By Robert Turnbull

Socialist History Society. 66 pages. £4.00. ISBN 978-0-9930104-5-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Apart from a few academics interested in labour history, does anyone now know who Noah Ablett was?  And, for that matter, how many people really have an idea what syndicalism is (or was?)? These are reasonable questions to ask at a time when most major labour-intensive industries have  disappeared, and union membership has fallen dramatically, along with large-scale union militancy.

Noah Ablett was a South Wales miner, a working-class autodidact who was active in the coalfields of his native country, primarily in the years before and after the First World War. Born in 1883 he started work in the mines when he was twelve, though he soon nursed ambitions to quit “the dangers and hard work of mining”. A love of reading and self-education gave him an opportunity to go to Ruskin College in Oxford, where he encountered not only Marxism but the ideas of Daniel De Leon, the American agitator who had been associated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) but had left that organisation and become prominent in the Socialist Labour Party (SLP).

It isn’t surprising that an American should have an influence on British radicalism. Works published by Charles H. Kerr, the Chicago-based publisher were available in relatively cheap editions in the United Kingdom. One of the interesting aspects of Robert Turnbull’s small book is that he provides details about the Kerr company, along with information about the miners’ libraries that could be found in the pit villages and which provided a basis for people like Ablett and other working-class activists.

When he left Ruskin, where the educational programme, largely designed to prepare “working men for a career in public administration”, had left him dissatisfied, he returned to work as a checkweighman at Mardy colliery. He helped start the Plebs League (PL) and the Central Labour College (CLC) as an alternative to Ruskin. He continued to promote syndicalism, and helped write a pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step, which achieved a degree of notoriety for advocating the take-over of the mines by a general strike, if necessary. It also contained an attack on the leaders of the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF) who Ablett and others considered far too moderate in their relationship with the coal owners. Ablett was involved with the Unofficial Reform Committee (URC) which wanted to inject fresh blood into the SWMF. 

Syndicalism as a theory inspiring action probably had its hey-day in the three or four years leading up to 1914. There were strikes and general industrial unrest in Dublin, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, and other towns and cities. and especially in South Wales. The rapid industrialisation in the area as coal mines spread along the Rhondda valley led to it sometimes being referred to as “American Wales” (see Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales by Dai Smith, University of Wales Press, 1993). Turnbull has a couple of particularly telling quotes, one describing the Rhondda valley as it was in 1847 (“the gem of Glamorganshire”) and the other the squalor (“the whole length of the valley has been transformed”) to be seen sixty years later.

The working and social conditions were not dissimilar to those found in industrial parts of the United States, and the same sort of harsh relationship between workers and employers was also in evidence. There was a great deal of violence involved when pickets battled with police, and in Tonypandy in 1911 a riot occurred which included looting of shops and one death and many serious injuries among both strikers and police. The military were called out, though mostly on a stand-by role in the event of the police being unable to contain the situation.

One of the difficulties that arises when writing about syndicalism is that it’s often never clearly defined. And it’s sometimes used almost alternately with the term industrial unionism. Bob Holton in his British Syndicalism 1900-1914 (Pluto Press, 1976, and rightly referred to by Turnbull as still the best book on the subject) says, “Industrial unionism was by no means equivalent to syndicalism, being quite compatible with a more efficient reformism”.  Both wanted to incorporate all workers in an industry into one big union, irrespective of what they actually did, and eventually have all of the industrial unions combined into one organisation. But industrial unionists were not against co-operating with those who believed in parliamentary democracy, whereas Ablett had what Turnbull says was “an ambiguous attitude towards Parliament and politics”. It can be added that he also had an ambiguous relationship towards the Communist Party, which began to have a wider influence among miners after the Russian Revolution. He was never a Party member.   

The shock of thousands of workers rallying to their various countries’ flags when war broke out in 1914 affected Ablett, though he continued to play a part in union affairs, and to put forward syndicalist ideas, though they were hardly likely to reach a sympathetic audience. He was further disappointed when, in 1921, the Triple Alliance of transport workers, railway employees, and miners fell apart, and the miners were left to stand alone when faced with wage cuts and unemployment. The failure of the General Strike of 1926, when the miners were once again left to strike until driven back to work by poverty and despair, and Ablett was arrested on a charge of sedition, was another blow to his belief in working-class solidarity.

Ablett had always been a heavy drinker, and his final years were marked by a decline into alcoholism which caused him to become unreliable when it came to attending meetings and the like He died in 1935 from cancer.

Turnbull has done a decent job of re-creating Ablett’s life and work despite what seems to be a paucity of personal material. He was married and had two children, but left only one or two fragments of autobiography. And there are memories of him in books and articles written by some of his contemporaries, along with newspaper reports of speeches he made. The Miners’ Next Step was, perhaps, the one thing he’s mostly remembered for, though I have seen it suggested that its influence outside a few activists may have been limited. Turnbull would probably not agree with such an assessment, and is of the opinion that it “may have been utopian in its intent and revolutionary in its ambitions, but as a statement of what could be achieved through class unity and industrial solidarity, it had and continues to have few equals”.

 A response to that could be that the strikers who picketed and sometimes rioted were more likely persuaded by immediate concerns about pay and conditions than theories about syndicalism, industrial unionism, or socialism. They could sometimes be aroused by a fiery speech from a syndicalist, but how many later recalled what it was about beyond an attack on the bosses? This is a contentious area for discussion, but raising false hopes with notions of “class unity and industrial solidarity” doesn’t make for worthwhile consideration of a situation. 

Climbing Mount Sinai is a useful addition to the library of material about labour history. Robert Turnbull has clearly dug deep to find facts about Ablett’s career. And he recommends a number of other books about Wales, the SWMF and related subjects.