Answer to Dave Douglass - Cajo Brendel

Brendel replies to Douglass's criticisms of a summary of "Autonomous Class Struggle in Great Britain".

Submitted by libcom on September 20, 2005

Dear Mr. Douglass,

To criticize a text which only is a very brief summary of an original book at least six times longer, a summary which is non-authorized, which the book's author didn't even see before it was published and which made him frown many times, to critize such a text carries certain risks. Pitfalls are looming. It can easily happen that the criticism has very little to do with the author's position and explanations. And this is just what happened to you when putting "Some thoughts ..." on paper. You have been fighting not against my opinions, but against views I never held. Unfortunately the mere fact that the publishers of the pamphlet made it perfectly clear that it was a summary you had in your hands has not been a warning to you.

So even if I am convinced that fundamentally your misunderstandings are the unavoidable result of your position as a trade union man, even if I am not convinced that there would have been less misunderstandings if you knew the original book (just for the same reasons), we do have to keep in mind that your critical remarks are partly justified as being provoked by the result of others' bad summarizing.

A few remarks on the very bad summary of the original book first: Some paragraphs are translated almost word by word, and sometimes footnotes without special interest have been integrated; on the other hand the contents of several dozen pages of the book are not even mentioned. For instance the chapters dealing with political matters are largely summed up, but the chapters concerning the social struggles very shortly. Besides there's the strange way this summing up was done, translating part of the sentences and jumping over two or three sentences to connect directly with another part of the paragraph. One of the best examples is given on p. 1 of the summary (last paragraph). Here five different chapters of the book - one dealing in general with the 1926 general strike - are concentrated on one page. In the named chapter in the original book some words concerning 'initiatives from the base' had a specific meaning in the general context. The summary, however, gives the impression that these words refer to the miners and their union. This allowed you to head off into your diatribe against something not to be found in the original book.

Other examples:

1. Dealing with the strike at Pilkington's (1970) you say that I was guilty of "even" mixing up the unions involved: "... it was the GMWU and not the TGWU at Pilkington's ...". Sure, it was Lord Cooper's General and Municipal Workers Union, and so the reader has been told in the original book. By the way: If somebody could be charged with mixing up things or confusing facts, it's certainly not me but you, Mr. Douglass, asserting "the offensive of 1975" led "to the defeat of the Callaghan government" though in '75 Wilson was prime minister, not Callaghan. Also youu apparently refer to the "winter of discontent" of 1978 saying that "the unions went to war in '75". I would be interested to know when and where the unions did so in 1975.

2. Dealing with Heath's question "Who governs Britain?" you say: "He (Brendel) doesn't even make a preamble that it was the miners' strike of 1974 which brought Heath to ask the question." Again you are wrong. While the miners' strike is ignored in the summarizing pamphlet, this is certainly not so in the original book. In my book I have tried to explain that the miners, if not in words but by their strike, in fact gave a clear answer to the question of the Prime Minister, and that this answer was: "In any case not you!" To add another word of clarification: While having clear positions towards the Tories, I have always had an equally clear (i.e. totally negative) position towards Labour. Never in my life have I been silly enough to bank on the left turns in the Labour Party as you evidently did not so long ago (or possibly are still doing).

3. Mr. Brendel's footnotes, you say, "bear no description of discussion with mineworkers from this generation ...". These words sound a little bit strange, considering that in the pamphlet there are no footnotes at all - while there are plenty of footnotes in the original book. As for the author's discussions with British workers and mineworkers in particular you are utterly wrong again. Among lots of other contacts (in part mentioned and in part not mentioned in the original book) the reader of my book is informed about discussions I had in 1947 in the South Wales mining village of Senghenedd with miners from (the now closed) Windsor Colliery in Abertridwr. And by the way: I am absolutely certain there must be many British trade union officials who have had much less discussions with British workers (even workers of their union) than I have had.

I could go on and on to demonstrate the uselessness of your criticism directed against someone else's bad summary of my book, but not against the book itself. But this leads us nowhere. I hope you don't mind if I insert here some information on my life and my political position, not only because it might tell you something about why I wrote the book about autonomous class struggles in Great Britain, but also to rectify your completely false ideas about my background. There is only one thing you guessed correctly: I wasn't born in a working class family. But the misery of the thirties, the deep depression, the bankruptcy of my father in those days and the resulting poverty of my family roused my interest in social phenomena. I was 16 years old then, and very soon I realized that I should look to Britain, birthplace of modern capitalism, if I really wished to understand the origins of modern social contradictions and the significance of the labour movement. From that time onward Ipored over all the books on the subject the libraries could provide.

"Wisdom from books!" I hear you say. If this may be right in part, it is not the whole truth. At 19 I left the lower middle-class house of my parents and lived for a couple of years in a working-class district. My landlord was a worker, I was surrounded by working-class families, I had only working-class friends. This has been some kind of education for me, not to say 'my university'! I always remained true to the opinions I had formed during my years in the midst of my working-class friends. For a short time I worked in a factory, but most of the time I was on the dole. It was only in the middle of the forties that I couldmake a better living. It was not before 1947 that I was able to go to Britain. In the following years I came back many times, making contacts not with miners only, but with various other members of the working class.

After these introductory remarks I will now turn to what you say about trade unions. What, then, is the fundamental difference between our views of the trade unions? What precisely is the function of a trade union in a capitalist society like Great Britain? Let us start by looking at a very fine remark once made by William Morris, the author of "News from Nowhere" and "Lecture on Socialism", a man whom you will hardly call an enemy of the working class. In 1885 he expressed the view that the unions don't 'represent the whole class of workers as working men but rather are charged with the office of keeping the human part of the capitalists' machinery in good working order and freeing it from any grit of discontent'. I do not hesitate to say that I completely agree with what he says.

What's behind Morris' definition? The undeniable fact that from the very first day of their existence unions have had the task of mediating between capitalists and workers, mediating of course in order to extinguish the flames of conflict between the two parties, not to kindle the fire by pouring oil into it, mediating in order to stabilize the antagonistic relationship of workers and capitalists, not to destroy it. (In the long run this is certainly a completely futile task, but I will say more about this later on.) In this sense the origin of trade unions, contrary to what you seem to believe, has nothing to do with the simple defence of working class people or workers' rights. Not a single union would ever have been accepted for a single day by any capitalist or any employers' association as a partner in discussions if it had not shown its capacity of operating a combination of defending and integrating workers, or, to be more precise, of integrating them into the capitalist system by defending them to a certain extent and with regard to specific problems. On the other hand not a single union would ever have been accepted for a single day by any worker or any group of workers if it had not defended them to a certain extent and with regard to specific problems. That's what mediation means. That's what the Webbs called 'industrial diplomacy'. That's what another writer defined as 'the art of making common cause'.

Anybody looking for a perfect illustration of the mediating, stabilizing role of trade unions would have to look first and foremost to the history of trade unionism. Listen, for example, to the British historian William Lecky, who stated late in the 19th century that "the biggest, richest and best organized trade unions contributed a lot to decrease the number of social conflicts". And listen to the Webbs again who made a similar conclusion: "Before the trade unions became a recognised institution and a normal phenomenon there was more labour unrest in Britain as after that." Does anybody want to deny this?

Certainly this will be totally impossible for the coalmining industry. Let us therefore turn to the historical beginnings of your trade union. From your letter I rather got the impression that you claim to be an authority on matters of the history of your union from 1800 to the present day. Well, if this be so, may I submit the following passage from a book by K. Burgess (The Origins of British Industrial Relations, London 1975) for your consideration?

"The Webbs hailed the checkweighmen as the first full-time miners' leaders who were independent of employers' bullying or blandishments. The reality, however, was somewhat different. Although the position provided an ideal training for an aspiring trade union official, there were aspects of it which compromised checkweighmen as miners' leaders and differentiated them from the rank and file. If they did not keep on good terms with the employer, they were refused facilities to do their job ... Since their wages were paid automatically, the conditions that determined the earnings of the rank and file did not directly affect them. Grass roots' discontent arising from conditions at the work place might well halt production and jeopardize the checkweighmen's comparatively privileged position. It was not uncommon, therefore, for the checkweigman to become an 'employer's man', which had the effect of dividing miners from their potential leaders and was thus disruptive of community solidarity." (p. 167)

But this is really nothing against the early history of trade unionism in the North East and West Yorkshire, two regions in which district unionism and collective bargaining were firmly established at an early date. The struggle for the eight-hour day may have been led by the engineers in the 1890s, but certainly not by the district unions in the British coal industry. To tell the simple truth, such apostles of trade unionism among miners like Burt in Northumberland and Crawford in Durham were so busy getting their unions confirmed by employers and to enter into amicable relations of conciliation and arbitration with them that they clearly opposed any proposals for a legally enacted eight-hour day for hewers (guess why just the hewers!). At the same time they were generally hostile to restricting output, wildcat strikes, sabotage etc. which have all been common instruments of working-class struggle before the forming of unions. In fact, forming new districts seems to have been regularly accompanied by taking a first vote on outlawing what union leaders disdained as 'coming out on strike in an unconstitutional way' and then preaching miners for decades how utterly wrong they were in sticking to the old habits of unofficial strikes etc.. The downhill path of the early history of trade unionism in coalmining is littered with the most sordid stories of unions trying hard to put out the fires in the coalfields, just to be able to get down to the "real" business of conciliation and arbitration. Anybody who wishes some basic information on the mentality and practice of union leaders in this respect as well as their contempt for workers should be encouraged to read the authoritative books by J. Wilson (A History of the Durham Miners' Association, 1870-1904, Durham 1907) and by E. Welbourne (The Miners' Unions of Northumberland and Durham, Cambridge 1923).

Let me further whet your appetite for a careful reading of the two books by a very short citation from Wilson. He for his part (as opposed to union officials in modern times) was certainly not prepared to make any fuss about the proper tasks of trade unions like the miners' union. Speaking about the early opposition to the building of unions he says:

"The first (factor of opposition, C.B.) was not in the least unexpected. At that time Capital and Labour were looked upon (sic!) as being natural enemies, and all their relations were on that principle. We (the trade union leaders, C.B.) see now how foolish is that idea (sic!). Then conflict and doubt formed the atmosphere which surrounded the two great parties in the industrial world." (p. 41)

It was therefore the principal task of the trade union, Wilson goes on to tell us throughout his thought-inspiring book, to change this regrettable state of affairs so that henceforth cooperation and mutual trust (and eternal peace) should prevail in the industrial world. I readily admit that by no means it was the fault of the mineworkers' union if it failed in this respect.

Nonetheless I am truly convinced that Wilson's formulations offer valuable insights into the principles of trade union policy and that not many people have stated the matter as clearly and succinctly as he did. The very existence of trade unions presupposes the antagonism of capitalists and workers (otherwise there would be no need for mediation) and at the same time it requires a basic attitude of ignoring the antagonism on the part of trade unionists (the enmity between the classes is nothing but a foolish idea, just think of it!) and starting a wild and fundamentally misled search for areas of "common interest" (otherwise there would be no scope for mediation). We are touching here on a matter of central importance for any discussion of trade unionism - the limits (as well as the self-deceit) of trade unions and union representatives. I will have to explain this in detail to avoid more misunderstandings.

In your critique of a text which I have not written you try to present some cases of what you seem to regard as major achievements of the trade union movement - taking up the unfair dismissal case, questioning the lack of adequate breaks, attending the inquest of the dead miner or the compensation case for the builder with a split skull or the factory worker with an amputated leg or the canteen worker with the scalded arm etc. etc. Let us just take the compensation case as an example: Do you really want me (or anybody else) to believe that anyone could possibly be interested in compensation? Parents whose child has been run over by a car could be interested in "compensation"? The family of a miner who has been killed in a mine accident could be interested in "compensation"? If I lost a finger or a hand because of unsafe machinery I could be interested in "compensation"? You must be joking ... or you must be one of these many union officials completely out of touch with reality to sincerely believe in such nonsense. Everybody will surely take "compensation" because it would be stupid not to do so once it is available, and because a few dirty bucks for the life of a human being or for a lost hand are better than nothing at all. But if it comes to the question of what people are interested in, then it is definitely not "compensation". I want all my ten fingers and both hands, I want to be perfectly healthy as well, and if I am in danger of being hurt or mutilated by any unsafe machinery, then I want this machinery not to be used until it is completely safe (can you imagine what would happen in the coalmining industry of today if you made this a rule?). Parents want their children alive and kicking, and traffic conditions in which children can't possibly be killed at all. Miners' families want a decent life and ways of earning it without risking your life or your health or being in constant danger of losing your lousy job (don't try to tell me that your union has achieved this or that it has come any closer to a solution in 172 years).

I could go on endlessly like this. Whatever problem you may touch upon, you will always find trade union policies guided by the same sort of principle - ignore that capitalists and workers are natural enemies, ignore the essential social problems produced by this enmity, ignore the fundamental interests and tendencies of destroying class relations, just stick to the business of handing out the peanuts of "compensation". Such "compensation" normally comes in the guise of meagre pay rises and in fact never does really compensate for anything. Capitalists wouldn't even be prepared to let you as a trade union bargain for true compensation. All you can possibly bargain for with capitalists, whether they call themselves Powell Duffryn or NCB, is peanuts.

Let me cite once again from the book by K. Burgess, discussing developments in the last third of the 19th century: "The emphasis on wage bargaining brought into play 'objective' criteria, like the state of trade and the demand for labour: matters that could be discussed amicably between owners and workers' representatives, without raising fundamental and potentially divisive issues of principle. Hence the success of official campaigns for wage increases like the one ... during the cyclical upturn of 1864-6. Higher labour costs could be passed on to consumers during periods of prosperity, and the owners realized that wage increases granted in response to demands made by the union officials strengthened their control over the working miner, and reduced the likelihood of unofficial strikes that were productive of much greater disruption." (p. 187)

To this I have nothing to add, except that things evidently have not changed very much since the 19th century and that labour costs can even be passed on much more easily to the consumers right now because of the much lower labour content of product units as compared with the 19th century. We know only too well that no union would ever dare to bring up the question of exploitation in discussion with employers or to make it a focus of its struggle. Exploitation doesn't concern you, just let it take its course as employers may see fit. You simply take the value of labour power for granted (granted by class relations between the natural enemies, as it is) and, proceeding from there, you restrict yourselves to some help in settling the current market price of labour power on a national, regional or local scale. That's what I mean by talking about the limits of trade unionism.

And don't tell me anything about the reduction of working hours to 40, 35 or 30 hours per week. As Rosa Luxemburg once remarked, you won't sweeten the ocean of capitalist bitterness in any noticeable way by adding a few teaspoons of syrup from time to time. Some mainstream French sociologists, no radicals, mind you, have calculated a couple of years ago that present standards of living could be easily maintained with 10 (in words: ten!) hours work per week. Guess what the rest of the work week as you have it now might be good for. So a very practical MINER'S NEXT STEP for your union might be to demand the ten-hour week with a doubling or quadrupling of pay rates. Evidently your union today is just as much against this next step as the union of Crawford, Burt and their likes was against the eight-hour day, and the reasons are still the same: Don't rock the boat, brother! As enlightened people and capable of learning from history we know very well that it's the trade unions alone sitting in this boat. Capitalists and workers as natural enemies never sat together in a boat anyway.

If I understand the post-war history of the British working-class correctly (and there are certainly no reasons why I should understand it less correctly than you as a British union official do), then it could be summarized by a very simple and general formula: less work, more pay. In this respect as in all other matters of fundamental importance the trade unions are simply unable to deliver the goods. We shouldn't be too much surprised therefore if the gap between the working class and the trade union organizations keeps widening. In fact there has already been a very wide gap in 1947 when the Grimethorpe miners were taken to the courts and the union's secretary Arthur Horner appeared as a witness for the prosecution. I am convinced that the MFGB/NUM with its dreary record of the twenties, thirties and and forties (not to speak again of earlier decades) would have been lost a long time ago if it hadn't been for the unofficial movement of the fifties and the sixties. In Great Britain almost the entire responsibility of mediating between capitalists and workers at the place of work clearly rested on the shoulders of shop stewards and the unofficial movement in general for more than two decades, not only in the coalmining industry, but in other branches of major importance as well.

Whether you would wish to range this Horner, for example, under wicked union leaders - as you do with the TUC leadership during the 1926 strike or maybe even later - or under the so-called good ones is not entirely clear to me. You seem to use different spectacles when looking at the TUC, at individual trade unions or at the MFGB/NUM in particular. Brendel, you say, "is never quite clear in this repsect. Well, maybe your spectacles need a bit of polishing. Brendel doesn't make this distinction between 'good' and 'bad' (or, for that matter, 'left' and 'right') union leadership because such a distinction overlooks the fact that union policy isn't determined by the leaders, their various characters and leanings, but that their action and this policy is determined by the role and the function of trade unionism as an institution of capitalism. As institutions, whatever trade union leaders, 'left' or 'right', may fancy as their specific master plan, trade unions aim at stabilizing capitalist production relations. On the other hand workers don't! Simply because of their position in production relations, in the relations between capitalists and workers, any of their actions tends to interfere with the existing order, and for this to happen they do not even need to have clearly defined concepts to guide them, they just need their workplace situation, the daily experience of class, and this will unfailingly guide them in the right direction.

You have concluded your text with a very pertinent remark, going straight to the core of the problem: "If you (i.e. Brendel and the rest of the world) don't understand the relationship of the British working class to its trade unions, you don't understand the British working class." How about applying this wisdom to yourself? If you don't know about the permanent conflict between the workers and 'their' trade unions in Britain, then you haven't understood anything about the British working class at all. That's the well-documented truth not of the awful summary you used for your criticism, but of my book which you never saw.

After this discussion of trade unions in Britain I wish to finish by mentioning two more matters of secondary importance. To start with: I am not one of these people you seem to hate so much, I am not a damned Leninist, Stalinist or Trotskyist, nor am I an ignorant situationist, and I never was. The astonishing rashness with which you conjure these political tendencies up as being my favourites (on no more than four pages of your article I am suspected to be part of all of these aberrations one after the other) makes one gape in admiration, an admiration very similar to that of those simple Spanish farmers watching the noble knight Don Quixote fighting his lonely fight against the windmills. Even if they don't figure in your wild guesses, I have been part of the council communist movement for more than fifty years now. Council communism is a variant of communism, as you may have heard already, which has absolutely nothing to do with the fictitious "communism" of Lenin, his bolsheviks, and their Stalinist as well as Trotskyist heirs, Maoists included. Your passing remark that I "would make a good stalinist historian", even if referring to a pamphlet I never wrote and certainly not referring to what I did write, is just sheer proof of your ignorance, of your tendency to denounce and not to argue.

Let me just add a final word: It has always been my point of view that workers themselves know better than anybody else or any sort of group or organisation what's good for them and what their interests are. I don't write or speak for them, neither am I (or have I ever been) inclined to act as vanguard groups always do, namely: to tell them from the height of some ivory tower what's "wrong" with their action and ideas, what they should do to win, or that sort of absurd chatter. I have never sold leaflets or papers on a picketline or to sit-down strikers because I know too well that struggling workers have more important things to do than read an outsider's comment upon what they should do or what they keep forgetting to do. I never gave any worker any advice how to act. I never taught or preached and I always tried to learn from workers. And this, my dear Sir, is the big difference between someone like me and any trade union official. The interesting pamphlet 1 "A year of our lives. A colliery in the great coal strike 1984/85" contains a "Strike newsletter no. 1" with you signing as the author. As anybody can see it is not the rank and file that begins to speak here, but it's union officials adressing the miners and telling them what's good for them. That's the style you prefer! That's the arrogant and ill-founded attitude of "we as a trade union know what's good for miners and without us they would be lost anyway". After a lifetime of being linked up with the labour movement (and not only the Dutch one), after a long time of studying class conflicts, and after many visits to Great Britain I do not pretend to know everything about the British working class. I leave this silly business of "I know all about it and everybody else not agreeing with me just shows his wanton ignorance of class history" to others.

Sincerely yours,

Cajo Brendel



12 years 10 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on August 1, 2011

Dave Douglass sent us an e-mail asking us to add that this debate did not end here: he replied to this in his pamphlet All Power to the Imagination, which is available for £5 from Class War or himself.


8 years 1 month ago

In reply to by

Submitted by rat on May 17, 2016

I love the quote Cajo Brendel uses in this text:

[the unions do not...] 'represent the whole class of workers as working men but rather are charged with the office of keeping the human part of the capitalists' machinery in good working order and freeing it from any grit of discontent'.

William Morris. 1885.