Eighty years ago an earthquake shook the very foundations of British capitalism. In the greatest display of militant power in its history, the British working class moved into action in the General Strike of 1926. For 9 days, from May 3, not a wheel turned nor a light shone without the permission of the working class. In such a moment, with such power, surely it ought to have been possible to have transformed society? How can such a position have ended in defeat? (by Phil Mitchinson, originally published in May 2001)
"It is a conflict which, if it is fought out to a conclusion can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or its decisive victory."
Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer
"I have never disguised that in a challenge to the constitution, God help us unless the government won."
Jimmy Thomas, Labour MP and
Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen
"There's never been anything like it. If the blighters o' leaders here... dinna let us down we'll hae the capitalists
crawlin' on their bellies in a week. Oh boy, it's the revolution at last!"
ILP activist quoted
in John Paton's 'Left Turn'
75 years ago an earthquake shook the very foundations of British capitalism. In the greatest display of militant power in its history the British working class moved into action in the General Strike of 1926. For 9 days, from May 3, not a wheel turned nor a light shone without the permission of the working class. In such a moment, with such power, surely it ought to have been possible to have transformed society? How can such a position have ended in defeat?
The 1926 General Strike did not fall from a clear blue sky. During the first world war the miners, railway workers and dockers had formed the Triple Alliance of nearly a million and a half workers. At the height of the upsurge in class struggle in 1919 only the deception of the government and the vacillation of the leaders of these unions prevented an all out confrontation. In the summer of 1920 the Labour and TUC leaders for the first time threatened a general strike in the event of any renewed intervention by Britain against the young workers state in Russia. Months later in 1921 the confrontation was to come to a head when the government announced that it was relinquishing control of the mines. The coal owners immediately announced drastic wage cuts. The Miners Federation rejected their attack and the miners were locked out on March 31.
The movement in 1921 was like the prologue of the events to follow just five years later. Troops were dispatched to the coalfields. The Triple Alliance pledged to join the miners fight on April 15. On the eve, however, The Miners' Federation (The Fed) secretary Frank Hodges announced that a compromise was possible on the basis of local bargaining. This was decisively rejected by his own executive, but was seized upon by the other union leaders as an excuse to bow out. Strike notices were withdrawn and April 15 is remembered as Black Friday. The miners were left isolated. After a courageous struggle lasting three months they were defeated. Wages were scythed down by 10-40 % almost everywhere.
Not for the last time, the defeat of the miners had a big impact on other workers. Amongst the miners themselves, anger with the government was matched by anger at the betrayal of Jimmy Thomas, the leader of the railway workers union. This betrayal was to be repeated on a far grander scale in 1926.
There followed a certain respite for the miners. After the crippling conditions imposed in 1921, a boom in mining in 1923, following the French occupation of the Ruhr, meant an increase in wages and a fall in unemployment.
A new militancy saw a shift left in the unions. The key to this swing left was the work of the National Minority Movement. This rank and file body had taken off in 1924 under the leadership of the young Communist Party (CP). The task of the Minority Movement was declared to be "not to organise independent revolutionary trade unions or to split revolutionary elements away from existing organisations affiliated to the TUC...but to convert the revolutionary minority within each industry into a revolutionary majority."
This proved a highly successful strategy which we could learn a lot from today. They built their support amongst transport, railway and engineering workers and above all amongst the miners. When Hodges resigned from the leadership of the Fed in 1924 (to take up a government post) the Minority Movement supported the miners agent for central Rhondda, Arthur James Cook for the leadership. Cook had resigned from the CP in 1921 but still declared himself a "disciple of Karl Marx and a humble follower of Lenin."
Economic conditions were changing again. French withdrawal from the Ruhr saw German coal back on the market and British exports slump. The new Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, appointed that long standing enemy of the miners and the international working class, Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer. His first budget in April 1925 announced a return to the Gold Standard at pre-war parity with the dollar. This meant overvaluing the pound by 10%. The bosses of industry would have to make up this overvaluation by cutting costs. It would be workers wages and not bosses profits that would be slashed.
As usual the mine owners were the first to announce cuts.
Black Friday had not been forgotten. Since March the miners had been trying to organise a new Triple Alliance. With nothing yet finalised, the miners turned for support to the full General Council of the TUC. It placed itself "without qualification and unreservedly at the disposal of the Miners Federation."
Other industrial unions were joining the Triple Alliance. It was clear that the attack on the miners would be repeated across the board. All workers would face the same attacks if they were not beaten back now.
This was confirmed by Baldwin himself. The miners reported to a meeting of union executives that Baldwin had declared "All the workers of this country have got to face a reduction of wages to help put industry on its feet."
It was clear to both sides that a serious fight was brewing. Baldwin moved to buy time by introducing a nine month subsidy to maintain the miners previous agreement while an inquiry into the mining industry took place. There had been many such inquiries before. Their findings had never been to the liking of governments or coal owners. Most advised some form of nationalisation for the mines. In reality Baldwin and co were not interested in any Report, only in buying time to be better prepared for an all out confrontation.
On the workers side Cook understood this. "Next May" he announced "we shall be faced with the greatest crisis and the greatest struggle we have ever known and we are preparing for it.... We have already beaten not only the employers, but the strongest government in modern times."
Such a victory, and more, could and should have been possible. The main obstacle however was not 'the enemy', the employers and the government, it was the union leaders.
The views of the right wing bureaucrats were most clearly expressed by J R Clynes of the General and Municipal Workers union, "I do not fear on this subject to throw such weight as I have on the side of caution. I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own." (my emphasis)
While these ladies and gentlemen were preparing to surrender before the fight had even begun, the ruling class were preparing with gusto.
The ramshackle Emergency Supply and Transport Committee set up by Lloyd George in 1919, and beefed up in preparation for a fight at the time of Black Friday in 1921, was reorganised. It was built up and joined by a 'volunteer' body, the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies. The OMS were an unsavoury bunch including the fascists.
The ruling class, the employers organisations and the state were all busily preparing a showdown. The TUC General Council, meanwhile. met to consider its role for the first time on April 27, 1926 - three days before battle lines would be drawn and the government subsidy end.
By now unemployment had risen, and union membership fallen from 8.25 million in 1920 to 5.25 million. The union leaders had neither the desire nor the will to fight.
The publication of the Samuel Report, the findings of the government inquiry, was their great hope. The report damned the coal owners, but stopped short of calling for nationalisation as earlier reports had done. It called for wage cuts, but the retention of national agreements and a reorganisation of the industry.
The National Minority Movement immediately condemned the report. They convened a National Conference of Action in London on March 21 which represented hundreds of thousands if not a million workers. In the Minority Movement we saw the basis for a mass Marxist force in Britain. However, the CP policy was based on the Anglo-Russian Committee, a bloc between the Russian unions and the General Council of the TUC. This bloc led the CP to support the lefts in the union leaderships against the right and tone down their criticisms. Appallingly, this bloc with the General Council actually continued for a year after the strike was defeated at the hands of the TUC leaders. In the end it was the British union leaders, who had only ever used the bloc as a convenient red coloration before their members, who broke up the committee in 1927.
The CP had set up groups in 300 pits and factories by the beginning of 1926. They held important positions too in the Trades Councils which were to play a leading role in the local organisation of the General Strike. They should have been in a solid position to grow rapidly, provided they had a correct policy, a policy based on exposing the bankrupt union leaders of right and left varieties.
Cook stuck by the miners position "Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay". The TUC leaders however saw the Samuel report as a way out. The coal owners posted notices that all employment on current conditions would terminate on April 30.
The TUC's Industrial Committee asked to speak to the Prime Minister, desperate to find a way to avoid a conflict. While the TUC leaders continued to plead with Baldwin to intervene on their behalf, they should have been preparing their own forces. Baldwin was already intervening on behalf of his class. The government wasn't some independent arbiter from which the workers could gain even-handedness. It was, and remains, in essence a committee for organising the affairs of the ruling class. Baldwin was preparing to fight his enemy, even while the officers of the opposing camp were knocking on his door asking for his help.
On the afternoon of April 30 the bosses announced their proposal. A return to the Minimum of 1921, a 13% cut in pay and an eight hour day.
On Saturday May 1, one million miners were locked out. The General Council now assumed responsibility for the miners' dispute. They immediately contacted the government for talks, and prepared to call out the 'front ranks' from midnight May 3. On Saturday evening they went to meet the Prime Minister. Baldwin realised that the TUC leaders were terrified of a general strike and wanted to give them some room to manoeuvre. The rest of the cabinet however were ready for the fight. They issued a statement demanding the TUC's complete capitulation. Another round of cat and mouse followed with negotiations over this or that wording which might allow the TUC leaders to back down and abandon the miners again. At 11pm the miners executive joined the General Council in number eleven Downing Street. The miners and the General Council rejected the sell out they found on the table, and Bevin instead tried to draw up a compromise which might be acceptable to the miners. These plans were interrupted however when Baldwin informed the TUC leaders that negotiations were off because workers at the Daily Mail had started the strike already. The General Council left Downing Street with a letter from the cabinet demanding "repudiation of the actions referred to that have already taken place, and an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the instructions for a general strike."
The TUC leaders rushed off to find out what had happened at the Mail. It turned out to be an unofficial walkout by workers refusing to print the paper's lead article 'For King and Country'.
Instead of supporting the printers, Citrine scurried back to number ten with a letter repudiating this action, but found the Prime Minister had already gone to bed and could not be disturbed.
Bevin's compromise proposals were now put to the miners executive, who rejected them 12 - 6. The General Council however approved the plan unanimously and endorsed the view that they were now in charge of the miners' dispute. Once again they thought they had found a way to back out of the fight. However, the government weren't interested, they would only accept a guarantee that the miners would accept a cut in wages, and would not negotiate at all unless the strike was called off.
A State of Emergency was declared in parliament. During the debate the representatives of the ruling class showed a thorough understanding of the nature of class struggle and the events that were about to unfold. Baldwin announced that we have been "challenged with an alternative government... I do not think that all the leaders when they assented to ordering a general strike fully realised that they were threatening the basis of ordered government, and going nearer to proclaiming civil war than we have been for centuries past..."
The government's plans had been prepared for years. They passed an Emergency Powers Act; food, coal and petrol were stockpiled. Regional Civil Commissioners were given dictatorial powers, and all ready to go into action on receipt of a one worded telegram - "Action!" The telegram was sent out on May 2. All army and navy leave was cancelled. Troop reinforcements were dispatched to Scotland, South Wales, London and Lancashire. Warships docked in the Tyne, the Clyde, in Swansea, in Barrow, in Bristol and in Cardiff.
The OMS handed over its organisation to the government. There were maybe 100,000 of them. These were the forces lined up against the working class.
Yet when 4 million out of 5.5 million workers are out, the question is inevitably posed, where does power really lie? No matter what its initial aim, a general strike raises the question which class rules in society? The leaders, if they are not prepared to see that struggle through to a conclusion, have no other alternative but to betray the movement. This is a cardinal lesson of 1926.
On May 4 transport was crippled. The NUR and ASLEF were solid. London was choked. Only 15 out of 315 tubes ran. On Tuesday 4 May 300 out of 4400 buses were running. By the end of the week that was down to 40. Nine of 2000 tramcars operated. This picture was repeated around the country. From the first moment the power of the working class was evident. Nothing moved without the workers say so. By the end of the first day builders, printers, iron, steel, metal and heavy chemical workers had joined transport and railway workers and dockers. The strike was solid.
Churchill undertook the production of a newspaper, a filthy rag called The British Gazette, the sole aim of which was to spread propaganda, lies that there was a drift back to work etc.
The TUC response was The British Worker. Instead of rallying the troops and taking the movement forward the main task of this journal seemed to be to refute the Gazette's slanderous accusation that the unions were organising a revolution.
The role of leadership should have been to counter the lies of the bosses, to spread the movement and take it forward. Instead they were desperately trying to keep control of the men and women they were marching up to the top of the hill in order that they could march them back down again. Jimmy Thomas, the Grand Old Duke of York, admitted as much in the Commons on May 13 "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...That danger, that fear was always in our minds, because we wanted at least, even in this struggle, to direct a disciplined army."
The army of labour was well organised, at least locally. Councils of Action grew in size and authority across the country. They took responsibility for organising permits for transport, picketing, entertainment and financial assistance for those in most need. In East Fife a workers defence corps was organised. Initially consisting of 150, its ranks swelled to over 700 when clashes with police illustrated clearly the need for such a body. In Bolton, Merthyr and Methil well organised Councils of Action functioned alongside Central Strike Committees. Some outstanding local strike bulletins were produced, although these were discouraged by TUC headquarters.
In large parts of the country control of the roads, transport and distribution was firmly in the hands of the Councils of Action, but these were never linked up, there was no nationally co-ordinated policy. The Paisley strike committee spoke for many, the "chief difficulty lay in getting accurate information from headquarters, particularly in regard to the issuing of permits."
Churchill and Baldwin exaggerated, there was no alternative government, but there could have been. Linking up the councils of action and strike committees across the country would have been the basis for just such an alternative government, a workers government. That would have meant taking the struggle from a defensive one to save the miners, to an offensive one to change society. Unfortunately the TUC leaders were not even prepared to carry through the defensive battle.
Their own recent history gave no reason to have any illusions in the tops of the unions. Even the most honest and courageous of the workers leaders, Cook, had no clear perspective and plan of action. The Communist Party limited itself to supporting the left union leaders. Some of the best local leaders were Communists, they held important positions in most Councils of Action and strike committees. However they did not see a revolutionary potential in the movement before them. Karl Radek in Russia gave the British CP their lead, "this is not a revolutionary movement. It is simply a wage dispute." Indeed it was not yet a revolutionary movement, but a strange mere wage dispute which involves a general strike, councils of action, in some parts of the country, like the north east, almost dual power with the workers in control of everything that moved. No, this was not simply a wage dispute. It was a defensive battle, but one which was by the day and the hour increasing the confidence of the working class. They could see and feel the power at their fingertips. After the strike there were over 3000 prosecutions, more than half of them were for acts of incitement, one Lambeth tram cleaner, for example was fined £5 for shouting, "We want the revolution."
Instead the order came on May 10, via the British Worker "Stand firm. Be loyal to instructions and trust your leaders." Those leaders were desperately scurrying around looking for the fire exit. They found it in the return of Samuel. Once it dawned on Thomas and co that the ruling class weren't willing to compromise, they realised that they had no alternative but to...capitulate. All sorts of excuses like the alleged drift back to work (in reality there were more workers coming out every day) were wheeled out to justify backing Samuel's new proposal. This included promises of reorganisation of the mines but insisted on a wage cut. The General Council backed the proposal. The miners naturally rejected it and were rightly appalled that even the basic demand of trade unionism, a clause guaranteeing no victimisation of those who had been on strike, had been omitted. They were told to take it or leave it. On May 11, after a week, with the strike growing in dimension and confidence the TUC decided to call it off the next day without any guarantees on further negotiations, without any defence against victimisation, without even the promise of an end to the lock out. This was abject surrender. The government immediately announced it as such, declaring that it had "no power to compel employers to take back every man who has been on strike." The union leaders sent out messages to their members promising that "assurances had been given" there had been "firm undertakings" etc. Around the country workers greeted the news with incredulity, with a mixture of anger and dismay. The workers had been betrayed by those leaders who kept asking them to trust them. The bosses immediately tried to ram home their advantage. There were sackings and wage cuts everywhere. One group of strikers wrote in Lansbury's Labour Weekly a week later "The bosses in all trades felt...that now they had the trade union movement at their feet, and all they had to do was to stamp on it."
As a result of these attacks and anger at the TUC's betrayal, there were 100,000 more out on the day after the strike had been called off than there had been on its first day. Churchill's Gazette was like a red rag to the workers with its headline reading "Unconditional withdrawal of notices by TUC. Men to return forthwith. Surrender handed to Premier in Downing Street."
However the cowardice of the leaders should not be mistaken for the mood of the workers. The bosses were in danger of going too far. Fenner Brockway wrote from Manchester "The Gazette...chortled over the great surrender but the temper of the workers was more militant than ever and in Manchester there was no thought of going back...For the first time feeling was bitter - bitter against employers who were everywhere victimising the local strike stalwarts, and bitter against the TUC General Council. It looked as though the end of the strike might be the beginning of the revolution."
The TUC surrender could have ended in a rout but for the struggle and militancy of the workers themselves who managed to minimise the nevertheless vicious attacks of the bosses.
After a week however, without leadership and direction, seeing no way forward workers did begin to return to work.
The miners were isolated again. Despite the willingness of the workers to fight on, the NUR leaders now even refused to embargo the movement of coal. The TUC refused to arrange a levy for the miners. After a heroic struggle, locked out for seven months, the miners went back to work, at least those not victimised, on longer hours, with less pay and no national agreement.
The ruling class had spent hundreds of millions of pounds, yet with all the resources at their disposal they could never have defeated the general strike but for the treachery of the TUC leaders.
The Communist Party grew from 6000 to 10,000. This was small fry however, with a correct policy they could have gained ten times as many.
The defeat, or more accurately surrender led to the introduction of vicious anti trade union legislation in the form of the Trade Union Bill of 1927, where sympathetic strikes were outlawed and trade unionists had to opt in rather than opt out of the political levy. Sound familiar? There are indeed eerie comparisons with the miners strike of 1984-5 where the heroic struggle of the miners and the support of the rank and file of other unions was only matched by the treachery of the TUC and Labour leaders. The miners defeat in 1985 had a dramatic impact on all workers and on the bosses who launched attacks on other sectors while almost identical anti union legislation was introduced.
The coal owner Lord Londonderry had predicted in 1926 that the unions would be smashed from top to bottom. They were not. The TUC surrender had a profound impact on workers, but their will to struggle returns again and again. What is lacking on each and every occasion is a leadership worthy of the workers willingness to fight. In the Minority Movement we had the beginning of such an alternative leadership for the unions. Today, too, the task must be to build such a new leadership for the workers organisations. The first step must be for us all to study and learn the lessons of the history of workers struggle.