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Nina Fishman, Arthur Horner: A Political Biography.

Nina Fishman, Arthur Horner: A Political Biography, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 2010

Volume I 1894-1944, ISBN 9781907103056, 608 pp, 35 [pounds sterling]; Volume II 1944-1968, ISBN 9781907103063, 608 pp, 35.00 [pounds sterling]

The late Nina Fishman's magnum opus is an exhaustively researched biography of the great trade union leader and lifelong communist Arthur Horner. In many ways it represents a continuation and culmination of an argument that she first made in her PhD thesis. Horner is one of three leading figures in this book with minds of their own--the other two are Pollitt and Campbell, whose ad hoc benign interventions protect Horner from the party that they led. The Communist Party itself is something of an outside irritant--its strategic perspectives on the unions are never examined in any depth--which becomes a dead weight on Horner, and something Fishman thinks he should have cast off. Alongside this thesis there are plenty of examples in the text of incidental judgements which I would question. Among them I would list the observation that the lines between unions and management in Soviet coalmining were merely 'blurred' (p681); that the adoption of the British Road to Socialism, with its depiction of Britain as a near colony of the USA, 'enabled Pollitt and Campbell to steer the party back from many of the extreme anti-Labour positions of 1948 to 1949'--though the fact that it was written with Stalin's direct involvement and never involved the party membership is not even mentioned (p826); and that the Khrushchev secret speech revealed 'Stalin's excesses and miscalculations' rather than, as Khrushchev put it, his readiness to effect the 'moral and physical annihilation' of anyone and anything that got in his way--including whole peoples (p903). I also wonder why 'futility' is the only adjective used to describe 'the doctors' plot' (p948), and I have trouble recognising Palmiro Togliatti as 'a past master in finely qualifying the PCI's attitude towards the Soviet Union' a country that, as his biographer admits, he regarded as the 'the most complete form of democracy possible', and which he did everything to defend, even in 1956. (1) But then we are told that John Gollan--who could not improve on Togliatti's analysis of the Soviet Union twenty years later 'sought to emulate the Italian communist party'--an opinion not shared by most of the CP's members who favoured the PCI in the 1970s (p912). (2) These examples serve to underline the fact that Arthur Horner is not only a detailed account of the career of its hero but also a work of controversial political interpretations relevant to communist historiography.

Horner grew up in Merthyr Tydfil in the years when socialism was in the air and it was becoming a safe Labour seat. He passed from christian to socialist evangelism, and practised both as an ILP member from boyhood. By his mid-teens he was influenced by the teachings of Noah Ablett and the Unofficial Reform Committee of the South Wales Miners' Federation. During the Great War he organised anti-war meetings, was black-listed for leading strikes, arrested for spreading disaffection and only avoided the draft by absconding to Ireland, where he joined the Irish Citizen's Army, set up by James Connolly and James Larkin. He was a revolutionary before the Communist Party was founded and paid for his convictions with imprisonment.

Eighteen months after he took up his job as checkweighman in Mardy, the post-war slump in the coal industry had begun and he was a founder member of the CPGB. Hard times ensued. Wartime controls were dismantled, export markets were lost and the coal owners determined to force down pay and working conditions. Governments pursued deflationary policies in preparation for a return to the Gold Standard. Chronic unemployment and industrial conflict characterised most of the next twenty years. According to the early perspectives of the Communist International such conditions--allegedly barren of reformist opportunities --were conducive to a rising revolutionary consciousness under the direction of the CPGB. The main battlefield was in the trade unions and by 1924 the communists had established a National Minority Movement to lead the charge. Horner's prominence in coalfield politics had secured him a seat on the CPGB's Executive by May 1924, and with Arthur Cook elected as general secretary of the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) the Miners' Minority Movement (MMM) looked set to make a big impact. On communist reasoning the reformist trade union leaders, unequal to the times in which they lived, would be harried and exposed--if they failed to move to the left--by a militant rank and file. Separate 'red' unions might be formed--one actually appeared on the Fife coalfield in January 1923 but failed to displace its rival. By 1925 a major confrontation with the employers and the government was expected, supported by the TUC. The General Strike of May 1926 lasted nine days before the General Council called it off, leaving the miners to fight on alone. Horner and the CP argued for unremitting determination to press on even though there was a return to work in Nottinghamshire and the formation of an employer-friendly break-away from the MFGB--the Nottingham Miners' Industrial Union, which encouraged similar moves on other coalfields. By November 1926 nearly a third of all miners were back at work.

The Communist Party gained members on the coalfield, and argued, with constant prompting from the Comintern, that the movement to revolutionary politics in the working class nationally had accelerated. But the real situation in the coal industry was marked by unemployment, an employers' offensive, an MMM in retreat and a weakened MFGB. Horner's continued insistence on 'total war' in 1927 and 1928 reflected the CPGB's and the Comintern's logic. But even at this stage in his politics he could see that the formation of separate 'red' unions in Britain was a Comintern folly to be resisted, and he did so in the appropriate forums. He was elected to the ECCI in 1928 as the Comintern adopted completely unrealistic 'revolutionary' ambitions for all its national sections, a logic of sectarianism which was congenial for advocates of break-away 'red' unions even in un-revolutionary Britain. Along with J R Campbell and Harry Pollitt, Horner used his experience to obstruct such tendencies within the Politburo, but they failed to stop the formation of the United Mineworkers of Scotland in April 1929. Under pressure from Moscow, Pollitt and Campbell also came out publicly in favour of such splits in the course of the year. The best they could do--Horner included--was to 'mitigate [the] hyperbole' of the New Line (p186). But considering that the CP's denunciations of 'social fascists', that is non-communist leftists inside the unions, were broadcast by all party publications in 1929, they were not very successful. Horner himself publicly supported the most extreme positions (p192). Then in February 1930 the ECCI itself drew back somewhat from its own destructive logic (p197).

Even in South Wales the miners' union represented only just over half of the workforce at a time when the Comintern and the CPGB had been planning to create a separate 'red' union. Horner could see that unofficial strike action under CP leadership was also doomed to failure, and in February 1931 the Politburo expelled him from the party--only for the ECCI to rescind the decision pending 'a wide ideological campaign' against 'Hornerism' inside and outside the organisation. Meanwhile the Comintern decided in April that the British party had to increase its activities within the reformist unions. In May the ECCI instructed the CPGB leadership to desist altogether from the proposed expulsion of Horner. It was then arranged for Horner to travel to Moscow to admit his mistakes without further penalty. A better illustration of the CP's subordination to the Comintern could not be imagined. In every stage of this process--the announcement of a revolutionary wave in the British working class in 1926-7; the adoption of a sectarian position in 1928; the intensification of this sectarianism in 1929; and the retreat from aspects of its own logic in 1930; the Comintern led the way. It is hardly surprising that some experienced trade union-based communists had doubts about the direction taken --there were thousands who expressed such doubts by leaving the party or finding no good reason to join it in the first place--or that the New Line was greeted with enthusiasm by some within the organisation. But the private misgivings of leading party members were concealed from the tiny surviving membership as the party's publications trumpeted the official Moscow-approved rhetoric. Only after the ECCI itself retreated did Pollitt inform it that it was 'extremely wrong' to dismiss the reformist unions (the only effective unions in Britain) as 'played out' (p231).

It was after another spell in prison--fifteen months hard labour--that Horner, according to his own account, analysed the failings of the previous thirteen years since his first incarceration. Fishman tells us that, with the aid of Clausewitz's On War, Horner emerged in 1932--though he was far from being a labour movement general and had no army to command--'with a new systematic approach to economic conflict, which guided his conduct of union affairs until his retirement as NUM general secretary in 1959' (p239). Yet he did so, the author judges (p965), holding on to the liability of his membership of the CPGB, a decision which is explained mostly in terms of personal friendships (p968, p407), Fishman adding that: 'No opportunity presented itself which would have enabled him to leave the party in hot blood' (p968). For many, of course, the Khrushchev revelations and the Soviet suppression of the revolt in Hungary in 1956 provided such an occasion, though we have already seen that Fishman plays that down. Sentiment, if not sentimentality, then, seems to have been an important component of the outlook of the would-be scientific Clausewitzian, if Fishman's account is accurate.

Horner's own summation of the lessons of Clausewitz adds up to the banal observation--one that Bevin or Citrine could happily subscribe to --that 'you can succeed only if you adopt the principle of inflicting the greatest degree of damage on your opponents, with the least hurt to your own forces' (p241). In practice it might have meant repudiation of the communist doxa that maximalist demands, put by a minority, could radicalise much larger numbers, even as these demands were defeated--a theory Trotsky later formulated in his 'transitional programme'. The forces at Horner's disposal in 1932 were miserably poor and the forces arraigned against him were mighty, and he had considerable experience of campaigns that had led to defeat, division and demoralisation, rather than the waves of radicalism that the Comintern had forecast. The MFGB was weak and divided, the CPGB was negligible--and also divided in this telling. The tasks before him included the need to defeat the breakaway South Wales Miners' Industrial Union, build the South Wales Miners' Federation (SWMF) and strengthen rank and file organisation, on which Horner's personal standing and promotional prospects rested, and win a national wages agreement on the road to restoring miners' wages to their pre-war level. Horner embarked on this work with members of his own party critical of his failure to heed the party line, which often contained a leninist-trotskyist logic of the sort I've referred to, as indeed it did into the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The advent of the Popular Front tactic in 1935 made life easier for him in this regard, by eliminating the worst communist sectarianism in relation to trade union work, and by easing Horner's relations with non-communist officials. While the communist line remained firmly behind all militant action, it was equally committed to unconditional union loyalism (p310, p403)--a formula which it stuck to after the Second World War. By May 1936 Horner had risen to President of the SWMF, and from this position he worked to overcome divisions in the miners' ranks in a situation which demanded negotiation and compromise, when overwhelming force was lacking or too blunt an instrument to be effective.

With the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Horner was able to focus on war production, minimising industrial conflict, while winning significant wage rises for miners and the promotion of long-standing goals such as national wage bargaining and nationalisation. Corporatist arrangements brought him into close dealings with Bevin and the relevant Whitehall machinery. Success came in the form of the Porter Award in January 1944--recommending wage increases and a national minimum, but only at the cost of strikes by miners intent on restoring differentials. This series of disputes, however, underlined the need for a thorough reform of the wage structures in mining in the minds of leading politicians. The war in the east ensured that the CPGB leadership was lined-up with Horner and against the unofficial strikes. The war also proved congenial to the creation of a National Union of Mineworkers to replace the MFGB with, it was hoped, a more united organisation. It also brought about a Labour parliamentary majority and nationalisation of the mines. Horner had the vision to champion a Miners' Charter of demands to be realised within the nationalised industry, and emerged victorious as general secretary of the NUM in July 1946, the month when nationalisation became law. When the CP turned to sharper criticism of the Labour government and renewed emphasis on wage militancy Horner had to juggle his determination to make nationalisation work with these potentially disruptive developments. Fishman thinks that Pollitt and Campbell protected Horner, as they had before, recognising the depth of his 'social democratic responsibility' (pp807-8), while they themselves 'trimmed briskly leftwards'. But she has to admit that the party as a whole stood for wage militancy and rank and file strength within the unions, and Pollitt himself advocated these positions (p875). Indeed the party's strategy was to tip the balance of power within the NUM to the left by a combination of rank and file militancy and the placement of communists in leading positions in districts such as Yorkshire. Pollitt is depicted as a restraining influence on this policy (p885), but the party's continuous espousal of it is played down and its rationale for wage militancy is not even mentioned, let alone discussed. (3) Even Horner, in 1955, spoke at the TUC against 'any form of wage restraint' (p892), but Fishman contents herself with the observation that he 'avoided addressing the contradiction between the NUM's support [for wage militancy] and its firm adherence to social democratic responsibility in regard to its own wage claims' (p893). But this only compounds the confusion. Horner's 'social democratic responsibility' is now the NUM's. The reality, however, is that the unions--the NUM included--were not social democratic in Fishman's reading of the idea; they were not imbued by a vision of long-term strategic collaboration with social democratic governments, as in Sweden. A host of structural reasons peculiar to the UK--including the absence of majority Labour governments--worked against the success of such perspectives.

Horner's dominance within the NUM and NCB was in decline by late 1955. His alcoholism is invoked to explain this, together with his demoralisation at the endless internecine disputes at NUM head office (pp897-898). In assessing his life's work Fishman argues that 'he formulated a new, intellectually coherent strategy' (p957), vindicated by his successes in South Wales in the 1930s. This also reflected his willingness to confront the failures that preceded it. But his membership of the CP, in this account, was a personal failing by 1947, and 'an apparently insuperable obstacle' to his realising his ambition to join the General Council. This was the time of Cold War, when the party's 'dogmatic opposition to the Labour government's efforts to build socialism in Britain' (p967) and its encouragement of conflict with reformist union officials were incompatible with the 'social democratic responsibility' felt by Horner. Fishman thinks that 'Horner's decision to remain in the CPGB had profoundly negative consequences for British political history', speculating that his presence on the General Council deprived it of 'a clear strategic approach to union-employer-state relations, underpinned by Marxism, Clausewitzianism and social democratic responsibility' (p968). Horner, in alliance with Bevan in the Labour Party and Eden and Macmillan in government, might have secured the continuation of wartime corporatism in relation to arbitration, conciliation and wage determination, or so Fishman argues. I've already indicated my scepticism about this thesis and will not labour the point. What the analysis cries out for is some explanation of how other communist trade union leaders viewed their role and how they coped with the dual pressures inflicted upon Horner. Horner was not alone as a prominent communist trade union official--there were others within his own union and also within the FBU, TGWU, ETU, AEU and Foundry Workers. Communist leadership in the unions at national level grew in the 1950s and 1960s when the CP pursued a dual strategy of wage militancy and the promotion of its members into leadership positions. Prominent communist union officials also resigned from the party in 1956 when Horner did not. We thus have the paradox that Horner--who was really a social democrat on Fishman's reading, certainly by 1947--remained in the party, while others--some of them self-avowed marxists--left it in disgust. He continued to speak on party platforms even into his retirement.

This demands a more systematic analysis of the nature of Horner's communist convictions than we get here, though scattered through the text there are plenty of interesting fragments. Fishman refers to Horner's 'rigorous intellectual honesty' as 'compelling him to acknowledge that [there was] sufficient reason and evidence to reserve judgement on the Soviet state' (p406). This was as early as 1938, though the acknowledgement Fishman refers to was private and referred to left-wing, but non-communist, trade union colleagues, rather than his own convictions. There is also some casuistry here, with plenty of 'probablies' qualifying Fishman's reasoning. Thus we learn that 'Horner's commitment to the international communist movement was probably wavering throughout 1938' (p406). Yet two pages later we are told that 'the USSR's uncompromising opposition to Hitler and Franco reinforced his allegiance to the Comintern'. Horner was not present when the party leadership conformed to the new Soviet position on the Second World War in October 1939, and Fishman adds that 'Pollitt probably ... recognised that if Horner had attended and voted "No", he would have refused to retract his opposition' (p419). I make that a double 'probably'. She then speculates that 'Dutt made no attempt to compel Horner to publicly register his support for the new line', probably because of advice from Pollitt' (p420). But Horner also desisted from describing Britain's war as anti-fascist, saw the Soviet war against Finland in the same way as the party leadership, and enthusiastically supported the People's Convention (p440) which, in the catastrophic circumstances following the defeat of France, was bound to be seen as subversive of the British war effort. Nevertheless, we are informed that: 'Had Hitler delayed the invasion of the Soviet Union, Horner would probably have been compelled to choose between his union position and party allegiance' (p452). Fishman also refers, circa 1947--at a time when his membership of the party was seemingly the impediment to his desire to join the General Council--to Horner's 'private conscientious conviction of the USSR's importance as a socialist country for the success of the worldwide proletarian revolution' (p701). He accepted the communist explanation of the events denounced in the West as the 'Prague coup' after visiting Czechoslovakia in 1948, as the Cold War reached hysterical proportions (p754); he regarded the Chinese communist revolution as a vindication of his decision to remain a communist (p839); and he returned from the Soviet Union, shortly after Stalin's death, 'in a more positive frame of mind' (p869). Horner may have had misgivings about the repression in Budapest in 1956 but apparently 'knew that Pollitt's certitude and ruthlessness' in supporting the Soviet action 'were necessary' (p911), and told the Daily Worker that an 'American interventionist conspiracy' had sparked it all off (p913). The page numbers I've given show how scattered these statements are, and there is no sustained attempt made to weigh their aggregate significance.

Horner's public declarations of faith in the communist world-view stretch back in time of course. He publicly repudiated the idea that the communists had contributed to the rise of Hitler; he came back from the Soviet Union in 1937 with his public commitment to communism undiminished, even though his visits coincided with death sentences for old Bolsheviks and old comrades (pp389-92); he thought the POUM had acted treacherously in the Spanish civil war (pp365); and he told the CP congress in 1949 that 'the British people were in need of the Communist Party' (p695). He seems, on the face of it, to have been a communist, though one who could see that the party's early aspirations to bring the unions under its direction could only damage the reputation of its members in the unions, especially those of them in leadership positions. If so he would not be the first to hold perhaps contradictory beliefs in separate compartments of his mind. Many leading politicians do this. And his perception that he had to be seen to be a trade union man first and last, while conducting trade union work, was of course right. The ETU case in the 1950s and 1960s derived most of its drama from the spectre of King Street directing union policy.

I hope readers will pay this book and its author the compliment of reading it and continuing the debate Nina started.

John Callaghan

University of Salford


(1.) Aldo Agosti, Palmiro Togliatti: a biography, London: I. B. Tauris, 2008, pp170, 236-37.

(2.) See John Gollan, 'Socialist Democracy--Some Problems: The Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Retrospect', Marxism Today, January 1976, pp4-30.

(3.) See John Callaghan, Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2003, pp157-65, 254-64.
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Author:Callaghan, John
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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