1926 General Strike reveals the bankruptcy of the trade unions

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The general strike in Britain took place 80 years ago. The following article first appeared in the sixth issue of World Revolution, in 1976. It clearly sets out the lessons of this famous struggle, placing it firmly in the historical context of the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1917-1921.

However, thirty years on, we also have to note that it displays certain weaknesses. Most seriously there is a tendency to write off the Communist Parties too early, shown in the comment that, in calling on the workers to follow the TUC, the CP in Britain was already “confirming its Stalinist role”. The CP’s official line in the strike clearly showed that the leadership acted as the left-wing of the bourgeoisie, but the process of ‘Stalinisation’ in the British party was not yet complete, as shown by very weak expressions of proletarian resistance right up until the early 1930s (albeit undermined by defence of Trotsky’s opportunist positions).

The reference in the article to attempts to organise workers’ militias also hints at the fact that, even with the odds stacked against it, there were efforts in the working class to go beyond the confines of the struggle set by the trade unions and the CP leadership.

Less seriously, the article is spare in its description of the political minorities of the class and in particular of the history of left communism in Britain, being written in a period when newly re-emerged revolutionary movement was still re-appropriating the buried history of the communist left fractions. For more information on this subject we can now refer readers to the ICC book on the history of The British Communist Left.


Fifty years ago, the proletariat and bour­geoisie in Britain confronted each other on a scale not seen in this country before, or to this day. After less than two weeks of strike action, the proletariat began drifting back to work confused, demoralised and defeated. This confrontation between the classes was one of the last thrusts of that global revolutionary wave which reached its peak between 1917 and 1923.

Today, this episode - the General Strike of 1926 - is being ‘celebrated’ by the very organisations which helped to smash it. Today the trade unions, the Labour Party, the Communist Party, together with their bastardised offspring, the Trotskyists (who largely postdate those events of fifty years ago), are dancing on the corpses of millions of workers who have been butchered by capitalism throughout the last fifty years of counter-revolution; with slight variations they sing the same disgusting song: ‘Three cheers for the plucky British workers of 1926 who, unfortunately, were sold down the river by a small group of traitorous union leaders ... but three cheers for the trade unions anyway.’

Fifty years ago, the proletariat in Britain was defeated - not by brute force, but by lies, mystifications, and confusions. The events of 1926 showed, irrevocably and totally, the reactionary nature of the trade union apparatus, and the integration of all union organisations into the bourgeoisie.

Reformist organisations and decadent capitalism

The General Strike can only be understood in terms of the epoch in which it occurred. It certainly was not merely a sectional struggle between the miners and the mine-owners; the entire proletariat in Britain was defeated. The first inter-imperialist war of 1914-18 had marked the end of the period of capitalism’s ascendancy. With the saturation of world markets in the decade preceding World War I, capitalism entered its decadent phase and could from then on only follow one path - that of crisis, war, recon­struction, and so on. With the onset of decadence, capitalism was no longer able to grant lasting, general reforms to the working class; thus working class reformism was no longer possible. The end of reformism, with the onset of decadence, had been perceived in the workers’ movement as early as 1898:

“Trade Union action is reduced of nece­ssity to the simple defence of already realised gains and even that is becoming more and more difficult. Such is the general trend of things in our society. The counterpart of this tendency should be the development of the political side of the class struggle.”(1)

The working class had built up massive, reformist institutions in the period of capitalism’s ascendancy. In decadence, however, a completely new question was posed: ‘What becomes of such reformist organisations, what role do they fill in the development of the class struggle?’

The outbreak of war essentially answered that question. The Social Democratic and trade union organisations throughout the world capitulated to the needs of their various national capitals; the class struggle was officially ‘suspended’ for the duration of the war, as the proletariat was led off to the slaughter. But lessons as historically new and fundamental as this, the lesson that the organisational forms created by the proletariat could go over to the bourgeoisie, are not learned that easily. The support given by the reformist organisations to the inter-imperialist carn­age, threw the class into disarray and temporarily diverted into nationalistic sentiment the rising wave of class struggle which had been mounting since the beginning of the century. But very quickly, the struggle began again.

In Russia, the revolutionary demands of the new epoch were most quickly assimilated. The Bolsheviks consistently opposed the war, insisting that the imperialist war had to be turned into a civil war, and calling for ‘enemy’ troops to fraternise. The Russian proletariat quickly began to under­stand the nature of the trade unions in the context of the new period. The slogan “All Power to the Soviets” not only cast aside old, reformist organisational conceptions, it also emphasised and affirmed the necessity for the working class to overthrow the bourgeois state; that capitalism could only be overthrown by the conscious, political, activity of the proletariat. This revolu­tionary interpretation of the onset of capitalist decadence enabled the proletariat to seize power in Russia in 1917.

Elsewhere, the questions brought to the fore by the onset of decadence were not posed, nor answered, in such a clear manner as in Russia. In Germany, the proletariat was faced with the huge reformist political apparatus, Social Democracy, which the proletariat had created in the period of capitalist ascendancy to fight for reforms. Although the capitulation of Social Democracy to the bourgeoisie in World War I was recognised with horror by revolutionaries, they found it difficult to abandon this mass political machine. During and after World War I they still hoped that somehow, perhaps, it could be ‘saved’ from within. In Germany this error was. learned in the most brutal way possible, with the Social Democracy actively helping to put down the German Revolution between 1918 and 1923.

In Britain, it was that other arm of reformism, trade unionism, which the bourgeoisie throughout the world had used to its own ends, was used to finally smash the proletariat in 1926. The events of the General Strike were proof enough against any lingering doubt of the bourgeois class nature of unions in deca­dent capitalism.

The struggle in Britain: 1914-1921

The revolutionary wave which raged over the world did not leave Britain untouched. From 1910 onwards strikes increased; between the January and the June of 1914 over nine million working days were lost. There was a brief lull at the outbreak of the War, in Britain as elsewhere, but very quickly the class struggle recovered. The ending of the war did not lessen these struggles for long: in 1919 the Clyde workers were in revolt and by 1921, the miners were again fighting to preserve their living standards.

However, throughout the worldwide period of heightening class struggle, the fight in Britain never really crystallised into a clear political awareness that the period of reformism was over, and with it the rule of the bourgeoisie. The strikes, while implying it, never openly challenged the political supremacy of the bourgeoisie, incarnated in the state. The revolutionary minority within the class in Britain was small, fragmented, and itself unclear about the necessity to confront the state. The lessons which had been clearly grasped much earlier by revolutionaries in Germany, for example, were still not understood in Britain:

“It is contrary to history to represent work for reforms as a long drawn-out revolution and revolution as a condensed series of reforms. A social transfor­mation and a legislative reform do not differ according to their duration but according to their content. The secret of historic change through ‘the utilisation of political power resides precisely in the transformation of simple quanti­tative modification into a new quality, or to speak more concretely, in the passage of a historic period from one given form of society into another.”(2)

In 1914, the strongest anti-war voices could be heard on the Clyde (3). But these tended to be negative - against conscription and against the war effort in the munitions factories - but not calling the class to organise itself in opposition to the state. The left communists around Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers’ Dreadnought, who did up­hold a revolutionary defeatist position on the question of the war, and who saw the need to smash the bourgeois state, did not emerge until 1917, developing very largely in response to the events in Russia. Nonetheless Pankhurst’s group, anti-parliament and aware of the importance of the workers’ councils, was unable to prevent the Communist Party, formed in late 1920, from pledging to work within the existing trade union structure. There were many features peculiar to the British situation which help to explain the confused way in which questions were posed by the British proletariat during the revolutionary wave of the early l920s. First, the British bourgeoisie had emerged ‘victor­ious’ at the close of the war, and the imme­diate share-out of the raw materials and markets of the defeated countries created a seeming post-war boom. This apparent ‘recov­ery’ gave support to the view that reform was still possible and thus bolstered the long, deeply entrenched acceptance of trade unionism within the working class. But the period of post-war reconstruction was short-lived. By 1921, the full pressures of savage international competition were felt again and the bourgeoisie had the urgent task of reducing the living standards of the class. But how were they to do this, faced with increasingly combative workers?

Ironically, the very confusions which were rife within the proletariat concerning the class nature of the trade unions also abounded within the ranks of the bourgeoisie in 1921. In spite of the absolute co-operation capitalism had received from the unions during the war, when hard-fought gains won by the proletariat in the previous epoch were totally lost, including the ‘right’ to strike - the bourgeoisie was unsure of the trade unions. The groundswell of proletarian combativity since the war pushed the trade unions willy-nilly into taking a stand on issues they would sooner have ignored; the backing given by the Labour Party and the TUC to the ‘Hands off Russia’ movement was inevitable given the mass popular following this campaign had. The Clyde dockers, for example, were refusing to load the ships taking supplies to the White Armies fighting the proletarian bastion in Russia. But such a stance by the trade unions - in reality a necessity if they were to appear to represent the working class - was not fully understood as such by the bourgeoisie. So, in 1921, given the exigencies of the crisis, the bourgeoisie had to reduce the wages of the miners and other workers, but they were unclear as to what role the unions and TUC would play.

The declaration of a reduction in miners’ wages brought an immediate response from the whole working class, and once again the unions were swept along by the groundswell. The long since defunct ‘Triple Alliance’ of mines, railway, and transport unions was resuscitated as workers in these vital and massive industrial sectors demanded united action. A mass strike, at least, seemed inevitable. The bourgeoisie reacted in a nervous, panicky fashion; troops were sent into the coalfields, and machine guns were mounted at pit-heads. But the confrontation never occurred. At the last minute the transport and railway unions withdrew their support from the Triple Alliance and strike notices were withdrawn. Once again, in 1921 as at the onset of the war, the proletariat was effectively confused and in disarray, still unclear about the reactionary nature of the union apparatus. The miners struck on their own and, three months later, when driven back to work out of hunger, faced wage cuts of between 10% and 40%. Wage cuts for other workers followed as the earlier strike impetus waned in the confusion and demoralisation of the ensuing events. Shipyard, engineering and textile workers had wage cuts forced upon them, and living standards dwindled to levels comparable to those suffered by the class at the turn of the century.

The bourgeoisie prepares: 1921-1926

The bourgeoisie, for its part, was quick on the uptake following 1921 - it recognised clearly which side of the class line the trade unions, as organisations, now stood. It was not that some ‘sectors’ or ‘leaders’ had betrayed their class, but that the trade union structure as a whole had capitulated to the bourgeoisie and the interests of capital. And the trade unions were seen to be indispensable to the state from the bourgeoisie’s point of view in that the working class retained a belief that these organisations were still its own and fought for them as they had in the past. So, when the miners’ union in 1921 talked in the name of the miners, and didn’t visibly betray the class as the other two-thirds of the ‘Triple Alliance’ had done, the bourgeoisie could reap the benefits of not only a demoralised, sectionalised working class, but a working class which retained mystifications about what and who had been responsible for its defeat.

The coming to power of a Labour Government in 1924 proved to be largely irrelevant: the mystification of parliamentarism had little impact upon the proletariat. The Labour Government was largely seen for what it was -a bourgeois government acting in the interests of the national capital. Indeed, within a few days of MacDonald’s government coming to office, a strike of 110,000 dock workers took place. The strike was settled after three days, but not before the Government had made arrangements to use troops for the movement of essential supplies. However, this reaffirmation that parliament was to be rejected as a means for furthering working class struggle was still identified by the proletariat with a rejection of all political action. There was still a strong belief within the class that despite the savage blow dealt it by the events of 1921, industrial action alone could herald the onset of socialism.

Towards the end of 1924, when the world-wide revolutionary wave was on the wane, the combativity of the British proletariat swelled up again, in the face of further onslaughts upon its standard of life. The bourgeoisie prepared itself once more for a confrontation. As in 1921, the miners were the focus of the struggle. This time, the bourgeoisie did not panic; there was no frenzied movement of troops to the mines. This time they carefully delayed the struggle. A threatened reduction in miners’ wages of 25%, and a lengthening of the working day was postponed by the government; instead a subsidy was given to the industry, to last the nine months until 1 May 1926. This time, the bourgeoisie and its state, knew full well which side the trade unions were on. Indeed, the unions reacted to the announcement of the subsidy in an appropriate manner; 31 July 1925 was declared ‘Red Friday’ and hailed as a great victory for the miners. But there are no partial ‘victories’ for the proletariat within decadent capitalism. All that was gained by the granting of the subsidy was the postponement of inevitable conflict. Years later Baldwin, the then Prime Minister, was asked why the government had ‘given way’ on Red Friday. He replied, quite simply, “We were not ready”. The postponement of the confrontation enabled the bourgeoisie to prepare for its attack on the class.

During the subsequent nine months while the subsidy was in effect, the state prepared for battle. Assured by the unions of their ‘great victory’ on Red Friday, the miners went on busily digging coal while the bourgeoisie, just as busily, went on stockpiling it in order to soften the blow on the economy when industrial action ultimately came. By late November 1925, a scheme was outlined for the control of transport, food and fuel, for the maintenance of law and order, for the encouragement of the recruitment into the army, and for the taking over of the nation’s haulage companies. In September there was a ‘private’ call for volunteers to join an Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) which, on the eve of the General Strike, was handed over by its ‘private’ organisers to the state.

During these months the unions continued to play their part by bombastically talking of working class interests and thereby providing the smokescreen behind which the bourgeoisie could quietly mobilise its resources. The Trade Union Congress at Scarborough in September 1925 was an enthusiastic riot of rhetoric and left-wing demagogy. The leftist verbiage managed to further confuse the proletariat into thinking that, perhaps, at long last, the trade unions were going to show some muscle, and maybe even become transformed into revolutionary organisations. Not content with one smokescreen, the bourgeoisie invented others. The Samuel Commission was set up during this period to examine ‘impartially’ the structure of the coal industry. After lengthy deliberations it finally announced the necessity for long-term “radical re-organisation”. Hence the lie was propagated that the problems of the industry were due to mismanagement, not that, capitalism itself was suffering the ill-effects of increasingly cut-throat competition on the world market. (As it happened, this ‘radical re-organisation’ had to wait until the fifties, when the unions so effectively reduced manning levels, closed pits, and generally acted in the best interests of British capital.) While the Samuel Commi­ssion was prepared to blame management for not managing well, it also could not help insisting that wages be cut and hours increased. Nothing had changed. A general strike was on the cards: even the TUC General Council realised it had no other option.

The class militancy which had resurged throughout 1925, finally burst forth and millions of workers responded to the strike call. The TUC, with Pandora’s box open before it, exclaimed in horror that the response “surpassed all expectations”.

Given the immense, but directionless, mass movement, where was the revolutionary communist minority to point the way forward? By 1926, the communist groupings which had existed previously, were practically nonexistent. The Communist Party, though genuinely revolutionary in its early days if confused about trade unionism, was with the reflux of the world revolution, by 1926 acting as the tool of Russian state capitalism. The isolated proletarian bastion in Russia had, by then, passed into the counter-revolution. What revolutionary elements which remained were fragmented and scattered in the wake of the growing counter-revolution. Even the Pankhurst group of left communists had more or less disappeared from the scene in 1924, and did not re-emerge in l926. It was in this context then that the British proletariat went on strike in 1926; ready to fight but totally uncertain as to what it was fighting for, and with little or no hope that its brave efforts would find any reverberations in other sections of the world class.

The TUC did its best to sabotage any spontaneous class activity. The first issue of the TUC paper, The British Worker, counselled the class to have a good time:

“The General Council suggests that in all districts where large numbers of workers are idle, sports should be organised and entertainments arranged.”

Some of the ‘entertainments’ even included football matches between the striking miners and the local police forces. But the Cardiff, union-dominated, strike committee went one better:

“Keep smiling. Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden. Look after your wife and kiddies. If you have not got a garden, get into the country, the parks and playgrounds.”

To re-inforce its vital role at local level, the trade unions set up local councils of action, largely based upon existing local trades councils. Spontaneous class activity was thereby channelled into these trade unionist organisations which concentrated their efforts on distributing food and fuel. In many areas where attempts were made to organise workers’ militias, these attempts were immediately condemned by the union apparatus.

The Communist Party, active in many of the local councils of action, was confirming its Stalinist role by urging the workers to “follow the TUC and insist on the formation of the Workers’ Alliance under the supreme authority of the General Council”. Its long-term goal was to assist in the formation of another Labour government pledged to a policy of nationalisations.

What was being played out in the General Strike was the charade of ‘Who Rules Britain?’ - the government or the trade unions? Meanwhile, the proletariat was being indiscriminately trampled underfoot by both. The Home Secretary, Joyson-Hicks, (the Ted Heath of his day) set this up:

“Is England to be governed by parliament and the cabinet or by a handful of trade union leaders?”(4)

The more backward elements of the bourgeoisie were wheeled out to help perpetuate the myth that the unions were against the government. Winston Churchill called the strike “a deliberate, concerted, organised menace” and warned of a “Soviet of Trade Unions” (sic). He was put in charge of the government newspaper, The British Gazette, and pumped out hysterical, anti-union tirades throughout the course of the strike. This extreme anti-union posturing served two functions. Not only did it get the proletariat to identify with the unions, but it also helped to mobilise the petty-bourgeoisie behind capital under the rallying cry: ‘Come help us preserve democracy and the constitution’. Thousands of petty-bourgeois people, including large numbers of university students, answered the call in a well-orchestrated attack on the working class.

After nine days, and after secret negotia­tions between Samuel, acting in an ‘unofficial’ capacity, and the TUC General Council, the latter called off the strike. No assurances had been given by the government, no concessions had been made. Circulars were sent to union headquarters throughout the country telling them to call off the strike.

This time the disarray of the proletariat was complete. There was some attempt to continue the struggle unofficially and indeed on the days immediately following the ‘official’ stoppage, the number of strikers rose. But the process by which the spontaneous action of the class had been funnelled into the councils of action and the local trades councils had been extremely effective. Slowly, defeated and demoralised, the workers returned to work.

The mystifications, however, had yet to run their full course - the workers had to be provided with a good safe explanation of their defeat. And there was one quick in coming. The General Council had ‘betrayed’ the class, and individuals - especially the TUC General Secretary, J.H. Thomas, were singled out as class traitors and much vilified. But, after all, the bourgeoisie could afford a few martyrs in such a cause as the destruction of the proletariat.

Fifty years on

The real defeat of the proletariat occurred, not with the General Strike, but earlier with the failure of the revolutionary wave of 1917 to spread throughout the world class. The trade union mystifications could have been overcome within the context of a deepening world-wide struggle. For its part, the bourgeoisie in Britain successfully managed to put off its final confrontation with the proletariat until a time when the wider struggle was on the wane. But also, its delayed confrontation enabled it to learn the lessons which the decadent era of capitalism had thrust to the fore, and particularly it grasped the changed nature of the trade unions more clearly than did the working class.

Fifty years ago, it was difficult for the class to discard those organisational forms it had created in the ascendant epoch of capitalism - organisations which had, over and over again in the nineteenth century, delivered the goods in terms of realising material reforms. Today, after fifty years of counter-revolution, the evidence of the bankruptcy of unions and other reformist organisations is plain to be seen. Fifty years ago it was at least plausible to think that a ‘few evil men’ might be responsible for the attacks on the class by the trade union apparatus - today, the integration of the trade unions into the state is unmistakeable.

The very same mystifications that the left face of capitalism was forced to adopt in the l920s are being reused today; but, like old clothes, are a bit thin and moth-eaten. Organisations, like the trade unions, the Communist Party, the Labour Party, and the ragbag of leftists who give ‘critical’ support to all the rest, continue to be presented as ‘workers’ organisations’. But that sham is wearing out, and such organisations increasingly expose themselves as none other than capitalism dressed in another guise.

Fifty years ago, the balance of class forces had moved in favour of the bourgeoisie. It could use these mystifications against a proletariat which was already sinking into defeat. Today, it trots out the same, old devices, but in totally altered circumstances. For today the working class is confident, undefeated - and a class with over fifty years experience of decadent capitalism can recognise that history only poses two alternatives: socialism or barbarism. Fifty years of barbarism has taught us that.

Ruth Peterson

Notes

1. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution.

2. Ibid.

3. In particular, John Maclean and others in the Clyde Workers’ Committee took a strong anti-war line initially, but were quickly pulled into the confusions of the Shop Stewards’ Movement. See ‘The First Shop Stewards’ Movement’ by Frank Smith in World Revolution, no.4.

4. Chris Farman, The General Strike: Britain’s Aborted Revolution?, (Panther).