The General Strike 1926

Seventy years ago, in May 1926, the only general strike in the history of the British working class movement took place. Optimistically thought of as a revolutionary situation, the strike ended after only nine days, in complete demoralisation and defeat.

To understand the limitations of the strike it is useful to outline the historical period in which it took place, and the events leading up to it. The example set by the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the overthrow of the Kaiser and the forming of workers’ councils in Germany, had echoes in other European countries. In 1919 in Britain the possibility of revolution appeared evident in Belfast and on Clydeside where ‘a Bolshevik rising’ was feared. However, as the 1920s wore on, the waves of proletarian struggle in Europe were defeated and the possibility of revolution was crushed…

Was revolution on the agenda in Britain in 1926, or was it, as the Bolshevik Karl Radek commented at the time to the Conservative MP (later Lord) Boothby,

...make no mistake, this is not a revolutionary movement. It is simply a wage dispute.

Events Leading up to the Strike

In an objective economic sense the crisis of the 1920s was undoubtedly revolutionary. During the First World War Britain had lost many of its traditional markets. Its mining industry was the biggest in Europe, employing one and half million workers. The only solution to its problems within capitalism was a draconian cut in wages.

In April 1921 after the mine owners announced wage reductions and posted lock out notices at the pit heads, the leaders of the Triple Alliance (Miners, Railwaymen and Transport workers' unions) called for a transport strike. The strike was called off at the last minute and the miners were forced to resume work on the owners' terms (Frank Hodges, the miners’ leader, was later appointed a member of the National Electricity Board by a Conservative Government). This marked the end of the ‘Cripple Alliance’ and the day became known as ‘Black Friday’. This led to a considerable growth in the tiny British Communist Party which was mainly based in the coalfields of Wales and Scotland.

In 1924 the mine owners agreed to a wage increase but the economic crisis of 1925 led to a depression in the mining industry. The owners responded by demanding a return to the 1921 wage structure which meant an increase in working hours and a wage cut. The miners’ case was put to the General Council of the TUC which, with the support of the Transport and Railway unions, placed an embargo on the movement of coal from July 31st, the day when the employers’ notices terminated. With such a show of strength, it appeared that the miners were capable of resistance. The government’s response to this was to award a temporary subsidy until May 1st 1926. This would maintain the miners wages at present levels and set up a Royal Commission to examine the possible restructuring of the industry. This climb down by the government was regarded by the unions as a great victory and was named ‘Red Friday’. It, in effect, bought nine months peace and gave time for the state to organise a resistance movement for struggles ahead. Its first move was to create the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies and form committees to organise those citizens prepared to maintain supplies and services in the event of a general strike. Considerable stocks of coal, food and fuel were also built up. Preparations were thorough and by the spring the government was ready for anything. Meanwhile the unions, relieved to have avoided confrontation, sat back and awaited the report of the Royal Commission. The Communist Party warned the workers what was happening.

The Government, acting upon behalf of the capitalist class, is certain to prepare for a new struggle with the working class under more favourable circumstances…

The Workers Weekly, August 7 1925

The same paper also warned that:

The Royal Commission is once again, as always, only the smokescreen for the preparation for a decisive battle.

It should have come as no surprise then that the Royal Commission recommended a temporary reduction in wages or an increase in hours to make industry profitable. The miners, as the Government had long known, refused to accept the report and the battle was on.

The Strike and the Role of the Unions

The unions were forced into a situation which they had been keen to avoid and the prospect for them losing control of events was frightening. They wanted to organise an effective economic strike but were terrified that the leadership of it would fall into the hands of revolutionary elements. An editorial in Workers’ Weekly (CPGB journal) had, as we have seen, warned against any euphoria over ‘Red Friday’ and stated that workers should understand that “the struggle for wages involves the struggle for power.” (loc. Cit. Aug. 7th 1925)

The ‘workers’ leaders’, however, were keen to point out that the strike was purely economic and in no way a challenge to the state:

I have never disguised that in a challenge to the constitution God help us unless the Government won …. But this is not only not a revolution, it is not something that says, ‘we want to overthrow everything’. It is merely a plain, economic, industrial dispute…

J. Thomas, Rail Union Leader, quoted from Farman, The General Strike p. 112

It is quite clear that Thomas (a future Labour Minister) and others in the Labour movement still supported the capitalist state as they had done a dozen years before at the outbreak of the imperialist war in 1914.

But the era of ‘plain, economic industrial disputes’ was over. The First World War confirmed that capitalism had entered a new era. The war, a product of competition between the capitalist states, showed that capitalism could only expand by the intermittent physical destruction of capital and the working class. The war was only brought to an end through the actions of the international working class who thus demonstrated that they were easily capable of founding a higher form of civilisation. This was what caused the ruling class to tremble all over Europe. In supporting the war in defence of their own national capital the unions showed, on the other hand, that they were organs against the workers and for the preservation of capitalism. It is a position they have never wavered from since.

Whilst the government was organising scab labour in preparation for the strike the unions did nothing to prepare the working class, either organisationally or politically. Instead the TUC hailed ‘Red Friday’ as a great victory and trusted the future to the Royal Commission.

The organisation of the strike was securely in the hands of the unions organised nationally by the newly formed General Council of the TUC and, at a local level, by trades councils.

The fear that control of the strike might slip from the unions’ grasp meant that they were determined not to allow any independent action from the working class. In reality it was never a ‘general’ strike, indeed the leaders preferred not to use the term, as the trade union membership was never called out at all once. A two tier system was employed which meant that many industries were held back as a ‘reserve army’ to be used in the second week. This holding back of large sectors gave the government time to organise its relief force. Just as the action was beginning to take effect and as the reserves joined the strike it was called off and an unconditional surrender was made to the government. Thousands of workers had risked their jobs and starvation to no avail.

The Response of the Class

Although the ending of the strike was demoralising defeat for the class many positive actions were evident during it and afterwards. There was a tremendous show of solidarity from workers in the industrial centres and one of the problems the unions faced was of holding back the ‘reserves’. In some places “soviets” were proclaimed. Despite reports of fraternisation between police and strikers, and the celebrated football match in Plymouth, there are many instances of violence. Pitched battles were fought in Leeds, Cardiff and Ipswich, and there are many other examples of militancy. The Times newspaper premises were bombed but this represented far too much an example of independent class action that it frightened the leaders. Calling off the strike before “things got out of hand” must have been great relief. Here is Thomas speaking again on May 13th in the House of Commons,

What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this - if by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control, every sane man knows what would have happened.

The day after the strike was called off some workers believed it was because they had won. In some towns victory celebrations were held. Once the true outcome was realised there was a great outburst of anger from the class. The claims that the strike was weakening by the British Gazette (Government newsheet) and the pathetic acceptance of this by the union leaders was not reflected in reality. The day after the strike ended there were 100,000 more workers out than on the day it began! One observer in Manchester wrote,

It looked as though the end of the strike might be the beginning of revolution.

Farman, p. 240

Some workers organised rent strikes and the miners in many areas stayed out throughout the summer (one of the hottest on record) eventually losing everything for which they had fought. They had achieved nothing.

The Role of the State

The ferocity with which the state will react against the working class in order to defend itself is not confined to so-called totalitarian regimes. The British democratic bourgeoisie is no different. Long before the strike the state had prepared itself in the event of disorder. The country was to be divided into regions, each region having a regional commissioner. Army and navy leave was cancelled and special constables were recruited from the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie and “professional classes” including students, along with volunteers to help keep transport and essential services going. The effectiveness of this scab labour was limited and in some cases even counter-productive. Its chief aim, though, was a publicity exercise which would help to demoralise the strikers. Despite the immense strength behind these reactionary forces, had the situation taken on a revolutionary potential it is quite realistic to believe that they could have been crushed by the strikers. In a real class battle troops recruited from the working class wouldn’t take too much encouragement to turn their weapons on the bourgeoisie.

This all sounds rather familiar to us today. Before the miners' strike of 1984/85 the government was also well prepared. The Ridley Plan (first announced in May 1978 in The Economist) suggested to the Tory Party leaders that the building up of coal supplies at the power stations, recruitment of non-union lorry drivers and a large mobile police squad was the way to go towards defeating those sectors of the working class that posed a future threat. They had seen the strength of the class during the 1972 strike when ‘flying pickets’ were used with overwhelming success to stop the movement of supplies. (For more on the Miners Strike of 1984-5 see Revolutionary Perspectives 22 (Second Series))

Was Revolution on the Agenda?

Reactionary though they were, to blame the unions solely for the defeat of the strike is to oversimplify the matter. Given the international situation in 1926 there was little hope of the extension of any revolutionary movement and in any case the Labour movement which exerted a strong hold over the minds of the working class certainly had no revolutionary agenda. The General Council of the TUC also feared that a successful outcome to the strike would strengthen the hold of the Left within the unions. To their dismay Communist Party membership grew to 10,000 after the strike whilst unions lost 2 million members!

The Communist Party of Great Britain, although working to develop its organisation through the National Minority Movement, up to and during the strike, was a weak political force within the working class. Many of its members followed Lenin’s mistaken advice to join the Labour Party (from which they were expelled in the aftermath of the General Strike). But the CPGB was also being undermined by pressure from the CPSU. Stalin’s policy of ‘Socialism in One Country’ had substituted struggle for any remnants of the international revolution into finding ways in which the USSR could avoid foreign attack and reach agreements within the Western bourgeoisie. As the economic crisis deepened inside British capitalism Stalin was looking for peace with British imperialism through the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee set up in 1925. This was a joint venture formed to create good Anglo-Soviet relations and reduce the threat of intervention. The formation of the Committee and its backing by Moscow was to provide the so-called ‘left’ leaders of the General Council with a certain credibility in the eyes of many. Events were to prove that it was not only the ‘right’ of the Council but also this ‘left’ which played a part in the betrayal of the working class. In the second half of the twenties the Comintern (CI) was totally dominated by the Russian Party and had ceased to be a means for pursuing the strategic and tactical needs of the international working class. Any potential for revolution was undermined by CI policies to preserve the Russian state.

Lessons of the Strike

The capitalist nature of the unions was clear to many in 1914 when, with their friends in the Labour Party, they had not opposed imperialist war and had in fact called a class truce and implemented no-strike deals in support of it. The unions have never been interested in overthrowing the capitalist system and the strike was to reveal to many workers their true character as agents of the capitalist state. At best they have only acted to get wage increases or improve working conditions in order to maintain their credibility. Their role is to negotiate the price of workers’ labour power through negotiation with the bosses. This only makes sense within the framework of a national capitalist economy in both war and peace. This was quite apparent before and during the strike as the leaders were conducting behind the scenes negotiations to end it whilst appearing to be carrying out plans to intensify it.

Today as the class struggles to defend itself from the attacks of capital it is outside the straitjacket of union-led and organised activity that the way forward lies. Strikes must unite workers from different sectors and be run by recallable delegates on strike committees responsible to mass meetings of workers. In supporting the demands of workers struggling against capitalist attacks an alternative direction, away from reformist or so-called transitional programmes, must be pointed out. A TUC general strike, as in 1926, is not the answer. This is an activity carried out under a capitalist leadership for bourgeois goals. Getting the TUC to call a general strike as the Trotskyists still demand shows that they have not learned anything from history.

A general strike is not the same as a mass strike. The former is nothing more than a warning from one part of the bourgeois social order to the capitalist state. Such set pieces give the ruling class time and enough to prepare. The mass strike on the other hand arises from the struggle. It is produced by the need to unify struggles against the state and this elevates it to a higher, political, level.

Today, at a time that the working class must educate, organise and lead itself in the course of the revolutionary struggle, when the revolution itself is directed not only against the established state power but also against capitalist exploitation, mass strikes appear as the natural method to mobilise the broadest proletarian layers into action, to revolutionise and organise them.

R. Luxemburg, The Mass Strike

This is not to say that we advocate sectional, “go it alone” struggles. The miners in 1985 illustratrated that a group of workers, however militant, cannot, on their own, challenge the bourgeoisie.

All workers today are faced with the prospect of worsening conditions, job security and pay. So long as they remain bound by legal rules, imposed by the bosses and enforced by the unions they will never get anywhere, even at an economic level. There is no point therefore in continually looking to the unions for leadership. Leadership has to come from the workers themselves. However, towards the end of the Twentieth Century, as another global accumulation cycle draws to a close, the total bankruptcy of capitalism once again gives a deeper meaning to every economic struggle of the working class. For us the present system cannot deliver anything except poverty, famine and war. It has nothing to offer us except the prospect of its own destruction. Only a political party which prepares the working class to recognise that it cannot achieve anything inside this system, that roots its work in the real struggles of the class and which organises the most far-sighted and determined class fighters can prepare the way for a real confrontation with the capitalist state. In 1926, in the CPGB, the working class in Britain had only a pale imitation of a revolutionary party which had already been sucked onto reformist grounds. Seventy years later we still need to build a revolutionary weapon which expresses the organised leadership of the working class.


Friday, March 1, 1996

Revolutionary Perspectives

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