[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

“Black Friday”

These revolutionary years, deeply influenced by the Russian Revolution, led to many profound changes in the British Labour movement. Following the war, the Labour Party had adopted a new Constitution for the first time and introduced individual party membership. The Party also adopted socialism as its objective, inscribed in Clause Four, part four, of the new Constitution: “To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.” Drafted by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the wording was not the clearest or the most direct, however, it sufficiently encapsulated the need to overthrow capitalism through the public ownership of the decisive levers of the economy under workers’ control and management. The Party’s new radical programme, Labour and the New Social Order, reinforced this immediate aim of eradicating the capitalist system once and for all.

In 1920, the TUC Parliamentary Committee was transformed into a Trades Union General Council as “a central co-ordinating body representative of the whole trade union movement”. The following year saw the establishment of the National Council of Labour, comprising members of the General Council and Labour’s Executive Committee. There was also an increase in union amalgamations, headed by the groups associated with the Transport Workers’ Federation to form the Transport and General Workers’ Union, under the leadership of Ernest Bevin. But there were even more profound developments shaking the Labour movement. The betrayal of August 1914, the carnage of the World War, and the earth-shattering events in Russia, all served to create a tremendous ferment within the mass workers’ organisations, reinforcing a shift to the left.

Following the birth of the Third (Communist) International in March 1919, Lenin and Trotsky had appealed for the formation of mass Communist Parties as a means of rallying the revolutionary workers on a world-wide basis. As a consequence, in 1920 the Independent Labour Party voted at its annual conference to disaffiliate from the discredited Second International, and open negotiations with the Third International. In the same year, a similar initiative was raised at the Labour Party conference. However, this time the right wing managed to scuttle the proposal by 1,010,000 votes to 519,000. Even then, a significant minority within the Labour Party had still voted for the pro-Communist resolution and displayed great sympathy for the Russian Revolution.

Despite this setback in the Labour Party, a number of socialist groupings in Britain did answer the call to form a new united Communist Party. Members and groups of the British Socialist Party, the SLP, ILP, and others undertook a series of negotiations, which concluded with a Unity Conference at the end of July 1920. Some 159 delegates, representing 2,000 to 3,000 members, proceeded to vote to found the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and affiliate to the Third International. Although small in number, the party attracted the most militant sections of the working class, including many leaders from the Shop Stewards’ Movement. It was, however, far from being a fully-fledged Communist Party in its methods, organisation and approach. For some time it remained an amalgamation of the pre-war propagandist groups, still influenced by syndicalism and sectarianism. These class fighters knew what they wanted, but had great difficulty in agreeing how to achieve these objectives. The Communist International sought to help them root out this sectarianism, which arose from their political immaturity. The Third International under Lenin and Trotsky above all succeeded in persuading the young British party to face towards the factories and the organised Labour movement.

Lenin on Britain

Following the experience of the Bolsheviks, the attempt to win the working class to the side of the CPGB required consistent work in the workplaces and the mass organisations, especially the trade unions. Lenin, who took a great interest in Britain, conducted a struggle against the ultra-left and sectarian tendencies within the party, represented among others by Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher. These young comrades, fresh to the revolutionary movement, were sickened by the opportunism of the official organisations, and so refused point-blank to participate in the Labour Party, or in elections of any sort. This “infantile” ultra-leftism also manifested itself elsewhere in the International as a refusal on principle to carry out work within right-dominated trade unions. Lenin skilfully took up these arguments in his excellent pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, which again is a work that is highly relevant today. Here, Lenin compares ultra-leftism to a childhood malady, corresponding to the infant stage of the international communist movement. He explains the erroneousness of this approach by drawing upon the rich experience of Bolshevism, especially its flexible tactics and methods in relation to the working class and its organisations. He argues that it is the duty of revolutionaries to participate in the trade unions, even reactionary ones, in order to change things from within. Lenin explained that the Bolsheviks went so far as to reach workers in the unions set up by the Tsarist police!

In the chapter “Left-wing” Communism in Britain, Lenin took up in more detail the ultra-left arguments of Pankhurst and Gallacher. Gallacher had written a letter about the Clyde Workers’ Committee’s political views, stating they were against participation in Parliament, or standing in elections, but were in favour of creating soviets; they were against the reactionary Labour leaders, wanted nothing to do with the Labour Party, but desired to build a “clear, well-defined, scientific” Communist Party. Lenin patiently replied:

“In my opinion, this letter to the editor expresses excellently the temper and point of view of the young Communists, or of rank-and-file workers who are only just beginning to accept communism. This temper is highly gratifying and valuable; we must learn to appreciate and support it for, in its absence, it would be hopeless to expect the victory of the proletarian revolution in Great Britain, or in any other country for that matter. People who can give expression to this temper of the masses, and are able to evoke such a temper (which is very often dormant, unconscious and latent) among the masses, should be appreciated and given every assistance. At the same time, we must tell them openly and frankly that a state of mind is by itself insufficient for leadership of the masses in a great revolutionary struggle and that the cause of the revolution may well be harmed by certain errors that people who are most devoted to the cause of the revolution are about to commit, or are committing. Comrade Gallacher’s letter undoubtedly reveals the rudiments of all the mistakes that are being made by the German ‘Left’ Communists and were made by the Russian ‘Left’ Bolsheviks in 1908 and 1918.”

In a chapter entitled ‘Should Revolutionaries work in Reactionary Trade Unions?’ Lenin argued:

“We are waging the struggle against the opportunist and social-chauvinist leaders in order to win the working class over to our side. It would be absurd to forget this most elementary and most self-evident truth. Yet it is this very absurdity that the German ‘Left’ Communists perpetrate when, because of the reactionary and counter-revolutionary character of the trade union top leadership, they jump to the conclusion that… we must withdraw from the trade unions, refuse to work in them, and create new and artificial forms of labour organisation! This is so unpardonable a blunder that it is tantamount to the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie… To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders…

“This ridiculous ‘theory’ that Communists should not work in reactionary trade unions reveals with the utmost clarity the frivolous attitude of the ‘Left’ Communists towards the question of influencing the ‘masses’, and their misuse of clamour about the ‘masses’. If you want to help the ‘masses’ and win the sympathy and support of the ‘masses’, you should not fear difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the ‘leaders’ (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations – even the most reactionary – in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.”[1]

In other words, in order to change things, you must take the situation as it is, and not as you would like it to be. While a small minority favoured soviets and socialist revolution, the majority did not, and the task was to win over the majority to these ideas. That, in turn, meant working shoulder to shoulder with these layers, in order to show them in practice the correctness of your methods and ideas. Lenin had no time for the sectarian that simply stood on the sidelines. At this time, and as a vital antidote to this approach, Lenin also advised the British Communist Party to affiliate to the Labour Party in order to get closer to the political life of the advanced workers. Again, it was necessary to take the workers as they are, with their misconceptions and prejudices, and work with them, as Marx had urged in the Communist Manifesto, and not impose sectarian principles on the movement.

On 8 July, Lenin wrote to the BSP paper The Call stating:

“Personally I am in favour of participation in Parliament and of affiliation to the Labour Party, given wholly free and independent communist activities. I shall defend these tactics at the Second Congress of the Third International on July 15, 1920 in Moscow.”[2]

Not surprisingly, this suggestion that the CP should join the Labour Party led to an absolute uproar amongst the British Communists, who had already broken from reformist politics and were determined not to join a party with MacDonald at its head! The controversy over the Labour Party question gave rise to a very heated debate at the Second Congress. Despite strong resistance within the British delegation, the Congress came out overwhelmingly in favour of the British CP affiliating to the Labour Party. Back in Britain, the leaders of the Communist Party very reluctantly agreed to carry out this decision, after taking a vote of 100 to 85 in favour of affiliation.

Their application for affiliation was worded however in such a manner as to deliberately invite rejection. When this came to pass, the British CP leaders simply greeted the news with joyful contempt. Their haughty reply (“So be it. It is their funeral, not ours.”) was published in their newspaper, The Communist of 16 September 1920. As soon as the leaders of the International heard of this, they sent an urgent message urging the British leadership to reconsider their approach. A week later, realising their blunder, the line of the paper changed: “it is the duty of the communists to work where the masses are. That may mean going into reactionary organisations, but that is better and easier than creating brand new organisations in the hope that the masses will leave the old ones and come to the new.”[3] But the short-term damage had been done. This ammunition was used by the right wing to the maximum effect in rejecting all future applications.

Employers’ Offensive

After a period of sustained assistance from the leaders of the International, the British Communist Party was eventually weaned away from its sectarian stance. In the process, the party also agreed – in contrast to the pre-war propagandist groups – to conduct serious and systematic work in the trade unions as well as in the Labour Party as individuals. However, Communists faced a witch-hunt and expulsion from the reformist International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) or the “Amsterdam International”, as it was commonly known, under the slogan: “Revolutionaries and Communists out of the unions!” This forced those expelled to set up the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), which gathered together the forces driven out of the old federation.

“This offensive tactic of the partisans of Amsterdam”, stated the RILU, “must be fought with firm and decisive resistance in the local branches, with the slogan ‘Down with the splitters, long live the unity of the trade union movement!’ In no case should we favour the aspirations of Amsterdam by willingly abandoning the trade unions: that would be too easy for the supporters of Amsterdam and too damaging for the left wing of the labour movement.” It continued: “The workers who are expelled from the trade unions must not be dispersed, but should remain organised within the same structures they belonged to before being expelled, and continue to act as legitimate members of the trade union which has expelled them.”

British trade union leaders, Robert Williams and Alfred Purcell, together with representatives from 47 other unions including the Russians, went to Moscow to initiate the new federation. The RILU refused to turn its back on the old federation but instead offered the IFTU a united front bloc against the employers’ offensive. “In formulating our tactics towards the old trade unions, we have to take into full account that fact that they bring together many millions of workers”, stated the resolution of the First Congress of the RILU.

“The task of the revolutionary elements within the trade union movement is therefore not to break away from the unions the best and most conscious workers and use them to form small organisations, but to instil in them the revolutionary spirit and remain within them, taking up on a day-to-day basis the revolutionary aspirations of the working class, and thereby strive to transform them into instruments of the social revolution.”

Further on in the resolution, there is a particular reference to Britain. The tactics suggested to the British Communists were quite clear:

“In Britain, in spite of the existence of a powerful trade union movement which is undergoing a deep crisis, there are attempts to create new organisations along the lines of the IWW, such as the One Big Union, etc. These attempts are to be categorically and firmly condemned. The task of the revolutionary workers of Britain is to remain inside those huge mass trade unions and to struggle within them for the victory of the ideas of the Red International of Labour Unions. Separating a few tens of thousands of revolutionary workers from the trade unions and isolating them in separate small organisations would be a crime against the British and world working class. Therefore, all those organisations that adhere to the point of view of the Red International of Labour Unions must concentrate all their activities inside the trade unions, and work within them, winning one branch after another, with the aim of uniting the wider masses, and not just the selected few who find themselves outside of the masses.”[4]

The following year, in December 1922, the Fourth Congress of the Comintern chose to examine trade union work in some detail and adopted the Theses on Communist Work in the Trade Unions. This dealt with a series of problems ranging from the role of the Amsterdam International to the activities of anarcho-syndicalism. It also discussed at great length the question of the expulsions of militants from the reformist unions and the paramount need for trade union unity. The Theses stated:

“Despite the fierce anti-Communist witch-hunts being stirred up everywhere by the reformists, we must continue to fight for the slogan of the Communist International – against the splitting of the trade unions – with the same militancy with which we have fought for it up till now. The reformists are trying to use expulsions to provoke a split. Their aim in systematically driving the best elements out of the unions is to make the Communists lose their patience and nerve, so that instead of completing their carefully thought-out plan to win the trade unions from within, the Communists will leave the unions and come out in favour of a split. The reformists, however, will not succeed…

“The preservation as well as the restoration of trade-union unity is possible only if the Communists have a practical action programme that can be applied in each individual country and in every branch of production. By using the practical experience of everyday struggle, the disparate elements of the workers’ movement can be gathered together and united and, where the trade unions are split, the necessary preconditions for organizational unification can be created. Every Communist must remember that a split in the trade-union movement is not only a distinct threat to the gains of the working class but also an immense danger to the social revolution. The reformists’ efforts to split the trade unions must be crushed at the outset, but this can be achieved only by serious organisational and political work among the working masses…

“The more obvious the splitting tactics of our opponents become, the more sharply must we emphasise the need for unity in the trade union movement. Every factory and enterprise, every worker’s meeting must speak out in protest against the tactics of the Amsterdam reformists. The danger of a split in the trade union movement must be forcefully raised; this should be done not just when a split is imminent, but when it becomes clear that a split is being prepared. The attempts to remove Communists from the trade unions must be put before the whole trade-union movement for discussion. The Communists are strong enough not to allow themselves to be stilled without a murmur. The working class must know who is for a split and who is for unity.”[5]

In the summer of 1921, a number of militant trade unionists, particularly miners from Scotland and South Wales, came together to form the British section of the RILU. By the end of 1922, the bureau of the RILU had gained the affiliation of 130,000 miners, 100,000 engineering workers, and 70,000 workers from other sectors. This growth reflected the increasing influence of the British Communist Party within the trade unions. However, Lozovsky, head of the RILU, later noted that the British Bureau was totally unsuited to British conditions, not least because it allowed the trade union right wing to accuse the CP of splitting the unions by encouraging disaffiliation from the TUC.

Nevertheless, patient, consistent, energetic work, as Lenin had advocated, was paying dividends. In 1921, the party launched the “Back to the Unions” campaign, to counteract the drift away from the unions after the slump and the employers’ offensive. This initiative was later taken up officially by the TUC, again reflecting the growing influence of the party.

On 15 February 1921, the government, which had worked hand in glove with the coal owners, agreed to bring forward the termination of their wartime control over the coalmining industry. Soon after, the owners announced drastic wage cuts to make the mines economically viable. As the Mines Decontrol Bill became law, lockout notices were posted at the pitheads. On 31 March, nearly one million miners were locked out, having rejected wage cuts and a return to old district agreements. As a result, the MFGB called on their Triple Alliance partners for support to meet, in the words of the Daily Herald, “a frontal attack on the whole working class by the capitalists and their government.”

In response, Prime Minister Lloyd George used the new Emergency Powers Act to invoke a state of emergency. Military preparations were stepped up in face of the growing crisis, as reservists were called up and volunteers enlisted. In the process, troops were drafted into industrial areas and machine guns were posted at pitheads. Again, a showdown between the government and the working class seemed inevitable.

In solidarity the unions called a general railway and transport strike on 12 April. Support in the rank and file was solid. Unfortunately, the same was not true of the Triple Alliance leadership. At first the strike was postponed to the 15 April. Then, in an impromptu speech to a meeting of MPs at the House of Commons, the MFGB secretary Hodges made a personal offer of a temporary “settlement”. As soon as the miners’ executive heard of this proposal, it immediately disowned the suggestion, and Hodges was reprimanded. But using this as a pretext (“the miners had rejected a possible settlement”), the Triple Alliance leaders withdrew their support until the compromise “offer” was given due consideration. This split the movement down the middle at the crucial point. The Triple Alliance broke apart when it was needed most. The right wing, as always, had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The miners, not for the first time, were left to fight on alone.

This terrible day in April 1921 went down in Labour history as “Black Friday”, a bitter page in the struggle of the working class. The Triple Alliance was soon dubbed the “Cripple Alliance”. It was a humiliating climb-down. As expected, “Black Friday” signalled a general onslaught by the employers on wages and conditions. The miners continued to struggle on, but isolated and disheartened, they went down to defeat by June. Profound disillusionment swept through the mining communities and valleys, breeding feelings of hatred and desperation. The defeat coincided with the slump of 1920-21, which saw industrial production collapse by more than a quarter in a single year; unemployment rose from two per cent to 18 per cent of the workforce; mining, railways, metals, vehicles and cotton were the worst hit. In the offensive that followed, wage cuts were imposed on six million workers by the end of 1921. The following year, from March to June, a national lockout in the engineering industry, involving hundreds of thousands of workers, served to drain the funds of the AEU. This lockout signalled the break-up of the once-powerful Shop Stewards’ Movement, and drastically weakened workplace organisation. The growth of trade union membership to six-and-half million quickly went into reverse. Between 1921 and 1923 affiliations to the TUC dropped by over two million, as workers tore up their union cards or lapsed, disillusioned, into inactivity.

The Political front

Under these conditions, the attention of the working class turned towards the political front. In the general election of November 1922, the Labour Party received 4,236,733 votes and won 142 seats, an impressive increase of 85 seats since the previous election. Two Communist members were also elected to the Commons on a Labour ticket. This sudden advance by the Labour Party precipitated a crisis within both Liberal and Tory parties. Unemployment was rising. It was clear there would be no lasting stability and the scene was set for a further general election within the following 12 months. Under these circumstances, speculation was rife about a possible Labour victory and what it would mean for the working class. Philip Snowden, described by Lenin as “one of the most outstanding opportunists”, was quick to dampen down these expectations. He fell over himself to reassure the capitalist Establishment that in the event of a Labour victory, the government would be in safe hands and would not do anything rash. On the contrary, he stressed a Labour government would be very responsible and statesman-like indeed.

“No Labour government would ever be the government merely of the manual labour class”, stated Snowden. “The present constitution of the Parliamentary Labour Party is the answer to that fear. A considerable proportion of the party members belong to the middle classes. It contains lawyers, doctors, university professors, teachers, ministers of religion, consulting engineers, manufacturers, journalists, and even landed proprietors. A Labour government would certainly contain many men of this type.

“A Labour government would undoubtedly disappoint its critics in one very important and vital respect. It would not be a class government. I know there will be strong pressure from certain quarters to use a Labour government to serve the interests and meet the claims of certain sections of Labour. That, and not even the opposition of capitalist and financial interests, will be its greatest difficulty…”[6]

In December 1923, faced with nearly one-and-a-half million unemployed, Stanley Baldwin went to the country seeking a mandate for protectionism. Following the election, Labour increased its representation to 191 seats, but still fell far short of an overall majority. The Tories had however lost seats, leaving the Liberal leader Asquith holding the balance of power. In the end, they graciously stepped aside and handed Labour the opportunity, like some poisoned chalice, to form an administration.

“There could be no safer conditions under which to make the experiment,” Asquith said, while the Tory, Neville Chamberlain, observed that a Labour government dependent entirely upon Liberal support “would be too weak to do much harm, but not too weak to get discredited.”[7]

Consequently, in early 1924, the first ever minority Labour government took office under Ramsey MacDonald. “We have taken over a bankrupt machine and we have got to try and make that rickety machine work”, Cabinet Minister Margaret Bondfield stated, in complete contrast to the 1918 Manifesto commitment. “I want to gain the confidence of the country and shall suit my policy accordingly”, confirmed the Labour Prime Minister. The Labour leaders used the excuse “in office but not in power” as their biggest alibi for carrying through orthodox capitalist policies. But despite their best efforts to cool expectations, the election of this first Labour government gave rise to great hopes amongst the working class. After all, it was their government in office! Yet hope, which springs eternal in the human breast, soon turned to disappointment as MacDonald carried on as before. The government, in the view of one historian, “had been anything but revolutionary.” In the words of Asquith, it was a government “with its claws cut”, adding reassuringly that “we still sleep more or less comfortably in our beds.”

Instead of championing the cause of the working class, the MacDonald government bent the knee to big business and the City of London. It publicly deplored strikes, which had risen markedly in recent months, as Lloyd George had done. At the end of March, the Labour government went so far as to invoke the hated Emergency Powers Act to deal with the London traffic dispute, declaring in MacDonald’s words that, “the major services must be maintained!” Despite the timidity of this first Labour government, the combined Opposition wasted no effort when the time came to ignominiously cast it aside, like some soiled dishcloth.

The pretext for the Labour government’s removal was MacDonald’s handling of the Campbell Case. This legal case was brought by the Attorney General against the acting editor of the Communist Workers’ Weekly, J. R. Campbell, for publishing a “don’t shoot” appeal to British troops. Under pressure from the labour movement and the fact that Campbell was a decorated ex-serviceman, the case collapsed. Four days before polling day, the newspapers published the so-called Zinoviev Letter, allegedly a letter containing subversive instructions from the president of the Communist International to the British Communist Party. The forgery was passed to Conservative Central Office by an MI5 officer named Joseph Ball, and then leaked to the Daily Mail. Ball later became director of the Conservative research department, where he used his former talents to the full. As intended, the forgery sparked off a “red scare” campaign aimed at panicking the electorate. Under conditions of hysteria and alarm amongst the middle classes, the Tory Party led by Baldwin, won a massive majority in the general election. On the other hand, although defeated, Labour support had actually increased by more than a million votes, demonstrating the deep-seated loyalty of the working class towards the Labour Party. The Liberal Party was annihilated in the process, losing 119 out of its 158 seats. It would never again recover, doomed by the class polarisation of society and the relentless rise of the Labour Party. As a personal consolation to the unsuccessful Labour leader, King George V told Ramsey MacDonald, “he would always regard him as a friend.” While MacDonald’s eyes turned to leading the Labour Opposition, those of the working class turned once more to the industrial front.

Despite the demoralising effects of “Black Friday” and the engineering lockout, there had been a certain recovery in the working class movement. The advanced sections of the trade unions, increasingly under the influence of the CP, began to look for a way to fight back. By August 1924, a new left-wing rank-and-file organisation called the National Minority Movement had come into being. This initiative flowed from the success of the Miners’ Minority Movement, which had secured the election of the left-winger A. J. Cook as national secretary of the MFGB. A new mood was beginning to develop in the British trade unions. Despite a temporary fillip to the coal industry by the French occupation of the Ruhr, the economic situation became so serious that it was described as “heading for irretrievable disaster.” The scene was being set for the biggest showdown in British history: the General Strike of 1926.


[1] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.31, pp.52-53

[2] Lenin, On Britain, p.427

[3] Quoted in Brian Pearce, Early History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, p.29, London 1966

[4] From the Speeches, Statutes and Appeals of the First Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU), July 3-19, 1921, Rome 1922, translated from Italian.

[5] Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London 1980, pp.433-5

[6] Quoted by Murphy, op. cit, p.221

[7] Jim Allen, Days of Hope, p.168, London 1975