Reform or Revolution?

Speech given on September 14 2017 in Bristol.


The British Labour Movement and the Lessons of History:                                                                                  

A Pattern Of British History?

Over the course of the last three centuries, a clearly observable pattern of swinging from industrial action to parliamentary action exists throughout the history of the working class. This is inextricably interlaced with a constant tension between the idea that these swings should be mediated by the application of a strategy of reformism or one of revolutionism. Whilst the latter has mostly been in the minority, there are periods when we have seen revolutionary tendencies mushroom to great importance.  The key lesson from this variable pattern is the need for parliamentary representation to work hand-in-hand with extra-parliamentary action.

The failure of the 1832 Reform Act to bring any benefit to the working class contributed to the development of trade union struggle in the succeeding years, which was truncated by legal repression. Later in the decade, the Chartist movement fought against the harsh exploitation of early capitalism by putting forward demands exclusively in terms of parliamentary reform.

This movement, the first mass workers’ party in the world, according to Engels, was cast into two wings, the physical and the moral force elements, or revolutionary and evolutionary. The British labour movement has wrestled with this tension ever since. 


The British Empire And Trades Union Growth

The 1860s saw developing pressure from the unions for safety, contractual and trade union legislation, along with the further extension of the franchise, which was followed by significant social reforms. In 1868 the TUC was formed and its executive was known as the Parliamentary Committee. Whilst the 1869 Labour Representation League had the sole objective of promoting the registration of working men as voters and to secure the return of workers to Parliament; trades union MPs were little more than a wing of the Liberal Party.

It’s not often acknowledged that both Marx and Engels not only wrote about deep theoretical questions, as long-term `asylum seekers’ in Britain, they also observed and participated in our labour movement. Engels was able to see for himself the development of mass trades unionism in Britain late in the 19th century and learnt important lessons from this. Only a short while before he died, Engels wrote of the British unions that they were a “sleeping giant”, slow to rouse but powerfully ferocious when on the rampage. He had seen an early form of this half a century before in Manchester; workers could not attack the existing order of society at “any sorer point than this”. But even in 1844, he thought that: “Something more is needed than unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class.”


Trade Unions as Schools of War

No-one admired the British trade union movement more than Engels. “As schools of war they are unexcelled”. The French, with their revolutionary tradition had it easy, for “what is death … in comparison with gradual starvation” in the massive and solid strikes of the British working class. Surely, he thought, a people that can endure so much “to bend one single bourgeoise will be able to break the power of the whole bourgeoisie”.

Marx posed the historical significance of trade union struggle sharply in his `The Poverty of Philosophy’. (The title of this work was a pun on a dreadful anarchistic thing called the `Philosophy of Poverty’!) Here the argument was that a rise in wages merely put up prices and strikes were a blind alley. But for Marx, while trades unionism could take on a political character in the “veritable civil war” for higher wages, the notion that it could just be hitched up to the revolutionary wagon was dismissed as naïve ultra-leftism. 

On the other side of the spectrum, right-leaning theorists in Germany twisted Marx’s economic thinking and put forward the notion of the `iron law of wages’. In essence this suggested that workers could never improve their lot no matter what they did; only winning elections could help. (Sounds familiar!) Marx countered that capitalism did operate a physical minimum, which kept workers alive, but that a social element also existed that reflected the balance of power between capital and labour – strikes could make a difference, for a while at least. To make the most of this, we needed unions that were mass in character, not semi-political revolutionary organisations.

But, in `Value, Price and Profit’ Marx wrote that even if unions “work well as centres of resistance” they “fail generally by limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system”. In addition to their original tasks, trade unions needed to become “focal points for the organisation of the working class”, to rally around them even workers still outside of their ranks. Collective agreements won by unions from employers could “only be considered a truce” and whilst unions needed to act politically, Marx fought against piling unions and workers’ political parties into one heap. The aims might be the same but specific methods of working towards this needed to be recognised. 


British Socialism – Theory And Practice

Some of this theoretical analysis touched the rising workers’ movement in Britain. In the first half of the 1880s, socialism began to take root. The best known of the early organisations was the Democratic Federation, founded in 1881. By 1884 it had adopted a socialist programme and become the Social Democratic Federation. In 1888, Keir Hardie stood unsuccessfully as an independent third-party candidate in a by-election in Mid-Lanark. His role in the eventually successful effort to establish an independent party appealing to working-class interests and with substantial trade union support was very considerable indeed but at the outset he did not proclaim a clear socialist message.

His Scottish Labour Party was not a major force and was eventually overtaken by the formation of the Independent Labour Party in January 1893 in Bradford. First and fore most this was to be a party independent of the Liberals and Conservatives. It included in its programme a range of demands of direct and immediate concern to workers, including an eight-hour day and the abolition of sweated and child labour. This was a historic step forward, albeit that the socialist message was vague and not a single national trade union was involved.

In 1899 both the Scottish TUC and the British TUC adopted resolutions calling for new efforts to secure an increased number of (small `L’) labour MPs. The TUC decision was passed by a far from unanimous vote of 546,000 to 434,000. The successful resolution called upon the cooperative, socialist, trade union and other workers’ organisations to join in convening a special congress ‘to devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next Parliament’ and this became the Labour Representation Committee. 

The decisive factor came not from debate on ideology but from the Taff Vale railway strike of 1900. The House of Lords held that the funds of the main railway union were liable for damages arising out of a strike of its members. The uncertainty impelled unions into demanding more say in parliament and, at the 1906 elections, no less than 30 labour members were elected and there were also 24 successful trade union candidates, who fought as Lib-Labs.

The 13 SDF, or otherwise outright socialist candidates, who fought independently were all defeated. The SDF withdrew from the LRC in August 1910 and thus isolated itself from a growing number of unions. Despite its sectarianism, the SDF helped to train many who played an outstanding part in the development of the labour movement.

Among the rank-and-file of the SDF there was a significant body of opinion at various times in favour of unity with the ILP. In 1911 the SDF’s successor organisation, the Social Democratic Party, was joined by a breakaway group from the ILP and many independent socialists to form the British Socialist Party. After an internal faction fight against chauvinism, the Marxist BSP affiliated to the Labour Party in 1916. It was not until 1918 that the Labour Party finally formally asserted its socialist commitment. The Russian revolutions of 1917 had opened a new era in world history. But the Communist Party, partially formed from much of the BSP was denied the right to affiliate.

QUESTION: How different and how alike is the Labour Party today than from when it was first founded? What implications are there for Communists in this?

1917-26: a zenith of class struggle and how relations between the Labour Party and the Communist Party are set for the future

In October 1925, the Labour Party conference rejected the Communist Party’s application for affiliation and confirmed that its members could neither represent their unions in Labour Party organisations or be individual members. This was a signal to the Tory government. A few days later it arrested 12 Communist leaders on a charge of “seditious conspiracy”. Five were sentenced to a year in prison and the others to six months, to keep them out of the battle to come.

Far from being intimidated, the party’s activities intensified. Its press circulation grew and new members were made. Above all, it worked to get the movement to prepare for the next round of struggle, warning again and again that the government was determined on a showdown with the miners when coal subsidies expired in May 1926. The employers were well-prepared for the contest, but the right-wing TUC general council made no plans. Rank-and-file pressure forced the decision for a general strike in support of the miners, locked-out for their refusal to submit to a wage cut. The nine days of the General Strike by more than three million workers uniting in tremendous class solidarity and initiative, in which Communists played an outstanding role, were among the most glorious in British working class history.

Well in advance, the Communist Party had initiated the call for Councils of Action. They were set up in many areas, representing the whole working class movement, organising picketing, co-ordinating activities, issuing publicity materials and in some cases controlling transport. The Party issued a strike sheet, the Workers Bulletin, reaching a circulation of 200,000. Over 1,000 Communists were arrested out of a total of some 2,500 arrests. One result of the party’s contribution to the struggle was a big increase in its membership from 5,000 before the strike to 10,000 by September 1926.

But its influence was not great enough to prevent the betrayal by right-wing leaders, who called off the strike when it was strongest and closest to victory, without any concessions to the miners who battled on alone for a further seven months. Communists continued to fight for solidarity with the miners, campaigning for a levy on wages to give them financial support and for an embargo on the transport of coal. Whilst the titanic struggle came to a tragic end, it stimulated the demand for dispossession of the private coal owners of the mines, which finally became irresistible. It was Welsh Communist miners’ leader Arthur Horner who wrote: “If there had been no ’26, there would not have been such a tremendous feeling for nationalisation after the Second World War.”

Contrasting this to the growth of Blairism, or New Labour, 20 to 25 years ago, this did seem to represent something quite different than traditional right wing reformism. But an ideological stance in that party that jettisons class analysis is not new. The viciousness of the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party in the last year or two points to that.

QUESTION: To what extent have the changes of the past nine decades affected the character of the Labour Party. For some time, many wondered if Labour was doomed as a workers’ party. Some even campaigned for a new workers’ party.  Is it simply the character of one man that has brought about change, so that Labour might be projected as a possible vehicle for a shift in the direction of socialism?

1926-45: Class Collaboration or Class Struggle?

Back in the 1920s, for the Communist Party, the lesson of the General Strike and was the need to strengthen the unions, to step up the fight against collaboration, to work for a new leadership of the labour movement and to build and strengthen the Party itself. For the right-wing, the lesson was “never again.” They had not wanted the strike, had been pushed into it and called it off as soon as possible; Communists now had to be removed. So, the Labour leadership set about a great purge of the Communists and the left in the Labour Party. This led to a reactive opposition from Communists, a left turn that some have in retrospect decried but which was unavoidable and actually led to a growth in Party membership.

With Communists pushed to the edges of the labour movement, a Communist-Labour left-unity “National Left Wing Movement” began in June 1928 with the conclusion that the Labour Party was “no longer a working class party but a party representing all sections of the community”. Communists now organised unemployed workers’ activity around Labour Exchanges, fought benefit cases on behalf of the jobless and mobilised for the great marches of the South Wales miners in 1927, the Scottish unemployed march in 1928 and the national Hunger Marches of 1929, 1930, 1932, and 1936, all predating the establishment admired Jarrow March of that latter year.

They also pioneered the campaign for colonial liberation at a time when a quarter of the world’s population were living under British rule in a vast Empire. British Communists, sent to India to help build the trade unions, were jailed for conspiracy in the famous Meerut Trial of 1929-33. The young Will Paynter got four months in jail for his part in an anti-British Empire demonstration, and 20-year old John Gollan, later the party’s general secretary, got six months for anti-militarist activities.

In 1931, when the bankers demanded a 10% cut in unemployment benefit, the Labour government split. Its leaders, MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas, went over to the Tories and Liberals to form a National Government, another betrayal which had a devastating effect on the Labour movement.  That decade, British Communists’ leading role in building militant rank-and-file movements among engineering workers, railwaymen, miners and London bus crews, strengthened the party’s industrial base, all described by Harry Pollitt in 1935 as “a revolution within the party”. 

Working In A Mass Way in The 20th Century To Build The Mass Party

The fight against fascism and war became dominant and the Communist Party built mass opposition to Fascism. Its finest hour was in October 1936 when Mosley’s attempt to stage a march through East London, well-protected by masses of police, was crushed in the historic Battle of Cable Street. Right-wing advice was to ignore the fascists and keep away from anti-fascist activity. The Communist response, that retreat before fascist aggressiveness only increased its appetite, was proved again and again.

The struggle in Spain became the focal point of the fight against fascism, and millions of people in Britain rallied in solidarity while the right-wing Labour leadership adopted a policy of ‘non-intervention’. The Aid for Spain movement, in which Communists played a leading role, was organised on a national scale for sending medical supplies and food ships. Of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, composed of 1,500 volunteers, about half were Communists, as were half of the 533 who were killed.

The labour movement’s official leadership rejected all Communist approaches for united action, and indeed intensified its anti-Communist campaign by banning Party members from being delegates to Trades Councils. Communist policy and leadership attracted many people who were deeply concerned about the drive to war. By 1939, Daily Worker circulation had grown to over 40,000 daily, with a weekend average of nearly 80,000. The party’s membership reached nearly 18,000 just before the war. During the war, Communists led the fight for adequate air raid protection and led the building of a powerful shop stewards’ organisation and Party membership more than doubled. At the spring 1945 Labour Party conference, the Engineering Union sponsored the proposal to allow Communist affiliation, registering the closest vote ever recorded on such an issue, losing only by vote of 1.3 million to 1.2 million. 

Anticipating Britain’s Road to Socialism, Harry Pollitt now wrote that “despite years of bitter experience … the working class does not spontaneously develop a political, socialist consciousness out of separate or even out of a series of struggles or campaigns.” (Challenge to Labour, p. 42.)  

Politics, he argued, is not rhetoric, or revolutionary nostalgia. It is the essence of life. It’s all the things going on in peoples’ lives about work and study, housing and health, both physical and mental, domestic violence and equal treatment.  What is the point of the Communist Party, he asked? It is surely to provide:

(i)  socialist consciousness and understanding

(ii) leadership in all struggles

(iii) an organisation for those working people capable of carrying out these two tasks.

A mass Party does not necessarily mean a massive Party, though it would clearly be much bigger than at present. Working in a mass way is the key.  Leadership can only be won if it is deserved, Pollitt says: “The leading role of the Communist Party does not come of itself, it has to be won in action.” [Britain Arise, page 32] To do this, Communists need to be linked inseparably with the mass of working people.

QUESTION: Which of these three things do we manage reasonably well today?  Has Communist Renewal, in terms of Marxist education, helped?  What can we do, if mass leadership does not come automatically, or by planning it, or just from wanting it, or talking about it, or telling Party organisations and members they must look to themselves and do better. If after a long period of failing to renew our work in mass organisations, our Party’s connections to the world of work are now small and fast diminishing, what can we do about it?

The 1945 Labour Government And The Post-War Era

A few weeks later, at the 1945 general election, a Labour government was swept into power by a landslide victory. The Communist Party’s 1945 congress noted that unless Labour changed its foreign policy, “which is simply the continuation of the imperialist line of the Tory Party and the reactionary monopoly capitalists there can be no fundamental social progress in Britain”. 

Needless to say, Labour:

➢ waged colonial wars in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus,

➢ supported the US war in Korea, the French war in Vietnam and the Dutch war in Indonesia.

➢ joined the NATO cold war drive,

➢ backed West German rearmament,

➢ turned Britain into a US bomber base,

➢ and fought for its own nuclear weapons

The consequence was chronic economic crisis, wage restraint, cuts in living standards and the social services that led to a Tory comeback at the 1951 general election and 13 years of Tory rule with prices, rents and profits rocketing amidst the ever-present menace of nuclear war. Communists influence in the labour movement helped play a decisive part in the intensive struggles of the late 60s and early 70s that released the Pentonville 5, supported the UCS work-in and waged the successful miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. Out of the experience gained in these struggles came the development of a left alternative economic and political strategy.

Labour’s 1973 programme reflected the mass struggles by urging ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of the working people’. But first the Wilson and then the Callaghan governments pursued a course which placed the burdens of resolving the chronic crisis of British capitalism on working people.

QUESTION 4:   The Cold War was accompanied by a determination by Britain to hold on to its Empire as long as it could. What experiences showed that a Marxist analysis of Britain’s role in the world was not accepted by the majority of the labour movement in the 1950s and 1960s? What was the experience of the progressive movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s and what lessons are there for today?

1968-72 – The Zenith Of Modern Day Class Struggle

As Britain revisited its role in the world under a Labour government in the 1970s, new challenges arose. Not only was there a decision to join what was then the European Common Market, the Social Contract of 1974-1979 saw an attempt by the state to centrally control rates of bargaining.  This did not see calls for disaffiliation but a struggle to oppose policy. But ideological confusion about the nature of the labour movement, the role of the State and strategies for the future was by no mean confined to the Labour Party. Major theoretical ambiguity set in during this period even in the Communist Party. The term anti-monopoly alliance in the Party’s strategic programme was replaced by broad democratic alliance, on the assurance to congress by the executive committee that its main content was intended to be anti-monopoly. After that, revisionists in the Party increasingly presented its notion of alliances as a unity of single issue new social forces, which were said to have no basis in class society or class interests. The labour movement was treated as no more than just another movement, and not the leading force in struggle. Not surprisingly, Party membership began to crumble even before the fractious period of the 1980s saw it slide to destruction.

The Thatcher `revolution’ undermined the traditional base of the labour movement and this affected the unions, Labour, and the CP/MS in similar ways. 30 years of defeat has moulded the class to react in muted ways.  A picture of demoralisation need not be elaborated upon.  

21st Century Socialism?

So, where are we now? The majority of large unions remain affiliated to Labour; unions such as the PCS, the NUJ and NUT are not affiliated and never have been. RMT has been disaffiliated for allowing its branches to affiliate to political parties other than Labour and FBU has voluntarily left, in circumstances that hardly suggest a strategic plan. Some are now coming back, or considering it. The overwhelming bulk of the unions stayed solidly for the ‘reclaim’ Labour course, largely because they sensed that ‘new’ Labour is a clique with few roots in the party. Indeed, the level of Labour Party membership and activity in the Noughties was so low that in fact the balance of power shifted towards affiliated unions.

Even the PLP right, so desperate to remain in the EU and NATO accept that the electoral system works against new formations, indeed the founding of the Labour Party was itself in the shadow of the Liberal Party and, in the shape of the IER Manifesto, we have our own version of the response to Taff Vale.

Even as some Communists decamp to Labour, a process we saw in the early 80s as Tony Benn challenged the leadership, Labour displays its greatest weakness. Undoubtedly its denial of the importance of theory, even if its greatest strength is mass, if rather strained, loyalty. Invariably, which side of the pendulum swing Labour is at has (parliament versus extra-parliamentary action; reform versus revolution) has always depended on the level of union confidence and militancy.

We have been, over the past ten years, is the midst of debate amongst professors of industrial relations as to what part of these cycles we are currently at. In Britain, our difficulty is that anti-union laws cloud the picture. The universal application of strike ballots created a situation where employers and unions test the water and employers cave in if they feel a sufficiently strong indication that a strike will occur. Unions also reach for non-striking forms of industrial action. Some struggles have faded because an alternative exists, closures and lay-offs for example; workers judge their attitude on the basis of how good the package is. None of these indications will feature in official records. But who is to say that a relative return to militancy has not already happened but is masked by other factors.

It may seem optimistic to ask how trade unionism can be harnessed to revolutionary ambitions. But it is how gains are won and losses conceded, and how the inter-mix is generally perceived, that determines whether unions can act in a political or revolutionary way. The gains or losses in themselves are perhaps in historical terms of limited significance. At root, the potential for change is intimately related to the requirement that organised workers translate their sectional consciousness into a collective consciousness. Organised workers, with or without trade union bureaucracies are quite capable of discovering (once again!) rank-and-file militancy. But revolutionaries cannot be satisfied with spontaneity.

Without socialist consciousness, workers inevitably end up “solving” their problems within the existing system, on the terms of the existing system. Revolutionaries have an obligation to contract into the mass movement, since the spontaneous struggle of the workers will not become class struggle unless it is channelled by an organisation of revolutionaries. Unions can indeed be “schools of war”, as Engels had it. Our concern has to be how we start the school year, at a time when the trade union movement restricts itself to “realistic” struggle.

Industrial militancy is by no means a thing of the past, but ebbs and flows with the tide of boom and slump. Strike waves generally occur at the conjunction of such economic changes, either as workers strive to hang onto gains or struggle to achieve them. Only if unions can be won to act in tandem with a mass socialist movement can we contemplate progress to substantive demands of the movement. Hence, the question of how we can locate a renewed confidence of the left within the trade unions as an integral part of a reconstituted left in the political sphere assumes central importance.

Strikes are at an all-time low and unions have recently experienced the biggest membership drop since 1995, losing 275,000 members last year to slip to 6.2 million.  Union leaders blamed the loss of “good-quality jobs”, cuts to the public-sector workforce, and the rise of the gig economy for the 4.2% drop. Union membership fell in private firms by 66,000, to 2.6 million, and in the public sector by 209,000, to 3.6 million.

In this context, some final questions for discussion:

Is the Labour Party simply a capitalist party?

How could Communists be actively engaged with the Labour Party?

How should we attempt to build a bridge to the Labour left?

Should trade unionists pay the political levy?

How should political funds of union be used and controlled?

Should we fight for trade unions to affiliate from the Labour Party and if so, which ones?