Sunday, September 28, 2008

Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, The General Strike of 1926

The events of the 1926 British General Strike aren’t an issue for abstract historical discussion; they are, more importantly, an example of one of the most intense periods of industrial trade union militancy on these isles.

As the authors of this examination of the “Days of Hope” put it, “The key question for Marxists is how to relate to the working class. In countries where the workers are organisd in unions, this question then takes the form of how should Marxists approach trade unionists and their struggles”.

Rather than concentrate simply on the events of the strike, Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein start by examining both the Marxist approach to trade unions and the political forces in Britain in the first quarter of the last century.

Their starting point is how limited the Marxist understanding of developed trade unions was at that time. The leading revolutionary thinkers were concentrated in Russia at the time, and there, the slow development of the working class and the illegality of much of its organisations meant that trade unions had little impact on the revolutionary struggle. This in turn meant that leading thinkers in the revolutionary international badly underestimated aspects of trade unionism, leading to many militants in Britain over estimating their influence in the working class, or putting hope in left-wing trade union leaders.

The role of the trade union leaders was to prove crucial in the 1926 strike. At the time, the “triple alliance” of unions in transport and mining were a major industrial force. They’d had the government over a barrel in the near-revolutionary period after the first world war, yet, during the nine days of strike, many of them did their best to limit the strike to their best ability.

The authors examine how trade union bureaucrats form a separate class, the “bureaucracy balances between the two main classes in capitalist society – the employers and the workers.” Since they belong to neither camp, the bureaucracy has a “vital interest not to push the collaborations with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent”.

Vacilating between the bosses and the workers, the union fulltimers, both leftwing and rightwing end up desperate to avoid breaking the status quo, even if it means selling the struggles of their members out.

During the general strike, millions of workers took enthusiastic action in support of the strike, yet the union leaders did everything they could to avoid that action either spreading, or taking more militant forms. They encouraged church attendance rather than mass picketing, passivity and friendly relations with the police rather than attempting to stop the government’s organised scabbing operations. Before the strike they did little to prepare their members and during the strike they issued contradictory and confusing instructions.

Though the official histories of the events would tell us that the TUC though that the strikers were wavering, Cliff and Gluckstein show how, in fact more and more workers were preparing to take action and that in many cases the action was developing down more radical directions.

The eventual sell out of the strike lead directly to the isolation of the coal miners (who were locked out by their bosses) and the demoralisation of a trade union movement for twenty years. Here, there is an interesting parallel with the state of trade unionism since the Thatcher years.

The authors conclusion is two fold. The first is that an independent revolutionary socialist organisation is needed to help lead workers struggles, that isn’t confused by its links to either the trade union bureaucracy or the Labour Party. The second is that this socialist party needs to have as one of its most important pre-occupations, the building of a strong rank and file movement of trade unionists, confident to follow the bureaucracy when they fight in the interests of the workers, but prepared to confront and side-step those bureaucrats when they are attempting to sell things out.

It’s a historic task, as important today as it was in the past. As the slogan says, “those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.”

Unfortunately Cliff and Gluckstein's book is out of print, but a short pamphlet covering many of the ideas and the background outlined above is available from Bookmarks here.

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