Thursday, 12 April 2007

Branch Meeting: The CPGB and the Trade Unions

No, we were not spending our valuable time talking about our Weekly Worker friends. The topic of tonight's talk was the implantation the old Communist Party had in the trade unions, what they did with it, and how the Socialist Party and the rest of the left can avoid the mistakes they made.

Comrade S went back to the CPGB's pre-history in the grass roots militancy that gestated in the industrial hothouse of the First World War. Committees of shop stewards had mushroomed across unions, and importantly a number of its militants (organised by the then Socialist Labour Party) fed into the infant CP. This union strength was the basis for the emergence of the Minority Movement in the early-mid 20s - a powerful trend in the labour movement that claimed one million trade unionists. Baring in mind the MM was affiliated to the CPGB, this was a colossal achievement for an organisation numbering only 6,000!

But what did this amount to? Looking at the historical record, its power was only latent. S argued it managed to get people voted into TUC positions but that was about it. While undoubtedly MM supporters were active in the 1926 General Strike it did not act in a concerted fashion, and was put on the back foot after the class suffered a strategic defeat. Part of the reason was the lack of a clear lead coming from the CPGB itself. As a young, militant organisation composed for the most part by grass roots activists, it saw the trade unions as corrupt and corrupting institutions. But for the most part its practice was to win positions within it, which of course was at odds with the analysis it was professing.

With the coming of the infamous 'Third Period' over 1929-33, the union influence further declined. Whereas in the past the CP was prepared to work with other lefts, this was now officially frowned upon. Labour party trade unionists and others were branded 'social fascists', and the effect was to flush a lot of previously accumulated political capital down the loo. The party's ultra-leftism did not rally the masses to its banner, instead it isolated itself from the class. In my opinion one can lambast the Communist International for officially promoting this stupid behaviour, but its sectarian seeds had to fall on fertile ground for them to be taken up enthusiastically by so many CPs. For example, in Germany the KPD did not unite with the Social Democrats against the Nazis simply because Stalin told them not to. They genuinely detested the SPD for the way it had beheaded the German revolution and crapped on workers' struggles throughout the Weimar years. But I digress.

With the destruction of the German workers' movement and partially because of workers' unity in the face of fascist provocations in France, the Comintern line started favouring a cross-class alliance of all anti-fascist forces. In Britain this meant the CP in the trade unions had to rebuild the relationships it had previously sqaundered. This was complicated later on with the outbreak of war and a zig-zagging of the party's position (from anti-fascist conflict to inter-imperialist war to anti-fascist conflict again). Though much has been made of the CPGB as an agent of industrial peace during the war years, it nevertheless managed to retain trade union credibility through an involvement in small scale, workplace-centred strikes. It was this base and not really any prestige the USSR had won that forms the starting point of its trade union strength in the post-war period. Its trade unionism assumed economistic forms. CPGB comrades were elected to union positions on the basis of their being model trade unionists who could win battles over pay and conditions - their politics were more or less inconsequential. And given the CPGB moved more to workplace-based branches after the war, this exacerbated the submerging of its politics into routine trade unionism.

In a sense this approach paid off. It was able to punch way above its weight in the labour movement and was an extremely significant trade union actor by the 1960s. But again, it was what was done with this influence that was the key criterion by which the party should be judged. Moving away from the idea unions were institutionally corrupt, they were now seen as neutral apparatuses that could play a significant role in socialist advance. But significantly workers' activity now played a walk-on role. The rank and file were fodder to be mobilised to push the TU tops into taking official action, and thereby move the country along that British road to socialism. There was no place in this strategy for unsanctioned and spontaneous workplace activity. Socialism would be delivered from on high, by the bureaucrats and a CP-backed Labour government.

Despite the paucity of strategic vision the party played key roles when our class went on the offensive in the late 60s and early 70s. Its front group, the Liason Committee to Defend Trade Unions contributed to the defeat of Labour's In Place of Strife and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of strike days against the Tory Industrial Relations Act. But this was a proud exception to much of what its trade union work had become. In the T&GWU it was effectively an election machine for the soft left but designated 'fellow traveller', Jack Jones. Elsewhere such as in the building industry, in the NUT and NALGO, its activists were bureaucratised and were effectively part of the apparatus while the Trotskyists assumed the mantle of standing up for the rank and file.

S finished the lead off at the end of the 70s, before the onset of the awful 80s and the party's final liquidation in 1991. In sum the comrade suggested three key lessons the SP and the left today can draw from ithe CPGB's 70 years of experience.

1) Organising in workplaces should not come at the expense of excluding other forms of party work. S flagged up the existence of part-time CPGB'ers who were only really party members during the hours they worked. If activists are more rounded out, so will the party.

2) It is important to get comrades into elected positions, but not neglect the shopfloor.

3) Making alliances with other forces in the unions and labour movement is necessary, but to bury political identites or attempt to hide differences would be a mistake. A false unity is no unity at all.

This was followed by a wide ranging discussion, traversing the roots of Stalinism and how it informed CPGB trade union practice, the party's social life, Chavez(!), and the need for working class political independence in all our work. Undoubtedly this was helped by the presence of a couple of Burslem posties and it usefully prefaced a later discussion on the latest developments in their workplace, the role of the CWU, and the problems of working class organisation.

In my opinion this was a timely discussion, and not just because of Stoke branch's solidarity work. Our party in many ways is beginning to resemble the CPGB in miniature with regards to union implantation, and so the danger to repeat past mistakes is always there. Though in my opinion our politics are superior to those of the CPGB in all phases of its development, these by themselves will not innoculate trade union comrades from workplace routinism and the other "attractions" of TU work. We need to thoroughly examine our practice and that of others to ensure we attract as many existing activists as possible, that we continue to rebuild the labour movement, and work toward the offensive organisation our class.


Geoff Collier said...

I find it strange that you don't mention Broad Lefts, neither in the CP nor in your own BLOC sense. Both are of some importance

The impetus for the CP's broad leftism came from their isolation - roughly speaking due to Hungary and the vote-fixing debacle in the electricians' union (both issues related to some extent. This was why Jack Jones - and Hugh Scanlon of the engineering workers -achieved their victories.

Then in the 1980s came the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC) which comprised a number of Militant-dominated broad lefts, (plus a few independent groupings like the Socialist Teachers Alliance. It seemed to me that Militant had aquired a whole layer of people who were replicating some mistakes of the CP. One example,albeit from slightly earlier (1982?) was the betrayal of the Oxford and Birmingham strikes (I think it was DHSS) whilst Militant controlled the CPSA.
Anyway, you might not accept my interpretation :-) but your party has been through the experience at some level in the past

Cameron said...

For a rather more balanced role of the CPGB in 1926.

Curious how today's trots think they are in advance of Communists in the 1920s. Delusional, to say the very least.

Renegade Eye said...

The trots were the communists of the early 1920s.

Interesting post.

AN said...

This is a bit of a bizarre post Phil.

To describe the minority movement and CP rank and file politics as having such limited influence, you need to ignore (as you do) the phenomenal success for the "busman's punch", and the CP's success among engineering aprentices, and elsewhere.

Now was the triumph of the third period ultra-leftism ever complete in the CP, for example the national unemployed workers movement largely avoided those errors.

It wiould also seema travesty to describe CP influence as being entirley top down, becasue they had a significant layer in lay bodies such as combine committes, etc, and in engineering and the car industary thriri strength was much more through the shop floor than in the officials.

But mostly, your assessmetn that the SP's influence in the unions is even a shadow of a suggestion of a small version of the CP's, is just plain wrong. The CP didn't punch above its weight, that really was its weight!

Some 30000 members even by 1970, represetning an importnat leading layer in the shop stewards movement.

I would strongly recommend to anyone intersested the book by Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse, which brings together a number of articles published by the SLL during the 1960s: "A History of Communism in Britain", (London: Bookmarks) 1995 [originally published 1969].

Phil BC said...

Well as you may have spotted Andy I'm by no means an expert on CP trade union history. But like most on the left that doesn't prevent me from indulging my two pennies worth on CPGB-related matters.

This post is a report on a lead off given by a comrade on the CP and the unions. If something is ommitted from the piece it's either because brother S didn't mention it or I couldn't remember it.

On the CP having a top down approach to trade unionism, I wouldn't (and don't think I did) suggest it was top down in every circumstance. Circumstances differed across unions. But based on my own reading of CP history (Willie Thompson, Francis Beckett, the odd Weekly Worker piece, and an old Workers' Power pamphlet on trade unionism) that was the overall thrust of CP industrial strategy - to mobilise workers to back/put pressure on official union structures to take action, a position entirely congruent with the top down British Road to Socialism.

AN said...

Well yeah, but the subject is possibly the most important one for socialists to study, as for all their weaknesses, the CP are the most significant socialist force to have worked within the structures and traditions of the british labour movement.

I think you need (and comrade S) to look a lot more positively at the minority movement, and the way the CP worked in the 1920s, and also much more positively at the way the party worked to rebuild shop floor organisation during the 1930s (a pertinent lesson for today). It would be far from true that the CP's industrial work was "top down" during that period.

Even when looking at the 1950s to 1970s, the CP's commitment to broad lefts also included building substantial networks of militants in combine committees, etc. Don't forget that it was largely the CP who scuppered the Industrial Relations Act, by industrial strength.

Where there was a strategic failure was not in the nature of their trade unions base, but that they refused to mobilise that base sufficiently against incomes policy under Wilson and Callaghan. I don't think that by the CP failure was inevitable, nor do I think the failure of the shop stewards movement to defend itself was inevitable, even after the CP leaderhsip failed the test.

As Geoff points out above, the general approch of the CP was ater replicated wiith some success but on a smaller scale by the Militant. And that would not have been a controverisal point to make to the Millies in the 1980s, so it is interesting that the SP today has a different starting point.

lawrence said...


Interesting stuff. However, some of the points made in your intro are factually questionable.

"And given the CPGB moved more to workplace-based branches after the war, this exacerbated the submerging of its politics into routine trade unionism."

It is true that CPGB activists merged themselves in routine trade union work. However, CPGB workplace branches actually declined after the war (despite congress resolutions and nagging from the leadership). It was a key facet of many of the CPGB's revolutionary oppositions down the years (some Maoist, others not) that the Party practically downgraded such branches because it was committed to an electoral road and not one that sought to utilise the workfloor as an alternative centre of power. Maybe partly true but another reason was that if you just merged yourself into mundane trade unionism at the expense of your politics (what politics you had left after becoming wedded to Labourism) there was no need for a Party branch to do that. Often CPGB members worked as individuals or as small union clots.

"The party's ultra-leftism did not rally the masses to its banner, instead it isolated itself from the class."

Yes, partly true, but Pollitt (and militants such as Horner) led a strong rearguard action in favour of remaining in the 'refomist unions' rather than forming red unions.

Nina Fishman's book on the CP and trade unions is good on this, as is Kevin Morgan's book on Pollitt.

I wrote this review, which could be of interest:

Best wishes,
Lawrence Parker

andynbs said...

Hello Phil, interesting discussion of CP in the unions. Its a good blog.
Andy F, Mrseyside