Mass strikes in Britain: the ‘Great Labour Unrest’, 1910-1914

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100 years ago this August the British ruling class was forced to dispatch troops and warships to Liverpool to crush a near-insurrectionary general strike. The Lord Mayor of the city warned the government that “a revolution was in progress.[1]

These extraordinary events were one of the high points of a whole series of struggles in Britain and Ireland before the First World War popularly known as ‘the Great Labour Unrest’. As the following article shows, these struggles were in fact a spectacular expression of the mass strike, and formed an integral part of an international wave that eventually culminated in the 1917 Russian revolution. Even today they are not widely known but remain rich in lessons for the struggles of today and tomorrow.

International context

Between 1910 and 1914, the working class in Britain and Ireland launched successive waves of mass strikes of unprecedented breadth and ferocity against all the key sectors of capital, strikes that blew apart all the carefully cultivated myths about the passivity of the British working class that had blossomed in the previous epoch of capitalist prosperity. 

Words used to describe these struggles in official histories include ‘unique’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘explosion’, ‘earthquake’…. In contrast to the largely peaceful, union-organised strikes of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the pre-war mass strikes extended rapidly and unofficially across different sectors – mines, railways, docks and transport, engineering, building – and threatened to go beyond the whole trade union machinery and directly confront the capitalist state.

This was the mass strike so brilliantly analysed by Rosa Luxemburg, its development signalling the end of capitalism’s progressive phase and the emergence of a new, revolutionary period. Although the fullest expression of the mass strike was in Russia in 1905, Rosa Luxemburg showed that it was not a specifically Russian product but “the universal form of the proletarian class struggle resulting from the present stage of capitalist development and class relations” (The Mass Strike). Her description of the general characteristics of this new phenomenon serves as a vivid description of the ‘Great Labour Unrest’: 

“The mass strike...flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a freshspring and now is completely lost under the earth.   Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting - all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another - it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena...” (The Mass Strike).

Far from being the product of peculiarly British conditions, the mass strikes in Britain and Ireland formed an integral part of an international wave of struggles that developed throughout Western Europe and America after 1900: the 1902 general strike in Barcelona; 1903 mass strikes by railway workers in Holland; 1905 mass strike by miners in the Ruhr.... 

Revolutionaries have yet to draw out all the lessons of the British mass strikes – partly due to the sheer scale and complexity of the events themselves but also because the bourgeoisie has tried to quietly bury them as a forgotten episode.[2] It is no coincidence that to this day it the General Strike of 1926 and not the pre-war strike wave which has pride of place in the official history of the British ‘labour movement’: 1926 marked a decisive defeat, whereas 1910-1914 saw the British working class take the offensive against capital. 

The revival of struggles

The mass strike in Britain and Ireland can be traced to the depression of 1908-09. In the previous year the working class in Belfast had united across the sectarian divide to launch a general strike that had to be put down by extra police and troops.[3] In the north-east of England there were strikes by cotton workers, and engineering and shipbuilding workers. A railway strike was narrowly averted. When the depression lifted the explosion came.

The first phase of the mass strike had its centre of activity in the previously non-militant South Wales coalfield. Unofficial strike action hit a number of pits between September 1910 and August 1911, at its highest point involving around 30,000 miners. Initial grievances focused on wages and conditions of employment. Miners spread the strikes through mass picketing. There were also unofficial strikes in the normally conservative Durham coalfield in early 1910, and spontaneous strikes in the north-east shipyards.

In the second phase the focus shifted to the transport sector. Between June and September 1911 there was a wave of militant, unofficial action in the main ports and on the railways, which experienced their first national strike. In the ports, local union officials were taken by surprise as mass picketing spread the struggle from Southampton to Hull, Goole, Manchester and Liverpool and brought out workers in other dockside industries who raised their own demands. No sooner had the unions negotiated an end to these strikes than another wave of struggle hit the sector – this time centred on London, which had previously been unaffected. Unofficial action spread throughout the docks system against a union-negotiated wage deal, compelling officials to call a general strike of the port. Unofficial strikes continued during August, despite further wage agreements. 

As the London dock strike subsided, mass action switched to the railways with unofficial action beginning on Merseyside where 8,000 dockers and carters came out in solidarity after five days. By 15 August 70,000 workers were on strike on Merseyside. The strike committee set up during the seamen’s strike reconvened. After employers imposed a lock-out the committee launched a general strike which was only finally settled after two weeks of violent clashes with the police and troops. 

Meanwhile, unofficial action on the railways extended rapidly from Liverpool to Manchester, Hull, Bristol and Swansea, forcing rail union leaders to call a general strike – the first ever national rail strike. There was active support from miners and other workers (including strikes by schoolchildren in the main railway towns). When the strike was suddenly called off by union leaders after government mediation thousands of workers erupted with anger and militancy persisted.

During the winter of 1911-12 the main centre of the mass strike shifted back to the mining industry, where unofficial direct action led to a four-week national strike involving a million workers – the largest strike Britain had ever seen. Unrest among the rank and file grew after union leaders called for a return to work and strikes broke out again in the transport sector, with a London transport workers’ strike in June-July. This collapsed, partly due to lack of support from outside London, but during the summer of 1912 there were other strikes by dockers, for example on Merseyside.

Unlike the previous, relatively peaceful wave of struggles in 1887-93, workers showed themselves more than ready to use force to extend their struggle, and the pre-war mass strikes saw widespread acts of sabotage, attacks on collieries, docks and railway installations, and violent clashes with employers, strike-breakers, police and the military, in which at least five workers were killed and many injured.

Acknowledging the significance of the struggles, the bourgeoisie took unprecedented steps to suppress them. In the most famous case, 5,000 troops and hundreds of police were rushed to Liverpool in August 1911, while two warships trained their guns on the town. This culminated in ‘Bloody Sunday’: the violent dispersal of a peaceful mass workers’ demonstration by police and troops. In response, the workers overcame traditional sectarian divisions to defend their communities during several days of ‘guerrilla warfare’ which made use of barricades and barbed wire entanglements.

By 1912, the state was forced to take even more elaborate precautions, deploying troops against the threat of generalised unrest and putting whole areas of the country under martial law. Alarmingly for the bourgeoisie there were small but significant efforts by militants to carry out anti-militarist propaganda among the troops, including the famous 1912 Don’t Shoot leaflet, which prompted swift repression.

The working class now faced a concerted counter-attack by the capitalist class, which was determined to inflict a defeat as a lesson to the whole proletariat. In 1913 over 11 million strike days were lost, and there were more individual strikes than in any other year of the ‘Unrest’, in hitherto unaffected sectors like semi- and unskilled engineering workers, building workers, agricultural labourers and municipal employees; but this year saw a definite downturn, marked among other things by the defeat of the Irish workers in the Dublin Lock-out.

The trade union bureaucracy also began to regain control over the workers’ struggles. The formation of the ‘Triple Alliance’ in 1914, supposedly intended to co-ordinate action by the miners, railwaymen and transport workers, was in reality a bureaucratic measure to recuperate the spontaneous and unofficial action of the mass strikes, and prevent future outbreaks of uncontrollable rank and file militancy. Similarly, the formation of the National Union of Railwaymen as a single sector-wide ‘industrial union’ was not so much a victory for syndicalist propaganda or a response to changes in capitalist production as a manoeuvre by the union bureaucracy against unofficial militancy.

Nevertheless, discontent continued without any decisive defeats, and on the eve of the First World War the Liberal government minister Lloyd George shrewdly observed that with trouble threatening in the railway, mining, engineering and building industries,“the autumn would witness a series of industrial disturbances without precedent”.[4] Certainly the outbreak of war in 1914 came just at the right moment for the British bourgeoisie, effectively braking the development of the mass strikes and throwing the working class into deep - albeit temporary - confusion. But this defeat proved temporary, and as early as February 1915 workers’ struggles in Britain revived under the impact of wartime austerity, developing as an integral part of an international wave that eventually culminated in the 1917 Russian revolution.

The importance of the mass strikes

Fundamentally the pre-war mass strikes were a response by the working class to the onset of capitalist decadence, revealing all of the most important features of the class struggle in the new period:

       a spontaneous, explosive character

       a tendency towards self-organisation

       rapid extension across different sectors

       a tendency to go beyond the whole trade union machinery and directly confront the capitalist state.

More specifically, the mass strikes were a response to the growth of state capitalism and to the integration of the Labour Party and the trade unions into the state machine in order to more effectively control the class struggle. Among militant workers there was widespread disillusionment in parliamentary socialism as a result of the Labour Party’s loyal support for the Liberals’ repressive social welfare programmes, and the active role of the trade unions in administering them.

Most significantly, for the first time in its history the British working class launched massive struggles which went beyond and in some cases directly against the existing union organisations. National and local union leaders lost control of the movement at many points, particularly during the transport and dockers’ strikes (according to police reports, in Hull the unions lost control of the dockers’ strike altogether).

Union membership had been declining, partly due to growing rank and file dissatisfaction with the trade union leadership. The mass strikes resulted in a 50 per cent increase in union membership between 1910 and 1914, but, in contrast to the struggles of 1887-93, union recognition was not a major theme of these struggles, which instead saw unofficial strikes and direct action against those union leaderships who backed government ‘conciliation’ and were openly hostile to strike action: for example, railway union leader Jimmy Thomas was shouted down for defending the conciliation system, and at a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square in July 1914, militant building workers took over the platform and refused to let officials speak.

Enormous rank and file pressure was exerted even on the more militant leaders of the new general unions: on Merseyside, for example, even the syndicalist leader Tom Mann was heckled and shouted down by unofficial leaders and strikers, and it took a week of mass meetings to overcome resistance to a return to work.

The mass strikes also saw the growth of unofficial strike committees, some remaining after the defeat of strikes as political groupings demanding reform of the existing unions: for example, the Unofficial Reform Committee in South Wales which called for reform of the local miners’ union on ‘fighting lines’. A similar group emerged in the engineering union in 1910 which engaged in a violent battle with the existing leadership. Unofficial groups of militants also emerged among dockers in Liverpool, close to Jim Larkin and defending syndicalist ideas, while in London a syndicalist ‘Provisional Committee for the formation of a National Transport Workers Union’ was formed on the basis of discontent with the union leadership.

We can see in these developments a real deepening of class consciousness and the spread of important lessons about the new period among the masses of workers thrown into struggle, for example:

       the perception of a change in the economic and political conditions for the class struggle

       the need for direct action in defence of working class conditions

       the inability of the trade unions, as presently organised, to effectively defend those interests and the need to struggle for control of the unions

       the need for new forms of organisation more suited to the new conditions.

Above all, the struggles in Britain and Ireland formed a part of the international mass strike, and therefore had an importance for the whole working class. Characteristically, the British workers were not the first to enter into struggle, but their arrival on the scene as the oldest and most experienced fraction of the world proletariat added a huge weight to the movement, providing an invaluable example of struggle against a highly sophisticated bourgeoisie and its democratic mystifications. Inevitably the strikes also showed all the difficulties facing the working class in developing its immediate struggles into a revolutionary movement, especially as the change in period and the impossibility of a struggle for reforms within capitalism had not yet been definitively announced. But they showed the way forward. 

MH 31/1/11 

see

Revolutionaries and the mass strikes, 1910-1914: the strengths and limits of syndicalism

 


[2]. A very good account of the pre-war mass strikes is to be found Bob Holton’s British Syndicalism 1900-1914 (Pluto Press, 1976), which forms the basis of this article.

 

[4]. Quoted in Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921, 1969, p.28.