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
In his anxiety to liberate the political development of the revolutionaries who led the shop stewards’ movement from its craftist context, Monds denies that there was any association between the ability of revolutionaries to grasp the leadership of the engineers in a locality and the intensity of the local dilution crisis (itself partly a function of the degree of technological backwardness characteristic of local industry). My demonstration of this link, undertaken in a series of comparative local studies, is faulted by Monds at two points. On Tyneside technology was as archaic as on the Clyde, but there was no Tyne Workers’ Committee. I will not rehearse my explanation of this here: it was a complex one, and Monds’ impatient parody does it little justice. In the case of Coventry, I explained the failure of the Workers’ Committee movement by reference to the advanced technology of the area. Monds seizes on the militancy of the Workers Union (which, surprisingly in view of his own strictures against economism, he chooses to describe as ‘revolutionary’) as evidence that semi-skilled production-line workers were no less responsive to revolutionary ideas than were those craftsmen most acutely threatened by dilution. This conclusion cannot be upheld on the basis of the evidence to which he refers. Moreover there is neither acknowledgement nor criticism of my own assessment of the political implications of semi-skilled militancy in Coventry: ‘Dilution to the less skilled workers was pure gain. Though it might require a militant industrial spirit to grasp the opportunities presented, this militancy had none of the political overtones which arose from the choice forced on the craftsman between the pursuit of a craft or a class strategy.’
The point of my argument was not that there was any unproblematic trunk road from craft to revolutionary consciousness. What I was disputing was the widely held view (which Monds apparently shares) that craft militancy is of necessity regressive, anti-socialist in its political implications. I was objecting to the lumping of craft workers into an ahistorical category of ‘aristocratic’ which then operates as a blanket explanation of the political conservatism displayed by some craftsmen at some times, while excluding the possibility that there may be features specific to the traditions of a group of craftsmen which might help to explain why they, or some of them, associated themselves with revolutionaries, when those traditions came under attack. That exclusiveness was not in the end transcended is not a refutation of my argument—I never asserted that it was. The wartime militancy of the craftsmen contained the germs of a revolutionary spirit on which the leadership of