4. Trade Unions and Industrial Organisation

Submitted by libcom on October 28, 2005

Anti-Parliamentary Communism -- The movement for workers councils in Britain, 1917-45

by Mark Shipway

4. Trade Unions and Industrial Organisation

The basis of the anti-parliamentary communist critique of trade unionism was that trade unions organised workers within the capitalist system, as 'The Pimps Of Labour' bargaining with the capitalists over the sale of the commodity labour power [1]. The anti-parliamentarians, however, wanted to see workers organised against the capitalist system, for the abolition of wage labour. The anti-parliamentarians sought the replacement of trade unions with revolutionary organisations, whose primary function would be to overthrow the capitalist system and thereafter administer communist society. In keeping with the anti-parliamentary communists' views on how the revolution would be carried out, these organisations would be constituted in such a way as to enable the vast majority of workers to organise and lead themselves. These views help to explain the particular criticisms which the anti-parliamentarians levelled at trade unionism, and the alternative forms of organisation that they proposed.


One of the features of trade unionism criticised by the Dreadnought group was the opposition between the unions' leaders and officials and the rank and file membership. This was partly explained in material terms: Sylvia Pankhurst described full-time officials as 'respectable, moderate men in comfortable positions', [2] whose salaries, status and security of position elevated them to the 'middle class' and gave them a political outlook different from that of shopfloor workers. Since the trade union officials' privileges depended on the continued existence of capitalism, they had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and opposing revolution: 'material interest ranges the Trade Union officials on the side of capitalism'. [3] Thus CP(BSTI) secretary Edgar Whitehead wrote: 'It cannot be too strongly impressed by Communists upon all workers that T.U. officials, both by their secure position and their enhanced salaries, serve the maintenance of capitalism much more than they serve the cause of the emancipation of the workers.' [4] The Dreadnought group also drew attention to the officials' common contempt for their members. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote that 'the apathy of the membership produces the officials' lack of faith in the capacity of the membership, and, even apart from other causes, is a source of the cynical contempt for the rank and file which so many officials display'. [5] Yet there was nothing inevitable about the rank and file's 'apathy': it was a condition which the union officials deliberately fostered, since one of the ways in which they could maintain their own positions of power and privilege was by excluding the rank and file from participating in union affairs. The officials were assisted in this by the form of trade union organisation :

The members . . . resign all their authority, all their rights and liberties, as far as the Union is concerned, to the Union officials. This is an essential feature of Trade Unionism . . . The Parliamentary form of the trade unions, which removes the work of the Union from the members to the officials, inevitably creates an apathetic and unenlightened membership which, for good or evil, is a mere prey to the manipulation of the officials. [6] Guy Aldred also observed the antagonism between the unions' officials and rank and file and the differences between these two groups' power. He explained this by reference to the trade unions role as permanent negotiating bodies within capitalism. Unions could not hope to bargain successfully with the bosses unless they had the disciplined backing of their entire membership. Since criticisms of the union by the rank and file, or rank and file actions which the union had not sanctioned, would undermine the leaders' position vis-Ã -vis the capitalists, the leaders were forced to urge caution on the members and suppress any criticisms coming from the rank and file. In short, successful bargaining required the members to relinquish all power and initiative to their leaders; the more they did this, however, the greater would be the scope for the leaders to betray the members. Thus it was the trade unions' role as bargainers and negotiators which led to the growth of oligarchic leadership and to the likelihood of the rank and file being 'sold out'. [7]

The anti-parliamentary communists also criticised the way that unions organised workers on the basis of their sectional differences (according to craft, trade and so on) rather than on the basis of what they had in common: 'instead of preserving the vaunted unity of the working class [the trade unions] prevent it by dividing the workers into watertight compartments'. [8] Since capitalism could only be overthrown by a united working class, organisations such as trade unions, which divided the working class, were obviously counterrevolutionary. Guy Aldred argued, further, that even in reformist terms 'trade unionism has accomplished nothing so far as the well-being of the entire working class is concerned', since the effectiveness of unionisation depended on excluding other workers (such as the unskilled) from its ranks, for example through apprenticeships and the closed shop. [9] This sectional and divisive mentality also led unionised workers to spend as much time fighting each other over issues such as demarcation disputes as they spent struggling against their common enemy, the capitalists.

A final significant criticism of trade unions made by the Dreadnought group was that 'their branches are constructed according to the district in which the worker resides, not according to where he works'. [10] The point of this particular criticism was that since the unions did not organise workers where they were potentially most powerful -- that is, at the point of production -- they did not measure up to the requirements of the sort of revolutionary organisations sought by anti-parliamentarians.

During 1917-20 the Dreadnought group proposed certain measures to overcome the problems outlined above. First, reactionary or reformist trade union officials should be replaced by revolutionaries: 'The first thing you must do, if you really want to overthrow the capitalist system and to establish Communism, is to get rid of your reformist and palliative-loving leaders.' [11]

Secondly, action should be taken to 'alter the structure of the Unions so as to allow the Rank and File to have complete control'. [12] Sylvia Pankhurst sought the introduction of 'The Soviet system within the trade union movement'. [13] Instead of each section of workers being represented by full-time paid officials, all workers in each workplace would meet in general assemblies to elect and mandate delegates who could be recalled and replaced at any time. As the Dreadnought explained in 1923 :

the rank and file of a trade union cannot control its officials, cannot even watch them efficiently. The trade union machinery does not allow of it. The workers can only control an organisation which is a workshop organisation, with, when necessary, delegates appointed for specific work, instructed, subject to recall. remaining still as fellow-workers in the shop . . . The work and power of the organisation must not pass into the hands of even such delegates : it must be an organisation operated by the workers in the shop. [14] Thirdly, a resolution drafted by Sylvia Pankhurst for a Rank and File Convention in March 1920 proposed that 'an industrial union shall be established which shall admit all workers in the industry, regardless of sex, craft or grade'. [15] Instead of being divided among several competing trade and craft unions, all workers in each industry would belong to a single union. This was intended to promote working-class unity.

The Dreadnought's view during 1917-20 was that these changes could be effected through building a rank and file movement within the trade unions. The group's attitude at this stage was essentially one of critical support for the existing unions, rather than outright opposition and hostility. This was an approach which had been summed up most succinctly by the Clyde Workers' Committee, when it had declared at the time of its formation in l915 that it would 'support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but . . . act independently immediately they misrepresent them'. [16]


The Dreadnought group was influenced strongly in its attitude towards the trade unions by the shop stewards' movement which emerged in Britain during the First World War. Not long after the beginning of the war most trade unions had agreed to renounce strike action for the duration, and to accept any changes in established working practices and conditions needed to increase production. Consequently a shop stewards' movement, based mainly in engineering, arose to take over the defence of workers' basic interests. Many of the leading shop stewards belonged to organisations such as the SLP and BSP, and they regarded the shop stewards' movement as a form of organisation which would not only be able to defend workers' interests within capitalism, but which could also be used to overthrow capitalism and reorganise production on a socialist basis.

The most cogent expression of the shop stewards' movement's ideas was J. T. Murphy's pamphlet The Workers' Committee (1917). This discussed most of the critical points which would also be raised in the Dreadnought's articles about trade unions: 'the conflict between the rank and file of the trade unions and their officials'; the unions' 'constitutional procedure' which demanded that 'the function of the rank and file shall be simply that of obedience'; the absence of any 'direct relationship between the branch group and the workshop group'; and the way in which the unions' sectionalism divided workers 'by organising them on the basis of their differences instead of their common interests'. In The Workers' Committee Murphy also outlined an alternative structure intended to bring about 'real democratic practice' in workers' industrial organisations, so that every member could 'participate actively in the conduct of the business of the society [union]'. Apathy towards union affairs -- 'the members do not feel a personal interest in the branch meetings' -- would be overcome by establishing a 'direct connection between the workshop and the branch'. All power would reside at workshop level : committees elected to represent the workers would exist merely to 'render service to the rank and file' and would 'not have any governing power'. These changes would be carried out as far as possible within the existing unions : Murphy emphasised that 'we are not antagonistic to the trade union movement. We are not out to smash but to grow, to utilise every available means whereby we can achieve a more efficient organisation of the workers.' [17]

Besides the engineering shop stewards' movement, the Dreadnought group's attitude towards trade unions was also influenced by the miners' rank and file movements, particularly in South Wales where the Dreadnought group had established close links with radical workers. [18] Militants within the South Wales Miners' Federation had addressed many of the problems of trade unionism outlined above. The most widely-known expression of some of their ideas on these issues was The Miners' Next Step, a pamphlet published in 1912 by a small group of socialist miners calling themselves the Unofficial Reform Committee. The Miners' Next Step criticised the SWMF's 'conciliation policy', which 'gives the real power of the men into the hands of a few leaders'. The more power was concentrated in the hands of the officials, the less power the membership had in deciding union affairs. (This was the argument that Guy Aldred had put forward a year earlier in the first edition of his pamphlet, Trade Unionism and the Class War). Rank and file control of the union was far too indirect, while the 'social and economic prestige' of the leaders raised them to a position where 'they have therefore in some things an antagonism of interests with the rank and file'. Another criticism of the union was that 'the sectional character of organisation in the mining industry renders concerted action almost impossible'.

This critique was accompanied by constructive proposals for reforming the union. The pamphlet proposed a single organisation for all mine and quarry workers in Britain, which would enable them to achieve 'a rapid and simultaneous stoppage of wheels throughout the mining industry'. Proposals for democratisation of the union were also outlined, so as to enable the rank and file to 'take supreme control of their own organisation'. All policy initiative and ratification was to rest with the lodges, and the union executive was to become an unofficial, 'purely administrative body; composed of men directly elected by the men for that purpose'. If these reforms were carried out there would be a growing recognition that 'the lodge meetings are the place where things are really done'; rank and file apathy would disappear, and the lodges would become 'centres of keen and pulsating life'. The long-term objective of these proposals was 'to build up an organisation that will ultimately take over the mining industry, and carry it on in the interests of the workers'. This aim also applied to all other industries: the authors wanted to see every industry thoroughly organised, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry'. [19]

The strong influence of such ideas on the Dreadnought group's attitude towards the trade unions, and in particular the insistence of militant mining and engineering workers on the need to work within the trade unions, shows that some accounts of the Dreadnought group's attitude have been factually mistaken. For example, it is not correct to suggest that 'Pankhurst's group . . . was unable to prevent the Communist Party, formed in late 1920, from pledging to work within the existing trade union structure', [20] since the fact is that the Dreadnought group supported such a strategy. The CP(BSTI)'s programme stated that the party should aim to 'stimulate the growth of rank and file organisation' and 'undermine the influence of reactionary Trade Union leaders over the rank and file' by forming a CP(BSTI) branch within every local trade union branch and workplace. [21]

A circular to CP(BSTI) branches stated that the party's 'most urgent need' was 'the speedy addition to the ranks of the party of genuine class fighters from the ranks of the proletariat, especially of the organised industrial proletariat, so that the party may exercise increasing control and influence inside the organised Unions of Workers'. [22] A CP(BSTI) Industrial Sub-Committee submitted a report suggesting how this might be achieved. It stated : 'Branches should make the closest distinction between work through the NON PARTY MASS ORGANISATIONS OF OUR CLASS, and through the PARTY ORGANISATIONS.' CP(BSTI) members were to oppose 'Party Organisations' such as the Labour Party, but try to exert every possible influence within 'Non Party Mass Organisations' such as trade unions, shop stewards' and rank and file movements, and unemployed workers' organisations. In order to gain influence within such organisations party members were instructed to 'accept delegation from branches of their industrial organisations to all such bodies as Trade Union Congresses, Trade Union Executives, or to any Trades and Labour Council or similar body WHERE SUCH ACCEPTANCE OF DELEGATION DOES NOT NECESSITATE DENIAL OF THEIR COMMUNIST PRINCIPLES'.

Wherever possible, party members were to 'take full and active part in building up Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movements, and in all Rank and File Movements which weaken the power of officials, and lead to Rank and File Control, Mass Action, and the development of the Class Struggle'. Agitation within trade union branches was also intended to spread communist ideas, attract militant union members into the CP(BSTI), and expose the trade unions' inadequacies as revolutionary organisations. [23] All of which demonstrates the complete inaccuracy of the claim that the Dreadnought group 'despised . . . participation in the work of the trade unions'. [24]


One of the several significant differences between the Dreadnought group and Guy Aldred concerned their respective attitudes towards the shop stewards' movement. Aldred was imprisoned repeatedly after the introduction of conscription in 1916, because he refused to fight in an imperialist war from which only the capitalist class would profit. His opposition to the war also led him to oppose those workers who were not only churning out the munitions which millions of workers in uniform were using to slaughter each other, but were also seeking to profit from their strategically important position by bargaining for wage rises, reductions in working hours and so on. In Aldred's view the engineering shop stewards' movement's aims

'contained no suggestion of not erecting capitalist institutions, of not engaging in armament work, of asserting any sort of class-consciousness against the war. Indeed, the workers' committee flourished on war . . . The idea was merely that of improving the worker's status in the commodity struggle and not to develop his revolutionary opposition to capitalism.' [25] Aldred criticised those 'revolutionaries' who separated their industrial agitation from their opposition to the war, leaving their 'revolutionary' politics behind when they entered the munitions factory. Aldred described Willie Gallacher, for example, as someone who had 'made munitions during the war, and atoned for this conduct by delivering Socialist lectures in the dinner hour'. [26]

Aldred's attitude towards the shop stewards' movement has led one critic to dismiss him as 'a character marginal to the organised labour movement on Clydeside' because 'he condemned the munitions workers as "assassins of their own kindred" '. [27] But Aldred's attitude was shared by another figure less frequently dismissed as 'marginal' -- John Maclean too was

'opposed to the way the Clyde Workers' Committee and the socialists on it were behaving . . . Most of the shop stewards were socialists and anti-war, but they had submerged their politics in workshop struggles and were not even mentioning the war inside the factories . . . This meant that no anti-war fight developed inside the factories; the men were making guns, shells and all kinds of munitions, but the all-important question was never raised. [28] David Kirkwood, the shop stewards' leader at Beardmore's Park-head Forge in Glasgow, was an outstanding example of the type of stewards criticised by Aldred and Maclean. Although he claimed to oppose the war, Kirkwood's own account of the war years scarcely mentions him engaging in any sort of anti-war activity. He was a willing collaborator in any scheme to increase munitions output, so long as it did not adversely affect wages and conditions, and relished the quips that it was really he (Kirkwood), and not the owner Sir William Beardmore, who was actually in charge of running Parkhead Forge. [29] The attitude of stewards such as Kirkwood led John Maclean, in his famous May 1918 speech from the dock of the High Court, Edinburgh, to condemn not only worldwide capitalism -- 'the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed' -- but also those workers who sought to exploit their powerful bargaining position in the munitions industry :

David Kirkwood . . . said that the Parkhead Forge workers were then prepared to give a greater output and accept dilution if they, the workers, had some control over the conditions under which the greater output would accrue . . . Since he has got into position he seems to have boasted that he has got a record output. The question was put to me : Was this consistent with the position and with the attitude of the working class? I said it was not . . . that his business was to get back right down to the normal, to 'ca'canny' so far as the general output was concerned. [30] When the war ended, however, there was no longer any political reason for Aldred not to support the shop stewards' movement. In August 1919 he expressed his approval of the forms of organisation created during the war by the movement, writing of the need to abandon 'the unwieldy, bureaucratic, highly centralised Industrial Union idea of peace-time [class] war organisation' in favour of 'a living unit of organisation in every workshop, and a federation of living units, mobilising, according to necessity, the real red army. This will be accomplished by developing our Workshop Committees.' [31] Around the same time, the Communist League, in whose formation Aldred participated, was arguing that communists should 'enter the workers' committees and councils and by their agitation and education develop and extend the growing class consciousness'. In time the workers' committees would overthrow the capitalist System and then function as the administrative machinery of communist society. [32] This was basically the same position which the CP(BSTI) put forward in more detail in 1920.


So far this chapter has concentrated on the anti-parliamentary communists' ideas up to 1920. During 1920-1 these ideas began to change, mainly in response to fluctuations in the pattern of the post-war class struggle. In Britain the shop stewards', workers' committee and rank and file movements were largely the product of certain groups of workers' militancy during the war and the short post-war boom. If the level of class struggle declined these forms of organisation were likely to disappear, along with the revolutionary expectations vested in them. This is precisely what did happen in Britain after 1920.

The high level of wartime demand for their products kept unemployment among engineering, shipbuilding and metal union workers below 1 per cent during 19l5-18. [33] During the short-lived post-armistice boom (1919-20), the unemployment rate among these workers was still only 3.2 per cent. In 1921, however, unemployment shot up to 22.1 per cent, and then to 27 per cent the following year. At the same time the wage gains which engineering workers had made during the war began to be eroded. This was the background to a decline in engineering workers' militancy, reflected in the downwards trend in the statistics for strikes in the metal, engineering and shipbuilding industries (see Table 4.1).

Table 4.1 Disputes involving stoppages in the metal, engineering and hipbuilding industries. 1919-24

Working days 'lost' Workers involved

1919 12,248,000 403,000

1920 3,402,000 179,000

1921 4,420,000 63,000

1922 17,484,000 369,000

1923 5,995,000 61,000

1924 1,400,000 71,000

Source: Board of Trade Statistical Department, 1926.

The exceptional figures for 1922 were the result of a three-month engineering workers' lock-out; Harry McShane describes what happened :

the engineers were defeated . . . and they returned to much worse working conditions. The union's defeat meant a reduction in wages, not only for them but ultimately for all trades and labourers as well. After the war I got £4 8s. a week as an engineer, but after the lock-out engineers' wages went down to £2 13s. [34]

This was the general pattern throughout the rest of British industry. Unemployment increased from 1.5 per cent in the autumn of 1920 to 18 per cent by December 1921. Cuts in wages were only partially offset by a fall in the cost of living. The number of working days 'lost' in disputes involving stoppages in all industries decreased, as did the number of workers involved (see Table 4.2).

Table 4.2 Disputes involving stoppages (all industries), 1919-24

Working days 'lost' Workers involved

1919 34,969,000 2,591,000

1920 26,568,000 1,932,000

1921 85,872,000 1,801,000

1922 19,850,000 552,000

1923 10,672,000 405,000

1924 8,424,000 613,000

Source: Board of Trade Statistical Department, 1926.

The sections of the working class which had been at the forefront of the class struggle were the ones hit hardest by the onset of the post-war depression. The national rate of unemployment in August 1922 stood at 12.8 per cent -- compared with 27 per cent on Clydeside and 32 per cent in Sheffield. Engineering and shipbuilding workers accounted for 65 per cent of all unemployed workers on Clydeside, while iron, steel and engineering workers made up 70 per cent of the total in Sheffield. In Wales as a whole 44 per cent of unemployed workers were miners -- a percentage which was obviously much higher in the coalmining areas themselves. [35] In his Presidential address to the South Wales Miners' Federation in July 1923, Vernon Hartshorn remarked that 'he had never known a period when the workmen had been more demoralised than they were during 1922 . . . Wages had been low, unemployment had been extensive and the owners had taken advantage of the general position to attack standard wages and customs which had been in existence for many years'. [36]

During this period the generalised class struggle of the years before 1920 gave way to defensive battles in which sections of the working class were isolated and defeated one by one. The year 1921 illustrates the change. In April the railway and transport workers' union leaders withdrew their promise of support to the miners, leaving their Triple Alliance partners to fight a three-month struggle which ended in defeat. Of the 85 million working days 'lost' in 1921, nearly 80 million were accounted for by locked-out miners. In 1921 almost two and a half times more days were 'lost' in strikes as there had been in 1919, but more than a third fewer workers were involved (see Table 4.2).

These circumstances saw a rapid decline in the rank and file activity of the shop stewards' movement. As unemployment rose known militants were frequently the first to lose their jobs through victimisation by employers: 'Soon it was a wry joke that the shop steward leaders of 1918 had become the unemployed leaders of the 1920s'. [37] The decline of rank and file activity saw power within the trade unions shift back in favour of the full-time officials, a trend consolidated by a number of major union amalgamations (which on grounds of sheer size created conditions for greater bureaucratisation) and by the spread of national collective bargaining. As Sylvia Pankhurst observed in 1922 :

Undoubtedly a strong move is being made by the Union officials to secure greater power in the Unions and to thrust the rank and file still further into the background . . . the Unions become more and more bureaucratic, more and more dominated by the capitalist influence upon the Trade Union leaders, still further removed from rank and file control. [38]

The victimisation of shopfloor activists during the 'employers' offensive' was complemented by state repression of 'subversives' : 'In 1921 over 100 "communists" were arrested and jailed for variations on the theme of sedition.' [39] A leaflet issued by the APCF in 1921, in connection with the prosecution of the Glasgow Communist Group for publishing the 'seditious' Red Commune, referred to the 'concerted effort on the part of the ruling class . . . to suppress ruthlessly every serious advocate of social transformation in order to preserve the present iniquitous and unjust system'. [40]


The downturn in the level of class struggle and the decline of the shop stewards' movement revived an old debate among socialists in Britain. Before the First World War there had been two basic approaches to the problem of trade union sectionalism, bureaucracy and reformism. 'Amalgamationists' advocated working within the existing trade unions to convert them into industrial unions through amalgamating all the competing unions in each industry. 'Dual unionists' sought the same end (or in some cases a single union for all workers), but advocated building new unions from scratch in the belief that the existing ones were beyond reform. [41] These two camps had been able to work side-by-side in the shop stewards' movement during the war, but when the movement began to die away the division between amalgamationists and dual unionists reappeared.

Most of the leaders of the engineering shop stewards' and miners' rank and file movements entered the CPGB, where they pursued the strategy of working to reform the unions from within. After Sylvia Pankhurst's expulsion from the CPGB in 1921, the Dreadnought group was therefore cut off from its former influences. This partly explains why from the end of 1921 the Dreadnought group moved in the opposite direction and adopted a 'dual unionist' stance. In August 1921 Sylvia Pankhurst wrote that the working class had to 'fight as one big union of workers to abolish Capitalism'. [42] Thereafter 'One Big Union' became the Dreadnought group's slogan for industrial organisation. The tactics pursued by the group during 1917-20 -- the creation of rank and file movements within the existing unions, the replacement of reformist leaders by revolutionaries, the democratisation of trade union structures and practices, and the conversion of trade and craft unions into industrial unions -- were abandoned.

This change of attitude can also be explained by the group's view that the decline of rank and file activity had ruled out any immediate prospect of success in reforming the existing unions. In January 1922 Sylvia Pankhurst argued that trade union rules and structures could not be changed 'without long and hard effort . . . it must take many years to change them appreciably'. [43] In April 1923 she argued that those who pursued the tactic of trying to change the unions' leadership were mistakenly 'following in the footsteps of the early Socialists who put Red Flaggers into office, and saw them gradually transformed into the Social Patriots you denounce today'. The central problem was not one of leadership, but of the very nature of trade unionism itself : 'You are dissatisfied with the Union officials -- with all Union officials. Is it not time you ceased to blame particular individuals, and decided to abolish the institution itself?.' [44] Pankhurst also argued that the conversion of craft unions into industrial unions would still not overcome all the divisions within the working class: 'The working class . . . must break down its craft barriers and its industrial barriers.' [45]

In February 1922 the Dreadnought group's newly-adopted opposition to the existing unions and its rejection of working within them was expressed in the programme of the Communist Workers' Party, which sought 'to emancipate the workers from Trade Unions which are merely palliative institutions'. The party's aim was :

To prepare for the proletarian revolution, by setting up Soviets or workers' councils in all branches of production, distribution and administration, in order that the workers may seize and maintain control.

With this object, to organise One Revolutionary Union :

(a) built up on the workshop basis, covering all workers, regardless of sex, craft, or grade, who pledge themselves to work for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of the workers' Soviets

(b) organised into a department for each industry or service;

(c) the unemployed being organised as a department of the One Revolutionary Union, so that they may have local and national representation in the workers' Soviets. [46]

These aims were taken a step further seven months later, when the draft constitution for an All-Workers' Revolutionary Union of Workshop Committees was published in the Dreadnought. The AWRU's object was 'to emancipate the working class . . . by the overthrow of capitalism and the private property and wage system', with the AWRU itself serving as 'the machinery which will enable the workers to take control of production, transport and distribution, and administer all services for the benefit of the entire community'. It would support 'every form of industrial and active proletarian struggle which furthers its ultimate aim' and engage in 'propaganda. agitation and action . . . to promote the spread of class-consciousness and Communist ideals amongst the workers'. Describing the existing unions as 'bulwarks of the capitalist system' which 'by their sectionalism and craft distinctions . . . prevent the uniting of the workers as a class', the constitution stated : 'The AWRU rejects the policy of "Boring from within" the old Trade Unions; its object is to supersede them; it fights openly against them'. The proposed conditions of membership included prohibitions on taking office in any union except the AWRU, and on participating in any trade union-promoted workshop committee. The structure of the union would take the form of tiers of workshop, factory, district, area and national councils, formed by delegates who would be 'subject to recall at any time by those who appointed them'. [47]

The proposed formation of the AWRU by the Dreadnought group was influenced by the example of the German left communists. During the German revolution tens of thousands of radical workers deserted the trade unions and formed revolutionary 'factory organisations'. In February 1920 these united to form the General Workers' Union of Germany (AAUD), allied to the KAPD. The Programme And Rules of the AAUD were published in the Dreadnought in November 1921, and the striking similarity between the AAUD and AWRU programmes points strongly to the conclusion that the Dreadnought group intended the AWRU to be a British equivalent of the AAUD. [48]

In a text on 'The Organisation of the Proletariat's Class Struggle' (1921), Herman Gorter of the KAPD argued that 'the factory organisation is the organisation for the revolution in Western Europe'. [49] However, Gorter did not believe that the working class achieve revolutionary consciousness and succeed in its struggle against capitalism simply by organising on a factory by factory basis. Among the workers in the factory organisations there would inevitably be some who had a broader and clearer view of the class struggle than their fellow-workers. This minority should not remain dispersed among the various factory organisations, but should form itself into a separate party comprising 'the most conscious and prepared proletarian fighters'. [50] This necessity was acknowledged in the AAUD's Programme And Rules: 'The AAU . . . stands for the uniting of the most advanced revolutionary proletarians in a separate political organisation of purely proletarian-Communist character. It thereby recognises the political organisations united in the Communist Workers' International as necessary to the class struggle.' [51] The Political platform of the factory organisations was a simplified version of the party's programme. The factory organisations were open to all revolutionary workers, including, but not only, members of the KAPD. As Gorter explained:

The factory organisation endows its members with the most general understanding of the revolution, e.g. the nature and significance of the workers' councils (soviets) and of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The party comprises the proletarians whose understanding is much broader and deeper. [52]

The crucial difference between these arrangements and those proposed by the Dreadnought group was the absence from the latter of any stress on the need for the party. When the Dreadnought group formed the Communist Workers' Party in imitation of the KAPD, its platform consisted of six points: to spread communist ideas; electoral abstention and anti-parliamentary propaganda; refusal of affiliation to the Labour Party or any other reformist organisation; to emancipate workers from the existing trade unions; to organise 'One Revolutionary Union' as the forerunner of the workers' councils; and affiliation to the Fourth (Communist Workers') International. Seven months later the AWRU was formed. Far from being a watered-down version of the CWP (as the AAUD was of the KAPD), the AWRU adopted the CWP programme in its entirety. If anything, in fact, the AWRU's programme was more comprehensive than the CWP's platform. Instead of being open to 'all workers who pledge themselves to work for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of the workers' Soviets' (as the CWP programme originally proposed), membership of the AWRU was conditional on acceptance of all the above-mentioned points. In contrast to the German left communists' conception of the relationship between Party and Union, in the Dreadnought group's scheme the AWRU simply superseded the CWP; the Party was now redundant, its role and programme taken over completely by the Union. Whereas Gorter argued that by itself 'the factory organisation is not sufficient' [53] and insisted on the need for separate political organisation, the Dreadnought group believed that the factory organisation (AWRU) would suffice on its own.


The idea that the organisations formed to struggle within and against capitalism would prefigure the administrative institutions of communist society was an important aspect of the Dreadnought group's proposals for the establishment of 'One Big Union'. During 1917-20 the group had criticised the existing trade unions from the standpoint of wanting to see the emergence of organisations which workers would use to struggle against capitalism, overthrow the system, and thereafter administer communist society. The idea behind the formation of the AWRU -- to 'create the councils in the workshops in order that they may dispossess the Capitalist and afterwards carry on under Communism' [54] -- was no different. After 1920 the Dreadnought group had the same long-term aim as before, but sought to realise it by different means.

The terms used in the Workers' Dreadnought to describe the administrative machinery of communist society -- such as 'a world federation of workers' industrial republics' or 'a worldwide federation of communist republics administered by occupational soviets' -- reveal the group's view of the fundamental features of communist administration. It would be based on workplaces, with the basic unit being the workshop, only socially-productive workers would be able to participate in administration, and representatives would be mandated delegates. In other words, the administration of communist society would share the characteristics of the workers' organisations formed to overthrow capitalism. In February 1922 Pankhurst wrote that 'the Soviets, or workers' occupational councils, will form the administrative machinery for supplying the needs of the people in Communist society; they will also make the revolution by seizing control of all the industries and services of the community'. [55] The 'One Big Union' was an embryonic Soviet; the Soviet was a fully-developed 'One Big Union'. This is what the Dreadnought group meant in 1923 when it stated: 'Communism and the All-Workers' Revolutionary Union are synonymous.' [56]

Yet the historical experiences upon which the group could have drawn -- such as the revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917 and in Germany in 1918 -- contained no precedents to support the idea that Soviets or workers' councils would emerge through the development of 'One Big Union'. The soviets of the Russian revolutions and the workers' councils of the German revolution did not develop from previously existing organisations. Instead, they were created more or less spontaneously by the working class in the course of its mass struggles. Before 1921 it had been from mass strike movements that the Dreadnought group had expected soviets to emerge. The necessity for any pre-existing revolutionary workers' union, such as the AWRU, was not mentioned by the group during this period.

After 1921, however, circumstances had changed, and were quite unlike the situations which had prevailed in Russia and Germany. There was little prospect of soviets emerging as a product of mass struggle -- for the simple reason that there was no mass struggle going on. The declining number of strikes that did take place focused mainly on defensive, 'economistic' issues and took place among the working class section by section, rather than generally and simultaneously. A demoralised working class faced high unemployment, rank and file activity had declined drastically, and trade union amalgamations were strengthening union bureaucracies. This was hardly the most favourable climate for the construction of brand-new industrial organisations of any sort, let alone revolutionary ones. The Dreadnought group's idea that the AWRU might develop into a soviet-type organisation, uniting and extending strikes, developing them politically, and challenging the power of the capitalist state, bore little relation to the actual level of class struggle and the preoccupations of most workers.

If workers' councils were unlikely to emerge spontaneously, however, might not an alternative have been to force their emergence artificially, by preparing the way for their development through an organisation such as the AWRU? Even this strategy would appear to have been over-ambitious in the context of the period after 1920. It is difficult to see what activities the AWRU could actually have become involved in during these years. Its draft constitution rejected the role of bargaining and negotiating within capitalism (over wages, hours, working conditions and so on), but there was little prospect of the class struggle having any other content at this time. Apart from converting individual workers to socialism, one by one, through general propaganda, the most the AWRU could have done would have been to wait until the next upsurge in class struggle and class consciousness. Yet such an upsurge would have provided exactly the sort of circumstances in which, as the Russian and German examples had shown, soviets might have arisen, but in which the existence of the AWRU would have made little difference to whether they did or not.

Besides the unpromising circumstances prevailing in Britain after 1920, longer-term historical conditions were also stacked against the AWRU's chances of success. Dual unionism -- the position adopted by the Dreadnought group after 1921 -- had never been found to be a fruitful area in which to work, because the idea of building completely new unions from scratch appeared to be unsuitable for Britain. Dual unionism had made its greatest progress in the United States, through the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The working class in the USA was relatively mobile in geographical and occupational terms. The archetypal IWW members were the 'bums' who travelled around the country on the tramp or by the railroad taking work wherever they could find it. Such workers had no attachment to any particular factory or occupation; they could regard themselves as part of one big class and thus recognise the need for one big union. Moreover, a rejection of 'political' activity in favour of organisation on the job made sense to the many immigrant workers in the IWW who were denied the vote.

However, craft workers aside, the level of unionisation was relatively low in the United States; IWW recruits came predominantly from the large numbers of previously unorganised workers. Where it existed, in fact, the IWW was usually the only union, rather than the dual unionist model of a revolutionary organisation formed in direct opposition to an established reformist craft union. None of these factors which encouraged the growth of the IWW in the first decade of the twentieth century applied in Britain during the same period. Compared to its American comrades the British working class was relatively immobile in geographical and occupational terms, and trade union organisation was sufficiently widespread to be able to recruit previously unorganised workers into existing unions. Attempts to set up new unions necessarily had to be in rivalry to the existing unions, and so could be readily portrayed as divisive of working class unity.

In fact, the actual fate of the AWRU testifies just as eloquently to the shortcomings of its founders' ideas as all the criticisms raised so far. In reality, the AWRU does not seem to have existed at all outside the pages of the Workers' Dreadnought. In July 1923, ten months after the publication of the AWRU's draft constitution, an article in the Dreadnought addressed 'To The Miners Of Great Britain' announced that the AWRU was preparing an intensive campaign to promote the idea of building 'One Big Union' to seize control of industry and administer society. The author admitted, however, that 'There are no funds . . . We are few. The revolutionary truth has few spokesmen'. [57] Two months later the Dreadnought published a second article by the same author, which stated: 'From replies to the recent article . . . it is obvious that revolutionary sentiment, and the will to propagate and accomplish its end, is not dead.' This second article was titled 'Where Is The AWRU?', and in answer to this question the author wrote that 'seemingly its half-developed, swaddled form is nurtured in the minds of hundreds, aye thousands of comrades'. [58] Despite the evident optimism of these remarks, however, the AWRU seems to have disappeared without trace.


Given the objective conditions of the period after 1920, and in particular the high rate of unemployment in Britain, it is hardly surprising that the AWRU made far less progress than another Dreadnought-sponsored body: the Unemployed Workers' Organisation.

The UWO's Manifesto, Rules and Constitution were published in the Dreadnought in July 1923. The UWO was set up by unemployed workers who opposed the CPGB-dominated National Unemployed Workers' Movement's 'reformist' demand for 'work or full maintenance' and its aim of affiliating to the Labour Party and TUC. [59] The Dreadnought group was not instrumental in establishing the UWO, but an editorial in the paper stated that 'having read its declaration of principles, and believing these were tending towards our own direction, and an improvement on those of the older organisation of the unemployed, we agreed to allow the new organisation to ventilate its views in this paper so far as considerations of space and policy may permit'. [60] The UWO's Manifesto was modelled word-for-word on the 1908 Preamble of the Chicago IWW (the 'anti-political' wing of the IWW, as opposed to the 'political' Detroit wing). In the words of the IWW Preamble, and in similar vein to the constitution of the AWRU, the UWO's Manifesto declared that 'by organising industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old'. [61]

Compared to the AWRU the UWO's rise was positively meteoric. According to reports published in the Dreadnought it recruited most of its membership among disaffected NUWM members in areas of London such as Edmonton, Poplar, Bow, Bromley, Millwall, South West Ham, Lambeth and Camberwell: 'Branch after branch is dropping away from the old Movement and joining the new. As fast as the members are dropping out of the NUWM they are coming into the UWO.' [62] In January 1924 the Dreadnought reported that a UWO branch was being formed in Leeds, while the total membership in London had reached 'well over 3000'. The UWO was 'still going strong and the membership is increasing by leaps and bounds'. [63]

Yet the significance of the UWO's growth should not be overestimated. According to the organisation's Manifesto the working class had to 'take possession of the earth and machinery of production, and abolish the wage system. The army of production must be organised not only for the everyday struggle with Capitalism, but also to carry on production when Capitalism shall have been overthrown.' [64] However, the UWO did not organise the 'army of production'. It organised an army out of production. Precisely because the UWO was an organisation of the unemployed, there was no way that it could have fulfilled the aims stated in its own Manifesto. As unemployed workers the UWO's members were in no position to wield the sort of power which would have enabled them to take over the means of production. The faster the UWO grew, the more this basic flaw in its strategy was exposed. And the faster the unemployed workers' organisation grew, the more it pointed to the lack of viability of any workplace organisations such as the AWRU.


A simple lesson can be drawn from the episode of the stillborn AWRU. Mass organisations with revolutionary aspirations are a product of periods of upsurge in the class struggle, when large numbers of people are drawn into conflict with the existing order and established ideas. They cannot survive in the absence of such conditions.

In contrast to the Dreadnought group Guy Aldred seems to have had a greater awareness of this link between the level of class struggle and the possibilities for organisation. By 1920 Aldred had recognised that with the ebb of the post-war revolutionary wave the revolutionary potential of the shop stewards' and workers' committee movement was in decline. Disagreeing with the view that the existing workers' committees were the 'only legitimate British equivalent to the Russian soviets', Aldred argued that 'the actual Industrial Committee arises out of the commodity struggle, and tends to function as the organ of that struggle'. [65] If nothing except commodity struggles (that is, disputes over the price and conditions of sale of labour power) were on the agenda, then the workers' committees faced one or other of two fates. Either they would 'function as the organ' of those struggles, lapsing into a form of radical trade unionism, or, if they tried to preserve their revolutionary aims, they would end up as 'small associations for propaganda . . . unable to enter into the direct proletarian struggle for emancipation'. [66]

Vernon Richards' remarks about the question of industrial organisation are pertinent here :

To be consistent, the anarcho-syndicalist must, we believe, hold the view that the reason why the workers are not revolutionary is that the trade unions are reformist and reactionary : and that their structure prevents control from below and openly encourages the emergence of a bureaucracy which takes over all initiative into its own hands, etc. This seems to us a mistaken view. It assumes that the worker, by definition, must be revolutionary instead of recognising that he is as much the product (and the victim) of the society he lives in . . . In other words, the trade unions are what they are because the workers are what they are, and not vice versa. And for this reason, those anarchists who are less interested in the revolutionary workers' organisation, consider the problem of the organisation as secondary to that of the individual . . . we have no fears that when sufficient workers have become revolutionaries they will, if they think it necessary, build up their own organisations. This is quite different from creating the revolutionary organisations first and then looking for the revolutionaries (in the reformist trade unions in which most workers are to be found) afterwards. [67]

These comments accurately define the differences between the Dreadnought group and Aldred and his comrades. A common image in the Dreadnought's accounts of industrial struggles was of a combative, militant rank and file restrained and betrayed by cautious, conservative union bureaucrats: 'the men were prepared to fight but were held back, and consequently let down, by the men they trusted -- their officials'. [68] The attempt to set up the AWRU was premised on the attitude criticised by Richards : that new organisations had to be created in which workers' revolutionary spirit would be allowed untrammelled expression, rather than meeting with suppression as it did in the trade unions.

Guy Aldred, on the other hand, stood closer to the position supported by Richards. Part of the reason for this was probably that Aldred had already passed through, and later repudiated, a phase when he supported dual unionism. In 1907 Aldred had helped to set up the Industrial Union of Direct Actionists, whose aim was 'to organise the workers on a revolutionary economic basis' with 'Direct Action and the Social General Strike' as its weapons. [69] In Aldred's view 'the workers had to build up their social organisation and evolve their political expression of organisation within the womb of the old society'. [70] The IUDA would fill this need. At that time, therefore, Aldred supported the sort of prefigurative organisation which the Dreadnought group proposed fifteen years later when it formed the AWRU.

Aldred soon realised, however, that the IUDA could only fulfil its revolutionary role if its members held revolutionary ideas. The IUDA needed a propagandist organisation working alongside it, spreading communist ideas among the working class. Aldred therefore began to set up Communist Propaganda Groups to infuse potential IUDA members with communist principles. As it turned out, these propaganda groups outlived the IUDA. Thereafter Aldred consistently put the need for propaganda before the need for organisation, and abandoned dual unionism.

Debating the issue of industrial unionism in 1919 Aldred argued: 'The workers functioned under capitalist society as so much commodities . . . and though they had an industrial union, their position remained the same.' Industrial unions could have just as much of a 'palliative purpose' as trade unions. [71] There was no such thing as an inherently revolutionary form of organisation. Organisations merely reflected the consciousness of their members, and could only function in a revolutionary manner if their members were revolutionaries. The most direct route to revolution, therefore, would be through propaganda aimed at developing communist ideas among the working class. Aldred's method was 'to make Socialists first in order to bring about Socialism. But industrial unionism aimed at organising the workers without making them Socialists.' [72] It was only possible to work for dual unionism 'by postponing Socialism and side-tracking Socialist propaganda'. [73] Thus Aldred summed up his attitude as follows: 'Industrial unionism was a question of machinery and method. It was never one of principle or philosophy . . . It ignored the reality of Socialism, the need for Idealism, and so promoted confusion.' [74]

Aldred's comrades shared this point of view. An article in the Spur in 1917 stated that

the great mass of the workers . . . are an easy prey to the wiles of the Capitalist class, and what is worse, to the ineptitude of their self-appointed leaders. We must aim at securing an intelligent class-conscious rank and file. In order to achieve this the paramount need is knowledge. Educate! Educate! Educate! must be our first work. Then we can discuss the question of organisation. [75]

Rose Witcop agreed with these priorities. Replying to a letter complaining about the lack of 'constructive details' in the Spur. Witcop wrote: 'We believe that it is enough at present to point out the many evils from which we suffer today; whilst in discussing freely first principles we are helping along a mental reconstruction which is preparing us for the social change.' [76]

When workers were conscious of the need for communism they would create whatever form of organisation they required in the course of the revolution itself, but these organisations could not be established in embryo before their hour of need. Thus Aldred did not share the Dreadnought group's attachment to the formation of a prefigurative organisation. In June 1923, when Aldred and Pankhurst opposed each other in a public debate on the question 'Is industrial organisation necessary before the social revolution?', Pankhurst affirmed this necessity and Aldred denied it. [77] The APCF also disagreed with the KAPD's view that workers should desert the existing trade unions and form revolutionary factory organisations such as the AAUD. In 1925 the Commune stated: 'The Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation does not believe in, and cannot understand either the need for or the possibility of factory organisation. On this point the APCF differs from the KAPD.' [78]

In contrast to the Dreadnought group and the KAPD, Aldred advocated 'Spontaneous Social Revolution'. [79] The organisations that had carried out the Russian revolution, for example, had not been set up in advance by any small group of leaders, nor had they developed from any previously-existing organisations; they had been thrown up by the revolutionary struggle itself -- that is, 'spontaneously'. [80] The soviets, Aldred and his comrades argued, would not emerge until the hour of the revolution had arrived. Thus in October 1920 the Glasgow Communist Group stated that while it disagreed 'emphatically' with 'the idea of supporting or working for workers' committees as at present existing', it 'heartily' supported 'the Soviet or Revolutionary Workers' Council System as it will be developed during the transition stage and after the Revolution' . [81]

After 1920, therefore, there seems to have been little common ground between the Dreadnought group and Aldred and his comrades with regard to the issue of industrial organisation. Both groups held more or less the same critique of the existing trade unions, but disagreed over what, if anything, should take their place.

Things can be said in support of both sides in the argument. Aldred's groups were right to point out that mass revolutionary organisations could not be expected to emerge except during the revolutionary struggle itself, and that attempts to set up or sustain such organisations in a period of declining class struggle would not succeed. During such periods mass organisations could exist only on a reformist basis; revolutionary organisations could maintain their communist principles, but not hope to preserve or attract mass support.

It was one of anti-parliamentarism's basic tenets that certain forms of organisation were inherently reactionary, because they did not allow the mass of the working class to participate actively in their own struggles. This did not necessarily mean, however, that there could be forms of organisation which were inherently revolutionary. Thus Aldred and his comrades were right to stress the importance of propaganda for communism, the goal which the supposedly revolutionary organisational forms were intended to achieve. Yet here the argument becomes more complex. Trade unionism could be said to hinder workers' struggles in two senses. First, it embodies particular notions which condition the way workers set about organising and conducting their struggles, and the aims to which they think they can aspire. In this sense revolutionaries had to oppose trade unionist ideology with another set of ideas: the socialist critique of capitalism, and propaganda for the communist alternative.

However, revolutions do not break out overnight when workers are suddenly converted to a new vision of society. They develop out of the most mundane of struggles. And it is here that workers confront trade unionism in its material form: its rule books, its divisiveness, its bureaucracy and so on. Now the argument shifts in favour of the Dreadnought group. On its own, a rejection of the trade unions, and the development of new forms of organisation designed to facilitate the active participation of all workers, would not have been a sufficient condition for the success of the revolution. But what is equally certain is that capitalism could not be overthrown without the self-organisation and mass activity which the forms of organisation proposed by the Dreadnought group were intended to foster.

In one sense the ideas of the two groups after 1920 can be seen as polar opposites. In another, more fruitful sense, they can be seen as representing two sides of a dilemma that was impossible to resolve in the circumstances of the time. Revolutionaries can be torn between two impulses : on the one hand their commitment to the struggles of the working class and their desire to do something now, and on the other hand their commitment to the final goal of communism. In periods of radical class struggle the conflict between these two impulses disappears, because immediate actions appear to have a direct bearing on whether or not the final goal is achieved. In non-revolutionary periods, however it is far more difficult to effectively reconcile these two impulses, because it appears as if one can only be pursued at the expense of the other.

The Dreadnought group's attempt to set up the AWRU was an effort to intervene in order to precipitate events; by opting to concentrate on propaganda for communism Aldred's group took a longer-term view. Each group's actions lacked the dimensions of the other. Not until the period of the Spanish Civil War, but more so the period of the Second World War, would the anti-parliamentary communists once again be able to relate their everyday interventions in the class struggle to their basic principles and final goal. In the meantime, they faced the dilemma of being revolutionaries in a non-revolutionary period. Part II, covering the years 1925-35, looks at how the anti-parliamentary communists faced up to the problems this posed.