In his speech the other day Neil Kinnock reminded me of a peculiar tick the Labour Party mainstream (specifically the wing most hostile to Tony Benn) developed in the 1970s, where they began using “syndicalism” as an insult for their left-wing opponents.
Syndicalism had been a prominent ideology amongst some workers in the period before World War One. Analogous movements existed in countries across the world (especially Europe and the Americas) and were often inspired by anarchist and communist ideas, as well as drawing on the radical democratic practices of some 19th Century trade unionism.
The idea, at its core, was a relatively simple one. Industry should be directly owned and controlled by the working class without intermediaries, and the state and parliament inherently stood in opposition to this happening.
Therefore, the working class’ political task was to form a revolutionary union in order to seize control of industry through (collective) direct action and ultimately through their strongest weapon — a mass refusal to continue working and generating profits for the ruling class: a general strike.
Pre-revolution these unions were to be characterised by direct democracy. Unlike in a political party, no intermediaries were to be elected, all decisions would be taken in general assemblies where everybody’s vote was equal. Instantly recallable delegates would then be sent to regional and national conferences, where they would be allowed to express only the mandate given to them by their own assemblies. The movement would not send representatives to express their interests in parliament, nor to barter away their rights in negotiations with employers. Instead, if it concerned the workers, the workers would decide.
The largest organisation representing the syndicalist current of thought (the Industrial Syndicalist Education League) was formed in 1910, four years after the Labour Party came into existence. In that sense, syndicalism represented the principal revolutionary challenger to the infant Labour Party’s parliamentary reformism. Crucially, not only did syndicalism advocate the overthrow of capitalism, it rejected the idea that the workers’ interests were best advanced through the election of sympathetic MPs.
Syndicalism as an identifiable national movement with significant implantation in the labour movement dissipated relatively rapidly. By the time it came to be wielded as a niche insult for Bennites in the 1970s, the sole remaining group advocating it — the Syndicalist Workers Federation — had declined to a few dozen members. What then, did it mean when the Labour Right deployed it as an insult?
In truth, it said more about the Labour Party’s long-standing conservatism with regard to democracy than the actual political practice of Bennism. Since its foundation Labour had always been a top-down party. Its MPs chose the party leader, who chose the cabinet (or shadow cabinet), and they largely determined policy. Once in government the plan was to use the parliamentary system to implement that policy.
The 1945 Labour Government was the supreme example of this. Wherever possible, the Attlee administration established structures which could be governed from the centre. So in the case of nationalised industry the state would simply appoint a board to direct operations entirely independent of their workforce. The NHS was nationalised, then managed by the Ministry of Health which appointed Regional Hospital Boards and Hospital Management Committees — again, with no representation for most categories of staff or patients. Housing policy was determined from the centre, built largely by private firms and local councils, then managed from above (tenants associations, tenants’ rights groups? Pah! Syndicalism!). At no point was anyone to be consulted or elected to represent workers, tenants, patients or anyone elsebbeyond the standard state and municipal representation provided by parliament and local councils. You elect us, we will manage things on your behalf.
Such paternalism aligned well with both the prevailing orthodoxy in the trade union movement, where prominent leaders like Arthur Deakin (TGWU) and Bill Carron (AEU) looked to negotiate on behalf of their members rather than let them decide what to do or what they wanted.
This largely held in the politically and socially austere 1940s and 1950s but by the end of the 1960s was in full break down. Some radical trade unionists, encouraged by increasing numbers of “unofficial” strikes (that is strikes without permission from union leaders) and the expansion of the shop steward system, began to re-visit the ideas that drove syndicalism like workers control of industry, worker self-management and worker-run co-operatives. The rise in shop steward numbers from 90,000 in 1961 to 317,000 in 1980 was particularly important in this. Elected by their co-workers on a workshop or departmental basis and dependent on ongoing support, stewards were a relatively direct means by which people could express dissatisfaction at work, even if the stated politics of most of them were rarely that radical.
One prominent outlet for those who saw some kind of workers’ democracy in this variety of activism was the Institute for Workers’ Control (IWC), a kind of think tank dedicated to giving people more control over their lives at work. At its peak, the IWC could count on the support of the leaders of Britain’s two largest trade unions (Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones) and also had a substantial following on the Labour Left including from Tony Benn, who remained a strong (but thoroughly reformist and parliamentary) advocate of some form of workers’ control both as a minister in the 1974–79 Labour government and thereafter, even sponsoring a few (largely disastrous) workers’ co-operatives through the National Enterprise Board.
The general idea that the ordinary individual should get a democratic say in the development of their workplaces, public services and communities, and indeed in the political parties also gained wider currency in this period and contributed to a shift in the Labour Party. As late as 1976, Labour had chosen its parliamentary leaders through polling only its MPs, ensuring that the party elite retained sole control over what the party was within the Palace of Westminster. Reforming this was a key plank of Bennism, which, being more heavily implanted in constituency labour parties than in parliament, advocated opening up leadership battles and policy decisions to ordinary members and trade unionists.
It was largely these things — industrial democracy and policy-making from below, which made up the charge of “syndicalism” levied at the Labour left. As far as Benn’s opponents were concerned, the Bennites, and the left in the party and the unions more generally, wanted to unleash something alien to the traditions of the British labour movement. The leadership of senior party figures and trade union leaders would be usurped by mass democracy and direct action, ushering in a version of democracy that they saw as false, allied to a left-wing radicalism out of step with the moderate British people.
This tick then, expressed (and expresses now when Neil Kinnock uses it in a speech) two very different ideas of what the Labour movement was or could be. For the Bennites then (and the Corbynites now), the Labour movement is and was something that recruits as many people as it can and becomes the direct expression of their political aspirations, including their most radical ones. That is, if you want a say in how the party, a trade union or the country is run, you join and participate with the best ideas winning through. The parliamentary party are nothing more than the delegates of their CLPs and their primary duty is to agitate for the politics of their members. For those on the other side, the Labour Party is not supposed to directly represent the politics of its members, it is a not a tool for direct interventions in the political sphere by ordinary people. Rather it is a organisation in which the leadership should be trusted to develop (after consulting members) a programme for government which appeals beyond their membership to the country as a whole. The members' role is largely passive, a case of essentially promoting whatever it is that party leadership does as opposition or government — socialism as “whatever a Labour government does”.
This then is one key to the gap between the left and right of the party. The gap that the soft left and the moving softer left (hello Owen Jones) don’t really get. The distance here is not all about policy. When Kinnock says he wants his party back, he means it in a very literal sense. He doesn’t want just want the leadership to return to his wing of the party, he wants an end to this dangerous experiment in “syndicalism”, where Labour pretends to represent directly the political ambitions of its members. He wants it back from its selectorate and for the PLP, for a kind of imagined “authentic Labourism" which is more pragmatic and speaks for (but not with) the British people as a whole.
And when it says it, he does so with all historical justice on his side, because that genuinely is what the Labour Party has been historically and what it was founded to be — a party of the left’s great and good, cheerled by an obedient army of leaflet deliverers.
He and the other 172 MPs on Kinnock’s side will only truly be happy if and when it returns to that. That means that those hoping for a sort of Corbynism without Corbyn or even for a more general re-engagement with the interests of the working class, should think long and hard about what those cheers mean.
Because, whilst I remain deeply sceptical about the capacity of the Labour Party to function as a social movement in the way many Bennites (and now Corbynites) envisioned, it is beyond me how the other road goes anywhere at all. With the Labour Party simultaneously embracing sensible politics decided by sensible leaders, effectively deciding that the PLP can overrule the members if it so desires, how can it possibly be a party that is either radical or that listens to working-class communities? After all, how can you listen to anyone if you’ve already decided that the party’s leaders know best?