Duncan Hallas

Trade Unionists and revolution –
A response to Richard Hyman

(Spring 1980)

Notes and Letters, International Socialism 2 : 8, Spring 1980, pp. 80–84.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

No marxist can quarrel with Richard Hyman’s point that ‘awareness of historical continuity is essential’ for understanding not only ‘wartime workplace organisation’ but also more generally. It is incontestable that this continuity also includes more or less sharp ‘turning points’, abrupt transitions in the balance of class forces and the nature and extent of working class organisations. The further back we look, the less controversial this proposition becomes. I suppose that every one of the contributors to this discussion in International Socialism (Jefferys, Cliff, Beecham, Hyman) would agree that one such turning point occurred in the middle of the last century. It is conventionally dated at 1851, the year the Amalgamated Society of Engineers was founded. Eric Hobsbawm and Ken Gill, protagonists in the earlier debate in Marxism Today would no doubt agree too.

Two points arise out of this. The first is that the actual date of a transition point is more or less arbitrary (within certain limits). Trends towards the ‘defence not defiance’ craft unions of post 1850 can be detected much earlier than 1851, for example in the Journeyman Steam Engine Makers from 1824 onwards. Trends reflecting the class struggle unionism of the 1830s and 40s persisted in the ASE for a decade or more after 1851, as Jefferys (senior) makes clear in his Story of the Engineers (AEU, 1945).

Nonetheless, it is very obvious that the conventional turning point of 1851 does represent something real and important. Which leads directly to the second point. The judgement of a turning point is political. Important for whom? Important from what point of view?

As it happens, I think that Hyman is more correct than Jefferys when he argues that the second world war did not mark a fundamental transition in which the twentieth century trade union leaderships ‘replaced conflict by co-operation.’ Hyman is right, from the point of view of our strategic orientation, when he draws attention to ‘the growth of national collective bargaining around the turn of the present century’ and its consequences: ‘conflicts in which central officials joined with employers in seeking to suppress and discipline local activists’. The decade before the first world war was the time when it seemed that ‘the incorporation of union officials within bargaining institutions had succeeded in defusing their earlier radicalism.’ [1]

But wait. We are talking about tendencies, not any inevitable outcome. There were important tendencies pushing in the opposite direction too: syndicalists, socialists, communists. And these tendencies, these activists, built the movement against the opposition of the existing union leaderships. Membership of TUC-affiliated unions grew from 1,530,000 in 1900 to 4,135,000 in 1913, and it grew out of the mass struggles and strikes of the period which the officials, typically, opposed, especially after 1909. This was another turning point. Without the strike wave of 1909–1913, the officials would not have been able to get into national collective bargaining in most cases. And without the militants, politically motivated militants in most cases, the strike wave would not have occurred in the way it did.

Then came the war, the further massive extension of trade unionism on the basis of full employment (7,962,000 in TUC-affiliated unions by 1919), and then the employers’ own counter attack.

The decisive moment of that counter-attack was the defeat of the General Strike in 1926. This was another crucial turning point. Hyman speaks of a continuity between the accommodative tendencies long evident in official trade unionism in Britain, and the explicit articulation of the ideology of class collaboration in the Mond-Turner tables of 1927. But he does not even mention the defeat of the General Strike! His account has no smell of the struggle between left and right inside the workers’ movement.

Indeed, it is clear that he thinks that this struggle is, if not illusory, then at least not central to revolutionaries. Here Jefferys is a hundred times more correct than Hyman.

Hyman’s view, notwithstanding his quotations from What Is To Be Done? is essentially a propagandistic one. He does not accept, in practice, that the job of revolutionaries is to fight for leadership in the actual class struggle and therefore also within the existing mass organisations. His quarrel is not merely with the SWP’s ‘economism’ but with the whole communist tradition in its Leninist form.

He asks: ‘Is there not a material connection between sectionalism, reformism, and the practice of (even militant) trade union representation and bargaining?’ Of course there is, but there is also a contradiction between reformism and militant struggles. Whether, and how, that contradiction is resolved in each particular case depends on a number of things: on the size and weight of the struggle, on the state of the economy, on the way consciousness changes and on other things but crucially it depends on the nature of the leadership and the relationship it has built over time with the ranks.

A large part of the significance of this whole ‘upturn, downturn’ discussion is precisely about the present state of this relationship (given reformist leadership) and so about how most effectively to fight reformism.

However, it is not possible to even begin to get to grips with this without having a realistic view of the structural considerations involved.

Is the bureaucracy significant?

Hyman attacks the ‘mechanical incantation’ of the ‘opposing pair’, ‘trade union bureaucracy’ and ‘rank and file.’ He also accuses Jefferys of identifying the rank and file with the shop stewards which he says is a ‘faithful reflection of IS/SWP orthodoxy.’

Where exactly is this supposed orthodoxy to be found? Not in any policy of the IS/SWP that I am aware of. There certainly was however a crucial period for the British working class – above all in engineering – roughly from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s where a concerted attack was mounted on shop stewards as representatives of their various sections and on stewards’ committees as representatives of the whole plant. In this attack, inducements to incorporation were much more important than frontal assault, although both were used by the ruling class. The International Socialists were the first to recognise the importance of this attack (see for example Cliff and Barker’s 1966 book Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards). We also insisted, correctly, not just on the defence of stewards, but also on their inherent weaknesses. In Cliff’s 1970 book, The Employers’ Offensive: productivity deals and how to fight them (pp. 204–7) these are listed in detail: fragmentation, narrow horizons with wages not the fight against redundancy or in favour of higher old age pensions becoming the order of the day; stewards organisations remaining ‘largely speaking, politically apathetic’ and so on. Cliff noted also that: ‘A most insidious trend appearing in recent years is the increase in the number of full time ... shop representatives ... In many cases, workers become alienated not only from the union officials but even from the shop stewards. They see them as a buffer between themselves and management.’

And this meant, of course, that when the ‘official’ shop stewards movement failed to act, socialists had to be prepared to initiate a campaign beneath the level of the stewards and not to rely upon them. This, certainly, is exactly what happened with the Right To Work Campaign, which we set up in 1975 after a series of failures to get any action at all on unemployment on the part of various stewards’ bodies.

Where did Richard Hyman stand on all this? Unfortunately he argued for the necessity of subordinating all fight-backs against unemployment to such bodies as the stewards’ aggregates of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions! Not only as a result did he oppose the Right To Work Campaign, but he took it sufficiently seriously to leave the organisation immediately afterwards. If anyone had illusions in the stewards’ organisations it was therefore Richard Hyman, not the SWP.

Still more important, however, is Hyman’s confusion about the nature and role of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not peculiar to him, of course. Communist Party theoreticians have been doing their best to raise theory to the level of their practice (I am joking of course!). For Hyman, as for the CP, the social role of the trade union bureaucracy is largely mythical.

Long ago, the nature of the largely mythical ‘bureaucracy’ of the unions became an issue in the working class movement. In 1894 the first edition of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s History of Trade Unionism appeared. It pointed to an important change in British trade unions in the last half of the nineteenth century. ‘During these years we watch a shifting of leadership from the casual enthusiast and irresponsible agitator to a class of permanent salaried officers expressly chosen from out of the rank and file of trade unionists for their superior business capacity.’ [2]

The Fabian couple naturally approved of this shifting of leadership but it never occurred to them to deny that the outlook of the full-time officer tended to differ considerably from that of the active members. Quite the contrary, they welcomed the growth of what they called ‘this Civil Service of the Trade Union world’ precisely because its influence was conservative.

‘Whilst the points at issue no longer affect his own earnings or conditions of employment, any disputes between his members and their employers increase his work and add to his worry. The former vivid sense of the privations and subjection of the artisan’s life gradually fades from his mind; and he begins more and more to regard all complaints as perverse and unreasonable’ (they note quoting with approval an unnamed official) ‘... Unconsciously biased by distaste or the hard and unthankful work which a strike entails, he finds himself in small sympathy with the men’s demands, and eventually arranges a compromise on terms distasteful to a large section of his members.’ [3]

The Webbs also noted how ‘insidiously, silent, unknown even to himself the official ‘insensibly adopts more and more of [the] views of his middle class neighbours’.

Now the Webbs had in mind, chiefly, the old craft societies which had, typically, a rather low ratio of full-time officials to members. With the rise of the New Unionism from the 1890s and the big growth of trade union membership in the great struggles before 1914 (trade union membership was 1,530,000 in 1894; 4,145,000 in 1914) the numbers of full-time officials expanded much more than proportionately. And, typically, the officials of the new unions were appointed, not elected as were the officials of the craft societies.

From this time on the role of this new social layer, the trade union bureaucracy, has been absolutely crucial in the class struggle. It is astonishing that Hyman fails to recognise this. It is surely not necessary to go through again the fate of the ‘broad lefts’ since 1967!

Of course, it is always possible to say of any generalisation - things are more complicated than that. Yes. Yes of course they are, but it is useful to look at the complications only if you have first grasped the big thing, the central issue. The modern capitalist state is a good deal more than bodies of armed men. That is a fact, but unless you understand that armed force is its essential feature, discussion of the secondary features is worse than useless.

And so with Hyman’s description of the T&GWU and the AUEW. We know about the ‘complexity’, we know that this can, and must, be exploited, we know that they are not omnipotent. My god, all our industrial trade union work, and that of the Communist Party before us (in its revolutionary days), is based on this knowledge. This is ABC for all but ultra-lefts – and we are not ultra-lefts.

However, part of the ABC, a fundamental part is the recognition of the distinct interests, outlook and behaviour of the bureaucracy. The existence of a distinct, and basically conservative social formation, inside the unions is a fact of qualitatively different significance from the nature of the (very different) constitutions of the T&GWU and the AUEW. Scanlon and Jones were different. But they ended up in the same position.

The Webbs, who were sharply hostile to Marxism, had a better grasp of this simple proposition than a good many present day Marxists. This is not a matter of theoretical speculation about which there can be a major agreement to differ. It is the basic practical question which divides activists in the movement into revolutionaries on the one hand, and centrists on the other.

Our orientation on the rank and file, in contrast to the CP’s ‘win friends and influence officials’ approach, is rooted in the recognition that the bureaucracy, as a social layer is, at bottom, conservative and that this is true notwithstanding the fact that, at times, sections of the bureaucracy can be formally more left than most of the working class.

The rank and file of the party

We are not spontaneists, neither are we syndicalists. We do not worship workers as such. We base our politics on the potential that the working class has to transform itself and so transform the society in the course of struggle. We also know that the development of the revolutionary party, its growth and influence and ability to lead is part and parcel of this process.

There can be, and have been, rank and file movements independent of the growth of the party. But there cannot be widespread and enduring rank and file movements which are not associated with the growth of the party. This is not a matter of party ‘manipulation’. It is simply that the soil and climate in which a militant rank and file movement can grow are exactly those in which the party can grow and that the party ‘is the best section of the working class, no more, but no less ... an organised nucleus that precedes the masses of the people, collects the best people around it, and leads the masses of the workers forward’ as it was put at the second congress of the Communist International. [4]

This is the position from which we approach all the various questions which Hyman asks (but does not answer); the changing character of the working class, the ‘bureaucratisation of the rank and file’, the power of the multinationals or whatever.

Nothing whatever can be done about any of them without forces. Forces can only be won in struggle. Struggle requires the rank and file orientation. All discussion of ‘strategy’ on any other basis is simply hot air or wasted ink.

Naturally not all struggles are economic. Here Hyman’s question is ludicrously inapt. Far from ‘keeping within the framework of the economic struggle’, we seek to win workers to revolutionary politics. Our struggle against the fascists was hardly ‘economistic’. Of course, we want to develop solidarity and struggle around every area of section of the class and every area of struggle. But if this is to be more than rhetoric the party must develop its forces in the core of the working class.

The ‘ghetto’ of which Hyman speaks is simply the relative weakness of the revolutionary left today. To get out of it means greatly to strengthen the ‘rank and filism’ he so contemptuously dismisses. There is no other way to do it, and certainly not the way of abstract propagandism and abstention from the fight for leadership in the actual struggles that our ruling class, at least, recognise as crucial.


1. B. Holton, British Syndicalism, 1900-1914, London 1976, p. 33.

2. S. & B. Webb, The History of Trade Unionism, 1920 edition, p. 204.

3. S. & B. Webb, op. cit., pp. 69–70.

4. Zinoviev, The Second Congress of the Communist International, Vol. I, New Park, 1977, p. 86.

Last updated on 19.8.2013