Monday, 17 December 2012

The minority movement, learning the lessons for today

Tonight we had our last socialist party meeting of the year and ended in traditional fashion with our annual Christmas lectures delivered in excellent terms by Jim Horton one of our ex full timers and very experienced in Marxist and trade union history. This year our discussion was on the minority movement of the 1920’s the rise and the fall of the British Communist party and the lessons for today’s especially given our own role in the National Shops Stewards Network which although is not a decisive factor in the labour movement is growing in numbers and influence all the time. The first part of the twentieth century was a stormy period in the relations between the working class and the bosses. It was when the bosses tried to make the working class pay for the failings of their own system. But it was also when the working class built new organisations - both trade union and political. Stirred into that pot was the revolution in Russia in 1917, which had a profound inspiring effect on the working class worldwide, including on Britain. Later developments in Russia, the rise of Stalinism, in turn had a baleful effect on some of those new organisations. At the end of the nineteenth century, workers were pouring into the towns and cities of Britain during a period of rapid industrialisation. Unskilled workers organised into new unions outside the old craft unions. The employers aggressively attacked the working class as they scrabbled for profits with their rivals in Germany and the USA. Trotsky, writing where is Britain Going? In 1925 described the nature of those times: "... a state of internal want of confidence and ferment among the upper classes and a profound molecular process of an essentially revolutionary character among the working class..." Taff Vale One of the most notorious of these attacks on the working class was the Taff Vale Railway case of 1901, when the railway union was sued for losses after a strike. The bosses were awarded the equivalent today of £2 million in damages - effectively ruining the union. The fact that the bosses were using their own courts to seek revenge on the trade unions for organising strikes spurred many workers to discuss the need for political representation. In the 1906 general election the Tories were defeated by the Liberals. 29 Labour Representation Committee MPs were elected, along with 14 miners' MPs. Under this pressure the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 reversed the Taff Vale decision. But the working class still had to fight tooth and nail. The period of 1911-1913 saw a whole series of battles by the miners, railway and other transport workers. It was a period which Trotsky described as having the "vague shadow of revolution" hanging over it. The First World War, when the British ruling class attempted to cow its economic rivals, at huge cost to the working class, resulted in a labour shortage. And the bosses were forced to give some concessions in sickness and unemployment benefits. This had the effect of reinforcing the conservative tendencies of some of the leaders of the trade union movement. After all - if the bosses are giving concessions, all you need to do is to appeal to them to act reasonably. But most of the working class had other ideas. There was a huge strike wave between 1917 and 1920, most notably 'Red Clydeside', when the Clydeside engineers, led by the Clyde Workers' Committee came out for a 40-hour week. This was one of the early developments of a shop stewards' movement and where the government showed their true nature by sending in tanks and troops to try to break the strike. They were terrified of the idea of a 'triple alliance', of a united struggle of transport workers, railway workers and miners. That was the background to the formation of the Communist Party in Britain in 1920, led by hardened industrial militants like Willie Gallagher of Red Clydeside and Tom Mann. As those trade union and political organisations were being forged, the post-First World War boom was coming to an end. There were two million unemployed by June 1921. The miners were locked out in March 1921, after rejecting pay cuts. When they appealed to the Triple Alliance for support, the right-wing trade union leaders refused, on a day which became known as 'Black Friday'. This showed the need for the left to organise in the trade unions, making demands such as the democratic control of trade union officials. In 1924 the first congress of the Minority Movement was held, with 271 delegates representing 200,000 workers. It was led by Communist Party members but it also involved non-members like miners' leader AJ Cook who had left the Communist Party in 1921. At least some of the CP leaders saw the necessity of not only helping to mobilise workers against the bosses' attacks but also to challenge the muddled ideas of some of the left-wingers. Stalinism Unfortunately the Minority Movement was organising at a time when Stalin's ideas were developing in Russia - the idea of 'socialism in one country', abandoning the idea of international revolution. After Red Friday in 1925, when the government announced a subsidy to the mines, the TUC should have prepared the working class for a mighty struggle. That was certainly what the capitalists were doing, by buying time to prepare. Instead the CP ended up giving uncritical support to the "lefts" and eventually the TUC itself. The Minority Movement was still growing, with a nearly 700-strong conference in 1925 and a special conference to prepare for the 1926 general strike. After the TUC surrendered and called off the general strike, the CP leaders confessed that they had not realised what sort of a role the "lefts" could play. They were disappointed that the lefts had "turned out to be windbags". In 1927 the TUC instructed trades councils to disaffiliate from the Minority Movement, which effectively died shortly afterwards. By 1931 Trotsky referred to the CP as a "negligible sect". But there are rich lessons to learn from this period. Workers are often prepared to struggle but they need worthy leadership. And you have to fight to build that leadership - not just in the tops of the trade unions but leaders in every workplace and at every level of the trade unions. • for a more detailed account and analysis of the general strike, see 1926 General Strike, Workers Taste Power, by Peter Taaffe. With thanks to Alison Hill, industrial editor of the socialist

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