Brian Parkin looks at the history of the dockworkers’ NASD union and its rivalry with the TGWU – and considers the lessons for revolutionaries today.
Revolutionaries should never be surprised at the innovative and unorthodox methods and forms of organisation that workers in struggle can sometimes resort to. As radicals in mid-19th century England were taken aback by the independent ferocity of “physical force Chartism”, so were the Russian Social Democrats amazed by the workers councils – soviets, the autonomous organs of workers power that rose spontaneously from the heat of intense class struggle.
The example of the NASD that I have drawn upon here is a reminder of the ways in which most unions evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – by splits arising from unacceptable compromises and betrayals of the incumbent bureaucracy, or alternatively, by fundamental changes in the technical relations of production which in many cases led to massive shifts in the relative power of certain skilled groups of workers.
Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.