Jean Monds draws a valuable distinction between the workerist belief that ‘the struggle for power at the point of production leads to advances in class consciousness in and of itself and without the intervention of political organization in the working class’ and the correct assumption that ‘the key relationship of importance for the development of revolutionary politics . . . is the dialectic between point of production organization . . . and the working-class political party.’ There is a second distinction which it is also necessary to insist upon. It is a dangerous habit (inherited perhaps from the Lenin of 1902) to polemicize against workerism without at the same time warning against the opposite danger of substitutionism—historiographically speaking, the overestimation of the degree to which the internal development of revolutionary political parties operates independently of modes and movements of consciousness within the working class which those parties do not, in any direct or easily demonstrable way, cause. (It is too frequently forgotten that, three years after writing What is to be Done?, and in a very different objective situation, Lenin was berating Russian Social Democracy for its failure to grasp the degree to which: ‘The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic.’) I raise this question at the outset because it was within this problematic territory of the relationship between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘consciousness’ that my own work on the shop stewards’ movement was conceived and developed. Monds’ attempt to force my book into a workerist stereotype is misconceived. In his zeal to root out workerism, he appears to have quite lost sight of the opposite, substitutionist, danger.
One criticism I fully accept. Monds insists rightly on the need to investigate the whole social life of the workers, not merely their experience at the point of production. It was a self-imposed limitation of my own work, which I subsequently came to regret, that I neglected the social life of the craftsmen outside the factories. I cannot say how far such an investigation would have led me to modify my conclusions. I am sure that this point has particular force in relation to Clydeside, in ways that Monds suggests. His attempt to push it to the exclusion of technological factors must, however, be implausible to anyone acquainted with what the Clyde Workers’ Committee actually talked about.
The nub of Monds’ argument, however, is that I neglect, not the social history of the engineers, but the role of the working-class political
‘He . . . finds’, writes Monds, ‘that his own argument is thwarted at every turn by the central fact which he himself notes; namely, that the exclusiveness of the craft tradition limits the political horizons of the shop stewards’ movement.’ This fact, that I myself not only noted but repeatedly emphasized, would indeed refute any argument that ‘the craft tradition contained any spontaneous aspiration to working-class hegemony’: but, as Monds himself notes, this is not what I am arguing. The cause of the trouble here is not any internal contradictions in my argument, but Monds’ attempt to categorize it as workerist. He has decided, why I do not know, that however much I may assert that it is not so, deep down I am concerned to argue that the mass of engineering craftsmen became revolutionaries, that the shop stewards’ movement rested upon a thoroughgoing transformation of the consciousness of the skilled engineers. No such assumption is to be found, explicit or implicit, in my book. What I was concerned to establish were the following two propositions. 1. There was a good deal more to the craft tradition than exclusiveness, namely traditions of local autonomy and craft control (which, incidentally, I would never dream of describing as ‘workers’ control’). In the particular situation created by the war and dilution, these latter aspects of the craft mentality provided fertile soil for the growth of revolutionary ideas. 2. The involvement of revolutionaries in the shop stewards’ movement had a decisive impact on the development of the British revolutionary movement from syndicalism to communism.
Monds does not so much engage with the first of these arguments as simply disregard it. He asserts that the shop stewards’ leaders were ‘unable to move their followers beyond the narrowest struggles in defence of craft privilege’. This, of course, is a matter of judgement—but I think he seriously underestimates the important, though limited, advances that were made beyond the narrowest craft defensism. The shop stewards’ movement, after all, originated in a rejection of extreme craft attitudes to dilution, and its leadership developed a sophisticated (and not entirely unsuccessful) policy to reconcile the interests of skilled and less skilled in face of dilution. Similarly, Monds neglects the positive contribution made by the craft tradition of local autonomy to the emergence of independent rank-and-file organization in wartime, and