set-back for the whole movement. As a result, the miners, after striking on their own for another 13 weeks, suffered defeat and massive wage cuts. The rest of the working class were soon to follow, by the end of the year over six million workers had their wages cut and unemployment had reached 16 per cent – the post war boom had collapsed.

In this situation a change of tactics was obviously needed. The Third Comintern Congress in August 1921 was to provide the new line of ‘United Front’:-

‘Since the working class had ‘not yet lost their belief in the reformists, the Communists could only build a mass party by proving their superior devotion to working class interests as they were conceived by the workers themselves. Communists were to attempt to obtain the widest possible support for ‘concrete transitional demands’, and to form a ‘united front’ with the Socialists against the capitalist offensive’ wherever possible.’ (J Degras, quoted in: Martin – Communism and the British Trade Unions 1924-1953, 1969).

The Minority Movement

THE TACTICS for the British Communist Party were spelled out at the Fourth Comintern Congress in November 1922 by Losovsky:

‘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 ... and the Communist Party will itself grow concurrently with the growth of the opposition.’

In each major industry programmes were raised, around specific demands for the industry and for reforms within the unions concerned. Organisations were formed, called ‘Minority’ movements, coined from the oft used phrase ‘minority of troublemakers’. Rapid progress was made, especially in mining, engineering and transport. The miners’ Minority Movement was to become the showpiece example. From mid-1921 militant miners had been campaigning to reverse the decline in union membership which had resulted from the defeat of the 1921 strike. A series of regional meetings was held during 1923, these meetings resulted in a national conference in January 1924, when the miners’ Minority Movement was formally launched and an executive committee elected. Shortly afterwards the executive committee appointed Nat Watkins as national organiser.

Within a month, the first copy of ‘The Mine-worker’ was produced and district committees were set up in each of the major mining areas. Then came a major victory, the Minority Movement supported a candidate, Arthur Cook, for the secretaryship of the Miners’ Federation and he won. Cook, who was a syndicalist and Baptist, was to be a prominent Minority Movement supporter in the years ahead.

Finally the various Minority Movements were pulled together to a national conference on 23/24 August 1924. 270 delegates agreed to a national organisation with a programme of action and subsequently elected an executive with Harry Pollitt as General Secretary.

The ‘aims and objects’ and the ‘programme’ were to reveal contradictions and some built-in problems for the future. Firstly, ‘Our sole object is to unite the workers in the factories by the formation of factory committees, to work for the formation of one union for each industry, to strengthen the local Trades ‘Councils ... But nothing was to be done to establish factory committees, or towards one union for each industry – except to press the idea on the ‘left’ leadership.

Secondly, the conciliation with the bureaucracy –

‘We stand for the formation of a real General Council that shall have the power to direct, unite and coordinate all struggles and activities of the trade unions, and so make it possible to end the present chaos and go forward in a united attack in order to secure, not only our immediate demands, but win complete workers control of industry.’

Thirdly came the ‘International’ line –

‘... to maintain the closest relations with the Red International of Labour Unions, the Communist aligned international trade union centre’.

Moscow had changed its tactics, realising that the RILU would not receive many further affiliations. Now it wanted merger of the two trade union Internationals, or acceptance of the Russians into the IFTU, the Social-Democratic trade union centre. The MM was to work for this objective by influencing the TUC. (At the 1925 TU Congress an MM sponsored resolution was carried supporting Russian affiliation). The immediate shop-floor demands were also spelled-out at this first Conference. ‘A wage increase of £1 per week, a minimum wage of £4, a 44 hour week and no overtime’, plus a number of specific demands for separate industries.

The MM was initially very successful in propagandist terms. The atmosphere was improving, 1923-24 saw a partial recovery from the slump, unemployment began falling and many groups of workers were submitting wage claims. There was also an upsurge in pro-Russian sentiment, with a new Anglo-Russian trade treaty and a TUC delegation to Russia, following their visit to the 1924 TUC. Added to this, some of the right wing TUC leaders had been absorbed into the Labour Government, leaving the General Council manned by leading ‘lefts’ like Purcell, Hicks and Swales, all allegedly sympathetic to the MM.

In this atmosphere the MM flourished. In 1925 the Annual Conference was attended by 547 organisations, with over 200 from the miners, 143 from engineering 96 from transport (TGWU/NUR). The Movement’s effect on wage negotiations was clearly seen. In the mines in a campaign against the union EC’s acceptance of an offer, in engineering around the claim for £1 per week and in the NUR for a minimum wage of £3.10.0 and a 42 hour week.

At this time the TUC ‘lefts’ were making very radical speeches. Hicks talked about ‘... the bitter fight against capitalism’ and Swales said ‘... there cannot be any community of interest between the working class and the capitalist class.’ All barricade-building stuff, but easily said when your opponent has not yet entered the ring.

The General Strike

IN APRIL 1925, Baldwin announced a return to the Gold Standard. This on top of the war reparation scheme involving Ruhr coal, was too much for mine owners. Export prices for coal dropped rapidly. So they gave notice terminating the 1924 settlement with, the miners – they wanted a wage cut and a return to the eight hour day. The miners rejected the proposals. In order to stave off a general strike until strike-breaking preparations were more advanced, the government agreed to subsidise the mine owners, pending a Royal Commission Report.

The MM correctly anticipated the situation and following the Annual Conference in August 1925 began preparing the ground for a Special National Conference of Action, which was held on 21 March 1926. That Conference endorsed a plan of campaign which called for an extension of the existing Industrial Alliance

‘with instructions given to the General Council to take over the leadership of the alliance on behalf of the whole working class movement, the creation of local Councils of Action to campaign for workshop committees, the formation of a workers defence Corps, and the preparation of plans for the carrying on of essential services in the event of a General Strike. The General Council was to call a National Congress of Action and to draw up plans for co-operation with the Co-Operative Movement, the National and Parliamentary Labour Parties, and the ‘International Trade Union Movement.’ (Report of Special National Conference of Action, quoted in Martin)

The emphasis on demands on the General Council clearly indicates illusions about their ability to push the TUC ‘lefts’. The General Council ignored them completely and when the betrayal came the MM was in no position to do anything about it.

At local level however, we can see glimpses of the potential. The idea of local Councils of Action was met with considerable enthusiasm and these areas Managed to organise despite the apathy of their local Officials. Had the MM paid more attention, to the localities than it had given to the TUC, then the story may have been different. The end of the General Strike and the continuation of the miners isolated struggle was a bitter period of recrimination and retreat. This period saw a rightward move by the TUC when they agreed to the Mond-Turner talks on industrial co-operation. Despite this the MM continued to suck-up to the TUC ‘lefts’. At it’s August 1926 Conference the Executive Committee asked members not to rock the boat by being too critical where it would

‘militate against the possibilities of bringing the Miners’ strike to a successful conclusion or operate against the future welfare of Anglo-Russian unity’. (Report of 3rd Annual Conference of NMM, quoted in Martin)

This line was unacceptable to the the Cominterm, who forced the MM to withdraw the statement and instead substitute

‘... merciless criticism and exposure of the manoeuvres of the new consolidated trade union bureaucracy is one of the foremost tasks in the struggle for the revolutionising of the British trade union movement.’ (The Worker, 19.11.1926).

The new analysis of the ‘lefts’ of the General Council led the MM to yet another role and another slogan ‘change your leaders’-electioneering was the way forward. The MM was maintained by nurturing small groups around Communist Party cells and support for ‘sympathetic’ candidates was sought. Over the next few months the MM was to come under considerable attack – Trades Councils were instructed by the TUC to disaffiliate and wrangles were to take place in many unions about outside interference. Nevertheless the MM managed to survive, but the final coup-de-grace was to come from an unexpected source.

1928 was to see a major split in the Communist Party over the role of the MM. The Committee decided on a new line for all of its sections. It was that the Labour Party and the trade unions had become part of the Capitalist State therefore the MM was to become the core of a new revolutionary union movement. In practical terms, this meant that when a strike occurred the MM was to set-up strike committees, BUT NON-UNION, these would become permanent factory committees at the end of the strike. These committees, COMPETING WITH THE EXISTING UNION MACHINERY, would be brought together into a national organisation as the basis for a new revolutionary trade union movement. This diet-it led to a prolonged wrangle and subsequent cor fusion in both the CP and the MM, the line was eventually confirmed in May 1929, when the MM openly supported the Communist Party parliamentary candidates and The Worker carried the new line:

‘The issue ... means a complete break with all the old conceptions of continuing our activities within the constitutional framework of trade union branches, District Committees etc. New forces have to be won, new forms of organisation found.’

This was to prove the downfall of the MM. The non-party militants would not support any notion of breakaway unionism and the two serious attempts made, the United Mineworkers of Scotland and the United Clothing Workers Union, both ultimately failed. The argument in the Communist Party continued, ‘What can the Minority Movement do that the Party couldn’t do better?’

At the end of 1930 a new tactic was introduced, the Workers’ Charter, a re-hash of the nineteenth century Chartist campaign, intended to revive, or if necessary, replace the MM. Charters were drawn up as programmes of immediate demands for each major industry – a resumption of united front activity at local level.

This partial change was reinforced by the ‘January Resolution’ of the 1932 Central Committee which re-orientated the Party to winning influence in trade union branches and amongst branch officers, It was this resolution which led to the expulsion of the Balham Group, who whilst recognising the need for work in the Unions, wanted the emphasis placed on building in the factories.

Despite a lot of activity, it was now too late for the MM – confusion abounded and most of the real activity of the rank and file (like the London busmen) was taking place well away from MM or Charter influence. By 1933 the Minority Movement had passed quietly away.

Current Class Situations

CONDITIONS are now ripe for the purpose of building a National Rank and File Movement. Not only has the number of strikes dramatically increased since 1969, but this increase includes four new trends. Firstly a new wave of ‘political’ strikes, secondly the willingness of workers to undertake prolonged unofficial action – in spite of the union leaders, busily policing the social contract. Thirdly, the emergence of militancy in areas of trade unionism without any traditions of struggle – local authority workers, civil servants, teachers etc. Finally, the move towards more aggressive tactics by workers-occupations, flying pickets etc. In fact, compared to previous periods, the conditions are more favourable than ever before. Trade union organisation itself is better and shop-floor organisation, via Shop-Stewards’ Committees and Combine Committees has a fighting capability, never before matched. Compare the situation to the period of the MM, when the strategic position of the class was much weaker but the Movement, with many ‘lefts’ mouthing near revolutionary statements, gave the impression of being much stronger.

These relatively new trends have produced a promising situation, but one where the major problems now facing the class is that of fragmentation. This fragmentation will lead straight to defeat, unless a movement such as Rank and File can intervene.

What then, are we building?

This is an area of some confusion. Perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that it’s been confusing to other comrades before us:

‘... at the beginning of the National Minority Movement, considerable time and energy has to be expanded to fight down the belief that there was no room for a movement dealing with immediate and “narrow” economic issues, that it was a reformist conception, and that such an organisation would stand in front of and hide the face of the Party from the workers. Sneering descriptions of the NMM were given in the Party as being “an attempt to dress a red man in a pink cloak”.’ (Allan – The Party and the MM, Communist Review, Vol.4)

However, we view the rank and file movement as a way of increasing the radicalisation of the working class and in that situation we expect to win workers to our politics. On the presumption, of course, that our members play a leading role in such a movement and demonstrate our politics in action.

A National Rank and File Movement needs to be based (but not exclusively) around the unit of Trade Union organisation nearest the point of production -shop stewards committees or work-based union branch, and requires a programme of minimal demands for each industry and/or union. It also has to cut across the existing, sectional, structure of the trade unions, thereby linking all groups of radicalised workers skilled or unskilled, blue or white collar, whatever union or industry.

It must be capable of local initiatives around specific issues and have the ability to generalise from those local situations. Such a movement must be within the existing trade union movement, but be capable of independent action. In short, to build confidence among workers that, when the occasion arises, they are capable of united action without the bureaucracy.

Having said that, we must now admit that such a movement has yet to be built, but at least we know what we’re aiming for. Let’s draw some of the lessons from the previous examples.

The most obvious point from the Shop Stewards’ Movement was that, despite repeated attempts, it remained firmly embedded amongst skilled workers. The lack of a ‘National’ leadership also made it difficult to overcome sectionalism. The anti-leadership attitude showed a lack of political leadership – the local actions can be generalised. Here it is necessary to counter the arguments that existing work in SSCs and Combine Committees is, in itself, building the national rank and file movement. This is not the case. Of course that work is vitally important and must continue, but the concept of a national movement needs more than this. The recent dustcart drivers’ strike in Glasgow provides a perfect example. If the national rank and file Movement had had a broader base, then it could have immediately generalised that local attack by the State into a national demand, with action for the withdrawal of the troops. Shop Stewards Committees and Combine Committees are indeed the unit around which we organise, but we need to break their inherent sectionalism by winning the political argument for a national movement. From the Minority Movement we learn of the need to build in the localities. We must do so, around specific issues, and for as long as the issue lasts, when needed. Indeed if a local committee continues without a useful purpose then it will become a barrier to future activity.

We also learn from the MM of the dangers involved in spending too much time and energy trying to influence the ‘lefts’ in the trade union leadership, though there are times when it is necessary to place demands on them. A crucial ‘political lesson concerns the relationship between the Party and the Rank and File Movement. The MM suffered considerably because of the political contortions of the Communist Party. The MM tragically ended up as a puppet, not because Communist Party members led it, but because the MM ceased to ‘breathe’ and no longer moved with the stream of working class activity.

Finally to deal with the thorny subject of ‘Independence’. This will be measured on the strength and credibility of the trade union bodies that agree to support rank and file activities NOT on what the politics of the individual delegates happens to be. In fact, because we are building within the trade union Movement and because we expect our members to lead in their union and workplace that also means that we expect our members to lead in the rank and file movement. If would be somewhat contradictory if we didn’t. One thing is certain, a rank and file movement will not serve any purpose for us unless our leading members are involved because they see the job it can do and unless they bring others with them who can also see it. Given the British political situation, it is extremely unlikely that any party could achieve a revolutionary change in society without having previously built a National Rank and File Movement. We now have the task of creating the reality.

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