Direct Action (SWF): Vol 5 #11 (41) Nov 1964

cover of Direct Action v5 #11 1964  - a newspaper "for workers direct control of industry"

Novemer 1964 issue of Direct Action including: Shadow Minister of Labour Ray Gunter, Irish Travellers start their own workshop, boycott Spain, Christie-Carballo demonstrations, Dublin building workers, hire and fire at Remingon-Rand in Glasgow, debate: trade unionism or syndicalism?, minimum wage in Canada, victimisation at Collins publishers, Lancashire engineering apprentices organise, SWF industrial action sub-commitee formed.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 1, 2022

Controversy: Trade Unionism or Syndicalism? - Tom Brown and Peter Turner

An exchange of views in the pages of the Syndicalist Workers Federation paper Direct Action in 1964.

Typed up by Kate Sharpley Library.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 1, 2022

Peter Turner writes…

Tom Brown, in his article “School for Syndicalism” (D.A., September) [Actually August - Libcom] claims the best of both worlds. The organisation he describes, which “overcame at one bound the hundredfold divisions of the workers. All crafts, semi-skilled, the boys and the women, were drawn together in frequent mass meetings. They elected and withdrew delegates, now know as shop stewards, whenever necessary.” This type of thing still goes on today and is part of the unofficial rank and file movement in industry which exists within the framework of the official trade unions.

They may be based on Syndicalist and IWW ideas, but I am sure only a very few workers involved in these movements realise this. These unofficial movements should be encouraged and anarchists in industry should play an active role. But these are not the “new union movement” as Tom Brown describes them. What Malatesta means by this is a movement based solely on syndicalist lines with the abolition of capitalism as its aim.

There seems to me to be nothing “pontifical” in the statement that

“Malatesta’s main contentions still hold, that those anarchists who are prepared to act in the industrial sphere should work within the existing unions rather than propagate the idea of a new union movement.”

These were Malatesta’s views and it is exactly what workers were doing during World War I.

Where are the syndicalist industrial unions? We just haven’t got them in this country and even where they have existed, there were often strong reformist tendencies. I think that, in this country, it is better to work within the existing trade unions, propagating not only syndicalist and IWW ideas, but anarchist ones as well.

The syndicalist method of organisation can and is used in industry today, but needs extending. To knock the ideas of a particular anarchist, when they are applicable today, is rather shortsighted and dogmatic and to describe him as a “coffee-bar revolutionary” is stupid. As Tom Brown writes, “It remains for us to broaden the ideas of the valuable experience!” Surely the experience and ideas of Malatesta, Mann, James Connolly and Larkin can help us with this and the lessons learned from the present day mixed-economy capitalism can help us spread our ideas amongst the industrial workers.

Tom Brown replies…

Twenty-five years ago I was asked, by my fellow editors of the Anarchist War Commentary, to write three articles on Syndicalism. When the articles were published, Ethel Mannin urged us to reprint them as a pamphlet. We did so and the pamphlet was at once a success, having to be re-set and reprinted three times.1 . It was reprinted, too, in the USA and translated and printed in Spanish by the exiled CNT in France, into Japanese by the Japanese Anarchist Federation and into Norwegian.

During that time I heard of no-one in the Anarchist movement in Britain who objected to the principles and practices outlined in the pamphlet; on the contrary, it was accepted as an outline of our principles.

I have never departed from those principles, for I have not found anything wrong in them and events have proved their efficacy.

Since the war, however, some have thought it necessary to attack Syndicalism, while retaining the name of Anarchism, and for many years have sought an alternative to fill the vacuum. Unable to think of anything better, they have fallen back on reactionary trade unionism. Where lies this degeneration to reformism?

Peter Turner says of the workers’ committees: “This type of thing still goes on today.” Of course it does. Nevertheless, it did start as the result of Syndicalist and IWW word and deed, as the historians of industrial history, friendly, inimical or neutral, testify. The committees exist and grow because workers need an alternative to the effete unions – and whence can it come but from Syndicalist thought and precept?

Yes, few workers realise the origin of the factory committee movement, but that does not destroy its efficacy. Tonight, millions of people in Britain will switch on their electric lights, few will give a thought to Joseph Swan, the inventor, but they will not, because of that, go back to tallow candles. Countless millions now alive and well would have perished long ago, but for the work of Dr. Jenner and the country folk who guided him. Except for monuments to the father of vaccine, mostly in Latin America, his work is unsung, but nobody wishes to go back to smallpox.

Of “this type of thing” Peter Turner says it “is part of the unofficial rank and file movement in industry which exists within the framework of the official trade unions.” Here we have two opposites existing in one body. This movement is “unofficial,” it also “exists within the framework of the official trade unions.” If that’s not making the best of both worlds, then pigs do fly. I would like to ask every anti-Syndicalist Anarchist, “Do you ever listen to yourself contradicting yourself?”

The movement away from reactionary unionism was the work of what has been called “New Unionism.” In shape and meaning, this is exactly what it was. Here is the heart of the matter – and its understanding will justify this controversy. It was not Trade Unionism. True, it was only one stage of the development of Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and there are other stages yet, but this one is now accepted by most workers who are interested in their own problems. But the factory committees have never been accepted by the unions, except by force majeure, and these unions have fought a constant, though losing battle to control, tame, and even brainwash the shop stewards.

Any steward who does his plain duty finds himself torn between his stewardship and the attempted domination of the union bureaucracy. Unless he understands the inherent irreconcilability of the two opposing principles, he becomes as a table-tennis ball between two bats. The workers, to accomplish even their own defence, must break the chains with which the trade unions seek to bind them and continue to develop their organisation, self-controlled, at their place of work.

What is the term most used in public discussion of workers’ committees and strike action? Unofficial! Pick up any newspaper any day. In one week in London, a one-day strike of dockers and the promise of more to come, three-day strike of a considerable section of the tube railmen, successful action by the workers of the big United Dairies and several other actions in factories, all unofficial, all from below. Wilson, on the eve of the Election, threatened “unofficial strikers”; his Minister of Labour, Ray Gunter, a trade union official, started his first day of office with a strong threat against a proposed unofficial strike of London dockers, who at once rounded on their own officials, “Whose side is he on?”

Even before the 1914-18 war, Syndicalists warned the workers that the trade unions would become increasingly part of the State machine (it was a Liberal government then). This has been proved true under Labour and Tory governments. Churchill described the trade unions as the “Fourth Estate” – the other three are the Commons, the Lords Temporal and the Lords Spiritual.

Perhaps the best recent example of the marriage of unions and State is in the autobiography of the Trades Union Congress’s most famous secretary, Lord Citrine (Men and Work, Hutchinson, 40s.). Reviewing it, H.D. Ziman writes:

“By the end of the book, it goes only to the outbreak of war in 1939, the reader realises that the close relations that exist between the TUC and the Cabinet (whatever the latter’s politics) were created early in Lord Citrine’s 20 years’ General Secretaryship, not in or after the Second World War. The frequent visits he paid to 10 Downing Street did not leak out, since he slipped along the corridor which led from the Treasury building. He seems to have enjoyed being behind the scenes.” Daily Telegraph, 3.9.64

Work in the unions – but don’t forget those secret passages!