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

On the Brink of Revolution

With the end of the war, discipline in the allied armies broke down very quickly. Mutinies had broken out at a number of army camps, where military police had been shot and soldiers’ committees formed on the lines of the Russian and German soviets. On the home front industrial militancy flared up, with the Clydeside once again at the epicentre of workers’ struggles. The ruling class was increasingly terrified at the developing pre-revolutionary situation in Britain throughout 1919. “This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since”, stated the wily old fox, Lloyd George.

In January, a successful army mutiny in Calais was quickly followed by another at Folkestone, with the refusal of 3,000 war-weary troops to board trains for France. Instead the troops decided to march on Whitehall and then on Parliament, demanding to be immediately demobbed. They were only stopped when they were surrounded and forced to surrender by a regiment of Household Guards and Grenadiers, bayonets at the ready. Incredibly, over the following two weeks almost fifty mutinies took place in the British armed forces. Britain was on the brink of revolution.

This revolutionary groundswell affecting the armed forces placed in jeopardy the use of troops against industrial disputes on the home front. To determine which troops could be used for strike-breaking, the War Office sent out a secret circular to Commanding Officers (later leaked to the Daily Herald) demanding weekly reports on key matters including:

“Will troops in various areas respond for assistance to preserve the public peace? Will they assist in strike breaking? Will they parade for draft overseas, especially to Russia? Have any soldiers’ councils been formed?”

Results of the circular were directly reported to Winston Churchill and demonstrated the real mood in the armed forces:

“Troops… deprecate being used in strike-breaking and the general feeling is that it would not be fair to ask troops to do what they would themselves consider blacklegging work… Troops will parade for draft overseas with the exception of Russia.”

The British Cabinet was forced to repeatedly discuss this serious situation. Following these deliberations, the Cabinet Secretary noted in his diary: “Red Revolution and blood and war at home.” Churchill then informed the Cabinet: “By going gently at first we should get the support we wanted from the nation and then the troops could be used more effectively.” Bonar Law was keen on the idea and urged the enrolment of volunteers, particularly stockbrokers, to supplement the armed forces! The Cabinet then discussed recalling troops from abroad to deal with the situation at home, in which the War Secretary intervened to report, “We need 18 battalions to hold London.” During the discussions, the Foreign Secretary baulked at the thought of bringing troops home from Silesia, but he drew a strong rebuke from Chamberlain: “I am for holding the British coalfields rather than the Silesian ones!”[1]

The real tragedy of this revolutionary movement in the armed forces was the abject failure of the leaders of the labour movement to give it any support and political direction. At the same time as the workers in uniform were forming soldiers’ councils and challenging the authority of the officer caste, industrial workers in Britain were engaged in titanic battles with their employers. Industrial strife was unfolding with particular bitterness among the shipyard and engineering workers in Belfast and on revolutionary Clydeside. Unfortunately, there was no attempt to link up these struggles or direct them to a common purpose.

John MacLean in Glasgow, suffering stretches in prison, tried his best to rally the workers on the lines of Revolutionary Russia.

“We witness today what all Marxists naturally expected,” stated John MacLean, “the capitalist class of the world and their governments joined together in a most vigorously active attempt to crush Bolshevism in Russia and Spartacism in Germany. Bolshevism, by the way, is socialism triumphant, and Spartacism is socialism in the process of achieving triumph. This is the class war on an international scale, a class war that must and will be fought out to the logical conclusion – the extinction of capitalism everywhere.”[2]

At the end of January 1919, a strike movement on the Clyde reached general strike proportions. Under the leadership of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, engineering workers, shipyard workers and other sections struck for a 40-hour week. This was no ordinary strike however. Under existing conditions, with Britain in pre-revolutionary turmoil, it posed a serious threat to the country’s social fabric. As indicated in the Cabinet papers, there was an open fear of revolution in government circles. Accordingly, the government dispatched 10,000 troops to Glasgow from different parts of the country, while local troops were confined to barracks to prevent fraternisation. Menacingly, armoured tanks were stationed in George Square, Glasgow, after a battle between strikers and police.

Unfortunately the strike, with its overt revolutionary overtones, was isolated by national trade union officials, who went to great lengths to discipline local officials for their involvement (the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, for example, suspended its district officials on the Clyde), and the strike came to an end within a fortnight. The militants who led the Clyde Workers’ Committee, as well as the national shop stewards body, were deeply influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution, but had no clear understanding of how to take the movement forward. This led Willie Gallacher, the chairman of the CWC, to comment much later, “we were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution.” He continued, our “failure to realise the need of continuous and consistent leadership embracing all phases of activity represented a fatal weakness that was to lead to our complete eclipse.” Their experience of revolutionary syndicalism, nevertheless, increasingly pushed them in a revolutionary direction, and the politics embodied by the newly established Communist International.

“Many of the principal figures in the Communist Party, which emerged in 1920 and 1921, were men whose experiences and ideas had been formed on Clydeside”, noted the historian L.J. Macfarlane. “MacManus, Bell and Gallacher all played leading parts in opposing the war and shared with the Bolsheviks a bitter contempt for the British trade union and Labour Party leaders who had betrayed the cause of international working class solidarity.”[3]

During the Clyde events, the 800,000-strong Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) had resolved to press home their demands for a 30 per cent wage increase, a six-hour working day, and the nationalisation of the mines under workers’ control. When, as was to be expected, the government – which had taken over control of the coal industry in 1916 – rejected these demands, a strike ballot was issued resulting in a big majority for industrial action. With coal stocks at famine levels (London had only three days supply), and the other members of the Triple Alliance simultaneously pushing their own demands, Lloyd George found himself in extreme difficulties, with a general strike implicit in the whole situation.

In these precarious circumstances, the main objective of the government was to avoid provoking a general strike at all costs. Lloyd George attempted to defuse the industrial situation by playing for time. He was a very astute and crafty bourgeois politician, and knew how to manipulate a situation to his advantage. He realised fully that British industry needed to reduce costs, particularly wage costs, and that organised labour needed to be defeated to achieve this aim. But given the revolutionary mood in the working class, they had to tread carefully and act with due caution. It was not a question of the interests of this or that capitalist, but the interests of the capitalist class as a whole. After all, “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, to quote Marx. Lloyd George knew exactly what was at stake. The government was forced to undertake – having sized up the attitude of the trade union leadership – a gigantic manoeuvre. It was a typical stick and carrot approach. Firstly, they attempted to intimidate the union leaders by threatening the use of force against strikes. Secondly, out of the goodness of their hearts they agreed to set up a Royal Commission, a ploy used to dupe workers on many occasions, to investigate the mining industry, and whose findings would be binding on the government (or so they claimed).

Within seventeen days, the Commission, under the chairmanship of Sir John Sankey, rushed out an interim report on 20 March 1919, recommending higher wages, the seven-hour day, and a prospect of a six-hour day to follow. It stated that

“the present system of ownership and working in the coal industry stands condemned and that some other system must be substituted for it, either nationalisation or a method of unification by national purchase and/or by joint control.”

The question of ownership of the industry was however left until a later report. This was an astute move, which suitably impressed the union leaders. Fearing pithead violence and an open clash with the state, both Robert Smillie, the Federation’s president and Frank Hodges, the secretary, persuaded a special miners’ conference – despite the colossal advantage in their hands – to accept the government’s offer. The government gave out an audible sigh of relief. It was clear that a miners’ strike could have rapidly escalated into a general strike, which the trade union leaders – both right and left – were not prepared to contemplate. “We had no right to force conditions on the nation because of our strength…” remarked Smillie. In the event, this only served to postpone the battle.

The Triple Alliance

The Webbs, as good Fabians, acted as go-betweens for Lloyd George and the leaders of the Miners’ Federation. “If the government, confident of their power to beat the miners, go into battle – theirs is the responsibility…” stated Beatrice Webb in her Diaries. “‘Blockading the miners will be a difficult and dangerous task: the railwaymen and transport workers might be drawn in, the army might refuse to act. And then?” she asked. It was this scenario that alarmed the trade union leaders, including the Webbs, even more than the ruling class.

The final Sankey Commission Reports favoured nationalisation and granted the miners a share in control of the industry. But Lloyd George reneged on his promise to accept Sankey and rejected nationalisation of the coal industry. The miners had been tricked. The union had by now lost the initiative, and the government’s subterfuge had paid off.

Emboldened by this success, Lloyd George now attempted to go another step further. On the broader front, the government used a similar tactic in establishing the National Industrial Conference, where trade unions and employers’ organisations were both invited to work out, in true class collaborationist fashion, a “common goal”. Once again, the lion and the lamb were being asked to cooperate in their joint welfare! Although the engineers, together with the Triple Alliance unions boycotted the Conference, it served to tie the hands of those leaders prepared to participate and helped to defuse the increasingly heated industrial climate. In the words of labour historian, G.D.H. Cole,

“the entry of Labour into the Industrial Conference and Coal Commission – the latter acclaimed as a great Labour triumph – was the determining factor in tiding over the critical industrial situation of the first half of 1919…”

This was acknowledged by T.E. Naylor, of the London Compositors, who later reminded the government that it was the role of the trade unions that had prevented “the revolution which would undoubtedly have broken out.”[4]

In June 1919 a successful strike by 300,000 Lancashire cotton operatives won a 48-hour week and a 30 per cent wage rise. The following month the National Union of Police and Prison Officers was provoked into calling a second strike. This time the government was well prepared and the response to the strike was very patchy. Unfortunately, the promised support from other sections did not materialise. “Many trade union branches, many trade union executives, pledged themselves to support the police in maintaining their position. And yet, with the exception of a sectional strike or so, nowhere has any real backing been given to the police, save from Liverpool”, stated the Daily Herald.[5] The strike was broken and all the strikers were dismissed. The government, which was determined never again to countenance a similar situation, introduced improvements in pay and conditions in an attempt to divide the police from other workers. They also took measures to stamp out trade unionism in the force, which ended in the NUPPO itself being outlawed.

Soon after the war railworkers had won the eight-hour day. Negotiations were then carried out to secure the “standardisation” of wage rates, which in workers’ eyes meant a levelling up of wages. The government deliberately dragged out negotiations until after the coal crisis had been resolved. Then the government, true to form, demanded wage cuts. Taken completely by surprise, the National Union of Railwaymen called an immediate strike, which was denounced by Lloyd George as an “anarchist conspiracy”. But the strike went ahead, with dramatic results. The Times thundered that this, “like the war with Germany, must be a fight to the finish.” The government arbitrarily withheld pay owing to the strikers, and plans were made to starve the strikers back to work. Troops were called out and instructions were given for local authorities to enrol a strike-breaking “Citizen’s Guard”. Once again, the scene was set for an almighty showdown with organised labour.

Within a week, the rail strike had caused 400,000 miners and others to stop work; another week and millions would be out of work. Paralysis was sweeping the country as transport ground to a halt. The strikers remained solid as support poured in from other unions as well as the Co-operative movement. Lloyd George, recognising the unfavourable balance of forces, once again, beat a hasty retreat. Existing wage rates were maintained and there was no victimisation. It was a significant victory, and the employers’ offensive was stopped in its tracks, for the time being at least. Although the railworkers were successful, in the course of the dispute they had not appealed for assistance from their Triple Alliance partners. Similarly, when the miners were on the brink of action, they made no appeal to the Alliance. In other words, the Triple Alliance had not been tested in action. That test had to wait for another year.

In the meantime, the right-wing trade union leaders did everything they could to undermine the workers’ militancy. “It may infuriate those who are in favour of Direct Action if I say I am opposed to it because it will accomplish nothing. It would, of course, involve us in disorder and pull things down…” stated J. R. Clynes, Labour MP and President of the National Union of General Workers in a newspaper article entitled The Criminal Folly of ‘Direct Action’.

“All the advocates of Direct Action tell us that they do not want violence, but that is the first thing they would get. We cannot bring out hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of men on strike without producing in a very short time all those elements, which conduce to a state of disorder, misconduct and riot.

“The workers have justly condemned others for their wrongdoing in relation to the Law. Let not the workers advocate a policy which would make them or their spokesmen the leaders of crime and the fomenters of behaviour which would find expression in terms of looting and perhaps murder.”[6]

The dilemma faced by the trade union leaders, both left and right, was summed up in a conversation between Robert Smillie and Aneurin Bevan in 1919:

“Lloyd George sent for the Labour leaders, and they went, so Robert told me, ‘truculently determined they would not be talked over by the seductive and eloquent Welshman.’ At this, Bob’s eyes twinkled in his grave, strong face. ‘He was quite frank with us from the outset,’ Bob went on. ‘He said to us: “Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps… In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so,” went on Lloyd George, “have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state, which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,” asked the Prime Minister quietly, “have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” ‘From that moment on,’ said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were’.”[7]

In this episode is encapsulated the fatal weakness of those who have no confidence in the workers to change society. When put to the test, they draw back and are incapable of carrying through their threats to a conclusion. Throughout the period, the capitalist class was learning how to perfect class war, while the workers’ leaders seem to be learning how to avoid it. Lloyd George was absolutely right. He admitted that capitalism could not have survived without the compliance of the Labour and trade union leaders. Lenin also once said that, “capitalism could not last six weeks without support of the Labour and trade union leaders.” Unfortunately, they had no faith in changing society. At critical times, as in 1919 and 1926, when power was posed, they capitulated to the government, and shied away from anything that would put the survival of capitalism at risk.

In December 1919, a special TUC Congress launched a “Mines for the Nation” campaign. In March 1920, a recalled Congress considered further action to force the government to honour its pledge. Yet the proposal for a general strike was defeated by 3,870 votes to 1,015. At the gathering, the “moderate” Mr Clynes was once again shaking in his boots at the thought of a general strike. Typically, the right-wing rail union leader, J. H. Thomas, admitted he was forced to lead the 1919 rail strike, not to win, but to maintain control over the rank and file and avert the danger of revolution! This graphically summed up the outlook of the trade union right wing.

However, by mid-August 1920, the complete deadlock over miners’ wages boiled over into a vote for strike action. The following month, the miners’ leaders for the first time called upon the Triple Alliance for active support. It was a decisive moment. However, the transport and rail union leaders, particularly J. H. Thomas, sabotaged the solidarity appeal, forcing the MFGB to come to a temporary agreement. This was the so-called “datum line” agreement, a breathing space, which was to expire in March 1921. It is no accident that the government used this partial retreat to broaden its powers. In addition to its wartime Defence of the Realm Act, it introduced an Emergency Powers Act that gave the government arbitrary powers to maintain “essential services”, whenever deemed necessary. This legislation constituted a growing arsenal for use against a radicalised Labour movement. In effect, the ruling class, unlike the union leaders, were seriously preparing for possible civil war in Britain. The actions of the right wing within the Triple Alliance were a foretaste of their future roles.

Soviet Support

Since its inception, the young Soviet state had been subject to attack by the imperialist powers, either through their own direct military intervention or support for the counter-revolutionary White armies within Russia. Throughout 1919 and 1920, the British Labour movement energetically took up the celebrated defence of the Soviet Republic. Millions rallied to the cause of Revolutionary Russia and the young Communist Parties that were being established in all countries. On 18 January 1919, a 350-strong “Hands Off Russia” delegate conference had been organised in the Memorial Hall, London, sponsored by the London Workers’ Committee, the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and the IWW. Arthur McManus and Sylvia Pankhurst, who had actively campaigned for the Bolshevik cause, were among the revolutionary activists also taking part. The meeting passed the following resolution:

“This rank and file conference of delegates from British and Irish Labour and socialist organisations hereby resolves to carry on an active agitation upon every field of activity to solidify the Labour movement in Great Britain for the purpose of declaring at a further conference, to be convened for that purpose, a general strike, unless before the date of that conference the unconditional cessation of allied intervention in Russia – either directly, by force or arms or indirectly by an economic blockade, by supplying arms or money to the internal opponents of the Bolsheviks, or by any other sinister means endeavouring to crush the Bolshevik administration – shall have been officially announced, and will continue the strike and agitation until the desired announcement shall have been made, until we are satisfied as to the truth of the announcement, and until the allied attack on the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils in Germany are stopped, the blockade of Germany raised and the Allied troops withdrawn.”[8]

The Labour Party conference in June 1919 went as far as to threaten direct action to prevent British military involvement. None other than right-winger Herbert Morrison told the conference:

“They had got to realise that the present war against Russia on the part of this country, France and the other imperialist powers, was not war against Bolshevism or against Lenin, but against the international organisation of socialism. It was a war against the organisation of the trade union movement itself, and as such should be resisted with the full political and industrial power of the whole trade union movement.”

By 1,893,000 votes to 935,000, a motion was decisively carried demanding an immediate end to the intervention, prescribing Labour and TUC co-operation, “with the view to effective action being taken to enforce these demands by the unreserved use of their political and industrial power.” The groundswell of feeling from below had forced the hands of the trade union and Labour leaders to such a degree that they were threatening a general strike!

Meanwhile, in an attempt to rally support for the Soviet State, Lenin had issued his Appeal to the Toiling Masses, which was being widely circulated in Britain. For months the “Hands Off Russia” Committee had conducted agitation on the London docks. In May 1920, the agitation bore fruit when dockers engaged in loading the freighter Jolly George with munitions for Poland decided to strike, and coal-heavers refused to fuel the ship. This act of international class solidarity electrified the whole British Labour movement. A week later, the Dockers’ Union decided to prevent the loading of all munitions for use against Russia. Workers everywhere triumphantly received the news. The Russian workers were thrown a lifeline that acted as a respite to this “besieged fortress” of world revolution.

Totally misreading the situation on the ground, the British government threatened war with Russia. The Soviet government had waged a successful counter-offensive against Polish aggression, which had taken the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw. Mass demonstrations called by the Labour Party took place across the country against the interventionist threats of the British government. The Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, the Labour Party Executive and the Parliamentary Party met in the House of Commons on the 9 August 1920 and issued a statement to all secretaries of local Trades Councils and Labour Parties: “the whole industrial power of the organised workers will be used to defeat this war,” and notified the Executives of all affiliated organisations “to hold themselves ready to proceed immediately to London for a national conference,” advised them “to instruct their members to ‘down tools’ on instructions from that national conference,” and constituted a representative ‘Council of Action’ with full powers to implement these decisions.

“The workers of this country have nothing to gain by the contemplated attack on Russia”, stated a circular issued by the TUC leaders on 10 August.

“If war is declared we should soon be involved in unlimited sacrifice of blood and treasure, and should be used as tools of capitalist oppression. The national leaders have acted promptly; all sections are united in denouncing the present policy of the government. On this question there is no division or hesitation. A national body has been elected responsible for effective resistance if war is declared. The Council of Action, appointed by a Special conference at the House of Commons on Monday, is already at work. Plans have been prepared for mobilising the full resources of our movement. United industrial action, even to the extent of a general strike, may be necessary. We must, however, act in strict accordance with a well-thought-out policy and plan. The Council of Action will sit in constant session to watch developments and issue advice to the affiliated organisations. In the meantime, the action taken nationally must be followed immediately by similar action in various districts, and we make the following suggestions:

“1. Secretaries of local Trades Councils and Labour Parties should immediately convene a special conference for the purpose of electing a local Council of Action.

“2. The local Councils should form sub-committees to deal with the following questions: (1) Supply and transport;(2) Strike arrangements;(3) Publicity and information.

“3. The name and address of secretaries appointed to act as secretaries of local Councils, should be forwarded to the joint secretaries of the National Council immediately after the conference.

“The local organisations are urged to act speedily in connection with this important crisis in the history of our movement. Ordinary methods of procedure should be suspended and special efforts made to get the local conferences working in a few days…”

The national conference took place at the Central Hall, Westminster on Friday 13 August. On behalf of the national Council of Action, it put out a directive: “Form Your Councils of Action!” Within days, 350 Councils of Action sprang up in every town and city throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles.

This was an incredible show of solidarity and reflected the groundswell of support for the Soviet Republic. It showed the enormous strength of the organised working class once it decided to act. Despite the revulsion of the rightwing for direct action, the pressures from below for action had reached volcanic proportions. They had no alternative but to put themselves at the head of this movement, or be brushed aside. They were carried along on the crest of the wave that placed them on collision course with the Lloyd George government. When British organised labour said “No”, the government had no alternative but to back down.

“The British Labour Party had developed a violent agitation against any British assistance being given to Poland,” stated Winston Churchill. “Councils of Action were being formed in many parts of Britain.”[9]

The country was in the grip of a pre-revolutionary crisis. “The whole of the English bourgeois press,” noted Lenin, “wrote that the Councils of Action were soviets. And it was right. They were not called soviets but in actual fact they were such.”

Faced with this combined power of the Labour movement, the government was forced to withdraw its threats, and abandon its plans for military intervention. The British working class had decided there was to be no war with revolutionary Russia. To go ahead would have meant a general strike, and given the dangerous industrial situation, there was no guarantee what would be the outcome. The bourgeoisie were not prepared to gamble with their fate at this time. The Labour movement had won a stunning victory.


[1] Quoted by Paul Johnson, ‘The Cabinet Prepares for Revolution’, The Sunday Times colour supplement, 7 May 1972

[2] In the Rapids of Revolution, p.148, London 1978

[3] Macfarlane, The British Communist Party, its origin and development until 1929, p.40, London, 1966

[4] Quoted in Cole & Postgate, op. cit, p.538

[5] Quoted in Sellwood, Police Strike 1919, p.203, London, 1978

[6] Sunday Pictorial, 10 August 1919

[7] Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear, p.40-41, London 1978

[8] Quoted by Pollitt, Serving My Time, p.94, London, 1940

[9] Churchill, The World Crisis, ‘The Aftermath’, p.269, London 1923