Back to 'Future' index

(as it was, and as it might have been)

REVIEW: Nina Fishman: Arthur Horner, a political biography, 2 volumes, Lawrence and Wishart, 2010.

The politics of the Communist Party of Great Britain

Horner in Prison- Marx, Clausewitz and George Knox

Ernest Bevin and the development of a national working class perspective

Horner's national perspective

Silicosis and miners' welfare

Loyalty to the Communist party and attitude to the post-war Labour Government

Responsibilities of the working class as a ruling class in waiting

A copy of this article in Word format can be downloaded here



Nina Fishman's biography of Arthur Horner can be read as a continuation of her earlier book - The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45. Her argument there was that the contribution of the Communist Party of Great Britain to the development of trade union power in the difficult years of the 1930s and of the war had been broadly positive, largely because, under the leadership of Harry Pollitt, the party rejected, or moderated, the policy of all-out class war in favour of what she calls 'revolutionary pragmatism'. Broadly speaking this meant loyalty to the existing trade union structure despite its 'reformist' leadership, justified theoretically with the notion that should a revolutionary situation arise the existing leadership could be ousted as the Bolsheviks had ousted the reformists who initially established and dominated the soviets in Russia.

She says of Pollitt:

'Throughout his tenure at the Party centre, Harry Pollitt laboured under a keen sense of his own intellectual inferiority. He was unfailing in acknowledging a personal debt to Palme Dutt for keeping him from straying from the Marxist straight and narrow. But Pollitt actually had no need to become fluent in Marxism. Indeed, by remaining regretfully inured to theory, his excellent political pragmatic reflexes could operate unimpeded. His supposed mental block clearly had great practical utility. One wonders when he recognized that he was often the one who discovered the 'correct' answer to a difficult problem, and that solutions rarely originated from the Party intellectuals who were adept at manipulating the Marxist-Leninist canon.' (British Communist Party, p.5).

Since Pollitt did not formulate his political philosophy, however, much of what she says about him is speculation, albeit convincing speculation, based on her assessment of the results. The word 'probably' appears frequently in the book and in the Horner biography, very often associated with the name of Harry Pollitt.

Horner is a key figure in the development of her argument. As President of the South Wales Miners Federation from 1936 onwards, then Secretary General of the newly formed National Union of Mineworkers from 1946, Horner was the most prominent Communist in the trade union movement. Fishman (Horner, p.969) quotes a review of Horner's autobiography Incorrigible Rebel comparing him to Ernest Bevin. They 'shared an almost mesmeric power to persuade others to follow them, and both shared an absolute mastery of administrative detail. Both earned immense respect from the employers against whom they fought.'

As a young man, after developing some fame as a 'boy preacher' in the Churches of Christ, a small Baptist denomination, he had been blacklisted by the South Wales coal-owners because of his militancy, securing some employment by using false names. To avoid conscription in the Imperialist war he had gone to Ireland where he joined the Irish Citizen Army in the wake of the 1916 rising. He was arrested and imprisoned on his return. One of the first members of the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain, he was elected by the miners in the South Wales village of Mardy as 'checkweighman' - paid by the miners themselves to check the coal-owners' assessment of the amount of coal dug up, the basis on which the miners' pay was calculated. He played a leading role in the 1926 strike, travelling the country to inspire the different unions that made up the Miners' Federation of Great Britain to keep it going. In 1929, however, he opposed the policy of splitting from the existing unions to form new revolutionary unions - a deviation from the official Comintern policy of the time that was labelled 'hornerism' by younger party militants, led by Bill Rust, editor (from 1930) of the Daily Worker. Fishman argues that Pollitt supported him, albeit discreetly, effectively proposing that he make a formal recantation of his errors and continue as before, which is what he eventually did.


Soon afterwards, in 1932, Horner was imprisoned again, this time for incitement to riot in an incident in Mardy in which, according to his own account, he actually prevented a riot. In prison, after a very rough regime at the start, he was given the job of prison librarian and Fishman, following to some extent his own account, regards the opportunity this provided as the 'watershed' in his life, helping him to develop a coherent strategic view of the class struggle largely inspired by reading Clausewitz. Thenceforth she refers frequently, and a little irritatingly, to his 'clausewitzian' approach, though all we learn about Clausewitz's philosophy of war (and its also all we learn from Horner's own account) is that the principle of war is to inflict maximum harm on the enemy with minimum harm to oneself. One feels there must have been a bit more to it than that.

Horner was also able for the first time to get down to reading Marx and Fishman, speaking in her own voice, rather movingly evokes the impact this might have had on him:

'Readers who have encountered Volume I of Capital at a comparatively early age may recall their own mounting excitement and awe at recognising, one by one, the features of their own everyday lives. The underlying connections and tensions of a capitalist economy are suddenly illuminated by the dual nature of all commodities. The reader muses again and again on the conflicting facets of use-value and exchange-value, and finds countless examples from their own experience which verify Marx's points. The other inspiration is the succinct, vivid account of the response of British factory operatives to their increasing rate of exploitation by self-organisation. Far from being martyrology, Volume I tells a story as gripping as the ripping yarns Horner devoured in cowboy magazines. The formation of trade unions, the organisation of Short Time Committees, and their ad hoc alliances with sympathetic Tory activists was a complex story which Marx relished telling. Horner probably also found the tone of Volume I vastly appealing. It is upbeat, brimming with confidence and also, paradoxically, gradualist.' (p.240).

But Horner's Incorrigible Rebel mentions another encounter in prison which doesn't appear in Fishman's account but which may have been important. He says: 'During my stay in prison, too, Professor Knox, a lecturer on mining and one of the leading authorities in the country, used to come in every week to talk to me. I learned a lot about mining from him.' (Rebel, p.120)

Professor George Knox had himself been a miner from childhood but had become a mining engineer going on to become Principal and Director of Mining Studies at the South Wales and Monmouthshire School of Mining at Treforest, Pontypridd, a college opened in 1913, owned and funded by the coal-owners. That Knox should have thought of visiting Horner in prison is itself interesting. Horner at the time would have been known mainly as a particularly energetic Communist agitator. Following Fishman's example I shall indulge in a little speculation of my own.


What characterised the British trade union movement at its best and enabled it to carry through and, at least for twenty years or so, maintain the post war reform of British industry, was an ability to see the needs of the industry as a whole and to propose practical and immediately realisable improvements, in contrast to the militant determination to push any industrial confrontation as far as it could go with a view to bringing down the system; or indeed the 'right wing' policy of gaining maximum advantage for a particular section of the workforce without regard to any wider social or political aims.

Nine Fishman's articles in The Communist in the early seventies (accessible here) took this approach as the principle characteristic of the advance of working class power in Britain. It was by showing that the class could solve problems that ever greater areas of economic life came under its control. Such a perspective did not rule out militancy - it presupposed that the class, the 'movement', could bring things to a halt if its interests were ignored and its solutions were not accepted. If this view of things seems rather fanciful now it only shows how far we have regressed. It was a perfectly credible view of things in the 1970s.

The key figure in this view of British working class history is of course Ernest Bevin. Put crudely, the welfare state was constructed on the basis of Bevin's achievement in solving the problems of manpower and production that were posed by the war (we can only imagine what a mess Churchill would have made of it!). A key moment in Bevin's own development was the 1926 strike.

Horner's account of the 1926 strike is conventional. The miners were betrayed by the mainstream trade union movement. Though he does make the interesting point that even if the continuing strike by the miners failed, it did give many men their first opportunity to spend a summer in the sun. And since something like twelve hundred men were killed every year in the pits it probably saved around seven hundred lives (the same argument could, however, be used in defence of unemployment).

Summarising very crudely (and basing myself on Alan Bullock's account in his biography of Bevin) the dispute between the miners who continued the strike and the TUC who called it off turned on their attitude toward the report of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry prepared by a small committee under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel (and including among its members William Beveridge). Its recommendations included, in Bullock's words 'detailed recommendations for the reorganisation of the industry on a more efficient basis, including nationalisation of the mineral (though not of the mines); the amalgamation of many of the smaller pits; the application of scientific research to the use of coal and its by-products; improvements in methods of sale and transport; a national wages board and a series of reforms to improve the working conditions and welfare of the miners.' 

Bullock continues however: 'At the same time the Commission said plainly that, as an immediate measure, a reduction in the wages fixed in 1924 at a time of temporary prosperity, was inevitable. If the Government's subsidy was excluded, three quarters of the nation's coal was being produced at a loss ... if the subsidy were withdrawn and nothing done to reduce costs, then many mines would have to close. The only way to save the situation temporarily and so give a chance for permanent improvement by reorganisation was to cut wages.' (Bullock pp.292-3)

Incorrigible Rebel focusses on this last point, regarding the rest of the report as so much flim flam. Bevin's view was quite different. Bullock quotes him as saying after the strike:

'I must confess that the Report had a distinct fascination for me; I felt that if minds were applied with the right determination to give effect to it, what with reconstruction, regrouping and the introduction of a new element in the management of the industry, there would in the end be produced a higher wage standard. It may have meant some adjustments in varying forms, but this is nothing new; everyone of us has had to face these problems in other industries across the table and met and overcome similar conditions over and over again.'

I have not studied the Samuel Report myself but clearly it was analysing the industry as a single entity serving a social purpose, not as what it was, a multitude of small private concerns, and it was arguing that the problems of this single nationwide industry should be addressed in consultation with the government at a national level. For Bevin, acceptance of that principle would have been a huge step forward both for the miners and for the working class as a whole.


I am suggesting that Horner may have developed a similar perspective in his conversations with Knox and that this may have been more important than his encounters with Clausewitz or Marx. In the 1930s Horner made himself still more unpopular within sections of the Communist Party by insisting on a much more disciplined use of the strike weapon, opposing unofficial or 'wildcat' strikes and insisting on loyalty to the mainstream unions. At the same time he attracted admiration for the skill and panache with which he defeated the 'company' or 'industrial' unions formed with support from the coal owners in South Wales and Nottinghamshire. He set himself the long term goal of 100% union membership in unions affiliated to the MFGB eventually to be amalgamated into a single union capable of bargaining single nationwide deals. In conjunction with Bevin he ensured the efficient production of coal for the war effort. To quote Fishman:

'After the establishment of the coalition government in May 1940, Horner played the principal role in directing the MFGB's participation in the total war economy. As the successful head of one of the largest district coalfield unions (the South Wales Fed - PB) he wielded significant influence on the MFGB executive. Because Horner and Evan Williams (negotiator for the coal-owners' association, the Mining Association of Great Britain - PB) had taken each other's measure in South Wales, the leading civil servants at the Department of Mines were able to broker national agreements between the MAGB and MFGB with comparative ease. Horner's assistance was also indispensable in managing the complex vested interests inside the MFGB executive; and he proved adept at manoeuvring inside the inter-relationships between different Whitehall departments and the war cabinet.' (Horner, p.959). Like Pollitt, it should be mentioned, Horner supported the war from the start, prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union.


All this is described in detail in Fishman's book. But Incorrigible Rebel mentions another aspect of his activities which he regarded with great pride but which goes surprisingly unremarked in her account. This was the struggle to obtain recognition of and compensation for 'silicosis' - in particular the struggle to establish that the disease, now renamed 'pneumoconiosis', was a result of breathing coal dust, not just dust from anthracite coalfields were the mineral silica was present. Since compensation was only given where it could be shown silica was present, Horner tells us:

'We carried out a subterfuge and I'm not ashamed to say I took part in it. Lodge committees would carry down pieces of the rocks named in the Order and scatter them anywhere in the mines where we knew that men suffering from lung disease had been working. Some of the collieries' officials knew that this was being done and they took no action to stop it because they were equally in danger from the disease.' (Rebel, p.142)

Compensation would also only be given where it could be shown the miner was completely disabled from the disease. As a result those who were beginning to suffer the symptoms were reluctant to draw attention to themselves by seeking treatment, particularly from doctors employed by the company, since they would then be liable to be sacked so that the coal-owners would not have to pay compensation later on. Fishman is usually anxious to stress the eirenic aspect of Horner's relations, the mutual respect between himself and the class enemy. She perhaps understates the real loathing and contempt he felt for the coal-owners in general.

She also fails to develop what was clearly one of of Horner's most important considerations - concern for the physical wellbeing of the men in the pits. As well as the struggle over 'silicosis', Horner evoked his pride in the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation, the successful negotiations to remove escape clauses built into the Conservative Government's Safety in Mines bill of 1954, and the fight with rubber manufacturers to replace the rubber belting for conveyors which he claims was responsible for the disasters at Cresswell (1950. Eighty lives lost) and Auchengeich in Scotland in 1959 (forty seven lives lost).


Fishman describes her book as 'a political biography', and it is mainly the politics that interests her - in particular the tension between what she calls Horner's conception of 'social democratic responsibility' and his commitment to the Communist Party. Logically one might conclude that, especially after the war, his natural home would have been the Labour Party, especially since loyalty to the Communist Party closed off to him the possibility of membership of the General Council of the TUC and therefore involvement in trade union work beyond the level of the mining industry. In Incorrigible Rebel he mentions that he had been offered membership of the National Coal Board and that he had toyed with the idea. He shrugs it off lightly but Fishman thinks he was quite seriously tempted by it. He was certainly very anxious that nationalisation should work and he expresses pride in the fact that there were no strikes during his time as General Secretary of the NUM.

Fishman argues that it was largely his personal loyalty to Pollitt and to his own wife Ethel that kept him in the Communist Party but that the tension this produced played an important part in his growing drink problem. She quotes extensively and most interestingly from Horner's MI5 files which include transcripts of telephone conversations between Pollitt and Ethel Horner trying to keep him on the rails both with regard to drink and with regard to politics.

Incorrigible Rebel, published in 1960, does, however, end with a strong reassertion of Horner's commitment to Communism and what seems to me to be a serious attempt to come to terms with the aftermath of Krushchev's speech to the Twentieth Congress and with the execution of Imre Nagy in Hungary in 1958. The book was 'ghosted' by Gordon Schaffer, an industrial journalist, not a member of the Communist Party but nonetheless as Fishman says, a supporter of 'the party-sponsored peace movement and friendship organisations with East Germany and China.' Fishman quotes at some length a letter to Horner from the Durham miners' leader Sam Watson complaining: 

'nowhere in the book, except on rare occasions, do I come across the staccato quick thinking clarity which was so much a part of your mental equipment. Nor does the general picture which emerges do justice to you. Small incidents are exaggerated out of all proportion and big events, especially those which involved real issues of principle and adjustments are slurred over ... I hate to write this but I have too much respect for your intelligence to withold it, that to me ... certain passages are simply nonsense and seem to have been written to justify the possession of important political principles, surrounded by a strong aura of "holier than thou" cum working class struggles that cannot be justified in a personal contribution to the events of the passing years' (Horner, p.949. Elisions as in Fishman's text).

That might be taken as Nina's justification for not engaging more with Incorrigible Rebel, especially with its closing pages which I would assume Horner intended as a political testament. But Watson, though a friend and normally close ally of Horner's, was very much on the labour side of the tension Horner felt - NUM representative on the NEC of the Labour Party, strongly anticommunist and a friend of Sam Berger, Labour attaché at the American embassy. Horner, while certainly admiring the Labour Party's domestic reforms, was horrified by the growth of cold war politics, NATO, the Marshall plan, the Korean war, the Malayan war:

'I disagreed with the policy of the Labour Government in international affairs and I believe that their failure in that field was the reason for the defeat of 1950 and the failure to win a return to power in subsequent elections. But I believe that within their limited programme, they did a magnificent job for the miners and in the field of human progress. Shinwell was the best Minister of Fuel and Power we have ever had. Ernest Bevin, as Minister of Labour in the Coalition Government, did a magnificent job. If he had understood the problems of international affairs as well as he understood the problems of trade unionism and industry in his own country he would have made a magnificent foreign secretary. Jim Griffiths was equally effective in the field of Social Insurance, and I found after he had left the Ministry that the humanity and courtesy which he introduced into his department still obtained. George Buchanan, in charge of Public Assistance, did wonders in humanizing an administration which had earned the hatred of the workers during the pre-war period of unemployment. Nye Bevan fought like a lion for the National Health Service, and the country can still be grateful to him for the work he did when he was Minister of Health.

'I deeply regret that Shinwell, after doing so well at the Ministry of Fuel and Power, agreed to go to the War Office, and then to the Ministry of Defence where he had to take responsibility for the organisation of the cold war, that Jim Griffiths agreed to go to the colonies, where he was responsible for the attacks on the Liberation Movement in Malaya and Kenya. 

'John Strachey, who had been closely associated with the miners' struggle, as Minister of Food always showed an understanding of our needs ... Strachey went to the War Office where he was responsible for the Colonial wars that were being waged and for the build-up of armaments for the cold war.

'These were the factors which led, after the resignation of Nye Bevan and Harold Wilson, to the break-up of the spirit behind the Labour Government and their subsequent defeat.' (Rebel, pp.190-191)

Fishman may regard all that as simply an expression of CP piety but I think a biography in which the main player is politics should have paid more attention to it. it seems to me that Horner believed the Labour Party, to be effective, needed a strong Communist movement with a clear sense of Communism as the end to be attained, to the left of it. The formula, however, presupposed a socially responsible and flexible leadership of the type that had been provided by Harry Pollitt, if we accept Fishman's argument, at least until 1947. Under the pressure of the Cold War and the Cominform, however, she argues that Pollitt and his close ally Johnny Campbell had lost their 'social democratic' orientation and turned to blind oppositionism. In this context she believes strongly that Horner should have left the CPGB.


In arguing this case, in the last chapter of her book, she reconnects with the central argument she had advanced in the articles published in The Communist in the early 1970s, in opposition to the fetish of 'free collective bargaining' and in favour of the organisation of industrial life on the basis of tripartite negotiations between government, employers and unions at a national level. This dense passage could perhaps be described as Fishman's own political testament and we can only regret that the argument it contains about the subsequent development of British trade union politics wasn't unpacked, expanded and presented as her own political perspective rather than as what Horner might have done, if only ...

'Horner's decision to remain in the CPGB had profoundly negative consequences for British political history. If he had broken with the CPGB he would probably have been elected to the General Council where he might have exercised a decisive influence on TUC policy. Unlike most union leaders on the General Council, he had a clear strategic approach to union-employer-state relations, underpinned by Marxism, Clausewitzianism and social democratic responsibility. When Aneurin Bevan, as Minister of Labour, took the first steps towards constructing a tripartite corporate framework to regulate industrial conflict in 1951, Horner's presence on the general Council could have tipped the balance in Bevan's favour ... Instead, the General Council succumbed to hubris and short-termism after Bevan's resignation from the government in April 1951. Alf Robens, his successor, was content to pander to Tewson's (Vincent Tewson, General Secretary of the TUC from 1946 to 1960 - PB) and Deakin's (Arthur Deakin, Bevin's protégé and successor as General Secretary of the TGWU - PB) fear of being outflanked by communist militants. The wartime arrangements for settling industrial disputes through arbitration and conciliation were rescinded in great haste, and no heed was paid to the long term consequences of a return to "free, collective bargaining."

'Horner's standing as a union leader rose steadily during the years of Conservative government. If he had resigned from the CPGB and been elected to the General Council, he might have persuaded other union leaders to participate in Eden's and Macmillan's initiatives to establish tripartite institutions to administer an incomes policy and promote economic growth. Instead, Tewson led the General Council in espousing conspicuous public anti-Toryism whilst making regular visits to No. 10 Downing Street via the back door. It is very unlikely that Horner would have tolerated such an unrealistic and disadvantageous bargaining position.'

In sum, Horner was probably, after Ernest Bevin (quite a long way after Ernest Bevin), the most important figure in the advance of trade union power in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. Exceptionally, like Bevin, he seems to have been able to think of the working class as a ruling class in waiting, able to take responsibility for and to resolve problems. Fishman's biography raises a host of interesting issues both to do with British working class history and with international communism. Throughout the book she is advancing a political argument which could be characterised as, in the best sense of the word, 'corporatist'. There is a wealth of detailed, well researched information. For myself, however, I think the book could have benefited from less detailed information and more development of the general argument and of the wider political context. Less presumption of knowledge on the part of the reader. And for an easier and pleasanter 'read', I recommend Incorrigible Rebel.