‘some past rank and file movements’… and the future?

by Sheila Cohen

Bryan Pearce’s 1959 article ‘Some Past Rank and File Movements'[1] is an intriguing piece, not only because of its date during a period of relative quiescence in the labour movement but also because it puts its finger on almost every issue that currently confronts today’s perhaps even more quiescent – or at least less powerful – working class.

Paradoxically, the piece begins with two de rigeur quotes from Leon Trotsky which in turn muddy two of the central points Pearce’s account later indicates. This is largely because of the conflation which Trotsky, like so many other writers, makes between trade unionism in its aspect as organiser of class resistance and as bureaucratic institution through – again like almost every other writer in the field – referring to both aspects under the same rubric. Thus: “The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordinating and disciplining of workers… or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat…”

The second quote does the same thing, and commits the further error of assuming that it is possible, indeed worthwhile, to “strive… to renew the top leadership of the trade unions, boldly and resolutely… advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries…” Although Trotsky does also call for the creation of “independent militant organisations”, anyone who has witnessed the transformation of union leaders like Billy Hayes or even a Bob Crow or Mark Serwotka (both of whom, as recently publicised, earn six-figure salaries at least five times as high as their members’) can seriously accept the first of the two suggestions.

But enough of poor old Trotsky, as an ex-comrade of mine used to call him. We go on to summarise the main points of Pearce’s overview before turning to conclusions for today.


This seems almost too obvious to be worth pointing out, but Pearce’s account is lively (if almost entirely “sociological”). Dating the rise of an observable layer of trade union bureaucrats to the late nineteenth century, though the “Defence not Defiance” logo of the early ASE engineering union thirty years previously might be thought to presage the phenomenon, Pearce provides us with a number of vivid quotes from Beatrice and Sidney Webb and other authors, e.g.: “Nowadays the salaried officer of a great union is courted and flattered by the middle class… He is asked to dine with them [and moves to a more middle-class suburb]. The move leads to him dropping his workmen friends; and his wife changes her acquaintances…” etc.

Fred Knee of the Compositors remarked famously in 1910 that “there are some trade union leaders who are so prosperous that they at any rate have in their own persons achieved the harmony of the classes”, while Beatrice Webb provides a hilarious description of the 1915 TUC: “The leading men have grown fatter in body and more dully complacent in mind… the ‘old hands know… that [the TUC] is more of an ‘outing’ than a gathering for the transaction of working-class affairs. What the delegates enjoy is a joke… Indignation… is felt to be out of place… I listened to two officials over their big cigars in the hotel lounge… ‘The wages are… perfectly scandalous’ [said one]. It was the largeness of the… earnings, it appeared, they were complaining of…” That Beatrice Webb, the Polly Toynbee of her time, should be as critical is some indication of the depths to which bureaucratisation had reached.

‘Labour Unrest’

By this time, however, as the date of Webb’s comment indicates, other forces were at large in the land. A huge wave of working-class struggle lasting from 1910 to 1914 had recently been unleashed; while brought to a screeching halt by the war, this resumed very shortly afterwards in the more organised form of the Workers’ Committee movement. For our purposes, the explosion of the “Great Unrest”, as the 1910-14 strike wave was known, illustrates a tendency as fundamental in one direction as the phenomenon of bureaucratisation is in the other; the irreducible, ineradicable, unpredictable resurgence of working-class struggle.

Like many upsurges, the Great Unrest followed on some years of apparent weakness and apathy reminiscent of some aspects of our own period; a recent rereading of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists brought home to me the similarity between the fatalistic pessimism of the low-paid building worker “philanthropists” and similar weakly-organised workers today. Yet RTP was written only a few years before the Great Unrest mobilised many equally low-paid sections such as railway workers and dockers. The logic of Pearce’s interest as a socialist in rank and file movements is of course in this grassroots, ground-up self-activity by so-called “ordinary workers”.


Yet workers’ movements were not to remain “spontaneous”. Although revolutionary politics had, of course, by now emerged and become enshrined in organisations like the BSP and, at a wider level, the Second International and its Leninist critique, a more influential slant on these early 20th century struggles was that of syndicalism. While almost impossible to precisely define, the bundle of ideas and theories coming under this heading included a clear anti-parliamentarianism and, in its “anarcho” dimension, an antipathy to party-building of any kind.

Syndicalism was no more than marginally influential among “ordinary” workers swept up in the struggle – one interesting study of the Singer strike of 1911 shows the female strikers only briefly beguiled by syndicalist ideas before reverting to more immediate goals – but it did have a strong effect on the thinking of the working-class vanguard with, as Pearce shows, often disastrous results: “The National Guilds Movement enjoyed a brief but deadly vogue…” Key policies such as amalgamation have now been shown, of course, to have been historically limited, while syndicalism’s focus on trade unions per se as somehow forming future structures for a post-capitalist world, alongside the related and equally illusory enthusiasm for “encroaching control” ensured syndicalism’s subordination to the more effective “Workers’ Committee” approach of the Clyde and elsewhere during First World War struggles.

Direct Democracy

There were, however, two crucial aspects of syndicalism which deserve more lasting credit. One was its perhaps stumbling but eventually explicit recognition of the pointlessness of Trotsky’s advice about “advancing new militant leaders in place of routine functionaries”. As Pearce recounts, referring to the famous pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step, which was brought out in 1912 by the Unofficial Reform Committee of South Wales miners active in some of the most major strikes of the Great Unrest, “The remedy [to leadership betrayals] was not to be found in a mere change of leaders, for former agitators who became leaders went the same way as those they supplanted.” In an interesting if ironic example of this syndrome, Pearce points out that exactly this happened to one of the pamphlet’s co-authors, miners’ leader A.J. Cook!

Yet the crucial insight into what appears to be an almost inevitable process (for a possible alternative strategy see below under Rank and file movements today) is provided in the pamphlet’s recognition that “All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions. No man was ever good enough, brave enough or strong enough [to resist this].” And so say all of us.

Workplace Organisation

This, too, is a definitional component of effective working-class organisation. One issue which has largely faded from today’s discussions of trade union organisation and effectiveness is the notion of workplace branches – one which, by contrast, was a key concern of syndicalism. As Pearce notes, “In the early stages of trade unionism the branch had largely coincided with the place of work, but with the expansion of the unions a territorial basis for branch membership had been established… The militants believed that organisation on the basis of the workshop made for greater effectiveness of the unions as fighting machines- and less atomisation of the rank and file…” The militants were right.

Interestingly, the one element missing from the extensive if bureaucratising reforms introduced by the 1974 Labour government under its notorious “Social Contract” – Equal Pay Act, Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, Health and Safety at Work Act and the rest – was any right to hold meetings in the workplace in works time. Now that might have made some difference.

But the issue of workplace branches, the absence of which has contributed to the “apathy” and low attendance the Tories were able to cite in their alleged introduction of “democracy” into trade unionism with the 1984 act, has almost completely disappeared from discussion – rather like the contested question of “check-off”, once fiercely resisted by militants because of its institutionalisation of dues collection, then equally fiercely defended when the Tories tried to take it away… But we digress.

Revolutionary Implications

While, as Pearce points out, the syndicalists’ antipathy to leadership resulted in the stultifying of action during the First World War workers’ committee period (see below), the political implications of the Great Unrest strikes went well beyond either their or the workers’ conscious intentions. As Trotsky beautifully puts it, “The vague shadow of revolution hovered over Britain in those days…” The rest of the quote is devoted to trade union leaders’ masterful efforts to subdue struggle in the face of this “threat”, but the point stands and retains its crucial significance in the face of all-too-frequent dismissals of “economistic” working-class struggles on the part of many on the left. As Daniel Singer points out when discussing neo-liberalism, “For capital, victory could only be consolidated by changing its relations with labour…”– and the reverse applies in terms of labour’s irrefutable centrality to the project of social transformation. The consistent respect of rank and file syndicalists for the political value of working-class self-activity deserves acknowledgement in this context.

Workers’ Committees… or Soviets?

Nevertheless, the political weaknesses of syndicalism as detailed above stand out further by contrast to the briefly outstanding potential of workers’ committee structures of the Shop Stewards’ Movement during the First World War. As chronicled more extensively in James Hinton’s valuable study, these committees bore during their brief lifetime all the hallmarks of the soviet form of organisation soon to flower into revolution in Russia: direct democracy, committee-based delegate structures, accountability and revocability of delegates. Hinton’s account emphasises the crucial element of working-class independence of both ruling class and union bureaucracy stemming from this form of organisation: ‘Because of their delegatory character these committees were capable of initiating and carrying through strike action independent of the trade union officials. It is this independence that primarily defines the rank-and-file movement.’

In fact, perhaps one of the most historically significant statements of working-class democracy in terms of its essential independence from institutional trade unionism is that contained in an obscure Clyde Workers’ Committee leaflet of an unspecified date in 1915: ‘We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them. Being composed of Delegates from every shop and untrammelled by obsolete rule or law, we claim to represent the true feeling of the workers.”

Pearce records a “contemporary observer” describing the shop stewards’ movement as embodying “at once the demand for greater autonomy for the rank-and-file workers as against the control of the central official, and for more effective organisation against the power of the employer” – demands which “are not easily separable for the second may depend largely on the first”. The connection pointed out here is crucial to the understanding of the class potential of trade unionism. And yet…

Class Coherence and Coordination – Not

Had the model of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, later “exported” to Sheffield during the city-wide strike to bring back a skilled worker who had been compulsorily conscripted, been sustained and consciously spread in a strategy of class unity, the “vague shadow of revolution” evoked by Trotsky might have become a veritable storm cloud. Much of this, of course, was blocked by the bureaucracy whose terrified stepping back from the “abyss” of class warfare is well illustrated by the famous Lloyd George speech in which the Welsh wizard – at that time Prime Minister – challenged them with the “constitutional implications” of activating the Triple Alliance in that revolutionary year of 1919.

Yet, as so often, even more subversive working-class leaders lacked a conscious strategy of class-wide unity: as Pearce notes, “All through the years 1916-18 there was a succession of strikes in one centre after another… in every case led by unofficial groups. But there was little coordination between these actions. Thus, the engineers’ strike which began in Rochdale in May 1917 and spread rapidly, did not affect such important centres as Clydeside and Tyneside.”

Given the “revolutionary” tenor of the times, this may seem extraordinary. Yet such lack of coordination has been present in other eras of major working-class activity such as the upsurge of 1968-74. The question of an effective coordinating body will be discussed in our conclusions. Pearce does note that (as observed earlier) that when a national leadership of the various shop stewards’ committees and amalgamation movements finally came into being in August 1917, it was “hamstrung by the syndicalist prejudice against any kind of effective leadership…” It was also, as described in more detail by Hinton, derailed by employer bribes and the continuing rift between skilled and less skilled workers.

As Pearce notes, despite the still-exceptional level of class struggle, by 1922-23 “a succession of industrial defeats, especially ‘Black Friday’ in 1921 when the Triple Alliance showed its true worth… had smashed what remained of the war-time shop stewards’ movement and compelled the militants to start painfully building up again almost from scratch.”

Resurgence – From Below

While the influence of the Communist Party (founded in 1921) and the Comintern was initially positive, resulting in a renewed attempt to unify struggle through the class-wide Minority Movement, this initiative collapsed within a short period into a Comintern-influenced homage to “left bureaucrats” which led indirectly to the massive defeat of the General Strike, or at least of any effective opposition to the bureaucrats’ betrayal.

From then on, Pearce’s account becomes uniformly depressing, with one stellar exception – the London Busmen’s Rank and File Movement. This unofficial initiative, which had nothing to do with the increasingly distorted machinations of the CP as it snaked its way through the “Third Period” and after, arose in the way that all successful rank-and-file organisations arise – from, indeed, the ranks. While the question of what a rank-and-file movement actually is discussed further in the next section, there is one irreducible component, and one illustrated in the morale-boosting story of the London busmen – the generation of grass roots conflict by structural factors of exploitation and labour intensification.

The busmen had certain things in their favour, as Pearce points out – for one thing, a workplace-based branch (see above), for another the official union Central Bus Committee on which the militants “automatically” obtained a majority. Yet without the initial spur of dissatisfaction with both wages and conditions, and with the union officials’ handling of them, no rank and file organisation would have been necessary. Almost all “spontaneous”, workplace-based forms of resistance are generated by this toxic mix – as the sad story of the sabotage of sociology by “embourgeoisified” workers at the Vauxhall Luton factory demonstrates (see my article in issue 15 of The Commune). Without going into any more details at this point, we can also refer to the rise of the Busmen’s Rank and File Movement as an example of both the unpredictability and resurgence that are characteristic of rank and file trade union activity.

When is a Rank and File Movement not a Rank and File Movement?

But what do we mean by the “rank and file”? And what is a “rank and file movement” – of the past or, indeed, present?

Richard Hyman, in an influential 1979 article in which he postulated the growth of workplace trade union bureaucracy, repudiated the notion of the rank and file as “no more than a military metaphor”, noting also that shop stewards are often included in this category and yet be, as his argument suggests, drawn into the bureaucracy.

While Hyman did indeed note a highly problematic trend, with the growing provision during the 1970s of workplace union offices and facilities, “away-days” with management etc, our argument here suggests an entirely valid use for the term “rank and file” – from a class point of view. In so far as workplace representatives are linked to, accountable to and most of all part of their “constituency”, in terms of remaining with them as a worker working alongside those they represent, the problem of workplace bureaucratisation is amenable to this class solution. The issue is how far shop stewards and other workplace reps recognise this dynamic and therefore take explicit steps to avoid it – and this is an issue of class education very little understood within the movement today.

There is little more to be said here about Pearce’s analysis, which culminates simply in a warning, still pertinent in 1959, of “the need for rank and file movements, and the fatal consequences of allowing the Communist Party to get control of such movements”. Another word might today be substituted for “Communist” in that sentence – but enough of that, for now. The issue that needs investigating at this point, and which Pearce’s analysis does not explicitly take up, is of the (potentially) dual nature of “rank and file movements” of his period and of ours – those which arise “spontaneously” from worker discontent, as in the case of the Great Unrest movements and, more prosaically, the London busmen, and those more deliberately created by conscious socialist organisations.

While the latter variety, from the First World War Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement to the Minority Movement and beyond, normally arises, like the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) and the International Socialists’ Rank and File Movement of more recent times, during periods of widespread unrest, it is clearly a different phenomenon from the more spontaneous grass roots movements discussed above. During the Great Unrest, while syndicalists and socialists were heavily involved, they did not create a deliberate network aimed at linking up all examples of organisation and struggle, as the Minority Movement did during its brief non-“trade union lefts” moment. This contrast in perspective, and the political issues it raises, bring us to the situation confronting socialists today.

And Today?

2010, while precisely one hundred years after the uprisings of the Great Unrest, has yet to display anything as inspiring – although, of course, you never know. The adage “A week is a long time in politics” must be taken seriously by the revolutionary left as well as the working class. 2009 did, of course, see a very brief mini-upsurge of factory and school occupations, as well as the subversive and highly effective unofficial strikes by engineering construction workers, which burst through the anti-union laws without a scratch. But what if the Great Unrest, Mark II, did burst on to the scene?

In principle, the prognosis looks good. We have leading trade union General Secretaries who are self-declared revolutionaries – Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka, Brian Caton and (perhaps) Matt Wrack. All lead sections of workers from whom industrial action could mean widespread disruption. But, as we all know, these leaders are obliged – by current laws and also by their own various awarenesses of the “abyss” syndrome – to pull their punches away from class-wide and sustained industrial action. We have also recently had publicised the massive salaries of these people, which must make Fred Knee’s observation only too relevant to our times.

Another potentially positive development is the foundation, originally sparked by a chance remark from Bob Crow, of a National Shop Stewards’ Network. The most valuable aspect of this organisation is that it was set up before an upsurge, thus potentially allowing a consciously independent and accountable leadership to be built within the working class ready to consciously turn any upturn in struggle in a revolutionary direction. I leave the discussion to generate the “but”s in this situation – they are related, however, to my earlier remark about today’s version of Brian Pearce’s warning about the Communist Party.

However, one point is more than worth making in this context. Sharp-eyed readers may have observed that I referred to the necessary in-class leadership as turning the struggle in a revolutionary direction. But workplace reps are not revolutionaries, it might be objected. The answer to that point is a complex and dialectical one taking into account rapid changes of consciousness in a situation of accelerated struggle, the objectively subversive implications of such struggle (the “abyss” point) and, above all, the revolutionary responsibilities of the revolutionary left.

In a moment of despair during a pointless discussion of what “we” (the left) should be doing, during which justified criticism of the trade union bureaucracy was voiced, I complained during the break to a friendly sectarian that it was the left which was largely to blame for its own frustrations. He looked at me in puzzlement and commented: “But you can hardly blame the left for the trade union bureaucracy!”

Well, apologies, comrades, but you can. As Marxists, as those who fully understand the non-reformable nature of capitalism and the central role of the working class in overcoming its increasingly poisonous ramifications, we hold a crucial responsibility. That is to put across, in the practical context of struggle – a point based on the important processual concept of praxis – the essential Marxist messages of class independence from both employer and union bureaucracy.

But that’s what we do, in our paper and everything, it may be objected. Yes, you do – but you do it in the name of an organisation which should be joined if such principles are ever to become reality. The trouble is that as you say, so say many others, and they conflict and jostle against one another. What is more, they often have a “line” which must be upheld whatever the complexities of the situation or the consciousness and attitudes of those involved. And workers may complain, as does a postal worker friend of mine, that “Even the left side of Labour gives politics a bad name – there are so many left groups and they don’t get together. When we had the strike, they all came down and I said Why don’t you just go in one big group? They said We don’t agree with this, we don’t agree with that…”

So what is the answer? The answer is contained in the “movement” part of this analysis. The revolutionary left is an indispensable component of building the explicit revolutionary consciousness which is essential in bringing at least the vanguard layer of the working class to challenge the nightmare ride of 21st century capitalism. But that is precisely the task of the revolutionary left – to build and enable the movement from below. Not to build the “party”. To build the movement.

[1] This article is based on an essay by Brian Pearce in the collection Essays on the history of Communism in Britain, ed Woodhouse and Pearce, New Park Publications 1975. It can easily be found on the Internet by searching for “Some Past Rank and File Movements.”