Dave Walton's (AKA David Wise) introduction to "Reflections On The Lumb by Dave Lamb", including comments on the Building Workers Group.
The following text was hand written very hastily during a few late nights in March 1997. The gang was knocking out a fair-sized, off the cards, plastering job and exhaustion was the name of the game. It was at the behest of Wildcat in Germany, an ultra-leftist outfit commendably insisting on workers’ autonomy superceeding leftist and trade union forms of struggle. It was simultaneously translated into German and typed up there while final reflections were added a week or so later It was put together in a small book alongside a translation of Dave Lamb’s Solidarity pamphlet, The Lump, An Heretical Analysis, which came out in Britain in 1974.
Reflections was translated verbatim and some peculiar loop the loops in English grammar should maybe have been altered. No matter, they have been corrected here. One or two new footnotes have been added and some of the German ones – which here need no explanation – have been left out. It was, though, a text for German readers and this accounts for a lot of the many broader generalities which, had it been for home grown consumption, would have been more developed. Some details no longer apply though the broad thrust still very much does.
Much of the pamphlet deals with the often bizarre conflict between rank ‘n’ file lumpers and rank ‘n’ file trade unionists, when, often it really isn’t or shouldn’t be a conflict at all – and most protagonists deep down know it! In particular, the rank ‘n’ file Building Worker Group was singled out for particular critical attention.. More should have been elaborated but time was of the essence as after all, the BWG is certainly better than all others proclaiming independence from the set paradigms of the union. Recently, the Building Worker Group, (BWG) has had a text published by Revolutions Per Minute: RANK AND FILE OR BROAD LEFT?: A short history of the Building Worker Group1 . It certainly makes for interesting reading.
The Building Worker Group (BWG) was formed in 1974 at the behest of the then Trotskyist, International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party) as part of their industrial strategy creating base groups in a period of high workers’ combativity. These base groups initially attracted a lot of fairly clued-in workers pissed-off in one way or another with the Left Labour/ Communist Party reliance on the workers as nothing more than an actively demonstrating pressure group on left wing MPs and left-leaning union officials.
Seemingly, these base groups appeared to be independent bodies with often their own newspaper, relying only on the power of the workers themselves. In reality though, they were nothing more than the hoped for industrial muscle of the party and no autonomy or spontaneous activity was to be given any significant head.
Once Thatcher’s dictatorial, anti-working regime came to power, the SWP feeling and anticipating defeat in the air – and well before real bitter defeat became a grim reality – disbanded these caucuses. Some bitter rumblings surfaced from below but most succumbed to this diktat. In July 1982, Tony Cliff, the leading SWP ideologue, orderedthe BWG to be disbanded. They rightly refused and those members in the SWP, of whom Brian Higgins was one were expelled from the party. If other industrial branches had possessed the same spirit as Higgins and co, we might now have had a more lively scene industrially, perhaps not unlike the COBAS rank ‘n’ file bodies in Italy, even though such organisations though more insistent on anti-bureaucratic spontaneous responses, in themselves are also incapable of transcending a trade union form.
This shock certainly helped to broaden minds in realising the enormity of enemies you then faced as the BWG carried on through many disputes, slowly but remorselessly bitterly criticising the Broad Left approach seeing it essentially as a convenient trajectory deployed by the bosses. Rightly the BWG perceived that the SWP had, after appearances to the contrary, fallen in with this trajectory. (mind you, the SWP had always been on this jag) In the following years, the BWG were to come up against most of the far leftist, mainly Trotskyist, parties who rubbished them whenever possible. Prominent among them were the Workers Revolutionary Party though Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party played its part too, knocking them because they wouldn’t support a big wig union official who had tried to take Higgins to court.
The BWG slowly produced a very pertinent analysis of Broad Left behaviour in various disputes during the 1980s and since. Among them were the British Library, Southwark Council Direct Building Works Dept, Northampton Labour Council, Hays Wharf and The Laing’s Lock Out Committee in 1985/6 which, "set London alight for six months". Historically, they grounded this in a critique of the Building Workers Charter which was at the fulcrum of the 1972 building workers’ strike as the first of the Broad Left pressure groups pretending it was a rank ‘n’ file organisation. No doubt they saw its menacing shadow at work in the 1980s semi-independent organisations like the Joint Sites Committee and the London Steel Erectors Committee with the latter, having no independence from the London Regional Secretary of the AEU though playing on the appearance of some kind of autonomy. The same goes for OILC (Off Shore Industrial Laison Committee) who were merely a recruiting rank ‘n’ file outfit organising for the benefit of union officials but forced by their own devious momentum to go on strike. Once things seemed to be getting out of hand they made certain union officials moved in to finish off a potentially momentous oil workers struggle in the North Sea just after the bitter defeat of the miners’ strike. If this strike had been allowed to develop – as it had all the spontaneous potential of so doing – it could have reversed the miners defeat. (These particular strikes have been outlined in some detail in two additional texts republished here and which German Wildcat translated in the late 1980s).
Confusion within the BWG really sets in though in the long term aims of a rank ‘n’ file group conceived in terms of a trade union form. The reality is you cannot have aims other than upsetting the bosses and their stooges seemingly forever until one day hopefully they finally completely fall apart beset by so many other impossibilities. It’s impossible to get "total reform of the union" or to "put the unions under workers’ control". At the same time, the BWG desires "new" independent workers organisations seeing them as "almost a necessity". A kind of well meant but incoherent floundering then fills the gap as impasse looms with pointless support for nationalism’s (a 32 county Irish Republic, self-government for Scotland and Wales and, no doubt, now, for the English regions).
As another aside to this process, interestingly the BWG was quite rightly excited by the fuel protests in 2000 and was "horrified" by the TUC’s 2000 conference which called for a mass scabbing of blockades and picket lines. Why though be "horrified" when you know bureaucrats regularly go in for this type of thing? It’s that shadow of leftism which all rank ‘n’ file groupings seem to possess and can never get away from. Moreover, the backbone of these protests were the self-employed, the so-called "small-businessmen" – precisely those types vilified as "lumpers" within the building industry. In the pamphlet, the BWG says, "A rank ‘n’ file organisation is open to all workers associated with a particular industry or union be they employed or unemployed". This is just not true yet when an earth shattering revolt breaks out they make an identification which they can never follow through from in their own still lock jawed syndrome. We were also excited and produced some texts just after the protest was peaking - which unfortunately always seems to be the case - (c/f the one included here which was translated and produced for German Wildcat). We tried to highlight some of the contradictions and complications of this short-lived though exhilarating revolt which purist, dead duck and plain boring groups like Echange et Mouvement panned so completely.
At this impasse we do encounter very real problems though. After such activity and history like the BWG has, it’s hardly surprising they’re looked up to by the anarcho-syndicalists who, as always, have the eternal solution to hand of the one big union like the CNT or CNT-U. And there you have it – no need for much further thinking. We well know the history of these organisations and there’s no need to go into them here other than to say, history didn’t produce the new world expected of them. Rank ‘n’ file bodies like the COBAS in Italy don’t have such grandiloquent pretensions and maybe as such are telling as regards the temper of the times. Accounts of COBAS activity in English merely go into details about the activity engendered but what about their aims? The crux of the matter seems to be: is it possible at this historical juncture to have aims other than something more nebulous without also, being fluffy in the process? To be sure one can go on about abolition of the wages system and the spectacular commodity economy but what does all that mean in practise when we already know some of these things were already bureaucratically enshrined in the fixed and fast organisations of the old workers’ movement. Of course, we ardently desire a world without money but getting from here to there is quite a different matter.
Tub-thumping ways of proceeding at this point don’t seem much good and this is where criticism of the BWG’s hectoring tone (that kind of Calvinism alluded to elsewhere in the original text is not only ineffective but can be off-putting. The atmosphere thus engendered becomes, a priori, hostile to opening up discussion, where the unmentionable can be mentioned, and where the ability to listen to others allows ourselves to be influenced and changed in turn thus subverting that privatised, armoured psyche preventing an essential, "but what then" drift.
Unofficial movement, rank ‘n’ file etc over the last 30 years or so have become terms which now lack all meaning unless specified. In the book ‘Glorious Summer’, Darlington and Lyddon2 more or less conceptualise the momemtum of the huge wave of strikes in 1972 as pushed by those below and thus essentially defined by the rank ‘n’ file and as true for the biggest building workers strike in these islands history as for the others. The BWG on the contrary suggest the Broad Left was responsible for sabotaging an outcome on the brink of a more stupendous victory than was achieved.
Certainly at moments of great revolt, officialdom, particularly lower grade officialdom are, willy nilly, dragged along in its wake unable to continue controlling their day to day recuperative routine. If however, that’s all that’s needed such strategy rapidly runs into a brick wall, as on the morrow, though weakened, the structure remains intact ready to gradually take on its old repressive role all over again. Thus the BWG are right to clinically tear apart all the overt contradictions in the organisations they
The BWG also utilise the trade union form. Higgins is after all, Gen’ Sec’ of the Northampton branch of UCATT forced to abide to more than some degree within the union’s statutes. No doubt he is able to push the union form to its very limits reinterpreting things to suit better ends. No doubt, hopefully too, he can direct some of the funds to producing strike leaflets etc with real clout and purpose and in effect, related to BWG activity. Often a leaflet is necessary and if there’s no ready source to pay for it, a proposed action is severely limited. We must be realistic here. In the text on The Winter Of Discontent3 , it’s noted that union offices were sometimes occupied by members as such venues also provided free phones when most urgently needed etc. On a better level and in a more open organisation, Rene Riesel in France was Gen’ Sec’ of the Confederacion Paysanne of small farmers when he instigated exemplary and courageous actions against GM contaminated grain and the like. Later though, Riesel felt impelled to resign his post in this new and more relevant organisation (an organisation far in advance of UCATT) precisely because of its bureaucratic structure and the way it was beginning to ape the aims of big agriculture. Does this now mean that Riesel feels more vulnerable and isloted than ever?
German Wildcat did a good job in a rushed situation. One thing however is contentious relating ver much to what has been said in this introduction. A certain important part was cut out relating to criticisms of the anarcho-syndicalists in the building trade, mainly around Black Flag, and their cooperation with the broad perspectives of Brian Higgins and the BWG which nonetheless are in some kind of flux and looking perhaps for some more coherent critique.
Like the anarcho-syndicalists, Revolutions Per Minute, a publishing project which hosts a web site, The Red Star Research, make no criticism of the general aims of the Building Workers Group. It seems sufficient to be anti the SWP! and approves of Haringey Solidarity Group, with its populist "community" ideologies – in going along with Higgins and co. Criticism is absolutely essential. The issue of the Lump in all its complexities must also be at the centre of such critique which is why the deletion of a pointed part of the original text – and now here reprinted in full – was so irksome. Broadly – and it was no more than broadly – the argument had to do with the anarcho-syndicalists – following through, albeit in a more militant way - the fundamental though now rhetorical aims of the unions. In relation to Higgins, an amusing aside on the man - comparing him with the type of Scottish Calvinist Robbie Burns would have wanly satirised - was also deleted on the grounds that building workers elsewhere wouldn’t know who the guy was. Surely a simple footnote would have sufficed pointing out that Burns, an untutored ploughman was an insurrectionary Scottish poet at the time of the French revolution. After that, well it’s simple enough to go to a library or the Internet to find out more about what an amazing guy Burns was.
Protecting workers from upsetting facts and too-critical (!) thought is never helpful. If some anarcho-syndicalists had got annoyed – and they undoubtedly would have – well tough! On the simplest level what was published was only the opinion of one person. People are then free to condemn such opinion but at least it’s been aired. It seems Wildcat were trying to keep together a heterogeneous bunch of building workers together throughout the world who, over the Internet, were beginning to break away from leftism. It’s also the old story of not alienating the most retarded element meaning it’s only the lowest common denominator keeping everybody together. The trouble is such strategy never works! Around 1981, we published a translation from Spanish called: The Bankruptcy of Syndicalism and Anarchism4 . It was a vitriolic attack on the traditions of a libertarian ideology in Spain when a more relevant, contemporary libertarian critique was now urgently needed. It was hated though: it certainly meant a sensitive button had been pressed.
As previously alluded too, included also here are excerpts from a long letter which was published by Wildcat in the late 80s though it was never published in Britain. It explains a few things about coordinations and the shop stewards movement which maybe useful in relation to the main text. It also includes descriptions of relatively unknown incidences of some especially violent action by building workers on unionised sites which (strangely?) had been forgotten or repressed in the Reflections…. Though very critical of the "new" rank ‘n’ filism it is far too optimistic and even we ourselves had underestimated the degree of the remorseless, whittling defeat taking place - the direct obverse of Pannekoek’s proclaimed piecemeal whittling in Britain then going in the other direction - which Echange et Mouvement often used in a laudatory way. Well, that is until the social collapse here when they all skidadalled!
The other is again a text quickly thrown together on Robert Tressell for the benefit of those in Germany who were quite unaware of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The relevance to our present period when everything is again at rock bottom was perhaps too simplistic. It was less than a profound attempt to put Tressell into some kind of perspective historically and also to explain how grotesquely Tressell had been used by Labour Party and TU hacks. It now seems that some of this text has been quoted in a new German edition published in Switzerland. In 1953 evidently an edited version of the book was printed in the former GDR but most likely in response to the East German workers’ uprising of that year certain parts of the book were censored –perhaps those parts referring to the abolition of the wages system? It seems this censorship and the reasons for it have been pointed out. Unfortunately, the initial English intro failed to make criticisms of the book itself. One quite blatantly stands out. Owen, the "socialist" hero building worker really is one helluva cardboard cut out figure. He’s such a goody goody two shoes it’s almost laughable at times. Does the guy have sex, has he ever been bad just for the sake of it? This isn’t just a carping criticism because it’s precisely such quasi-mythical figures, regaled in moral splendour who are the ideological backbone of that moral puritan force which has such a lamentable trajectory in the history of social insurgency in these islands. It sure is a good time for an end to all that.
- 1Libcom note: https://libcom.org/article/rank-and-file-or-broad-left-short-history-building-worker-group
- 2Libcom note: Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon,Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain, 1972. London: Bookmarks, 2001.
- 3Libcom note: https://libcom.org/article/winter-discontent-introduction
- 4Libcom note: https://libcom.org/article/bankruptcy-syndicalism-and-anarchism-workers-proletarian-autonomy-and-social-revolution