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Ray Challinor

The Trade Union Bureaucracy in Britain

The Rise of the Bureaucracy

(June 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.48, June/July 1971, pp.16-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’

This quotation from Marx is particularly apt when considering the British labour movement, a movement inured with reformist prejudices. For the past 120 years – except, perhaps for a brief period after the First World War – there has been no serious threat to the existing order. The prevalence of parliamentary illusions and the acceptance of constitutional procedures effectively tethered the working class to the capitalist system.

The last time revolutionary ideas acquired mass support in this country was during the Eighteen-forties. Chartism’s significance arises from the fact that it represents both a beginning and an end. It was a beginning because, as Trotsky pointed out, it compressed into a few years the whole gamut of proletarian struggle:

‘All the basic processes of the class movement of the proletariat – the mutual relationships between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions and co-operation, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection.even the reciprocal relationships between the proletariat and the peasantry – were not only crystallised in practice out of the Chartist mass movement, but also found in it their answers in principle.’ [1]

Nevertheless, Chartism also represented an end: it was the last protest movement to arise before the British working class became a clearly-defined, separate entity. Within its ranks assembled a heterogeneous band of rebels, some wanting to call back yesteryear, regarding the agrarian and industrial revolutions as calamities that needed reversing, while many others accepted industrial society and sought to make it more palatable for the proletariat by re-distributing power and incomes. Professor Rudé is right to draw attention to this cleavage in Chartism:

‘There were divergent social elements, of which some looked longingly to the past and others, gropingly, towards the future. Of the first, there were the domestic outworkers, the hand-loom weavers, woolcombers, and framework knitters of the west and Midlands and the Yorkshire West Riding, who were being squeezed, uprooted, and impoverished by the new industrial system and for whom the future appeared as one of unrelieved menace and disaster. On the other hand, there were the factory hands of the new industrial areas, the cotton workers of Lancashire and Scotland, and the miners of Northumberland, Durham, and the Black Country of the midlands, for whom machinery, though by no means an unmitigated blessing, had come to stay, and who were increasingly seeking their remedies through trade unions, co-operation, and working-class association, and less and less through the old ‘natural justice’ methods of the past.’ [2]

Chartism, reflecting the social diversity of its support, inevitably spoke with many, contradictory voices. At times of crisis, such as during the general strike of 1842 and the various abortive attempts at armed uprising, the movement was never able to secure the necessary internal cohesion. Nor did it have any clear, thought-out strategy. A part of the membership, mainly the more affluent artisans, believed in ‘moral force’ and looked to Parliament to remedy their grievances. On the other hand, ‘the fustian jackets, unshorn chins and blistered hands’ constituted the ‘physical force’ wing, those who believed that only an armed uprising would end hunger and oppression.

Both these tendencies represented a dead-end simply because, given the conditions then prevailing, there was no way forward. To petition Parliament proved to be futile. It was done on three occasions – 1839, 1842 and 1848 – and each time the Commons threw out the petitions by large majorities. Yet, if that was a waste of time, then the only other course of action would result in a waste of lives. The army prudently provided a display of its sophisticated hardware to dampen the ardour of revolutionaries and give them some idea of the bloodbath that would await them.

After Chartism’s collapse, capitalists saw they must come to terms with this new force in society – the working class. While revolutionary flames might temporarily be dampened, they would re-appear in an even more dangerous fashion unless something was done to appease the lower orders. As the working class grew in numbers, so its potential power increased proportionately. The big question was: What could be done about this ‘many-handed monster’? How could the proletariat be tamed?

Far-sighted politicians understood the challenge. A Tory like Sir Robert Peel confessed:

‘I do feel that the point at which all ought to strive is to improve the conditions and elevate the feelings of the great labouring class. I tell you it is not safe unless you do it.’ [3]

Gladstone spoke in a similar vein when he said:

‘We have got to govern millions of hard hands ... it must be done by force, fraud or good will.’ [4]

Of course, the ruling class has used all three methods. Nevertheless, Gladstone was convinced that, whenever possible, it was desirable to gain the good will of the workers rather than rely upon force or fraud. For this reason, he favoured making concessions, an exercise in conciliation rather than conflict.

The period after 1850 was propitious for the adoption of this type of policy. Britain underwent a period of rapid expansion. She became the workshop of the world. Employers were concerned about maintaining uninterrupted production and, with their large profit margins, were prepared to buy themselves out of trouble. Between 1850 and 1875, real wages increased by a third. [5] For workers this came as a welcome and novel experience. It was in marked contrast to the first half of the nineteenth century, when real wages had only slightly improved – some historians, like Eric Hobsbawm, even believe there may have been a deterioration. [6]

Political expansion accompanied economic improvements. The British Empire grew, making Britain the most powerful country in the world.All sections of society basked in imperialist sunshine, convinced that they were God’s chosen people. Capitalism, the system responsible for bestowing all these blessings, appeared to be not merely stable: it also seemed natural and inevitable.

In numerous ways, the ruling class endeavoured to foster this notion. They granted reforms as a reward for good behaviour. Intellectuals, such as Beesley and Harrison, began taking an interest in the labour movement, thereby acting as a transmission belt for capitalist ideology. ‘New model’ employers, like Mundella and Lord Elcho, strived to reach an understanding with the trade unions, thus increasing the influence of the moderates. The whole emphasis was placed on involving workers in the system, both politically and economically, instead of struggling against them.

Seeming to have a stake in the well-being of capitalism, the working class changed its whole outlook. In 1870, Thomas Cooper,an old Chartist leader, visited Lancashire and compared the workers then with what they had been in the Eighteen-forties:

‘My sorrowful impressions were confirmed. In our old Chartist time, it is true, Lancashire working men were in rags by the thousands; and many of them often lacked food. But their intelligence was demonstrated wherever you went. You would see them in groups discussing the great doctrine of political justice ... Now you will see no such groups in Lancashire. But you will hear well-dressed working men talking, as they walk with their hands in their pockets, of “Co-ops” and their shares in them, or in building societies. And you will see others, like idiots, leading small greyhound dogs.’ [7]

Professor Royden Harrison also describes this transformation:

‘Between the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, the Co-operative Movement did pass from community-building to shop-keeping; the trade unions did become less like “schools of war” and more like the workman’s equivalent to the public school ... working-class politics became less of a “knife and fork” and more of a “collar and tie” question. In the first period the Labour leadership was largely recruited from the crowded ranks of prophets, visionaries and demagogues; by the second it had exchanged these “outside” enthusiasts for “great men of business” trained into “carefulness” through the management of the substantial institutions which they controlled.’ [8]

Instead of demanding wholesale changes, workers contented themselves with ‘small deeds and humble virtues’. They no longer appluaded the inflammatory speeches of Chartists like J.R. Stephens. [9] Rather they opted for ‘revolution by a thousand modifications’, ‘the revolution by inches’ which, of course, was no revolution at all.

When such opinions prevailed, the existence of working-class organisations could prove beneficial to the system. Employers soon learnt that they had much to gain from co-operating with labour leaders. In a study of the miners’ president, Alexander MacDonald, I have shown some of the tangible benefits the employers acquired. [10] In periods of trade depression, when the owners wished to introduce wage cuts, they discovered that the proposed reduction had greater chance of acceptance by the men and less chance of a dispute arising, if it were put to them by one of their own union leaders. Likewise they were more ready to agree to new working methods when one of their spokesmen had already acquiesced. Union officials could also be used to boost morale and inculcate a more responsible attitude among the workers, getting them to eschew drunkenness and absenteeism. [10a] Furthermore, since conflict was bound to arise in industry, it was better to settle differences with union leaders, by accepted methods of conciliation and arbitration, rather than allow them to develop into massive class confrontations.

The typical trade union leader was a respectable, sober citizen, who accepted the values of capitalist society as readily as his counterpart, the employer. He knew the virtue of perseverance and thrift since he himself was likely to have got on through hard work (‘which kills no one’). Special relationships developed between employer and union official. Lord Elcho, the coalowner, used to invite Alexander MacDonald, the miners’ leader, to champagne breakfasts. A.J. Mundella congratulated himself upon the mellowing effects that had resulted from wining and dining delegates to the TUC.

This kind of behaviour yielded political as well as economic dividends. When Mundella was selected as parliamentary candidate, one of the union leaders, Robert Applegarth, greeted the news with the following outburst:

‘The Sheffield workers have selected as a candidate for Parliament one in whom they have full confidence, and in whom they believe they have a faithful representative of their interests. And who is this candidate they have selected? Is he a firebrand from among their own ranks; a blind advocate of their interests regardless of the interests of others? No; he is an employer who ... has won the position he now occupies and is equally respected by his fellow manufacturers as he is by his workpeople.’ [11]

Alexander MacDonald was even more fawning. He told a Royal Commission in 1868,

‘I think that there is not a body of 600 men in which more kind-hearted men are to be found than are to be found in the House of Commons.’ [12]

The ‘moral’ force Chartism, which believed the way forward was to influence Parliament, had degenerated, twenty years later, into the immoral grovelling before the bourgeoisie of leaders like MacDonald.

Such union officials even depended upon their own innocuousness for survival. A very interesting letter, sent from the Miners’ National Union to the coalowners in 1877, reveals the logic behind such a stratagem. It pointed out that the employers might well have sufficient industrial might to crush the union. But this might be an expensive victory. For, with the union leadership smashed, the moderation influence on the rank and file would no longer be there and it was probable that ‘a kind of guerrilla warfare ... far more hurtful to the employers’ would ensue. The letter went on to remind the coal-owners that ‘the most prolonged and most damaging struggles between employers and employed have been carried out in England by workmen not in the union beyond such union as was improvised for the occasion.’ [13] What this was tantamount to saying was that the working class had reached such a level of maturity that, whether the capitalists liked it or not, there would be some form of class organisation. All employers could do was to influence the form this organisation took and whether it was led by somebody like Alexander MacDonald or by a militant.

Hence an epoch begins in which the capitalists exert a subtle influence on the labour movement. They bring pressure to bear so that the ‘right’ – that is to say, right-wing – leaders are chosen. Never possessing the illusions of the anarcho-syndicalists, businessmen were always aware that a crucial question was who controls an organisation. In a sense, well before Lenin, they saw the importance of leadership to the working class.

Of course .industrialists secured an added bonus if they were able to make the entire work force as co-operative as the workers’ official representatives. What they desired was a pliant proletariat. Their model workman would be the kind that socialists would regard as the worst type of wage-slave – namely, the man who does not realise he is a slave: servility has become ingrained, part of his nature. But increasingly it has become difficult to inculcate this attitude, this deference to wealth among the working class. What it has meant is that employers have been faced with a perennial problem, a never-ending struggle to tame the proletariat and stamp out militancy.

Under the existing system, both sides of industry are condemned to toil like the legendary Greek, Sisyphus, who was compelled, for all eternity, to push a large boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again. Trade unionists find themselves forced to push up their wages to keep pace with rising prices; the only thing is that, when they have drawn level, prices proceed to rise again. Similarly, employers find themselves endlessly trying to tame the proletariat; the only difficulty is that, as quickly as they weed out the militants, a new crop of ‘troublemakers’ emerge.

Nevertheless, there were periods of respite, times when the problems of the two sides of industry do not seem as pressing as they are today, when capitalist decline raises issues such as inflation and militancy in a particularly forceful manner. In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, capitalism had greater strength: it had more manoeuvrability and power to make concessions. The result was that the ruling class was able to placate the proletariat, keeping all protest movements within definite limits: both sides accepted the existing economic system as a natural, inevitable part of things. This acceptance, at the most fundamental level, of the status quo, the failure to challenge basic capitalist beliefs, meant that the working class was content to regard itself as a junior partner in British Capitalism Limited.

It has always been the duty of socialists to acknowledge the facts as they are, irrespective of how unpalatable this may be, and Frederick Engels did not flinch from doing so. In October 1858, he wrote to Marx:

‘the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.’ [14]

Replying to a question from Kautsky, twenty-four years later, Engels still spoke in the same vein:

‘You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, you see, there are only Conservative and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and colonies.’ [15]

It was as a result of growing industrial competition from America and the Continent, causing British capitalism to lose its world ascendancy, which ultimately disrupted class amity in this country. But the rise of a movement that challenged the ruling class did not occur automatically. A socialist movement only rose through hard and relentless struggle. In some respects, it faced a situation similar to that which confronts us at present. Although we are now emerging from isolation, there was a period – roughly from 1930 to 1960 – when Social Democracy and Stalinism dominated the minds of the working class with the result that socialist consciousness was almost entirely extinguished.


1. Trotsky, L., Where is Britain Going? (1926 ed.), p.130.

2. Rudé, George, The Crowd in History, p.180.

3. Jephson, H., The Platform, p.418.

4. Morley, J., The Life of Gladstone, vol.ii, p.133.

5. Cole, G.D.H., and Postgate, R., The Common People, p.351.

6. Eric Hobsbawm discusses his view that the standard of living declined in the first half of the Nineteenth Century in his book, Labouring Men, pp.64-105, 120-6.

7. The Life of Thomas Cooper, written by Himself, p.393.

8. Harrison, R., Before the Socialists, pp.6-7.

9. Stephens proclaimed himself to be ‘a revolutionist by fire, a revolutionist by blood, to the knife, to the death’. He liked demonstrators to come to Chartist meetings fully armed and to fire their guns by way of applause. See G.D.H. Cole, Chartist Portraits, pp.63-79.

10. Challinor, R., Alexander MacDonald and the Miners, published in the Our History series, no.48.

10a. There is no note for this reference. – Note by ETOL

11. Cited by Rothstein, T., From Chartism to Labourism, p.189.

12. Royal Commission on Trade Unions, 1868. Q.15,431.

13. Challinor, op. cit., p.26.

14. Marx and Engels on Britain, pp.491-2.

15. Ibid., p.515.

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