Tony Cliff

Unclear pictures

(March 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 85, March 1986, pp. 32–33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A History of British Trade Unions Since 1889, Volume II, 1911–33
H.A. Clegg
Oxford University Press £40

THIS study is a companion to a first volume covering the years 1889–1910 written by H.A. Clegg, A. Fox and A.F. Thompson.

Like the first volume, the present achieves a tremendous task of organising and arranging a vast amount of material, giving a comprehensive account of the subject.

A couple of reviewers of the first volume put it in the same class as A History of Trade Unionism written by Sidney and Beatrice Webb and published in 1894. In terms of comprehensiveness and reliability the analogy fits. However the Webbs’ book was far superior. The Webbs were pioneers in giving a clear description and analysis of the trade union bureaucracy. (The Webbs admired the bureaucracy precisely because of its conservative role.)

Clegg’s book does not give a clear picture at all of the trade union bureaucracy; or, the other side of the coin, the rank and file striving to get out of its control. This defect is especially irritating in a volume that covers the period of the Labour Unrest, 1910–14, the great mass struggles of 1919, and the general strike of 1926.

A straight reading of Clegg’s book will be of little use, but as a support for studying trade unions and trade union struggle for the period it covers, it is of very good value. Clegg’s book, being of impeccable scholarship, will be of use to anyone doing research work.

Last updated on 26 October 2019