The first shop stewards’ movement: From proletarian response to trade unionist obstacle

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A hundred years ago the world was plunged into the cataclysm of World War I, a vast inter-imperialist conflict in which 20 million died. During the war there were many workers’ struggles that went against the spirit of national defence. In Britain the Shop Stewards movement originally appeared as an expression of these struggles, but because they never broke from the trade union framework, they were subsequently integrated into the apparatus for controlling the working class. The article that follows was first published in WR 4 in August 1975. Written nearly forty years ago there are inevitably some formulations that we would now qualify, change or omit, but we are republishing it as it first appeared because its essential argument remains as valid as ever.


The aim of this article is to clarify the revolutionary experience of the proletariat in relation to the trade unions. One of the crucial political positions of the International Communist Current is that the trade unions, in the epoch of capitalist decadence, have amply proven their reactionary, anti-working class nature. Their support for imperialist wars and their sabotage of revolutionary upsurges, and other genuine struggles of the class, has made plain their place as a wing of the bourgeoisie.

In Britain, the shop stewards’ movement, composed of rank and file trade union delegates may seem to represent a progressive alternative to the unions as a whole.  To deepen an understanding of the real nature of the shop stewards, we must lay the basis for examining the apparent contradiction between them and the rest of the trade union apparatus.

We can best do this by looking at the growth of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement (SS&WCM) during World War I, when it played a part in the waves of revolutionary struggle sweeping Europe from 1917 to 1923.  We must also briefly see its role in the subsequent counter­revolutionary period, which has lasted until today’s re-awakening of proletarian revolt.

Historical period and class struggle

It is first of all necessary to briefly examine the precise historical period in which the SS&WCM arose. World War I marked the definitive end of the ascendant epoch of capitalism; the finish of the progressive expansion of world capitalism, and the beginning of cycles of imperialist wars and reconstruction periods, which demonstrated that capitalism was now a decadent social system.

The tempo and character of class struggle changed in response to the closure of the ascendant period.  Mass strikes occurred in Russia in 1905, and in Germany and other countries, in the decades preceding World War I.  This indicated that the protracted sectional and reformist workers’ struggles of the ascendant period were over.  The working class struggle started to break out of its factory confines, and began to confront the· capitalist system as a whole.  The massacre of millions of proletarians in World War I, plus the rapid disintegration of working class living standards, accelerated the deepening class struggle into direct revolutionary outbursts throughout .Europe. They reached their highest point in October 1917 in Russia, where the class captured power through the soviets under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Other revolutions for example those in Hungary and Germany, proved abortive, and the revolution in Russia remained isolated, thus preventing the urgent extension, world-wide, of proletarian power. The Russian Revolution degenerated as a result and the Russian regime became itself integrated into capitalist decadence. All the waves of the period were bloodily crushed and for more that fifty years the class had paid dearly for the continuance of capitalist barbarism, from which it is only starting to recover today.

In Britain, the revolutionary waves of 1917-23 found a substantial reverberation. From 1910 onwards an unprecedented period of working class struggle began. In 1910-11 the Cambrian Combine Strike occurred, involving 26,000 miners, to which the bourgeoisie responded with the use of troops. The militancy of merchant seamen in 1911 sparked off a strike by railway workers, bringing out 250,000 men in total. The Dublin Transport Strike of 1913-14 attracted sympathy strikes in Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham. Altogether between January and July 1914, 9,105,800 working days were lost through strikes. The class struggle regained this intense militancy following a brief lull at the outbreak of World War I caused by the national patriotism in the class. In March 1915, 200,000 mineworkers struck illegally in defence of their living standards, and in 1916 an unofficial strike in Sheffield against conscription was successful. In May 1917, the most significant strike wave of the war erupted in opposition to the effects of imperialist carnage which involved at its climax 200 thousand engineering workers. The Clyde workers in 1919 staged a massive revolt in their attempt to secure a 40-hour week.

But the end of the ascendant period and the era of class struggle associated with it, which these and other struggles inaugurated, also demanded a change in the tactics and organisation previously adopted by the proletariat. The establishment of trade unions had originally been fought for by workers in order to defend and improve their conditions of life within the capitalist system. However, toward the end of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth century the impasse facing world capitalism increasingly prevented the trade unions from achieving any real reforms on behalf of the workers. The unions were, as institutions, forced more and more to identify their interests with those of the bourgeoisie in opposition to the heightening revolutionary aspirations of the proletariat. The growing bureaucratisation of the trade unions, in response to capitalist decadence, accelerated the divorce between the trade unions and the proletariat. The mass workers’ parties, linked to the trade unions, and similarly dedicated to reformism, as expressed in the minimum programme, represented the proletariat within the institutions of the bourgeoisie, (particularly parliament), gave support to the decaying capitalist system against the deepening struggle of the working class.

In Britain, this capitulation to capitalism by Social Democracy was definitely and irrevocably marked by the support for World War I of the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress. In August 1914 the Labour Party and the TUC called for existing strikes to end and the prevention of any more for the duration of the war. This summons became lawful command (through the Munitions Act) after the Treasury agreements between the unions and the government in March 1915. Strikes were declared illegal; workers were tied to their place of employment; all restrictive practices were to be ended; objections to overtime, nightwork, and Sunday duty were to be rejected; the dilution[1] of labour was made acceptable; and many Factory Act safety and health prohibitions, successfully fought for by the class in the nineteenth century, were suspended.

In this way the organised expressions of the old workers’ movement not only helped mobilise the class for slaughter in the imperialist war, they also helped wipe out all the meagre gains the class had won in the previous epoch of reformist struggle. The offensive against the living conditions, and life itself, of the proletariat was not to last merely for the duration of the war, but was to become a permanent feature of the ensuing counter-revolutionary period. In 1914 the old workers’ movement definitively entered the bourgeois camp and became reactionary agents within the proletariat.

The most advanced sections of the world class, in this period, quite quickly created fundamentally new organisations to express the revolutionary interests of the proletariat. Workers’ councils emerged in 1905 and in 1917 in Russia, and in 1918 in Germany and elsewhere; the councils challenged the whole of the existing apparatus of capitalism and brought the class together to fight its independent struggle for social revolution. The role of revolutionaries in the new period of capitalist decadence was to help, and play a part in, the seizure of power by the workers’ councils, and no longer, as a mass party, to act on behalf of the proletariat, according to the old Social Democratic conception.

In Britain a period of militancy leading up to World War I had already provoked terror in the trade union machines. Following the outbreak of the War the unions had explicitly ceased to express proletarian interests. The class was clearly faced with the immense task of creating new organisations to express its new interests. The entire consciousness and organisation of the previous period was finished and the class had to rapidly develop a revolutionary praxis.

Britain - the limitations of the struggle

The long traditions of reformism and trade unionism within the British proletariat (which were unlike those of the Russian class for example) and the relative weakness of the revolutionary waves in Europe, prevented the British sector of the class from reaching its organisational expression in revolutionary workers’ councils. Instead, rank and file unionist and syndicalist organisations, the most important of which being the SS&WCM, were created in an attempt to answer the needs of the new period.

Tom Mann, who had been one of the leaders of the pre-war period of class struggle, helped form the Industrial Syndicalist Education League in 1910. He was a leader of the Seamens’ Union, which obtained substantial concessions from the shipping companies in 1911. He believed in militant reformism, was hostile to political struggle, encouraged unionisation along class lines and the amalgamation of existing competing unions. The SS&WCM was directly influenced by the ideas of Tom Mann and other syndicalist and industrial unionists.

Jack T. Murphy, a Sheffield engineer, and one of the leading theoreticians of the SS&WCM, described himself as a “syndicalist socialist”. He had been involved in the amalgamation committee movement before the war. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of the famous James Connolly, an industrial unionist and member of the Socialist Labour Party. Connolly saw the struggle for socialism as primarily a question of economic organisation. The organisation of the class within factories and workshops, according to him, would gradually develop and extend its power, and provide the basis for the proletarian revolution: “ .. the conquest of political power by the working class waits upon the conquest of economic power and must function through the economic’ organisation.”[2]

The SS&WCM was inspired by these theories. With the capitulation of the unions to the imperialist war effort, industrial organisation of the type described by Connolly was only really feasible at the level of the rank and file of the existing unions. According to Murphy: “all the trade unionists in any shop should have shop stewards, who should form themselves into a committee to represent the workers in that shop regardless of the trade unions they belonged to and thus make the first step towards uniting the unions.”[3]

This notion was derived from the amalgamation committee movement before the war. Similar committees to those envisaged by Murphy sprang up throughout Britain during the war years.

On the Clyde, in Scotland, where the shop steward movement first began, Willie Gallacher, chairman of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, echoed the theories of Connolly. He helped produce a pamphlet in 1917[4] which describes how rank and file industrial organisations of the class would undermine capitalism, merely by means of ‘contracts’, which would gradually help the class to take over the running of ‘industry’.

The stewards were not only averse to the political struggle of the class, they rejected the notion of leadership as such in reaction to what they saw as the ‘betrayal’ of union leaders. Rank and file miners produced a pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step, which influenced the SS&WCM, in which they argued that “A leader implies … some men who are being led … self-respect which comes from manhood, is taken from the men, and consolidated in their leader… the order and system he maintains is based on the suppression of the men, from being independent thinkers into being ‘the men’ or ‘the mob’.”[5]

There is here a failure to account for the objective reasons why there existed a chasm between leaders and union members (ie the working’ class). The division between leaders and led had become in fact an expression of a division of class interests. The union leaders, as representatives of the unions as a whole were defenders of bourgeois interests against those of the proletariat. Without understanding the class nature of the unions, the rank and file miners were reacting to bureaucracy within the context of trade unionism. As an indirect result they were also rejecting the inherent ability of the working class to elect and mandate ‘leaders’ to defend proletarian interests within workers’ councils. Murphy sympathised with the abstract rejection of leadership held by the rank and file miners: “Government by officials … is steadily eroding trade union members’ rights whereas … real democratic practice demands that every member of an organisation shall participate actively in the conduct of business.” “If one man can sway the crowd in one direction, another man can move them in the opposite direction.”[6]

 However the SS&WCM could not claim to have completely broken with the union officials. At the Manchester national conference of the SS&WCM in 1916, it was proclaimed: “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them..” And their statement of aims included a further directly unionistic statement: (We aim at) “the furtherance of the interests of working class organisation as a partisan effort to improve the position in the present and to ultimately assist in the abolition of the wages system.”[7]

The SS&WCM’s consciousness and organisation, in essence, remained within the boundaries of trade unionism. It was undeniably a militant, proletarian reaction to the capitulation of the trade unions to capitalist barbarism, but it was severely limited. It did not fully appreciate the class forces and historical change in the capitalist system which had caused the degeneration of the old workers’ movement, and which required new, directly revolutionary tactics and forms of organisation by the proletariat.

Confusion about the trade unions

The problem of the trade unions was not fundamentally that they were based on trade and craft rather than on the level of the whole class, although this did express the backwardness of the unions. The amalgamation of existing unions, for example, could not change their reactionary content, it rather expressed the tendency of capitalism to centralise and bureaucratise the trade unions; the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, for example, capitulated with little trouble to the war effort. The industrial unionist idea that the industrial organisation of the class could gradually prepare for the proletariat to assume economic power, which would then burst the political shell of the state, was a complete misunderstanding of the character of union organisation. The function of the unions had been to defend the workers’ immediate interests, not to engage in an economistic attempt to dismantle capitalism. The attempt by the SS&WCM to give the unions, or rank and file trade unionist organisations, a revolutionary content occurred in a revolutionary period when the immediate task of the proletariat was to seize political power, not to organise itself unionistically, in however radical a manner. The SS&WCM’s theories described an unconscious desire to channel the revolutionary aspirations of the class into forms of organisation which were completely unsuited to these aspirations. The above-mentioned pamphlet by Gallacher spells out the content of attempts at encroaching control over capitalist industry -a workers’ management of capitalism which would leave political and military power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, to be used whenever it became necessary to suppress this confused objective of the class.

Without fully understanding the reasons for the degeneration of the trade unions, the SS&WCM reacted on a formalistic level. This was one of the reasons preventing the SS&WCM from escaping the framework of unionism. The essence of the union question was not, as Murphy asserted, that they had leaders who were out of touch with the rank and file, because of their different surroundings to those of the shop floor workers. The reactionary leaders were a product of the reactionary organisation of the trade unions themselves. This resulted from the changing historical conditions of capitalism and the resulting change in the direction of the class struggle.

By making a fetishism out of abstract democracy, which remained within the context of trade unionism, the shop stewards prevented themselves from appreciating and expressing the new needs of the workers’ movement. ‘Democracy’ has never existed independently from material conditions; it always has a content which represents a particular class interest. The bureaucrats in the trade union leadership were not opponents of democracy in the abstract, but of proletarian democracy, which could only genuinely exist outside of and against the unions. They were on the other hand keen supporters of capitalist democracy.

The SS&WCM was thus restricted by these false premises and particularly by its support for many conceptions made obsolete by the imperialist war. The most significant symptom of such structural backwardness was the failure of the SS&WCM to oppose the war along revolutionary lines, ie to express the need of the class to use the war to take offensive against capitalism as a whole. Many shop stewards were ‘opposed to the war’ but they did not agitate against it in the factories and mines. They restricted their activity within the proletariat mainly to industrial matters and grievances. The attempt in January 1918 to answer the call of the Bolsheviks to force the ending of the war came to nothing partly because the SS&WCM failed to make a clear call to the class on the issue. It failed to live up to its responsibilities, as an advanced sector of the proletariat, to proclaim the vital interests of the class in a systematic and effective way.

Lack of political initiative by the SS&WCM was also to be seen in its response to the wave of strikes of May 1917, which demanded that dilution be banned from non-military work, and that the Trade Card system, exempting some workers from conscription be restored. The strike” … spread throughout England, factories in Leicester, Rugby, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Leeds, Newcastle, Rotherham, Derby, Crayford, Erith, Woolwich and London … Before the strike was over it had extended to forty-eight towns, involving over two hundred thousand men and a loss of one and a half million working days - more than the combined total of days lost in engineering and shipbuilding since the outbreak of war.” [8]

This wave, which was a revolt against the barbarism of the whole war, as well as a product of immediate causes, placed the shop stewards at its head. Yet a national conference of strikers’ delegates did not meet until at least two weeks after the strike wave began. And the outcome of the meeting was merely a “request that the Minister of Munitions should meet a deputation”.[9] Instead of such a conciliationist stance as this taken by the shop stewards a movement was needed to call explicitly for the extension of the strikes, and the deepening of their content. The objective of such class struggle should have been made explicit: an assault against the capitalist state, the extension of the revolution to the world arena, which were the only methods of linking up with the Russian proletariat. The strike was eventually defeated.

Obviously the failure of the strike to extend itself was not solely a result of the shop stewards’ inadequacies. It was the product of the immaturity of the whole class. The proletariat had been torn out of a long epoch of reformism, forced to confront capitalism in a revolutionary way, yet did not have the experience to fully comprehend or realise its objective tasks. The shop stewards, to a greater or lesser extent, expressed these inadequacies by their vacillations and indecisiveness.

Other limitations

Further negative characteristics of the SS&WCM were its localism and sectionalism. The movement was confined mainly to the engineering industries, which had been given importance by capitalism’s need for armaments. When the importance of these industries for British capital sharply declined after the war, followed by lack of demand for labour, employers were then able to throw militants out of the factories with impunity. One of the pillars of the stewards’ strength was thus knocked aside after the war.

The miners did not develop any independent rank and file unionistic organs, and although they militantly defended their living standards, their struggle was confined within the miners’ union. This helped prevent any linking up between miners and other sections of the class. An attempt to unify the SS&WCM and the rank and file committees in the miners’ and railwaymen’s unions at a March 1919 conference proved unsuccessful. The committees in the latter unions were content to work within the union structure, unlike the engineering shop stewards.

Although the shop stewards’ movement was nominally co-ordinated nationally by the National Administrative Council, there was little deliberate sympathy action between different sections of workers and little overall central direction. For example, during the May strikes, the Clyde workers remained at work. And paradoxically when the Clyde workers struck for a forty hour week in January 1919, the NAC proved unable to secure any sympathy action from English workers. Similarly in March 1917, wildcat strikes in Barrow involving 10,000 workers failed to bring out workers in other districts, and the strike was defeated.

We are not, however, criticising the stewards simply for lack of unification and centralisation, as leftist commentators on the shop stewards’ movement invariably do. To do so would be to criticise them within the terms of unionism and would therefore imply the need for more effective union struggles. Our criticisms are based on the conception that the shop stewards’ movement was in the main an historically obsolete organisational form, with a consciousness linked to the ascendant period of capitalism. Our criticisms aim at showing the weakness of the SS&WCM in the face of the revolutionary tasks of the class. The essential need of the British sector of the class at the time, was for its most advanced elements to develop an organisation capable of defending the revolutionary programme within the entire proletariat; a party which could, as the Bolsheviks were able to do, clarify the urgent fact that the international class would have to create revolutionary workers’ councils in order to mount an assault on the capitalist system itself.

It is true that the SS&WCM identified their workers’ committees with the Russian Soviets, supported the October Revolution, and sympathised with the Bolshevik regime. But the workers’ committees were organised on the level of the factory only, and primarily for reformist struggles. They were essentially a type of union structure. The Russian Soviets, although by no means perfect, revolutionary forms of class organisation, were clearly expressions of the proletariat’s new historic needs. The Soviets were class-wide political organs which grouped the class to challenge the whole capitalist order, in however confused a manner. The Soviets, under Bolshevik leadership, secured the political, social and military overthrow of the bourgeois state machine, the dictatorship of the proletariat and gave impetus to the extension of the world revolution. The workers’ committees, on the other hand, were radical trade union-like organs, with a reformist mentality and an economistic theory of revolution, based on the notion of ‘workers’ control’.

It is also true that the shop stewards were instrumental in the creation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920: “Of the eight members of the National Administrative Council elected in August 1917, six, MacManus, the chairman, Peet, the secretary, Murphy, the assistant secretary, T. Hurst, W. Gallacher and T. Dingley, joined the Communist Party by the time of the Leeds Unity Convention in January 1921.” [10]

They therefore apparently helped create a revolutionary party, capable of linking up with the Communist International, to defend the revolutionary programme within the class. Yet, by this time, the revolutionary waves throughout Europe were ebbing and the Communist International, (Comintern), founded in Moscow in 1919, was compromising more and more with left factions of the bourgeoisie - the Social Democrats and the trade unions - in a desperate attempt to reverse the counter-revolutionary upswing. Ironically and tragically, the shop stewards were overcoming their limitations and taking part in a revolutionary regroupment just as the Comintern was ceasing to express the goal of world revolution. The Comintern was already encouraging work with1n the trade unions, ie supporting tactics from the ascendant period of capitalism which had now become completely reactionary.

In this way the SS&WCM and the advanced sections of the class in Britain were driven back into the trade unions. This took place through the Red International of Trade Unions, the British section or which was the Minority Movement. In the name of revolution, credence had been given to the most dangerous agents inside the working class, agents which had alrea­dy helped mobilise the proletariat for imperialist butchery and which now proved decisive in defeating its revolutionary aspirations. For the British working class the 1926 General Strike proved to be the final nail in the coffin of its revolutionary potential. This nail had been hammered home by the TUC in collusion with the rest of the bourgeoisie. At the time, the CPGB called for “All power to the General Council” (of the TUC), providing an ‘extreme left’ cover for the reactionary manoeuvres of the trade union leaders.

While the SS&WCM was being physically smashed directly after the war, through unemployment and wide-spread dismissals from factories, the revolutionary current which animated the war-time movement was defeated by the Social Democrats, the trade unions and the Comintern in its period of counter-revolut1onary decline. It was only at the instigation of these capitalist factions that the shop stewards’ movement re-emerged during the late thirties, no longer to express an embryonic revolutionary upsurge of the class, as it had during World War I, but to try and contain the proletariat while a second imperialist slaughter was being launched by world capitalism.

The purpose of our analysis is not to dismiss the SS&WCM, despite our deep criticism of it. It was one of the most advanced elements of the proletarian movement in Britain during the 1914-23 period. Its mistakes were those of the working class trying to grapple with the enormous tasks facing it at the onset of the era of capitalist decadence. Its failure resulted from the weakness and inexperience of the whole international proletariat at that time. Our criticisms aim to identify the mistakes of that period from the point of view of the emerging revolutionary movement of the class today. Only by understanding the failures of the first revolutionary period during capitalist decadence, can we comprehend and express how the future revolutionary movement of the class can be victorious. Our criticisms themselves are only possible owing to the experiences of the proletariat, particularly those which were refracted through the clearest elements in the 1917-23 struggles. These elements perceived with the greatest lucidity the needs of the new period and could see the mistakes of other revolutionaries.

John Maclean, and his group in the British Socialist Party, who took a revolutionary defeatist position[11] against World War I, were critical of the Clyde shop stewards, particularly their ambitions of workers’ control: “We are not for the absolute control of each industry by workers engaged, for that would be trustified caste control … the final control and destiny of the products of an industry must be in the hands of humanity as a whole.”[12]

While this position implied an understanding of the international, political, primacy of the socialist revolution, Maclean was less clear on the need for revolutionary organisation, and was steeped, even during the war, in many old Social Democratic prejudices; for example he tended to overvalue workers’ education as an end in itself.

The Workers’ Dreadnought, a left communist paper, also had an understanding somewhat in advance of the SS&WCM. In its issue of March 9, 1918 it stated that: “It is our intention to make the Dreadnought the medium for nationally co-ordinating the (shop stewards’) movement.”[13]

The Dreadnought apparently was aware of the danger of sectionalism and localism in the SS&WCM. WF Watson, a shop steward, who was very critical of the failure of the SS&WCM to take action to end the war, worked closely with Syliva Pankhurst, leader of the Dreadnought group. These elements, like the more important Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), provide an important historical link with the needs of today’s escalating class struggle, and with the present revolutionary minorities.

The shop stewards and the counter-revolution

The absolute victory of the counter-revolution in the mid-twenties meant that the shop stewards could only re-emerge as a weapon of the left agents of capitalism: the trade unions, the Social Democratic Parties, and the Stalinists. The original ideology and practice of the shop stewards, expressed an abortive attempt to come to grips with the revolutionary period in the wake of World War I, but could only become, in a period of counter-revolutionary decline, a means of emasculating the class struggle itself. The fact that the shop stewards had once been expressions of working class interests became a weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie as it subjected the proletariat to barbarism, by means of mystification as well as brute force.

The stewards’ movement first re-emerged immediately before World War II, when it was dominated by the Stalinists. When Russia entered the war against the Axis powers in 1941, shop steward groups formed joint production committees with the management of factories for the purpose of helping mobilise the class behind one imperialist bloc, and smashing nascent proletarian reaction to capitalist war: “It falls upon us to strain every effort to achieve the maximum production so that arms flow in greater quantity despite the fact that thousands of workers will be transferred from the factories to shipyards to build the vessels whereby our products will be delivered to the fighting front. That is the task of the trade unionist in the factory, that is the responsibility of every anti-fascist worker.”[14]

Thus the re-emergent shop stewards’ movement was instrumental in the practical and ideological mobilisation of the class for its bloody defeat, behind the mystification of anti-fascism. The shop stewards’ movement of this time shared nothing, in terms of its class content, with the movement of World War I, which reacted in an elemental proletarian way to the imperialist carnage - albeit in a confused way.

From World War II until today, the shop stewards’ movement has played an openly reactionary role in bourgeois industrial relations. This has been partly due to the decentralisation of wage bargaining during the post war years, which has given shop stewards an increased importance in contrast to trade union leaders. But the more profoundly true reason for their increasing role is the importance of the shop stewards’ movement in diffusing the revolt of the class.

The shop stewards are dangerous today precisely because they are embedded in the working class. They are usually elected by workers on the shop floor, they smooth out day-to-day grievances of workers, work in the same surroundings, and even lead strikes. But their task is to ‘represent’ the workers within the framework of trade unionism and legal relations with the bourgeoisie. As a corollary of this, they are also usually influenced by Social Democratic or Stalinist ideology, often being members of the Labour or Communist Parties.

The shop stewards are thus in an extremely good position to demobilise any real working class revolt in the factories, any revolt which threatens to go beyond a sectional framework, becomes autonomous, and starts to understand the real function played by the unions within capitalism. Their position within the rank and file gives them credence which can help divert and contain the struggle. In such a way, illustrated millions of times in the post-war period, the shop stewards’ movement has proved itself to be one of the surest guardians of the trade unions, although it may well criticise union leaders from time to time.

The reactionary role of the shop stewards’ movement does not mean that every individual shop steward is counter-revolutionary. Many shop stewards are elected because ‘no one else would take the job’, and could easily cease to be stewards and rejoin the mass of other workers. Many militant workers on the other hand become fodder for bourgeois interests (it is one of the tragedies of the counnter-revo1utionary period that most militant workers who emerge today are immediately swallowed up by the left agents of capital). The question of the role of the shop stewards, however, does not revolve around this or that particular individual case but is determined by the position of the whole movement vis-à-vis contending class forces. As a form of organisation embodying a specific ideology, the shop stewards’ movement is undoubtedly a weapon of capitalism today.

The shop stewards and the Left

Leftist factions of the bourgeoisie also try inevitably to harness what was once a proletarian movement to reactionary ends. Trotskyists, libertarians, and ouvrierists of all kinds fawn on the shop stewards, and attempt to recruit and influence them, sensing their importance and power within the class. The International Socia1ists, for example, a popu1ist-trotskyist organisation, bases its main strategy within the class on recruiting shop stewards, and forming ‘rank and file movements’ within the trade unions. It grounds its policy on a false analogy with the SS&WCM during World War I. For IS the problems of this movement resided not in the consciousness and activity of the SS&WCM but rather in the lack of political direction from outside the movement: “It is too much to expect that, without the guidance of an interventionist revolutionary (sic) party, an industrial movement led by political militants (a reborn revolutionary shop stewards’ movement) can lead a revolutionary struggle to the point of challenging the government for power.”[15]

For such Trotskyists, the fact that the shop stewards remained within unionism was very acceptable; the ‘revolutionary’ party could thus have taken power on its behalf. (This quote also makes clear the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the party for Trotskyists which is to ‘challenge’ the ‘government’ for power. It thus struggles to obtain governmental office, not to destroy the whole capitalist system.) The Trotskyists are incapable of seeing that the working class has the ability to go beyond and destroy the unions by its own efforts, and to develop its own revolutionary organisations: workers’ councils and communist minorities.

The danger posed by the Trotskyists lies not in their ludicrous dreams of bourgeois governmental office, but in their avid support for all the left agents of capital, especially the shop stewards. Like them, the Trotskyists and others argue for the repetition of mistakes which the class made fifty or more years ago. However, to encourage and support the shop stewards’ movement today is not a mistake but brazen capitalist mystification.

The proletarian way

In the present deepening crisis of world capitalism, the emerging class struggle is forcing the proletariat to confront the shop stewards, and other rank and file union delegates in other countries, as guardians of the existing order. After fifty years experience of counter-revolution, and after the lessons of the previous revolutionary period, the class thus has the capability of going beyond its previous mistakes.

One of the most fundamental lessons learnt by proletarian experience over these fifty years is that the class can have no permanent mass organisations grouping the whole class or sections of the class under decadent capitalism. The shop stewards’ movement, despite the fact that it is composed of thousands of workers, is a clear proof of this impossibility, because though it pretends to be the most militant defender of the c1ass, in fact it is a strong defender of bourgeois interests. Indeed any rank and file unionistic organisation which seeks to institutionalise itself in the class struggle becomes a brake on the real battles of the class. Only .those committees which are thrown up in the course of strugg1e.eg during a wildcat strike, existing to develop that battle independently from the unions, and disbanding after the struggle is over, can aid the development of proletarian class organisation and consciousness. Such committees are embryonic precursors of the workers’ councils, the historically discovered organisational form through which the whole class smashes the capitalist state and expropriates the bourgeoisie.

Temporary committees thrown up in the course of real workers’ struggles can express proletarian interests because these struggles inevitably tend to go beyond their sectional limits, and attack capitalism as a whole. Temporary committees can therefore be potentially embryonic revolutionary forms. Permanent mass organisations, however, inevitably conform to the everyday circumstances of wage slavery and participate in the exploitation of workers which cannot be ame1iorated during capitalist decadence. They are often swallowed up by the unions or leftist organisations.

The anti-working class role of permanent ‘workers’ organisations is made clear when workers’ committees stay in existence after the purpose of the struggle for which they were created has disappeared. These committees are then emptied of their content of autonomous struggle and become tools for regulating day to day exploitation within the factory, or for attempting to ‘mobilise’ the rank and file.

The Workers’ Commissions in Spain, originally created by workers in struggle, became permanent organisations, and rapidly ceased to defend proletarian interests, becoming left appendages of capital. Similarly the Base Committees of Italian workers, which had a parallel development to the Workers’ Commissions, have been integrated into the reactionary apparatus of the unions. Today both these organisations have to be fought when the class develops its autonomous struggle in these countries.

One of the main functions of revolutionaries is to systematically demonstrate to workers in the industrial centres the reactionary role of the trade union apparatus with all its factions - whether the shop stewards’ movement or the trade union bureaucracy. The task of revolutionaries is to show that the class struggle, if it is to be successful in the face of the crisis, must sooner or later deepen and develop autonomously against the trade unions and every other capitalist faction. This is the only way for the revolutionary proletariat, the way which leads to the seizure of international political power by the working class, and the preparation of the conditions for a classless society.

Frank Smith, August 1975



[1]. Dilution was the use of non-skilled or semi-skilled labour in jobs previously reserved for skilled workers.

 

[2]. Cited in Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-21, Weidenfeld &Nicolson, London 1969, p.162

 

[3]. Ibid, p.153

 

[4]. William Gallacher and J. Paton, Towards Industrial Democracy; a Memorandum on Workers’ Control, Paisley Trades and Labour Council, 1917. Cited in Ken Coates and Tony Topham Eds, Workers’ Control, Panther, London 1970, p.l07

 

[5]. Cited in Kendall, p.161

 

[6]. Ibid, p.161

 

[7]. Ibid, p.156

 

[8]. Ibid, p.158

 

[9]. Ibid, p.164

 

[10]. Ibid, p.164

 

[11]. By revolutionary defeatism we understand: for the defeat of the imperialist war by mass revolutionary action. This was the position held by all the genuinely revolutionary elements which opposed the reactionary opportunism of the Send International. The opportunists in the Second International were known as defencists, because they defended their national bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie of other countries, or as social-chauvinists because they were “socialists in words and chauvinists in deeds” (Lenin), ie they supported the imperialism of their countries.

 

[12]. Quoted in Tom Bell, John Maclean. A Fighter for Freedom, Communist Party Scottish Committee, 1944, p.54. Cited in John Maclean, The War after the War, Introduction, p.iii, Socialist Reproduction, London, 1973.

 

[13]. Cited in James Hinton, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement, Allen and Unwin, London 1973, Footnote p.268

 

[14]Joint Production Committees, How to Get the Best Results, Engineering and Allied Trades Shop Stewards’ National Council, 1942, cited in Coates and Topham, p.172

 

[15]. Duncan Hallas, “The First Shop Ste­wards’ Movement”, International Socialism, December 1973, p.26