Let me begin by declaring my interest. When the author of this book was pursuing his researches in England two or three years ago, he discovered that I was probably the only person in the British academic world who had much knowledge of, or interest in, his rather esoteric theme. At that time I was deeply immersed in Soviet relations with the Western world, including Great Britain, in the later 1920s. He was making himself a specialist in an episode which was not only colorful in itself, but shed a beam of light over a wide surrounding area.
Professor Calhoun and I had several meetings to discuss matters of common concern, of which he expresses his appreciation in his preface. He does not say—and I welcome the opportunity of saying it here—that my debt to him was at least as great as his to me. He worked extensively in the unpublished archives of the British Trade Union Congress which I had not penetrated, and gave me many fresh details and further insights into the curious history of relations between the British and Russian trade unions. The story seems to me very well told in this volume, with a certain raciness, not to say jauntiness, of style, which does not come amiss in a record of so many undignified, and so many merely comic, exchanges.
The episode of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Joint Advisory Council or Committee, founded in 1925 and dissolved after a tempestuous career in 1927, brings out vividly, by pointing up the contrast, aspects of the mentality both of the Russian and of the British trade unions which commonly remain in the background. More significantly, it illustrates the besetting problem of Soviet relations with the Western world for almost sixty years, when formulas of agreement mask underlying discords, and what look like the same words are used with more or less subtly different shades of meaning.
The troubles begin with the conception of the “united front,” which goes back to 1921. It is better not to be too censorious about this policy; the Russians are not the only politicians responsible for the framing of policy who do not always know exactly where they are going, and pursue mutually incompatible aims. When the Bolsheviks seized power in the autumn of 1917, they had their own picture of what was going to happen. The Russian revolution would touch off revolutions elsewhere in the more advanced European countries; and these would be their salvation. It seemed inconceivable to them that they could survive for long alone in a capitalist world. A year later, and for some time after, it was still plausible to believe that the prospect of revolution would be realized in Germany and central Europe; and their own survival in the turmoil of the civil war hung in the balance.
By 1921 all this was over. Stabilization and recovery were in the air. The Soviet regime in Russia had survived the strain. But so had capitalist society in the rest of Europe. Nothing catastrophic was going to happen for some time; and it was necessary to establish a modus vivendi between the two worlds. The ideology which asserted the desirability and the inevitability of the downfall of capitalism could not be abandoned. On the other hand, communists must try to make friends—to form a “united front”—with left-wing sympathizers in capitalist countries who might oppose and mitigate the hostility of their governments to the Soviets. Ambiguities in this dual policy were apparent from the outset. Lenin spoke of supporting the MacDonalds and Hendersons “as the rope supports the man who is being hanged.” Karl Radek, rather more elegantly, wanted to “embrace them in order to stifle them.”
The British trade union movement was an obvious field for an experiment in united front tactics. Marxism had, it was true, made less impact on British than on Continental workers. But Great Britain was the most advanced industrial country, and the British trade unions the most powerful in the world; the omens were not unpromising. A lot of enthusiasm for the workers’ revolution and the workers’ government in Russia had been expressed in fiery revolutionary speeches by British trade unionists. The British workers had compelled the British government to abandon its military intervention in the civil war in 1919, and had stopped the shipment of munitions to Poland during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. Fraternization between British and Russian trade unions seemed assured. It reached its peak in 1924 when both combined to put pressure on a faltering British Labour government to conclude the Anglo-Soviet treaty then in course of negotiation. Mikhail Tomsky, the Russian trade union leader, spoke amid scenes of enthusiasm at the trade union congress in Hull in September; and two months later the compliment was repaid when a delegation from the TUC, led by its left-wing president A.A. Purcell, attended the Russian trade union congress in Moscow.
It was in this atmosphere that the idea of an Anglo-Russian joint committee, a standing committee meeting periodically to promote cooperation between British and Russian trade unions, was first conceived. By the time it was brought to birth at a special conference in April 1925, the climate was already changing. The charge of softness to communists and Russians had helped to defeat the Labour government in the “Zinoviev letter” election of the previous autumn. The handful of British communists were making themselves a nuisance to the Labour party and the trade unions, as well as to other people. The Conservative government was working to draw Germany back into the Western fold, and was openly hostile to Moscow. The trade unions were not insensitive to the wind of change. Tomsky was once more applauded at the Scarborough congress in September 1925, and some solid left resolutions voted. But undercurrents of mistrust were coming to the surface. Jimmy Thomas and Ernest Bevin emerged as powerful leaders of a right wing in the trade unions.
The Anglo-Russian committee began to function in a world which no longer had a place for it. Professor Calhoun has charted its always erratic, sometimes farcical course. The Russians were the active partners, coming up with one proposal after another for joint manifestoes on trade union unity, on aid for the striking miners, on the danger of imperialist war, on whatever issue at the moment bulked largest in Moscow, or seemed most likely to drive a wedge between right and left in the British movement. The committee was a perfect propaganda platform, and a way of showing up those traitors on the British left who now wanted to back out of their fine words about revolution and Anglo-Soviet solidarity.
The British contingent dragged their feet from the start, and especially when the able but skeptical Walter Citrine succeeded to the post of secretary-general of the TUC. It was difficult to find a convenient time and place for meetings of the Anglo-Russian committee members. When they met, the time available was curtailed by other engagements. They were not empowered to discuss this or that question raised by the Russians. More and more time was spent in recriminations. The intervals between meetings were filled with acrimonious correspondence between Tomsky and Citrine. All too obviously, the TUC had an unwanted child on its hands. The Russians kept it going, partly in order to exploit British embarrassment, partly because the Russian party opposition in Moscow, and especially Trotsky, denounced the committee as an undignified concession to reactionary British trade union leaders, and it was necessary at all costs to prove the opposition wrong. Finally, it was the British—in September 1927—who at length summoned up courage to make the break.
What lies behind this strange story, and makes it significant, is the total incompatibility and mutual incomprehension existing between the Russian and British unions, not only about aims and policies, but about what kind of animals they were. The Russian unions had no effective prerevolutionary organization or experience. They were part of the revolutionary movement. Once the revolution had triumphed, some people wondered what role the unions had still to play and whether they would survive. It was the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, not the trade unions, that now spoke for the workers. They did survive—they were strong enough for that—but at the logical cost of their integration in the state machine. The organs of the workers and the organs of the workers’ state could not go their separate ways. It was hard to say whether the People’s Commissariat of Labour was an auxiliary of the trade unions, or the unions of the Commissariat. Together they were responsible for carrying out economic policy in so far as this concerned the allocation, remuneration, and control of labor. Any differences between them and other economic organs were ironed out by the supreme party authority, whose decisions were mandatory for all.
The British delegates, brought up to think of trade unions as engaged in a running battle with employers, and with the state which supported them, could make nothing of all this. They constantly sought to identify a special trade union interest, and could not understand that trade union policy and Soviet policy were not even opposite sides of the same coin, but the same side. For a long time they hoped that Tomsky, who alone of the Russian team could speak in something like a Western idiom, might be encouraged to win over his stubborn colleagues to more reasonable attitudes. It was an odd misapprehension of what went on in a Russian delegation. The Russian trade unions were fighting nobody except these obstinate and incomprehensible foreigners who refused to play their revolutionary games.
But this narrative of misunderstandings is most interesting of all in the light which it throws on the complex and rarely discussed mentality of the British trade union movement. The Protestant nonconformist background embedded in its tradition gave it a missionary zeal and fervor in the cause of the oppressed which kindled a lively flame of enthusiasm for the workers’ revolution in Russia. But the same tradition also accommodated a respect for a liberal society and the rule of law; the prospect of winning concessions for the workers within that society, and through its procedures, still seemed real. There was nothing here of the anarchist strain which is a common ingredient of the revolutionary spirit.
The Russians, in so far as they were aware (which was not very far) of this duality in the British movement, attributed it to a split between the mass of workers and timid or corrupt leaders who betrayed them. There was a grain of truth in this explanation. It cost the rank and file of trade unionists nothing to demonstrate their enthusiasm for worthy causes. The General Council had the less easy task of translating words into action, and did not always relish it. They were more in touch with “official” opinion, and were sometimes swayed by it. Long after the General Council would have been glad to rid itself of the incubus of the Anglo-Russian Committee, it would have been impossible to get a popular vote for its dissolution. Even in September 1927, when the council submitted to the annual congress a unanimous recommendation to jettison the committee, much vocal opposition—and not only from left-wingers—was heard from the floor; and it required all Bevin’s eloquence to push through the resolution by a four-to-one majority. And this was followed by a resolution, which was carried unanimously, deploring the action of the British government in breaking off relations with Moscow.
The general strike of 1926 spotlighted the duality of the movement and the bewilderment of the Russians. The great mass of workers fervently embraced the cause of the miners, and responded eagerly to the call for a strike to support them. The General Council had committed itself too far in words, and was maneuvered into calling a strike about which its leading members were at best half-hearted. The Russians regarded it as political—a revolutionary bid to seize power. What else could a general strike mean? It was nothing of the kind—just an old-fashioned quarrel, though on a mammoth scale, about wages. It was the government that insisted on treating it as an incipient revolution; and, when this became clear, the General Council, full of disclaimers on any revolutionary intention, beat a retreat.
In the eyes of the Russians, it betrayed the workers. But the workers were not altogether unwilling to be betrayed. They too had had a whiff of revolution, and it made them uncomfortable. The miners were abandoned, as they had been in 1921. Six months later, the miners, the last hope of the Russians, also had to concede defeat. Deep bitterness remained, but no revolutionary movement. A lot of miners drifted into the British Communist Party in the second half of 1926, and drifted out again in the next two years.
Fifty years later, one can still argue whether, in the perspective of a century or more, the general strike should be seen as a first halting step on the road to a British workers’ revolution, or a final demonstration that such a revolution is impossible. In one direction Britain has since traveled some way along the Russian road—the integration of the trade unions into the machinery of the government. This has set up tensions between the leaders and the workers on the shop floor—tensions in part fomented, in part cushioned, by the movement of shop stewards, who have sometimes acted independently of union officials. The miners remain a special case. But the ramshackle rickety trade union structure stands intact. Trade union solidarity is still an enormous force, and serves as an unbreached dam against revolutionary currents.
Much in the landscape remains, however, clouded. If Professor Calhoun had had more space—it was marginally relevant to his theme—he might have taken a look at the most promising of the British communist “fronts” of the 1920s: the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. The TUC, involved in it at the outset, backed out on scenting the whiff of communist domination. The communists later dropped it with other united front organizations. When unemployment became the key question of politics in the 1930s, communists were no longer in the vanguard of the movement. Moscow no longer wanted to see a revolution in the Western world. But perhaps even today mass unemployment, more than the wages question, is the Achilles’ heel of the British trade unions and of the capitalist economy.
The story of the British and Russian trade unions in the 1920s leads Professor Calhoun in his epilogue to some general reflections. “Had the International not jettisoned the united front in 1928,” he remarks, “it is questionable whether Adolf Hitler would ever have come to power in Germany five years later.” One of those dubious might-have-beens of history! Professor Calhoun goes on quite sensibly to explain that the change of line in the Communist International was not due simply to a whim of Stalin, or to a calculation of domestic politics, but followed on the failure of the united front tactics to produce results. Perhaps no policy that could have been devised in Moscow would have worked. The story carries its own lessons, and leaves the reader to choose the ones he prefers. It is told here with a wit and irony which show that, in order to be serious, one does not need to be ponderous. Occasionally the writer’s sense of fun gets the better of him. The Food and Drink Workers’ International may have been a very important organization. But it was not just a collection of revolutionary waiters and wine stewards.
May 18, 1978