Saturday, 30 October 2010

Trade unions and rank and file movements

This is my introduction to Brian Pearce's classic essay 'Some past rank and file movements', which we have just posted on Counterfire.

There are two basic divisions inside the trade unions. One is the division between left and right - including contests between left-wing and right-wing candidates for leading positions in the unions. The other division is between the bureaucracy and the grassroots members.

Trade unions are the essential defence organisations of the working class inside capitalist society. They are necessary for us to protect pay and conditions against employers' attempts to increase exploitation for their own profit. They bring together large numbers of working people, enabling us to take united action in defence of our interests - or in solidarity with other groups of workers.

It is therefore in the nature of trade unions - as mass organisations of the working class - to reflect the varied and contradictory ideas circulating in society. They are reformist organisations, seeking improvements or concessions within existing capitalist society rather than the overthrow of capitalism altogether. These contradictory ideas are inevitable: unions can only be effective if they involve large numbers able to take decisive action. They have to be broad-based working class organisations.

This means there will always be arguments and tensions - put crudely, between left and right - in the trade union movement. It also ensures that the unions are constantly vulnerable to making compromises with ruling class opponents. In this respect the trade union leaders play a particularly vital role.

Even the most left-wing union leaders are inclined to look for compromise in negotiations with the employers or government. The bureaucracy's role is precisely to mediate between the members it represents and the employers.

Senior union officials are typically paid far more than rank and file members of their union. They work full time for the union and are therefore separated from direct contact with ordinary union members and from the day-to-day experiences of their working lives. They are therefore subject to pressures pulling them away from authentically expressing, and fighting for, the interests of rank and file trade unionists.

To a certain extent the culture of union officialdom affects every level of the trade union machine, including at local level, with a tendency to see union work as about compromise not confrontation, and as a professionalised activity removed from daily practices of trade union members.

In recognition of the limits of the trade union bureaucracy, many socialists since the birth of the union movement in the 19th century have sought to build rank and file organisations. This doesn't mean abandoning trade unions as mass organisations; nor does it involve completely ignoring the often important left-right contests at the top of the unions. It's about building the independent strength of grassroots members as a counterweight to the bureaucracy's tendency to sell them short.

Here's how Trotsky put it in 1938:

'All sections of the Fourth International [i.e. revolutionary organisations] should always strive not only to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely in critical moments advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries and careerists ; but also to create in all possible instances independent militant organisations corresponding more closely to the problems of mass struggle in bourgeois society.'Brian Pearce

This quote appears at the start of Brian Pearce's illuminating essay 'Some past and rank and file movements', first published in 1959. This important essay was later part of a superb collection called 'A History of Communism in Britain', a book of essays written by Pearce and fellow Trotskyist Michael Woodhouse, published in 1969 (and reissued by Bookmarks in 1995).

Below we republish the first half of this essay, providing both a Marxist account of the role and politics of rank and file movements and a potted history of three highly significant historical examples: the Great Unrest (1910-14), the shop stewards movements during World War One, and the Communist Party-led Minority Movement in the 1920s.

Pearce is not merely providing a trade union history; this is a profoundly political assessment with lessons for us today. He looks at the interactions between different elements, for example the relationship between organised socialists and trade union struggles. He doesn't simply give us 'history from below', celebrating grassroots resistance, but examines how the rank and file interacted with the unions' official leaders.

Pearce was a longtime member of the Communist Party in Britain, but broke from the CP - and became involved in Trotskyist circles - in the aftermath of the crisis of 1956, when thousands of CP members became disillusioned with the official Communist movement following the Soviet Union's crushing of the Hungarian revolution. You can sense him rediscovering the radical history which shaped the formation of the CP in 1920/21 and then, with the Minority Movement, the CP's early years when it was still a genuinely Marxist organisation. Pearce is also thinking through the political implications of the strikes and resistance of 1910-26, a period which reshaped both the British Left and the trade unions.

Today levels of strike action are low, and rank and file movements exist in no more than embryo form. If there is to be a renewal of the power of the union grassroots, we need to learn the lessons from history and also examine the particular circumstances we find ourselves in today. History won't simply be repeated. We are re-publishing Brian Pearce's contribution to our understanding of these issues as a means to learning from history, as the basis for exploring and discussing the tasks facing us today.'

Other archive pieces at Counterfire:

Duncan Hallas: The Comintern and the united front
Tony Cliff: Naqba and the roots of Israel's violence
Georg Lukacs: Lenin, the vanguard party and the working class
Alexandra Kollontai: Class and women's oppression
Chris Harman: Iran - revolution, Islamism and the left
Leon Trotsky: The Lessons of October


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