J. T. Murphy & R. Page Arnot

The British Trades Union Congress at Bournemouth

Source: The Communist International, Vol. III, No. 1, October 15, 1926
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

NO doubt the members of the General Council are congratulating themselves on their lucky escape at Bournemouth. Less than a score of weeks after the General Strike and right in the midst of the miners’ struggle it has been possible for a Trades Union Congress to be held without any discussion of the General Council’s responsibilities.

Just before the Congress the “Times,” the chief organ of the bourgeoisie, anxiously asked the question: “Will the General Strike prove to be the climax of militant trade unionism, or the beginning of a new phase culminating in definitely revolutionary aims?”

Therefore it is necessary to examine what happened at Bournemouth.

The main points are:

(1) The General Council successfully burked any discussion of the General Strike or of its responsibility therein.

(2) The General Council successfully substituted a bureaucratic conference to be called at a date chosen by themselves, for the Trades Union Congress.

(3) The General Council secured the agreement of the miners’ leaders to these two decisions.

(4) The increase of the power of the General Council was rejected.

(5) The letter from the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions and its reception.

(6) The chairman’s references to International Trade Union Unity.

(7) Purcell’s attitude to International Trade Union Unity.

(8) The General Council’s attack on the Minority Movement.

(9) The new and still more Right-wing policy put forward for the trade unions (Pugh’s speech).

On the first and second points it should be understood that the General Council is elected by the Trades Union Congress and is wholly responsible thereto. It is true that in July, 1925, and also in April, 1926, the General Council summoned a special conference composed of the Executive Committees of the unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. But this does not by any means absolve the General Council from its duty of making a full report to the Trades Union Congress.

Such a report was not made, and the General Council escaped without any censure for devoting only a brief paragraph to the General Strike. Thus, the trade union leaders did not only escape the discussion of their responsibility; they also managed to substitute, as the highest authority in the trade union movement, the bureaucratically composed Conference of Executives for the more representative Trades Union Congress. They were also able to secure the agreement of the miners both to the burking of discussion and to the establishment of a sort of House of Lords in the form of a Conference of officials. It was an error on the part of the miners’ leaders, due to a mistaken belief that the unity of the movement could be secured by covering up real differences and hiding crimes committed against the working class.

This opportunist belief in formal unity (which contains within itself a real disbelief in the powers of the working class itself) had the gravest possible consequences. The working class was told that the General Council refused to allow itself to be put on trial—and then was informed that the Miners’ Federation had connived at this policy!

Again, it was fully in conformity with this policy that the Right-wing leaders of the trade unions refused to increase the powers of the General Council. To have increased the powers of the General Council would have meant that formally and constitutionally the British Trades Union Congress would have possessed the powers which now belong only to the bureaucratic Conference of Executives. This would have robbed the bureaucrats of their retreat.

The refusal of more power to the General Council was a concrete expression of the defeatist attitude which had already been revealed by the General Strike. In point of fact this defeatist attitude had existed from Scarborough onwards. The Scarborough Trades Union Congress showed a ready disposition to pass resolutions of a militant nature, but showed also a great disinclination to pass resolutions, or even to deal with questions, that necessitated immediate action. The more urgent and practical the question, the less was it discussed at the Scarborough Congress.

At Scarborough a resolution to give more power was rejected and a resolution was carried which instructed the Council to examine the problem in all its bearings, with power to consult the Executives of affiliated unions, and to report to a special conference of the Executives concerned their considered recommendations on the subject. That special conference was never called. Now, a year later, a similar proposal moved by one of the more militant unions was rejected by a majority.

The ultra-reactionary secretary of the railwaymen, Mr. Cramp, said that the N.U.R. was opposed to any extension of the powers of the General Council because it could not be made effective. This is the same Mr. Cramp who signed a humiliating agreement on behalf of the railwaymen declaring the strike to have been wrong and humbly promising not to repeat the offence. Considerations of loyalty (to the bosses) clearly forbade him to agree to any further increase in the powers of the General Council. Thus whilst at Scarborough the resolutions on the organisational question only indicated the preservation of the reactionary character of the so-called trade union leaders under the cloak of radical phraseology at Bournemouth the defeat of the resolution proposed by the Minority Movement unmasked once and for all the “Left” trade union strike-breakers (such as Purcell, Pugh and others).

Still another Scarborough resolution throws light upon Bournemouth. At Scarborough the Congress instructed the General Council to do everything in their power to secure world-wide unity of the trade union movement. This resolution was interpreted by the new General Council, to mean “everything in their power,” a very small quantity! After the Amsterdam International meeting at the beginning of December, 1925, had turned down the unity proposals, it had been agreed by the Anglo-Russian Committee to go ahead with the calling of a world conference. But the majority of the General Council turned this proposal down, and Amsterdam had the best of it.

For some months the General Council was able to maintain the rôle of Mr. Facing-Both-Ways on this question. Then came the General Strike, when the splendid help offered by the Soviet trade unionists to the British workers transformed what seemed unreal to the trade union leaders into something very real to the working class of Britain and of the whole world. International Trade Union Unity had been translated into terms of fact for every miner, and for wide circles of the proletariat. In the eyes of the toiling masses the Anglo-Russian Committee was no longer simply a leaders’ alliance, but had become the organisational expression of a direct alliance between the proletariat of Great Britain and that of the Soviet Union.

In the light of these considerations it can be understood why the General Council, after prolonged hesitation, were prepared to meet again in the Anglo-Russian Committee, but considered the Committee and its decisions of no importance and deemed it necessary to keep them secret. This also explains why the leaders of the General Council were compelled to bring forward once more the Scarborough resolution affirming the need for international trade union unity and also why they had to agree to the proposal of the Soviet trade unionists that a world conference should be summoned within two months of the date of the Trades Union Congress at Bournemouth.

When the letter from the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions arrived, in place of the fraternal delegation, forbidden by the British Government, and this letter was found to contain fraternal greetings and serious criticism, the General Council could do nothing but misbehave itself. They had nothing to say, so they reprinted the letter in its abbreviated telegraphese so as to make it look grotesque. They circulated this to the delegates, with an angry protest couched in solemn and pompous phraseology. The bourgeois press naturally hailed the General’s Council’s outburst as a “calm and dignified protest.”

At Bournemouth two speakers dealt with the subject of unity. The first was the chairman, Arthur Pugh, the second was A. A. Purcell, who, besides being one of the prominent members of the General Council, holds the position of chairman of the Amsterdam International. These speeches were not exactly the same in outlook, but past experience seems to show that inside the General Council there will be no difficulty in harmonising, or at any rate, concealing differences over so long a period as to have the same effect as harmony.

Pugh said:

“We run the risk of laying too much stress upon a merely formal and mechanical unity in the field of the international trade union movement. A mere fusion of existing trade union bodies would fail to bring real unity. Unless there be a common will and purpose there cannot be a common conception of aims and methods, and of the ends to be served by international co-operation.”

What does this mean? It is not difficult to guess.

Pugh’s views do not differ very much from those of Oudegeest and Sassenbach. This alliance was also confirmed in Purcell’s speech. “How are the difficulties standing in the way of International unity to be over come?” asks this renegade. “It is for the Russians to ease the situation.” From Purcell’s lips this means “a little less Bolshevism please”!

The friction in connection with the subject of unity has shown that even in respect to this main “commanding post” of the bankrupt “Left,” position after position has been handed over to Thomas and MacDonald. Purcell, Pugh and Co., have completed their full “left wheel” and come back to the starting point, finding themselves face to face with Oudegeest.

Lastly, the chairman’s speech set forth the new policy of the new Right-wing of the trade unions. Pugh, dealing with wages policy said: “Has not the time arrived to consider how they could apply the principle of wages guaranteeing a corresponding index of national production?” This of course is simply tying the workers’ standard of life to what the industry can afford; in other words, as the process of the decline of capitalist production becomes more acute, the position of the workers is to become gradually worse.

This is then all that reformism has to offer as a policy for the workers. A “scientific” depression of the standard of life, it contrasts in a significant way with the statement made by Pugh earlier in his address. “It had been the historic task of trade unionism to raise the standard of working class life.”

The above summary of the outstanding features of the Trades Union Congress are nearly all of them apparent victories for the Right-wing. But to conclude from this that the Bournemouth Congress was in every respect a failure or a backward step would be a mistake. In the first place it is clear that in this Congress there was a very high temperature existing below the surface coolness. This fact is very explicitly pointed out by Ellen Wilkinson, in her article in “Lansbury’s Weekly,” where she says that 97 per cent. of the delegates were thinking of nothing but the General Strike.

Two facts attest this real position: first there is the incident when the Congress had to be adjourned for at hour because of a complete hold up of the business. The Miners’ Federation objected to the choice of Mr. Bromley (who had done his best to break the strike) as the supporter of the resolution pledging the aid of the Congress to the miners. Headed by McGurk, a representative from Lancashire, one of the poorest mining areas, they refused to hear Bromley and sang the “Red Flag” until the meeting was closed down.

We have the further significant fact that on all important questions there was a steady minority of not less than 700,000. This 700,000 does not include the miners.

In the second place, even if we had not these very significant facts, Bournemouth still would not be a failure. To register the Congress as a Right-wing success, as a step backward in the class struggle, would be to misconceive the whole position, would be to forget that there had been a General Strike.

Far from judging the General Strike in the light of Bournemouth, Bournemouth must be judged in the light of the General Strike. The significance of the General Strike cannot be over-estimated insofar as its immediate effects are concerned. But whether its effects mature rapidly or slowly it constitutes the biggest departure in the history of the British working class since Chartist times. Therefore all forces and organisations must be viewed in relation to the strike. In the short space of this article it is possible only to select three things: the General Council, the new Left-wing that is arising, and the Communist Party.

It is now clear that the General Council being nominally elected by Congress and really appointed by the respective trade unions may not represent accurately the will of the Congress, even though it may manœuvre the Congress into subsequent acceptance of what it has done. Secondly, the Congress itself is only to a limited extent representative of the rank and file, and must have its standing orders and its constitution revised before it can be truly representative.

There now exists an alliance between Thomas and Purcell, none the less definite in that they are probably not fully conscious of it themselves. It is not intentions, but actions that matter. The General Strike was like an earthquake removing landmarks. Purcell may still measure the inches that separate him from Thomas, but their common signature to the General Council’s report (published by what the “Times” called Mr. Bromley’s “calculated indiscretion”) removes them both miles away from the workers’ struggle. However, the most important thing is the fact that the Congress has shown what a stride forward the process of political growth has made in the British Labour movement. The powerful growth—coming from below—of the new genuine Left-wing, which has already brought under its influence a million and a quarter British proletarians, has found its expression in energetic opposition to the General Council.

The leaders of the new Left, unknown figures emerging from the real movement of the workers, appeared for the first time on the scene during the General Strike, then in the Miners’ Federation conference (where a majority showed itself more Left than Cook, rejecting the Bishops’ Memorandum). They became more noticeable in the miners’ activities during their prolonged struggle (the miners and the miners’ wives are learning more politics this summer than they have done for thirty years and more); at the Minority Movement conferences (which expressed their growth, size, significance and tempo); in the real sympathy and solidarity everywhere shown to the Soviet workers (the five million rouble gift electrified the British working class and made them think); and finally in the influx of workers into the Communist Party.

It is of the utmost importance that this new Left should grow up as rapidly as possible, should not be allowed to stray into barren activities and policies, but should from the beginning come under the ideological influence and practical guidance of the Party, which should do its utmost towards the organisational coordination of the opposition.

The Communist Party

But after the General Strike vacillations to the Right in the ranks of the British Communist Party, or rather in its leadership, became observable, which demand the most determined rectification.

The basis of these vacillations is an inadequate comprehension of all the tremendous profundity of the moves that have taken place inside the British proletariat. This lack of understanding was first of all displayed in a number of errors connected with the Anglo-Russian Committee. Whereas the viewpoint of the opposition in the Soviet C.P. demanding the rupture of the Anglo-Russian Committee is profoundly erroneous, so on the other hand the refusal to criticise sharply the treacherous conduct of the General Council leaders is also a grave error. Such a position, shielding “generous” endeavours to preserve the Anglo-Russian Committee at any cost, objectively means aid to the opportunists.

This tendency has several times displayed itself in the ranks of the British Communist Party. The British Communist Party has spoken a language much less clear than the Russian trade unions; the British Communist Party in particular adopted a mild attitude towards the “Lefts” of the Purcell type, although these “Left” leaders had moved to the Right, to an alliance with Thomas. The British Communist Party has practically not criticised Cook at all, although Cook has succeeded in making a large number of errors.

The erroneous policy of the Communist Party was particularly clearly shown at the conference of the Minority Movement and then at the Trades Union Congress at Bournemouth, not to mention the demand for the recalling of the parliamentary Labour Party from the House of Commons. This was a great error. For in order to denounce these opportunists who are so loyal to the Government, it is not a demand for withdrawal from Parliament, incomprehensible to the masses, that is necessary, but demands for defending the fighting miners, for merciless denunciation of the Government’s position, etc. A much bigger error, fraught with possible grave consequences, was the decision made at the Executive Committee of the Minority Movement to restrict themselves to a mild criticism of the General Council. Instead of concentrating during the Congress all the force of their blows on the treacherous position of the General Council, a decision was passed having just the opposite significance. By this the M.M. unconsciously aided the General Council to blur over the question of responsibility for the defeat of the General Strike.

At the T.U.C. the miners’ leader, A. J. Cook, vacillated sharply towards the General Council, voting against a discussion on the General Strike. The Left opposition opposed Cook. This shows the entire depths of the move to the Left amongst the working masses. After Cook had done this, he admitted his mistake, but he did not think over all its profundity to the very end.

Only superficial observers can write as the “Workers’ Weekly” did on September 10th, that “as compared with Scarborough, Bournemouth is a step back.” It is a “step back” only insofar as the “Left” bureaucracy, such as Purcell and Co., are drifting back. In reality Bournemouth has shown what a tremendous step forward has been made by the working masses.

A few months back Cook was the “most Left of all.” And now more than a million votes at the Congress prove to be much more to the Left than Cook. This should be thoroughly understood. And if it is thoroughly understood, the necessary conclusions must be drawn: vacillations to the Right must be abandoned, and all energy must be devoted to a denunciation of the traitors and capitulators still sitting on the backs of the British proletariat.

We consider it necessary to state the errors of the British Communist Party openly in the firm hope that they will rapidly and easily be corrected. The British Communist Party has a tremendous future and the fewer mistakes it makes (which are particularly harmful now in the critical phase of the movement) the more quickly will it become the great mass Party of the British workers.

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[The Editorial Board completely shares the viewpoint of comrades Arnot and Murphy on the errors of the Communist Party. The Executive of the Communist International is of the same opinion.]

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Copy of Marconigram received from J. T. Murphy, 7th October, 1926.

“In order not create false impression as to my position please add following postscript to my article in post. It must be clearly understood that in the above criticism I do not exempt myself especially in relation to our policy regarding Anglo-Russian Committee for which probably I was more responsible than others. I have no desire to separate myself from our mistakes but only desire to participate as actively in correcting them as in making them.—MURPHY.”

The above postscript has been specially sent for the English edition, and does not appear in the Russian, German or French editions.

We regret that owing to late arrival of this material it has been impossible to number these pages in the usual way.