Anyone who has read Leon Trotsky’s brilliant writings on Britain will know that he directs some of his strongest invective at a group of left wing union leaders. This book is about one of those men, Alf Purcell.
Trotsky’s view was clear – “The chief brake upon the British revolution is the false, diplomatic masquerade ‘leftism’ of Purcell which fraternises sometimes in rotation, sometimes simultaneously with churchmen and Bolsheviks and which is always ready not only for retreats but also for betrayal.”
Having read this sympathetic biography of Purcell and his times, I am convinced Trotsky wasn’t far wrong.
Born in Hackney in 1872, Purcell was a socialist from the age of 16. He became a furniture worker and joined the craftist union. He quickly rose through the union’s ranks to become general secretary, and also joined a number of socialist organisations.
As class struggle accelerated sharply from 1910, Purcell threw himself into building strikes by members of the amalgamated furniture trade unions.
The First World War was a huge test for socialists. Purcell failed. His union bravely took an anti-war position but, writes, Morgan, “although initially holding that the workers of the warring powers had no quarrel with each other”, Purcell then helped to secure the cancellation of an anti-war meeting and turned his fire on “German atrocities”. Morgan adds that “at this stage he urged the prosecution of the war to the bitter end”.
In a trend that marked his whole life, Purcell insisted that “workers’ unity” meant the exclusion of political issues that divided people. The focus of unity was the union, not the long-term interests of the working class.
Purcell welcomed the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and he was impressed enough to be one of the founders of the Communist Party. However, he was outraged to discover that the party demanded he submit to discipline over how he acted as a trade union leader. Like several other top trade unionists, Purcell soon left the party.
However, he remained friendly towards Soviet Russia. Stalinist Russia identified him as one of a group of trade unionists who could be relied on to visit and report favourably. The Communist Party was prepared to mute its criticism of him over matters of the class struggle in Britain but this proved fatal when the key moments came.
Purcell was a Labour MP as well as a union leader. He became chair of the TUC and then chair of the Strike Organisation Committee during the 1926 General Strike. He was part of a group of left wing union leaders in the TUC leadership who reflected the great class struggles of the time but also led the struggles to defeat.
But Purcell was not simply a sell-out. He was verbally well to the left of today’s trade union leaders and had real working class roots.
Morgan’s book has much interesting material on Purcell and his times, although it stops far short of analysing his real role. It is well worth reading as a warning of the shortcomings of non-political left trade unionism and of the pressures that lead to trade union leaders failing at crucial moments.
Bolshevism, Syndicalism and the General Strike, Kevin Morgan, Lawrence & Wishart, £25 pounds (GB).
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