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The 1926 General Strike in Britain

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As part of our ongoing work of remembering the great episodes of central importance to the history of the communist and workers’ movement – episodes mostly forgotten or manipulated by opportunism – the following article recalls an event of great portent, unfortunately negative from the point of view of the final outcome and its consequences, despite the extraordinary proletarian mobilisation by which it was characterized.  The 1926 General Strike in Britain was also the ground on which the ruinous practices of the Communist International began to be felt and experienced, at the beginning of what was not just a simple decline but the abandonment of real class politics.

Between the 3rd  and 12th  May 1926, in support of a million coal miners who had been fighting for some time to defend their wages and their jobs, over one and a half million British workers in the fields of transport, electrical power, gas, building and other sectors, laid down their tools.  There was more or less total paralysis: the government was obliged to declare a state of emergency and call in the army and the navy, organizing teams of blacklegs.   And then, on the very day when a “second line” of workers in steelworks, shipyards and railways joined the battle, the Trade Unions Council (TUC) Congress decided to suspend the General Strike.

It was a case of authentic betrayal.  Despite the courageous continuation of the struggle in some sectors, the strikers had to return to work with no guarantees for the future, the miners were abandoned to themselves with lockouts in the pits destined to last for several months, and the retaliation of the owners and of the state multiplied, culminating in the anti-workers law of 1927.  The sense of frustration produced in the class by the sudden suspension of the strike had lasting effects, destined to weigh particularly heavy, especially in the ‘30s, tormented by massive unemployment.

The 1926 General Strike in Britain represented the European proletariat’s last outburst in the years of decline after the great revolutionary wave of 1917-1920.  And it coincided (together with the more tragic and complex Chinese revolution of 1927, betrayed and massacred) with an authentic turning point in the international communist movement: the triumph of Stalinism as the theory and practice of counter-revolution.

Why the General Strike, then?  How did it mature and develop and what was it?  What forces were in the field? What were its consequences?

 

Great Britain, a declining power

On consulting Lenin’s Imperialism, written in 1916, it can be seen that the extraordinary range of material used as documentation essentially regards Germany and the United States, whilst references to Great Britain are limited to a couple or so only.  This is emblematic:  it marks the now inescapable decline of Britain’s power, replaced by new, more aggressive forms of imperialism.  It is true that in those years Great Britain continues to be the leading colonial power.  Her empire is enormous and counts something like 400 million subjects.  Overseas investments amount to 4 billion pounds.  The volume of capital exported is higher than investments at home and equal to 10% of the national income.

However, the structure of the economy, finance and production is old-fashioned, outdated, inflexible, linked to the special pattern of colonial relations.  The extension of possessions, a necessary basis for moving from nineteenth-century colonialism to modern imperialism, is, in fact, a millstone around the neck unless it is accompanied by production capacity and vitality and flexibility in financial structure, which, instead, Great Britain proves to be lacking. To give an example, although the railway network has grown 100% in the years between 1890 and 1913 (thanks mainly to the enormous increase in possessions), as against 46% in Russia, 25% in Germany and 22% in France, it nonetheless proves to be well behind that of the United States (+145%).  Most important, reports Lenin, in this same period of time the development of production forces and especially the mining and iron and steel industries, was notoriously more rapid in Germany than in England, not to mention France and Russia [1].  Great Britain for Lenin is thus an example of the decay of the strongest capitalist countries.

In a text published a few months prior to the General Strike in England and entitled Whither England?, Leon Trotsky gives a masterly description of the curve followed by this massive decline [2].  From the 1880s onwards, Great Britain loses ground to American, German and Japanese rivals and this crisis also ends up by affecting, within certain limits, the privileged position enjoyed up to then by the British working-class aristocracy.  Widespread class conflict springs from the underlying social strata in the years between 1911 and 1914, especially in the mines and in transport and not until the First World War does it cease to spread.  Later, between 1917 and 1920, the fights begin again with renewed vigour, leading to the General Strike of April 1921, openly betrayed by the TUC and in particular by the railwaymen’s union.  These are the years that see a decided political awareness grow in the English working class, the shop stewards’ movement develops and the “Hands off Russia” committees are formed.

However, the war also has the effect of accelerating Great Britain’s decline.  With it ends her “splendid isolation”: the developments in military technology  (aeroplanes, ships, submarines, long-range canons) increase her vulnerability and involvement in European and Atlantic affairs, whilst the geo-political axis of what remains of her immense empire lies in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.  In the meantime there is a progressive erosion of British colonies by new rivals, first and foremost American and German. 

All this means a constant increase in military budget, which adds to the huge debt (1 billion, 400 thousand pounds) that Britain has accrued with the USA, whilst for the moment there remain scarce possibilities of collecting credit due from the other allied powers.  Her dependence on the USA becomes greater and in the mid-‘20s the international shift from the pound sterling to the dollar as a measure of conversion marks the real end of an age, opening up a serious internal monetary crisis.  At the same time a new competitor looms on the horizon, especially in the shipyards (an enormous moral defeat for Britain which, until the day before, had been used to “ruling the waves”!) and in coal-mining (with the end of French occupation in the Ruhr coalfields): Germany, who has introduced full “trustification” of work processes, whilst the British process of monopolization  remains outdated and precarious.

The effect of this general situation – Trotsky again demonstrates – is now chronic unemployment: no longer a “normal” industrial reserve army (flexible, capable of expanding and contracting according to the situation) but a permanent stratum, “a gouty hardening of the social organism, due to an imperfect metabolism” [3].  This makes it necessary, in order to maintain social peace, to allocate fixed unemployment benefits, weighing even more heavily on the state budget.

Thus, in April 1925, the British Federation of Industry declares that, over the past two years, the profits from industrial capital have been so low that they have not encouraged industrialists to modernize their plants: “our nation’s problem is not a problem of production but of sales” [4].  It is necessary to produce more cheaply to beat the competition and increase profits, thus attempting to encourage the process of valorising capital.  However the position of British industry is particularly precarious: vital sectors such as iron and steel, shipbuilding and the maritime industries are falling apart and the textile and coal industries, which exports rely upon, are even worse off.  A mismatch can be seen between the home economy (transport, power and building) with comparatively contained unemployment and a relative increase in wages, and the export sectors (coal, iron, steel, shipbuilding, textiles) where unemployment is growing and wages are decreasing [5].  Three paths are open for valorising British capital once again: either radical restructuring of industry (but, as has been seen, the fresh cash needed is lacking), or a reduction in taxes (but the huge debts, the costs of running the enormous empire, the burden of unemployment benefits make this unfeasible), or a cut in wages (but the risk of sparking off acute social conflict is extremely serious).  The British ruling class thus finds itself in a real cul de sac, which also – as Trotsky comments – marks the end of traditional “Liberalism”.

 

The response of the working class

Since the beginnings of the century, the British working class’s response seems to have wavered between historical “devotion” to the Trade Unions and widespread reactions of an anarcho-syndicalist nature.  In between, like a pachyderm, the Labour Party, founded in 1906, capable of absorbing and swallowing with consummate skill any impetus not clearly, or sufficiently, class-based.

These are twenty years of generous struggle.  Between 1906 and 1907 workers in the linen and jute mills go on strike, as well as the boilermakers, mechanical workers and, most important, the miners

organized in the South Wales Miners’ Federation, one of the most fighting sectors of the British proletariat.  In 1907 a first strike breaks out in the railways, against the refusal to recognize the trade union.  Between 1908 and 1909 the first of the recurring crises of the new century hits Great Britain, with wages plummeting and unemployment at 8%. Punctually meeting the appointment in 1909, the miners go on strike, against the practice of calculating wages on the basis of coal prices.  1910 is another year of strikes: once again the miners (often using unofficial action) against the three-shift system and then the cotton-workers and shipbuilders of Clyde and Tyneside (other highly combative sectors); in the latter two cases the bosses reply with lockouts and the Government openly intervenes in the social conflict.

However, the years between 1911 and 1914 are those of greatest ferment.  The number of union members grows (from 2.5 million in 1909 to 4 in 1913) and at the same time the influence of revolutionary socialism spreads – an elementary, generous, yet insufficient reaction to the conservatism of the official trade unions.  It is the age of Tom Mann and of direct action, influenced by the experience of the American IWWs.  In 1910 the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) is founded, the first important experiment in unifying the trade unions.  The main protagonists in these few years are the miners in various different areas, from South Wales in particular, as the pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step is to point out in 1912, the first attempt to sketch a revolutionary strategy for the British working class.  A brief, year-by-year summary is more than eloquent.

 

1911:

strikes by the miners in South Wales, by the printers in London, the seamen (supported by dockworkers’ strikes), stevedores and carters (the first great victory), rail workers and, again, transport workers, the national rail strike (in Liverpool the Government calls in the troops and serious disruption occurs, but the action ends with a victory for the workers).

1912:

strikes by stevedores in Glasgow and Liverpool, by transport workers (who are defeated), the growth of the rail workers’ organizations and their fusion in a single trade union, the spread of the class practice of “supporting strikes”, the national miners’ strike (between February and April over a million workers fighting for a minimum wage), more miners’ strikes in South Wales and south Yorkshire.

1913-14:

the struggles spread to Ireland, where the movement is guided by James Connolly and Jim Larkin, and through Scotland, and a Triple Industrial Alliance is set up, bringing together the miners’, rail workers’ and transport workers’ unions.  This powerful impetus is naturally slowed down by the war, even though between 1914 and 1918 a considerable number of unofficial strikes occur: by the mechanics in Clyde and the miners in Yorkshire and in South Wales.  These are also the years of protest against conscription, and of the rent strikes.  And it is the age of the shop stewards, whose main strength is to be found in the mechanics and naval industries leading the strikes in the Clyde shipyards, the Glasgow steelworks and the Tyneside shipyards.  As from 1917, under the influence of the October Revolution, the work of the shop stewards takes on a more political form but after the end of the war the movement starts to decrease.  However, two more years of great combat follow, with wage increases and a reduction in working hours as its main objective: again the Clyde shipyards, again the workers in Belfast (this is also the period in which the “Irish question” is a burning issue), the cotton workers, the rail workers (with a national strike that lasts eight days, supported by a printers’ strike), and even policemen.

 

The miners take up the struggle again in 1920 with a national strike lasting from 16th  October to 3rd November: the Triple Alliance, founded only a few years previously to make the action of the English proletariat more effective, refuses to support it, demonstrating its timidity and acquiescence towards the bosses and the State.  The latter, on the contrary, is ready at identifying its enemies: indeed it is during this strike that “Emergency Powers Act” is approved – it marks a turning point in the history of conflict between capital and labour in Great Britain and is the premise for the far more drastic and radical state intervention soon to be seen in the coming years.

And so we come to 1921 when, after a few miners’ strikes demanding national contracts instead of those specific to the sector, the fight spreads, this time involving the Triple Alliance.  There is open conflict, the State mobilizes all its repressive powers and at this point comes the tragic “Black Friday” of April 1921: despite the resistance of its grassroots, the railway workers’ union withdraws and at this point the Triple Alliance follows suit.  The miners hold out until June when, exhausted and lacking support from essential sectors, they are obliged to give in. Total defeat follows: wages come under direct attack to the point that mere “survival wages” are paid and unemployment soars again.  Thus, more struggles break out in the following years: mechanics, builders and farm workers, seamen (an unofficial strike), stevedores (unofficial strike) and textile workers…

 

Meanwhile, from 1920-21, the Councils of Action have come into being: an expression of the “Hands off Russia” campaign initiated at the time of the Civil War when Soviet Russia was besieged by the capitalist powers, these “councils” were formed by grassroot activists, representatives of the unions and the cooperative movement, members of the Labour Party and the newly-formed Communist Party and militants from the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM).  In addition, in 1924 the “Minority Movement” developed, a sort of left-wing faction inside the union more or less directly inspired by the British CP, and the embryo of organization of the unemployed began to yield its first fruits.

 

Thus the British working class comes to the important appointment with 1926 with a glorious history but also with a clear weakness: opposite the block consisting of the unions and the Labour Party, there is no real Marxist opposition apart from generous but politically confused and approximate groups such as the shop stewards or the anarcho-syndicalist groups.  This will be one of the reasons for the 1926 defeat.  But only one of them: the others come entirely from the dawn of Stalinism, which was to celebrate its victory that very year.

 

The 1926 General Strike

On 30th June 1925, the owners of Britain’s mines decide to annul the National Contract that had been in force since 1924; from now onwards only local agreements would be valid.  Not only this:  the annulment of the National Contract was accompanied by cuts in wages, the suspension of the minimum wage, an increase in working hours.  On 10th July the miners turn to the TUC, which agrees to support them, whilst the TGWU proposes an embargo on coal transport in the case of a lockout.  On 29th July the Government rules against further subsidies for the mining industry, thanks to which wages could be safeguarded in the mines.  The day after, using words that were sadly destined to become famous in Great Britain, it proclaims: “All the country’s workers must accept wage cuts in order to help put industry back on its feet.”

At this point, a month late, the TUC announces the strike.  The 31st July is so-called “Red Friday”: faced with the threat of a workers’ uprising, the Government backs down and agrees to a 9-month subsidy for the mining industry, subject to withdrawal of the demands for cuts in wages.  A commission is then set up (the Samuel Commission) charged with investigating conditions in the mines and drawing up proposed solutions.  But meanwhile time passes.  On 29th-30th August the National Minority Movement Conference, linked to the British CP, is held, whilst at the TUC Congress in Scarborough (7th to 12th September) the grassroot members put forward the demand for the General Council to authorize the announcement by the TUC of a general strike. 

While discussions continue, the State prepares to face the strike: the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies is set up with the task of controlling and distributing supplies throughout the country, dividing England and Wales into 10 “districts”, each under a civilian commissioner, and creating an authentic network of local committees consisting of “volunteers” whose task is to act both as blacklegs and as forces of repression.

Between September and October 1925, just as the Labour Party is deciding to expel its communist members [6], repression hits the CP: 12 leaders are arrested and convicted to sentences of 6 to 12 months for illegal printing operations.  Even more serious, in November 167 anthracite miners in Carmarthen (Wales) are placed on trial for a local strike in July-August and 50 of them are sentenced to punishments ranging from a fortnight to 12 months.  It is clear that the State is preparing its arms: in fact, for the whole of December 1925 preparations for facing the strike continue both at a central and at a local level, particularly as regards the police force and transport, and an authentic Action Plan is drawn up.

And so we come to March 1926 when the Samuel Commission finally publishes the results of its report, which foresees the reorganization of the mining industry without nationalization, a suspension of the subsidy to the industry and cuts in wages.  The bosses respond by demanding longer working hours and the shift from a national to local or regional contract, too.  April is spent in useless negotiations and in the end the owners announce a lockout as from 30th, when state subsidies for the industry will cease.

On 2nd May, at the Special TUC Conference, the proposals of the General Council for a General Strike in defence of wages and working hours are approved.  The slogan goes: “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”.  The strike is called as from midnight of 3rd May and the respective trade unions are asked to decide on the mode of procedure.  The Government immediately announces a State of Emergency and in a radio message to the nation the Prime Minister proclaims: “We shall stick to our posts”. However, in the meantime, just when all the TUC’s energies should have been concentrated on preparations for the strike, it secretly resumes negotiations with the Prime Minister, which continue on 2nd May.

At midnight on 3rd May, the day shifts end and the night shifts stay out: the great 1926 General Strike in England begins.  It is to last until 12th May, involving over two and a half million workers.  The “front line” immediately summoned to the fight (and this division of the class into two “lines” will be another weakness), apart from the miners who are already in action, consists of transport workers, typesetters (those working for the “Daily Mail” refuse to publish the Government appeals, whilst the latter reacts by talking of a “challenge to the constitution”), iron and steel workers, workers in power stations, building and the chemical industry.  The “second line” consists of workers in the sectors of electricity, shipbuilding and textiles, but only those in the sectors of electricity and shipbuilding will be called out and not until the 12th May, a few hours before the strike is suspended, resulting in disappointment, divisions and frustration that are easy to imagine.

But it is not only this internal class division, “strategically” (!!) pursued by the union management, that weakens the fight.  Preparations for the strike come late and are insufficient: whilst, as we have already seen, the State has been preparing since September 1925 (nine months previously), the TUC General Council does not start to think about it until the end of April 1926.  In practice, most of the strike’s organization is not carried out centrally (as should have happened) but locally, where there are already organized militant nuclei like the Councils of Action, or where the work of the small British CP can be relied upon, whose newspaper has regularly been counting the days to the end of the Government subsidy to the mining industry and thus to strike action (but, as we shall see, the work of the CP, too, has some highly ambiguous sides to it, wavering between demagogy and adaptation to the current trend).

For its own part the TUC sets up a Strike Organization Committee to coordinate action by the various trade unions, a Propaganda Committee to keep the grassroots informed and contrast State propaganda, a Committee for Food Distribution and for Essential Services, a Committee for the Distribution of Permits (for the circulation and distribution of food and printed material and for continuing work in certain sectors of industry).  But everything is based on improvisation and with no real cohesion between the various unions:  there is the clear sensation that the TUC is depending more on side negotiations with the Government (which continue unbeknown to the miners in particular), rather than on effective organization and direction of the strike.  For example, a delicate issue like the issuing of permits is first centrally controlled (through the rail workers’ union) and then delegated to the local committees of transport workers; however, at the same time the Councils of Action are dealing with it and this often results in serious contrasts.  The TUC also demonstrates its own inability (or lack of will) to effectively oppose Government measures, such as the confiscation and closure of certain newspapers generally in favour of the strikers. At the same time, from 10th May onwards, it bans the publication of any local strike bulletin, seriously damaging grass-roots cohesion and circulation of information.  Moreover, it approves the continuation of work in power stations in London and other areas, when suspension would probably have proved to be a winning card for the strike.  In the ports, another key sector, the situation is anything but clear and action by previously formed teams of State-organized blacklegs is not sufficiently opposed.  To sum up, the TUC allows the strike to continue along its path but does very little to support it, let alone guide it and make it more radical.

Instead, locally, as has been said, the workers succeed in organizing themselves more efficiently.  Here the Councils of Action are in operation, which, in view of the way they are constituted, are not always politically homogeneous (some are guided by left-wing elements, others abide by official union policy); strike committees operate; union sections are at work.  It will be these three (the Councils, the strike committees and the local union sections, 500 throughout Great Britain) [7] that will lead the strike in a wide-reaching and radical manner.  The Special Action Conference of these bodies that had met on 21st March had defined their tasks as follows: distribution of permits, assistance, picketing, publication of strike bulletins, organization of transport, dispatch of speakers, relations with the cooperatives, organization of self defence against legal and illegal forces.

In the combative coalfields of Fife (eastern Scotland), for example, “the organization worked like clockwork.  Everything was stopped – even the railway lines were picketed.  The Council had a courier service second to none in Britain with three motor cars (and a maximum of six available), 100 motor-cycles, and as many push bikes as were necessary.  They covered the whole of the Fife region taking out information and bringing in reports, sending out speakers everywhere, as far north as Perth.  […] After police charges on mass pickets, the Defence Corps, which 150 workers had joined at the outset, was reorganised.  Its numbers rose to 700, of whom comradely workers who had been NCO’s during the War marched in military formation through the town [of Methill] to protect the picket.  The police did not interfere again.” [8]

In other areas, too, such as western Scotland, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, the Black Country, the strike was extraordinarily united and the grass-roots organization of a high level, with miners’ wives’ committees controlling the price of food and dealing with the distribution of foodstuffs to the families who most needed them, with groups of young volunteers transporting copies of clandestine bulletins hidden in prams, and with a boom in publications whose aim was to spread news and information and keep the strikers’ morale up.  In addition, in South Wales the pre-existing situation had seen the spread of Marxism through the valleys and in the villages, amongst miners, railwaymen, steelworkers and in other sectors (in the region over a hundred miners’ libraries existed with the classics of Marxism published by Kerr of Chicago), which meant that the strike was led aggressively and organized by solid and united collectives.   In the words of a miners’ leader, the entire region “was in a state bordering on rebellion” [9]:  not by coincidence three warships and a submarine remained anchored off Newport and Swansea even after the end of the strike, whilst fifty-eight anthracite miners were arrested and put in prison. 

On the local level, workers thus showed a great strength and organisational capability.  Mass pickets were organized which in some places, especially mining areas, involved the entire community in four-hour shifts and twenty hours of rest; the distribution of food and transport was independently organized, often divesting Government agencies of their authority.  However, the difficulties of general coordination, both centrally (by the TUC General Council) and locally (in London for example it was never possible to create a central and centralized body responsible for running the strike) remained and were serious.

The response of the grassroots was nonetheless greater than expected.  In fact, the day after the suspension of the General Strike, a larger number of workers joined the fight than the day before!  In addition, the “second line”, obliged to keep working up to the end, was impatient to join the action and in many cases, especially at a local level, did so of their own accord, against instructions from the operational centre.  Even isolated and rural areas proved to be united and combative.  The railway workers, almost as though wishing to forget “Black Friday”, for which their organization had been responsible only a few years previously, joined the fight en masse: 80% of those employed by the Great Western Railway (98% of engine drivers and stokers) were on strike for all nine days and in many cases even later.  An inquiry carried out during the strike showed that, dividing Great Britain into three classes (the Ist regarding two thirds of the territory and urban areas, right up to the IIIrd which included very little), the following picture emerged:  in Class I  90-100% were on strike, Class II was on strike but with some yielding, Class III on strike with clear weaknesses.

The reports that came in to the TUC General Council were explicit and took the union hierarchies by surprise: “Everywhere a solid enthusiasm.  Everywhere a realisation of this simple issue, we cannot let the miners down this time.  Men with responsible posts and long terms of service had come out as wholeheartedly as any.  Villages in which a strike had never been known before were as forward as places believed to be ‘centres of disturbance’.  As report after report camew in, it was clear that what criticism there was, was all in one direction. Why were food permits dealt out so freely?  Why were the gasworks and the electric power plants running?  Why were carters told off to supply ‘black’ coal to ‘black’ gas works?  Why were not more trades called out?  This last criticism, be it noted, came not from the men who were striking but from the men who were left at work.  They too wanted to strike their blow in this great adventure.  Day and night, at any hour, the despatch riders found the strike committees at work.” [10]

All in all, the general situation remained calm and orderly.  However, there were outbreaks of disorder in the coal mines, in Plymouth during the tramway strike, in London for food distribution (tanks appeared in Hyde Park where the distribution centre was situated).  The most serious took place in Glasgow, one of the most determined centres of the strike (200 arrests after a clash between miners and police) and in the regions of Tyneside and Doncaster.  There was a total of 1 760 arrests on the basis of the Emergency Act, 1 389 for acts of violence and disorderly behaviour, 150 for verbal or written incitement and 5 000 on the basis of current legislation (of the latter, 2 500 were communist militants, more or less equal to half of the party’s members).

What was the State’s attitude?  Primarily it maintained control of all food supplies, except where the Councils of Action were sufficiently resolute as to take it over: it provided for the requisition of paper; it openly made use of the BBC as its direct and official spokesman; it gave instructions to the Board of Guardians not to pay social benefit to the strikers; it recruited around half a million blacklegs (using far fewer in the end), especially from amongst university students and fascists; on 6th May it declared the strike illegal; it raised the number of special agents stationed in London to 

50 thousand; it set up sections of civilian agents; it posted 200 thousand reserve policemen outside London; it positioned a battle cruiser and four other warships at Liverpool, three warships in the Bristol Channel, four battle cruisers and forty other ships along the Thames, with other ships and troops in various other localities; and naturally with the blessing of the Church (Cardinal Bourne in Westminster thundered that the General Strike was “a direct challenge to lawfully constituted authority… a sin against the obedience which we owe to God,” and that, “all are bound to uphold and assist the Government, which is the lawfully constituted authority of the country, and represents, therefore, in its own appointed sphere, the authority of God himself,” – holy words, indeed!) [11].  Briefly, it openly declared war, recognizing the nature of social conflict assumed by the strike: a lesson that all proletarians will have to learn once and for all.

Then, on 12th May, sudden and unconditional, came the TUC’s surrender.  The General Strike is suspended from one moment to the next, just as the “second line” is joining the battle.  The strikers are obliged to return to work without any precise terms, with no guarantees, on worse conditions.  The miners, supported by some categories and local committees, continue the fight alone for some weeks, before having to give in themselves.  It is defeat:  the retaliation is endless and there is a widespread sense of frustration and impotence.

 

The role of the forces at play and the lessons of the General Strike

From the very beginning, the action of boycott by the TUC General Council was quite clear.  Not only did the Council refuse to make real preparations in view of the strike, but during the whole course of it, it acted as a brake on mass mobilization which was pressing for the fight to be extended and made more radical.  On 3rd May the Council candidly declared that the greatest difficulty was… to keep back the workers in what was called the second line, instead of calling them out!

Not only.  Whilst the State openly recognized the political import that the strike movement was assuming, the TUC insisted on keeping the struggle – both in terms of daily practice and in terms of identity and awareness – within certain economic and industrial limits, endeavouring to convince the counterpart of this, by bleating from the pages of its official strike newspaper, The British Worker: “The General Council of the Trades Union Congress wishes to emphasize the fact that this is an industrial dispute […].  No political issue has ever been mentioned or thought of in connection with it [the strike]… at the Special TUC. It was perfectly clear that nothing was in anybody’s mind save the undustrial issue… the Genarl Strike is not a ‘menace’ to Parliament. No attack is being made on the Constitution. We beg Mr. Baldwin [the Prime Minister] to believe that” [12].  This passive attitude was not only accompanied, as has already been seen, by intense negotiations on the side.  Just when all energy should have been devoted to the mobilization and organization of the fight to extend the movement to other categories and spread a vivid sense of unity and solidarity, binding the workers together and breaking down barriers and local differences, the General Council was working in exactly the opposite direction and taking care to keep the workers away from the theatre of conflict.  Thus, once again, the British Worker wrote, on 5th May: “The General Council suggests that in all the districts where large numbers of workers are idle, sports should be organized and entertainments arranged. This will both keep a number of people busy and provide amusement fro many more.”  And, in the following days, whilst taking care not to devote a line to the clashes and arrests that were going on all over the country, it went into greater detail on the General Council’s line of thought, encouraging the organization of “special football and cricket matches…indoor attractions… whist drives,” even reporting with approval little pearls, such as those contained in an “Appeal” by the Cardiff Strike Committee: “Keep smiling… Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden.  Look after the wives and kiddies.  If you have not got a garden get into the country, the park and playgrounds.  Do not hang around the centre of the city.  Get into the country, there is no more heartful occupation than walking”! [13]

If the position of the TUC General Council can be spoken of in terms of open boycotting, what can be said of the attitude of the small British Communist Party, founded six years previously on a very heterogeneous and politically spurious basis, certainly highly combative at the grassroots, but already leaning to the centre at the top?  With the possibility of drawing on a fairly widespread network of workers, consisting primarily of the National Minority Movement and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, the whole of the CP’s action was limited to wavering between great local activism (not without evident demagogic overtones: the CP speaks of “dualism of powers” when referring to the fact that some Councils of Action take the distribution of food and permits out of the hands of the local authorities!) and evident manoeuvring at the summit and at an international level – the manifestation of the progressive degeneration of the Communist International.

Ever since the Second Conference of the National Minority Movement (29th-30th August 1925), the CP thus insists on the need for a strong General Council of the TUC “with full powers to direct all the union’s activities”.  The “Action Programme” drawn up in January 1926 makes this basic ambiguity, by which slogans on organization and struggle are launched whilst at the same time their initiative is referred to the TUC General Council, more explicit.  Not even when, during the strike, the Council’s orientation and practice of pure compromise (and in the end betrayal) become clear, does the CP withdraw from this perspective: and thus, the left hand writes articles and posters warning against the “possibility” of the fight being sold down the line by the General Council, while the right hand publishes in block capitals the slogan “All the power to the General Council” [14].

On the other hand, as previously stated, this ambiguity was merely the reflection of the turning point in the Communist International over those same years, interpreted obediently and faithfully by the British CP.  The most negative manifestation of this turning point on British soil was the role played in the General Strike by the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee.  Set up in 1924, the Committee was one of the most disastrous examples of the tactics of the “united political front” introduced by an International at first unsteady in terms of theory and principles, then progressively at the service of centrist politics and finally counter-revolutionary.  And this demonstrates how well-motivated our criticisms of these tactics were – tactics that the International and almost all the parties that were part of it never conceived, as we did, in the only way possible (“from below”: the workers ranging, independently of their political affiliation or political and religious ideas, in a battlefront around specific class objectives), but instead always conceived and applied as “from above” (top-level agreements between parties and organisms operating with differing political prospects and methods of fighting).

The Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee’s objective was, in fact, to carry on a process of unification between the Soviet and British working classes, through an agreement on support and interaction between Soviet unions (thus the expression of a revolutionary situation) and the TUC General Council (established, as has been seen, in an ultra-moderate and right-wing position) [15].  As well as creating evident confusion (there existed an International of Red Unions, in open conflict with the “Yellow” International of Amsterdam, which was a point of reference for the TUC!), the Anglo-Russian Committee ended by working in the interests of the TUC General Council, bestowing on it a licence of radicalism it did not possess and producing obvious perplexity and animosity amongst British workers.  In particular (and here things were even more scandalous) it remained alive for the whole duration of the strike: thus throughout the continuous sabotage carried out to its detriment by the TUC, right up to the final betrayal.  The absurd point was reached at which, while the Soviet workers, through their unions, collected a considerable sum of money destined for the material support of the struggle by their British brothers, the TUC (which sat on the Committee together with Soviet unions) refused it high-handedly!  Not only, but it also took care not to annul the Committee the day after its open betrayal.  Its inglorious death did not come until some years later, feeding further disappointment and rifts within a British working class already stunned and marked by the course of the strike and its final outcome.  Over the heads of the workers fighting so fiercely in what was to be the last great outburst of a revolutionary phase, over the heads of the combative grassroots militants of the little British CP, Stalinism was starting to celebrate its triumphs.  The British workers found themselves fighting alone: against the mammoth social-democratic apparatus represented by the Labour Party and the TUC General Council, they could not even count on the presence of a solid and politically unified communist party.  Above all, internationally, they were sacrificed on the altar of the now underlying counter-revolution. 

Determined to put the interests of  Russia (the coal blockage resulting from the British strike damaged commercial relations with Great Britain) before those of international revolution, through the work of the Anglo-Russian Committee Stalinism made its own contribution to the boycott of the strike by the General Council [16].

The following year, in the far more immense tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Stalinism was to place its own bloody seal, suffocating the generous impulse of masses of proletarians and thus inaugurating the most deeply-seated and disastrous counter-revolution that the communist and workers’ movement has ever experienced.

 

 



[1] Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, passim.

[2] L. Trotsky, Whither England? New York: International Publishers, 1925.

[3] L. Trostsky, op.cit., p. 22, See also: John Foster, “British Imperialism and Labour Aristocracy”, in Jeoffrey Skelley, ed. The General Strike, 1926, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1976 (this is a pro-CP text but useful for data and documentary material).

[4] Cit. in L. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 23.

[5] See: John Foster, cit. p. 12

[6] Here, again, on the subject of noyautage (i.e. “swimming inside” organisms like the Labour Party), the now degenerating International bears enormous responsibilities which will be examined in greater detail elsewhere.

[7] After the end of the strike, in response to 190 questionnaires, 131 reports were collected on the activities of individual “action groups”.  The picture that emerges is probably representative of the situation of all 500 of the local groups in operation during the strike: 48 were in Yorkshire, 52 in London, 65 in Lancashire; 54 were Councils of Action, 45 strike committees, 15 union sections, 8 emergency committees and 9 took other forms of organization.

[8] In Workers’ Weekly, 173 (11th June 1926), cit. in Jeffrey Skelley, ed., cit. p.88

[9] The South Wales Institute of Engineers, “Presidential Address by D. Ivor Evans”, 1946, quoted in Jeffrey Skelley, ed. cit., p. 241.  In the second part of this volume the developments of the General Strike are analyzed region by region, in a detailed and particularly interesting manner.

[10] “The Secret History of the Great Strike”, Lansbury’s Labour Weekly, 63 (22/5/1926), quoted in Jeffrey Skelley, ed. cit., p. 72.

[11] Cit. in Jeffrey Skelley, ed. cit. pp. 73-74.

[12] The British Worker, no. 1 (5/5/1926), cit. in Jeffrey Skelley, ed. cit., pp.82-83.

[13] Cit. in Jeffrey Skelley, ed.cit., pp. 83.

[14] See the British CP’s pamphlet, edited by P.Dutt, The Meaning of the General Strike, undated but published immediately after the end of the conflict.  See also Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain, the CPGB From its Origins to the Second World War. London, Pluto Press, 1976, pp. 63-66.

[15] On the Anglo-Russian Committee, see L. Trotsky, Criticism of the Programme of the CI (1928), to be found in the volume L’International Communiste après Lenine. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1969.  See also Hugo Dewar, cit., and Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce, eds., Essays on the History of Communism in Britain. London: New Park Publications, 1975.

[16] During 1926, the condemnation and disbanding of the ASC, due precisely to Labour’s betrayal of the General Strike, was one of the demands of the Left Opposition in the USSR and one of the reasons for more violent clashes inside the Bolshevik party until its opponents were eliminated, even physically, in ’27 and the following years.

International Communist Party



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