REVIEW Jim Moher: Walter Citrine, Forgotten statesman of the Trades Union Congress

JGM Books, 2021.

A SENSE OF DIRECTION

It is, or it could have been, a happy coincidence that Jim Moher’s biography of Walter Citrine has appeared so soon after Andrew Adonis’s biography of Ernest Bevin. If Adonis’s book wasn’t so obviously an attempt to recruit Bevin to the Blairite/Atlanticist warmongering wing of the Labour Party the two books together could have been used to argue for a return to a much more intelligent form of working class politics than the simple dualist, good v bad, class struggle version on offer from, for example, Momentum. Of all Labour leaders in the twentieth century it is Bevin and Citrine who have the most to teach us at the present time. Bevin was, in the first instance, creator of the most powerful union of his day – the Transport and General Workers Union – put together from workers in trades divided up in a multitude of small businesses, notoriously difficult to organise, much like the employees nowadays of the ‘gig economy’. Citrine as General Secretary of the TUC developed it from little more than a talking shop to an effective organising centre – a ‘general staff’ – for the whole trade union movement. Their work complemented each other to the extent that Moher’s book could almost serve as a biography of Bevin, though Adonis’s book could hardly serve as a biography of Citrine. Adonis tends to treat Citrine as someone who happened to be around while Bevin was doing things. Moher complains that this is a habit among Bevin biographers, a habit perhaps enforced in this regard by Bevin’s own bad example.

There was indeed a tension between the two men which climaxed, according to Moher’s account, with the decision of Attlee, supported by the coalition cabinet which included Bevin as one of its most influential members, to exclude Citrine, and therefore the British trade union movement, from the British team present in San Francisco for the discussions leading to the creation of the United Nations.

Nevertheless what is most interesting and important for current politics is to understand what they had in common that enabled them, despite their personal tensions, to work together. At the most elementary level of course, they both recognised that the working class had to have physical power, meaning the ability and willingness to wreck things if they didn’t get their way on matters of importance. Secondly, they recognised that there would always be a certain tension between the interests of particular sections of the working class and those of the working class as a whole – and this might help to explain some of the tension between Bevin as head of a particular union and Citrine as General Secretary of a body that aimed to act as a coordinating centre for the whole Trade Union movement. Thirdly, although they were both militantly opposed to the influence of the Communist Party, both had in their youth been inspired by Marxist and revolutionary Syndicalist ideas, and the direction of their own activity was towards the working class becoming the ruling class. That is to say that, without any fixed idea as to what the word ‘socialism’ might mean, the economy and the institutions of society would be organised in the interests of the working class. And here we might instance Citrine’s intense, highly critical but also sympathetic attempt to understand what was happening in the Soviet Union which would lead us on to the fourth point. They did not see this as a matter of ‘revolution’ or of simple ‘class struggle’ and least of all seizure of power by a small group of people claiming to understand the interests of the class better than the class itself. They saw it as a matter of the working class itself, through its own institutions, solving the problems of society as they arose – within capitalism (one of Moher’s chapters is called ‘Coming to terms with capitalism’) but ever advancing, ratchet like, its own class interest. It was with this perspective that they helped establish the conditions in which, after the war, the working class could come close, even under Tory governments – much closer than it is at present – to becoming the ruling class.

A GIFT FOR PATIENT ORGANISATION

Citrine is best known as an administrator, an organiser of the trade union bureaucracy, hence Aneurin Bevan’s nasty crack about him ‘suffering from files.’ As if skill in administration is not an important part of a trade unionist’s work. One of his particularly attractive characteristics was his willingness to study administrative techniques in both capitalist and socialist models (it isn’t every aspiring young class warrior who devotes himself to learning ‘how to analyse a company balance sheet and about such things as reserve funds, bonus shared [sic. shares? – PB] and depreciation’) and to engage when necessary in large amounts of humdrum, unrewarding backroom work. But this was work and study always with the aim of advancing working class power and, with it, working class responsibility. In 1920, on assuming the apparently modest role of ‘Second Assistant General Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union’ he set about a radical overhaul of its organisation and finances. Moher comments (p.48):

‘Modestly, Citrine doesn’t explain the scale of the administrative nightmare that greeted him in August 1920. He had to deal with a rising tide of chaos induced by the slump in employment of electricians, the collapse of the union in Ireland, a defeat at Penistone, Sheffield, and the steady decline in effective representation in the cinemas, mines and for sea-going electrical engineers. The ruling sub-executive council dealt with 700 separate issues between January and March 1921. So, Citrine’s willingness and ability to drastically overhaul its systems made him a godsend.’

And he quotes the ETU President as saying: ‘the system of centralised finance which Citrine introduced saved the union.’

But he had wider concerns. In March 1921, in the run-up to ‘Black Friday’ in April when the Triple Alliance – Railwaymen, Transport and General, and Miners – failed to call a general strike in support of the miners, Citrine complained about ‘the utter futility of the stage army of Labour’:

‘At present, the movement is simply deceiving itself with its power. As a movement it has no machinery which enables it to function efficiently. Instead of passing pious resolutions at futile and wasteful conferences, we would be better occupied by concentrating on the long awaited ‘General Staff’. It is ‘organised power’ which ‘counts’ in the long run, not eloquent speeches.’ (p.54)

And that was the spirit in which in January 1924 (the same month that a very weak minority government was formed by the Labour Party) he assumed the role of Assistant General Secretary of the TUC: ‘His role was to be a mainly administrative one, literally to assist the general secretary. But as Fred Bramley (1874–1925), as well as being regularly away on international union business, suffered from ill health, Citrine was soon involved in wider matters, at which he proved more than capable.’ (p.62)

Adonis tries to contrast Citrine (and Baldwin) with Bevin by saying that Bevin built up his union from scratch. Citrine, by contrast, ‘became General Secretary of the TUC only 21 months after joining its staff. However, like most rapid ascents Baldwin and Citrine stepped into dead (or nearly dead) men’s shoes; and again like most leaders, they rose through established institutions and hierarchies’ (pp.30-31). But in Moher’s account the TUC was far from being an established institution or hierarchy. It had been founded in 1868 but ‘mainly as a political lobbying body focussed on parliamentary affairs … The new General Council’s role had been designed in 1921 as a supplementary power and then only to “coordinate” the actions of individual unions that requested it. Major unions – MFGB, AEU and T&GWU – had refused to give the General Council more power at the 1922 and 1923 Congresses.’ (p.72) To draw a comparison between the established institution and hierarchy of the TUC with that of Baldwin’s Conservative Party is ridiculous.

It was only in September 1924, the same year as Citrine’s arrival, that the main unions agreed a ‘vaguely worded’ extension of the powers of the TUC but it was nonetheless the TUC, with Citrine effectively acting as General Secretary in Bramley’s place, that secured the success of ‘Red Friday’ in 1925 (31st July) when the government surrendered to the refusal of the Miners Federation to accept pay cuts in the wake of Churchill’s restoration of the gold standard at the pre-war rate. The support of the TUC had proved to be more effective than that of the Triple Alliance in 1921, and it was after Red Friday, in September 1925, that Bevin joined the General Council. However much the General Strike in the following year, 1926, may have looked like a failure, Citrine took the view that it had established the working class as a coherent force, capable of acting as a single force, in society that governments had to take seriously. According to Moher, Bevin, who had initially seen the General Strike as a ‘disaster’, eventually, in 1928, agreed with him. Adonis (p.57) says that ‘Bevin was seeking not just to represent the working class; in a fundamental sense he was forging it as a class.’ The same could be said of Citrine.

A REGRETTABLE EXCURSUS ON BEVIN, JEWS AND EMPIRE

Unfortunately, though, writing in Labour Affairs, which has just reprinted Brendan Clifford’s article on Bevin’s supposed antisemitism, I can’t let this passage (p.145) go without comment:

He [Bevin] referred to the international money market as “a system of collective usury” and his anti-Semitic views are well known.’

Clifford points out that no-one associated Bevin with antisemitism prior to his becoming Foreign Secretary and therefore assuming responsibility for Palestine. Adonis predictably refers to his ‘disastrous postwar handling of Israel/Palestine’ and certainly it wasn’t a success. But basically he saw the catastrophe (‘naqba’ in Arabic) that was unfolding through the rapid influx of Jewish refugees into Palestine and tried to prevent it. And given the immense and more than understandable sympathy for the Jews in the wake of the catastrophe (‘shoah’ in Hebrew) they had suffered in Europe, he was accused of antisemitism and that helped the likes of the very pro-Zionist Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot in their project of burying the practical implications of Bevin’s (and therefore also Citrine’s) legacy.

Moher implies here that there is something intrinsically antisemitic about Bevin seeing ‘the international money market as “a system of international usury.”‘ The suggestion that ‘international money market’ = Jews could in itself be interpreted as an antisemitic ‘trope’! He gives Skidelsky’s Politicians and the slump as a reference. He was using a different edition from mine but I couldn’t find any reference to Bevin’s ‘antisemitic views’. I think the reference was just to the phrase ‘a system of collective usury.’ If the Citrine book goes into a second edition I would strongly recommend that this reference to Bevin’s antisemitism be removed.

The passage continues:

‘His [Bevin’s] remedy was “to create a regional grouping based on the Empire in which there would be a rough balance between supplies of raw materials and foodstuffs on the one hand and manufactured goods on the other, a group of nations practicing Free Trade between themselves, but putting up tariffs, if necessary against outsiders …” This imperial preference idea probably derived from similar recipes current at that time, not least Mosley’s nationalist ‘vision’. Bevin was taken with Mosley’s Empire preference ideas to combat unemployment initially but would vehemently have denied any Mosley influence for his ideas. In 1930, the press barons Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere attempted to commit the Conservative Party to Empire Free Trade. This failed with the Conservative government as Baldwin, the prime minister, opposed it. Significantly, Lord Adonis described this idea as “politically compelling if economically dubious”. Under Bevin’s influence, Milne-Bailey had developed these ideas of a Commonwealth bloc in a TUC economic strategy document for the Imperial Conference in October 1930, but Snowden was unenthusiastic and it got nowhere. Bevin had more success with his views on coming off the Gold Standard and devaluation of the pound. Despite “the vast majority of expert opinion” (including Keynes on the Gold Standard issue) being against him on his call for devaluation in his Macmillan Report reservation, Bevin’s educated hunch was “proved right” about the need to devalue the pound.’

This raises an issue that interests me – Bevin’s support for ‘imperial preference’ – the Empire as ‘a group of nations practicing free trade between themselves but putting up tariffs, if necessary, against outsiders.’ (Bullock vol i, p.441). This was a proposal put forward by the TUC’s Economic Committee in submissions to the Macmillan Committee and, as Moher says, to the Imperial Conference due to meet in September (according to Bullock) 1930. The Economic Committee had been established in 1929 at the suggestion of Milne-Bailey in the wake of the Mond-Turner talks which took place in 1928, a case of the new willingness of the capitalist class to encourage participation of the trade union movement in discussions about the economy as a whole. The imperial preference proposal was, in Bullock’s account, the subject of ‘a stormy and protracted meeting’ of the TUC General Council, a controversy that was renewed at the following TUC Congress meeting in Nottingham in November, when Bevin declared (Bullock, p.444): ‘I am no imperialist, but an Empire exists … Are we not entitled through the Colonial Governments for which we are responsible to say that we will not leave the economic exploitation of raw materials to the tender mercies of company promoters?’

1930, the year in which this controversy took place, was the crucial year of the Macdonald-Snowden minority Labour government. Citrine unfortunately was out of action for most of it owing to ill health but it’s difficult to believe he wasn’t following the debate and didn’t have a view on it. Moher points to the possible influence of Mosley. Mosley at that time was one of the best elements in the Labour Party and though Bevin kept a certain distance he was on occasion willing to be associated with him. The real embarrassment was the association with Beaverbrook and Rothermere who launched a ‘United Empire Party’ in 1930. The imperial preference/protectionist tradition associated with Joseph Chamberlain was still very strong in the Conservative Party. It was the division between protectionists and free traders that had enabled Macdonald to form his shortlived Labour government in 1924 despite a strong Conservative Party majority.

Moher says that the idea got nowhere either with the Conservative Party or the Labour Party. He then rightly says that, alone among the members of the Macmillan Committee, Bevin (together with Sir Thomas Allen, chairman of the Cooperative Insurance Society) called for Britain to come off the Gold Standard and that in this case his ‘educated hunch was “proved right”.’

But if the proof of its rightness was the fact that it actually happened then he was also proved right on imperial preference which (unmentioned by Moher, Adonis or even, so far as I can see, Bullock) also happened, under Macdonald as Prime Minister but prompting the resignation of Snowden as Chancellor, at the Ottawa Conference of 1932. I discuss  this and its importance particularly for Anglo-American relations in an article in Irish Foreign Affairs (Vol 14, No 1, March 2021) also available on my own website at http://www.peterbrooke.org/politics-and-theology/eu-economics/

There is much more that could be said in a review of Moher’s book, many more issues that Moher covers – for example his role in developing anti-Fascist sentiment in the 1930s, his conscientious attempt to understand what was happening in the Soviet Union and the limits and possible advantages of cooperation, his role in developing trade unionism in the Commonwealth (particularly in Jamaica), his role as a Privy Councillor during the war and his post war career managing an important nationalised industry (the British Electricity Authority). Even after retirement, his interventions in the House of Lords are interesting – arguing in the 1960s for more emphasis on national rather than local wage bargaining, the need for more competent management, greater involvement of the workforce in management decisions, and supporting wage restraint as a logical concomitant of full employment to prevent inflation, but only on condition that prices could be disciplined as well. Moher has succeeded in establishing him as a person of substance in his own right. He is certainly, together with Bevin, part of the tradition which Labour needs to recover.

Peter Brooke

May 2021 

 Walter Citrine: Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress is available from Amazon, Blackwell’s, Hive, The Book Depository, W.H. Smith.

Note from the Editor:  A reply to Peter Brooke’s review of ‘Walter Citrine, Forgotten statesman of the Trades Union Congress’ published in Labour Affairs June 2021 (https://labouraffairs.com/2021/06/02/review-jim-moher-walter-citrine-forgotten-statesman-of-the-trades-union-congress/) on the question of Bevin’s alleged anti-semitic views has been received from Jim Moher and accepted for publication, but subsequently withdrawn by the author. 9 July 2021.

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