The Labour Aristocracy - Part III: Between the wars

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In our previous two articles, we proved that the concept of the labour aristocracy was an integral part of revolutionary theory from Marx's day, and that it was accepted as such by all major theoreticians in the working class movement. We showed how it was that the labour aristocracy created organisations to defend and advance its interests -- exclusive craft unions, and, later, as British imperialism's dominant position in the world was undermined, the Labour Party. We also showed how the newer unskilled unions, formed in opposition to the elitist craft unions, soon succumbed to the prevailing trend of opportunism, their leadership absorbed into the labour aristocracy. Robert Clough continues his analysis of the labour aristocracy.

The inter-war period was to see the destruction of the privileged conditions of those skilled sections of the working class familiar as the labour aristocracy to Marx, Engels and Lenin. This did not however mean that the lahour aristocracy disappeared as a trend in the working class, rather that its composition changed. This article demonstrates how this process started in the 1920s, and a later article will show how their organisations -- the trade unions and the Labour Party -- adapted themselves in order to represent new privileged strata that were to emerge during the 1930s.

The First Imperialist War

The First Imperialist War had greatly accelerated the incorporation of the organisations of the labour aristocracy into the imperialist state. This process had started with the first significant state welfare measures of the pre-war Liberal Government. The introduction of labour exchanges, a national insurance scheme and the Old Age Pensions Act were all initially opposed by the skilled unions. The TUC Parliamentary Committee argued that national insurance should be restricted to trade unionists 'otherwise you will have men to support who never had been nor never will be self-supporting. They are at present parasites on their more industrious fellows and will be the first to avail themselves of the funds the Bill provides.' Such opposition was quickly bought off when the Government offered the unions a role in the administration of these schemes, and soon there proliferated bodies like the Courts of Referees (administering the National Insurance Act) on which there would always be at least one 'labour representative'.

With the outbreak of war, both the Labour Party and the TUC were swift to defend the Empire against the German threat. The TUC proclaimed an industrial truce and organised recruitment drives for the armed forces. The rewards were substantial: participation in all kinds of state committees to oversee production and distribution, and, for the Labour Party, the offer of cabinet positions in the Coalition Government. In return, the labour aristocracy was expected to police the working class, ensuring that there was a minimum of resistance to speed-up, falling wages and dilution of skilled labour.

The post-war boom

In the post-war period, the most immediate role of the Labour Party and the TUC was to help stave off working class pressure that had built up as working class living standards had plummeted. In the circumstances, the ruling class deemed a brief inflationary boom as politically expedient to buy time. It could not afford any domestic challenge whilst it re-shaped the post-war imperialist order in the context of a triumphant Russian Revolution. Hence it gave the trade union leadership some leeway to maintain its authority through the uncertainties of demobilisation.

For a very short period, the trade union movement was to embrace the mass of the unskilled male working class, as membership rose from 2 million in 1910 to 6.5 million in 1918 and 8.3 million in 1920, of whom 6.5 million were affiliated to the TUC. However, despite the enormous struggles of the period, no independent working class movement appeared with a leadership able to challenge such betrayals as the sabotage of the Triple Alliance in April 1921, or their connivance in the partition of Ireland. Union amalgamations created vast new organisations such as AEU, whose rule book still excluded unskilled workers and women, and the T&GWU and the GM. Both the latter unions, organising unskilled and semi-skilled workers, were structured in such a way as to give the maximum of power to unelected officials and thereby minimise the influence of these poorer sections of the working class. They were to become in effect the private fiefdom of a handful of trade union barons, most notably Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the T&G throughout almost the whole inter-war period. Leaders such as he were truly to become the 'labour lieutenants of the capitalist class'.

It was not merely through its control of the trade union movement that the labour aristocracy sought to undermine the working class movement -- it was also through the manipulation of state welfare. Thus the Labour leader JR Clynes argued in parliament in 1921 that 'organised labour, I am certain, together with the employers, if both were called more in touch with the administration of benefits, could be of great assistance in locating the shirkers, and making it impossible to get money when work could have been got.' And throughout the country, local trade unionists were to play 'hunt the scrounger', often as representatives of Trades Councils on Public Assistance Committees and Boards of Guardians.

The crisis in British industry

From 1921 until after the defeat of the General Strike industrial capital by and large stagnated. Productivity within the coal industry fell substantially: 1.2 million miners produced less coal in 1924 than 1 million did in 1913. Cotton consumption fell and even in the peak year of 1929 amounted to only 1.5 million tons compared to 2.1 million tons in 1913. There was a similar picture for steel, iron and shipbuilding; overall, the value of export manufactured goods in 1923 was 73% of the 1913 level. The captive markets of the Empire were no longer a sufficient compensation for low levels of productivity in these traditional sectors of industry. Such improvements as there were arose more from the intensification of labour than from new investment.

The movement of wages in these sectors reflected the stagnant conditions, fallingsignificantly between 1920 and 1924 -- by 11% in cotton, 14% in shipbuilding, 20% in iron and steel and 26% in coal. In the service sector however, there was a different picture, as wages rose by about 15%. Unemployment showed a similar pattern: in 1926, it was 40% in iron, steel and shipbuilding, 18% in cotton, and only in coal at 9% did it match the prevailing levels of the service sector. The traditional labour aristocracy was experiencing a savage assault on its previously privileged conditions. The brief life of the first Labour Government in 1924 did not change anything, it was noteworthy more for showing the extent to which Labour had usurped the role of representing the interests of the labour aristocracy from the Liberal Party, whose disintegration was now assured.

Beyond the General Strike

In these circumstances, a fall in union membership was inevitable, particularly amongst unskilled workers: by the time of the 1926 General Strike in support of miners facing massive wage cuts, TUC-affiliated membership was down to 4.3 million, two-thirds of its 1920 level. And whilst the government engaged in nine months' intensive preparation from late 1925 for the impending confrontation, the trade union leadership did absolutely nothing. But this inactivity was in its interests: defeat in the General Strike would above all mean defeat for those forces which might threaten its control of working class organisation.

The aftermath of the General Strike was a brief industrial boom lasting until 1929, which set the context for a political offensive by the Labour Party/trade union alliance directed against the small Communist Party. During 1927-28, Communists were banned and proscribed within the Labour Party and the trade unions. This coincided with the Mond-Turner talks of 1928 (Sir Alfred Mond was head of ICI, Ben Turner TUC General Secretary), an attempt to develop an open and public alliance with the increasingly dominant forces of finance capital. Although they achieved little in immediate practical terms, their main political conclusion -- that British industry must completely re-organise and rationalise if it were to compete on the world market -- was to become the refrain of the 1929-31 Labour Government. 'Mondism' was in substance the equivalent of the 'New Realism' of the 1980s. It expressed the self-same interests of a very narrow stratum of the working class as it sought a new accommodation with the ruling class. Thus Bevin could argue that:

'It is all very well for people to talk as if the working class of Great Britain are cracking their shins for a fight and a revolution, and we are holding them back. Are they? There are not many of them as fast as we are ourselves.'

The image of 'militant' trade union leaders was of course far from reality. Between the General Strike and the outbreak of war, there were only two strikes of any significant size -- the 'more looms' dispute of 1932 in the cotton industry, and the 1937 London busmen's strike. The first was a desperate and unsuccessful struggle to resist a massive increase in the intensity of labour; the second was a calculated move by Bevin to destroy the only organised opposition to his rule of the T&G. In both, the Communist Party played a leading role. Otherwise the trade union movement had no relevance forthe mass of the working class from 1926 onward.

In summary, the process of institutionalising the organisations of the labour aristocracy continued throughout the first post-war decade. It took place in a number of ways. Nationally, the amalgamation of unions and their assets created huge monoliths whose first priority was their own preservation. Governmental committees with trade union representation had proliferated, Labour had been allowed to form an administration. At a local level, trade union and Labour leaders had been increasingly involved in local government, and in the administration of centrally-funded state welfare. As a consequence, the organisations they led acquired a certain independence from the more privileged strata of the working class they represented. Hence it was that whilst the old labour aristocracy was to fragment under an unrelenting ruling class offensive, the survival of its organisations was never in doubt. The 1930s would then become a transitional period, where a new labour aristocracy would arise based on the luxury and consumer industries of the Midlands and the South, and where the old organisations would adapt themselves to organise and represent their interests.

FRFI 119 June / July 1994