Syndicalism and the working class experience

In this classic explainer of trade unionism without bureaucrats from 1952, Philip Sansom (pictured) considers the thinking behind anarcho-syndicalism before giving an example from the time — the fascinating and little-known Mutual Aid Society of the Euston railwaymen.

The trouble with most theories is that they have so little relationship with the facts. One can of course get over that by saying that if the facts do not coincide with your theory—so much the worse for the facts.

In reality this is just what all authoritarians do—whether they are religious or political or economic, whether Marxist or Christian. If you are in’ a position to over-rule opposition by force, you don’t have to worry about facts. You simply steam-roller your theory into operation whether it has any real basis to it or not.

And if, on the other hand, you are not in a position to put your theories into operation, well, still less need you worry about facts. Work out an argument that is watertight within itself, logically following from an accepted premise and you are all right. That is until somebody applies your argument to facts outside of it, or does not accept your original premise. The ideas of Christianity are logical if you accept the existence of God, and the divinity of Christ; Marxism is logical enough if you accept the theory of dialectical materialism—but challenge these basic premises and they fall- to the ground.

Now, inasmuch as there is no conscious anarchist society anywhere in the world; that nowhere is industry controlled by the workers in a syndicalist fashion, it can be said that both anarchism and syndicalism are only theories. We who associate ourselves with Freedom are sometimes criticised by “practical” people who maintain that we only deal with abstractions —sex and education are the favourite subjects to be so described. But — to be logical — is not workers’ control an abstraction also?

Sex and Education are most certainly often discussed in Freedom on a very high level. High enough to deserve that term of abuse “intellectual”, anyway. But since it can hardly be denied that sex exists and is even practiced “among the workers” (prime criterion of reality!) — it can hardly be dismissed as an abstraction. Similarly with education. State education most certainly exists in fact, and so does progressive education. There are plenty of progressive schools in the country giving reality to the abstractions of education on free lines.

And so it is with sex. If we are honest — and this is the most difficult thing for people with bees in their bonnets — we have to admit (or proudly proclaim, according to your viewpoint) that there is more freedom practiced in the fields of education and sexual activity than there is workers’ control practiced in the workshop.

In other words, free educationists and sexual reformers have clothed the abstractions of their ideas with the reality of practice before the advocates of workers’ control. And while workers’ control exists only as an aim, an idea, but not in reality, it can only be rightly described as an abstraction.

Of course we have to recognise the difficulties facing its practice. Any individual — or individuals — can practice sexual freedom. Any couple can form a free union, or be promiscuous, or have any form of relationship that is based upon love but not upon any legal or moral bond. Any small group of individuals if they so desire and are properly qualified to do so (not necessarily academically) can found a free school (or, if the recent Education Act prevents it, they could until recently), providing they can find the pupils.

But workers’ control of industry must be carried out on a larger scale. And in challenging the employing class for the control of industry, the workers are tampering directly with the very means of domination by the ruling, owning class, over the rest of society. Although undermining the State’s grip upon the child’s mind through education, or loosening the hold which obscurantist morality has upon the mind and body of the adolescent and adult through sexuality, are both chipping away at the flanks of the massive block of oppression, an attempt by an organised working class to wrest control of industry-away from the capitalists or the State is a frontal attack.

True, like free education, workers’ control can be practiced on a small scale. There are co-operative factories here in Britain where it is virtually in operation, but it has to yield to capitalism to the extent of having to compete in capitalist markets in a capitalistic fashion. In any case, the anarcho-syndicalist idea is aimed at the whole of industry and at setting up a revolutionary economy, not at showing that workers can operate industry within capitalist society.

The task, then, facing the syndicalist is a formidable one. There is no established syndicalist movement in industry in this country and in every other country it is in a pretty parlous condition. We have to start from scratch, building an organisation from nothing.

Why should we think we have any chance of success? If workers’ control is an abstraction, if anarcho-syndicalism is a theory like any other, why should we believe that it will succeed where other theories have failed?

The answer is, that anarcho-syndicalism is not a theory like any other. As I have said elsewhere [Syndicalism— the Worker’s Next Step] “Syndicalism is not the product of one man’s academic theories. It has been hammered out in countless actions against the boss and the State, again oppression, exploitation and political trickery; it was not just thought up in the British Museum.”

Anarcho-syndicalism does not present us with a theory and then try to squeeze the facts into it. It has based its ideas upon the realities of the working-class struggle; it has evolved out of the experiences of workers facing up to their problems themselves. This gives it its organic nature which is its strength and its great difference from the sterile intellectualism of dogmatic theory.

Mutual Aid at Euston

Working-class experience since the war has shown us many examples of activity with a syndicalist basis.

The fact that it is unconscious, and that the workers concerned have probably never heard of syndicalism doesn’t worry me in the slightest. They can call their activity what they like — or nothing at all, which is more usual — as long as it is syndicalist in character, I’m satisfied. For the time being at any rate; since sooner or later, to be finally effective, any working-class movement has to be conscious of its own character and, more important, perhaps, of its aims.

For although we can claim that in action workers unconsciously turn to syndicalist tactics and principles, it would indeed be foolish of us to therefore say that the British working-class is syndicalist-minded, with all its implications.

The aim of anarcho-syndicalism is workers’ control of industry in a free society. Most of the industrial activity which we can legitimately term syndicalist in tendency, however, is a development from orthodox trade unionism. A revolt against it. perhaps, but one based much more upon impatience with the slowness and inadequacy of its workings than upon a real revulsion with its degenerate character. And since trade unionism has no aim but only a function within capitalism, so it is. so far, with the unofficial actions the workers have taken outside the union.

They are concerned with getting things done which the unions are failing to do. but like the unions, they are content with their function in the day-to-day struggle and do not look ahead to putting a final nod to that struggle in the only way possible the establishment of workers’ control.

Such an organisation is the Railwaymen’s Mutual Aid Society at Euston Station. London. The story of its formation as a breakaway from the National Union of Railwaymen has already been told in these columns [Freedom June 28th, 1952] but a fortnight ago the organisation’s President, Mr. Jack Rice spoke to the London Anarchist Group (L.A.G.) and explained more of the attitude of its members.

The original great hall at Euston Station, which was destroyed in 1962 to make room for the West Coast Main Line.

Jack Rice had been the Secretary of the Euston Branch of the National Union of Railwaymen (N.U.R.), and he told us that he found it much easier and quicker to deal with the many grievances that are always cropping up on the railways at Branch level. He used to go to the Manager at Euston and get the business settled without relegating it to Head Office, and although that was clearly better for the men, it made the Easton Branch rather a thorn in the flesh of the Executive, who are jealous of any Branch autonomy.

When the dispute with Head Office came, however, in 1948, which led to the withdrawal of almost the entire Euston Branch from the N.U.R., they set up an organisation which showed they had learned their lessons well. And instinctively they based their organisation on syndicalist principles.

750 workers at Euston withdrew from the N.U.R. They decided that they needed an executive, so they elected 12 of their members to that position, with one, Jack Rice, as President. They are unpaid, doing their work for the organisation voluntarily and in their spare time. It the work they have to do entails time off from their paid jobs, they are recompensed for that time at the rate for the job.

The Mutual Aid Society (M.A.S.) was founded with no funds. The regular contributions which its members pay are paid purely for running expenses. They have no offices, with rent to pay; their monthly meeting is held in a room over a pub. The organisation is directly under the control of the members, and it is their policy not to canvass for membership.

There is a reason for this last point. The N.U.R. would very much like to smash the M.A.S., and since the attempt last June to bring pressure to bear upon it from outside failed, probably the easiest way to smash it would be from inside — by packing it with N.U.R. stooges (dual membership is recognised by the M.A.S.) who could then betray it.

The Euston men have had letters from Manchester, Liverpool, Scotland and other parts asking them to enlarge their organisation. But so far they have resisted the temptation. A branch has been formed at St. Pancras, next door to Euston, but that is as far as they are prepared to go at the moment.

As Jack Rice put it: “I would rather have 1,000 men I could know and trust than 50,000 I didn’t know who could crush our organisation.”

Here then, we see the basic principles of anarcho-syndicalist organisation being applied. Organisation on the job with a voluntary executive, elected directly by the members and responsible to them, paid only the rate for the job for time lost in organisation and keeping their working unit small enough to ensure it does not pass out of their hands. And, of course, non-political.

About a score of Euston workers came along to the L.A.G. meeting when Rice spoke, and in the discussion that followed, we were able to make a suggestion as to the requests from the Provinces and Scotland. Why not, we asked, encourage these workers to form their own Mutual Aid Societies themselves at their own places of work, with no legal or controlling connection with Euston?

There is general dissatisfaction with the N.U.R. and it should not be difficult to find the railwaymen who could do it. A Mutual Aid Society in Manchester, one in Liverpool, in Glasgow, Derby, Crewe, Swindon, Reading, at all the rail centres in the country, could form a country-wide organisation on a decentralised basis, practicing co-operation among themselves, guarding their interests at their work, without the danger of another centralised or bureaucratic structure like the N.U.R. growing up.

Why should they bother to extend themselves at all? Well, for one reason, that the N.U.R. still takes all the decisions regarding wages and national agreements. For another thing, numbers are still strength. A decentralised organisation would give the railwaymen the strength of numbers, without the disadvantages of centralisation. The M.A.S. has struggles before it; not only against the bosses, but also against the N.U.R. — one of whose weapons is the lying rumour (“The Mutual Aid Society is a boss’s organisation,” is one we have heard) — and support from other rail centres would be very useful. But Euston should not control them, nor them, Euston.

The main difference between a solid anarcho-syndicalist case and the Railwaymen’s Mutual Aid Society lies in the question of aim. Do they aim at Workers’ Control? Well, these things develop gradually; they cannot be rushed. The Euston men have formed a syndicalist organisation because they found their experience led them in that direction. They did not do it to conform with pre-conceived theories.

When their experience points to the need to go towards Workers’ Control, we can be confident they will do that, too. What they have already created is the basic organisation, and in our opinion is one of the most heartening of post-war working-class initiatives.

~ Philip Sansom


This article first appeared in two parts on December 6th and December 13th 1952. Both these issues are part of the Freedom Newspaper Archive, which brings together more than 1,300 issues of the anarchist paper in one digital set.