Revolutionary syndicalism and The Miners’ Next Step

Issue: 171

Tim Evans

The Miners’ Next Step and the movement it created throughout the coalfield gave me the inspiration I had been looking for… The conception of working-class power was far more realistic to me than the idea of merely fighting for seats in parliament for supporters of the Liberal-Labour alliance.

Arthur Horner.1

The Miners’ Next Step, which so inspired the Communist militant Arthur Horner, was a slim pamphlet which emerged in the aftermath of the South Wales miners’ strikes of 1910-11.2 These strikes involved over 30,000 people, and were most bitter and protracted in the collieries of the giant Cambrian Combine Company in the Rhondda Valley.3 They were, in Britain, the opening salvoes in a period of intense industrial conflict that occurred in several countries simultaneously in the years leading up to the First World War, and which became known as the Great Unrest. The Miners’ Next Step, as well as being a guide to action and a proposal for the restructuring of the miners’ union, represented the best practical application in Britain at this time of syndicalist ideas, which argued for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism through strike action. These ideas influenced a significant minority of the most militant sections of the British working class during this period.

The waves of strikes from 1910 to 1914 were not contained within the existing union structures; they were revolts by rank and file workers against the employers, the state and the established union leaderships.4 They were characterised by direct action, sabotage, attacks on scabs, employers and magistrates, and serious conflict with the police and military. During the Cambrian Combine strike, after a miner was killed by a blow to the head, probably from a police truncheon, many shops and businesses in the nearby town of Tonypandy were trashed and looted, searing the “Tonypandy riots” into working-class consciousness.

During and after the strike, activists composed “a short, sharp tactical pamphlet”, The Miners’ Next Step.5 The revolutionary socialist and author Paul Foot called it “one of the landmarks in our trade union literature”:

It exposed the treacherous role which the union leaders had played in the struggle with the coal owners. Its answer was…to bring the power of officials much more firmly to heel, and to place the union and the people who ran it under the control of the rank and file.6

Between 1888 and 1910, employers and the state began to move away from out and out repression of trade unions and towards viewing these unions as a form of social control. Union representatives and negotiators became ever more important as a mediating influence between capital and labour.

The growth of this union bureaucracy transformed it into a distinct social and political stratum. Officials were plucked out of the discipline of the workplace; the role of the union bureaucrat gave its holders security both from everyday workplace pressures and the wider economic fluctuations of the capitalist economy. Moreover, the development of collective bargaining machinery gave officials a dual role: “Like the god Janus…the union bureaucracy presents two faces—it balances between the employers and the workers”.7 On the one hand, this meant negotiating better terms for union members, but, on the other, it meant delivering the goods to management in terms of orderly workplace relations. “Anything that broke that routine”, says writer and historian Mike Haynes, “challenged their credibility in both their own eyes and those of the managers”.8 This tended towards a conservative mindset. For example, the main Welsh mining union, the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), was opposed to the use of strikes and wholly committed to cumbersome conciliation procedures.

Syndicalism: a revolutionary movement

As the Cambrian Combine strike continued, more radical ideas—particularly those of the revolutionary syndicalists—grew among a minority of workers in the area. In the 30-year period after the mid-1880s, syndicalism became a powerful force in the international workers’ movement. The French word “syndicat” means trade union, and “syndicalisme”, trade unionism. The character of the movement was varied, and so was its terminology. It was referred to as “revolutionary syndicalism” in France and Britain, “anarcho-syndicalism” in Spain and Italy, “industrial unionism” in the United States, and “Larkinism” in Ireland. The core beliefs, however, were similar everywhere and the term “syndicalism” is used here throughout for the sake of clarity.

Syndicalists originally gathered together in small propaganda groups, but ultimately helped shape serious workers’ movements in Latin America, the US, Australia, Italy, Spain, France and Britain. In order to get rid of capitalism, syndicalists argued, it was necessary to harness the collective strength of workers by fashioning unions that acted as powerful combat organisations wholly controlled by the rank and file. Syndicalism shared with anarchism a profound distrust of leaders and leadership, and The Miners’ Next Step dedicated a whole section to a critique of these ills. Rather than pursue local and parliamentary elections and seek representation through a particular political party, workers should exert pressure directly on the capitalist class through industrial action and strikes. The final aim was a general strike that would overthrow capitalism. At the Second Congress of the Third International in 1920, the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, in the midst of sharp disagreements with the syndicalists, nonetheless described them as people who “not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike the reformists, really want to tear its head off”.9

Nonetheless, the number of people who fully embraced revolutionary syndicalist ideas in Britain was small. As historian of syndicalism Ralph Darlington puts it:

Syndicalist organisations sometimes grew rapidly during periods of upsurge in class struggle, when large numbers of workers were drawn into conflict with the existing order and established ideas, they remained almost everywhere minority movements—sometimes a smallish one as in Britain, sometimes a substantial one as in Italy.10

The overall membership of the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL), a propagandist body that attempted to bring together syndicalist and trade union activists into a coherent national movement, is estimated by Darlington to have been “no more than a few thousand members at any one time”.11 Sales of the ISEL’s monthly newspaper, The Syndicalist, peaked at about 20,000 copies. However, if one looks beyond openly syndicalist organisations and individuals, the movement itself had a much wider influence. The industrial uprisings of 1910-14 were characterised by the fusion of three elements. Firstly, left-wing organisations gave the movement its revolutionary ideology. Secondly, shopfloor militants linked up the revolutionaries with the unions. Finally, and most vitally, the mass unrest of industrial workers carried the whole movement forward.

An important influence on British syndicalism were the ideas of revolutionary socialist Daniel De Leon, the main theorist of the Socialist Labour Party in the US. Although the British version of the SLP attempted, like its US cousin, to intervene in and initiate workers’ struggles, its growth was hampered by the De Leonist “dual union” strategy of building separate “red” unions rather than working within existing ones. This only had the effect of isolating revolutionary militants from the mass memberships of unions such as the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, which had nearly a million cardholders by 1920. This strategy restricted the SLP’s influence, and it remained a tiny organisation, never gaining more than 1,000 members.

Noah Ablett and the Plebs’ League

The biggest organisation on the British left at this time was the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a centrist organisation whose revolutionary rhetoric was at odds with its reformist practice. It had some 30,000 members, and by 1910 syndicalist ideas were circulating in its branches. This was especially the case where ILP activists had begun organising in the trade unions. Some of the Cambrian Combine miners, attracted to the ideas of syndicalism, sought to transform daily battles for reforms into a broader challenge to capitalism as a system. These revolutionary trade unionists had to confront an established, powerful and conservative union bureaucracy, and their detailed understanding of the way it exercised its power was devastatingly accurate. “It was the fruit of such practical experience that facilitated a more sophisticated analysis of the problem and ways of challenging it than produced by others elsewhere”.12

A central figure in the development of syndicalism was the miner Noah Ablett. Like his father and brothers, he went down the pit aged 12. In 1907, when he was in his early 20s, the SWMF sent him to study at Ruskin College, Oxford, where he led a student strike in protest at the college’s refusal to teach the ideas of Marxism. In 1908, he and other radical students set up the Plebs’ League, a political and educational group that aimed to disseminate Marxist and syndicalist ideas. As they returned to their home areas, the Ruskin students took syndicalism and revolutionary Marxism with them, setting up local Plebs’ Leagues and discussion groups, and, most importantly, intervening in the strikes and uprisings of 1910-14. There was also close contact between the Welsh syndicalists and the ISEL, whose main driving force was the dynamic agitator Tom Mann, co-editor of The Industrial Syndicalist newspaper. Mann’s aim was to establish a network of syndicalist activists across the country. Ablett and other Welsh miners built up support for the League, attending conferences and writing reports and articles for the paper.

Proto-syndicalism and the Unofficial Reform Committee

Syndicalism’s appeal was far wider than organisational structures and membership figures suggest. Its support was grounded, in Darlington’s words, “on the distinctive radicalism of important minority sections of the…British labour movement”.13 There is a tendency to downplay the role of syndicalism in Britain in this period both by liberal commentators who see British workers as inherently unrevolutionary, and those in and around the Communist Party who saw syndicalism as merely an immature and irrelevant detour on the road to Bolshevism. However, in the 1910-14 period, the government and employers certainly believed that “a syndicalistic mood of revolt and disaffection” was at large, particularly among younger workers.14 During this period, there were serious clashes between strikers and the police and military. As well as the miner killed in the Cambrian Combine strike, four men were shot dead by soldiers in 1911 in Liverpool and Llanelli, and there were other deaths and countless injuries.15 Strikers launched attacks on scabs, and riots, sabotage and attacks on company property were widespread. Bob Holton, historian of British syndicalism, uses the term “proto-syndicalism” to characterise the insurgent nature of the uprisings, describing “forms of social action which lie between vague revolt and clear-cut revolutionary action”.16

These ideas of workers’ self-activity and struggle from below were gaining traction in the South Wales mining valleys, and syndicalism acted as an invigorating force that empowered and politically orientated workers during periods of industrial conflict. In 1911, Ablett was a central figure in the formation of the syndicalist-influenced Unofficial Reform Committee (URC), which operated within the SWMF.17 It was the URC which, in 1912, produced and published The Miners’ Next Step. The Cambrian Combine strike committee was also strongly influenced by syndicalism. Noah Rees, secretary of the strike committee and of the Cambrian miners’ lodge, was a member of the Plebs’ League and a comrade of Ablett’s. Other strike committee members included the syndicalists William Henry Mainwaring and Tom Smith.18 In the early stages of the dispute, Mann was a constant visitor to the Rhondda Valley. Other notable figures from the international syndicalist movement also visited, including Big Bill Haywood of the US’s Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or “Wobblies”, who addressed meetings at Tonypandy, and the French anarcho-syndicalist Antoinette Cauvin, widely known as Madame Sorgue.19

The industrial correspondent of the Western Mail, David Evans, noted in a 1911 article, which was largely hostile to the strikers, that the whole coalfield was “in a state of serious unrest”. For the previous 18 months, there had been an ongoing battle for control of the SWMF; syndicalist radicals, “imbued with communistic theories concerning the relations of capital and labour” had challenged the conservative politics of the older leaders.20 There is no doubt that syndicalist ideas both shaped the revolt and were in turn popularised and spread by it. Moreover, these rebellions were not just against the bosses; they were also directed against the union leaderships. They were controlled by rank and file workers rather than the union bureaucracy. When the alarmed authorities raised the stakes by calling in the police and military, workers’ resistance was direct and unmediated.

The Ely Lockout

On 1 August 1910, the management at the Ely pit, part of the Cambrian Combine Company, served notices of termination of employment on its workforce of 800 miners. The sackings were part of an “abnormal places” dispute over the piece rate of miners who worked unproductive coal seams, where output and consequently earnings were reduced by difficult geographical conditions. On 1 September, the notices took effect and the men were locked out. They immediately declared a strike, and nearby pits came out in solidarity on 5 September. Within a week of the lockout, the number of men on strike had trebled, and soon the total number was over 20,000.

The SWMF, seeking to get a grip on the situation, recommended all men return to work pending the result of a ballot. This idea was overwhelmingly rejected by the strikers, but the executive committee went ahead and organised a coalfield-wide ballot anyway. The miners voted by 76,978 to 44,868 to take official strike action at the Cambrian Combine from 1 November and to levy all other pits for financial support. However, in a blow to the Cambrian Combine strikers, agitation for a general coalfield strike failed. This meant that the strike would be more difficult to win, especially since the local employers’ organisations were organising regular levies of their own to financially support the mine owners.

So, on 1 November, against the wishes of the leadership of the SWMF and of the local Rhondda miners’ agents, all 12,000 miners of the Cambrian Combine walked out in support of the men locked out at Ely.21 As Evans indignantly reported in the Western Mail, “Real control over the strikes was left in the hands of the lodge committees of the two districts, and on not a single occasion was the voice of the SWMF as such raised publicly against the extreme courses advocated and eventually practised by those committees”.22 The Cambrian Combine pit lodge representatives had decided this strike would remain firmly in their hands. All Cambrian pits had to be brought to a standstill. Some 16,000 miners were already out on strike in the wider coalfield over other issues, so that widening the dispute into a general strike over the whole coalfield was still a possibility.

Much has been said about the violence that accompanied the Great Unrest. Although there is insufficient space to examine the reasons for this violence in detail, it is clear that it characterised the Cambrian Combine dispute from the start. In the first two weeks of November, there was a dramatic escalation of social conflict in the area around the Cambrian Combine pits. Attacks were made on collieries that were still working. Colliery buildings were trashed and telephone wires cut. Strikebreakers were assaulted in the street and in their homes, and “scab” and “blackleg” were daubed on their doors. The same punishment was meted out to those who cooked meals for the police patrolling the coalfield. Magistrates and mine managers were attacked, and there was even an attempt to blow up one manager’s house with explosives.23

Women in the strike

Women were prominent in the street actions, in the mass picketing and in attacks on scabs. In an eyewitness account sent to the syndicalist newspaper Justice, Tom Mann described how “many women were in the procession—a number with infants.” They confronted the officials and enginemen and, in an attempt to get them to join the strike, “talked to them in emphatic Welsh”.24 Women organised themselves into window-breaking squads, targeting colliery officials and anybody still working. According to the South Wales Daily News, “a surprising feature of the whole disturbance was the part played in it by women, who…were the ringleaders in many of the assaults and exhorted the men to further violence”.25 The prominence of women in the strike should have not have surprised the newspaper. As in other coalfields, women had long been to the fore in strike action. Strikebreakers would traditionally be harassed and humiliated by “rough music”, the banging of kettles and pans outside their windows. Women used buckets and aprons to collect and carry stones to be used as ammunition against the police. Various forms of public shaming were initiated by women, included forcing strikebreakers to wear white shirts.26 In an official report on the disturbances, one senior officer, refuting charges of police brutality, observed: “As I understand is customary in Welsh colliery disturbances, there were a number of women in the crowd. During the first charge it is possible that in the darkness some of these may have been injured”.27

The reasons for women’s militancy are easy to identify. Conditions for the working class in the Rhondda Valley were often grim. Rivers acted as the main sewer for most of these communities, and the mortality rate for both sexes was high. Unlike the rest of Wales and England, the death rate among women in the 20-44 age group in the Rhondda Valley was higher than for men.28 Figures for infant mortality were appalling, with the five major boroughs of South Wales reaching a figure of 380 deaths per 1,000 births in 1911.29 In the Rhondda Valley the average was 160 deaths per 1,000 births for the ten years from 1904-14. Causes of death included measles, whooping cough, pneumonia and scarlet fever.30 Hospital facilities were scarce, with only minimal cover. In the Rhondda in 1897, a single hospital with ten beds was expected to care for a population of over 120,000. More facilities were built in 1902 and 1908, but the system remained rudimentary until 1914. Although dreadful hardships do not necessarily create militancy, such conditions meant that women, as primary care givers within the family and the community, were face to face, day in and day out, with appalling levels of deprivation. When opportunities arose, as in a major strike, to improve conditions, women, more than almost anyone, had good reason to fight hard.

Indeed, strikes of this period were often community affairs, occurring alongside community protests that fed into the industrial action, and this drew in women too. For example, tenants’ strikes against rent rises were often tied in with the industrial action in the pits. Strikers took their demands into the community, organising house to house collections and solidarity meetings in the evenings. This social engagement, and the sense of collective support that it engendered, made it possible for industrial action to deepen and widen into serious social resistance. This is a process that occurred in the Rhondda, Llanelli, Hull, Liverpool and elsewhere during these years. Even as late as the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, community involvement, particularly the involvement of women, was central to sustaining the action.

The siege of “Fortress Glamorgan”

Early on Monday 7 November, the strikers, along with their families and supporters, assembled in their thousands to picket out all the Cambrian Combine mines. They proceeded from colliery to colliery, picketing pits as they went. Once work had ceased, fires were raked out and ventilating fans stopped. The crowd marched in drenching rain and high winds, dragging strikebreakers alongside them. The scabs were dressed in white shirts and had cards pinned to them, reading, “Take A Warning”.31 By the end of the afternoon, work had been stopped at all Cambrian Combine pits, except Glamorgan Colliery. Captain Lionel Lindsey, the chief constable in Glamorgan, had established this colliery as his headquarters, with a large contingent of officers, including mounted police. By 9pm, several thousand strikers had gathered at the gates. There was serious hand to hand fighting for several hours, and at one point the demonstrators broke the police lines and entered the colliery. Lindsay, doubting the capacity of his policemen to withstand further attacks, called for troops to be sent.

At 5pm on the following day, Tuesday 8 November, thousands of strikers again gathered at the colliery. Mounted police charges were met with fierce resistance. In the intense close-quarter fighting that followed, a striker, Samuel Rays, was killed by a blow to the head, almost certainly from a police truncheon. As historian Dai Smith explains, the provocative tactic of turning Glamorgan Colliery into “Fortress Glamorgan” represented the coal owners’ laying claim “not so much to the property itself but to the rights of property ownership”.32 It was the aggressive assertion of these rights by the police that set the scene for what followed.

The Tonypandy Riots

At around 7pm, some of the strikers, responding to a rumour that the military were arriving by train, moved towards the railway station. In the town centre of Tonypandy, they joined forces with large crowds. When it became clear that the arrival of the military was delayed, the strikers turned their attention to the shops. As Dai Smith points out, “the social elite of…Tonypandy was, above all, the shop-owning class”.33 The shop owners decided who did and did not get credit at their stores, and were often landlords, letting out the rooms above their premises. Moreover, they socialised with, and were known to be sympathetic towards, the mine owners. The first shop windows to be smashed were those of Mr T Pascoe Jenkins, the senior magistrate of the Rhondda Valley, who was involved in legal action against strikers. His comment that strikers would have to “live on kippers and tea” had been regarded as particularly insulting.34 A police witness describes how Jenkins’s shop was singled out. Its windows were broken and clothing was taken, before the strikers mockingly strutted up and down outside, dressed up in top hats and white waistcoats. Another target was Mr J Owen Jones, a draper who was also a prominent member of the local establishment, serving as chairman of the Mid-Rhondda Chamber of Trade. Jones was a close friend of Leonard Llewellyn, the general manager of the Cambrian Collieries. He also owned the Tonypandy skating rink, where hundreds of officers from the Metropolitan Police had been billeted. He too was known for his insulting comments towards workers, including his alleged claim that “half a loaf is good enough for a miner”.35 His shop was ransacked and looted, alongside over 60 others; these businesses were “smashed systematically but not indiscriminately”.36 For two hours, the centre of Tonypandy became a “no-go” area for the authorities. As Dai Smith put it:

The shops…were not looted for food. They were wrecked by men and women who knew closely the intricate and inseparable local factors that made up the skein of social and economic connections that enwrapped their community.37

The looting was a calculated assault on the civil order of this network of power and an important manifestation of the social conflict precipitated by the strike. Moreover, the riot had its roots in the nature of Rhondda Valley society, where resources were scarce. Communities were stricken by dreadful rates of infant and maternal mortality and periodically devastated by mass deaths in pit disasters and explosions. With a constantly renewed population that was growing spectacularly, the mid-Rhondda area around Tonypandy was a community in a state of rapid change and expansion.38 Despite the lurid newspaper headlines describing a “Rhondda Reign of Terror”39 and “Red Revolution”, the left-wing Social Democratic Federation (SDF) newspaper Justice pointed out that the only individual to die that day had been a miner, his head smashed by a policeman. Justice’s anonymous correspondent (who may have been Tom Mann) described the workers’ adversaries as “the class that values the roof of a power station or the shop window of a tradesman above the life of a Welsh miner”.40

Over the following months, there was a continuation of the blockades, the pickets and the attacks on scabs, police, managers and colliery property. The last major disturbance of the strike took place on 25 July 1911 at the Ely pit, where everything had originally begun. Thousands of strikers stormed the colliery, and soldiers were brought in with bayonets fixed. As a result of these clashes, William John and John Hopla, leaders of the Cambrian Combine strike committee, each received prison sentences of one year’s hard labour in November 1911, later commuted to six months. Hopla died a year after his release, at the age of 32; his underlying health problems had been exacerbated by prison conditions and hard labour.

The Miners’ Next Step

By August 1911, the national union body, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB), had decided to pull the plug on the dispute. It informed the strike committee that it intended to cut off the £3,000 it gave them each week in financial support. On 17 August, the strikers—exhausted, hungry and furious at the passivity of the union after almost a year out—voted to return to work. In a clear rebuke to the MFGB and the SWMF, they noted that they only accepted the settlement “under protest against those who have been guilty of such frigid indifference to the Cambrian workmen in this dispute”.41

Although the defeat was a bitter pill for the Cambrian miners to swallow, the strike itself paved the way for the first national miners’ strike, for a national minimum wage, in February the following year. This 1912 strike was not only an important victory, but was part of a programme of changes stimulated very largely by the Welsh syndicalists. The aftermath of the Cambrian dispute saw the removal of many of the “moderates” from the “Fed”, with their places taken by syndicalists and other radicals. In March 1912, six months after the ending of the strike, the “moderate” president of the SWMF, William Abraham (also known by his bardic name, “Mabon”), resigned, citing ill health.

At around this time The Miners’ Next Step was published by the Unofficial Reform Committee (URC). Although the original draft was in all likelihood written by Noah Ablett, the finished pamphlet was a collective effort co-authored by several URC militants. The draft was circulated around the coalfield, and the final copy was submitted to a conference in Cardiff for endorsement at the end of 1911. Ablett’s biographer, Robert Turnbull, located the pamphlet’s importance in its “precise distillation of a set of revolutionary demands, allied to the day to day tasks of running a trade union”.42 In its robust critique of conciliatory trade unionism it urged workers to reject the idea of an identity of interest between workers and employers and instead argued that “a policy of open hostility should be installed”.43 The SWMF should be constructed “to fight rather than to negotiate” and should be “based on the principle that we can only get what we are strong enough to win and retain”.44 Despite the fact that the existing leadership of the SWMF showed no inclination to adopt such a radical new approach, the pamphlet argued, paradoxically, that the remedy did not lie in the election of new leaders.

This was the contradiction faced by the syndicalists among the South Wales miners. Although rank and file militancy drove the Cambrian strike, the bureaucratic machine of the MFGB was still able to play the decisive card in ending the dispute by cutting off strike pay. So should syndicalists, with their ambivalence towards notions of power and leadership, and their insistence that power should be held by the rank and file, stand for leading positions in the union? Even revolutionaries are not immune from bureaucratic pressures. As Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein point out:

A trade union official’s origins in an unofficial movement could not give them a lifetime’s inoculation against the disease of bureaucracy… The URC’s candidates were inevitably drawn into official ways of thinking after holding senior positions for some time.45

No trade union could escape the fact that it had to operate in a contradictory fashion: the daily pressure of bargaining and negotiating with employers pushed even revolutionary trade unionism in a reformist direction. The Miners’ Next Step represented, in Smith’s terms, “a conscious attempt to find an organisational framework in which the collectivity of action and sacrifice expressed in the Cambrian Combine strike would be neither controlled…nor dissipated”.46 The subheading of the pamphlet, it is true, calls it, “A suggested scheme for the reorganisation of the Federation.” Yet the question then arises: which group has the power to effect such restructuring? Is a transfer of leadership necessary? Should syndicalists take leadership positions in order to carry out these changes?

Ablett and other radicals like him took bureaucratic positions within the union that ultimately separated them from the rank and file. In 1911, he was elected to the executive of the SWMF; in 1919, he became a full-time union official; and, in 1921, he was elected onto the executive of the MFGB. He held this executive position until 1926, when he was accused of negotiating a secret deal with an individual pit while the mine owners’ 1926 lockout was still on. It was felt, probably unfairly, that he had gone behind the backs of his own union, and indeed of his own class, and he was stripped of all his union positions.47 As Cliff and Gluckstein observe, “The falling away of direct links with the rank and file—addressing them from platforms rather than working alongside them and sharing a common experience—had its effect”.48 Even the radical militants of the URC became bureaucratised after serving any length of time in senior positions. Indeed, despite their dislike of “leadership”, the inevitable endpoint of their political logic was the capturing of such positions.

The URC’s great strength was also arguably its greatest weakness: its deep rootedness in the South Wales’ miners’ collective organisations. The strike committees never took on a permanent existence separate from the union lodges and so could never develop into independent, soviet-type organisations. The strategy of replacing right-wing bureaucrats with left-wing ones gave rise to a host of problems: “The URC was a channel upwards for rank and file grievances, but it also carried the best militants up the structure of the union and dropped them into the bureaucratic mire when they reached the top”.49

Success and failure of syndicalism

Syndicalism must be seen within the context of a rapidly developing working class that was testing out different methods of struggle under conditions of profound social and political change. One strength of the syndicalists lay in their understanding that the power of workers lay in the workplace. One failure lay in the fact that they did not grasp how that power could be best wielded. In other words, they did not have a clear picture of what political leadership entailed, and how the power of workers could be effectively expressed. It is untrue, as some have said, that they simply ignored politics and paid the price for it. The syndicalists’ critique of the Labour Party’s electoralism was scathing; they saw parliament as a political distraction, and their clear-headedness about the role of the state and its lack of neutrality was refreshing. The Plebs’ League—an important influence on the URC—was avowedly Marxist, and indeed Marxist political ideas were central to syndicalism, although in a way that was divorced from its actual practice. For the syndicalists, Marxist theory existed simply to explain the workings of capitalism, not as a guide to action.

It was in the immediate action of workers against their employers that syndicalist ideas found their deepest roots. The militancy of the 1910-14 period challenged the view that British workers were passive and non-revolutionary, and that the existing political forms were sufficient to contain working class revolt. It showed that, at a time when the unions and the Labour Party were far more flexible than they are today, militants still found, through bitter experience, that these organisations were inadequate. The struggle for socialism required much more than they could possibly offer. As Haynes argues, “The tragedy was that the lesson had not been learnt before… And, of course, to the extent that it is still denied, each generation is doomed to learn it too by even more bitter experience”.50

Ablett dismissed parliamentary politics as an unnecessary detour. Why elect MPs to make reforms when workers’ power could achieve socialism directly? His often cited aphorism summed it up pithily: “It was foolish to swim the river to fill the bucket on the other side”.51 Although this focus on workers’ power at the point of production represented a break from electoral reformism, syndicalism nonetheless failed to present workers with a consistent political alternative. Its separation of economic from political factors was merely a mirror image of reformism.

Trade unions and revolutionary parties

To the extent that trade unions and reformist political parties win limited reforms in “normal” times they can retain the loyalty of workers. Yet in times of social crisis, as in 1910-14, the instinct of these organisations is to demobilise the independent action of the masses. The artificial division between economics and politics encourages the belief among workers that the class struggle between capital and labour is a non-political, economic issue, better resolved through negotiation than through the revolutionary transformation of society. Even after disputes that involve great militancy, the pressures to bargain and negotiate necessarily drive even the most radical trade unionism in a reformist direction. As Rosa Luxemburg argued, the artificial separation between economics and politics depoliticises trade union struggles and diverts working-class politics into harmless parliamentary channels. Only if workers’ struggles break out of the narrow confines of trade unionism, rejecting the division of economics and politics, and take on the capitalist state across the board can workers’ win a real and lasting victory.52

In his polemic against “economism”, a political perspective which exclusively focused on trade union issues, Lenin argued that socialists should not limit themselves to economic struggles. Instead, they should be at the forefront of broad political battles by every oppressed section of society. The model should not be that of a “trade union secretary” but a “tribune of the people” able to “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears”.53 The spontaneous struggle of the masses has to be augmented by the influence of a revolutionary Marxist party, encouraging political organisation and the development of class consciousness, and capable of leading a struggle against the state.54 In non-revolutionary times, trade union consciousness lags behind socialist consciousness. Unions, by their very nature, recruit all workers: reformists, revolutionaries, and out and out reactionaries. The higher its membership figures, the more successful the trade union is regarded.

A revolutionary party is different. Its starting point is an awareness of the different levels of consciousness within the working class: an unevenness that it fights to overcome. In Cliff and Gluckstein’s characterisation, the revolutionary party is “a minority, defined by the common political outlook of its members, who are bound by unity of action and organisation”.55 It seeks to unite and lead economic and political struggles and ultimately make possible the conquest of political power. The seizure of power was an issue the syndicalists never satisfactorily addressed, giving the impression that taking control of the workplaces would in itself be sufficient. As Marx argued in 1871 in The Civil War in France, workers’ control is only possible after the working class has seized political power and smashed the capitalist state.56 British syndicalist ideology was noticeably vague about how, or even if, this could be achieved.

The downturn and after

The organisation that Ablett was central to building, the Unofficial Reform Committee, was, in Cliff’s estimation, “a superb fighting mechanism” that embodied the best of what a “broad left” could offer. It weakened the trade union bureaucracy through its interventions and “proved invaluable in channelling rank and file initiatives”.57 However, it also turned successive generations of workers’ leaders into left bureaucrats. It could fire up mass unofficial action, but it failed to provide the leadership necessary to bring about permanent change. Since it limited itself to industrial action alone, it was unable to politically analyse the changing needs of each period, generalise from concrete events and construct a broader strategy for winning working-class power. Nonetheless, credit is due to the syndicalists for engaging with these challenges in revolutionary terms, and for intervening directly in important workers’ struggles. This proved vital to keeping alive a revolutionary perspective. The role of syndicalism was particularly important because orthodox Marxism in Britain, prior to the First World War, was identified with non-revolutionary, sectarian social democratic parties that failed to connect their political perspectives with industrial ones, standing apart from actual workers struggles.

The absence of a body of syndicalist theory was the inevitable result of the fact that, as Frederick Ridley said of the French syndicalists, “they wrote for the worker rather than the social philosopher. They dealt with issues of the moment. Their ideas were scattered in newspapers, pamphlets and speeches”.58 Although this theoretical vagueness could play in their favour when struggle was on an upward trajectory, lack of clarity proved a fatal weakness when militancy declined in the 1920s. As historian Joseph White comments, there was no other tendency within the 20th century labour movement “whose historical ‘moment’ was as short as syndicalism’s and whose working assumptions were so completely displaced and subsumed by events and fresh doctrines”.59

Syndicalism’s most dynamic phase was in the period immediately preceding and following the First World War. Afterwards, the movement abruptly declined, except in Spain, where anarcho-syndicalism continued to play an important role into the 1930s. However, as long as electoral reformism continues to exist, syndicalist ideas will always arise in some form as a reaction to the failure of electoral politics. A major reason why so many workers turned to syndicalism in the 1910-14 period was because of their grave disappointment at the performance of the newly founded Labour Party. In 1906, 29 Labour MPs were elected to parliament, and the number rose to 42 in 1910, yet there was no noticeable improvement in workers’ pay, living standards or working conditions. In some quarters the Labour MPs became referred to as “the 40 political cowards”.60

Despite the failure of these movements to achieve revolutionary change, syndicalism reminds us, as Cliff and Gluckstein point out, that “the fight for socialism has…very little to do with what happens away from the workplace, whether in the electoral field of the unions or parliament”.61 Despite its brief period of influence, and the fact that it was ultimately unsuccessful in its revolutionary aims, syndicalism was an important force in the insurgencies of the pre-war period. It demonstrated workers’ rising levels of organisation, confidence and political consciousness at a time “when all politics was in flux and such matters as the nature of political authority…were open to wide-ranging debate”.62 The clashes with the forces of the state encouraged a process of radicalisation among sections of the working class, which, though not revolutionary, built a political culture that was “outside the formal consensus of the day”.63 Syndicalism’s challenge to the status quo empowered workers who had previously been forced simply to be content with survival on the employer’s terms to instead organise and resist. It gave “organised form and inspiring voice” to the determination to overturn the accepted order of things and to shift the balance of forces in favour of the working class.64 Such “counter-politics” celebrated working class solidarity and direct action, called for workers’ control and demanded revolutionary transformation of the system. The Cambrian Combine strike committee’s publications show just how quickly such demands can develop. The November 1910 leaflets urged a “Down Tools” policy and sympathy strikes in support of a dispute over wages. By June 1911, the literature called for the miners to “put an end to capitalist despotism and do battle for the cause of industrial freedom”.65

The experience of syndicalism also shows that, if prepared to intervene energetically in the class struggles of the day and sufficiently embed in their local communities and workers’ organisations, even small groups of revolutionaries can hold an influence far greater than their numbers. Syndicalists powerfully challenged the existing industrial and political orthodoxies, including the power hierarchies of the “official” labour movement, and made an enduring contribution to the development of anti-capitalist revolt. The militants who risked all, and sometimes sacrificed all, in these years deserve to be celebrated for the audacity they displayed in their struggle to achieve the liberation of the working class.66

Tim Evans is a writer, poet, and member of the Socialist Workers Party in Swansea. He is an organiser of the Llanelli 1911 Rail Strike Commemoration and the radical poetry collective Live Poets Society.


1 Horner, 1960, p21.

2 Thanks to Ralph Darlington for his detailed comments on an earlier draft of this article.

3 The Cambrian Combine was a network of mining firms formed in 1906 to regulate prices and wages in South Wales while still allowing each individual business to operate independently. The Combine was owned by D A Thomas, 1st Viscount Rhondda, a Liberal Party MP.

4 The term “rank and file” is used here to mean ordinary union members who are not full-time officials within the professional union hierarchy. However, as Ralph Darlington points out, the rank and file is not a homogenous grouping. Rank and file members differ in their commitment to trade unionism, so we cannot assume an identity of interests between a minority of militant activists and the broad mass of members. Left-wing alliances can be formed between full-time officials, stewards, activists and members that can blur the dividing line between “officials” and the “rank and file”. See Darlington, 2014, pp65-66.

5 See David Douglass’s introduction to Ablett, 1991, p1.

6 Foot, 1986, p2.

7 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p27.

8 Haynes, 1984, p91.

9 Trotsky, 1924. The Third International, also known as the Communist International or Comintern, was a global organisation that arose out of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Initially, it aimed to spread socialist revolution to other countries around the world. It held seven congresses in Moscow between 1919 and 1935. Stalin dissolved it in 1943 to avoid antagonising his US and British allies during the Second World War.

10 Darlington, 2008, p147.

11 Darlington, 2008, p147.

12 Darlington, 2008, p221.

13 Darlington, 2008, p157.

14 Holton, 1976, p76.

15 For an account of the Llanelli events, see Evans, 2011.

16 Holton, 1976, pp76-77.

17 Egan, 1978, p67.

18 Holton, 1976, p80.

19 Holton, 1976, p81.

20 Evans, 1911, p1.

21 Miners’ agents worked for local “miners’ federations” (union branches) and dealt with disputes over pay, conditions, unemployment, compensation and so on.

22 Evans, 1911, p37.

23 Holton, 1976, p82.

24 Leeworthy, 2018, p173.

25 Fagge, 1996, p177.

26 Fagge, 1996, p203.

27 Evans, 2011, p51.

28 Evans and Jones, 1994, pp124-127. Quoted in in Fagge, 1996, p63.

29 Morgan, 1980, p71; Fagge, 1996, p63.

30 Jones, 1989, p92; Fagge, 1996, p63.

31 Smith, 2010, p396.

32 Smith, 2010, p398.

33 Smith, 1988, p114.

34 Holton, 1976, p82.

35 Evans and Maddox, 2010, p83.

36 Smith, 1988, p114.

37 Smith, 2010, p419.

38 Smith, 1988, p114.

39 These headlines are from The Glamorgan Free Press and The Rhondda Leader—see Evans and Maddox, 2010, p87.

40 Leeworthy, 2018, p176.

41 Evans and Maddox, 2010, p149.

42 Turnbull, 2017, p41.

43 Ablett, 1991, p27.

44 Ablett, 1991, p22.

45 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1988, p76.

46 Smith, 2010, p426.

47 Turnbull, 2017, p57.

48 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p76.

49 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p76.

50 Haynes, 1984, p111.

51 Egan, 1996, p24.

52 Luxemburg, 1971, p105.

53 Lenin, 1961, p183.

54 Darlington, 2013, pp234-235.

55 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p30.

56 Marx, 1968, p248.

57 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p78.

58 Ridley, 1970, p170.

59 White, 1991, p170.

60 This phrase was used by C G Rowe, a Labour activist, in a letter to the radical MP George Lansbury—see Holton, 1976, p184.

61 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, p34.

62 Darlington, 2013, p4.

63 Darlington, 2008, p152.

64 Darlington, 2008, p152.

65 Arnot, 1967, p273; Holton, 1976, p84.

66 There has not been the space here to consider the state of trade union struggle in Britain today, the historically low level of strikes and the impact of Covid-19 in the workplace. Nevertheless, articles on these topics have appeared in the pages of this journal. See Darlington, 2014; O’Brien, 2020; Lyddon, 2019; Machell, 2018; Thomas, 2020.


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