R. Page Arnot

The British Trade Union Congress

Source: The Communist International, November 1936, Vol. XIII, No. 11.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

THE British Trade Union Congress, which met in Plymouth in the second week of September, was concerned with three main questions, overshadowing all others. These questions were Spain, unity and the unemployed. On all three the reformist leadership (Bevin, Citrine, etc.), had a measure of success, but under such circumstances as may easily render that success negatory.

To understand these circumstances it is necessary to recall the fact that nine months ago the reformist leadership were not only the chief obstacle to working class unity internationally, but inside Britain regarded their policy against unity as secure and unchallenged. The campaign of the Communist Party for affiliation to the Labor Party, in furtherance of the decisions of the Seventh World Congress, they regarded with contempt. They formally rejected the application and maintained a lofty silence, disdaining to engage in controversy.

But as the campaign for affiliation developed, as more and more working class organizations supported the Communists, they changed from aloofness to chagrin. When the victories of the Popular Front in Spain and in France, followed by the enormous gains of the French working class won by great strikes and through a unified trade union movement, gave an enormous impetus to the movement for unity in Britain, the chagrin of the reformist leaders changed to alarm.

And they had something about which to be alarmed, namely: the workers in the British factories were eagerly discussing and saying: “What they have done in France, we could do in Britain”. Among the British intellectuals and radical lower middle class there began to be discussions of the Popular Front, and not only trade unions but the Socialist societies, the most active ideologically of the constituent parts of the Labor Party, became partisans of unity, while even the Fabian Society, for well-nigh thirty years the chief ideological guide of the Labor movement, decided to support Communist affiliation.

In reply to this, the reformist leaders in the middle of June launched a most vicious counter-campaign against unity, employing all the resources of their speakers, press and other publications. The attack on unity was twofold. In the first place they attacked the Communist Party of Great Britain, raking up all the familiar fascist arguments about “Moscow gold”, etc. In the second place they delivered a frontal attack on the Soviet Union whose prestige and popularity among the masses of Britain they felt to be dangerous to their own policy. The new Soviet Constitution was first attacked. Then, Sir Walter Citrine’s book against the U.S.S.R. was published. Then the blackest portions of this book were reprinted as a series of articles in the Daily Herald which from that time until now has conducted an unceasing campaign against the U.S.S.R. But with all this the reformist leaders were unable to prevent the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (half a million members) from supporting Communist affiliation.

The fascist rebellion in Spain caused a further change.

The reactionary press were against giving help to the people of Spain. The Liberal, Labor and Communist press supported the Spanish people. The masses of Britain began to be aroused.

The reformist leaders of the trade unions (Bevin, Citrine, etc.), at the beginning compelled to pronounce themselves for Spain and to open a fund, now beheld with dismay the current for unity rapidly becoming a tide.

The events developing in Spain sharpened more and more the mood of the class struggle, to the detriment of their policy of class collaboration. Unless they could break the rapidly growing front for unity, nationally and internationally, their policy was doomed to defeat. So far they had been able to maintain as regards Spain, the standpoint of “neutrality”. But that might not last. To achieve their ends, they must come out still more openly. The notorious telegram defending the Trotsky-Zinoviev Terrorist Center was dispatched by Citrine, de Brouckere, Schevenels and Adler. Together with the whole bourgeois press, the reformist leaders solidarized themselves with the fascist attack on the U.S.S.R.

These were the circumstances in which the Trade Union Congress met at Plymouth. In their policy of “neutrality” as regards Spain, i.e., a policy of support for the line of the British Foreign Office, Bevin and Citrine were able to win support for the National Council of Labor. They were only able to do this by the use of unscrupulous demagogy, by presenting the matter in such terms as made it seem a condemnation of the National Government, by pleading that any other decision would mean the downfall of the Blum government (!), by making false statements against the British Communist Party and the French Communist Party by suggesting that to give the Spanish government assistance would immediately unloose a European war.

In spite of all this, there were big oppositional minorities inside the industrial delegations, especially the miners; and the railwaymen finally withheld their vote. Even so, Herbert Morrison, the reformist leader of the London Labor Party, has gone so far as to break the discipline of the Labor Party, saying on September 5:

“I cannot reconcile myself to this ‘neutrality’ business. It is so unjust, so unfair to a people heroically fighting against heavy and cruel odds.”

Morrison would not, of course, do this unless he felt he had the support of a large minority of delegates which, depending on the further development of the Spanish events, might turn into a majority at the Labor Party Conference.

At Sheffield on September 13, Sir Charles Trevelyan, Labor ex-Minister, said:

“I regard it at this moment as a disaster that the Labor movement should have fallen into the trap of feebleness prepared by the British government.”

That this statement more truly represents the mass of the British workers than the T.U.C. decisions is also shown by the tremendous demonstrations held by the Communist Party in London on September 6 and 20. On September 6, 700, the largest open-air collection ever taken in Britain in working class history, was raised for the Spanish people; and the London correspondent of the Swedish Social-Democratic paper, Arbetet (Malmo), who has no reason to favor the Communists, writes on September 16:

“At the moment it seems almost as if the British Communist Party had seized the initiative when it was a question of giving expression to the deep unrest in Liberal circles and in the Labor movement in Great Britain over the policy of non-interference in Spain. . . . The initiative, which the Communist Party appeared to have seized in this business, is now beginning to produce considerable discomfort in the organized Labor movement of Great Britain. . . .”

In the week preceding the Congress the Daily Herald, organ of Bevin and Citrine, had outdone the fascist Daily Mail in its dissemination of lies with regard to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless it was sufficient to defeat the proposal, sponsored by the Amalgamated Engineering Union and other important unions, to send an official delegation to the Soviet Union. On the other hand, the general resolution for international trade union unity was carried without opposition, since at the London Triennial Conference of the International Federation of Trade Unions in July, a similar resolution had already been carried. But Sir Walter Citrine immediately after the T.U.C. chose to interpret these resolutions as enabling him first of all to approach the American Federation of Labor.

On unemployment, the proposal was brought forward for a hunger march on London, for a boycott of the coronation festivities and a one-day industrial strike. In successfully opposing this Sir Walter Citrine used arguments—“against industrial and other action” which might well have been voiced by Baldwin. But then, it has to be remembered that, as in medieval times, a knight bears special allegiance to his liege lord and must do extraordinary deeds—or find extraordinary arguments, as in this case.

On immediate economic issues, the reformist leaders offered no opposition, or even supported the resolutions brought forward. Resolutions were carried demanding a 40-hour week, holidays with pay, and an all-inclusive scheme of social insurance. To press these through in face of any sabotage by the leaders now becomes a task of militant workers in Britain.

The passage of these resolutions reveals very clearly the cunning tactics adopted by the reformist leaders (with what help from even more skilled tacticians of class struggle in Downing Street or the City must remain unknown).

While giving ground on the immediate economic demands that stir the working class, they chose the issues of “foreign policy”, that lay outside the daily life or the delegates.

They laid their plans well in advance first by their campaign of against the U.S.S.R., and secondly by giving great publicity to the preparatory resolutions of the National Council of Labor, framed to make a pro-Baldwin policy appear as a heavy attack on Baldwin.

Sir Walter Citrine has little to learn in the art of demagogy from Lloyd George or Lloyd George’s friend, the Nazis.

Nevertheless, the situation does not permit the reformists to rest secure for another year. That they understand this is clear from the choice of Bevin (the power behind the throne of Citrine) as the new chairman of the Trades Union Congress.

There are such meetings now in Britain as never before in aid of the masses of another country. The tide of popular feeling has not been stemmed by the decisions of the Trades Union Congress. The campaign for unity in the fight against war and fascism is gathering strength among the masses, as one after another the false statements of the T.U.C. leaders are exposed, as the example of the Soviet Union inspires the peoples of Britain; as the need for action grows manifestly more urgent every day. While the reformists who supported the National Government on Ethiopia last year, and now on Spain, are turning to support it on armaments, the revolt of the masses will grow greater. The Citrine “victory” or the T.U.C. may well begin a differentiation between those who feel the pleasure of big business and those who feel the pressure of big masses.