Syndicalism and unrest

Principles of syndicalism

Dave Douglass reviews: Lewis H Mates, 'The great labour unrest: rank and file movements and political change in the Durham coalfield', Manchester University Press, 2016, pp328, £75

The period of the “great labour unrest” in the title of this book was between 1910 and 1914 - a period when conflicting ideologies and organisational forms of struggle compete and overlap. This particular work focuses on what was perhaps syndicalism’s finest hour - certainly its most influential period in its challenge to parliamentary reformism and constitutional socialism.

At this time there was an ideological scrum when liberalism - within which the working class in general and the northern miners in particular had roots - and the newly emergent forms of independent labourism and the Labour Party itself were locked in combat with dynamic industrial unionism and revolutionary syndicalism.

Lewis Mates is a tutor in politics at Durham University with a deep interest and involvement with the Durham miners both as an historical subject and an ongoing working class social phenomenon. I regard him as a fellow Tyneside anarcho-syndicalist - our fields of research and political presentations often overlap and complement each other.

As a politics lecturer the author must first establish the veracity of class-struggle perspectives to gain any headway in the prevailing winds of academic iconoclasms, which everywhere now challenge class analysis. For people like myself, born into a world in which one’s entire perspective and everything in society is premised and structured on class struggle, class identity, class history, the very notion that the existence of class can be challenged or debunked is mind-blowing. Yet we cannot simply argue it is, because it is - as though this was some form of deistic belief.

So the first chapters of the book are forced to review the various other theories of conflict in this period in a search for something other than class that motivates action and outlook, which the Marxists have overlooked. In addition to ceaseless academic searches for alternatives to class analysis there are the conflicts within socialist class analysis of what the movements meant, how they were motivated and directed. Anarcho-syndicalist, Leninist or social democratic - all are capable of accentuating their own particular positives, while minimising the opposing negatives.

Of necessity the book makes central reference to the Durham Miners Association (DMA) - that giant, powerful bloc of the mining proletariat - and the struggle to control it: struggles based around democratic control, branch autonomy, centralising bureaucracies and the dominant political hegemony within it.

The book demonstrates the divisions of underground labour and their strategic and sometimes conflicting aims and strengths. In the process it exposes the unique and long-standing areas of job control, jealously guarded from management and owners. It also reveals the conflicting social and cultural traditions, which sometimes weighed against more revolutionary conclusions - such as Methodism and the deeply entrenched allegiance to radical liberalism, which was to fight the emergent independent labour organisations for every foot of ground.

Eight-hour day

The question of northern miners and the eight-hour day is one which has baffled labour historians, and particularly left ones, for some time. Indeed, myself and Lewis have argued over this question since he took up this field of research. It is an issue which prevented the Durham and Northumberland miners affiliating to the Miners Federation of Great Britain - the northern miners by and large already worked less than an eight-hour day, in addition to those who would soon be working fewer hours as they graduated to full-time face work.

But is was not simply the danger of longer hours which mitigated against affiliation to the MFGB. Linked to such questions were the dangerous inroads into those ancient areas of job control spoken of earlier. The northern miners’ short hewing shift usually occurred once - at some pits twice - a day, which kept a tight grip on the amount of coal being produced, and stopped the market being flooded, thus lowering the value of their wages. The eight-hour day demanded a three- and sometimes four-shift cycle. The coal may have belonged to the owners, but control of the hewing space, and who occupied it, belonged to the miners. The cavil system stopped management choosing who worked where - the union decided allocating work by lottery. In fact the legislation for an eight-hour day threw all of this custom and practice, this self-selection and control, into the air. It opened the floodgates to unlimited coaling shifts. Importantly too, surface workers, who worked the longest hours, would gain nothing from the act of parliament.

Lewis seems to learn in the process of exposition and changes his position, as different factors are revealed. At first he seems to suggest that the eight-hour day is the progressive flavour of the month, which the left and the Independent Labour Party take up as their cause célèbre - along with affiliation to the MFGB, which effectively made the eight-hour day a condition. But it is clear it is bitterly opposed by the rank and file and by men who were to the left of the ILP - particularly the syndicalist and industrial unionist supporters. Subsequently, however, Lewis does make clear the reason for the groundswell of opposition, and the left and progressive credentials of some of those doing the opposing.

Of course, the MFGB as a national organisation could and should have approached the issue by ring-fencing those regions with terms and conditions in advance of the eight-hour demand, but its rationale was that of the lowest common denominator - rounding both up and down in terms of hours.

The advanced job controls held in the northern coalfields were not enjoyed elsewhere, and it was these which ought to have been the standard. Amongst the ILP activists in the coalfield arguing for the MFGB and its eight-hour policy, there seems to have been some naivety as to what it would mean in practice - they appear to have believed that safeguards for existing northern conditions would be negotiated. On p87 Lewis expresses his surprise that leading socialists in the coalfields campaigned against the eight-hour legislation and urged all Labour representatives in parliament to oppose it, but by p121 he concludes:

The eight-hour imbroglio had profound outcomes for the DMA’s leadership. Their standing was undoubtedly damaged by the agreement, particularly their failure to take the issue to DMA council before signing, and their subsequent inability, first to appreciate, then to mitigate any of its damaging consequences.


The book indicates in great detail how the issue of the eight-hour agreement caused widespread industrial strife, which raged through the coalfield for years and was never really resolved.

Lewis comments:

Significant though the 1910 Durham and South Wales disputes were, they came too early for syndicalism in Durham to capitalise on greatly. The eight hours agreement strikes ended some months before the Cambrian combine strike began and before Mann’s Industrial Syndicalist had been launched … More generally there seems to have been no relationship between the lodge revolt against the owners and their own agents and explicit syndicalist ideas (p136).


Real syndicalism

I would need to take issue with this line of reasoning. Syndicalism was not invented with the term itself, any more than anarchism was invented when someone chose to adopt that title for their political outlook. Similarly, ‘communist’ was invented neither by Karl Marx by giving analysis and context nor by people consciously identifying with that particular term. A rose by any other name must surely smell as sweet, and it is the substance of what perspectives and actions workers engaged in which mark their political and tactical direction and strategy, not the title someone later invents.

The revolt of the miners in the 1830s of course predates the title ‘syndicalist’, but the press and owners of the period reported the miners were talking of seizing the pits from the owners, working them in common for themselves - and, what is more, as popular, industrial democratic lodges. That surely is syndicalism. The rejection of the pomp and circumstance, the grand rules and bureaucracy of the Durham Miners Association, in favour of rank-and-file direct action organised through democratic miners’ lodges (or sometimes even without formal lodge sanction), the rejection of the courts and labour laws - these were surely features of the age-old miners’ direct democracy and rejection in action of more constitutional or parliamentary routes: syndicalist in everything but formal title. The radical unions and rank-and-file workers’ organisations which sided with Bakunin in the first international were de facto syndicalist formations. The Levellers practised a form of agricultural ‘syndicalism’. These perceptions predate the invention of formal organisational and programmatic labelling.

I appreciate, of course, that Lewis is talking here of formal, self-identified ‘syndicalism’ as a conscious political current and alternative to other strands of the workers’ movement, rather than the de facto form I am referring to. But the tendency to look for form (or self-declared ‘leaders’) rather than essence manifests itself again with the Durham miners’ mass rejection of the settlement and vote to continue strike action. Lewis asks how influential was ‘syndicalism’ in terms of this mood of militancy and looks to the militant lodges which returned the highest votes. Many of these were the home base of the significant syndicalist activists of the region. Chopwell, Will Lawther’s militant lodge, returned, for example, a 95% vote for ongoing action. Lewis discounts this though, as Lawther was studying in London by then. The lodge led by George Harvey (who was an industrial unionist in contradistinction to “a syndicalist”), Handon Hold, returned a 78.3% majority, while South Pelaw, where a Socialist Labour Party caucus operated, registered 94.8%.

Lewis concludes that there is no easily discernible relationship between syndicalism as such and the militant support for continuing the strike, but I tend to see the question the other way round. It was not Lawther who had swung Chopwell behind syndicalist ideas, or Harvey who did something similar at Handon Hold, but the militant, class-combative culture of those lodges which influenced the leaders toward syndicalism and industrial unionism. The ideas of formal syndicalism would not have come as a novel suggestion to the rank-and-file miners of these lodges, who had advocated for generations just such perceptions, conclusions and methods of struggle.

Lewis actually unconsciously makes this point himself later in the book, when discussing the election at Follonsby lodge of George Harvey to the prestigious post of checkweighman, a position he had applied for on an explicitly revolutionary platform. Concluding in his letter that he was “strongly opposed to the kind of men we have so long kept at Durham and whom we in our ignorance believe are tin gods”, he declared: “If you want a gentle Jesus or temperance preacher, for God’s sake don’t consider me as likely to suit” (pp230-31). Lewis notes that his election was quite an achievement. Harvey had no experience as a lodge official, and was standing in opposition to the political and union outlooks of the current DMA leadership against conciliation. Lewis concludes that the vote was an obvious endorsement of his politics and stance. But this demonstrates that Follonsby’s political culture (and that of the older Wardley, to which it was connected) was de facto syndicalist and industrial unionist, predating the formal foundation of those political currents.


Where this book excels is in the detailed description of the struggle for the minimum wage, and the campaign in Durham to secure support for the demand, and for a national strike. It is truly ground-breaking in describing the complex arguments about who should be able to claim it, and at what level it should start. It follows the controversy over the exclusion of the lowest paid men from the agreement, thus crippling the demand from the start.

Lewis’s coverage of the vote which brought about the largest ever strike for a single industry in the world - with over one million miners downing tools and stopping not only the coalfields, but much else through knock-on effects - is also excellent. He is able to trace the attitudes of the Durham lodges, along with the changing national and county responses, as the government steps in to pre-empt collective bargaining by bringing in the Eight Hours Act. The act specified no details concerning grades or sums of money, which meant that everything was referred back to district bargaining, thus negating the main purpose of the strike: to win a national common pay structure.

The MFGB then conducted a second national ballot on whether to defy parliament and the law in order to force through the original demands and Lewis masterfully traces the various reactions to the new ballot. As far as I know, no other work has remotely looked at this period in such minute and fascinating detail. As it turned out, the Durham miners voted by a two-thirds majority to reject the parliamentary ‘solution’ and continue the strike. Nationally, however, the MFGB achieved 54.8% in favour, short of the two thirds it required.

Lewis sees the “high tide” of syndicalism in Durham as starting in the autumn of 1912, with the founding of the Durham Unofficial Reform Movement and the Miners Next Step Committee. Contrasting the relative failure of both wings of syndicalism to make any lasting gains, or win influence within the union structure, along with that of the young militants of the ILP, he cites the emergence of their Durham Forward Movement in April 1912. This organised parallel Durham miners ‘council meetings’ with more than half of the whole county’s lodges represented, discussing issues, tactics and constitutional changes. This was to impact heavily over the coming years within the political and cultural nature of the DMA.

Lewis believes that the ILP militants in fact stole the syndicalists’ clothes, adopting their rhetoric, slogans and postures, but they also had an extra string to their bow in the form of party and electoral strategies. The whole minimum wage issue, for example, was ultimately being fought out in parliament. The ILP also had a plan to take over structures and positions within the DMA itself, a course of action which anarcho-syndicalist principles precluded (although the industrial unionists softened their opposition to such a course and George Harvey, for example, did run).

This is a masterly work of scholarship, passionately researched and referenced, which addresses a key moment in the history of the miners in general, and in particular the mighty institution of the Durham Miners Association. Not for the last time would the mood of the generally conservative DMA set the pace and swing the tide for national action l

David Douglass