Thursday, 24 February 2011

Syndicalism: Review Essay

Syndicalism and Radical Unionism, Socialist History 37.
Published by Rivers Oram Press, 2010.
ISBN 978 1 85489 174 7

Killing No Murder, South Wales and the Great Railway Strike of 1911,
By Robert Griffiths.
With an introduction by Bob Crow, General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union.
Published by Manifesto Press, 2009.
ISBN 978 1 907464 01 0

The UK Socialist History Society deserves great credit for dedicating an issue of their journal to the subject of syndicalism. It is a subject that has been short changed in much historical writing about both trade unionism and the working class movement. It sometimes seems that syndicalist ideas are often treated more seriously in mainstream histories than in those which purport to be from a left or socialist perspective.

I found this collection of essays quite uplifting and they certainly shed some light on some key moments in the story of the syndicalist contribution to working class history.

In the opening editorial essay, Ralph Darlington, Professor of Employment Relations at Salford University, points out that the key ideas of revolutionary unionism emerged with the development of capitalism. In Britain from the 1830’s and the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and Robert Owens proposal for a general strike in the form of a Grand National Holiday syndicalist ideas have arisen at regular intervals.

He points out that the movement faced three ‘paradoxes or dilemmas’: firstly in how much influence it had, secondly, the potential flaw of the limitations of trade unionism within capitalist society, and thirdly of the challenge to syndicalism from communism.

In his contribution to the journal, Alex Gordon, currently President of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union(RMT) here in the UK, our most effective, class conscious and militant trade union, writes about a lesser known English syndicalist, Charles Watkins. In the wake of Britain’s first national railway strike, in 1911, Watkins founded and edited the Syndicalist Railwayman newspaper.

This essay is complementary to the other book I am reviewing an account of the 1911 railway strike as it affected South Wales. This book, written by Robert Griffiths, today the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, does not shy away from the syndicalist nature of that dispute nor does, incidentally, the current general secretary of the railworkers (RMT) in Britain, Bob Crow, who writes an introduction to the book. Both draw important lessons from the dispute which was the last time troops shot and killed strikers on the UK mainland.

Griffiths points out that in studying the history of this period the miners have received most of the attention. This is partly due to the power of the South Wales Miners Federation and its lodges which produced both official and unofficial newspapers. Indeed as Gordon argues one of the few lasting literary monuments of the campaign for industrial unionism was The Miners Next Step published in 1912. Griffiths argues that it is time for the railway workers to take centre stage and I would argue there is much of value in Watkins writings and those he went onto write in Tom Mann’s, The Syndicalist.

Griffiths book was originally produced for a Welsh language TV programme in 1986 under the title of Steic! Streic! Streic! Which as Griffiths suggests needs no translation. The new title of the book ‘Killing No Murder!’ comes from the title of a pamphlet written about the dispute by Keir Hardie in 1912 when he was the Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfill. In it, as well as explaining the grievances of the workers, Hardie wrote that he had seen “a degree of class solidarity few believed possible.”

That degree of solidarity was quickly lost as Europe descended into war. Wayne Thorpe, Associate Professor at McMaster University, describes in his essay, International Syndicalists in Europe, 1914-18, how syndicalists across Europe fought a brave but losing battle against the drive to war.

According to Thorpe the syndicalists had four key arguments against war. Firstly, they argued that ‘national’ cultures where not mutually hostile, secondly, they denied that the state was the embodiment of representative culture, thirdly that cultures or nations did not go to war but states did. Fourthly and finally when the war came they highlighted the need for workers movement to mount its struggle on the cultural as well as the economic terrain.

The syndicalist journal Tierra y Libertad in Barcelona predicted in 1915, that; “if the war ended not in generalised revolution but with clear victory for either side, the result would not be peace, but a mere truce of whatever duration the defeated side needed to recoup, raise the flag of cultural defence and strike back.”

How right they where! Reiner Tosstorff, historian at the Johannes Guttenburg University in Mainz has written about the history of the Profintern (the RILU, the Red International of Labour Unions) and has also written about the history of the POUM in the Spanish Civil War. His essay about syndicalist relations with the one country that did undergo a revolution as a result of that war is called Syndicalism and the Bolshevik Revolution.

This essay is a review of the impact on the syndicalist movement of the Bolshevik victory in Russia. Meetings between syndicalists and Bolsheviks only became practical after 1920 with many syndicalist organisations sending delegates to the second Comintern congress in July-August 1920. The syndicalsist where split in how to relate to the Bolsheviks and this split was confirmed at a meeting of syndicalist organisations in Berlin in December 1920.

Despite reservations but not wanting to split the international revolutionary movement almost all of them turned up at the founding congress of the RILU in 1921. The syndicalists where completely outnumbered and despite some doubts broadly gave their support to the communists due to their emphasis on economic and industrial action and on workers control and factory councils. One of the most prominent syndicalist converts to communism was Andres Nin with in the end devastating consequences. Interestingly Trotsky played a role in the discussions between the syndicalists and the Bolsheviks and it was for Trotskyite deviationism that Nin was expelled from the Communists in 1928.

Tosstorrf argues that “it cannot be disputed that former revolutionary syndicalists furnished Stalinism with a ‘proletarian basis and veneer.” There is another interesting point raised by that Tosstorff about the relationship between syndicalism and anarchism. He argues that it was the reaction against communism that drove the syndicalists into the arms of the anarchists. “Sydicalism now found its ideological basis in anarchism to an extent which had not been so determining for pre-war syndicalism.”

He points out that revolutionary syndicalism became anarcho-syndicalism in 1922 with the formation of the International Working Men’s Association which sadly “never became an international based on mass influence.”

The other two essays in this collection Paul Buhle, lecturer at Brown University and author of Wobblies! A Graphic history of the IWW, on Syndicalism in the USA and Gregor Gall, Professor of Industrial relations at Hertfordshire University, on Radical Unionism in Britain cover more familiar terrain. Buhle provides an overview of syndicalist ideas in the US through many movements and organisations, including the IWW and up to the League of revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit in the 1970s.

Gall extends the view from syndicalism to ‘radical’ labour unionism evaluating the limits and potential of such radical movements with analytical and historical comparisons with more moderate forms of trade unionism.

Do these essays help provide answers to Darlingtons dilemmas? Well up to a point. Firstly how much influence did the syndicalists have? Well just here in Britain, as Gordon points out, considering it was such a short flowering, the syndicalist movement “bequeathed the Communist Party of Great Britain its first leadership generations, its most symbolic contribution is said to have been to have driven Sidney and Beatrice Webb to draft the now defunct Clause IV of the Labour party’s constitution in November 1917 as an antidote to pre war syndicalism.”

I have always been a supporter of that Clause IV:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

I suppose it does have the sound of the Old Testament about it but is none the worse for that as it is quite beautiful language. It is understandable why it created so much affection in the supporters of the ‘Old’ Labour Party. Sadly there was no attempt by Old Labour (and most certainly not by New Labour which struck it from the constitution) to make any meaningful attempt to fulfill the terms of this commitment. There was precious little support for workers control or even for the tame British Co-operative movement. So the fact they had at least had to pay lip service to these ideas is interesting.

The other legacy of the syndicalist movement was the pressure for trade union amalgamations and federations. The formation of the National Union of Railwaymen, The National Union of Miners and the Transport and General Workers Union began this process. Attempts to form the One Big Union have certainly continued but have sadly been in more recent years pursued from a position of weakness rather than strength.

Syndicalists have in some ways been less compromised by the potential for trade unions to be absorbed into the state than by the social democratic trade unions. Here in the UK the complete cul de sac of social democratic politics has been confirmed by the last Labour Government. Indeed the recent evidence shows that unions like the RMT, which is easily the most militant, is that it is also the fastest growing. Expelled from membership of the Labour Party for supporting candidates from other parties it has returned to the basics of fighting with and for its members in the process making it feared by government whichever party is in office.

There is no doubt, that whilst not the case everywhere, in the UK, despite its small size the Communist Party squeezed out any space to the left of Labour for alternative viewpoints. Many of the leadings syndicalist thinkers and activists and their organisations ended up being absorbed into the Communist Party. On the collapse of the Soviet Union that space on the left was, at least initially, occupied by other well organised tendencies in the communist movement mainly Trotskyists but widespread disillusion with their style of doing politics coupled with a revulsion of parliamentary democracy and a revival in co-operative and green thinking does now, I believe, create fresh space for alternative ideas.

There is no doubt that now is the time for a syndicalist revival. Let us hope that the continued historical re-evaluation of the syndicalist experience contributes to that process.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Firefighters and the Blitz

Firefighters and the Blitz
By Francis Becket
With an introduction by, Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fore Brigades Union.
Published by Merlin Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-85036-673-0.

The executive council of the Fire Brigades Union are to be congratulated for commissioning this short popular, well illustrated, seventieth memorial to the over one thousand firefighters who died and the many thousands who where injured in the Blitz. There is considerable revisionism in current historical thinking about the home front in the war to which this book adds another chapter.

It is a familiar story of amateurism and class privilege being replaced by professionalism and a structure fit for the huge tasks the war presented, with a great deal of heroism in between. It is astonishing how poorly prepared the service was for war, considering how much of the talk before the war had been about the threat from the air. What’s more it is largely thanks to the FBU that the service evolved into one capable of meeting the challenge.

At the beginning of the war there where 1,600 independent fire brigades each a separate fiefdom run on military lines. Becket says that the Home Office had been thinking about the threat since Hitler came to power in 1933 but it took until 1937 for them to fund fire precautions and improvements in the nations fire fighting services.

Despite the experience from Spain it was not until 1938 that a civilian fire service was formed - the Auxiliary Fire Service. The Fire Brigades Act of 1938, made fire protection compulsory for every local authority in Britain, with the country divided into 11 regions to coordinate resources but there was no extra cash or any reduction in the number of brigades. The biggest the London Fire Brigade had only 106 pumping appliances whilst some of the smallest, controlled by Parish Councils, only had a few part timers and an ancient pump.

In the early part of the war fire fighters tackled some terrifying blazes with large amounts of improvised kit and considerable bravery and stoicism. It was the very toughest of learning environments. Yet it took two years before the government realised the service needed to be unified and it was nationalised in August 1941.

A classic example of the type of bureaucratic bungling was when the London Fire Brigade left its area to tackle a blaze following an air raid on the fuel depots at Thamesdown. On arrival they where told only the local commander could make the request for assistance. “In the absence of a local officer, the order had to go through the regional commissioner for Essex and East Anglia, who was, it turned out, the Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Efforts where made to contact this eminent gentleman, the Master [however] had retired for the night and his staff were reluctant to wake him.”

Some improvised equipment was highly successful like the two wheeled trailer pumps that ended up being pulled around by over two thousand London Taxi driver volunteers. This is reminiscent of the mythology of the little boats that saved the day at Dunkirk - heroic certainly but no substitute for a properly equipped and trained service.

If there is a real hero of this story it is John Horner, FBU General Secretary from 1934 until 1964, he battled, with amongst others Herbert Morrison, to modernise and professionalise the service. According to current FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack, he “was the most significant person in the Unions history”. It was Horner who realised how important it was to recruit the members of the auxiliary fire service into the FBU thereby strengthening the unions hand in the formation of a national fire service. Sadly the national service was not retained after the war. It never fails to amaze how politicians of all stripes have the capacity to praise to the skies the work of the emergency services when they are needed and then treat them so badly once the emergency has passed.

The country was woefully prepared for the war and if Hitler had decided to finish us off he almost certainly could have done. He didn’t and we got our second chance but not before many people paid with there lives.

I remember going to see my grandparents in November 1990. When I arrived my grandfather was glued to the local television news. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the devastating attack on Coventry. That night we found out for the first time that he had been working on building hangers for the shadow factory at Ryton near Coventry. The morning after the attack he and his fellow workers where asked to go into town to help clear up the mess and damp down the fires.

Fifty years later he was still traumatised by what he had seen that day. That night 554 people had been killed including 26 firefighters. That was the first time he had told anyone of his experiences, including my grandmother, he was full of praise for the fire crews who had battled all night having come from as far away as London and Peterborough.

There are many lessons to be learned from the experience of the fire service in the Second World War and whilst this book is a splendid introduction I believe the subject is worthy of a much more substantial study.