A note concerning the SWP and rank and fileism: principles and recent experiences

Below is a document put forward for discussion by a comrade who prefers to remain anonymous at present.

The IS approach to building in the unions requires some brief clarification in terminology. When Rank and Fileism is referred to we are talking about the formation of an organised tendency within a specific union that is linked to the revolutionary organisation but consists of union militants not all of whom are members of the organisation. Rank and file bodies however are simply those bodies within the movement which are not part of the union hierarchy in particular strike committees, Workers Committees which begin to transcend being simply union bodies and gather around them political functions, and finally Joint Shop Stewards Committees in earlier days. The Minority Movement, which was led by the CPGB, being the model of a political rank and file organisation. Broad Lefts by contrast are organised tendencies within specific unions that aim above all else to elect left wingers into union positions.

The origins of the IS/SWP approach to the unions goes back to before 1914 and the syndicalist revolt, the experience of dual unions, moves through the Workers Committees of WW1 and can then be seen in a more rounded form in the early Minority Movement associated with the CPGB in its heroic period. Early discussions by IS theorists and historians of the rank and file base themselves on these experiences almost exclusively only later in the 1970s were the later experiences of the CPGB looked at in a more or less positive light and even then the influence of Stalinism in wrecking their work in the unions was usually drawn out explicitly.

Each of these successive movements was based on the rising power of the shop stewards in the production process which being based on piece work granted them considerable power. In turn the JSSC’s and Workers Committees derived considerable power from their member stewards. These bodies were, of course, unofficial and outside the structures of the unions which were still often craft based. Apart from the ever greater amalgamations this situation was more or less unchanged until the introduction of Measured Day Work, the increasing incorporation of the stewards from the late 1970’s and final the restructuring of British capitalism under Thatcher. By that time however the steward system had spread to wide sections of the white collar union movement. But individual stewards primarily acted to represent individual workers when under threat of disciplineries rather than acting as leaders of groups of workers in pay and condition negotiations.

Another oft neglected influence on the development of the IS understanding of the unions was that of Trotsky and the Revolutionary Communist Party led by Jock Haston. It was not an accident that led the RCP to publish Trotsky’s last uncompleted writings on unions, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, not once but three times and this when there was severe paper rationing. Although the perspective contained in this essay, best elaborated in the so called Transitional Programme, many of the points discussed in it are prescient. Combine those writings with the experience of the CPGB and their own small scale experiences, the RCP recruited heavily from the Stalinists in the early years of WW2 particularly in engineering, and it becomes obvious where Duncan Hallas and other derived their understanding of the unions from. A statement on the IS approach to Industrial Work, as understood in 1971, can be found appended below this note.

In some ways the real tragedy of IS lies in its failure to supplant the CPGB in industry before the onset of The Downturn and the developments mentioned above. There were, of course, other self inflicted wounds as with the loss of the Birmingham Engineering fraction a part of the split of 1976. As you doubtless know The Downturn was later described and it was recognised that the conditions for the development of a rank and file movement no longer existed. The new SWP was left without an industrial or union strategy but was forced to ‘steer left’ and was ever more isolated until after the Miners Strike. It had reverted to being a propaganda group but encumbered with a completely false perspective its propaganda was increasingly divorced from reality in the workplaces and unions.

After the election of Thatcher in 1979 the small SWP led rank and file groups were slowly but surely shut down by the leadership of the SWP. For the most part the members accepted this and were happy to dissolve the groups as it was recognised that all too often the various groups no longer contained anybody other than SWP members. But in a slightly earlier period some rank and file groups had been manipulated by the leadership in order to squeeze oppositionists out of them as with the Hospital Worker grouping which was dissolved as a national body in 1977/78, with local bulletins replacing the national magazine, which probably negatively impacted on the SWP intervention in the 1979 dispute. The only rank and file body which resisted being dissolved was Building Worker which became independent and was reduced to next to nothing.

With the development of the Downturn thesis and the turn to political education as a priority after 1981 it could be argued that the SWP was unfit to intervene in the Miners Strike but the reverse is true. It is true that if The Collier, the miners rank and file paper, had still existed it might have been used as a tool for intervention but that would have been at a lower political level than was the case with using Socialist Worker for the same purpose. In general the SWP responded swiftly and correctly after the strike broke out calling for mass pickets and the extension of the strike while opposing the call for a national ballot. This would not have been possible were it not for the educational work that took place before the strike. Where we went wrong was in not adapting quickly enough to the development of the Miners Support Groups after the first few weeks of the dispute if anything we were a little sectarian but we were right in trying to extend the strike as it was the only way to win.

By 1981 and the last attempt to do systematic workplace bulletins, smaller attempts have been tried but rapidly abandoned, the SWP had virtually no members in engineering or heavy industry. But it did have a concentration of members, mostly graduates, in white collar often government unions. As time passed they more and more acted as sections of the various Broad Left formations in the unions. It is noticeable that the greatest number of party activists, in particular those recruited in the 1980s, are to be found in UNISON, PCS, NUT, UCU and Unite. It is also noticeable that few, if any, leading SWP cadre in these unions were recruited as a result of union or strike support work but came almost totally from work in the colleges.

Were there opportunities to build rank and file bodies during the 1980s and 1990s? Possibly but one would have to say that such opportunities were few and far between. Indeed such episodes were extremely rare, short lived and could not be sustained. To attempt to build such bodies would simply have wasted resources and further isolated SWP militants and in general I agree with the move of comrades into the Broad Left formations with a view to collaborating with other left forces. But what should have been a tactic has become a policy that has benefited the prestige and standing of individual members, as they have ascended the union hierarchy, and the party leadership both. By a gradual process the SWP has found itself supporting, more or less most of the time, a Broad Left strategy that its theories explode and many of its members find repulsive. But key members have been happy with it and have been able to function almost totally independently of the party until they come into open conflict with the party and when that has happened there have been a series of small explosions.

Sometimes it becomes hard to understand why the SWP has fought to have its members elected to leading union positions when having won senior positions they do not use those posts to further workers’ struggles and even betray the very objectives of the movement. For example having fought for many years in the CWU Jane Loftus became President of that union in the 1990s and remains a senior member of the union to this day although she resigned from the SWP in 2009. Having resigned in 2009 Loftus was no longer functioning under the discipline of the SWP but until that point the decisions of the party were binding on her so it is germane to consider her record while still a member of the SWP.

Sadly her record is a poor one from the point of view of the self activity of the working class. In 2004 she voted for the ‘Major Change’ deal which let to job losses her argument being the need to preserve left unity. This writer would argue that left unity is all well and good but only if it benefits their struggles of the working class otherwise it is the duty of revolutionaries to tell the truth and damn the consequences. Loftus is reported at the time to have claimed that her decision was made after consultations with leading members of the SWP. Rather more oddly in the lead up to the 2006 pay deal Loftus failed to campaign against the deal although this was the position of the SWP. She did, in this instance, vote against the deal but refused to campaign against it thereby negating the purpose of a revolutionary being a leading figure in a trade union! Again her rationale was that she had to preserve left unity and could not campaign against the deal as President of the CWU. In fact she could have resigned that position or registered her opposition to the deal, kept her position (until removed) and then campaigned against the sell out. The question here is why did the ‘leading members’ of the SWP she consulted with in 2004 take the position they did and why was nothing said against her lack of action in 2006?

One particularly grotesque example of this autonomy, the Industrial Department and the union fraction leadership in question totally abdicated any responsibility for the actions of our then comrades, took place in PCS in 2006. At the time the Blair government was attempting to weaken the pension rights of new starters thereby seeking to drive a wedge between them and existing employees. The only, rather obvious, position that revolutionaries could adopt with regard to this action was total opposition although the left led executive of PCS, including its considerable Socialist Party fraction, decided to the contrary. Worse however the two embers of the SWP on that executive, Sue Bond and Martin John, also voted against rejecting this rotten deal. This vote taking place after the same two comrades had helped block strike action the previous year without a word being said publicly by the SWP to repudiate their treachery.

Thankfully there was no rerun of the SWP’s abstention in 2005 and the organisation belatedly took action and therefore responsibility for its members on the UNISON Executive. But how ridiculous was it for Socialist Worker, then edited by Chris Bambery, to be arguing against a sell out deal that its supporters on the executive were actually voting for? How lacking in backbone and leadership was the Industrial Department in not taking action against the comrades in question? How lacking in direction and again in leadership was the PCS fraction that it did not raise the alarm with the leadership of the party even if it lacked confidence to take action itself? In the end Sue Bond would offer a humiliating apology and hang on to her membership of the SWP and Martin John resigned in order not to be expelled. That Martin John had not been expelled years previously by the CC, which knew of his repeated battering of his partner, is another question best not mentioned in polite company.

Lip service is always paid to building a rank and file movement but nothing actually done, as the right circumstances do not exist, meanwhile those comrades elected to the lading bodies of these unions act autonomously with no direction or control by their branches, fractions or from the party’s Industrial Department. The result has been a series of disasters and even at the last conference it took a vote to compel the Unite fraction to oppose Len McCluskey the do nothing Broad Leftist General Secretary. Remember that the Industrial Department is currently staffed by Michael Bradley and Julie Sherry, both lacking in weight in the counsels of the leadership, and is bossed by Delta.

So does the SWP fetishize the concept of a rank and file movement? No, not at all, it pays the concept lip service but the apparat has nothing to say on it. Nor do the party’s theorists say anything about the unions, Broad Lefts, rank and file movements or much else that has to do with the workplaces. I leave aside the inconsequential efforts of Delta as they have no value. Importantly nothing is done to prepare the party cadre to develop a rank and file movement with the result that many comrades are in practice indistinguishable from the centrists and reformist lefts in the unions. The loss of leading militants from the party might well be explained by loyalties divided between revolutionary principles, which can appear tarnished by the leadership of the party, and a perceived loyalty to left unity and trade union autonomy. More objectively one cannot but note that some of the comrades lost might very well have succumbed to careerism and political opportunism. But given that the leadership of the party had failed to maintain an overview of the activities of these comrades let alone control them they cannot be completely exonerated of guilt for such losses and must be held to account for their failure to adhere to long established principles.

So what would a revolutionary politics look like in the trade unions today? It would not be a trade union politics, but the translation of revolutionary politics into the trade union arena keeping in mind that large sections of the working class are not in the trade unions and that but a very small minority of workers are active trade unionists. As Duncan Hallas pointed out in the 1970’s there is no vanguard layer of workers today the task is to create that layer and to equip it with the ideas needed to defeat the bosses. That can only be done by building a revolutionary pole in the workplaces and secondarily in the unions.

To build that revolutionary pole we would first need to have a better understanding of the class as it is at the point of production today than is currently the case. We need then a research project that will develop a picture of the class as it is in the workplaces and of those sections that constitute the reserve army of labour. Many elements of such a picture are already in our hands but no coherent picture has yet emerged that enables us to locate the key sections of the class in terms of their strategic location in the processes of production and distribution. Nor have we yet adequately mapped the nature of the recent East European migrant workers and their role in the production process indeed it is striking that many quite conservative unions are many years ahead of us in this regard.

It is also vital to abandon the illusion that a majority of our class is organised or, failing that, has at least some kind of elementary class consciousness. Most do not and a considerable part of the class lacks any kind of knowledge of unions or connection to them. It follows that even if the absurd fantasy, raised more than once in recent years by the leadership, of a General Strike could be realized that a substantial part of the class would be untouched by a struggle led by the unions. It is certainly true however that if wide layers of the class were in a position that a call for a General Strike had purchase on reality that even those layers of the class previously untouched by union organisation would be breaking down the doors of even the most sclerotic of trade unions.

The Rank and File tactic is at best inadequate in today’s conditions. It is far beyond the capacity of revolutionaries today given the low levels of consciousness and lack of organisation that characterise most of the class today. We need then to understand how we can work towards the development and foundation of a rank and file movement linked to a revolutionary organisation far larger than the SWP. This cannot but mean making the best of opportunities afforded by work carried out in broad left formations and by alliances with left union leaders, good examples would be Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka, without ever subjecting our project to their reformist ideology with its self defeating ordinances. It also means ensuring that all disputes are, as best is practical and possible, driven from below ideally by elected and recallable strike committees.

To reach even this modest place we must abandon verbally leftist demands for General Strikes that simply cause the revolutionary cause to look quixotic and considered objectively serve to alibi the lack of concrete action by the left reformist leaders. In the event of an even partial victory by the undeclared CC Faction and the full return to office of Delta we can expect to hear more not less of such verbal leftism. A revolutionary policy in the unions demands systematic work that is not disrupted by arbitrary and personal links. A policy that is motivated by an understanding of transitional politics the method of the United Front and rejects the opportunist search for influence that is not rooted in the workplaces.

Finally this author notes that this approach to revolutionary work in the workplaces and unions demands a strong interventionist leadership. A leadership, at every level from the local branch to national fractions, that takes responsibility for its actions and the resulting consequences. This requires an Industrial Department that has the authority and will to work with the elected leaderships of the various fractions and can provide them with advice and support. An Industrial Department then that would not allow individual comrades to function without guidance or leadership from the party and subverts our revolutionary politics for the sake of transient influence with left bureaucrats.


 International Socialists

 Policy Statement on Industrial Work


 This policy statement was adopted at a conference of IS members active in industrial and trade union work, and endorsed by the National Committee. It gives the general guidelines for revolutionary socialists on the question. Of course a fight for ‘democracy’ in the abstract will not succeed. The democratic demands have to be linked, in every-case, with specific policy demands on wages, conditions, safety and so on. The formulation of realistic revolutionary policies in the various industries and unions is the task IS industrial militants are now tackling. The present statement is a common element in all of them.

Conference recognises that, under modern conditions, the trade union bureaucracy is a special social group which is used in the maintenance of capitalist class rule.

While the bureaucracy reflects in varying degrees at different times, the pressure of the membership, it also serves as an instrument through which the employers and the State try to discipline and control workers, to limit and often sabotage disputes, to check solidarity actions and to prevent the union of political and industrial struggles. This dual role does not depend mainly on the political outlook of the individual official, though this is of some importance. It depends on the actual position of the bureaucracy in capitalist society. The officials are a relatively privileged group organised in hierarchies enjoying better pay, conditions and, usually, job security than the rank and file militant. They are under very strong pressure to conform to the model of the ‘responsible’ trade union officer, responsible not to the membership, but to the standards of the employer and the state machine.

Under pressure from both the workers and the employers, the bureaucracies try all the time to become independent, to change their position from that of servant of the membership to that of master. To the extent that they succeed in this the unions become mainly organisations for controlling the workers and only secondarily organisations of the workers.

Even where this has already happened to a large extent, Conference rejects the idea that the unions can be bypassed or ignored or that breakaway unions should be promoted. The experience of the last sixty years shows that these views lead to a dangerous isolation of militants from the mass of their fellow workers and so to a strengthening of the bureaucracy. The struggle against the bureaucracy requires the needs a combination of rank and file activity and work in the union machine. Unofficial and official organisations must both be used.

In the longer term the struggle against the bureaucracy requires the development of a national rank and file organisation and a program of action which combines immediate and long term demands. Central to this program is the question of control by the membership.

Therefore Conference recognises the urgent need to campaign for rank and file control of the trade unions. We recognise the that no democratic constitution alone guarantees active democracy, that being dependent on the degree of participation by the membership at large. Where rank and file members draw up programmes of demands specific to their individual union, these should (a) be based on the principles outlined below and (b) be related to the immediate experience of trade unionists in struggle and not mere blueprints abstracted from the present level of class activity.


1. All officials should be elected and subject to constant recall.
2. All full-time officials should be paid the average wage in their industry.
3. Union policy-making bodies should be comprised of elected lay officials only.
4. Election addresses to be circulated unaltered for candidates for all elected positions in the union.
5. Any educational qualifications for union office should be abolished.
6. No member to be disqualified from holding office on political grounds.
7. Full minutes and voting records of policy making bodies should be circularised.
8. No political censorship of union journal.

National Conference

1. National delegate conferences should be held annually.
2. Standing Orders committees should annually comprise of elected lay-officials.
3. No branch block voting.
Appeals Court
1. Appeals Committees should be comprised of elected lay-officials.


1. While in principle we support industrial unions and any amalgamations contributing to that end, the priority remains for maximum rank and file unity, for joint shop stewards committees, factory and combine wide.


1. No secret negotiations.
2. Every stage of negotiations should be subject to rank and file ratifications at mass meetings.
3. Mass meetings should never be presented with package deals unless each part of the deal has been voted on separately beforehand.


1. All strikes in support of trade union principle, conditions or wages be made official.
2. Dispute benefit to be raised by levy of entire membership when necessary.

Closed Shop

1. Support of 100 per cent trade unionism and the right of trade unionists to enforce closed shops.
2. Opposition to check-off system.
3. Opposition to employer policed ‘agency shops’.
4. Support of the right for trade unionists to discipline fellow workers who flout democratic decisions.
5. Access to job waiting lists by shop stewards committees. Waiting lists to be on the basis, first applied first employed.

Shop Stewards

1. Opposition to any ‘managerial policing’ by shop stewards. No participation on management committees intended to keep shop stewards off the shop floor for long periods.
2. Shop stewards to hold regular report back meetings: insistence on allocated time for such meetings; especially where there is shift working.

Individual Rights

1. Right of members to criticise union policy
2. Right of members to meet unofficially and visit other branches.
3. Right of members to communicate with the press.
4. Right of members to write, circularise and/or sell political literature.
5. Right of appeal direct to Appeals court.
6. Right of all members, irrespective of sex or race, to pay equal contributions, to receive equal benefits and to have equal access to all union delegacies and offices.

International Socialism Number 48 June/July 1971


Filed under Left Politics

6 responses to “A note concerning the SWP and rank and fileism: principles and recent experiences

  1. Pingback: Weekend Roundup 02/23/13

  2. throw-away@suremail.info

    ‘But what should have been a tactic has become a policy that has benefited the prestige and standing of individual members, as they have ascended the union hierarchy, and the party leadership both. ‘

    Interesting. I have a pet theory about some of the conflict over the model of party democracy and discipline – specifically about maintaining a monolithic outward appearance, so unity not only in definite actions but also public discussion (taken as ‘action’ in itself).

    Let’s say you’re the party centre representative negotiating with a union leader like McCluskey over his calling of an election. (I believe they did report they had done this). Now, if you can instruct your party members in the union to vote for McCluskey or Hicks en masse, that’s a bargaining chip in itself. There’s probably a fair few votes in it for Len to secure or not, depending on how the talks go.

    *But* – what if you had a kind of ‘force multiplier’ to make your members in the union weigh as a heavier bargaining chip than just their numbers? If you could make it so, upon instruction, those members would not just vote for one candidate, but suddenly all mobilise in advocacy for that candidate and against the other? On top of so many votes, you’d have all those people enthusiastically promoting the candidate in their workplaces, encouraging turnout, not airing whatever doubt or indifference they may actually have. A word-of-mouth campaigning network for free.

    So, there’s a material basis to the party’s redefinition of democratic centralism to mean a monolithic expression of a ‘line’ in discussion, rather than publically exhibiting debates. It gives the leadership more bargaining power with the trade union bureaucrats if the latter think that all the party’s members would come online with one voice in the election/ballot process, rather than be inconsistent or unevenly enthusiastic or fragmented. More than being a passive component of the bureaucrat’s majority, the party can co-operate in their majority-making.

    But, as with any benefit or deterrent in a bargaining process, it’s in many ways about credibility. How often are the party put to the test? Perhaps they’ve gone soft? So, if dissent and discord become visible, if the party centre wishes to preserve its bargaining power with the bureaucrats (and, applying this to other spheres, perhaps the kind of people with whom ‘movements’ are organized too) it has to ‘restore order’, or rather *be seen* to restore order. Perhaps even crack down against trivial internal stuff every so often, to show they’re still capable of doing it. And pursue some irrational campaign within the union with gusto, just to show the sinews haven’t atrophied and mobilisation can still be done.

    • andy Newman

      Sorry – do you seriously think Len “negotiated ” with the SWP over calling his election! The SWP are almost entirely irrelevant in unite.

  3. Interesting and, I think, useful document. No time to respond in any depth at the moment, but I’ve bookmarked the page and plan on coming back to it…

  4. andy Newman

    A rather abstract and undertheorised article I fear.

    I take it from the discussions of the CWU and pcs examples the author is not a union activist of much recent experience?

  5. A welcome contribution. A number of points coincide with my own views expressed in ‘Crisis:so what else can we do?; ‘The General Strike; Myth and Misconception’ and ‘Workers and others in the 21st Century.’ all at http://www.critical-mass.net . Regards, Roy