The German-born anarcho-syndicalist, Rudolf Rocker, devotes a passage in his Anarcho-Syndicalism (London: Pluto Press 1989) to Robert Owen’s proposal in the early 1830s to set up a Grand Consolidated Trade Union which would include all the working people in every trade, its plans for supporting unemployed workers, and finally its gradual decline in the 1840s. See pages 57-66. The Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was intended to supersede the existing situation where the workers were divided into separate trade unions according to their different trades and industries. At the same time, the new, umbrella union would be organised into different divisions for the workers in specific branches of industry. The ultimate aim was for the workers themselves to take over production, which they would then market themselves through special shops, according to the cost of manufacturing the article. Instead of conventional currency, special labour notes, representing labour value, would be exchanged for these products. To support unemployed workers, the trade unions would also invest in land, which would be worked by unemployed workers, and co-operatives, which would also provide the unemployed with work, producing needed goods that would be purchased by the other members of the Union.
Rocker quotes the following passage from the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union’s statement of its aims.
As land is the source of the first necessaries of life, and as, without the possession of it, the producing classes were ever remain in a greater or less degree subservient to the money capitalists, and subsequent upon the fluctuations of trade and commerce, this committee advises that a great effort should now be made by the unions to secure such portions of it on lease as their funds will permit, in order that in all turn-outs the men may be employed in rearing the greater part, if not the whole, of their subsistence under the direction of practical agricultural superintendents, which arrangements would not have the effect of lowering the price of labour in any trade, but on the contrary would rather tend to in increase it by drawing off the at present superfluous supply to the manufacturers.
The committee would, nevertheless, earnestly recommend in all cases of strikes and turn-outs, where it is practicable, that the men be employed in the making or producing of all such commodities as would be in demand among their brother unionists; and that to effect this, each lodge should be provided with a workroom or shop in which those commodities may be manufactured on account of such lodge, which shall make proper arrangements for the supply of the necessary materials.
That in all cases where it is practicable, each district or branch should establish one or more depots of provisions and articles in general domestic use: by which means the working man may be supplied with the best commodities at little above wholesale prices. (Pp.61-2)
Rocker notes how this was greeted by the radical paper, The Poor Man’s Guardian
But far different from the paltry objects of all former combinations is that now aimed at by the congress of delegates. Their reports show that an entire change in society-a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing order of the world-is contemplated by the working classes. They aspire to be at the top instead of the bottom of society-or rather that there should be no bottom or top at all. (p. 59).
Rocker then describes the mass agitation for a general strike to bring about a ten-hour working day, the denunciations and persecution of the union, trade unionists in general, and political agitators, and how the G.N.C. finally petered out. Many of its members left to join the Chartists, while the events on the Continent in the 1840s also worked against working class radicalism.
The G.N.C.’s supporters made it very clear in their debates with other radicals, who wanted the political reform of the franchise and the House of Commons, that after the G.N.C. took power parliament would be made totally redundant.
If, for example, one reads The Pioneer, the organ of the G.N.C. managed by James Morrison, one frequently encounters arguments that sound thoroughly modern. This is revealed especially in the discussions with the political reformers, who had inscribed on their banner the democratic reconstruction of the House of Commons. They were told in reply that the workers had no interest whatever in efforts of that sort, since an economic transformation of society in the Socialist sense would render the House of Commons superfluous. Its place would be taken by the labour boards and the industrial federations, which would concern themselves merely with problems of production and consumption in the interest of the people. These organisations were destined to take over the functions of the present entrepreneurs; with common ownership of all social wealth there would no longer be any need for political institutions. The wealth of the nation would no longer be determined by the quantity of goods produced, but by the personal advantage that every individual derived from them. The House of Commons would in the future be merely a House of Trades. (pp. 62-3).
It’s a hopelessly utopian dream. Unfortunately the need for legislation and a democratic parliament isn’t removed by the almost complete socialisation of the land and industry, as the former USSR shows. The various shops set up to sell goods according to the labour theory of value collapsed because they didn’t take into account demand for the goods. Nevertheless, the system has been revived on a small scale by communities running various local currency schemes, in which vouchers are exchanged for so many hours of work, and these have had some success. As these schemes are locally based, they have stimulated the revival of local, small businesses.
As for the idea of the Union purchasing land, that’s very much part of the ‘back to the land’ movement of the early 19th century. It’s similar to Bronterre O’Brien’s demand at the Manchester Guardian of ’40 acres and a mule’. As many of the new urban workers either themselves had been, or were the children of migrants to the towns from the country, the idea of going back to the land to gain a livelihood, away from the horrors of urban life, was obviously attractive.
There are also links to the ideas of the French Utopian Socialist, Louis Blanc, during the Revolutions of 1848 for ‘National Workshops’. These would be stare run workshops for the unemployed, which would be managed as co-operatives. Any profits made would be put back into buying up other factories and workshops, until gradually the whole of French industry would be nationalised. Although these workshops were set up, they were deliberately run down and mismanaged so that the scheme eventually collapsed. It was given to a minister or civil servant who hated the idea, and the workers employed in them were given pointless tasks, such as digging ditches, only to fill them in again.
Despite this, I do like these ideas. And I do wonder now long workfare would last, if a trade union set up a genuine workers’ co-operative on the Owenite model, and then applied to join the government’s wretched scheme as a ‘workfare provider’. All workers receiving some form of reward for their labour beyond their jobseekers allowance, with the workshop aiming to buy out other factories, or at least, some of the other ‘workfare providers’.
Somehow, I can imagine that going down at all well with the Tories. They’d be utterly aghast, and try to find all kinds of reasons not to take it on. I sort of wish someone would try, if only to see the ‘welfare to work’ industry turned on its head to support unemployed workers, not the overpaid heads of outsourcing companies and big businesses like Sainsbury’s, Tescos, or various charities like the Salvation Army, who are just seeking to exploit an easy supply of cheap labour.