Dispute between G D H Cole and Walter Citrine

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Lansburys coverOur guest blogger Dr James Moher  (former CWU & T&GWU official) describes an exchange between two leading figures of the Labour movement on the role of trade unions Douglas Cole and Walter Citrine he discovered in the TUC Library

G.D.H. Cole (1889-1959), an Oxford don, had been a research officer (as a conscientious objector), for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers during WW1. He was one of the brightest and most committed pro-union socialist intellectuals of the early to mid- twentieth century. He would become Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, but remained active on the left of the Labour movement for decades. He wrote extensively on every aspect of trade union affairs, The Labour Party and Socialism, as well as producing biographies of historical figures such as William Cobbett and Robert Owen, in a lucid style which influenced generations of activists. In 1925, he was promoting Guild Socialist/Workers Control ideas and wrote a piece entitled, ‘Organise the Workshops’ for [George] Lansbury’s Labour Weekly of 27th June.  

Cole article

In it, Cole urged the trade unions to ‘Organise the Workshops’ for a ‘A Left Wing Industrial Policy’. He was critical of the unions’ tendency to “make men loyal to their craft [or sectional group of workers], rather than to the workers’ movement as a whole”. In his view, workers should be reminded that their union card committed them to a class loyalty with wider industrial objectives.  The branch structure of the unions he saw as ‘entirely ineffective’ and ‘obsolete’ for this purpose and instead suggested that they should organise on a workshop basis to get control of industry. Shop stewards (then becoming common) should represent the whole shop rather than a particular trade or group. Such gratuitous advice would not be well received, even today!

Sure enough, it ‘drew the fire’ of the unions in the shape of a response from the new Assistant General Secretary of the TUC, Walter Citrine (1887-1983). In the following issue of July 4th 1925, Citrine, who had recently moved from being AGS of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) in Manchester where he had considerable experience in the movement since before the war, entitled his piece, ‘Theorists and Facts’. This gives a flavour of how he regarded Cole’s ‘advice’ and he took issue with what he saw as criticism by an outside academic.  He took it as implying the futility of all trade union effort to improve the lot of workers under capitalism, based on the classic Marxist analysis and conclusions. Cole had argued, ‘Hence, we must have a movement which can make a frontal attack on capitalism for the drastic remaking of society.’   

Citrine article

Perhaps reminded by his friend George Hicks or Alf Purcell of the General Council, that the left-moving Hull Congress of 1924, had just agreed an Industrial Workers Charter, he penned another, more emollient, article in the following issue (‘Where we fall short’, July 11th). This accepted the need for ‘a considerable measure of practical [workers] control’, and that ‘unless we can permeate the individual Trade Unionist with a fuller appreciation of his identity of interests with workers of other occupations, our prospect of achieving the wider objective of Trade Unionism is remote.’ 

The week after (July 18th), Labour Weekly, carried a reply from Cole, whom Citrine had challenged. He urged Citrine not to be so touchy, citing his own credentials for entering such a debate! He said, ‘I fancy I have earned [it], both by study and by work for the Trade Union Movement’. He went on to clarify that it was not his intention to demean the contribution which the unions had made since the 1850s. They had forced Victorian British capitalism to concede the improvements which had been made to the standard of life of all workers. But now, he believed, they had entered a new stage of capitalism in which their ability to pay was curtailed, especially by the burden of War Debt and the power of finance capital generally to which employers were increasingly beholden. It was in those new circumstances, he believed, that traditional union organisation, however strong, would not be sufficient. Instead, ‘a frontal attack on the rights of property’ was needed, preferably through parliamentary action, but if necessary through revolutionary force. 

It is a reflection of the mood of the time in the trade unions, that Citrine in his further response, (July 25th), did not return to the fundamental argument which he had first raised. Instead, he declared himself satisfied by Cole’s ‘well-reasoned and frank reply’ that ‘the difference between us is not fundamental’! Now he gave a short tutorial on the different types of union structures there were, (citing the famous Heinz boast in his heading, ’Our 57 Varieties’) and how complex it all was. He had been given the job of sorting out the different union perspectives on the best future structure by the Hull Congress! It came to nothing by 1927, as all the craft, industrial, occupational and class type unions were quite happy with what they had built over the years. 

A few days later, July 30th, (‘Red Friday’), the threat of coordinated industrial action by the ‘triple alliance’ of railway, road transport and miners’ unions, forced the Conservative government into substantial concessions in the coal industry. However, in less than a year (May 1926), a better-prepared government forced the TUC into a humiliating retreat ten days into the first and only British General Strike. The syndicalist philosophies of the previous two decades were tested to destruction. It was ‘back to the drawing board’ for the unions and the TUC. Walter Citrine emerged from this cauldron to lead the TUC in an entirely different but highly successful direction. 

But maybe Cole wasn’t so far out really, in calling for a workshop/office-based unionism along with Citrine’s ‘adequate participation of the workers in control and management’.  We are still waiting, nearly a hundred years on!

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