Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Rosa Luxemburg Group in Bristol in 1935, or less than it seems

Review by Alan Woodward, LSHG Newsletter, 38 (April 2010)

Grasshoppers, Stonkers andStraight Eights – George Massey and the Bristol Post Office workers 1930-1976
By Dave Chapple , 2010
240pp A4 format £10
From Somerset Socialist Library,
Bridgwater, Somerset TA6 5AU

This book, salvaged from a CWU union office, is a detailed record of activity over the years seen through the eyes of an activist who became an overseer in 1959. The second source is the discovered record book of the minutes of a union reform group (1935–37) in Bristol UPW, which was set up by the mysterious Rosa Luxemburg Group. Union activist Dave Chapple wrote the volume, his third book for the Somerset Socialist Library in Bridgewater.
The title refers to posties’ workplace slang. The book is exceptionally well illustrated with a whole chapter of cartoons; it devotes many columns to the reproduction of documents but is without an index for reference.
This short review cannot provide a full critique, but a list of chapter headings will give an idea of the contents: George Massey, Easton Boy; 1920 the UPW’s First Radical Year; The Bristol UPW’s Old Guard; A 66 year campaign for a Shorter Working Week; The Rosa Luxemburg Group 1935-37; The Cartoons of Arthur Hagg in The Post; Spain, Germany, Moscow trials; Bofors in Burma; The Bristol UPW Cold War; George Massey UPW Journal editor; Activists – political and social issues in the 1950s; The UPW and Women Workers; Workers control, Guild socialism and Whitleyism; George Massey – counter and writing P&TO Secretary; George Massey UPW Executive Councillor; The 1971 Strike in Bristol; Final Retirement,1976; and Thoughts.
I shall therefore concentrate on the chapters on the RLG, on guild socialism/workers control and on rank and file activities. There is plenty more to discuss – and possibly disagree about – on related topics in the book including a short account of the important 1971 posties’ strike. This consists largely of personal reminiscences, but the main details confirm the account in the official history of the union [Clinton]. George assisted the UPW branch activists and – acting in a personal capacity and as honorary member – staffed the UPW office, organised a levy in his own union achieving around 20% response, and went on some
local marches and demonstrations. He explains how the strike breaking telephonists were boycotted afterwards.
George Henry Massey was a Post Office member of the CPGB but broke with the Party in the 30s because he asked too many questions about the show trials of the old Bolsheviks. He re-joined after the war and stayed in, despite Hungary and all that, until after his retirement, in 1976. Meanwhile he had assumed a managerial position, while working with the appropriate CPGB Advisory Committee. He remained an honorary UPW member but was active in the managerial unions. George and three other members had set up a workplace branch of the CPGB, but as security was a key priority, they gave themselves the somewhat ambitious title of the Rosa Luxemburg Group. While this might be of some interest to those of us who once considered themselves as Luxemburgists, it turns out to have been a standard workplace branch of the now reformist Communists. The group had its own journal, secretly distributed, and was organisationally separate from union work. The main function of the RLG was secretly to lead a union reform group in Bristol, across the existing grades of PO staff, beyond sectionalism. The emphasis is on control from the bottom up, in this case the UPW constitutional commitment to guild socialism. The aim to rejuvenate the local leadership is admirable so long as other objectives are met, but in fact the reform group had little of the great Polish
socialist’s wider vision for a new society.  Guild socialism, sometimes defined as the full time official’s version of workers’ control, was strong in other unions, like the CAWU, as well. The best book is not something from the academic G D H Cole but a more recent work, The Tradition of Workers’ Control by Geoffrey Ostergaard. (Freedom Press, 1997)
When George was effectively expelled by the CP, the rank and file group shuddered to a halt. For more information on the CP workplace units, see McIlroy [2000] whose extensive research and writings on the
subject also cover a later period. Chapple is curiously non-political, and I would have liked the author to go from merely recording the facts to an analytical style that befits the Chair of the National Shop Stewards Network. For example, there are several questions which the book prompts but does not answer. Why is there not one word about the official union policy of guild socialism in the rank and file group’s Minutes? How could the RLG really be organisationally separate from the workplace? Did the rank and file activists ever break out from just workplace militancy? What was the strength and weakness of the CP workplace branches? Despite these unanswered questions and its modest intentions, this is a book worth reading.
Alan Woodward

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