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Raymond Challinor

TUC centenary – happy birthday
to who?

(July 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 85, July 1968, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NOTHING MORE CLEARLY reveals the relationship between the state and organised labour than the postage stamp of the Queen and the TUC. Today, the knights of the General Council belong to the Establishment.

They are necessary for the smooth running of the system. They act as a transmission belt, bringing capitalist ideology into the working-class movement.

Unpalatable proposals, ones that would be quite unacceptable had they simply come from the bosses, are agreed to because of them.

They occasionally voice workers’ discontents, but these would gain expression anyway. Far better, for the ruling class, that the spokesmen should be trade union leaders, speaking in moderate tones, than rank-and-file agitators. Protests are channelled into harmless, institutionalised forms. By helping to preserve the stability of society, union leaders are, to use Daniel De Leon’s apt phrase “the labour lieutenants of capitalism.”

But has this always been so? Last month saw the centenary of the formation of the TUC. A lot of claptrap was spoken. Speeches idolised the pioneers of the movement.

Most contributors came from the Webbsian School of Falsification. For instance, when they spoke of Applegarth, Allan & Co., a group of highly influential union leaders, they called them “the Junta,” the term first coined by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their trade union history.

They did not mention that, to many workers in the 1860s, they were better known as “the dirty pack.” A discreet silence is preserved about the cavortings of these union leaders in high society, their sedulous cultivation of bourgeois respectability, and how they frequently sold their members down the river.

Most closely-guarded secret of all, the fact that gives revolutionary socialists the right to rejoice, is that we can celebrate the centenary of the unofficial strike. Workers, in defiance of their employers and union leaders, resorted to self-activity to defend their interests.


In 1868, the Lancashire miners struck against a 15 per cent wage reduction. After failing to get the men to return to work, the union leaders journeyed to London where Alexander MacDonald testified before a Royal Commission on Trade Unions (yes, they had them too a 100 years ago) that when he found every delegate had come to the meeting with a written order from his pit to strike, he persuaded them to reconsider.

But at a second meeting – against his advice – the miners reaffirmed their decision. “It was not the leaders of the union they consulted,” he told the Royal Commission.

Subsequently, MacDonald made it clear he favoured industrial harmony: “I look upon strikes as the barbaric relic of a period of unfortunate relations between labour and capital.”

He confessed, on another occasion, that he was glad, he averted an industrial dispute although he conceded that, had the men gone on strike, “they might have commanded a higher rate than they now have.”

MacDonald, later to become one of the first working class MPs, had a high regard for Parliament. He told the Royal Commission : “I think that there is not a body of 600 men in which more kind-hearted men are to be found in the House of Commons.” While he favoured workers gaining their ends through legislative, not class, action, he nevertheless opposed a clause that would have given teeth to the Mines Regulation Act (1872).

This meant, as Engels explained:

“ MacDonald betrayed the workers ... he sanctioned an amendment which was so grossly in the interests of the capitalists that even the government had not dared include it in the draft.” (Marx-Engels on Britain, p. 469).

MacDonald was widely known as “Lord Elcho Limited,” the implication being quite clear that he had been bought by, and was part of the property of, the large Scottish coal owner of that name.

Macdonald represented an important trend among union leaders. As Dr. Royden Harrison points out, in his book Before the Socialists (p. 38):

“Special relationships grew up between particular employer-politicians and trade union politicians. For example, such relationships existed between A.J. Mundella and Robert Applegarth; Lord Elcho and Alexander MacDonald; Samuel Morley and George Howell; Crawshay, the ironmaster, and John Kane.”

Therefore, in the celebrations of the TUC centenary, we should be quite clear what the Establishment is happy about. Harold Wilson, opposed to working-class unity today, is not rejoicing because the TUC’s formation represented an addition to working-class strength a hundred years ago. No, the significance of the creation of the TUC was that it marked an important stage in the integration of the union bureaucracy within the capitalist system.


From this standpoint, as a judgement on a hundred years of industrial activity conducted in the overwhelming majority of instances by leaders who fervently believed in class collaboration, the balance-sheet of the past 100 years needs drawing up. The failure to increase the share of the national income going to the working class; the failure to gain, through official channels, greater working-class power at the point of production; the failure to secure appreciable reduction in working hours – all these are an indictment of a certain methodology. With historical continuity, the line stretches from the MacDonalds to the General Council men, both right and left, of today.

Of course, there are differences. Whereas British capitalism of 1860 had not reached the height of its power, now it is in decline. Weakened, it is less able to withstand attacks from the shop-floor. A dockers’ or seamen’s strike severely strains the country’s balance of payments. The complexity of the economy, the mutual interdependence of its various parts, means that a stoppage in one industry has damaging repercussions elsewhere.

Consequently, the state, as the guardian of capitalist interests, cannot afford to allow large-scale disputes to develop. So any big strike becomes, automatically, a contest between the workers and the government, a struggle in which the workers must either capitulate or smash the state.

As the leaders are not revolutionary socialists, have no vision that stretches beyond bourgeois democracy, they display the white rather than red flag.

For this reason, it is vital that the rank-and-file, with no vested interests in the present system, throw up their own leadership. Only through self-activity of the most thorough-going kind can the working class finally banish exploitation.

In this struggle we can perhaps learn from the spate of unofficial strikes that occurred in the 1860s and 1870s. They were fought with a vigour and a violence that alarmed the authorities. Sometimes employers granted concessions to quieten things so that customary relations could be re-established with the moderate union leaders.

But more often the unofficial strikes ended in defeat. And the reason – one that is still with us – is that they were partial strikes, limited to one factory or area.

Employers, isolating the men, could thereby defeat them. The need, therefore, is the widest possible links at rank-and-file level, coupled with a determination to overthrow the ruling class.

Then there might be something entirely different to celebrate a hundred years from now.

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Last updated: 26 October 2020