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

“Nine Days That Shook The World”

It was a wonderful achievement, a wonderful accomplishment that proved conclusively that the Labour movement has the men and women that are capable in an emergency of providing the means of carrying on the country. Who can forget the effect of the motor conveyances with posters saying: ‘By permission of the TUC’. The government with its OMS was absolutely demoralised. Confidence, calm and order prevailed everywhere, despite the irritation caused by the volunteers, blacklegs and special constables. The workers acted as one. Splendid discipline! Splendid loyalty! 

A. J. Cook, The Nine Days

The General Strike in May 1926 was a struggle of epic proportions. It is not possible to do justice, within the space of a single chapter, to the momentous struggle of the British working class during the course of these nine days. The working class “fought the legions of hell”, to use Cook’s words. They were not prepared to be cowed. On the one hand, we see the fighting spirit of the British working class displayed during the strike, which remains an inspiration. On the other, the betrayal of the General Strike constituted the greatest tragedy in working class history, a deep-seated stain, which had profound long-term consequences.

The events leading up to the General Strike followed swiftly one upon another. The TUC General Council had notified Baldwin that they were now acting on behalf of the miners. As expected, the negotiations were largely a dialogue with the deaf, despite the pleadings of the negotiating committee. Jimmy Thomas was especially obsequious.

“I suppose my usual critics will say that Thomas was almost grovelling, and it is true. In all my long experience – and I have conducted many negotiations – I have never begged and pleaded like I begged and pleaded all day today, and I pleaded not alone because I believed in the case of the miners, but I believed in my bones that my duty to the country involved it.

“For ten days we negotiated, for ten days we said to the government ‘you force the coal owners to give us some terms, never mind what they are and however bad they are. Let us have something to go on’. They said, ‘No, it cannot be done’.”

The leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party behaved no better and rushed to distance themselves from the strike. “I don’t like general strikes”, stated Ramsay MacDonald. “I haven’t changed my opinion. I have said so in the House of Commons. I don’t like it: honestly I don’t like it: but honestly, what can be done?”

For their part, the TUC leaders regarded the General Strike as a negotiating threat, which would never need to be used. But their bluff was called and they were forced to call the strike against their will. While the workers’ leaders preached caution, the ruling class screamed class war. Just before the print workers brought the newspapers to a halt, the threat of “civil war” was splashed all over the capitalist press. To mobilise public opinion in its favour, the government used blackleg labour to bring out their own propaganda news-sheet, the British Gazette, edited personally by Winston Churchill. Unconcerned by its supposed impartiality, the government also commandeered the BBC as a propaganda weapon. Everything was being put in place to break the General Strike and defeat the working class.

In response, the TUC was forced to issue its own publication, the British Worker, edited by the mild-mannered Hamilton Fyfe. While countering the government’s propaganda, the British Worker sought on all occasions to behave “responsibly”, so much so that The Times actually commended the paper for being a “moderating influence” during the strike! In his diary, Hamilton Fyfe wrote:

“None but a few crazy idealists have ever wanted a General Strike. Now the very people who have always been most strongly opposed to it are forced to admit that there is no other way for the trade unions to carry out their pledge of support to the miners.”[1] He was forced to add, “But there was no hint of any desire for conflict. Rather was there an earnest hope that this might be avoided.”

MacDonald and Thomas were hoping some deal could be found to call off the threatened general strike. The right-wing trade union leaders accepted the Samuel report as a basis for agreement, but the Miners’ Executive, given the wage cuts involved, repudiated the suggestion. The negotiations with the government were still continuing when everything was brought to a complete standstill by news of the spontaneous action by workers at the Daily Mail. The print workers had gone on unofficial strike to prevent the publication of a provocative anti-union editorial entitled “For King and Country.” The Baldwin Cabinet received the news with real or feigned outrage. According to Hamilton Fyfe: “Now for the first time, it seems, Churchill came to the front. He said that now it must be war.” When the TUC leaders returned cap in hand at midnight to Downing Street, they were turned away with a blunt ultimatum by Baldwin to repudiate the unofficial strike action at the Daily Mail and “withdraw the instructions for a general strike”.

Without any hesitation, the TUC leaders repudiated the strike at the Mail and dispatched Pugh and Walter Citrine, the acting general secretary, back to Downing Street with the necessary assurances. When they got there, they were informed that the Prime Minister had gone to bed and could not be disturbed. The General Council, totally humiliated, were still dithering till the eleventh hour, but matters were already moving out of their control. When Thomas left Downing Street knowing that a strike was inevitable, he broke down saying: “I gave way to tears. It was like seeing the fabric you loved smashed to fragments.”

Just before the strike was to begin, at midnight Monday 3 May, the timorous Mr Thomas again beseeched the government:

“It will be with no light heart that this fight will be entered into. Because I feel in my bones that a last effort ought to be made, I still plead. The dye may be cast. The fight may come … Do not let us have bitterness, whatever the immediate future may bring.”

The TUC leaders were more terrified of the consequences of the General Strike than Stanley Baldwin. Thomas complained that the strike was not a challenge to the Constitution, as the government maintained. If that was the case, then, “God help us unless the government won…” he said. This summed up the whole outlook of the trade union leaders.

Scarcely a wheel turns

On the morning of 4 May 1926, the first day of the General Strike, the ruling class got more than they had bargained for. The working class response was tremendous, exceeding by far the expectations of the trade union leaders. The industrial heartlands were brought to a complete halt. “Trades Union Congress officials were astonished by the completeness of labour’s response to its call,” wrote the London correspondent of the New York World. “All its calculations were too pessimistic.” They were astonished at the power of the working class, which acted as one. Never before, not even in Chartist times, had such a display of working class solidarity and determination been seen in Britain.

The pitheads were silent as one million miners were locked-out. The railways and public services were at a complete standstill. A few buses operated in London, but only nine tramcars out of 2,000-odd were on the road. There were no passenger trains. Hamilton Fyfe recorded a graphic picture in his diary on the first day of the general strike:

“On the railways scarcely a wheel turns… Docks everywhere are empty and silent. The roads, outside of the cities, have little traffic on them. Building has almost entirely stopped, except on housing schemes and hospital extensions. Iron and steel works are closed; so are the heavy chemical factories. There are none of the ordinary newspapers. Nothing like a strike on this scale has been seen before – anywhere.”

Even the unorganised workers were drawn into the struggle. It was truly a breath-taking scene of working class power.

“Organised Labour now acts as one unit…” Hamilton Fyfe continued. “That is an immense advance. The odd thing is that this should have come to pass under a General Council which includes no ‘extremists,’ and is composed almost entirely of men and women who are steady-going, moderate, unemotional, the last people in the world whom one would think of as likely to put themselves at the head of a movement of this kind.”[2]

The only trade union that openly scabbed on the strike was the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, led by Havelock Wilson. A number of branches of the union went on strike without the permission of their executive, and Wilson scandalously took them to court and managed to get a High Court injunction restraining them from supporting the strike. But this was of no consequence in the scale of things.

The motley army of scabs mobilised by the OMS, made up mostly of students and middle class professionals, was completely ineffective given the situation. They lacked the necessary skills needed to keep services going. The whole country was in a state of paralysis and the government was suspended in mid-air. The spontaneous initiative and resourcefulness of several million workers was making up for the lack of direction at the top of the trade unions.

From its first day, the working class showed tremendous qualities and improvisation. As in 1920, the Trades Councils sprang into action. Councils of Action based on Trades Councils and local Labour Parties acted as district command headquarters and organised the strike on the ground. These organisations were completely transformed by the struggle. They had suddenly come to life! They displayed energy and initiative to an extent that astonished all who had participated in them:

“Councils which had never had any real existence, councils which were considered moribund, as well as normally active councils – all seemed to get a sudden inspiration, developed new forms of organisation and activity drew in numbers of new helpers and for the first time in their history… became the real expression of the local movement.”[3]

Nothing could move without the workers’ permission. The Councils organised picketing, communications, permits, and even workers’ defence corps in certain areas. At Methil, in Fife, for instance, in response to police attacks, the Council of Action organised a defence corps, which swelled to 700 volunteers and was organised into companies under the command of former NCOs. The corps was armed with pick shafts, which served to keep the forces of the state at bay. The ordinary functions of the capitalist state were paralysed. These Councils of Action were, in reality, embryos of workers’ power. As the strike turned into a struggle with the government, the working class spontaneously developed its own organs of self-government.

The General Strike was showing in practice which class was the real power in society. Nothing could operate without the permission of the TUC. How things had changed! Rather than the workers taking orders from the bosses, the opposite was now the case: “Employers of labour were coming, cap in hand, begging for permission to do certain things, or, to be more correct, to allow their workers to return to perform certain customary operations…” stated an Ashton sheet-metal worker, a member of his local Permit Committee. “Most of them turned empty away after a most humiliating experience, for one and all were put through a stern questioning, just to make them realise that we and not they were the salt of the earth. I thought of the many occasions when I had been turned empty away from the door of some workshop in a weary struggle to get the means to purchase the essentials of life for self and dependants.”

The ruling class was losing control of society. It was something they never expected. Here was a glimpse of revolution, which terrified them. In certain areas, such as Northumberland and Durham, the Councils of Action were so strong that the government’s representatives were compelled to plead for permits.

“When trade unionists working under permit refused to work with blackleg labour introduced at the docks, the government Commissioner, Sir Kingsley Wood, approached the Joint Strike Committee with a view to establishing some form of dual control. After two meetings between Wood and representatives of the Joint Strike Committee, the latter refused to make any arrangement involving work alongside blacklegs, and all permits were withdrawn”,

stated the Report from the Northumberland and Durham General Council and Joint Strike Committee.

Fortunately for the ruling class, the trade union leaders were even more terrified by these developments. Things were getting out of control. The trade union leaders never considered that it was the business of the working class to run society, but this became increasingly the case. Thomas later told the House of Commons,

“What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this: if by 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. I thank God it never did… that fear, was always in our minds…”[4]

Unstoppable wave

Inspired at the power of organised labour, unorganised workers joined the unions in droves; in some cases non-unionists even preceded the union workers in coming out on strike. There were militant demonstrations and processions in the main towns and cities. The working class became more and more confident as the strike went on. There were continual clashes between strikers and police. Thousands of workers were arrested, charged with incitement, and jailed for terms of six weeks to two months. But these measures failed to intimidate the workers, and each day more sections were coming out on strike in an unstoppable wave.

Initially taken aback by the scale and thrust of the movement, the government recovered its nerve and began to show its teeth. Battleships were anchored in the Mersey, the Clyde, and off the coast at Swansea and Cardiff. The OMS was incorporated into the government forces under Churchill. All army and naval leave was cancelled, and two battalions were dispatched to Liverpool. Hyde Park in London was turned into an armed camp. To the dismay of the General Council, the government continually denounced the strike, as a revolutionary challenge to the Constitution. “The General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin”, stated Baldwin. Hamilton Fyfe saw the irony in this when he wrote in his diary: “This is to be the line, then. The General Council is to be held up to detestation as an assembly of Guy Fawkeses, bent upon blowing up Parliament and property, the Constitution, everything.”

Despite a deliberate attempt by Churchill to suppress it, the TUC issued its first issue of the British Worker on the 5 May, the second day of the strike. “The workers are growing more determined as the days pass. They are not ‘drifting back to work.’ On the contrary, the trouble everywhere is to keep those men at work who have not yet been ordered to strike”, stated the British Worker.

“And as to getting the ‘trains and things’ running with ‘volunteers,’ the first day’s boasts have quite failed to materialise. The train service remains a skeleton – and an even bonier skeleton than yesterday.

“A few London buses are being run by ‘volunteer’ drivers, each guarded by a policeman. Here and there in the provinces the same thing. But what does it all amount to? In all Manchester, for example, three tram drivers!

“A few buses, a few passenger trains. But the mines are still, the goods traffic has ceased, the docks are closed, the factories are closing.

“Not all the OMS in the world can get them going again. Only the organised workers can do that.

“And the organised workers, solid, disciplined, calm, are refusing to do it until justice is done to their fellows.

“The third day. And still everywhere complete calm, complete order.”

The General Strike immediately demonstrated the enormous power of the working class. Nothing moved without its permission. The government was, in effect, completely paralysed. Clearly, this was no ordinary strike. Whether the TUC leaders liked it or not, the General Strike posed the question of power. Whatever the immediate issue, once set in motion such a strike has logic of it own. It raises the question point-blank: Who governs the country? This question demands an answer. No evasions or middle way is possible. Either the strike leads to the workers taking power or a severe defeat can ensue and the capitalists will impose their will. No other outcome is possible.

Two days into the strike, on 6 May, Trotsky wrote a brilliant appraisal of the unfolding events:

“A general strike is the sharpest form of class war. It is only one step from the general strike to armed insurrection. This is precisely why the general strike, more than any other form of class struggle, requires clear, distinct, resolute and therefore revolutionary leadership. In the current strike of the British proletariat there is not a ghost of such a leadership, and it is not to be expected that it can be conjured up out of the ground. The General Council of the Trades Union Congress set out with the ridiculous statement that the present general strike did not represent a political struggle, and in any event did not constitute an assault upon the state power of the bankers, industrialists and landowners, or upon the sanctity of British parliamentarism. This most loyal and submissive declaration of war does not, however, appear the least bit convincing to the government, which feels the real instruments of rule slipping out of its hands under the effect of the strike. State power is not an ‘idea’ but a material apparatus. When the apparatus of government and suppression is paralysed, the state power is thereby paralysed. In modern society no-one can hold power without controlling the railways, shipping, posts and telegraphs, power stations, coal, and so on. The fact that MacDonald and Thomas have sworn to renounce any political objectives may typify them personally but it in no way typifies the nature of the general strike which if carried through to the end sets the revolutionary class the task of organising a new state power. Fighting against this with all their might, however, are those very people who by the course of events have been placed ‘at the head’ of the general strike. And in this the main danger lies. Men who did not want the general strike, who deny the political nature of the general strike, and fear above all the consequences of a victorious strike, must inevitably direct all their efforts towards keeping it within the bounds of a semi-political semi-strike, that is to say, towards emasculating it…

“Now is not the time to predict the duration, the course and still less the outcome of the struggle. Everything must be done on an international scale to aid the fighters and improve their chances of success. But it must be clearly recognised that success is possible only to the extent that the British working class, in the process of the development and sharpening of the general strike, realises the need to change its leadership, and measures up to the task. There is an American proverb which says that you cannot change horses in mid-stream. But this practical wisdom is true only within certain limits. The stream of revolution has never been crossed on the horse of reformism, and the class, which has entered the struggle under opportunist leadership, will be compelled to change it under enemy fire. The conduct of the really revolutionary elements in the British proletariat and above all the communists is pre-determined by this. They will uphold the unity of mass action by every means; but they will not permit even the semblance of unity with the opportunist leaders of the Labour Party and the trade unions. An implacable struggle against every act of treachery or attempted treachery and the ruthless exposure of the reformists’ illusions are the main elements in the work of the genuinely revolutionary participants in the general strike. In this they will not only aid the fundamental and protracted task of developing new cadres, without which the victory of the British proletariat is wholly impossible, but they will directly assist the success of this strike by deepening it, uncovering its revolutionary tendencies, thrusting the opportunists aside and strengthening the position of the revolutionaries…

“The present collision of the classes will be a tremendous lesson and have immeasurable consequences, quite apart from its immediate results. It will become plain to every proletarian in Britain that parliament is powerless to solve the basic and most vital tasks of the country. The question of the economic salvation of Britain will henceforth confront the proletariat as the question of the conquest of power. All intervening, mediating, compromising, pseudo-pacifist elements will be dealt a mortal blow. The Liberal Party, however much its leaders may twist and turn, will emerge from such an ordeal even more insignificant than it entered it. Within the Conservative Party, the most die-hard elements will obtain preponderance. Within the Labour Party the revolutionary wing will gain in organisation and influence. The Communists will advance decisively. The revolutionary development of Britain will take a gigantic stride towards its dénouement.”[5]

As explained, the General Council attempted to reassure the ruling class that the strike posed no threat to King or Country, and was simply called to help the miners. But the ruling class would hear none of it. They correctly saw the General Strike as a direct challenge to the Constitution, the Baldwin government and the capitalist system. However, instead of providing the necessary leadership, the TUC leaders acted as a gigantic millstone around the neck of the movement. In the pages of the British Worker, workers could read their Message to All Workers. It stated: “The General Council of the Trades Union Congress wishes to emphasise the fact that this is an industrial dispute.” But a general strike by its very nature goes far beyond the boundaries of an ordinary industrial dispute. It necessarily has a political character because it brings out sharply the fundamental class division in society and challenges the bosses’ right to rule. Baldwin and Churchill were therefore quite right to present it as a declaration of war. The difference was that, whereas they showed great determination to lead their armies into battle, the officers of the Labour movement were desperate to surrender without firing a shot.

Stand firm!

The General Council in fact became the greatest asset of the Baldwin government. Three days into the strike, Sir Herbert Samuel returned from a pleasant holiday in Italy and immediately opened up unofficial (that is, secret and underhand) negotiations with Jimmy Thomas, followed by the Industrial Committee, to find an “honourable settlement”. The TUC made it clear that it saw Samuel’s proposals as a basis for calling off the strike. They became increasingly desperate for a way out – even if it meant sacrificing the miners. The growing mood of capitulation within the ranks of the TUC General Council reflected itself in the refusal to call out its “second line”, mainly composed of shipping workers, until the 10 May. It never once considered using its most powerful weapons, namely the withdrawal of those sections responsible for electricity and power.

“The order has gone out that the engineering shops and shipyards are to stop to-night,” noted Hamilton Fyfe. “This applies to all unions in the engineering and shipbuilding trades affiliated to the TUC. It does not apply to men engaged at the government dockyards, Admiralty establishments, or government engineering works.

“The men, so the General Council reports, have awaited the instructions impatiently, and all over the country they have received their ‘marching orders’ with enthusiasm and a sense of relief.”[6]

“All’s Well”, was the message from the TUC on Monday 10 May. “The General Council’s message at the opening of the second week is ‘Stand firm.’ Be loyal to instructions and Trust Your Leaders,” stated the British Worker. On the very day before the general strike was called off, the British Worker ran a bold front page: “NO SLACKENING – The number of strikers has not diminished: it is increasing. There are more workers out today than there have been at any moment since the strike began”. Behind the scenes, however, the General Council was busy plotting to end the strike and leave the miners to face the consequences of defeat. Everything was to be sacrificed to bring the strike to an end and thus prevent the union leaders from losing control. But in order to do this, it was necessary to put the maximum pressure on the miners. A.J. Cook vividly describes what happened next in his pamphlet, The Nine Days:

“In a long speech, Mr. Pugh solemnly and seriously declared that the General Council had decided that these proposals [the Samuel Memorandum] must be accepted by the miners’ representatives as a basis for negotiations and that they would call off the strike. They had guarantees that satisfied them that the government would accept these proposals and that on the strike being withdrawn, the lockout notices would also be withdrawn and the miners should return to work on the status quo (with, of course, a reduction in wages to come after resumption of work). We were told these proposals were unalterable, could not be amended, that we had to accept them en bloc as this was the unanimous decision of the TUC. Mr. Pugh was continually pressed and questioned by Mr. Herbert Smith, myself and my colleagues as to what the guarantees mentioned were, and who had given them. We got no answer. But J. H. Thomas said to me personally when I asked him whether the government would accept the Samuel proposals and what were the guarantees: ‘You may not trust my word, but will you not accept the word of a British gentleman who has been Governor of Palestine?’

“Our President, myself, and my colleagues put several other questions; asking what was the position of other workers in regard to the unanimous decision arrived at that we should all return to work together, to protect one another from victimisation, and to secure a return by all workers on the same conditions as when they left. We were informed that ‘that was alright’.”

Cook writes about “an abyss” opening up before him and the rest of the Federation leaders. There was a sudden realisation that they were about to be sold down the river. The TUC leaders had made up their minds to end the strike. For them, there was no alternative but to accept the Samuel Memorandum. But the miners rejected the proposals and Cook issued a press statement on the afternoon of 12 May stating that the Miners’ Federation were “no party in any shape or form” to the calling off of the General Strike. Of course, this statement, deliberately suppressed by the General Council, was never printed in the British Worker and the mass of workers remained totally ignorant of the miners’ position until well after the strike had ended.

While the General Strike was gaining momentum, the General Council was at Downing Street to present its surrender proposals. Arthur Pugh announced, after a somewhat rambling preamble, that the “General Strike is to be terminated forthwith in order that negotiations may proceed.” Baldwin accepted the TUC’s unconditional surrender and asked them to leave. “Now, Mr. Pugh”, said the Prime Minister in a tone of utter contempt, “as I said before, we have both of us got a great deal to do and a great deal of anxious and difficult work, and I think the sooner you get to your work and the sooner I get to mine the better.”

The miners were left completely stunned and isolated. They had been deliberately betrayed. Despite suggestions of guarantees against victimisation, there were none. The TUC General Council had simply capitulated without even a whimper. The General Council’s final letter to Sir Herbert Samuel, dated 12 May, informed him that,

“they are taking the necessary measures to terminate the general strike, relying upon the public assurances of the Prime Minister as to the steps that would follow. They assume that during the resumed negotiations the subsidy will be renewed and that the lockout notices to the miners will be immediately withdrawn.”

Baldwin made it abundantly clear that these assurances had no basis whatsoever in fact. Like beaten dogs, the members of the TUC negotiating committee were unceremoniously shown the door. Even Ernest Bevin was forced to admit, “We have committed suicide. Thousands of members will be victimised as a result of this day’s work.”

It was a humiliating capitulation. Far from crumbling, the General Strike was getting stronger on the day of the surrender. In fact, twenty-four hours after the strike had been officially called off, the number of strikers had actually increased by 100,000. The strike had been reaching out to new layers. The Councils of Action were only just getting into their stride, drawing in greater control into their hands.

“No sign of weakening whatsoever; stronger if anything; few drifted back, but more came out”, reported the Aldershot Council. “The mood of the men and women here who were on strike was splendid, and it was a big shock when we heard the strike was off. But we expect it was for the best, although we cannot understand it yet, as we all thought we had won.”

The same was true of Bermondsey, Bethnal Green, Aberdeen, Birkenhead, Lincoln, Northampton, Macclesfied, Pontypridd, Sheffield, and dozens more.

From Erith the Council of Action stated:

“Position on 12 May – No sign of weakening; but disappointed at the way the strike terminated; the majority of the workers never returned until 24 May, owing to the employers’ attitude in not taking all the men back together.”

In Bolton it was reported:

“2,280 pickets mobilised in two days. Every picket did four hours on and twenty hours off. All were badged with a white silk ribbon. 29 push bikes and 57 motorbikes mobilised for picket and messenger work. Two local cinemas granted free use of cinemas for morning and afternoon meetings of strikers. Contact originated and maintained with practically every town in Lancashire each day. From Lancaster to Todmorden and from Macclesfield to Liverpool.”

This clearly showed how the Councils of Action were already linking up on a district and regional basis. If the strike had continued, they could well have crystallised into a national organisation, which, to all intents and purposes, would be the same as the Russian soviets in 1917. The elements of dual power already existed in Britain in 1926, and the Councils of Action were really embryonic soviets. All that was lacking was a determined party or tendency with a correct programme and policy and a leadership, like the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky. If this had been present, the General Strike could undoubtedly have been the starting-point for the coming to power of the working class and the establishment of a workers’ democracy in Britain.

It is fashionable now to pour scorn over the idea that the General Strike contained a revolutionary potential, but such assertions show a poor understanding of history. It should not be forgotten that the soviets in Russia were initially under the leadership of the Mensheviks and SRs who, like the General Council, were determined to hand power to the bourgeoisie. Without the presence of the Bolshevik Party, this would undoubtedly have occurred. In that case, a hundred years later, the history books would be writing about the impossibility of socialist revolution in Russia, as they now do when they refer to the British general strike of 1926.

Further reports confirmed the strength of the strike. The Kettering Trades Council reported:

“General meetings were held mornings at 11 o’clock, evenings at 6.30; the evening meeting was followed always by a concert; women’s meeting in the afternoon; and mass meetings on the Sunday were also good. A further hall was taken with the object of keeping together all who had to cease work as a result of the strike, each hall coming under separate committees. Arrangements were in hand to link up the committee at each hall under the Trades Council, who had this in hand.”

As far as the Wakefield general strike Committee was concerned, “Position on 12 May – No sign of weakening. On the contrary, the spirit was magnificent, and consternation and dismay prevailed when the news that the strike was called off had been confirmed.” From Dartford, the following report summed up the mood everywhere:

“The instructions of the TUC were accepted without question and the faith and confidence of the men in that body was a religion. I should have said the men came out solidly here and they remained so until the end. It was a great beginning, but a pitiable ending. The men returned to work humiliated, and they felt they had been deceived.”[7]

The Betrayal

Such accounts could be repeated many times. The working class, having exerted itself to the maximum during the nine days, was stunned by the capitulation of the leadership. They felt betrayed and disoriented. What had gone wrong? Why was the strike called off, just when it was gathering momentum?

The British Worker’s last strike edition on the Wednesday evening ran the headline – “Strike Terminated Today – Trades Union Congress General Council Satisfied That Miners Will Now Get a Fair Deal.” Of course, there was no “fair deal” on offer. On Saturday 15 May, the TUC newspaper attacked its critics, claiming that the “General Council acted with courage in ending the stoppage”! But they were now forced to admit publicly that there were no official assurances or undertakings given by the government. Churchill’s British Gazette was much less evasive. “Unconditional Withdrawal of Notices by TUC,” it proclaimed on Thursday morning. “Men to Return Forthwith. Surrender Received by Premier in Downing Street.” The Daily Mail went further, and announced the “Surrender of the Revolutionaries”.

The leaders of the TUC – not just the right wing but also the so-called Left – had no confidence in the working class, and no confidence in themselves. They had blundered into the strike and were terrified by the implications of the whole affair. The TUC had surrendered completely. Once again, they had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. This view was summed up by Charles Dukes of the General and Municipal Workers:

“Every day that the strike proceeded the control and the authority of that dispute was passing out of the hands of responsible executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and was wrecking the movement from one end to the other.”

Nothing could be clearer. Unfortunately, the Lefts on the General Council acted no differently from the right wing. Purcell was chair of the TUC’s Organisation Committee and was involved in the negotiations to end the strike. Hicks was foremost in rejecting the magnificent £100,000 donation raised by Russian workers for the strike, referring to it as “damned Moscow Gold.” The Lefts on the General Council offered no opposition to the capitulation of the right wing. In the words of the Daily Herald, “the TUC packed up and went home.” They feared the consequences of complete victory more than those of a negotiated defeat.

Many advanced workers could understand the actions of Thomas and Co., but were shocked by the role of the Left. In reality, there was no fundamental difference between them. The two tendencies they represented are what Marxists would describe as left and right reformism. Both tendencies accept the capitalist system. The left reformists would like the capitalists to behave in a more humane manner and give concessions to the workers. This is like trying to teach a man-eating tiger to become a vegetarian. Sometimes, in a period of economic upswing, the capitalists are prepared to make concessions. But in a period of economic crisis they are implacable. Reforms in such periods can only be achieved as the by-product of an all-out revolutionary struggle.

In the last analysis the “Lefts” will unite with the right wing because they have no perspective of a fundamental change in society, and fear the independent movement of the workers. We have seen this many times in the history of the movement. Therefore, while it is necessary to support the Left trade union leaders against the right wing, it is necessary to keep them under firm control, to support them only when they defend correct policies and to consistently criticise their vacillations and mistakes. One must also distinguish between words and deeds. “Fine words butter no parsnips”, the proverb states, and “left” speeches are no use unless they lead to action. Therefore, our support for the left reformists must be of a highly critical nature, and never unconditional. This was the big mistake made by the young and inexperienced Communist Party of Britain in 1926.

The Communist Party, which many militant workers looked towards, was largely responsibility for fostering illusions in the Lefts on the TUC:

“Although we knew of what treachery the right wing leaders were capable, we did not clearly understand the part played by the so-called ‘left’ in the union leadership”, stated the Communist leader, George Hardie. “In the main they turned out to be windbags and capitulated to the right wing. We were taught a major lesson; that while developing a move to the left officially, the main point in preparing for the action must always be to develop a class conscious leadership among the rank and file.”[8]

But it was too late. Their uncritical policy towards the “Lefts”, encouraged by the Stalin-Bukharin faction in Moscow, had given a spurious “revolutionary” aura to Purcell, Hicks, Swales and the others. Even the most genuine left leader, Arthur Cook, proved unable to maintain an independent position, displayed great confusion and played a negative role, especially after the defeat, when his actions served to disorientate hundreds of thousands of activists.

Could the General Strike have led to revolution in Britain? The answer to this question has already been given. Objectively, there was no reason why the powerful British working class could not have taken power in 1926. The workers’ organisations were already beginning to take the running of society into their hands. But in order to carry the movement forward, a genuine revolutionary leadership was necessary. The Communist Party, having adopted the flexible line and tactics that Lenin had urged upon it, had built up considerable support in the Minority Movement. It was not yet strong enough to take the leadership of the unions into its hands, but by pursuing an energetic and independent policy it could have emerged from the general strike – even in the event of a defeat – enormously strengthened. By following the opportunist line dictated by Moscow, they threw the chance away.

Although the Communist Party’s membership increased during the strike from 6,000 to 10,800, the new recruits quickly fell by the wayside in disappointment. Trotsky earlier predicted a “decisive advance” of the British CP, but this was based upon correct policy, tactics and strategy – all of which was lacking. Unfortunately, by playing second fiddle to the “Lefts” on the TUC, the Communists lost the opportunity to build a mass base in the British trade union movement. When the “Lefts” capitulated to the right wing, the CPGB could not escape their share of he blame. This whole experience, and the deep demoralisation that accompanied it, served to undermine the Minority Movement that had clung to the coat tails of the “Lefts”.

The workers felt totally let down by their own leaders. It was left up to the rank and file and local leadership to save the situation from developing into a rout. When they heard of the conditions being offered by the employers, railworkers, dockers, engineering workers and other sections actually renewed the strike, which continued unofficially for several more days. But the back of the General Strike was broken, and many workers were forced to fight a rearguard struggle against victimisation.

The ruling class, for its part, was delighted with the outcome.

“Having got through the strike, and having once and for all laid the bogey of the General Strike, it would be easier for future governments to deal with the threatened strikes”, said Joynson-Hicks in a speech to the Primrose League on 20 May. “All they would have to do would be to say, ‘Look at 1926. We burst your bogey. We have shown the impossibility of holding the country to ransom at the hands of any organised body of opinion’.”[9]

Next time

The General Strike of 1926 was a show of unity never experienced in the history of the British working class. Close on four million organised workers took action, out of a total membership of five-and-a-half million trade unionists. And not all members were asked to strike, but kept in a second and third-line “reserve”. It was an incredible display of class solidarity in the face of the attacks of the government and capitalist class.

Despite the crowing of the ruling class, the General Strike was an experience that transformed the outlook of many worker activists. The General Strike showed the enormous potential of the working class: its innate capacity for solidarity, initiative, creativity and self-sacrifice. In the caption of a national Labour Party women’s organ, Labour Women (June 1926), were displayed the defiant words:

“There SHALL be a Next Time!” And the editorial stated: “the most important thing is that the people themselves now know and feel their own power. Genuine class consciousness was born in the ten days of the strike and which followed its cessation… The General Strike has made a united working class.”

The lessons of the 1926 General Strike are some of the most important in the history of the British working class and need to be digested by the new generation of worker activists and youth. In the titanic class battles that lie ahead, the general strike will once again be on the order of the day. Those who have no confidence in the working class will scoff at such a thought. However, the development of a general strike is not determined by the subjective will of individuals, as 1926 proved, but is born out of the class contradictions and dynamics of society. There have been many general strikes in the history of post-war Europe – in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Above all, the marvellous general strike in May 1968 in France shows what can happen in the next period in Britain and other countries. Let us not forget that most people thought that a general strike was not possible in France – before it happened. But then, it is always the fate of sceptics to be wise after the event.

Let us leave the last word on the subject to one of the participants in the titanic events of 1926. At the TUC Special Conference in January 1927, a young miners’ delegate, Peter Chambers, while addressing Congress turned to the platform and said: “We will have another general strike without you, and we will win next time.”


[1] Hamilton Fyfe, Behind the Scenes of the Great Strike, p.7, London, 1926

[2] Ibid, pp.80-81

[3] Burns, Trades Councils in Action, p.11, London 1975

[4] Quoted by Allen Hutt, Post War History of the British Working Class, p.135, London 1937

[5] Trotsky, op. cit, pp.144-47

[6] Hamilton Fyfe, op. cit, p.71

[7] All reports are from The General Strike, May 1926: Trades Councils in Action, London, 1926

[8] Quoted in Woodhouse & Pearce, op. cit, p.99

[9] Quoted in F.A. Florey, The General Strike of 1926, p.164, London 1980