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Alastair Hatchett

Guide to Reading

On the Rank & File Movement 1910-1926

(April 1977)

All our hopes and revolutionary aspirations are based on the possibility of the total overthrow of International capitalism. We are engaged in the building of a revolutionary party as the nerve centre and co-ordinator of the struggle. Not a party superimposed from above, but made up of workers everywhere building the fighting bodies of a workers’ movement.

In all revolutionary struggles, shop-floor and locally based workers’ committees, workers’ councils and Soviets have been fighting bodies in the struggle for workers’ power; from Russia in 1917 to Portugal 1975. The years between 1910-1926 provided crucial experience of such rank and file organisation in Britain. What should be read on this subject? Preparing for Power by Jack Murphy (Pluto £2.00) covers the ground that many revolutionary workers fought over between the syndicalist unrest of 1910-1914 and the Minority Movement 1924-1929. Murphy, an engineering worker, was a national leader of the shop steward and workers’ committee movement during the 1st World War and was among those who helped found the Communist Party in 1921.

To recreate a picture of the continuity of struggles over this generation start with Bob Holton’s British Syndicalism 1910-1914 (Pluto £2.95). Holton describes the outburst of rank and file revolt against both the employers and the growing trade union bureaucracy; the demands for union democracy and workers’ control; and the syndicalist ideas of transforming trade unions into revolutionary organisations.

With the onset of war the story is taken up in James Hinton’s The First Shop Stewards’ Movement (Bookmarx club and George Allen and Unwin). Hinton examines the engineering workers’ revolt against the increasingly repressive wartime state and the weak-kneed collaboration with the Government of the trade union leaders. The shop stewards and workers’ committee movement built by the engineers became the central instrument in the fight back. Also read J.T. Murphy, The Workers’ Committee (Pluto Pamphlet 20p). This movement goes rapidly beyond the out-moded ideas of syndicalism. The agency of revolutionary change was now seen to be workshop organisation, cutting across union sectionalism and linking shop stewards between the factories and across the country.

The impact of the Russian Revolution crystallised the need for both the building of a revolutionary party and the building of Soviets. Hinton discusses this in his final chapters. Hugo Dewar starts his Communist Politics in Britain (Pluto £1.80) with the British revolutionaries facing up to these tasks. From the Second Congress of the Communist International came a threefold industrial strategy for the new Communist Party. First, communists should work within existing reformist unions to turn them into ‘efficient organs for the suppression of capitalism’; second, they should build, lead and politicize factory committees; third, they should work to build a revolutionary trade union international. Independent organisation of the rank and file was needed ‘to fight the counter-revolutionary tendencies of the trade union bureaucracy, and to support the spontaneous direct action of the proletariat’. How the British Communist Party attempted and subsequently failed to carry out these tasks is discussed by Hugo Dewar, and also by James Hinton and Richard Hyman in Trade Unions and Revolution (Pluto 90p) which focusses on the role of the National Minority Movement and the CP in the General Strike. Trade Unions and Revolution is a controversial book and should be read together with Duncan Hallas’s review in International Socialism 88. For a right wing but detailed study of the Minority Movement you can read R Martin Communism and the British Trade Unions 1924-1933 (Oxford Univ. Press £4.50).

The CP today have disowned this formative period of their history. It is no longer their history, but ours. And one of our tasks is to learn from it.

Further Reading:

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Last updated: 1.3.2008