John Kelly, Trade Unions and Socialist Politics

Verso Press, 1988. Paperback $28.95 (distributed by Allen and Unwin Australia)

Bruce J Grimshaw B.A (Hons) LLB, Assistant Secretary Municipal Officers Association NSW Branch

This well-researched and well-argued study by John Kelly is recommended reading for those concerned with the relationship between pragmatism and ideology in the British trade union movement and the resultant effects of this relationship on the development of socialist perspectives within British Labour.

Kelly concentrates on two major questions that are central for all Marxists who want to change the world, as well as to interpret it. Firstly what types of trade union strategy would be most likely to develop political class consciousness amongst workers? And second, what role will such strategies play in the transition to socialism? (p.4)

In order to address these questions the book is divided into two distinct sections. Part one attempts to reconcile the role of ideology and theory of the classical marxists with contemporary considerations within the British Trade Union movement, considered in Part 2. In terms of pure scholarship the author’s treatment of the application of marxist theory to trade union activity and working-class organisation is comprehensive with an economy of words but with an abundance of ideas.

Kelly’s discussion of the contemporary debate as to whether the union movement, through ‘social contract’ style arrangements between Government, Unions and in some cases employers, is leading to ‘class collaboration’ to such an extent that the strength of working-class organisation is being eroded, is dealt with in a comprehensive manner as part of the consideration of the role of trade union leadership, in Chapter 7.

A useful comparison is undertaken between the ‘class collaboration’ view of ‘social contracts’ with the converse view, that, in the existing international political structure, practicality determines that the industrial working class is in no position to change the structure of the state and therefore must participate in social contract arrangements.

This comparison is relevant to the current Australian experience of the ‘Statement of Accord by the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions regarding Economic Policy’. Kelly briefly considers the Australian ‘Accord’ but concludes that because of the differences in structure between the British and Australian industrial systems and the historically different developments of the respective trade union movements an accord style arrangement could not work effectively in Britain.

The book concludes, regarding this debate, that the ‘democratic road to socialism will prove neither smooth or gradual if it proves possible at all’ (p 257). This is because of the contradictions between state policy and the unification of capital in the face of a radical economic programme.

The author attempts to answer the questions posed at the beginning of his study in a detailed manner. However the suggested strategies proposed for the development of a ‘class conscious’ working class trade union structure appear to be somewhat unrealistic in the current global political climate. A good discussion of trade union structures is attempted in Chapters 7 and 8 (Strategies) but the conclusions are predicted on the development of an independent working-class political party based on a class conscious working class trade union organisation, designed to press for changes to the state rather than being primarily concerned with wages and conditions issues. It must be said that this suggestion is a desired outcome not a conclusion that flows necessarily from the material presented, as the evidence suggests that these developments are not taking place at a very rapid rate.

On the whole, however, John Kelly’s book is a significant contribution to the study of the relationship between working-class organisation and socialist political development and for this reason should be read by activists and scholars alike. Hopefully it will lead to further debate surrounding the issues raised.