A short biography of Jack Tanner who moved from anarchism to being a right wing trade union leader.
"a young English engineer , with high cheek-bones and a thoughtful face." Quoted in Thorpe. W. The workers themselves
“Jack Tanner was an out-and-out syndicalist. He thought a political party was unnecessary although he agreed that the mass had to be led by the minority and the minority should get together.” J. T. Murphy
“Many of the " Freedom" Group Anarchists objected when I said that Tanner would not last the distance but would degenerate into the usual trade union leader.” Guy Aldred
Jack Tanner was born on 28th April 1889 in Whitstable. His father had a job as sports manager at Alexandra Palace, so Jack moved as a young boy to London. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to an engineering firm in Southwark, but tiring of this he joined the Merchant Navy and travelled around the world. He acquired the nickname of "Handsome Jack" because of his looks.
On his return he worked as a fitter and turner. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and became active in it, also joining the Social Democratic Federation. He read Kropotkin and became an anarchist, subsequently involving himself in syndicalist activity (he frequented the shop of the anarchist tailor James Tochatti in Hammersmith and may have first been introduced to anarchism by him).. He had a part in the foundation of the National Federation of Women Workers. During the 1910s he was active in the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, subsequently joining the Industrial Democracy League in 1913, and contributing regularly to its paper Solidarity, which first appeared as a fortnightly in September of that year, gradually taking more and more of an editorial role. He became a coordinator of anarchist meetings in London after a meeting in August 1911. He spoke regularly at anarchist pitches and was for a while a member of the anarchist group in Marylebone formed in 1912 after a series of anarchist open air meetings in Regents Park.
In 1913 he was secretary of the Ettor-Giovannitti Protest Committee, to defend two Wobblies imprisoned in the USA, speaking alongside anarchist Errico Malatesta. Later in the same year, he was secretary and treasurer of the Malatesta Release Committee after the famous Italian anarchist was arrested by the British police. He was shortly replaced in this role by Guy Aldred. Also in 1913 he chaired the first International Syndicalist Congress in London, attended by delegates from twelve countries. He was involved in the Amalgamation Committee movement. Around this time he met Will Lawther, down from Durham ( he was to take a similar trajectory to the right as Tanner- though speedier) and they both contributed to the anarchist paper The Voice of Labour. He also contributed regular Letters from London to La Vie Ouvriere, paper of the French syndicalist Confédération Générale du Travail. During World War One he worked as an engineer in the Paris suburbs and was active in the Confédération Générale du Travail. He returned to London in 1917 and worked at the Royal Aircraft factory in Farnborough. The black American writer and activist Claude McKay mentions meeting him at the International Socialist Club in Shoreditch during the war, allong with Aldred, George Lansbury, A.J. Cook, Sylvia Pankhurst, etc. The Club was located at 28 East Road off of City Road.
He wrote a pamphlet, The Social General Strike, in 1919. He became active in the Shop Stewards and Workers Committees Movement, and in 1920 attended the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow as one of its delegates. He expressed classic syndicalist views at the conference such as : “A number of those who are active in the shop stewards’ movement are not greatly concerned about the formation of the party, because they have been convinced from their experience in other parties that it was a loss of time to share in the work of such parties." He met Lenin there, and on his return joined the Communist Party, although his membership only lasted eight months. In this period he worked in activity for the expansion of the Red International of Labour Unions serving on its London District Committee (the London RILU, interestingly, produced a short-lived paper called Solidarity). After he left the CP he had an ambivalent attitude towards it. He was active within the National Minority Movement ( a Communist Party front established in 1924 to work within the reformist trade unions) and served on its executive.
He obtained work at the Evening Standard and by 1930 was the London District Committee Organiser of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He became its President in 1939 and served as such until 1953. He remained in an ambiguous relationship with the CP. He welcomed the Second World War enthusiastically. He saw eye to eye with the CP for the need for Joint Production Committees and economic planning in industry in the war years. His increasing right-wing trajectory saw him become President of the Trades Union Congress in 1954. After his retirement in that year he became director of the right-wing Industrial and Research Information Services (IRIS) which reported on and worked against Communist Party activities in the unions.
He died on 3rd March 1965.
Dipaola, P. Italian anarchists in London 1870-1914
Quail, J, The slow burning fuse
Thorpe, W. The workers themselves: revolutionary syndicalism and international labour, 1913-1923
Mates, L. The syndicalist challenge in the Durham coalfield before 1914. PDF at