Revolutionaries and trade unions: a reply to Mark O’Brien

Issue: 159

Tom Machell

Mark O’Brien’s article in issue 157 of International Socialism, “What has Happened to the British Labour Movement and What Does it Mean for the Left in the Unions?”, adds to the debates in this journal over the last number of years.1 His conclusions, however, are extremely dangerous. If put in practice they would actually decrease the influence of revolutionary Marxists in the workplace and lead to an “abdication” from key workplace activity. These discussions echo the debates of the British left in the run-up to the formation of the British Communist Party and in British syndicalism that sought to differentiate between the revolutionary trade union struggle and the revolutionary “political” struggle. Fundamentally, I believe Mark misunderstands the concept of the rank and file movement and the struggle for leadership in the workplace.

Mark correctly identifies two broad periods when trade unions operated under different legislation (a pre-1970 era of self-regulation of unions and a post-1970 era of “legalism”). It would be nonsense to argue that the post-1970s legislative framework has done anything other than seek to limit trade union activity. However, Mark’s conclusion, that “the trade union movement itself has fundamentally changed in nature”, is dangerous.2 For those of us active in trade union movements from the late-1970s the narrative of the union bureaucracy seeking to control activity is familiar. However, this is nothing new. It was the case during the preceding period as well—see for example the events described in Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain, 1972 by Ralph Darlington and Dave Lyddon.3

Mark paints a depressing picture of those “local reps…bogged down” in legalistic trade unionism and of reps being sucked into various levels of lay bureaucracy although he concedes “it is hard to see how we can avoid these consequences”.4 Similarly, Mark paints individual representation as being simply time consuming rather than understanding the organisational possibilities that can lie behind this. In my own recent experience, successfully representing a union member last summer in a partially unionised (but not formally recognised) workplace has resulted in not a single month going by without new members—predominantly young and BAME—joining the union. This is just one example. These are workmates recruiting each other on the back of a successful intervention.

Mark’s “picture”, however, looks designed to discourage revolutionaries from actually becoming involved in the lay bodies that, when there is a significant upturn, will lead that struggle. In the universities dispute in spring this year the initial rank and file rebellion within the UCU against the proposed compromise offered by the leadership on 12 March was led by those very activists within the lay structures that Mark would discourage us from being involved in.5

It is also true that this particular dispute reinvigorated those layers with new layers of activists, but leadership of the initial rebellion was in no way limited to them. While the full-time leadership of the union eventually won the day, this was not on the terms of the employers’ initial proposals. This, however, also highlights one of Mark’s other weaknesses; that is, he seems to make no distinction between lay activists, on different levels of facility time, and the full-time salaried bureaucracy that exists in all trade unions.

Mark’s characterisation of the “rank and file moment” as “opening up spaces for activist initiatives” within the context of a “bureaucratically controlled national strike” completely misses how revolutionaries can win leadership in any workplace.6 When I first became active within the union movement the then International Socialists (the forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party) produced many a guide as to how one should operate in the workplace—this did not preclude the “humdrum” of the local branch, committee or whatever body. Indeed, I was taught that it was our responsibility to try to win leadership positions by becoming elected representatives and to carry these out diligently. You did this by being open about your politics but also by going beyond the political to take up day to day industrial relations issues. I’m not naive enough to believe my workmates elected me over the years to both local and national lay positions because I was a Marxist. They probably elected me despite that and because they would rather have me representing their interests than others. The alternative would appear to be standing on the sidelines making broad propaganda points but “refusing” the local leadership role that your workmates want you to carry out: “I’ll criticise the ‘bureaucracy’ but won’t actually do anything to change or influence it” does not in my opinion give you an automatic right to lead any subsequent struggle.

Mark appears to conclude that our primary (if not only) responsibility is to make “socialist propaganda” in the workplace and to build “horizontal networks” so we can take advantage of breaks when they come. He counterposes this to “vertical initiatives” within the trade union machine. These “networks” would then campaign around the political initiatives of the formal machine. This raises a number of key questions. Where does Mark expect the activists we seek to influence to be found? Yes, they will be involved in wider political discussions, but it is highly likely that they will also be found in those very “vertical structures.” Where does Mark think the “political initiatives” of the formal machine come from other than from socialists agitating within the machine? Moreover, suddenly turning up at points of struggle with the correct argument looks in this context akin to “shouting from the back of the room” and demanding the right to lead rather than proving you have such a right.

Does involvement in the formal machine inevitably lead to a drift to the right? I think not, as long as you are aware of the pressures, understand rank and file politics and operate under the wider political direction of socialist ideas and the advice and counsel of trusted comrades. Of course the lure of being a full-time lay representative can be attractive. It can remove individuals from day to day humdrum work. But the counter-arguments, that both your colleagues and your employer take you more seriously when you can show that you have to deal with the same work pressures and actually live like your colleagues and understand them, are compelling. The pressures to conform are there. But in all my years I only ever had a period of one year as a full-time representative (and that at an employer’s behest to deal with a particular issue).

Mark’s conclusions unfortunately put him historically on the side of the pre-1920s Marxist sects who saw their role as making pure propaganda without dirtying their hands with day to day trade union activity.

Tom Machell is a socialist and trade unionist based in Sheffield.


1 O’Brien, 2018.

2 O’Brien, 2018, p155.

3 Darlington and Lyddon, 2001.

4 O’Brien, 2018, p171.

5 See also the discussion of the UCU strikes elsewhere in this issue.

6 O’Brien, 2018, p169.


Darlington, Ralph, and Dave Lyddon, 2001, Glorious Summer: Class Struggle in Britain, 1972 (Bookmarks).

O’Brien, Mark, 2018, “What has Happened to the British Labour Movement and What Does it Mean for the Left in the Unions?”, International Socialism 157 (winter),