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International Socialism, March 1977


Julian Harber

British Syndicalism


From International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


British Syndicalism 1900-1914
Bob Holton
Pluto Press £2.95 Paperback £6.60 hardback

WHEN the British Communist Party was founded in 1921 it brought together a remarkable body of revolutionary industrial workers. How had these workers and those they gathered round them in the Minority Movement of the 1920s been politicised? It is a complicated story. Some by the Russian Revolution and the great strike wave that swept the country in 1919 and 1920. Others, especially engineering workers, by the experience of the Great War itself. But even the leaders of the various Workers Committees that sprung up against Lloyd George’s government from 1915 onwards entered the struggle for, the most part already committed revolutionaries. They were not unique. The Durham mining village of Chopwell known as ‘little Moscow’ in the 1920s had a red reputation a decade before Lenin was painted onto the local lodge banner. Similar stories can be duplicated amongst builders and railwaymen. The search for the origin of the revolutionary movement takes one back before the first world war to the great labour unrest of 1910-1914 and to syndicalism.

Syndicalism – the belief that socialism can come through the agency of revolutionary trade unions – has, with the exception of Spain, been so uninfluential on the left in the last fifty years that few historians have bothered to take it seriously. This has been particularly true of British syndicalism which has been widely condemned as being not just vague and unsystematic – an altogether poor copy of its continental counterparts, but also as only having ephemeral influence.

‘The Syndicalist movement grew with meteoric speed during the great strike movement of 1910-1912,’ writes James Hinton, ‘and fell just as fast in the year before the war.’

By a lot of very hard work, Bob Holton has constructed a rather different picture. Though they didn’t produce any stunning theoretical texts, British syndicalistss presented coherent and well argued cases in many of their pamphlets, articles and speeches. Though there were in numerical terms, never very many fully committed to the various forms of the doctrine, – perhaps only a few thousand in all – they were often the key militants in any particular situation. Though their main organisation, the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, collapsed after internal disagreements in 1913, their ideas continued to be spread through other organisations – the Industrial Democracy League, the Daily Herald League, and the important Building Workers Industrial Union. Not only industrial unrest, but syndicalism persisted right up to the declaration of war in August 1914.

Holton at times overstates his case. His favourable comparison between British and Continental syndicalism for instance can only be maintained by ignoring the Spanish CNT, which not only recruited some one and three-quarter millions around its banners, but whose membership in whole areas in Spain in 1936 actually carried out a social revolution. Certainly many of the 1914 strikes were violent, but this was not as Holton implies unprecedented – the Hull dock strike of 1893 was probably as violent as that of 1911. His frequent use of the word ‘proto-syndicalist’ hides as much as it reveals.

But through Holton’s work we are better able to understand the main trajectory of industrially based revolutionary socialism in the first great era of British labour unrest of this century 1910-1926. Originally taking a syndicalist form – either a belief in converting existing unions into revolutionary bodies or a belief in the need for entirely new revolutionary unions, through the experience of the war it became transformed into a type of council communism. The agency of revolutionary change was now workshop based organisation cutting across union lines – Soviets. From the Russian revolution came the idea of a revolutionary party to promote and direct the creation of such Soviets. From the Third International came the need for a rank-and-file movement in the unions to pave the way for the creation of a situation favourable to the setting up of Soviets. Hence the Communist Party and the Minority Movement.

Undoubtedly a number of militants traversed the whole of that road. Fred Shaw an engineer from Huddersfield for instance was at the founding conference of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League in 1910, was active in the Workers Committee movement in the First World War, joined the Communist Party and in 1926 was to be found campaigning for the engineers to join the General Strike.

The problem was of course that despite their long apprenticeship, those who founded the communist party in 1921 were unable to come to grips with the twin problems that confronted them – the post-war industrial defeats that culminated in the General Strike and the rise of Stalinism. Both the tradition that had been created and the knowledge of how that tradition had been created disappeared. A new generation of whom Bob Holton is one, has had to go back and reconstruct both.

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