The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter IV: Socialists and the Industrial Struggle

From 1907 onwards, the Socialist Labour Party functioned in a rising tide of industrial discontent. Opportunities for growth presented themselves and, often, were taken. But the party was conscious of its own inadequacy; its puny resources did not meet the needs of the times. When industrial disputes occurred, the SLP was liable to find itself without a branch in the affected area. Or even if a branch existed, it might have no members working in the particular industry. Therefore, the party was frequently condemned to the role of onlooker, rather than participant. It could comment on the struggle but not influence its outcome. There were occasions, even more tantalising, when the SLP failed to establish contact with the strikers. This happened where the party had insufficient money to send a representative to meet the workers in dispute, or when it did not even have the address of the strike committee. This meant that copies of The Socialist could not be sent, nor could a first-hand account of the strikers’ case appear in its columns. But despite such frustrations, the SLP continued to progress. Modest, unspectacular, the expansion was nonetheless gratifying. Delegates attending the fifth annual conference, held in Edinburgh, on 30-31 March 1907, heard that the party now had 15 branches — in other words, three times the number reported at the inaugural meeting. What was more, most of the growth had been in England. There were branches in important centres like London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Southampton. Indeed, two-thirds of its branches were outside Scotland. At the same time, The Socialist’s circulation had risen in the course of the year by 447 copies.

Delegates at Edinburgh realised the importance of the party’s husbanding its resources, utilising them to best advantage. They debated a motion that the SLP should suspend electoral activity and devote itself entirely to spreading the ideas of industrial unionism. Although this resolution was rejected, it was carried out in spirit. From then on, the party’s energies were primarily given over to industrial affairs. As we have seen, it was largely instrumental in creating the Advocates of Industrial Unionism, which was formed in August 1907. Then there were the pamphlets, mainly on industrial issues. These were very influential, and were of a high intellectual quality, works that required thought and were intended to be read and re-read. In 18 months, the party published 11 pamphlets. In one month, it printed 18,000 copies. In this way, the SLP’s ideas acquired an audience among the growing number of discontented workers. The party’s pamphlets helped to mould the theoretical principles of a generation of militants.

It must be remembered that this was the first attempt, at least in a concerted and nationwide sense, to build a rank-and-file movement. Obviously, in some respects, policies would necessarily be wrong and confused. A new set of tasks presented themselves, for which little or no guidance existed on methods of accomplishment. The multiplicity of unions and the widely differing conditions prevailing in various parts of the country made it difficult to coordinate activity, particularly on matters of detail.

The SLP confined itself largely to propounding certain basic principles. It argued that the class struggle was central to the fight for socialism; that it could best be fought by the elimination of craft unions and the formation of new ones built on industrial lines; that the role of labour leaders, both political and trade-union, was to sabotage the workers’ struggle; and, finally, that a revolutionary party was required not only to combat these ‘labour lieutenants of capitalism’ but also to lay the foundations of a new society. In a leading article in The Socialist (June 1907), the SLP expressed its view of what was to be done:

Let us then organise industrially as well as politically for our class emancipation.

Industrially, to build up in the womb of capitalism the foundations of the future state of society, reared upon the structure of our class interests, marching shoulder to shoulder, steadying up our class in their onward march to economic freedom.

Politically, to unseat the capitalist class from the power of government, to remove the legal enactments that today safeguard the rights of private property, to prevent, if possible, the capitalist class from using the physical power of the nation against the industrial workers of this or any other nation.

The SLP thought the AIU would play a vital role in the industrial struggle. At the AIU inaugural conference only 19 branches were represented, but it recognised its own weakness, resolving to limit itself to propaganda work and not trying to perform the function of a bona fide trade union. There was lack of clarity about precisely how it would develop. Should AIU members work within existing organisations, trying to convert them to industrial unionism? Or should they try to gain sufficient support to set up a separate and rival union? If it were decided to create a new union, should dual unionism be encouraged — in other words, members remaining within the old-style union to gain added protection and make new recruits? Not one of these questions was properly answered — because the AIU never grew enough to pose them seriously. Although it influenced quite large sections of the working class, it remained a weak organisation with a small membership. Insofar as the AIU had a leadership, it never acquired sufficient power to impose a definite policy on these questions. Rather members confronted them in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion. Frequently, pressure from others would have a bigger influence on their tactics than their own decisions. For example, at Woolwich engineers who sympathised with the AIU made it plain that they would not join if it meant losing the friendly society benefits of the ASE, while in Glasgow and Birmingham factories workers threatened to go on strike if men left the ASE to join the AIU. [1] Such counter-moves were usually enough to dissuade the AIU members from adventurous projects. Instead they contented themselves with selling their literature in union branches and factories, getting resolutions sent to union headquarters, and attempting to link up with like-minded militants in other areas. They acted as what we would call an unofficial movement within the trade unions.

The AIU leaders realistically appreciated that they had undertaken an immense task. EJB Allen envisaged many years of hard work ahead, remaining sure of ultimate victory:

Our ideas will establish themselves even if not through us... though the particular organisation we started is knocked, a larger and better one will inevitably step on its ruins and take the field; our efforts will not be lost. [2]

As the prospect was one of a long haul, it was important to mobilise every scrap of support. The SLP believed that the AIU should not be linked to any particular political party; it should be open to all, regardless of political persuasion. Indeed, it saw positive advantages from the Independent Labour Party and Social Democratic Federation joining: the barriers of sectarian suspicion would be broken down, and there was a fine opportunity for testing SLP principles, applying them in practice. By providing the theoretical basis for industrial unionism, as well as much of the propaganda material, the SLP would be doing an invaluable service, one that no other socialist group even thought of doing. Besides having socialism as the ultimate goal, the SLP had something which made it unique — an idea of the next step forward for the class. ‘Until workers have grasped that’, declared The Socialist,the SLP will only appeal to their minds as one of the political sects out of the four or five claiming to be the party of the working class, just as the broader-minded view with amusement the spasms and gyrations of the Plymouth Brethren, the Exclusive Brethren and the strict Baptists of total immersion. [3]

At the inaugural conference of the AIU the SLPers sought to carry out this policy. Although they had done most of the work to establish the new organisation and had a majority of the membership, they decided not to capture the leading positions. JE Clark, of Marylebone SDF, was National Secretary and WO Angilly, a member of the SPGB, was Treasurer. The AIU was to be run from London, a place where the SLP was very weak.

But things did not go as the party planned. Politics in the AIU became polarised. This partly arose as a result of the antagonism of other socialist groups: both the SDF and the SPGB expelled all members who advocated industrial unionism. Almost everyone thrown out gravitated to the SLP. Meanwhile, what progress the AIU was making was not amongst workers of any political persuasion, but among those who were decidedly anti-politics. To these new members, politics was synonymous with parliamentary politics, the cavortings of Ramsay MacDonald & Co, who supported the Liberal government when it attacked the workers. Even those with reservations about adopting a completely anti-political standpoint were inclined to feel that the most urgent need was for industrial unions, with all energy being thrown into the struggle on the factory-floor, not dissipated in arid political activity.

EJB Allen and most of the other leaders of the AIU were influenced by this proto-syndicalism. When the Industrial Unionist first appeared in March 1908, the journal declared:

We are revolutionists, and we seek to organise all class-conscious workers. Until this is accomplished, there can be no real working-class political action.

An article entitled ‘The Bankruptcy of Parliamentary Socialism’ affirmed:

The ballot by itself is sterile. As a means, however, for registering the strength of the organised working class, as a kind of manifesto, a declaration of rights, it may serve a useful function at a later stage in the struggle after the industrial union has created the force to register it.

The line of the Industrial Unionists annoyed members of the SLP greatly since it denied that there was any role at all for a revolutionary party in the struggle for socialism. In March 1908, Frank Budgen criticised the journal’s policy at an Executive Meeting of the AIU, but the majority of the members backed Allen. The Executive circulated a resolution to branches, asking for their approval. [4] The membership, being mainly SLPers, did not respond as the Executive had hoped. Rather they supported a letter sent by Budgen and CW Peachey, calling upon them to repudiate the position on the Executive. Chaos ensued. At its next meeting the Executive, incensed by what it regarded as the disloyalty of Budgen and Peachey, moved Peachey from the chair. Meanwhile in Scotland, SLPers quickly decided to publish an issue of the Industrial Unionist on the party press to attack the Allen line. Although the Executive tried to suppress it, most copies seem to have been distributed. By this time, members were aligning themselves with one camp or the other. It was quite clear that the Executive was in a minority within the organisation. So, in May 1908, Allen & Co resigned from the AIU and formed the Industrial League. [5]

On 27 May 1908, a newly-formed AIU Executive expelled all the ‘pure’ industrialists, including most of the AIU membership in London, as well as a large number of the SLP there. Entire branches were expelled, disbanded and reorganised. But most SLP members agreed with Budgen’s verdict that the purge was necessary and beneficial: ‘The party had lost weight, but its pulse beat more regularly and it was no longer suffering from those giddy spells.’ [6] This, it would seem, is too optimistic a conclusion: later, both the SLP and AIU suffered from numerous other bouts of dizziness. The loss of members as a result of the 1908 faction fight does not appear to have seriously impeded growth. The AIU, which had only 18 branches represented at its inaugural conference in 1907, had 39 branches by June 1909. And the SLP grew from 15 branches in 1907 to 25 branches by 1911.

Even so, the purge of Allen & Co constituted a temporary setback, and it was politically significant that surgery of such a drastic nature was required. In part, many of the London SLPers expelled were recent recruits, who had not properly assimilated the party’s principles. But this was not the whole explanation. Encapsulated with the SLP’s notion of the way forward was an ambiguity which created the conditions on which a large-scale split could occur. The party had two perspectives of how the overthrow of capitalism would be accomplished. The first could be called ‘the double-barrelled shot-gun’ approach: the working class’ industrial and political strength would grow; this would manifest itself in a greatly expanded AIU and SLP; these two organisations, representing the might of the class industrially and politically, would simultaneously deliver the fatal blow to capitalism. The second would be termed the ‘mother-and-child’ approach. Starting from the realistic point that the SLP was small and isolated, it saw industrial unions as the means of ending this. Once the unions were mass organisations, they would be strengthened by workers’ struggles and experiences. These powerful industrial unions would be the mother of a revolutionary child:

The industrial unions will constitute a body of men and women at once intensely practical and uncompromisingly revolutionary. It can never degenerate into a sect, which is the danger to which political organisations representing a revolutionary position had hitherto been exposed to, but will palpitate with the daily and hourly pulsations of the class struggle as it manifests itself in the workshop. And when it forms its own political party and moves into the political field, as it surely will, in that act superseding or absorbing the Socialist Labour Party and all other socialist or labour parties, its campaign will indeed be the expression of the needs, the hopes, the aspirations and the will of the working classes, and not the dreams and theories of a few unselfish enthusiasts or the ambitions of political schemers. [7]

Anyone holding this concept of future development could easily succumb to the Allen position. To build industrial unions seemed to be the first step forward; from them the revolutionary party would grow. It seemed, at the time, that the most pressing need — the one to which all effort should be devoted — was to this industrial task. Only after it had been accomplished could political progress be made.

But, ultimately, Allen went further than this. He came to the conclusion that the revolutionary party was not required; all its roles could be performed as well, if not better, by the industrial unions themselves. In taking this step, Allen was embracing syndicalism. It is not surprising that, when Tom Mann started to propagandise, Allen should be one of his main supporters.

The emergence of syndicalism as a powerful force in this period can be attributed to a number of factors. First, in view of the bitter industrial struggles raging, it became a pressing need for socialists to direct their energies to work in the factories. Second, this course seemed most likely to bring quick returns, breaking down the isolation of revolutionaries and often giving them the leadership of big groups of workers. Third, in contradistinction to industrial action, political activity appeared to be unproductive and sterile. When political discussions occurred, workers tended to lose the unity essential for industrial victory since they would support the various socialist grouplets, each at each other’s throats. Far better, it was felt, to put these contentious issues on one side and concentrate on the industrial tasks at hand. And, finally, there was the widespread hostility to politics, which was thought of in purely parliamentary terms. The conduct of the Labour Party was largely responsible for this antipathy.

In the industrial struggles, the Liberal government openly sided with the employers. But Labour MPs, the majority of whom owed their seats in Parliament to electoral arrangements with the Liberals, could not bite the hand that fed them. They would remain silent in the House — or, at best, make a few inconsequential comments — when police and troops bludgeoned workers. In 1910, when Richard Bell, the railwaymen’s leader, decided not to stand at the next election, Winston Churchill expressed his regret and found him a well-paid post at the Board of Trade. Yet, within a few months of doing this, the same Churchill was ordering warships up the Mersey. The government pointed guns at Liverpool strikers while it gave the railwaymen’s leader a comfortable job. Many workers saw the contrast. Could they fail to show their disgust when, in 1911, four Labour MPs, including Arthur Henderson, introduced a Parliamentary Bill that would make strikes illegal unless 30 days’ notice had been given?

Perhaps some idea of the sense of outrage felt by militants may be conveyed by quoting the London dockers’ leader, Ben Tillett. In a pamphlet, Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure?, published in 1908, he wrote:

I do not hesitate to describe the conduct of these blind leaders as nothing short of betrayal... While Shackleton took the chair for Winston Churchill, thousands of textile workers were suffering starvation through unemployment; his ability and energy could have been well used in Stevenson Square, in Manchester, instead of mouthing platitudes and piffle in Liberal meetings. The worst of the winter is coming on, time thrown away will never be recovered, and thousands will perish for want of bread.

Tillett described the Labour leaders as ‘these unctuous weaklings’ who ‘will go on prattling their nonsense while thousands are dying of starvation’. [8] Only one Member of Parliament took the kind of stand which Tillett wanted. He was Victor Grayson, who won the Colne by-election, much to the surprise of the press and the annoyance of respectable Labour politicians. On 2 November 1908, as the Licensing Bill was making its tranquil progress through the Commons, Grayson rudely interrupted the proceedings: ‘Mr Chairman, Mr Chairman, before you proceed any further. Thousands of people are dying in the streets.’ Cries of order came from startled Members in all parts of the House. ‘I will not give order’, Grayson shouted back, ‘in a chamber that starves people wholesale.’ He refused to sit down or leave. Parliamentary business could not continue. His suspension was moved and carried. As he was being escorted out, Grayson commented: ‘I leave this House with pleasure — it is a House of Murderers.’ [9]

Grayson believed that socialism could only come through the organisation and self-activity of the working class. To emphasise the point that it could not be presented to people on a plate, he declared paradoxically: ‘If the House of Commons voted for Socialism tomorrow, I would vote against it.’ Not that he had any illusions about Parliament and its role:

That dignified assembly is composed of 670 members, mostly capitalists... To them the words hunger, poverty, destitution, are abstract and academic phrases, with no real meaning... For myself, I have no hope for the House of Commons, constituted as it is... The Cabinet is an heterogeneous collection of vested interests. [10]

Grayson’s importance lies in his expression of opinions that were widely held in left-wing circles. Where some workers parted company with him was in the conclusion he drew from his analysis: he wanted to see the formation of a revolutionary party; they on the other hand considered that the failure of the Labour Party and the futility of Parliament proved that political activity itself was wrong. They drew syndicalist conclusions.

But the SLP never succumbed to this powerful current. When, on 26 November 1910, Tom Mann held the Manchester conference which set up the Syndicalist Education League, the SLP sent along a representative — James Morton, a foundry worker — to express its opposition. Articles in The Socialist and Industrial Worker elaborated on these disagreements.

The first and most important issue was politics. Syndicalists shunned politics, believing that industrial power could accomplish all. ‘With workers properly organised’, declared The Syndicalist,there is nothing they cannot successfully demand from the capitalists by means of a general strike.’ [11] In the SLP’s opinion, this greatly exaggerated the possibilities of a general strike, and it failed to see the importance of political power — in particular, the role of the capitalist state. Even in the preliminary period, well before the conquest of power, syndicalists were doing a disservice by turning their backs on politics. Johnny Muir said: ‘To leave this important field to the capitalist politician is reactionary. The socialist must take political action to educate the masses.’ [12]

Another source of disagreement was industrial sabotage. This was a period in which American and French syndicalism, which favoured sabotage, gained some influence in Britain. Mainly, this took the form of literature, but there was also a sprinkling of agitators, like GH Swasey, who came over from the States. Ralph Fox, in his autobiography, related how Swasey advocated sabotage at a public meeting:

‘Every inch of fat on the boss’ belly means another wrinkle in yours’, he cried. ‘Waiters, put oil in their soup! Dish-washer, break their dishes! Stop their machines’, he yelled to the machine men, ‘put sand in their bearings!’

Swasey was the spirit of the class war, of combat, of hatred of the rich, of destruction.

‘Put nitric acid on their hops! Shrivel their crops!’, he roared. ‘That’s what we did in America! Wherever the IWW got a grip of the hop fields, the Sabcat purred. They gave us what we wanted or the crops shrivelled up!’ [13]

English advocates of sabotage usually used more restrained language. Allen, who became an organiser for the Syndicalist Education League, in his pamphlet Revolutionary Unionism made a number of suggestions:

Moulders can turn out casts full of bubbles, electricians make faulty insulations or put in weak fuses, carpenters putting in windows need only slacken the sash cord instead of stretching it, and in a week or two another carpenter will have to go and put it right. Shop assistants, by giving full weight and measure and an accurate and truthful description of the goods supplied, can damage trade during the excessive hours that they have to work, and make employers realise it would be more economical to shut up at a reasonable time than to keep open so long. Numberless devices can be adopted in this guerrilla warfare, according to the ingenuity and daring of the individuals concerned. [14]

‘The ingenuity and daring of the individuals concerned’ — the phrase pointed exactly to where the SLP’s critique of Allen began. Sabotage was a protest action taken by workers as individuals, not as a class. It was, consequently, a symptom of despair, a futile gesture taken by those who did not recognise the real power that came from activity of the class. George Harvey, writing in The Socialist from personal experience, said that where the Durham miners were well organised they had no need to resort to such methods. [15] A second criticism of the SLP was that the destruction of machinery and tools could be a self-inflicted wound. In his pamphlet, Allen had cited the case of a gang of navvies, faced with a wage reduction. They cut a strip, about an inch to an inch and a half wide, off their shovels, shouting, ‘Shorter pay, shorter shovels.’ [16] But, commenting on this picturesque illustration for the SLP, WS Jerman said that navvies’ shovels were of various sizes, owing to constant use. As it was the custom for workers to buy their own shovels, the behaviour Allen reported, and appeared to recommend, was senseless. Jerman then went on to make the point that the socialist aim was not the destruction of the means of production but their capture. [17]

Finally, syndicalists and the SLP parted company on the whole question of organisation, its scope and functioning. For syndicalism was more an attitude than a movement. Tom Mann was its originator in Britain. He took the decisions, along with a small group of friends. As Mrs Mann explained in an interview with the Daily Herald:The term [Syndicalism] was adopted by my husband and Mr Guy Bowman after due consideration to designate our plan of campaign.’ [18] Mann himself remarked on the informality that surrounded the Syndicalist Education League: ‘There were a few comrades who started it, and the need for a definite constitution, rules and so forth was not felt. We were all personal friends, and we just selected a committee of five.’ [19] To the SLP this was wrong. Perhaps its difference on this question was symptomatic of a more fundamental difference of approach: the SLP saw a much more far-reaching change had to be made to the trade-union movement, a transformation that could only be attained with regular and systematic work, guided and led by the AIU.

If the SLP won the better of the ideological conflict, it had the worst of it in practice. The lack of clarity of the syndicalists was, at least in the short run, an advantage, helping them to gain adherents. Theirs was the articulate expression of the militancy, often confused and contradictory, of a large section of the working class. The syndicalists also had the advantage of being led by Mann, a person who had been a household name in the labour movement for 20 years, while most of the SLP’s industrial cadres were young and unknown. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the masses tended to be attracted to syndicalism and that the SLP’s support stayed relatively small.

Although only briefly a force of consequence, syndicalism still had a lasting influence on the development of the British labour movement. It was a nursery school, a training ground for militants. Many of those tested in the pre-1914 period rose to prominence in the industrial struggles of the First World War and afterwards. The personal contacts established under the aegis of syndicalism also served a purpose, often providing the basis later for the formation of shop-stewards’ committees and other rank-and-file organisations.

Nor was syndicalism’s influence purely industrial: while an avowedly non-political movement, it nevertheless allowed people with political affiliations to join, which is what many socialists did. Syndicalism acted as an umbrella, providing the cover under which members of the various socialist groups could acquire the habit of working harmoniously together. Besides helping to break down the feelings of suspicion on the left, syndicalism also led socialist parties, particularly the SDF, to adopt a more flexible attitude to industrial questions. Traditionally, the SDF leaders were suspicious of strikes, believing that the same objective could be better achieved through the ballot box. This view seemed less tenable in the industrial turmoil from 1908 on, when their own members frequently led in the struggles. When one of the SDF’s leading personalities, Tom Mann, became the main exponent of syndicalism, it must have had a big impact on the federation’s membership. Support inside the SDF for syndicalism and industrial unionism appears to have grown too much for the SDF leaders to continue the policy of persecuting industrial dissidents, even if they wanted to. In 1907, a man like JE Clark could be expelled from the SDF for preaching industrial unionism; by 1911 no expulsions were made on those grounds. Both industrial unionism and syndicalism could be advocated by SDF members with impunity. The same applied to the ILP.

So one of the effects of syndicalism was that it encouraged socialist parties to adopt a more tolerant and realistic approach to industrial questions: paradoxically, a non-political movement had important political consequences. But syndicalism itself represented a dead-end. Beyond emphasising the need for forceful protest, it gave no idea of the way forward. One of the reasons for the drop in the number of days lost in industrial stoppages from 40 million days in 1912 to less than 10 million days in 1913 and 1914 was that workers were beginning to realise more and more the inadequacies of syndicalism as a doctrine. From 1912 onwards, syndicalism was in decline.

There were, though, other factors contributing to the wave of militancy’s decline. First, workers had become better off and therefore did not feel the urgency of protest action so much. Real wages rose between 1910 and 1913: having been about 10 per cent lower than they were in 1900, they were probably only three per cent less by 1913. Second, there was the defeat of the miners’ strike (1912) and the Dublin strike (1913), affecting the whole climate of labour relations. These were not catastrophic defeats, merely temporary setbacks, which won for the employers a respite while workers licked their wounds and regrouped. And, third, as part of this process of regrouping, came the spate of union amalgamations, which tended to preoccupy union militants. Time and energy were diverted from the class struggle itself to the task of making these new organisations better than those which had preceded them.

Numerically much smaller than the syndicalists, industrial unionists also suffered from the decline in industrial activity. By 1913, their organisation, too, was in a state of collapse. A few years previously the prospect had appeared bright. After the split with Allen and his followers, the Executive Committee had been moved to Manchester and in 1909, in anticipation of rapid expansion, the name ‘Advocates of Industrial Unionism’ was discarded for the more grandiose title of ‘Industrial Workers of Great Britain’. Only the name changed; the amount of support remained the same. Its journal, Industrial Worker, survived a mere 14 months before being killed by falling circulation and rising costs. By January 1913, TL Smith, then the IWGB General Secretary, was reporting dwindling membership. Lugubriously, he declared: ‘Even those that stuck with the IWGB have become disheartened with the non-success.’ [20]

So much effort expended, so little to show for it — that seems to have been the picture. But it was only partially true. The ideas of industrial unionism had been spread throughout the country and influenced many militants. Frequently, those playing a leading part in union amalgamations and strikes had been members. That they no longer remained in the IWGB was because the struggle in the wider movement took all their time.

An innovation of the IWGB was the introduction of factory branches where industrial and political matters could be discussed. These branches, including skilled and unskilled workers, contributed to the breaking down of union divisions and helped to widen the horizons of workers, who began to think of mutual problems, encompassing the factory as a whole. Conventional union branches tended to balk at this type of issue. As an IWGB leaflet, published in Glasgow, said, criticising the ASE:

A branch may be composed of members no two of whom are working in the same shop or factory, the only thing they have in common is that they are in one trade, namely, the engineering trade. Their branch bears no resemblance to their everyday working life. [21]

In most instances, IWGB factory branches remained small. About half a dozen people would meet and discuss how to relate revolutionary politics to their industrial life. Their direct influence was minimal: few people joined and, as a bargaining force, they were non-existent. Indirectly, however, they sometimes had a seminal influence: their ideas would get through to workers within the works and, via the traditional trade-union structure and procedures, sweeping changes would occur. The two major battles of the IWGB took place on the Clyde, at Argyle Motors and the Singer Sewing Machine Works.

Singer’s factory at Kilbowie, Clydebank, was ultra-modern. The latest techniques of mass production were applied there, and speed-ups, price cutting and sackings were commonplace. The 10,000 employees, mostly unskilled, were cowed into submission, poorly paid and without a trade union:

It was typical of the new machine age. The sub-division of labour was carried to a fine art, and young boys and girls were brought into the factory to operate the simple processes on ridiculous low wages. I remember Arthur MacManus describing a job he was on, pointing needles. Every morning there were millions of these needles on the table. As fast as he reduced the mountain of needles on the table, a fresh load was dumped. Day in, day out, it never grew less. One morning he came in and found the table empty. He couldn’t understand it. He began telling everyone excitedly that there were no needles on the table. It suddenly flashed on him how absurdly stupid it was to be spending his life like this. Without taking his jacket off, he turned on his heel and went out, to go for a ramble over the hills to Balloch.

The dull, deadening influence of this factory, the unbridled exploitation, etc, was favourable soil for the new ideas of industrial unionism. [22]

In 1906, three or four industrial unionists went to work at Singer’s. Quietly, they began to spread their ideas. Leaflets and pamphlets were published, and The Socialist was sold. Slowly and patiently, propaganda work continued for years. On 29 January 1910, it was thought that sufficient progress had been made to form the Sewing Machine Workers Industrial Union Group. Eighteen people attended the inaugural meeting. From then on, the tempo of development quickened. William Paul, of the SLP, later to be one of the finest orators in the Communist Party, held factory-gate meetings. These continued throughout the summer of 1910, often attended by as many as a thousand workers. Seven dozen copies of The Socialist were regularly sold inside the factory; the sale outside sometimes reached 60 copies. By the end of the year, the Sewing Machine Workers had 150 members. After holding a ballot, they resolved to change their name to the Sewing Machine Group of the IWGB — and to assume the functions of a union.

In 1911, the real conflict occurred at Singer’s. In February, a foreman in No 11 department decided to reorganise a squad of workers and to cut the price for the job. As a rule, workers meekly acquiesced in such changes, but this time the squad of 16 refused. Surprised by the reaction, the foreman quickly reverted to the previous arrangement, and this victory heightened morale. Another 60 joined the IWGB in that department, as well as others elsewhere. On 18 February, a foreman introduced a wage cut of a penny per 100 pieces in department No 10, which would have meant a wage reduction of about 1s 9d a week. The 400 workers in the department, except for about 20 foremen and fitters, immediately stopped work, and only resumed once the proposed wage cut had been withdrawn. Similar victories took place in the cabinet polishing department (No 26) and buffing department (No 16).

Up to then, Singer’s management had generally been successful in implementing its policies. It had deliberately fragmented the labour force, dividing the factory up into 41 departments, which in turn contained sub-groups. The result of this, said a report, had been that a worker ‘does not know what is going on outside the half dozen or so immediately alongside him’.

In an effort to overcome this disunity, the IWGB adopted what was then a new, but is now a well-established, procedure. In every department where it had members, it set up a ‘shop committee’, to whom every grievance occurring throughout the department was reported. Then, above this, ‘there was the General Committee of the Industrial Union Group, comprising representatives of Industrialists throughout the whole factory’. [23] With what was in effect a ‘shop-stewards’ committee’, the IWGB continued to make progress. In his memoirs, Tom Bell describes what happened:

The membership began to increase, and from a handful of enthusiasts it jumped to hundreds and soon touched four thousand members in Singer’s alone. Shop grievances were taken up. From small successes the influence of the organisation grew and spread to every department. The slogan of ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ caught on. Simple shop disputes became departmental issues. Each shop appointed its delegate to the Department Committees, and these were linked up through a Works Committee. [24]

Bell’s account probably needs more qualification. According to the statement ‘The Kilbowie Strike and Its Lessons’, published by the Singer Sewing Machine Group, IWGB, its membership was only 1500 — not 4000 as Bell suggests — when the employers’ offensive began. It may be that, in the course of the struggle, the number rose to 4000 for a short time, but these were simply transient members. Another weakness of the IWGB’s organisation was that, although it did have representatives from all departments, most of its support lay in four departments. It is not surprising, therefore, that Singer’s should decide to inflict a damaging blow while the IWGB’s support still remained within manageable proportions.

An incident on 11 March 1911 sparked off the conflict. A foreman in No 26 department sacked a woman for not working hard enough. This was declared by the No 26 shop committee to be victimisation, and 37 out of the 41 departments downed tools in support. Subsequently, the IWGB admitted that this had not been anticipated:

This development had not been foreseen by the IWGB... and the IWGB Committee could not effectively or honestly act as representatives of a body of strikers of whom only a tiny fraction were Industrial Unionists. [25]

So the IWGB proposed that a strike committee be formed, with five representatives from each department, which meant that the IWGB right away became a small minority on the committee:

The IWGB cannot, as an organisation, claim whatever credit or blame attaches to this body of delegates. While this is so, however, the IWGB is proud to have been associated with such a Strike Committee. Its whole conduct of the strike, its spirit, courage, vigour and unanimity, were in line with the best traditions, the finest qualities of the working class. Mistakes there may have been; it is easy to be wise after the event, but the general management of the strike by this Committee is beyond all praise.

But the Strike Committee, however capable, could not have done what they did had they not been supported by men and women of proper stuff. It succeeded, where it did succeed, because it was, in a true sense, representative of the strikers. [26]

The majority of those who had come out had never been in a trade union, let alone been on strike before. But they maintained complete solidarity, displaying enthusiasm and self-discipline, particularly at their public meetings:

In these demonstrations, the workers gathered on a large field near the factory, forming themselves into regiments according to their departments and marched, each department showing its number and with several bands in attendance, right into the factory and, after receiving the wages due to them, marched out again. The magnitude of such a demonstration can be imagined when we consider it took almost half an hour to pass a given point. [27]

The demonstration held on 1 April was especially memorable. Thousands of strikers, each one behind a departmental banner, marched through the cheering streets of Clydebank. The Glasgow Evening News declared: ‘Never before in the history of this burgh have there been more stirring scenes than those that presented themselves on the streets this morning.’ [28]

Confronted with this challenge, Singer’s management behaved astutely. When it judged the time to be right, it decided to hold a ballot. Each employee received a card, which he had to return to the company within 24 hours, saying whether he wished to return to work or to continue the dispute. At once, this put the strike committee at a disadvantage. It did not have the names and addresses of all the strikers, who lived over a wide area; there was no way of contacting them.

The ballot was being taken in circumstances highly unfavourable to the strike committee. Local newspapers went out of their way to put Singer’s case, and the threat of extensive redundancy being made, workers feared, if they filled in the papers ‘the wrong way’, they would be marked men. Since the management was conducting the whole thing, not only might the company keep the voting slips as a record, to be used when selecting those for the sack, but also there was no guarantee that it would add the figures up correctly. Most of the militants did not even receive ballot forms. So, in these circumstances, the strike committee resolved to issue an appeal asking everyone to disregard the ballot, to send their ballot papers back to the strike committee and not to Singer’s. The company said it received 6527 votes calling for a resumption of work; the strike committee had 4025 cards sent to it. The use of a ballot sent to each employee, a new procedure in British industrial relations, aroused a comment from John Maclean:

I think this referendum is clever because it appeals to the individual in the quiet of his home, and because it enables the firm to deal with each unit separately. If all workers were class-conscious socialists, this method would fail, but as they are not it tends to succeed. And perhaps even tried socialists would yield for a time or two. [29]

Singer’s management was equally cute over the resumption of work. It said there would be no victimisation, but, due to the slackness of trade, it would be some time before all could be re-employed. By singular coincidence, all the strike leaders were among those who were promised employment sometime in the indefinite future. The company, being multinational, could manoeuvre to keep production low at the Kilbowie plant. It deliberately increased its imports from elsewhere — it had factories in the United States, Russia and Germany — and it put workers at Elizabeth Port, New Jersey, on overtime. As the other side to this operation, Singer’s management went out of its way to be kind to the workers it decided to re-engage, and even gave some wage increases. In this manner, it drove a wedge between those it intended to employ and those it was determined should stay on the streets.

The effect on people who had been prominent in the strike was devastating. Clydebank SLP, which had 27 members, 22 of whom had worked at Singer’s factory, later admitted: ‘They have been practically all cleared out.’ [30] Many others received the same treatment. But, ironically, the company’s desire to wipe out militancy had precisely the opposite effect. Regarding agitators as a deadly virus, it sought to deny them employment. But this did not mean that they would always be out of work. Eventually they found jobs elsewhere — and so the virus was spread along the Clyde.

Bell, in his autobiography, recalls predicting that this would be the result:

I remember addressing a large meeting in the Cooperative Hall after the strike, and referring to the dismissals declared: ‘If the firm imagined by dismissing the active workers in the IWGB they would stop the growth of our movement, they would be deceiving themselves. Every man dismissed would become the nucleus of a group of industrial unionists that would spring up all over the Clyde.’ This forecast proved to be fulfilled to an even greater degree than I had anticipated, for soon afterwards the war was to reveal in the Clyde Workers Committee movement shop stewards in factory after factory who had once been at Singer’s. [31]

In her life of John MacLean, Nan Milton makes the same point:

This strike [Singer’s] had one very important result. The leaders of the strike, most of them SLPers, were distributed throughout various shops in the Clyde area. Instead of their influence being diminished, as had been hoped, it was spread over a much wider area. Much more significant, however, was that when industrial revolts of wartime grew, these revolutionary socialists occupied strategic positions throughout the whole Clyde district. [32]

Perhaps even Milton and Bell fail fully to grasp the significance of the Singer’s strike. True, men of the calibre of Arthur MacManus had been scattered throughout Clydeside. But much more important than this was that they carried with them the ideas and methods of activity that they had developed at Kilbowie. From Singer’s, there came vital lessons on organisational questions which were applied in the industrial battles of the First World War. It may be no accident that the Clyde Workers Committee was the first committee of its type to be formed in the whole of Britain. It also appears to have been the industrial area with the greatest number of shop stewards, and where probably they exerted the most influence.

Contrasts tend to be instructive. In a single Glasgow factory — Parkhead Forge — there were 60 shop stewards functioning by 1915, whereas, according to JT Murphy, in Sheffield there were only the same number by 1916. In other words, one factory had as many shop stewards as did an entire city. [33] Nor did it end there. In many respects, Clydeside and Tyneside were similar — centres of heavy engineering and shipbuilding, greatly expanded during the 1914-18 war — and it might be reasonable to expect developments along similar lines. But this was not so: on the Tyne shop-stewards’ organisation remained at a very elementary level. In 1919, Lyall J Watson, writing in The Worker, bemoaned this fact:

True, there are a number of sectional shop-stewards’ committees, confined to their respective trade unions, but committees of the type of the Clyde Workers Committee do not exist, and it is due to this lack of coordination that the present unfortunate impasse on the Tyne has occurred. [34]

Watson went on to say that there was no central shop-stewards’ committee, linking up with the workers elsewhere, and that union officials had sought to exploit sectionalism. In the following issue of The Worker, A Bartram confirmed this point, attributing the defeat that the Tyne boilermakers had just suffered to divisions within the working class.

Perhaps one of the factors that influenced some of the Clydeside militants, making them wish to break down the sectional barriers, was their experience at Kilbowie — as well as at Argyle Motors, Alexandria, and Scotstoun — where they gained some inkling of how powerful workers can be when they are really united. The Singer’s strike may have been a short-term catastrophe; in the long term it looked more like a victory. The cruel sackings of 1911 appear, at least to some degree, to have contributed to the creation of the Clyde Workers Committee of 1915.


1. The Socialist, March 1908; Industrial Unionist, December 1908.

2. The Socialist, March 1908.

3. The Socialist, March 1908.

4. New Report to Second Conference of the British Advocates of Industrial Unionism.

5. Eugene Burdick, Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism in Britain until 1918, Volume 2 (Oxford PhD thesis, 1950), pp 81-84; and DM Chewter, History of the Socialist Labour Party of Great Britain 1902-1921 With Special Reference to the Development of its Ideas (BLitt thesis, Oxford, 1965), pp 70-86.

6. Frank Budgen, Myselves When Young (Oxford, 1970), pp 92-93.

7. The Socialist, April 1908.

8. Ben Tillett, Is the Parliamentary Labour Party a Failure? (London, 1908), p 8.

9. Reg Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (London, 1975), p 65; Hansard, 2 November 1908.

10. W Thompson, The Life of Victor Grayson (Sheffield, 1910), p 145.

11. The Syndicalist, March-April 1912.

12. The Socialist, May 1912.

13. RM Fox, Smoky Crusade (London, 1938), p 136.

14. EJB Allen, Revolutionary Unionism (London, 1908), pp 13-14.

15. The Socialist, April 1912.

16. EJB Allen, Revolutionary Unionism (London, 1908), p 13.

17. The Socialist, January 1911.

18. Daily Herald, 30 May 1912.

19. The Syndicalist, February 1913.

20. The Socialist, January 1913.

21. Glasgow IWGB, What’s the Best Form of Organisation? (leaflet, 1912).

22. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), pp 72-73.

23. IWGB Singer Sewing Machine Group, The Kilbowie Strike and Its Lessons (leaflet, 1911).

24. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 73.

25. IWGB Singer Sewing Machine Group, The Kilbowie Strike and Its Lessons (leaflet, 1911), p 2.

26. IWGB Singer Sewing Machine Group, The Kilbowie Strike and Its Lessons (leaflet, 1911), p 2.

27. IWGB Singer Sewing Machine Group, The Kilbowie Strike and Its Lessons (leaflet, 1911), p 2.

28. Glasgow Evening News, 1 April 1910.

29. Justice, 7 April 1911.

30. The Socialist, June 1911.

31. Thomas Bell, Pioneering Days (London, 1941), p 75.

32. Nan Milton, John Maclean (Bristol, 1973), p 53.

33. JT Murphy’s article in The Socialist, 5 July 1919; Report of Labour Party Committee investigating Clyde Deportations, p 11.

34. The Worker, 8 March 1919.