Revolutionaries and the mass strikes, 1910-1914: the strengths and limits of syndicalism

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In WR 341 we described the wave of struggles popularly known as ‘The Great Labour Unrest’ that hit Britain and Ireland 100 years ago. We showed that these struggles – which at their high points reached near-insurrectionary levels – were in fact a spectacular expression of the mass strike analysed so clearly by Rosa Luxemburg, and formed an integral part of an international wave of class struggle that culminated in the 1917 Russian revolution.

In this article we look at the impact of the mass strikes on the British and Irish working class, and the attempts of militant workers and revolutionaries to draw the lessons of these historic struggles.

The mass strikes were a product of the growing class consciousness of the British and Irish workers, and gave an enormous stimulus to their understanding of capitalism and of the changing conditions for the class struggle on the eve of its decadent phase.

We can see the stimulus of the mass strikes in the broadening of class consciousness – the spreading of revolutionary ideas among the masses of workers thrown into struggle – and in its deepening; the growing understanding of the clearest minorities of militant workers and revolutionaries about the goals and methods of the proletariat’s struggle against capitalism. We can also see the historical limitations of this understanding.

The growth of syndicalism

“Policy: I The old policy of identity of interest between employers and ourselves be abolished, and a policy of open hostility installed...” (The Miners’ Next Step, 1912)

The most significant expression of the broadening of class consciousness in Britain and Ireland in the period from 1910 to 1914 was the growth of syndicalist ideas among the most militant workers.

We have written before about the rise of syndicalism (see WR 232). As a distinctive strand of ideas it emerged in the years after 1900. But it was in the mass strikes that syndicalism played a significant role in the workers’ struggles. In fact we can say that syndicalism was the political expression of the most militant minority of the British and Irish working class in this period.

This doesn’t mean that it was ever a coherent ideology or set of positions. As a movement syndicalism always contained different and conflicting strands such as De Leonist industrial unionism, anarcho-syndicalism and the ‘amalgamation’ movement in the trade unions, but some of the key ideas that directly influenced the mass strikes were:

       an emphasis on the economic power of the working class in the factories

       the central importance of class solidarity

       the need for direct action by the workers to defend their interests

       the goal of worker’s control of industry and, ultimately, society.

Syndicalist ideas, popularised by Tom Mann, James Connolly, James Larkin and other well-known workers’ leaders, found a ready echo among younger, militant workers, already suspicious of the trade union leaderships and their conciliatory policies and looking for new, more effective ways of organising against the attacks of capital.

With hindsight we can see that syndicalism was part of an attempt by the working class to respond to changes taking place in capitalism on the eve of its decadent phase, including larger units of production, de-skilling, ‘scientific’ management methods, etc., and in particular to the growth of state capitalism and the tendency for the trade unions to be integrated into the state.

So if the trade unions were not defending the working class, the burning question for militant workers was whether they should try to transform them from within, or build new, revolutionary industrial organisations to fight capital.

One wing of the syndicalist movement argued that the trade unions could still be radicalised from the inside, and that the task was to propagandise within them for revolutionary policies. Tom Mann, for example, believed that “The trade unions are truly representative of the men, and can be moulded by the men into exactly what the men desire.”[1]

Probably the most important written statement of syndicalist ideas in Britain during the mass strikes was The Miners’ Next Step produced by the Unofficial Reform Committee in the South Wales Miners’ Federation. Faced with changes in production in the mining industry and the attacks of the employers, the younger militant workers of the URC analysed the failure of the union leadership’s conciliatory policies to secure real improvements for the workers and proposed instead “A united industrial organisation, which, recognising the war of interest between workers and employers, is constructed on fighting lines...” This would be controlled by the rank and file and fight for real reforms in the mining industry like the minimum wage and the seven-hour day “on the basis of complete independence of, and hostility to all capitalist parties.”

One of the strengths of the Next Step was its emphasis on involving all the workers in the practical organisation of the struggle. Political action was not rejected but defined as parliamentary action because relevant legislative measures would demand “the presence in parliament of men who directly represent, and are amenable to, the wishes and instructions of the workmen”. The URC’s ultimate objective was “...to amalgamate all workers into one national and international union, to work for the taking over of all industries, by the workmen themselves.[2]

The central problem of this vision was that, in emphasising the economic power of the working class, it underestimated the political power of the capitalist class; there is no mention of the fact that the bourgeoisie might oppose this process of the gradual take-over of industry by the workers or of the consequent need for a confrontation with the capitalist state in order to achieve revolutionary change.

The militant workers behind The Miners’ Next Step described in detail how their leaders became corrupted by the role they were forced to play, and sought to avoid this by making the existing unions act under the direct control of the workers. But another wing of the syndicalist movement – the dual or industrial unionists – believed that the existing trade unions could not be made to do this and that the task was to build new revolutionary unions.

Both strategies faced insurmountable obstacles: building mass organisations to replace the trade unions was never going to be realistic in Britain given the historical attachment of the working class to this institution (in fact the period of the mass strikes saw a huge rise in union membership), while the policy of ‘boring from within’ inevitably came up against the entrenched power of the union bureaucracy, which would never willingly give up its control.

The test for revolutionaries

The popularity of syndicalism and the spread of its ideas among militant workers were due at least in part to the weakness of the marxist movement and its lack of influence among militant workers. But the real problem was not so much its size as the strength of opportunism which dominated the whole workers’ movement by this time. The hardened opportunist tendency which dominated the leadership of some socialist groups was firmly wedded to parliamentary and reformist tactics, and viewed spontaneous, violent mass action as a serious threat to its position rather than as any kind of opportunity for advancing the cause of the revolutionary proletariat.

If opportunism was the greater danger, sectarianism was undoubtedly the lesser: there were plenty of socialists in Britain who regarded strikes at best as a ‘last resort’ (like the Socialist Party of Great Britain), or at worst as a criminal waste of energy and diversion from the ‘real’ struggle for socialism.

Those revolutionaries who managed to avoid both opportunism and sectarianism, and attempted to relate to the workers’ struggles, still risked being swept away or falling prey to syndicalist illusions in the potential of the working class to destroy capitalism through use of its economic power alone. One negative effect of the mass strikes was to reinforce the identification of political action with parliamentarism and reformism, and to strengthen those tendencies in the revolutionary movement which rejected the need for political action at all.

Of the existing socialist groups, the reformist leadership of the Independent Labour Party was by this time far too closely linked to the Labour Party’s fortunes in parliament to be able to relate to the workers’ struggles outside it, and many left-wing dissidents in the party were attracted to syndicalism.

The right-wing leadership of the Social Democratic Federation opposed the mass strikes, complaining that: “if the workers had used their political power as they ought to have used it, all these recent strikes would have been wholly unnecessary”.[3]Under the influence of the class struggle the SDF regrouped with elements of the ILP and others influenced by syndicalist ideas to form the British Socialist Party in 1911. The leadership was forced to allow a debate on the role of the political party and its relationship to the industrial struggle, and to reinsert support for immediate demands in the new party’s constitution. During the railway and miners’ strikes BSP militants distributed manifestos calling for simultaneous action by different sectors of workers. But before long the syndicalists and many other activists were forced out of the party and the right-wing reinforced its grip.

The Socialist Labour Party, though much smaller, and despite sectarian tendencies, was better able to play the role of a revolutionary organisation in the mass strikes: it supported the raising of immediate demands and through its advocacy of industrial unions it had a practical means of relating to the workers’ struggles. The party formed a separate propaganda group, the Industrial Workers of Great Britain, which played an active role in the 1911 Singer’s strike in Glasgow where at one point the it recruited 4,000 of the 11,000 workforce and gained an important presence among Clydeside engineering workers. The SLP expelled a minority opposed to strikes and affirmed the role of the revolutionary party, successfully defending a marxist intervention in the class struggle.

The mass strikes also influenced the development of a wider and much more diverse milieu outside of the established arxist groups. There was a surge of new groupings coming more or less directly out of the struggles themselves, For example, the Daily Herald national daily paper, later to be known as the Labour Party’s mouthpiece, originated as the news-sheet of striking London print workers in 1911. The Herald Leagues which grew up around the paper were critical of state capitalism, the Labour Party and existing socialist groups, not explicitly anti-parliamentary but sympathetic to syndicalism. Probably the most influential grouping was the Industrial Syndicalist Education League around Tom Mann and Guy Bowman, which published the Industrial Syndicalist from 1910 until its collapse in 1913.

Drawing the lessons of the mass strikes

The mass strikes certainly tested revolutionaries. There were real gains: growth (albeit temporary); the (partial) regroupment of revolutionaries and a small but significant presence within the struggles themselves.

With hindsight the biggest failure of revolutionary minorities was to draw the lessons from the appearance in the mass strikes of unofficial strike committees, mass meetings, discussion groups, etc. The syndicalist movement in particular remained wedded to the two false alternatives of transforming the existing trade unions or creating new unions. At this stage it was not clear to many workers that the tendency for the trade unions to be integrated into the capitalist state was already an irreversible process, but even the clearest revolutionaries were unable to take up the work of the German and Dutch lefts around Luxemburg and Pannekoek on the lessons of the 1905 mass strike in Russia, or to grasp the historic significance of the appearance of the soviets or workers’ councils.

The biggest strength of revolutionary minorities in Britain was their recognition of the reactionary nature of state capitalism and its danger to the working class struggle. For example, the 1913 platform of the syndicalist Industrial Democracy League identified the trend towards the centralisation of capitalist state power and denounced the Liberal Party’s social welfare legislation as “the extension of the tentacles of the state into the vitals of organised labour”.[4]

The clearest revolutionaries extended this analysis to the trade unions. In 1911 the Durham miners’ leader George Harvey, a leading SLP member, warned that: “the trade union movement is tending to create a sort of organ of oppression within the masters’ organ of oppression - the state - and an army of despotic union chiefs who are interested in reconciling, as far as possible, the interests of masters and men”.[5] By 1917 this solid insight enabled the majority of the SLP to conclude that capitalism had definitely entered its epoch of decadence, and to support the formation of unofficial workshop committees as embryo soviets.

Conclusion

The sheer breadth and intensity of the pre-war mass strikes encouraged illusions in the ability of the working class to emancipate itself through the use of its economic power alone, and despite the depth of opportunism in the workers’ movement the integration of the existing trade unions into the capitalist state was not yet proven by the tests of war and revolution. It was the outbreak of imperialist war in 1914 that sealed the trade unions’ betrayal through their abandonment of internationalism and confirmed the necessity for a revolutionary assault on the power of the capitalist state.

The pre-war mass strikes in Britain and Ireland were inevitably overshadowed by the even greater revolutionary wave that ended the first world war which culminated in the seizure of political power by the working class in Russia. But today, when we are seeing the spectre of class struggle return to haunt the decrepit capitalist system, again led by younger generations of workers anxious to fight back against the attacks of capital, we can find in these struggles – in their immense militancy, their capacity to organise and extend the movement, and willingness to take on the capitalist class – a rich source of lessons and inspiration. One key lesson is the central importance of the revolutionary minorities of the working class in clarifying its historic tasks and the methods and tactics needed to achieve them.  

MH 26/3/11

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Mass strikes in Britain: the ‘Great Labour Unrest’, 1910-1914

 

 

 

 

[1]. Industrial Syndicalist, December 1910, quoted in James Hinton, Labour and Socialism, 1983, p.91.

 

[3]. Harry Quelch at the first conference of the BSP in 1912, cited in Walter Kendall,The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921,1969, p.29.

 

[4]. Cited in Bob Holton, British Syndicalism 1900-1914, 1976, p.145.

 

[5]. Industrial unionism and the mining industry, 1911, quoted by Raymond Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, 1977, p.73.