Socialist Worker

‘The Great unrest’ and the limits of radical syndicalism

Chris Bambery looks at the issues raised by some fascinating debates between revolutionaries and left wing trade unionists in the early 20th century

Issue No. 2104

A Labour Party that courts respectability while refusing to stand up for the working class, and trade union leaders that turn their backs on strikes to curry social peace with the bosses. Sound familiar? Well we’ve have been here before.

As the 20th century opened the young Labour Party was little more than a cheerleader for the ruling Liberals. Union leaders were also prepared to give the government an easy ride after it had passed legislation to stop them being prosecuted for organising strikes.

But there were limits to this. As Britain was in the process of being overtaken economically – first by the US, then by Germany – employers responded by tightening the screw in order to boost their profits.

Between 1900 and 1910 real wages fell by 10 percent, food prices increased and new technology threatened the position of skilled workers in engineering and other industries.

A generation of working class activists reacted against this – and the way that Labour saw socialism being brought by parliament, not by strikes.

They recalled the words of Karl Marx, who said, “The emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class.”

The activists looked to their own power to bring radical change and saw the trade unions as the vehicle for achieving it. These rebels gave themselves the name syndicalists.


Between 1910 and 1914 frustration at pay cuts exploded in a wave of strikes that became known as the Great Unrest. As the action spread, leading syndicalists such as Tom Mann found mass support.

In 1910 he wrote The Way to Win, a pamphlet which argued that socialism could only be achieved through trade unionism, and that parliamentary democracy was inherently corrupt.

In Britain Mann founded the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL), which worked within the existing unions with the aim of uniting them into one big union. In the US, Spain and Italy syndicalists created breakaway unions that were committed to direct action.

In 1911 strike action on Liverpool’s docks and railways spread into a citywide transport strike. Mann chaired the unofficial strike committee and addressed mass meetings of several thousands.

The Liberal government responded by sending warships up the Mersey. They deployed armed troops to break up an 80,000-strong demonstration, later shooting dead two strikers, and succeeded in breaking the strike.

A year on and troops were rushed into the coalfields to break a national miners strike. They were met with leaflets produced by syndicalists that were headlined “Don’t Shoot”. Mann and a comrade were sentenced to six months in jail for “incitement to mutiny”.

Sales of the ISEL’s paper, The Syndicalist, reached a height of 20,000 in 1912 and two conferences of trade union representatives organised by the paper claimed to represent around 100,000 workers.

The syndicalists’ concentration on action meant they were marvellous when the struggle was rising, and its leaders were in a position to challenge those of the existing trade unions and the Labour Party. But as the strike wave waned, so too did their power.

Tom Mann and others, like Willie Gallacher in Glasgow, were themselves members of left wing parties but were determined to maintain a strict division between their activity as trade unionists during the day, and their pressing the need for socialism at propaganda meetings in the evening.


Others dismissed the need to politically challenge capitalism altogether. One of the founder members of the ISEL, AG Tufton, argued: “Politics, like religion, is a matter for the persons themselves, and is of no concern to the workers, whether Liberals or Conservatives. All that is necessary is for workers to understand the solidarity of their class.”

Yet at the same time as the Great Unrest, two huge political issues rocked Britain – the suffragettes’ fight for votes for women, and the rebellion against British colonial rule in Ireland. In addition it was becoming clear that tensions between Britain, France and Germany threatened a bloody imperialist war.

There was the possibility of fusing these issues together into a powerful challenge to the British state. Unfortunately few among the syndicalist current answered the call, and failure to build politically meant that when war was declared in August 1914, they were unable to meet the new challenges.

Labour, like its social democratic counterparts in Europe, rallied to defend the nation. Trade union leaders agreed to a strike ban to help the war effort. A huge campaign demonising the German “Huns” swept the country.

As individuals Tom Mann and most syndicalists opposed the war but they had not developed networks of activists who could stand up to war fever.

However, by 1916 strikes were reviving. Gallacher, who was president of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, led a fight against attacks on wages and conditions. But the Clyde shop stewards were not prepared to come out openly against the war, let alone argue that industrial action could bring it to an end.

Gallacher even barred the anti?war socialist John Maclean from the Committee because he pressed for action against the war.

The general failure to politicise the industrial struggle meant that the main beneficiary of growing revulsion against the war proved to be the Labour Party. In the 1918 its vote increased from 6 percent to 20 percent and it doubled again four years later.

Many leading syndicalists – including Tom Mann, Willie Gallacher and the Sheffield engineer JT Murphy – were, however, drawn to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Leon Trotsky described syndicalists as people “who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie, but who, unlike [the reformists] really want to tear its head off”.

The Bolsheviks had always supported strikes, and saw the mass strike as a means of paralysing the capitalist economy and state.

Their experience led them to support union rank and file organisations in the belief that they could form the future basis of factory councils, or soviets. These directly elected bodies could not only lead struggles, but also lay the ground for a new workers’ state.

Trotsky characterised syndicalism as a revolutionary tendency within the working class, but went on to point out a number of serious flaws in its theory.

He argued that while trade unions are an essential weapon against the bosses, by their very nature they limit themselves to winning economic gains, and ultimately seek accords with the very bosses they fight.

Even after militant strikes, the pressures to negotiate necessarily push revolutionary trade unionists in the direction of reformism. Though a general strike will inevitably confront the capitalist state, it does not equal toppling the existing order.

Trotsky wrote of the failed 1905 Russian Revolution: “In the struggle it is extremely important to weaken the enemy. That is what the [general] strike does. At the same time a strike brings the army of the revolution to its feet.

“But neither the one nor the other, in itself, creates a state revolution. The power still has to be snatched from the hands of the old rulers and handed over to the revolution… A general strike only creates the necessary preconditions. It is quite inadequate for achieving the task itself.”


To those who argued that workers could bypass the capitalist state by taking over the workplaces, he responded:

“It is not enough to deny the state – it is necessary to conquer the state in order to surmount it. The struggle for the conquest of the state apparatus is revolutionary politics. To renounce it is to renounce the fundamental tasks of the revolutionary class.”

Trotsky’s point raises sharply the question of what is the revolutionary instrument of workers’ power.

Trade unions have to involve all workers, regardless of their beliefs. Yet the working class always includes a minority who want to fight capitalism and reject divisive and chauvinist ideas, and another minority who accept both capitalism and its most backward notions.

In times of great upheaval either one of those minorities can win great influence over the majority.

The need for a political organisation of the militant minority, which seeks to unite economic and political struggles, is crucial to the outcome of the contest.

Across Europe and North America the debate between the syndicalists and the revolutionary socialists was a live argument until the late 1930s, involving mass organisations like the US Industrial Workers of the World and the Spanish CNT union federation.

Some, like Gallacher and Mann, argued their corner before being convinced of the need to build a Communist organisation in Britain.

The argument is relevant today as a new generation of trade union activists and anti-capitalists look for ways to break the dead hand of Labourism.

Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism: An International Comparative Analysis by Ralph Darlington is available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 »

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Tue 3 Jun 2008, 18:18 BST
Issue No. 2104
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