Meltzer: Anarchism & The Welsh Miners

By Albert Meltzer
Black Flag VOL III No. 17, Jan/Feb 1975

When I was a lad, I would creep surreptiously past the careless stewards into the miners’ conferences which were traditionally held in Cardiff’s seedy temperance hall. There I would listen to the bright little alert men as they elevated some local issue on the coalfield to the status of a glorious philosophical dialogue – and all of them were anarchists. The young anarchists of today seem curiously oblivious of the anarchosyndicalist traditions which exist within their own land and they resort to foreign ancestor figures to fill the gap created by the symbolic destruction of their own fathers. But the essential sense orf locality, the comparatively small pit where all worked (when work was available), the isolation of the valley village or township – all these were similar to the environment conditions which created the anarchosyndicalist movement of Spain.

In the history of the South Wales miners’ movement, some leaders were overtly anarchosyndicalist and had international links with syndicalists in other lands, and their attitude was implicit in the movement as a whole.

Leo Abse M.P. in his new book Private Member: Macdonald £3.50.

Mr. Abse goes on to describe some of the other influences anarchism had on the Welsh miners. Lewis Jones he says, was the only one of the world-wide delegates to the Comintern conferences in Moscow who would ostentatiously not stand up when Stalin arrived. But more ”the miners Lodge was the centre not only of industrial life but of all political and social life as well”. It was from its local health schemes that Nye Bevan derived the idea of a National Health Service. The miners’ institutions, clubs and libraries, the cinemas and the billiard halls, were owned by the Union. The miners governed themselves – ”the State had already withered away. There was an extraordinary contempt for external authoritarian disciplines. When South Wales miners hear music they sing: they do not march.”

Mr. Abse’s recollections of anarcho-syndicalism in South Wales (he calls ”our South Wales Labour movement… the most respectable and unselfconscious anarcho-syndicalist movement ever”) are interesting especially as the academic historians deliberately blot it out from public record. He does not in any way give the full picture. But his hints of it are fascinating. He himself was a social-democrat wwith a middle-class background, who was early ”led up the garden path” by John Strachey – presumably by way of ‘popfront’ fellow travelling – but also he says, without following it up, Herbert Read. He makes one or two references to anarchism to make it suggest he at least had some contact with the movement in the forties apart from his boyhood remebrance of the old anarchist miners’ movement. (He actually quotes Berneri totally out of context to justify his entry into Parliament).

There is some justification for his sneer at ‘young anarchists’ though the ‘foreign ancestor figures’ as well as the native ones were always part of the working class tradition. A couple of years ago, one Peter Michael Jones – a Welsh worker whose parents had come to London during the slump, mentioned to me casually ”he got his names from his grand-da who was a great communist and called after someone like Lenin”. That the anarcho-syndicalist traditions in Wales and Scotland have been forgotten is true. It is due not to the ‘curious oblivion’ of young anarchists but to a deliberate policy by Communist Party propagandists and by the historians. History for them is ‘great names’ not people. There are no ‘great names’ for them to collect. It is true Jim Colton married Emma Goldman to give her British nationality, and she is an extremely writeable-about figure, and that is the extent, therefore, that any of the historians and academics and anarchologists will give you about Welsh anarchism. But Colton is a more remarkable figure than Emma Goldman for he, with a few others, survived the tremendous blows against Welsh anarchism which would have happened around the time of Abse’s boyhood, and may have been the theme of one or two of the conferences he attended.

Sectarian socialist divisions were less marked in the period before the First World War; and many working class Anarchists saw nothing incompatible in joining a socialist club or even a party; with the rise of the Syndicalist movement, this lack of distinction became even more so. Tom Mann, for instance, was the leading Syndicalist whilst the in the ILP. Jim Connolly, in some ways a Sydndicalist, was in the Presbyterian background. Kropotkin’s attitude to local socialist parties, the co-operative movement and the trade unions, was clearly sympathetic. There were a few anarchist groups scattered here and there which maintained aloofness from other socialist movements. But that was the periphery of the movement – now assumed to be all there was at the time, because it preserved its identity. It is probably not true that at the conferences Abse attended ”all of them were anarchists”. But usually all the activists were.

The dangers of anarchism were seen very clearly by the Fabians, who abandoned their ideas of building a State Socialist movement via the Liberal Party to create the Labour Party – a movement based upon the established trade union bureaucracy in alliance with middle class professionals. This domination of State Socialist ideas is seen in the evolution of the older Independent Labour Party. It became the first part of the new Labour Party; then its right wing, then when its leading members were able to enter the Labour Party, secure as its leaders, it became a left-wing and then a really ‘independent’ party. (The Fabian struggle against anarchism incidentially is clearly traceable throughout the works of Bernard Shaw).

As the Labour Party was built by the Fabians throughout South Wales, it came into conflict with the anti-parliamentarian traditions of the Welsh miners. Abse indeed makes it clear to the point of embarressing frankness how, even as late as 1958, ”to our syndicalist miners, Westminster had always been unimportant” and they used the House of Commons, through the miners’ lodges, ”as a dumping ground for those in the union who were supernumerary, awkward, or even slightly senile”. He realised that with this indifferent attitude to parliament persisting to the present, any smart, slick careerist could fight on equal terms at the selection conference and once in, with the safety of a majority such as could be commanded in the Eastern Valley of Monmouthsire, he could act exactly as he pleased.

The generation of activist Anarchist miners took heavy blows. During the Depression many of them were the first to be laid off. But more particularly, the insidious growth of Labour Party power was strengthened by the rise of Bolshevism. I have heard about some of the South Wales delegates to the Comintern refusing to stand for Stalin in the twenties – as a gesture to feeling back home. But gradually the CP was built up especially among the younger miners (who are now the old-timers). They had behind them the glamour-value of the Russian Revolution seemingly appropriated by Lenin, and the apparently irresistible rise of Communist power as well as the myth that only Russia stood between us and world fascism.

The attacks by Churchill strengthened the hold of the CP, for everyone knew Churchill was the Welsh miners’ worst enemy. This is why, to this day, you hear Churchill’s action against the Tonypandy miners confused with his action at Sidney Street in London’s East End.

As the CP grew – and it grew in the heart of the Labour Party bureaucracy – the Welsh Anarchists were squeezed out. Men like Colton, once popular Welsh and English speakers, were ostracised, thrown out of their jobs and had to fight grimly to keep their place in the union – because they opposed the dictatorship in Russia.

In 1937 Sam Mainwaring Junior tried to put forward the case of the Spanish Anarchist miners to the N.U.M. conference and was shouted down … that was the bitter nadir marking the end of the movement. Reading from CNT Bulletin received that morning from Catalonia he shouted that Catalonia had never received a penny from British sources yet Catalonia carried the backbone of the struggle. ”They are Trotskyists… Fascists…” shouted the Stalinist stooges!

When I knew the Welsh Anarchist miners they were the rump of the grand movement, mostly old men who were regarded as ‘cynical’ by their fellow workers. But the women were usually much more actively ‘cynical’ in opposing the ideas of State Socialism. In 1938 for instance, I was invited to speak at a local ILP meeting on Spain, in a Welsh valley.

”Take care of those at the back,” whispered the chairman. ”those are the Wrecking Brigade.” They were a group of Welsh-speaking women who took great pleasure in ”giving hell” to the Labour and CP speakers – especially with ”toffee-nosed” English accents.

But to their, and my, delight, we proved to be fellow-Anarchists. The ”Last of the Mohicans” in the valley were four women, and two elderly miners, all that remained of ”the most respectable and unselfconscious anarcho-syndicalist movement ever”, though not quite all – as Mr. Abse discovered. For their influence was not entirely eroded when he came on the political scene.

But it was this contact with the grassroots anarchist working class movement that was ultimately thrown away when the conscious anarchist section, that had not been eroded by its lack of structure and definition, allowed itself to be allied with, associated with and finally – until our own clean break – dominated by the bourgeois pacifist and liberal elements. Perhaps this may explain our ‘sectarianism’ to some of our critics in the younger generation.

Albert Meltzer.

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