Freedom News

Tom Mann and the industrial union movement

A legendary trade unionist and communist of his era, Mann (1856-1941) was by turns an inspirational and frustrating figure for the syndicalist and anarchist movements in Britain.

This is the first of an upcoming monthly series looking back on working class struggle in the early 1910s in the run-up to World War One, through articles found in the Freedom archive.

Dedicated, imposing, but a somewhat bullheaded figure for working class emancipation, Mann had already long since established his reputation in the labour movement by October 1912. He had been an early and influential advocate for the eight hour day in the late 19th century, became a leading figure in the 1889 London dockers strike and was a founding member of the Independent Labour Party in 1894.

After a long stint of Parliamentarianism and a period organising in Australia between 1902-10, he had been going through a period of disillusionment with parliamentary politics when he returned to Britain and was taken by an upsurge of syndicalist activity taking place while on a visit to France.

Mann’s conversion to syndicalism led to an immediately impressive impact back in Britain as the veteran campaigner, working with Guy Bowman, organised a two day conference in Manchester, establishing the Industrial Syndicalist Education League in late 1910 along with a newspaper, the Industrial Syndicalist.

The ISEL took full advantage of a broader upswing in British industrial upheaval and interest in syndicalist ideas, which formed the basis of what is now known as The Great Unrest. It grew rapidly and was nearing the height of its influence when Freedom published the below article, by John Paton of the Glasgow anarchists, in October 1912.

Some anarchists were cautious of Mann, though he had a great deal of respect from figures such as Emma Goldman and Errico Malatesta. There was a certain sense, for a movement which had been pushing syndicalist ideas since the 1890s, that he was a late converter. And as with many “flaming comet” types his tendency, at the time, to bounce between creeds provided immense energy, but suggested he might not be committed, at heart, to non-hierarchical methods.

Many of Paton’s criticisms thus pertained to both Mann’s general political attitudes and his organisational strategy, ahead of two ISEL conferences the following month representing, organisers said, more than 100,000 workers – though Mann himself would not be at the gatherings.

Paton was both right and wrong in his views. In the end ISEL’s fate didn’t lie with Mann, but certainly he did fail to bring the loose federation with him in his aims, and by 1914 the entire organisation was in ruins, split over a move toward dual unionism and losing momentum with the slowing of the strike wave.

Mann stuck with syndicalist ideas after the breakdown, through the Industrial Democracy League, but dropped out of syndicalist agitation over the course of the war, joining the British Socialist Party in 1917 and, impressed by the Bolsheviks’ seeming success, the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. It is worth nothing that although he remained with the CPGB until his death, he also continued to advocate for workers’ control, suggesting an unwillingness in old age to see what the Russian Revolution had become.

For more on Mann’s relationship with syndicalism check out Iain McKay’s extensive analysis, Tom Mann and British Syndicalism.

Tom Mann and the industrial union movement

The efforts of Tom Mann to awaken the British trade unionists to a sense of the realities of their position, followed as it will be by an increasing public interest in industrial unionism, will be watched by anarchists with considerable interest, an interest which will be in no sense abated because of our recognition of the tremendous obstacles to be surmounted. The inertia and apathy which characterise the rank-and-file of our trade unions can only be dispelled by a long and persistent propaganda having as its object the development of the revolutionary spirit among the workers.

The ideas being propagated by Tom Mann are, in my opinion, not merely useless, but almost certain to aggravate and intensify the condition of things already existing. His proposals may be briefly summarised as being to make use of the present organisations, but to make them more effective fighting machines by federating the different sections, so that they may act solidarily. He does not propose in any way to destroy the present unions, but to extend and develop their sphere of action, aiming at the destruction of the sectional spirit, although not destroying the sectional union; and by means of effective federation to establish industrial unions. He decides for a policy of non-Parliamentarianism as against anti-Parliamentarianism.

In examining his proposals, let us take the last one first. The refusal to take a definitely anti-Parliamentary attitude can only be described as a piece of pure expediency; a truckling to the Parlia­mentary tradition so strong among British workers. The sitting-on-the-fence attitude of the non-Parliamentarian is so illogical as to be quite absurd. The spirit of compromise thus early made manifest augurs ill for the ultimate success of the movement.

In deciding for the retention of the present organisations, Mann has quite evidently failed to get to grips with the root of the problem which he is facing. The curse of trade unionism in this country is the centralisation of executive power, with its resultant multiplication of officials. The corresponding stagnation and death of local life and spirit is the inevitable consequence. This centralisation would be enormously extended and developed by Mann’s scheme.

It is quite probable that the present reaction against Parlia­mentary tactics consequent on the absolute failure of the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and the no less complete futility of the sectional strike, will operate very powerfully in Mann’s favour. It seems almost certain that we are on the eve of a great development of our unions on the lines of the semi-military organisation, which has proved such a complete failure, both in this country and in Germany. A huge, cumbersome, slowly acting machine of the familiar type, in which the slightest tendency towards originality and initiative will be almost certainly ruthlessly stamped out, so that “unity and discipline” may be maintained.

It is our duty as revolutionists to make active the revolutionary spirit lying latent in the unions. The spirit which is responsible for the heroic struggle of the shipyard boilermakers, the same spirit of solidarity which gave birth to the spontaneous strike of the workers of all grades on the North-Eastern Railway, both struggles entered into not because of the respective organisations, but in spite of them, in direct opposition to the wishes of their own officials. To feed this revolutionary spirit it is necessary to break down the present movement towards centralisation. Federations and amalgamations will not give birth to the spirit of industrial solidarity, yet without this spirit, as recent events have shown us, the moat gigantic union is powerless. Given the proper spirit, the great present-day fetish of organisation is useless. It is not merely a positive hindrance, but the ultimate destroyer of the ideals which called it into being. No! the Revolution will not come by means of “National Amalgamated Federations,” wherein the spirit of revolt will be suffocated by the too fond embraces of a clinging officialism.

We must decentralise, and as far as possible destroy executive power. Let the workers themselves bear the burden and responsibility of decisive action, let them no longer put their trust in sagacious officials, who by their petty jealousies and ambitions stifle and stultify them at every turn. Let the workers but once realise the power and the strength which lie in their own conceited and direct action, and the revolution will have begun. It will come as the result of a new feeling of self-reliance and the mutual confidence of each worker in all workers — the spontaneous expression of the spirit of solidarity.

~ John Paton

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