Socialist trade union strategy in the Bolshevik era

by Mick Armstrong • Published 12 July 2013

For any serious revolutionary party in an advanced capitalist country, its approach to union work is a central strategic issue. In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the newly formed Communist International (Comintern) attempted to develop a revolutionary approach to union work in the West. This article will focus on the application of that strategy in Australia and Britain and cover the period up until the full Stalinisation of the international Communist movement in the late 1920s.

The trade union policy that the Comintern developed in its early revolutionary years represented a messy fusion of the experience of the most militant elements of the working class movements in the West and the theoretical analysis of the Russian Bolshevik leaders, who played the leading role in the Comintern. The Bolsheviks saw the unions as vital areas for political intervention. Revolutionaries needed to work determinedly in them to gain better conditions for workers and in the course of struggle to win workers to understand the need to overthrow capitalism.

As outlined in Lenin’s 1920 pamphlet, Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, the Bolsheviks opposed the idea, then popular amongst many newly radicalised socialists, that the unions were obsolete and that revolutionaries should abandon the existing unions and form revolutionary unions or directly counterpose to the unions other forms of organisation such as workers’ councils. Even the veteran revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was, at the outbreak of the 1918 German revolution, of the opinion that the trade unions were played out, and one of the Comintern’s key early leaders, Karl Radek, admitted that “at the beginning of the war many of us thought that the trade union movement was finished”.[1] Far from this being the case, in country after country workers poured into the mainstream unions in their tens of millions after World War I, while revolutionary unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), made little progress. In this context, to abandon the unions would, in Lenin’s words, be “so unpardonable a blunder that it is tantamount to the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie”. He went on to argue:

To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie… If you want to help the “masses”, you should not fear the difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the “leaders”…but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently.[2]

Another key strength of the Bolshevik approach was that it rejected the idea that workers’ struggles around political issues were separate from struggles around economic issues like wages and working conditions. Separating economic and political struggles had become entrenched in the Western social democratic parties. In Australia and Britain, it was generally accepted in the labour movement that politics was to be left to the Labor Party, while the unions were responsible for economic issues. At its 1907 Stuttgart Congress, the Second Socialist International had resolved:

Both the political and economic struggle of the working class are equally necessary for the complete liberation of the proletariat from the shackles of ideological, political and economic servitude. While it falls to [the parties of] Social Democracy to organise and lead the political struggles of the proletariat, so it is the task of union organisation to co-ordinate and lead the economic struggles of the working class.[3]

In Russia the Mensheviks argued for trade union neutrality – that unions should not be aligned with any political party. The Bolsheviks strongly rejected this approach and any separation between economic and political organisations. As Lenin wrote in 1907:

The Stockholm Congress of the RSDLP (1906), at which the Mensheviks won the day, adhered to the point of view of trade union neutrality. The London Congress of the RSDLP took a different stand and proclaimed the necessity of working towards partisanship of the unions.[4]

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, this orientation of fighting for revolutionary political leadership of the trade unions was to lead to sharp debates with revolutionary syndicalists, who campaigned against “politics” being argued in the union movement, denounced all forms of political leadership and opposed organised intervention into the unions by the newly formed Communist parties. The Comintern made a serious effort to win the revolutionary syndicalists, who at the time included some of the best working class fighters in the West, to a Marxist standpoint. At the same time, they did not hold back from pointing out the numerous shortcomings of the syndicalists’ approach. The syndicalists, rather than emphasising the need for revolutionary political leadership to challenge the stranglehold of the reformist trade union bureaucracy, made a fetish of trade union reorganisation, in particular the formation of industrial unions to replace the craft unions, as the means to overcome the narrowness and entrenched bureaucratism of the traditional trade unions. But as Karl Radek pointed out at the Second Comintern Congress in 1920:

It is claimed that the old craft unions can no longer serve the revolution, that industrial unions are the highest and most perfect thing. That is a completely metaphysical position. It has already been proved in practice that reactionary industrialism is possible. If the workers organise themselves in industrial unions in order to reach agreements with the capitalists, then there is nothing revolutionary in that, while it is on the other hand possible that trade union organisations that are even more backward than the craft trades unions will unite in revolutionary struggles if they are filled by revolutionary spirit.

The ideology of these industrial unions can really be reduced to one quite simple fact, that is to say that it is better to organise workers by industry than by trade. Our attitude towards industrial unions is progressive. We want to support them, but we cannot make a shibboleth out of them.

Clarity on these questions was an important starting point for the elaboration of the Comintern’s trade union policy. However, in developing a strategy for intervention in Western unions, the Bolsheviks started from a significant disadvantage. In tsarist Russia unions had been illegal or at best semi-legal and thus had not developed the entrenched bureaucratic apparatus typical of Western unions. Consequently the Bolsheviks had not elaborated an analysis of the trade union bureaucracy as a specific social layer with its own distinct interests separate from those of the working class. The union bureaucracy is a social layer that balances between the mass of rank and file unionists on the one hand and the capitalist class and its state on the other. Its role is to act as a bargaining agent that brokers the price of labour on the capitalist market. It accepts the rules of the capitalist game. When the economy is booming, it tries to negotiate some limited gains that it sells to workers as great reforms. When profits are down, it accepts that workers must suffer but tries to negotiate “milder” austerity measures. The union bureaucracy fears the independent activity of the mass of workers because that threatens its control over the unions and the entrenched privileges that flow from that control. This conservative social layer is the most important prop of capitalism in the West. It fears revolution more than anything.[6]

The Bolsheviks’ lack of a fully developed theoretical understanding of the union bureaucracy as a conservative layer with its own distinct social interests led to a certain naivety and considerable confusion when it came to understanding Western unions. This naivety was most marked over the question of the possibility of Communists undermining the stranglehold of the union bureaucracy and winning the leadership of the unions well short of a direct revolutionary challenge to capitalism. Lenin recognised that Western Communists faced much greater challenges when it came to union work than did the Bolsheviks in Russia. He argued in Left-wing Communism:

The Mensheviks of the West have acquired a much firmer footing in the trade unions; there the craft-union, narrow-minded, selfish, case-hardened, covetous, and petty-bourgeois “labour aristocracy”, imperialist-minded, and imperialist-corrupted, has developed a much stronger section than in our country. That is incontestable. The struggle against the Gomperses, and against the Jouhaux, Hendersons, Merrheils, Legiens and Co in Western Europe is much more difficult than the struggle against our Mensheviks.

Nevertheless, he still presented an overly optimistic picture of the inevitability of Communist success:

This struggle must be waged ruthlessly, and it must unfailingly be brought – as we brought it – to a point when all the incorrigible leaders of opportunism and social-chauvinism are completely discredited and driven out of the trade unions.[7]

Bitter experience, however, has shown that the bureaucratic apparatus of the Western trade unions is so entrenched that it is not likely to be cracked wide open until after a successful workers’ revolution. It might be possible for revolutionaries to win the leadership here and there of a specific union with a more militant tradition. However, the heads of the Australian Congress of Trade Unions (ACTU), the British Trade Union Congress (TUC) or the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) are unlikely to be “driven out” until after workers have taken power into their hands through much more democratic and flexible organisations such as soviets or workers’ councils.

Nor were there in Russia reformist parties like the ALP with deep roots in the working class that were closely linked to the unions. The Bolshevik leaders had great difficulty in coming to grips with the powerful influence of reformism in the West. Indeed, the explanation of reformism that Lenin, Zinoviev and some other Bolshevik leaders developed – the theory of the labour aristocracy – seriously underestimated the strength of reformism and misjudged its character. The theory of the labour aristocracy could lead in certain circumstances to the ultraleft conclusion that the bulk of workers were a seething mass held back from revolutionary action only by a thin layer of so-called labour aristocrats and bureaucrats.[8]

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent revolutionary wave that swept across Europe and many other countries, it was unsurprising that many revolutionaries succumbed to the idea that the reformist forces could be swiftly swept aside. This overly optimistic assessment and the tendency towards ultraleftism were compounded by an economic analysis that portrayed capitalism as being on its final legs and wrote off the possibility of the bourgeoisie granting serious reforms. Karl Radek argued at the Second Comintern Congress:

The general condition of the working class is such that any thought of reformist tactics, of a gradual increase in the real wages of the working class, in their standard of living, is a completely opportunist illusion. The possibility of a gradual improvement in the condition of the working class is a reactionary Utopia.[9]

All these factors came together to underpin another false conception held by the early Comintern leaders. Radek, Grigorii Zinoviev and Alexander Lozovsky, the head of the Red International of Labor Unions, strongly argued that Communists should aim to capture the existing unions. Lozovsky declared:

Before the October revolution we transformed the factory committees, not by verbal propaganda, but by deeds. We will yet transform the trade unions before the social revolution, for the trades unions must become the organ of this revolution… These trade unions must be won before the social revolution, so that they can form the basis for the dictatorship of the proletariat.[10]

Zinoviev put it even more crudely:

Why then do not the comrades in the Shop Stewards movement stand at the head of this million-strong trade union [the Triple Alliance in Britain]? In this way they show that they are sectarians and not revolutionaries. A revolutionary must throw Williams [the head of the Transport Union] out and place himself at the head… You fight by taking the leadership… We will push the trade union bureaucracy aside, and millions will march with us against capitalism.[11]

Zinoviev, Radek and Lozovsky were totally correct to argue against those Western Communists who dismissed work in the existing unions and instead argued for breakaway revolutionary unions or to build works committees or shop steward committees outside of and counterposed to the existing reformist unions. However, they were far too dismissive of the arguments raised by delegates from the British and US Communist parties about the entrenched nature of the bureaucracies of the Western trade unions and the impossibility of revolutionaries overturning these bureaucracies this side of the socialist revolution. As Willie Gallacher of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) pointed out:

It is simply nonsense and ridiculous to talk of conquering the old trade unions with their ossified bureaucracy… We have been active in the British trades unions for 25 years without ever having succeeded in revolutionising the unions from inside. Every time we succeeded in making one of our own comrades an official of the trades unions, it turned out that then, instead of a change of tactics taking place, the trades unions corrupted our own comrades too. We have often made our comrades into big trade union officials, but we have seen that nothing can be achieved for communism and the revolution through such work.[12]

The US and British Communists emphasised the need instead for a rank and file movement that operated within the existing unions but independently of the union bureaucracy. As the US Communist Louis Fraina put it:

But how will you work in the old trades unions? That is the decisive question of methods and of means… And we claim that the means do not consist in the peaceful penetration of the trades unions, in the attempt to elect new officials in place of the old, making a fetish out of the old trades unions and trade union forms. The means consist in an aggressive struggle in the trades unions, mobilising the masses against the bureaucracy and liberating them from it; in agitation for special organisations and industrial unions, and building them.[13]

In an earlier session of the Second Congress, Fraina had argued:

Finally, one could draw the conclusion from Radek’s Theses that what we have to do is capture the trade union bureaucracy. We do not find there any indication or instructions on the formation of special organisations (for example trade committees, shop stewards, etc.) as instruments in the struggle against the bureaucracy and to mobilise the masses for action.

We are of the opinion that it is not the tying down of the bureaucracy that must be emphasised but the liberation of the masses. To proceed independently of the bureaucracy…[w]e must fight this bureaucracy in the unions; it will only be possible to tie them down or finish them off during the revolution or after it.

Really revolutionary activity in the trades unions pursues the following important aims:

1. The organisation of communist groups (which must be present in every workers’ organisation).

2. The formation of special trade union organisations (shop stewards, shop committees, etc.)… These special union organisations operate inside and outside the unions, and if they cannot move the unions to act in a crisis, these special union organisations proceed independently of the union and the bureaucracy.

On these points Fraina’s orientation was definitely superior to that of Radek, Lozovsky and Zinoviev. However, it still left certain issues unresolved. While it was vital for Communists to form their own disciplined cells in the workplaces and to build a broader rank and file movement that could act independently of the union bureaucracy, should they also challenge the existing officials in union elections? Not to run in union elections, when and if revolutionaries had strong rank and file support, could make them appear to be unserious sideline critics content to denounce the leadership but not prepared to take on the responsibilities of office. As well it meant handing over the official positions to the reformists, even in those sections of the unions where revolutionaries had majority support – a self-defeating exercise. On the other hand, “capturing” positions in the bureaucracy could come to be seen as an easier way to win mass influence than the steady, patient work of building rank and file organisation. During the course of the 1920s, Communist parties were frequently to fall into this trap.

What was needed was a clear understanding that when socialists stood for elected office in unions, whether as a shop steward or full-time official, they did so to advance the self-activity of the rank and file, not to substitute for it. At all times winning union office had to be seen as a way to strengthen rank and file organisation and combativity. Moreover, any Communist elected to union office needed to be subject to the democratic control and political direction of rank and file Communists.

Over the next few years the Comintern developed a more realistic assessment of the political situation, which acknowledged that the initial postwar revolutionary wave had ebbed and in response elaborated a united front policy that emphasised the importance of mass work in the unions. As the resolution on the trade unions adopted by the Third Comintern Congress in July 1921 put it: “The true measure of the strength of a Communist Party is the influence it has on the mass of trade unionists.”[15] The Action Program adopted at that Congress stressed the vital necessity of forming factory committees. Then at the Fourth Comintern Congress Lozovsky argued:

Clearly, it would be quite harmful if, in Britain, the Party limited its attention to its small party cells. Here, the effort must be made to create a broad oppositional movement within the unions. Our Communist groups must be centres around which the oppositional forces gather and crystallise… With the growth of this opposition, the Communist Party itself will grow.[16]

Hand in hand with this new emphasis, it began to develop an explanation of the strength of reformism in countries like Australia and Britain that was more nuanced than the crude labour aristocracy theory. In the October 1927 resolution on the tasks of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), the Comintern Executive wrote:

…the Australian bourgeoisie was a long time able to keep the existence minimum of the Australian workers at a comparatively high level. This high existence minimum was the foundation of the development of Australian reformism which came into being and assumed a definite form a considerable time before the world war.[17]

One of the clearest expressions of the confused and somewhat ultraleft approach of the early Comintern was the misguided decision to form the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU). The RILU was to be a revolutionary union centre to rival the reformist-dominated International Federation of Trade Unions based in Amsterdam.

This proved to be extremely disorienting for the young Communist parties. On the one hand, the Comintern was telling the CPs in every country to work within the existing unions and not split them to form revolutionary unions. On the other hand, at an international level it was backing a new revolutionary union centre to which Communists were expected to get unions to affiliate. It was a contradictory policy that bedevilled the Communist movement throughout the 1920s. It was driven initially by expectations that Communists could rapidly capture the leadership of the unions from the reformists and consequently veered in an ultraleft direction. However, the RILU did not only lead to the danger of ultraleftism. Subsequently, in the course of the 1920s, as the Comintern was increasingly Stalinised, it led in a rightist direction and to an accommodation with various radical sounding, but essentially reformist, union leaders, such as the Trades Hall Reds in Sydney, in order to maintain their affiliation to the RILU, a point I will return to.

Putting the strategy into practice

Case one: Britain

Britain, as the first industrial nation, had a long history of unionism. Until the late nineteenth century, British unions were largely confined to the skilled trades. These craft unions had small memberships, were anxious to preserve their sectional identity and were relatively conservative. On the other hand, they had only a tiny number of full-time officials and relied on rank and file activists to maintain the union. In 1892 there were a mere 600-700 full-time union officials in the whole of Britain, compared with the vast army of many thousands of officials today.[18] This fostered democracy and an anti-bureaucratic approach. Members had a sense of ownership of their union.

In the late nineteenth century there was an upsurge of militancy by the low paid, epitomised by the London dock strike and the match girls’ strike. This led to the formation of mass unions – the New Unionism. The mass unions were initially more radical than the old craft unions. But once the high watermark of the upsurge had passed, most of these unions developed into giant empires dominated by a hugely expanded layer of full-time officials over whom the membership had little say. Typically the officials of the new mass unions were appointed (often for life), not elected, as were the officials in the old craft unions. From this time on, the role of this new social layer – the trade union bureaucracy – has been absolutely crucial in the class struggle.

World War I deepened this trend. The Labour Party and union leaders were thoroughly integrated into the state apparatus and achieved a quite privileged status. The workforce was militarised for the war effort, traditional working conditions were broken down, wages cut, long hours imposed. Strikers were jailed and sent to the front to die. The union leaders backed the government all the way.

Hand in hand with this went a tremendous expansion of munitions factories, engineering works, shipbuilding and so on. The basis was being laid for a social explosion. It came in the form of a rank and file rebellion outside the control of union officialdom under the leadership of a shop stewards’ movement with its core in the engineering factories, most famously in Glasgow and Sheffield. This shop stewards’ movement led a wave of strikes in defiance of the union officials. Their motto, which has become the hallmark of all genuine rank and file movements, was as the Clyde Workers Committee famously put it:

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. We can act immediately according to the merits of the case and the desire of the rank and file.[19]

As the historian of the movement, James Hinton, outlined:

At the height of its power the rank and file movement co-ordinated and led militancy through a local Workers’ Committee representative of the organisation in the workshops. Because of their delegatory character these committees were capable of initiating and carrying through strike action independently of the trade union officials. It is this independence that primarily defines the rank and file movement.[20]

A genuine rank and file movement, such as the wartime engineering shop stewards, aims not simply to put pressure on the union leaders to stand up for the interests of the rank and file, nor to reform the structure of the union to make it more democratic, nor to capture the leadership of the union from the current incumbents. The hallmark of a rank and file movement is that it is capable and willing to act independently of union officialdom to lead mass struggles in its own right.

The shop stewards’ movement was an enormously progressive development that became an important inspiration for postwar Communist policy. Many of the key leaders of the early CPGB earned their spurs in this movement. Theoretically the shop stewards’ movement represented a considerable advance on prewar syndicalism, as it came to see the limitations of trade unions, of whatever form, as revolutionary instruments and to embrace soviets or workers’ councils as both the means to overthrow capitalism and as the basis of a new workers’ state. It also rejected the previous approach of many syndicalists of attempting to establish pure revolutionary unions in opposition to the established unions.

However, there were political limitations to the movement. In an overreaction to the betrayals of the union leaders, the shop stewards’ movement was hostile to any form of centralised national leadership to coordinate the resistance to government attacks. When a National Administrative Council was eventually established in August 1917, it held no executive power and was intended to function as “little more than a reporting centre for the local committees”.[21] This made it easier for the government to clamp down on the movement city by city. When troops were sent into the Clyde in 1919 to crush the postwar strike wave, the Glasgow workers were left isolated and defeated.

J.T. Murphy, one of the main leaders of the shop stewards’ movement and subsequently a key figure in the CPGB, bluntly expressed this hostility to all forms of leadership in July 1917:

…one of the first principles of the shop stewards’ movement and workers’ committees, they obey the instructions of the rank and file and not vice versa. This repudiates the charge of the press…who refer to those wicked shop stewards who bring men out on strike. Shop stewards do not “bring” men out on strike, the shop stewards’ duties do not involve “leadership”. As a matter of fact the whole movement is a repudiation of “leadership”.[22]

This was clearly nonsensical. Murphy and his fellow militant shop stewards palpably did play a role in leading rank and file workers in the tremendous industrial struggles of the war years and their immediate aftermath. They argued for strategies and tactics to win and fought to mobilise and inspire the mass of workers. However, their syndicalist prejudices against leadership meant that they failed to understand properly or theorise their own decisive role and led them to abstain from offering clear and determined revolutionary political leadership to the movement, in particular from combating the reformist political ideas that were still predominant amongst the rank and file.

One of the most serious overheads of the shop stewards’ failure to break completely with syndicalism was that they did not generalise the resistance to attacks on working conditions into a movement against the imperialist war – after all, it was the war that was driving the attacks. The lack of clear revolutionary political leadership was also reflected in the sectionalism of the movement, which essentially confined its activity to the engineering industry. These were deficiencies that the CPGB, under the influence of Moscow, sought to rectify in the Minority Movement after the war.

As well as the shop stewards’ movement centred in the engineering factories, the other area of strong rank and file militancy during the war was the coal mines. Here the movement, though also a child of syndicalism, took on a somewhat different form – the Unofficial Reform Committee – which was particularly strong in South Wales. It was not an independent shop stewards’ movement but a reform movement or ginger group within the structures of the miners’ union, aimed at pressuring the officials to take a more militant stance and which at times got its supporters elected to union office.

The Comintern sought to build based on these experiences. A Miners Minority Movement was started in South Wales in 1922 and a Metalworkers Minority shortly afterwards. But outside the mines, the Minority Movement was fairly weak. By the time of the Second Unity Congress, which in effect founded the CPGB in January 1921, the basis for an independent rank and file movement had disappeared. The sharp recession of the early 1920s led to mass sackings and the closing of many of the factories that had been centres of wartime militancy. The bosses went for the jugular with widespread victimisations of shop stewards. No shop stewards’ movement could be sustained on this basis. The CPGB sought to emulate the wartime movement but it was a fiction and an ultraleft diversion from what needed to be done in the radically changed circumstances.

Instead of being a genuine rank and file movement based in the workplaces that could lead strike action independently of the officials, the Minority Movement essentially organised as a militant caucus within the official structures of the union movement – moving policy motions at union conferences, pushing for militant action, organising solidarity with strikes, backing left wing candidates in union elections. As J.T. Murphy explained:

It is not a question here of setting up a rival organisation. It is one of calling to officials and the rank and file alike to present a United Front against the capitalist offensive.[23]

This was very much the case in the miners’ union, where the Minority Movement operated as a bloc between rank and file activists and the more left wing officials and succeeded in having one of its prominent leaders, A.J. Cook, elected secretary of the union in 1924. This inevitably put a conservatising pressure on the approach of the Minority Movement and introduced a sea of confusion into the CPGB’s approach. This is amply reflected in the following article from the CPGB’s paper, the Worker:

We do not mean to assert that all the officials are sabotaging progress, and all the rank and file are brave and progressive spirits. Such a picture is simply a caricature of the actual situation. What exists is a situation in which a small minority of the rank and file are struggling against the passivity and ignorance of the mass of workers. Unless the broad popular masses can be reached and quickened through the activity of the left wing, the enlightened officials are weighted down and cannot move. That being the case the struggle of the left wing for leadership is not merely an anti-official struggle. The business of the Minority Movement is not merely to wangle positions for those who support its policy, it is the more fundamental task to capture the rank and file, of recreating the will to fight. Only by those who go into positions of authority in the union movement having behind them a solid basis of rank and file support will we be able to make progress.[24]

At one level this article acknowledges that it is not sufficient simply to capture official positions and that the key task is rebuilding the fighting spirit of the rank and file. Yet on the other hand the militancy of the rank and file is there to prop up the poor “enlightened” officials who are “weighted down and cannot move” because of the “passivity and ignorance of the mass of workers”. No recognition that the “passivity” of the masses may be in large part due to the unwillingness of even the left officials to consistently put themselves on the line and determinedly agitate for a fighting policy. No recognition that it is not sufficient for the Minority Movement to act as a ginger group pressuring the left officials to take a better stance. No recognition that such an approach is a dead end as the “enlightened” officials are simply the left wing of a social layer that has interests counterposed to those of the mass of workers. No recognition that both the left and right wings of this social layer will capitulate to the bosses and their state in any decisive confrontation. No recognition that what is needed is a strategy that serves to strengthen the fighting position of the rank and file independently of all sections of the union bureaucracy, both left and right.

The accommodation of the CPGB to the left wing of the union bureaucracy was compounded by the formation, at the instigation of the increasingly Stalinised Comintern, of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee and the consequent promotion of various left officials who made flowery speeches hailing the Russian Revolution. This reached its low point in the lead-up to the 1926 British general strike. One of the CPGB’s main slogans was “All power to the General Council of the TUC”, and the party consequently failed to prepare workers for the sell-out of the general strike by that very same TUC. The outcome of the general strike confirmed Trotsky’s assessment:

If there were not a bureaucracy of the trade unions, then the police, the army, the courts, the lords, the monarchy would appear before the proletarian masses as nothing but ridiculous playthings. The bureaucracy of the trade unions is the backbone of British imperialism. It is by means of this bureaucracy that the bourgeoisie exists not only in the metropolis, but in India, in Egypt and in the other colonies. The Marxist will say to the British workers: “The trade union bureaucracy is the chief instrument of your oppression by the bourgeois state. Power must be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie and for that its principal agent, the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown.”[25]

The outcome of the nine-day general strike was a catastrophic defeat for the British working class, from which it took decades to recover. The defeat was made even more demoralising by the fact that the whole of the union leadership, both left and right, backed the sell-out. If the CPGB, which had a membership of about 6,000, had been able through the Minority Movement to maintain an independent stance critical of the left officials, it might have been able to provide an alternative leadership in the course of the general strike or at least been in a position in the aftermath to draw around the party a layer of serious militants who were seeking a coherent political explanation of the defeat.

But the CPGB was tarred with the brush of its previous largely uncritical promotion of the left officials and its disastrous slogan “All power to the General Council”. It was unable to provide an alternative pole of attraction to workers disillusioned by the betrayal of the general strike. In the aftermath, the Minority Movement was reduced to a nothing as the political climate in the unions shifted sharply to the right.

Case two: Australia

At the time of the Russian Revolution, Australia had the highest rate of union membership in the world. In NSW, the most industrialised state, 55 percent of the workforce was unionised in 1917. While there were important similarities between the union movements in Australia and Britain, there were also very significant differences. Manufacturing industry, in particular engineering, was much weaker in Australia. As a consequence, no engineering shop stewards’ movement emerged on the scale of the British movement. Indeed, the only engineering shop stewards’ committees formed in Australia during World War I were at the large dockyards at Cockatoo and Garden Islands.[26]

By 1923, the Workers’ Weekly could report that “in some industries shop committees are beginning to function, notably in the Australian Meat Works and in various iron foundries”. Workers’ Weekly went on to argue that “shop or job control committees are the basis of the One Big Union (OBU) and without these committees the One Big Union will be but a name”.[27] But it seems that these first shop committees were neither long lasting nor widespread. From 1926 there is evidence of more stable shop committees being established in the NSW railway workshops at Eveleigh, Chullora and Enfield. They in turn inspired shop committees some years later in the power industry because a number of power stations were controlled by the Railways Department.

Nevertheless, in the war years the importance of shop stewards grew sharply in the main union of skilled metalworkers, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE). Ken Buckley, the main historian of the union, writes:

Quite suddenly towards the end of 1918, ASE shop stewards became a power to be reckoned with. In Sydney and Melbourne they began to hold meetings at monthly intervals or more frequently.[28]

And they were of a militant frame of mind. In 1919, at the height of a major seamen’s strike, a meeting of ASE shop stewards in Melbourne called for a general strike. When ASE officials tried to constrain the activism of the shop stewards, they were subjected to a concerted attack that forced them to retreat.

The war years and their immediate aftermath were a period of tremendous radicalisation – the massive struggles that twice defeated government attempts to impose conscription, the eight-week 1917 general strike, a virtual insurgency in Queensland, sustained rioting by working class women in Melbourne. On and on it went.[29] A series of powerful strikes in the Broken Hill mines, the coal mines, amongst shearers, seamen and waterside workers and innumerable other groups of workers produced an incredible surge in the number of days workers spent on strike. Workers on average spent an amazing 3.40 days on strike in 1917, 3.01 days in 1919 and 2.44 days in 1920 – more than 30 times the level of strike action today.[30]

Out of these upheavals various forms of rank and file organisation – strike committees and control committees – emerged in key militant centres. As early as October 1915 underground miners at Broken Hill had formed a separate committee, headed by prominent socialists and syndicalists, to fight for a 44-hour week. Initially in defiance of their union leaders, who at the time were undoubtedly the most left wing in the country, they organised determined picketing and won a decisive victory that began to turn back the patriotic pro-war tide.

In the meatworks, boards of control – essentially shop committees of rank and file delegates from all departments of the works – jealously preserved their autonomy from union officialdom, especially in the extremely militant north Queensland meatworks, where IWW influence was strong. During the course of the war, the greatly heightened demand for meat to feed the British army greatly strengthened the bargaining position of the meatworkers, who were able to win major gains. However, towards the end of the war, the bosses, with government backing, went on the offensive. In Townsville, in response to the police arresting prominent militants, the meatworkers armed themselves by raiding gun shops and seized the town.[31]

During 1916, rank and file strike committees led wildcat strikes by shearers in western NSW and Queensland in defiance of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) officials, which scored decisive victories that forced up wage rates. During 1917 and 1918, rank and file strike committees led a wave of strikes across north Queensland by shearers, cane cutters, mill hands and Cloncurry and Mount Morgan miners.

With a few exceptions, such as the AWU, Australian unions, reflecting in part the much smaller population (just five million at the outbreak of the war), were much smaller than British ones and consequently lacked the large centralised bureaucratic machines of many British unions. There also seems to have been a stronger tradition of mass meetings to decide on strike action and union policy than in Britain. Also in these years, unlike today, many important office bearer positions in the unions were held by worker activists rather than full-time officials. These important differences were accentuated by the fact that the Australian union movement very much operated on a state by state basis, and thus the political complexion of the unions could vary dramatically between Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

All of this meant that there were somewhat greater possibilities for rank and file workers, particularly in periods of industrial upsurge, to have an impact on the direction of their union than was the case in Britain at the time or Australia today. The eight-week 1917 general strike was initiated and driven forward by the rank and file rather than their leaders. In a typical example, the agitation that forced the Seamen’s Union, then under right wing national leadership, to hold a mass meeting that voted to join the strike was led by the vice-president of the NSW branch, William Daly, a working seaman.[32] In union after union, wildly enthusiastic mass meetings compelled hostile or reluctant officials to authorise participation in the general strike. The general strike was marked by vibrant, joyful daily mass marches through the streets, culminating in rallies in the Sydney Domain that on occasion reached well over 100,000. The lack of strong centralised union machines also meant that state branches of unions could more easily be captured by militants in periods of upsurge. This was to be the pattern in many unions, including the Ironworkers, the Seamen and the Waterside Workers, during the war or immediately afterwards.

The other important difference between Australia and Britain was that the ALP was a greater factor in working class life. The great battles of the war years were dramatically reflected inside the ALP. The working class insurgency forced the ALP to expel the prime minister, Billy Hughes, and the NSW premier, William Holman, and brought down their governments. Then, as the wave of struggle continued after the end of the war, the ALP leaders were forced to move further left and adopt the Socialist Objective.

The industrial politics of the revolutionary left during the war years was essentially syndicalist. This took the purest form in the IWW (Wobblies). The Wobblies stood for forming new revolutionary unions in each industry. These revolutionary unions were to be linked together in the OBU. The OBU would rid the world of capitalism by a general strike and be the instrument by which workers ruled under socialism. The IWW was a significant force in NSW and Queensland, and proportionately bigger than the IWW in the US. But it was broken by harsh governmental repression during the war. It was, however, not the only or even necessarily the largest syndicalist current. By the end of the war the idea of the OBU was hegemonic amongst militants and had broad working class support.

The industrial policy of the numerous socialist groups, both inside and outside the ALP, was broadly syndicalist, though most of them looked to transforming the existing unions along industrial lines, not setting up revolutionary unions. And in reality the IWW largely abandoned its dual unionist approach as unworkable in such a highly unionised country as Australia.

But if the predominant politics of militant workers in Australia in this period was one or other form of syndicalism, there was an important difference from the syndicalism of the British shop stewards’ movement. Unlike in Britain, one of the central activities of the syndicalist militants, whether they were in one of the various socialist parties or the IWW, was campaigning against conscription and the war. They also took up other political issues, notably the Irish revolt against British imperialism. The working class movement played a decisive role in the successful struggle against conscription, and radical socialists and syndicalists played a key role in forming Labour Volunteer Armies, first in Broken Hill and then in other centres, for armed defence of anti-conscription meetings from attacks by right wing mobs.

The Russian Revolution was an incredible inspiration for militant workers and socialists in Australia. However, it took a considerable period of time for a Communist Party to be cohered, both politically and organisationally. By the time the CPA was formally affiliated to the Comintern in August 1922, the postwar upsurge of radicalism had receded. Furthermore, the early CPA was, to put it mildly, ideologically primitive and confused.

One of the particularities of the early CPA was that the most important current in it was a group of Sydney union officials known as the Trades Hall Reds. The leading figure was Jock Garden, secretary of the NSW Labor Council from 1918. Though Garden and his supporters who controlled the NSW Labor Council executive were strong supporters of the OBU, they predominantly came from quite small craft or sectional unions, such as the saddlers, coopers, stovemakers, marine stewards and bricklayers. Garden typified this pattern having been the delegate of the tiny sailmakers’ union. After a failed attempt to capture the NSW ALP, Garden and his supporters, who had captured the leadership of a string of unions, led an abortive left wing split from the ALP in 1919 and eventually secretly founded a Communist Party.

The CPA’s initial approach to union work was to support the establishment of industrial unions to cover all of the workers in a particular industry, rather than to have them divided up among competing craft or sectional unions. As the Comintern agent Aleksandr Zuzenko, a Russian revolutionary who had lived in Australia for some years, put it in a report in April 1920:

Since the proletariat in Australia is already organised into trade unions, it is essential that all Party work be directed towards reorganising the old unions along industrial lines.

Every communist must take it upon himself to be a trade union member and work within the old organisations to promote the idea of rebuilding them on new principles, in order to prepare to take control of production from the very first steps of the revolution.

These industrial unions were in turn to be linked up in the old Wobbly schema of the One Big Union covering all workers. As the Australian Communist put it:

Communist Party policy in relation to Industrial Unionism is actively to endeavour to replace the existing craft unions by more up to date efficient industrial unions, which would be more advantageous to revolutionary mass action as well as an important factor in the Communist reconstruction of society.[34]

But at the same time, Communists were to work within the existing unions. The CPA reaffirmed this approach at its December 1922 conference and went on to declare:

The Communist Party condemns the formation of separate militant Unions which draw the militant elements from the Trade Unions, and so strengthens the reactionary bureaucracy of the Craft Unions. The setting up of new Unions outside the existing Unions is only permissible when large revolutionary elements have been expelled from the old Unions; only under such conditions in order to keep this element together is it necessary to create a new Union.

So far, so good. But then it became rather more problematic and opened up a lot of wriggle room for Garden and the Trades Hall Reds’ unprincipled manoeuvres:

The Communist will work through the Labor Councils…will organise for the purpose of getting representation on all Trade Union Conferences with the object of framing a policy for the Trade Union Movement in line with the Communist Party and the Red Trade Union International. Beginning with the Communist Group in each Union, the Party will use every avenue to make the Trade Unions efficient weapons in the class war.[35]

This approach put undue weight on winning influence at the top of the union movement. Passing radical policy motions at union conferences is all well and good, but it can easily come to substitute for the less glamorous day to day work of building a base in the workplaces independent of union officialdom. And in the wake of the enormous radicalisation of the 1916-1919 period, union conferences endorsed all sorts of high sounding policy motions calling for socialism, knowing full well that they were not going to be implemented. It was a form of left cover that at times even right wing AWU officials were prepared to engage in. As for “the Communist will work through the Labor Councils”, this could easily be interpreted as meaning that Communists should subordinate themselves to the Labor Councils, particularly when it came to the NSW Labor Council, which was affiliated to the RILU and headed by the Trades Hall Reds.

Compounding these problems was the orientation to the ALP that the CPA endorsed at the same conference, which blamed the anti-revolutionary aims and leadership of the ALP on the lack of class consciousness of the workers, rather than on the reformist leaders who, in Lenin’s words, “systematically dupe the workers”:

Politically the working class in Australia finds its fullest expression in the Labor Party. The aims, ideals, leadership of the Labor Party remain anti-revolutionary because the workers themselves lack class consciousness, and so far as large sections are concerned, are still dominated by middle class prejudices and ideology.

Just as we accept membership in the Trade Union movement and build up our own Party Groups to win the workers to Communism, so will we do likewise to the Labor Party.

The Labor Party is the Political expression of the working class. To ignore it and remain outside is to defeat the very fundamental principles of Communist Propaganda.

Lenin had explicitly polemicised against the idea that the “Labor Party is the Political expression of the working class” at the Second Comintern Congress in 1920. In response to a section of the CPGB that held to that erroneous position, he declared:

Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are working men. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the contents of its actions and its political tactics. Only the latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat.

Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers.

However, in a letter to the CPA in the lead-up to its December 1922 conference, the Comintern’s Executive Committee argued: “We should rather fight within the Labour Party and capture it by waging the fight against the social-traitors in the mass party which has been monopolised by them.”[38] The idea that the tiny CPA membership had any hope of capturing a mass reformist party like the ALP was delusional.

Lenin had of course argued for the British Communists to attempt to gain affiliation to the Labour Party provided that they were able to maintain their own independent activity, openly advocate revolutionary polices and publicly criticise the reformist polices of the Labour leadership. Lenin very much saw this as a short-term tactic and argued that the Communists should not fear expulsion:

If the British Communist Party starts by acting in a revolutionary manner in the Labour Party, and if the Hendersons are obliged to expel this party, that will be a great victory for the communist and revolutionary working class movement in Britain.[39]

The affiliation tactic was problematic in Britain. In Australia, which had a much more established Labor Party that had been in both state and federal government on a series of occasions, it caused the fledgling CPA untold grief.

Garden, at that stage the key leader of the CPA, attended the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922 and outlined the party’s approach to trade union work. It was a grandiose, blustering speech full of arrant nonsense about the supposed mass influence of the Australian party. Garden started out by attacking the main enemy, i.e. the British, in this case the British Communist Party:

But, when you consider the British movement, you will find that the Communist Party is weak, and it lacks the influence on the masses that the other parties have.

I believe that the Communist Party of Australia, despite its small size, has found the right approach to organisational work. The Communist Party of Australia has a membership of only 1,000, but it is still capable of leading about 400,000 workers, including the 237,000 workers of New South Wales – in short, the entire organised workforce. It also leads the 110,000 organised workers of Brisbane in Queensland.

Each trade union has Communist cells, from twenty to two, and there is not a single trade union without a cell.

The New South Wales Labor Council includes 120 unions. Nonetheless, the Communist party has full control of the executive. Of its twelve members, eleven are members of the Communist Party, and they lead these 120 unions, determining the policies of every union.

The result is that the Communist Party leads the entire activity of the trade unions. As for the Labor Party, we found we were able to lead its politics as well – a party imbued with opportunism and led by reformists. We found that the active forces in the working class could themselves guide the politics of this party. [40]

How much the Comintern leadership believed any of this bullshit is unclear. The Comintern’s interest in the CPA was desultory, and communication between the CPA and the Comintern Secretariat was sporadic at best during the mid to late 1920s. On at least one occasion, it took seven months for a letter from Moscow to reach Sydney.

The harsh reality was that the CPA had at best 500 members in late 1922, and by November 1923 its membership had shrunk to 250. In practice Garden devoted much of his efforts to backroom deals with other union officials. Indeed, according to one-time CPA leader, Herbert Moxon, during a 1925 seamen’s strike the Labor Council’s Marine Transport Group, of which Garden was a member, made a strikebreaking agreement with the shipping companies. Again according to Moxon, “Jack Kavanagh [subsequently the main CPA leader] called on the editor of the Workers’ Weekly to attack the agreement but instead it carried an article by Garden defending it”.[41]

Garden was also involved in all sorts of intrigue in the NSW ALP, which the CPA was briefly allowed to join officially in 1923 after forming an unholy alliance with the right wing AWU leadership. Indeed, three Communists, including Garden, were elected to the ALP executive. It all ended in disaster. By 1924 the CPA had been expelled from the ALP and in the process lost many members who had adapted to the ALP’s reformist milieu and refused to openly declare themselves Communists. Nevertheless, Garden continued to try to manoeuvre inside the ALP. In November 1926 he instructed Lithgow CPA members, who were union delegates to the special NSW ALP conference, to sign an anti-CPA pledge.

In early 1924 the Executive Committee of the Comintern wrote to the CPA:

We think that the “centre of gravity” should not be in the Trade Unions – although this is one of the most important fields – but in the workshop… [C]ommunist trade union factions should not be the base for the party organisation. They should be suborganisations of the party, like the factions in the parliaments, in municipal bodies, in cooperatives, military units etc.[42]

This was the exact opposite of Garden’s approach. The deals at the top meant that Garden and his followers had not prioritised building a base in the workplaces. Strong Communist cells in the workplaces would have been an awkward development for the Trades Hall Reds because they could have attempted to exert Communist discipline over the CPA union leaders.

Most of the Trades Hall Reds, other than Garden, had left the CPA by 1925. (A number of these careerists went on to play leading roles in the ALP. Bob Heffron from the Marine Stewards Union became NSW premier, Labor Council Executive member J.J. Graves from the Stovemakers Union became NSW ALP state secretary and Labor Council president “Stabber Jack” Beasley from the Electrical Trades Union became a leading federal cabinet minister during World War II.) By this stage the CPA was in terrible shape, with fewer than 100 active members, and there was talk of dissolving it. But under the new leadership of the Irishman Jack Kavanagh, who arrived in Sydney from Canada on May Day 1925, the CPA began to rebuild at the base. At its December 1925 conference a new note was struck. “Into the Unions and on the Offensive” was the slogan. The CPA formed a Trade Union Educational League in January 1926 with an objective of uniting militant workers in the everyday struggle against capitalism. It had a presence in Sydney and the coalfields.

In June 1926 Kavanagh persuaded the party executive to actively discourage members from seeking union office unless there was a clear demand by rank and file workers to elect them. According to Herbert Moxon, the “object was to ‘stop the rot’…it having been a common thing for Party members to get paid official jobs by intrigue and corrupt practices”.[43] Kavanagh’s orientation was: “While little militancy existed the task of the Party members was to function as a centre of militancy opposed to the reactionary officials.”[44] Subsequently, in a debate with Jock Garden, he declared:

The trade union movement was rife with former radicals who had gradually become bureaucrats. These, and not the rank and file workers, were the very people who had lost any understanding of the aims of the working class.

And he went on to declare: “At present we are stronger than ever before, stronger not only because of our numbers, but because we have now shed the reformist elements which had burdened our ranks.”[45] Kavanagh’s approach seems to have been supported by the Comintern Executive, which in a letter to the CPA in April 1928 stated that when CPA members stood for union positions:

All such contests should be under the direction of the CEC [Central Executive Committee], without whose sanction no Party member can stand for an official position… Further, as a rule Party members contesting these positions should not conceal their identity as members of the Communist Party. They should base their claims for support upon a sound Trade Union record, as well as upon a militant class struggle platform.[46]

But this shift to the left was on a rather pragmatic basis and was not underpinned by a clear theoretical understanding of the role of the trade union bureaucracy. Thus the Workers’ Weekly report on the December 1926 party conference declared: “Conference was unanimous in condemnation of the right wing tendency of Com. Garden, and in future any such tendency will be nipped in the bud by the rigid application of Party discipline.”[47] And the resolution on the trade union question adopted at the December 1928 conference argued: “[I]t is the task of all such active Communists, under the direction of the responsible party organs, to attempt, wherever possible, to have themselves elected to leading and strategic executive positions in the trade unions.”[48] But it was not enough to have “rigid discipline” to remove bad apples like Garden. Unless the party was crystal clear that capturing official positions was a dead-end strategy for transforming the unions, even sincere militants would end up succumbing to the pressures to accommodate to reformism. For isolated militants, the temptation to see a union organiser’s job as the quick way to gain influence rather than the steady, persevering work of building in your workplace was always going to be strong. Indeed Jack Kavanagh himself, thanks to the assistance of Garden, subsequently became an organiser with the NSW Labor Council.

The Lithgow CPA branch initiated a Miners Minority Movement along British lines in October 1926, and this spread to the three main NSW coalfields. A Minority Movement was also begun in Queensland but eventually fizzled out. No effective Minority Movement was established in Sydney. This partly reflected the weakness of the CPA outside the coalfields, where it had a few groups of militants. There was more of a tradition of rank and file organisation amongst the more militant and politically advanced miners.

The added problem was that the objective conditions for developing a rank and file movement had been undermined by the downturn in class struggle after 1921. The recession of 1921-22, in which unemployment peaked at 13.5 percent in 1921, put workers on the back foot, and even after economic growth resumed, unemployment never fell below 6.8 percent during the 1920s.[49] The average number of days workers spent on strike, which had peaked at 3.40 in 1917 and remained at 2.44 in 1920, had fallen to 0.55 in 1924.[50] This was further compounded by the tiny size of the CPA and its lack of a strong organisational apparatus. In its April 1926 report to the Comintern Executive, the CPA claimed to have 279 members (including 115 in Sydney) at the end of 1925 and a Workers’ Weekly circulation of 6,000 (including 1,489 subscribers). It stated:

At the present time all the official work of the Party is done on a voluntary basis which is extremely inefficient. Most of the Executive members are manual workers and the Party propagandists travel long distances at week-ends and, as almost every member is prominent in the trade unions, the bulk of our membership is overworked.[51]

As late as January 1928, the CPA, whose membership was overwhelmingly working class, still had no full-time functionaries.

The Comintern Executive highlighted a number of further weaknesses in the CPA’s approach. In a critique of the CPA’s Workers’ Weekly, the Agitprop Department of the Comintern Executive wrote in September 1928:

…it tends to speak for “pure and simple” left wing trade unionism with some rather abstract political articles strewn in between. Perhaps it is wrong to separate the two shortcomings, for taken fundamentally they are part of one problem. There is a degree of resemblance between the Workers’ Weekly and the organs of some syndicalists or of those of some isolated socialist groups.

Page after page is filled with material reflecting the inner life of the trade union movement. This lends the paper a predominantly trade union character.

Nonetheless, the Comintern Executive shares part of the blame for the limitations of the CPA’s rank and file work. Even after Jock Garden’s expulsion from the CPA in December 1926, the NSW Labor Council remained affiliated to the RILU, and Garden himself was elected to the RILU executive. Thanks to Garden’s influence, the ACTU maintained its affiliation to the Comintern-controlled Pan-Pacific Trades Union organisation. The Comintern clearly saw Garden and his influence amongst the union bureaucracy as more valuable than the tiny CPA.[53] The CPA leadership in the 1920s felt that there was no way that they could move to form a Minority Movement in Sydney because that would be seen as a direct challenge to the Labor Council and consequently to the Comintern. According to Stuart Macintyre in 1929: “An RILU official had…travelled to Sydney to insist that this [the affiliation of the NSW Labor Council to the RILU] was sacrosanct.”[54] The Miners Federation was not affiliated to the RILU, so it was acceptable to form a Miners Minority Movement.

Soon after that, the Comintern, at Stalin’s orders, dramatically changed line, ushering in the mad sectarian Third Period policy. That ended any role of the Comintern as a revolutionary factor. The CPA, which had lagged behind the Stalinisation process that had been imposed on the European parties, was now purged of more independent leaders such as Kavanagh and in the course of the Depression transformed into a hard Stalinist machine.


The Comintern in its early revolutionary years attempted to develop a genuinely revolutionary trade union policy drawing on the best experience of trade union militants in the West and the Bolsheviks’ theoretical insights. It was a major step forward on the essentially syndicalist approach that had previously been dominant amongst the best militants in Britain and Australia. It recognised the need to fight around both political and industrial issues. Unlike the syndicalists, the Comintern did not see sectional organisations like the unions as the revolutionary instrument that could lead the fight to overthrow capitalism. Soviets or workers’ councils, which were much more democratic and flexible organisations than the unions and capable of mobilising the mass of the working class, unionised and non-unionised, would be the basis of a workers’ government, not the unions. To fight for revolutionary leadership in both the soviets and the unions, the Comintern stressed the vital importance of building a mass revolutionary party that cohered the most politically advanced workers.

At the same time, the Comintern recognised the necessity of revolutionaries working within the existing unions to influence the mass of workers rather than setting up separate revolutionary unions. While it supported industrial unions to replace craft and other sectional unions, it did not see them as a panacea. It emphasised the importance of building Communist cells in the workplaces and cohering around those cells a layer of militant fighters.

Nevertheless, there were important shortcomings in the Comintern’s approach, which aggravated pre-existing weaknesses in the local Communist parties and became greatly intensified with the growing Stalinisation of the Comintern in the course of the 1920s. The decision to form a revolutionary trade union international, the RILU, was a clear mistake. The Comintern’s analysis of reformism in the West contained various confused and contradictory elements. The biggest area of confusion was undoubtedly over the nature of the trade union bureaucracy. The Comintern in its early years did not develop a rounded theory of the union bureaucracy as a distinct social layer with interests counterposed to the mass of rank and file workers – though Trotsky’s writings in the mid-1920s on Britain did strongly point in that direction.[55] All that said, and despite some opportunistic errors by Zinoviev and other Comintern leaders in relation to the trade union bureaucracy, the early Comintern generally emphasised the vital task of building a well-organised militant base in the workplaces rather than relying on union leaders. As Lozovsky put it at the Fourth Congress in 1922:

From this flows the Communists’ slogan of winning the trade unions. But what does that mean? And, here, we come to the weak side of our Communist work in many countries. There are countries where winning the trade unions is understood to mean winning their leading posts… [W]inning the leading posts does not mean winning the trade unions… It means that they have not built Communist cells, linked by firm discipline inside a single trade union… [W]hat winning the trade unions means is winning the masses, their communist education, communist organising of the most developed layers, so that the entire society in all its ramifications from top to bottom is imbued with a communist spirit and consciousness.[56]

The trouble was that in the early 1920s in Britain and Australia, once the wartime and immediate postwar radical wave had ebbed, it was objectively difficult to build a genuinely mass rank and file movement. The small size and confused politics of the CPA were additional major constraining factors. By the time major opportunities opened up again at the end of the 1920s, the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern had closed off all options; the CPA was no longer a revolutionary organisation. In the British case, the CPGB squandered the chance to gain genuine mass influence in the industrial revival in the lead-up to and the course of the 1926 general strike because of its adaptation under Russian pressure to the left wing of the union bureaucracy.

In its best phase, the Comintern’s strategy for trade union work in Britain and Australia was to build a mass rank and file movement under Communist leadership, with a strong base in the workplaces that could operate independently of union officialdom. This is a strategy that will be a vital guide to action for revolutionary parties in any future upsurge of struggle.

Rank and file movements cannot, of course, be willed into existence by revolutionaries. They are likely to emerge only in periods when the working class is in a combative mood. Nonetheless, the very nature of the trade union movement in Western capitalism creates the objective basis for the emergence of rank and file movements. As Brian Pearce wrote over 50 years ago in his important history of rank and file movements in Britain:

The source of rank and file movements is the conflict between the struggle of the working class for better conditions and a new social order, and the increasing reconciliation between the leaders of the trade unions and the capitalist class, their growing integration into the upper reaches of bourgeois society.[57]

That statement is doubly true today. The last 30 years have seen a total capitulation of union bureaucracies throughout the Western world to the ruling class’s neoliberal agenda.

[1] Second Congress of the Communist International. Minutes of the proceedings, 2, New Park, London, 1977, p.62.

[2] Lenin, Collected Works, 31, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, pp.52-53.

[3] Quoted in Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle. The General Strike of 1926, Bookmarks, London, 1986, p.36.

[4] Lenin, Collected Works, 13, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978, p.163.

[5] Second Congress of the Communist International, pp.71-72.

[6] For a detailed discussion of the nature of the trade union bureaucracy see Cliff and Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle.

[7] Lenin, Collected Works, 31, pp.51-52.

[8] For a detailed critique of the labour aristocracy theory see Tom Bramble, “Is there a labour aristocracy in Australia?”, Marxist Left Review, 4, Winter 2012.

[9] Second Congress of the Communist International, pp.64-65.

[10] Second Congress of the Communist International, p.89.

[11] Second Congress of the Communist International, pp.175-176.

[12] Second Congress of the Communist International, p.167.

[13] Second Congress of the Communist International, p.171.

[14] Second Congress of the Communist International, pp.77-79.

[15] Alan Adler (ed), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Pluto Press, London, 1983, p.265.

[16] John Riddell (ed), Toward the United Front. Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012, p.543.

[17] David W. Lovell and Kevin Windle (eds), Our Unswerving Loyalty, A documentary survey of relations between the Communist Party of Australia and Moscow, 1920-1940, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2008, p.232.

[18] Brian Pearce, “Some Past Rank and File Movements”, in Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce (eds), Essays on the History of Communism in Britain, New Park, London, 1975, p.105.

[19] J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1973, p.296.

[20] Hinton, Shop Stewards, p.296.

[21] J.T. Murphy, New Horizons, John Lane, London, 1941, p.61.

[22] Solidarity, July 1917.

[23] Quoted in Ralph Darlington, The Political Trajectory of J.T. Murphy, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1998, p.110.

[24] Quoted in Cliff and Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle, p.116.

[25] Leon Trotsky, Writings on Britain, works/britain/ch13.htm.

[26] A. Wilson, “Australia’s First Shop Committees”, Modern Unionist, June 1971, p.39.

[27] Workers’ Weekly, 21 December 1923.

[28] K.D. Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852-1920, ANU, Canberra, 1970, pp.288-289.

[29] For an overview of the wartime upsurge see Robert Bollard, In the shadow of Gallipoli. The hidden history of Australia in World War I, NewSouth, Sydney, 2013 and Mick Armstrong, “Australia 1917: From World War to Class War”, Socialist Review, 4, Melbourne, Winter 1991.

[30] Tom Sheridan, Division of Labour. Industrial Relations in the Chifley Years 1945-1949, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, p.6.

[31] Terrence Cutler, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday: The Townsville Meatworkers’ Strike of 1918-19”, in John Iremonger, John Merritt and Graeme Osborne (eds), Strikes, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973, pp.81-102.

[32] Robert Bollard, “‘Rank and fileism’ revisited: trade union bureaucracy and Australia’s General Strike”, Marxist Interventions, 2, 2010, pp.39-58,

[33] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, p.65.

[34] Australian Communist, 13 December 1920.

[35] Communist, 5 January 1923.

[36] Communist, 5 January 1923.

[37] Lenin, Collected Works, 31, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1966, pp.257-258.

[38] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, pp.154-155.

[39] Lenin, Collected Works, 31, p.263. For a fuller analysis of the Marxist approach to entrism in the Labor Party, see Duncan Hallas, “Revolutionaries and the Labour Party”, International Socialism Journal, 16, London, Spring 1982,

[40] Riddell, Toward the United Front, pp.596-597.

[41] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, p.246.

[42] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, p.198.

[43] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, pp.247.

[44] Stuart Macintyre, The Reds, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1998, p.116.

[45] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, pp.223-224.

[46] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, p.252.

[47] Workers’ Weekly, 7 January 1927.

[48] Workers’ Weekly, 11 January 1929.

[49] Raymond Markey, In Case of Oppression. The Life and Times of the Labor Council of New South Wales, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1994, p.186.

[50] Sheridan, Division of Labour, p.6.

[51] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, p.209.

[52] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, pp.255.

[53] Lovell and Windle, Our Unswerving Loyalty, p.227.

[54] Macintyre, The Reds, p.157.

[55] Leon Trotsky, On Britain,

[56] Riddell, Toward the United Front, p.557.

[57] Pearce, “Some Past Rank and File Movements”, p.105.

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Our unions in crisis: how did it come to this?

Tom Bramble, drawing on decades of research and active involvement in the labour movement, argues that 35 years of passivity and class collaboration rather than an emphasis on militant, class struggle unionism is the core reason our unions are in crisis.

Lenin and a theory of revolution for the West

Sandra Bloodworth argues that Lenin and the other great revolutionaries of the early twentieth century provide us with a theory of revolution for advanced democracies.