J. R. Campbell

Socialism for Trade Unionists

Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Printer: Farleigh Press, Ltd. (T.U. all depts.), Beechwood Works, Watford, Herts. CP/U/29/1/53.
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 trade unions are the foundation of the Labour Party. They supply the greater part of its finance. Their members are the most stable and reliable section of the Labour voters. They must not be ignored in the formulation of Labour Party policy. So the Right Wing trade union leaders have been emphasising, ever more stridently, since the Labour Party conference in Morecambe last year.

At the Morecambe conference of the Labour Party, through their spokesmen Messrs. Deakin and Lawther, the Right Wing leaders threatened those elements of the Labour Party who were striving for a policy which would be an advance on that which the Right Wing leaders were operating. When a number of supporters of Mr. Aneurin Bevan were elected to the Party Executive, the anger of those leaders expressed itself in the most unmitigated bullying of the local Labour parties.

The latest and most alarming expression of this hostility is the refusal of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress to co-operate closely with the Labour Party in the formulation of a statement of policy. This despite a Right Wing majority on the latter body.

The main “crime” of the Constituency Labour Parties at Morecambe was that they were demanding that Britain should cease to allow itself to be towed in the wake of the United States of America in matters of foreign policy; that the nationalised industries should be reorganised, and that the workers should have a real say in their administration. So far from the process of nationalisation being halted, as the Right Wing leaders asserted that it should, they were insisting on the further nationalisation of Britain’s great monopolies.

These are the views which the Right Wing trade union leaders will seek to manipulate their conferences into rejecting this year. We believe that if the conferences do so they will be striking a very deadly blow against the interests of their own members, and we propose to say why.

Why Trade Unions?

The Trade Union Movement is based on the proposition that the workers by hand and brain, who sell their services to the capitalist class—i.e., the owners of industry—have interests which are opposed to those of that class. Trade unions were formed because the workers, by bitter experience, found that the capitalists were driven, by the necessities of their system, to extract the greatest amount of work for the lowest amount of wages from those they employed. Unions were therefore formed to establish standard rates of wages, to limit the working hours, and otherwise to improve the standards of the workers.

Unions and the Law

Trade unionists were not long in discovering that the State was not a neutral body representing the interests of the community. It constantly intervened against the workers in strikes. It passed legislation which hindered the growth of trade unionism. Its judges gave the law a twist, interpreting it to the detriment of the workers, as in the famous Taff Vale decision in 1901.

So just as the capitalist system compelled the workers to form unions in self-protection, so the behaviour of the capitalist State forced the unions to interest themselves in politics and form the Labour Party. Trade unionists were encouraged and helped to form the Labour Party by the propaganda and activities of various Socialist bodies like the Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League of William Morris, and the Independent Labour Party.

For as the capitalist system developed, the most alert sections of the workers began to see that not only had the capitalist class different interests than they had, but that the capitalist system, and not merely particular groups of capitalists, was the workers’ deadly enemy. Every ten years or so the capitalist system collapsed in a great economic crisis. Millions of workers became unemployed, and the capitalist class used that situation to depress wages and to break up trade union organisation. This happened most strikingly in the great economic crisis which followed the first world war. In 1920, for example, the number of trade unionists affiliated to the Trades Union Congress stood at 6,500,000. By 1929 it was down to 3,673,000. Trade union militants were victimised in workshop after workshop and trade union organisation was broken up. Many of the gains made by the workers in periods of good employment were lost. It therefore became increasingly clear to the advanced workers that if the working class had to defend their standard of life it was necessary to win political power and abolish capitalism.

What Socialism Means

The transformation of Capitalism to Socialism meant amongst other things:—

That political power should pass from the hands of the capitalist class into the hands of the working people. The more far-sighted workers realised that this meant not merely a Parliamentary majority, but that all the key positions in the State administration should be in the hands of trusted members of the working people.

That the means of production and distribution, the land, the factories, workshops and mines, the means of communication, the financial system, should pass into the possession of the working people.

That production should be developed not by the competition of the various capitalist enterprises for profit, but on the basis of a planned economic system, whose aim was to raise the material and cultural level of the people.

That the national income should be distributed in such a way as to raise the standards of the working people and to enlarge the productive power of the Socialist industries, and not, as it is under capitalism, to enrich a powerful class of capitalists and their hangers-on.

That the continued improvement of the standard of life of the working people would be a stimulus to ever-increasing production and would be a guarantee against crises of overproduction, with all the mass unemployment which these entailed.

In other words, the working people would own the industries, plan the industries and work for themselves and not for the capitalist class.

This was the Socialist outlook which the advanced workers in the Labour Party propagated amongst their fellows right from the formation of the party.

So in the wake of the first world war and the Russian revolution there was embodied in the constitution of the Labour Party in 1918 the following aim:—

“To secure for the workers by hand, or by brain, the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service.”

The general outlook behind this policy has been defined by Mr. Gaitskell, one of the Right Wing leaders, as follows:—

“Injustice was regarded as due to the payment of profits, dividends and interest-unearned income. Therefore, the argument ran, take over the means of production, stop this flow of unearned income altogether (save perhaps for some compassionate allowances).”
(Political Quarterly, Jan./March, 1953).

Mr. Gaitskell does not agree with this policy which he is here outlining, but it is useful to have his reminder that in the minds of Labour’s pioneers the original objects of nationalisation were to stop capitalist exploitation—i.e., “the payment of profits, dividends and interest”—and to provide a basis for economic planning.

There is nothing in common between such Socialist nationalisation and that exemplified in pre-war days by the Post Office, the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Central Electricity Board. The object of capitalist nationalisation is not to lay the foundations of a new society. It is to provide an efficient State auxiliary service for the industries which remain in private hands.

The nationalisation of coal and power, transport and steel undertaken by the Labour Government was of this type. As Mr. Gaitskell admits, it

“. . . does not stop the flow of unearned income: all that happens is that it takes the form of a smaller and more certain form of interest payments instead of a larger but much less certain profit income.”
(Political Quarterly, Jan./March, 1953.)

When one takes the greater certainty of interest income over a period it is doubtful if the return is in any way smaller. The object of this type of capitalist nationalisation is to provide cheap transport and power and other services for the capitalist class. The tests of genuine Socialist nationalisation are:—

1. That trusted representatives of the workers are in the key positions of the State administration; and

2. The major role which the unions perform in individual industries and in relation to the plan. The trade unions participate in the administration of the nationalised industries, nationally, regionally, and in every factory. They participate in drawing up the economic plan which allows for steadily advancing wages and conditions.

It is this conception of genuine nationalisation, based on the conquest of political power by the working class, which should guide trade unionists in all their work.

Since the Labour Party constitution was accepted in 1918 a Socialist society has come into existence in the Soviet Union. Applying the principles of Marxism and Leninism, the Soviet Union has transformed itself from a country with a backward, and in part mediæval technique, into a great dynamic Socialist State based on the most advanced technique. It was no Communist, but ex-President Truman who said recently: “The United States and the Soviet Union had emerged after the last war as the two strongest powers in the world.” (Message on the State of the Union, January 8, 1953.)

There were not in the Soviet Union before 1923 any substantial iron and steel industry, any automobile or tractor industry, any agricultural machinery industry, any aircraft or chemical industry. Now all these industries exist on a large and growing scale. The industrial output of the Soviet Union has increased 12 times since 1929, while in the same period that of the U.S.A. has doubled, that of Britain is two-thirds higher, that of France is 4 per cent. higher and that of Italy one-third higher. In this period capitalism has suffered a tremendous unemployed depression and has brought upon the world a vast and destructive war.

The majority of Right Wing leaders, however, have at the best only paid lip-service to the Socialist aim of the Labour Party. It was never a guide to their daily practice.

Nevertheless it remained the official objective of the Party. It is this objective which the rank and file insist should determine the day-to-day actions of the Party and which the Right Wing trade union leaders want to reduce to an empty formula, having no influence on policy at all.

Capitalism and War

Socialists have always criticised the capitalist system because it gave rise not only to recurring economic crises, but to ever more devastating wars.

When the Labour Party was formed in 1900 the Boer War was raging. This war was opposed by the new Labour Party on the ground that it was a war on behalf of the capitalist owners of the gold and diamond mines, who believed that their investment would be safer under a British imperialist government than under the governments of the Boer Republics. This war was followed by the Russo-Japanese war for markets and territory in the Far East, by clashes, between Germany and Britain in the Middle East (the Berlin-Baghdad railway), by conflicts between Germany and France over Morocco, by the struggle between Russia and Austria-Hungary in Central Europe. The naval race between Germany and Britain dominated British foreign policies in the decade before 1914. Out of these clashing capitalist interests came the war of 1914-18. The imperialist character of this war was underlined by the character of the peace settlement—Germany and Turkey were stripped of their colonies, which became “mandated territories” or “spheres of influence” of the victorious powers. The Second World War arising out of the imperialist ambitions of Germany and Japan and Italy likewise emphasised that wars had their roots in the capitalist system of society. The connection between the economic crises of 1929-33 and the expansionist policy of Nazi Germany was recognised by everyone.

Now the Socialist theory that capitalism (especially in its monopoly stage) gives rise to wars, which is based on generations of experience, is being disputed by the Right Wing of the Labour Party. The greatest of all capitalist nations, the United States of America, is declared by those leaders to be inherently peaceful. If it strives to cut the ties binding capitalist Britain to its colonies and dominions, this is held to be a proof of its desire for peace. If it seeks to rearm the German and Japanese militarists and bring them into its war alliance, it is only showing its peaceful intentions. If it subsidises General Franco and makes him its ally, it does so only in the interests of democracy. Kit seizes Chinese territory (Formosa) and prepares for an attack on the People’s Republic of China, it is merely resisting aggression. If it encircles the Soviet Union and China with atom bomb bases it is only defending itself. If it compels European countries to adopt arms programmes of such a magnitude that they disorganise the economic life of the countries concerned, it is only giving friendly advice.

The Challenge to Socialism

So the Right Wing leaders are challenging Socialist principles on two main points. They are denying that it is necessary for society to take over all the main industries in order to plan for the welfare of the people (they say that all that is necessary is the existing nationalisation plus some State control) and they are denying that monopoly capitalism (imperialism) in its struggle for markets and sources of raw materials, in its struggle to oppress the workers and the colonial peoples in order to obtain maximum profits, is really the cause of war.

The Right Wing Labour leaders point to the fact that there is at present no general mass unemployment, that a great system of social security has been established, that the school-leaving age has been raised and the hours of labour have been reduced. It is possible, they argue, for further improvements to be made as production increases from year to year.

Now there can be no doubt that the working class have wrung the above-listed reforms from the capitalist class. In the course of the war against Fascism and in the immediate post-war period the workers were able to force the ruling class to grant concessions.

Does this constitute a definite and fundamental social change, built on sound foundations, a social change that is a basis for further advance? The Right Wing leaders say that it does. Those who adhere to Socialist principles say that it does not. They say that the capitalist system is moving into new crises and that in those crises the post-war gains of the working class will be in great danger.

Post-War Gains in Danger

Slowly but nevertheless surely the purchasing power of wages has been falling. Since June, 1947, male wage rates have risen by 32 per cent. In the same period the retail price index has risen by 38 per cent. (December, 1952). If the trade unions had not ignored the wage freeze and maintained a powerful pressure for increased wages, the disparity would have been still greater.

Still greater is the fall in the purchasing power of social service payments—sickness benefit, unemployment benefit and industrial injuries benefit. Those payments were first fixed in July, 1946, and were increased by 25 per cent. By the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1952. The cost of living in the same period has increased by 43 per cent. So that the very basis of the much vaunted social services is being washed away. State control is not protecting the gains of the workers even when employment remains good.

Up till recently it was being said that there was no need to take the major industries out of the hands of the capitalist class in order to lay the basis for economic planning for welfare and for full employment; that a Labour government, by establishing control over privately owned industry, could compel that industry to conform to a national plan. For example, Mr. Herbert Morrison at the Morecambe Labour Party conference said “whether publicly or privately owned the management (of industry) must be made to play the game by the public interest and so must the workers: all industry must.” (1952 Labour Party Conference Report, p. 110.) Obviously, if managements of privately owned industries can be made by State control to play the game by public interest, the need for abolishing the private ownership of industry is reduced.

Now no one denies that State control (which in practice means control in the interests of the dominant group of the capitalists) can work for a limited period. It is effective enough, in the short run, in preventing some capitalists from doing what they want to do. It can, for example, stop capitalists from building cinemas by refusing them building licences. State control cannot, however, force capitalists to do what they don’t want to do because they see no profit in it. It cannot force textile firms to expand their activities instead of contracting them. At the present moment, for example, Platt Bros., the famous textile machinery firm, is dismissing workers. Yet many sections of the British textile industry are working with obsolete, worn-out machinery.

Mr. Harold Wilson, ex-President of the Board of Trade, has testified to private capitalism’s continued and successful efforts to evade the Government’s investment plans. (In Place of Dollars, p. 15.) The capitalists are always discovering new ways to evade controls.

The Fight for Work

A clear illustration of the incompatibility of private ownership of the major industries with economic planning is seen in relation to the aim of full employment.

Higher money wages and lower prices are the way in which a Socialist society increases the purchasing power in the hands of the people. Private enterprise will, however, only maintain employment provided it sees the continuing possibility of maximum profits. It can only secure those profits by limiting or preventing wage increases, i.e., by preventing the purchasing power of the people from expanding and thereby providing an ever-growing outlet for all the goods which can be produced. The drive of private monopolies for profits is thus in direct contradiction with the need to increase the purchasing power of the people as the basis of a genuine policy of full employment. So it happens that the increase of production is always coming up against the limited consuming power of the people, with the result that the goods produced cannot be cleared off and mass unemployment results. The slump in the textile industry was not merely due to the loss of foreign markets for textiles. It was also due to the collapse of the home market.

In order to defend living standards the workers must do everything in their power to force up wages (and to overcome the resistance of Right Wing leaders to this policy); they must compel the capitalist State to engage in all kinds of work schemes; but, in the last analysis, if they want to avoid devastating economic crises they must take the major industries out of the hands of the capitalists, so that those industries can become the basis of a genuine economic plan—a plan which ensures that consumption (wages and social services) keep pace with production, so that there is no crisis of over-production leading to mass unemployment.

The Achievements of Socialism

In contrast to the growing fears of unemployment, British trade unionists should note the splendid post-war achievements of the Socialist system in the Soviet Union.

There was no country so heavily devastated in the war: 31,850 factories, mills and other industrial enterprises (exclusive of small plants) were wrecked. Yet by 1948 the pre-war industrial level was restored as the basis for a rapid advance. By 1952 Soviet industry was producing 15 million tons of steel per year additional to that which it produced in 1940—an addition to Soviet steel production which almost equalled the entire product of the British steel industry in 1951. Coal production in 1952 was 134 million tons additional to that of 1940—an addition which represents three-fifths of the entire annual British coal output.

These results have not been obtained by keeping down living standards. The real income of the workers in 1952 was 57 per cent. higher than in 1940. To-day the Soviet Union, advancing towards Communism, has, amongst other things, set itself the task of doubling real wages and reducing the hours of labour to six per day. The shadow of an economic crisis does not darken that land. No better example could be afforded as to the ability of Socialism to evoke the constructive enthusiasm of the people to achieve inspiring results.

Paying Our Way

All this fine talk of advancing to Socialism is all very well, the Right Wingers say, and no doubt if Britain were like the Soviet Union, a comparatively self-supporting country, such a programme could be carried out. But Britain is heavily dependent on the world market. It is barely able to pay for the food that is needed by its people and for the materials which are required by its industries. Therefore this balance-of-payments crisis has first to be solved. All these fine schemes for nationalising Britain’s monopolies have very little to contribute to solving this problem. This was the essence of Mr. Herbert Morrison’s argument at the Morecambe conference. Of course nationalisation by itself—even if it is genuine Socialist nationalisation-must be part of a wider policy. Nevertheless it is an integral part.

We must remember that Britain last year spent 350 million on overseas military expenditure arising from the wars in Korea and Malaya, and the garrisoning of the Middle East. That 350 million is paid for by British exports, which are therefore used not merely, to provide the means of purchasing foreign food and raw material but to carry on wars. If Britain granted the colonial peoples their independence and ceased to make war on them, it would improve its ability to pay its way. That is why the Right Wing defence of imperialism means the betrayal of this country.

Further, Britain is allowing its imperialist boss, the United States of America, to restrict its right to send certain types of engineering goods to the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe. It is using a large part of its engineering industry to produce arms instead of exports. It is thus diminishing its ability to pay its way in the world. This is the consequence of its participation in an imperialist war alliance directed against the Socialist Soviet Union. If Britain abandonded this alliance it would be in a better position to balance its accounts with the outside world.

It is not enough to abandon those imperialist policies which are destroying Britain’s trade. There must be in addition a deliberate planning of foreign trade, which in turn requires the national ownership and the national economic planning of Britain’s industries. It is not sufficient to free Britain’s engineering industries from the burden of rearmament. It is necessary to gear them to a vast production plan to meet the needs of our actual and potential customers, and also to supply the vast amount of equipment which is necessary for making British industry in general more efficient.

It is, for example, essential that British industry should supply the Dominions with equipment which they now obtain from the U.S.A. It is no good imploring Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Pakistan to forgo capital goods of American origin if they cannot guarantee British capital goods of the quality and quantity required. If Britain expects the Soviet Union and Poland to deliver supplies of coarse grain, wheat and timber on time, it must in turn ensure that British capital goods are also delivered on time. A great deal of trade must be done by means of long-term contracts between governments.

Thus the engineering industry must be brought under a form of Socialist nationalisation and concentrated on the major purposes of re-equipping British industry and making a decisive contribution to the export trade. We also need the nationalisation of shipbuilding and chemicals, the banks and the insurance companies, and the land of the big landowners.

Only when such a substantial portion of industry is in the hands of the State can there be an advance to a real planned attack on Britain’s major problems.

The capitalist government seeking to drive private industry to export more does so by tightening credit and restricting purchasing power on the home market. The reduced home market, based on unemployment, will, it is hoped, drive the capitalists in sheer self-preservation to capture a larger share of the foreign markets. Thus the alternative to planned foreign trade is an export drive founded on the weapon of unemployment in the industries catering for domestic demand.

This would be a plausible policy if one capitalist country alone were engaged in it. When, however, all capitalist countries simultaneously engage in it, the result is to increase unemployment all round.

Unions and Socialism

The Right Wing leaders want to use the unions to support them in continuing the present imperialist policy, in refusing to reorganise the nationalised industries, in halting further nationalisation, and in insisting that the State can induce private monopolies to work for the public good. In short, they want the Labour Party to adhere to a position indistinguishable, in practice, from that of the Tory Party.

If trade unionists are not prepared to connive at the destruction of their organisations they have utterly to defeat this policy.

This means that every trade union branch has got to be affiliated to the Labour Party and to send delegates who will fight for the adoption of a progressive policy for advance to Socialism. It means that this fight must be actively waged in every trade union conference this year. The adoption of a progressive policy is vital to trade union survival.

At the same time the unions must seek to increase their membership, draw more workers into daily participation in their work and create a genuine democracy inside every union. For more than a parliamentary majority is necessary, if the capitalist class in the major industries is to be dispossessed. The unions will require to be at their posts, powerful, united and militant, ready to break the resistance of the capitalist class.

Because they are struggling and developing in a capitalist environment, the unions are exposed to the infiltration of capitalist ideas which confuse the membership and weaken their will to unite and fight in their own interests. That is why every, trade unionist is interested in the building of a powerful Communist Party which will expose all capitalist lies and illusions, and will inspire the whole working class with a militant Socialist spirit.

Only to the extent that an understanding of the grandeur of Socialism grips the masses of the trade unionists can they solve their day-to-day problems and advance to the Socialist society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”