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

War and Revolution

By the early days of August 1914, the world picture had changed out of all recognition. The Great Powers had unleashed the dogs of war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s armies had marched into Belgium. Britain and its allies soon followed suit, as if in some giant macabre game of chess. “The lamps are going out all over Europe”, stated Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The Socialist International, to which the British Labour Party was now affiliated, had promised to oppose the coming imperialist war by all revolutionary means necessary. But when the test came, the International collapsed. Rosa Luxemburg went so far as to describe the International as a “stinking corpse” that had betrayed the proletariat, delivering it bound, hand and foot, to the capitalists’ military machine. Once war was declared, in a burst of jingoism, all the Labour and trade union leaders, with only a handful of courageous exceptions internationally, quickly lined up behind their respective ruling classes in what was to be the bloodiest carnage in human history, with ten million dead and millions more disabled, mutilated and poisoned.

“War is the natural condition of Europe,” wrote the anarchist Kropotkin. The First World War, however, was qualitatively different. Not only was it a world war, it was altogether on a vaster, more ghastly scale than anything previously experienced. New fiendish weapons of mass destruction were devised, including poison gas: chlorine, phosgene, and then the horrors of mustard gas, which burned away the flesh of body and lungs. Millions of men faced each other along seemingly infinite lines of trenches and fortifications known as the “Western Front”. The failed German offensive at Verdun in 1916 was to end with one million casualties (collateral damage, to use the modern dehumanised parlance). The British offensive on the Somme cost 420,000 lives, 60,000 of whom perished on the first day. The front did not shift significantly for the next two-and-a-half years. It was the most terrible and traumatic experience in living memory. Siegfried Sassoon captured the mood at the front:

Lines of grey muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

But it would not stop for four long years. The roots of war went deep. The war itself was no mere accident or caused by the death of a Crown Prince, but resulted from the build up of imperialist contradictions and tensions prior to 1914. Britain had lost her industrial monopoly, and was being challenged in particular by American and German capitalism, which had overtaken her in terms of total production. In 1870 Britain had produced as much as one third of the world’s industrial goods; by 1913 it produced only 14 per cent. By 1913 the USA had already become the largest economy in the world, producing over one third of its industrial output – just under the combined total for Germany, Britain and France. This gave rise to continual clashes between rival imperialist powers both in Africa and the Far East, especially between Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Britain. The main powers each established their own “spheres of influence” as well as secret inter-locking alliances to safeguard their national interests. Economic protectionism now held sway in America, France and Germany as a means of keeping British exports out of their markets, while the Dominions of the British Empire, gave preferential treatment to Britain. It was a period of shifting alliances and explosive international economic, diplomatic and military rivalry.

In July 1911, in an affront to France, the German government had seized the Moroccan port of Agadir. In the coupling of military alliances, Italy declared war on Turkey, which led directly to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, and in turn to the Austro-Serbian conflict. On 28 June 1914 the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary provided the final pretext for world war. The assassination was accident born out of necessity. Austria-Hungary then declared war on Serbia; Russia moved to support Serbia, which provoked Germany’s war with Russia and France; Germany’s refusal to respect the neutrality of “gallant little Belgium” served as the excuse for Britain to enter the war. The re-division of the world by the major imperialist powers had begun, which would culminate in the carnage of 1914-18. This convulsion signalled the impasse of world capitalism, and above all reflected, as Lenin and Trotsky explained, the rebellion of the productive forces against the straightjacket of private property and the nation state. Such contradictions provoked the frenzied struggle by the Great Powers for new markets, sources of raw materials and new fields of exploitation.

“We see, therefore, that war is not merely a political act,” stated the great military historian Clausewitz, “but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses.”[1] Stripped of all its subterfuge and cant, war was simply the continuation of imperialist rivalry (“politics”) but by “other means”. War merely carries the horrors of capitalism to their extremes.

On 24 August, the joint board of the TUC, the General Federation of Trade Unions, and Labour Party, met and passed a resolution: “That an immediate effort be made to terminate all existing disputes, whether strikes or lockouts, and wherever new points of difficulty arise during the war a serious attempt should be made by all concerned to reach an amicable settlement before resorting to strikes or lockouts.” The mighty industrial wave of the previous four years had ground to an abrupt halt. The revolutionary mood sweeping industry was completely silenced. In its place came wild patriotic enthusiasm for the war effort. A war that many believed would be over by Christmas.

The General Federation of Trade Unions, caught up in the chauvinist whirlwind, pledged whole-hearted support for the imperialist war against Germany and its allies. The TUC, through its Parliamentary Committee, unanimously fell into line. Over the first weekend in August 1914, 6,000 took the colours at army recruitment offices, and many were turned away. Such was the support for war whipped up by the government propaganda that by the end of the month, the Labour Party Executive Committee agreed to support the government’s “all-Party” recruiting drive. Mrs Pankhurst’s suffragette supporters, who had abandoned their own campaign for women’s rights, were now fierce advocates of conscription. Ramsay MacDonald, who resigned from the Labour leadership on pacifist grounds and was replaced by Henderson, nevertheless wrote to his constituency advising young men to answer the call up. Most of the other pacifist ILP leaders, including Keir Hardie, who tried to oppose the war, soon bent their heads. “The lads who have gone forth… must not be disheartened by any discordant note at home”, said the pitiful Hardie. Shortly afterwards he was to die a broken man. Even Hyndman for a short time committed the British Socialist Party to the imperialist war, before being expelled by the anti-war majority.

On the international front, the socialist parties affiliated to the Socialist International had originally set out to oppose the war, as outlined by the resolutions of the Stuttgart (1907) and Copenhagen (1910) conferences. The French socialist leader Jean Jaurés, who was later assassinated, drafted the anti-war resolutions:

“If war threatens to break out it is the duty of the working class in the countries concerned and of their parliamentary representatives, with the help of the International Socialist Bureau as a means of co-ordinating their action, to use every effort to prevent war by all means which seem to them most appropriate, having regard to the sharpness of the class war and to the general political situation.

“Should war nevertheless break out, their duty is to intervene to bring it promptly to an end, and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers, and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination.”

This revolutionary attitude to war was a principled one. It recognised that the World War was a reactionary war between various imperialist powers for the re-division of the world. The working class has nothing to gain from capitalism and its policies in peacetime or war. The prime task was to unmask the class interests of the powers involved, and raise the standard of opposition and socialism.

Shamefully, instead of carrying out these decisions, the leaders of each national section rushed to support their own ruling classes. This collapse of the Socialist International constituted an historic betrayal of internationalism. While it would have been almost impossible to mobilise mass opposition at the start of the war given the patriotic fervour, if they had simply registered their opposition it would have kept the socialist banner clean and laid the basis for future large-scale resistance. But they staged an ignominious capitulation. On 3 August in the Reichstag, when the Kaiser asked for large war credits, saying, “I know only Germans”, the vote in favour was unanimous. Even the courageous Karl Liebknecht, who later went to prison for his anti-war activities, submitted to party discipline on this occasion. It must be said the betrayal came as an enormous shock to everyone. Even Lenin refused to believe the news, saying that the declaration of support for the war in the German Social Democratic Party newspaper must have been a forgery!

In the decades of upswing before the war, the leadership of the Labour movement internationally began, in effect, to accommodate itself to capitalism. The struggle for reforms became an over-riding aim, while the idea of the socialist revolution became a distant goal. “The movement is everything”, said the revisionist Eduard Bernstein, “the goal is nothing.” This outlook summed up the views of the social democratic leaders. For them, opportunist policies, the watering down of ideas and principles for illusory gains, became a way of life. As Lenin explained,

“The relatively ‘peaceful’ character of the period between 1871 and 1914 served to foster opportunism first as a mood, then as a trend, until finally it formed a group or stratum among the labour bureaucracy and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. These elements were able to gain control of the labour movement only by paying lip-service to revolutionary aims and revolutionary tactics.”

While the German socialist leaders announced a crusade against Tsarist reaction, the French and British socialist leaders launched one against German militarism. The only parties of the International to oppose the imperialist war on class lines were the Social Democracy of Russia (Mensheviks and Bolsheviks) and Serbia. In addition, the British ILP came out in opposition for pacifist reasons. The Second (Socialist) International, built on parties formally committed to revolutionary Marxism, when put to the test, simply collapsed like a house of cards.

“What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future?” asked James Connolly a few days into the war.[2]

Eighteen months later, Connolly led his Citizen Army, in alliance with the Irish nationalists, into an Easter Uprising against the British government. He had hoped that such an act of self-sacrifice would serve to light the flames of revolt throughout Europe against the imperialist war. However, the rising was put down in cold blood by the British government, and its leaders, including Connolly, were executed. It was the Bolshevik Party in October 1917 that carried out Connolly’s revolutionary hopes, shaking the capitalist order to its very foundations.

In Britain, there was very little organised opposition to the war, which reflected the initial enthusiasm of the population. World war was a totally new experience, and the masses were oblivious to the horror that was about to befall them. Once the Labour leadership had swung into support of the war, the rank and file were completely disorientated. The activists at local level were totally stunned and isolated, unable to offer much resistance. According to a young shop steward at the time: “Probably nothing reveals the political infancy of the revolutionary socialists and syndicalists at this time more than their utter helplessness at the outbreak of war.”[3]

Many had looked to the trade unions for a lead, but none was forthcoming. As late as 2 August 1914, a few days before the outbreak of war, demonstrations in Trafalgar Square addressed by Lansbury, Hardie, Henderson and Will Thorne, declared their total opposition to the coming conflagration. But the actual declaration of war transformed the situation. When the time for action came, nothing happened. With heads bowed, they all surrendered to the pro-war mood. They could have stood their ground and kept the flames of internationalism alive. But they were not personally up to it. It was left to a handful of courageous individuals, like John MacLean in Scotland and James Connolly in Ireland, to keep the Red Flag of international socialism flying.

Consequently, as soon as the war was declared, the railway workers withdrew their strike notices. The London building workers returned to work, and the engineers dropped their demand for a 48-hour week. The class struggle had ground to a halt. By January 1915, 12 per cent of all engineering workers nationally had already enlisted in the armed forces. This rose to 19.5 per cent before serious attempts were made to keep young people at home to service the war industries.

“What terrible attraction a war can have! Thousands went flocking to the colours in the first days, not because of any ‘love of country’, not because of any high feeling of ‘patriotism’”, recalls Willie Gallacher of the Clyde shop stewards, “but because of the new, strange and thrilling life that lay before them. Later the reality of the fearsome slaughterhouse, with all its long agony of filth and horror, turned them from buoyant youth to despair or madness.”[4]

The Labour leaders agreed to set aside all trade union conditions of labour for the duration of the war. An “industrial peace”, where strikes were suspended, was unilaterally declared by the workers’ organisations. Their capitulation was essential to the war effort. “Had labour been hostile,” Lloyd George later admitted, “the war could not have been carried on effectively.”

Voices Stifled

The only union to oppose the war was the newly established Building Workers Industrial Union, but its voice was quickly stifled. Disenchanted militants who led a breakaway from existing unions had set up the union. This splitting tactic, which was tragically repeated in future years by impatient sections, simply played into the hands of the right-wing trade union leaders.

“It had by its foundation”, Cole and Postage correctly explained, “merely drained off out of every union the rebel members, leaving the reactionary officials in complete control... The tactic of dual unionism, of founding a rival true-red union, had led to utter disaster, and the lesson was remembered in later years.”[5]

When a pacifist told Lenin, who was in exile in Switzerland, that war was “terrible”, he replied, “Yes, terribly profitable.” The British Daily Telegraph agreed: “This war provides our businessmen with such an opportunity as has never come their way before…”[6] Lord Buckmaster noted that the war had produced “the most amazing profits that this country has ever witnessed.” He estimated that they were making more than £4 billion in profits compared to the pre-war period. As expected, unscrupulous capitalists took advantage of the war restrictions on labour to boost their excessive profits. A “munitions levy” imposed in 1916 to check excess profits was abolished within a year.

As the battlefields were marked out and the blood of young soldiers soaked the soil, an incredible scene took place on the morning of Christmas Day 1914. The fighting stopped and the singing of carols could be heard on both sides of the divide. As far as the eye could see, soldiers left their trenches and entered “no man’s land”; they then greeted one another, exchanging tobacco and addresses. One young soldier relates in the television documentary series, The Great War, how they began to call each other “comrade” and discuss the war. He was soon astonished to find that the German soldiers, as well as they, were fighting for “freedom” with God at their side. The whole episode had a profound impact on him and the tens of thousands of soldiers who fraternised with one another.

As the war wore on, opposition to it grew amongst the British troops. In particular, there was a growing resentment against the general staff and their increasing incompetence. Songs were composed by anonymous soldiers that served to capture the popular anti-war imagination:

I want ter go home,
I want ter go home,
I won’t go back ter the trenches no more,
Where the Jack Johnson Browns an’ the cannons they roar,
Take us over the sea,
Where Gerry he can’t get at me,
Oh, Ma, I’m too young ter die,
I want ter go home.

On the home front, those bosses involved on war contracts pressed the unions hard for the relaxation of trade practices and restrictions. The government pushed for big increases in production in the engineering and shipbuilding industries, supplying armaments and munitions. In March 1915, the “Shells and Fuses Agreement” was made between employers and unions that allowed “dilution” of labour, the replacement of skilled labour by unskilled labour. In the words of the Daily Herald, “the trade union lamb has lain down with the capitalist lion”. Unfortunately, the lion does not lie down with the lamb, but consumes it. Whereas the union leaders signed away these rights “in the national interest” without a second thought, the workers on the shop floor increasingly took a different view in defence of their class interests.

Wartime conditions brought in their wake substantial increases in the cost of living and a steep jump in unemployment. In February 1915, rising discontent produced an explosion in the class struggle on Clydeside. Some 10,000 engineering workers, against the instructions of the union officialdom, struck for a pay rise to compensate for rising food prices and increased rents. The leadership of the Clyde strike fell to the Central Labour Withholding Committee, later renamed the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC), under the leadership of Willie Gallacher. Despite opposition from government and employers, the strikers secured their demands. The Daily Herald, which had swung against the war, reported on 20 March: “Despite insults and threats, despite official pressure, the Clyde men have kept the flag of revolutionary trade unionism flying and that in itself is something.” In parallel, a rent strike led by women in Glasgow also ended in a victory and a reduction in rents.

The determined fight against the war, together with his repeated imprisonment, made John MacLean a world-renowned figure for the first time. Along with James Connolly, MacLean was the finest Marxist propagandist ever produced by the British workers’ movement. He sacrificed everything for the Cause, including his health. Leon Trotsky, in the Russian journal Nashe slovo wrote “in Scotland itself coalminers are rallying round the red banner raised by John MacLean and his comrades.”

Lenin wrote often about MacLean, always linking his name with Karl Liebknecht. His most important assessment was made just prior to the October Revolution:

“The world working-class revolution was first begun with engagements by isolated combatants representing with unequalled courage all the honest elements of official ‘socialism’ – a socialism rotten to the core, which is in reality nothing but social chauvinism. Liebknecht in Germany, Adler in Austria, MacLean in England; such are the best known of these isolated heroes who assumed the heavy task of precursors of the revolution.”

After the Revolution, MacLean was appointed Bolshevik Consul in Britain. His heroic role was in marked contrast to that of the Labour and trade union leaders.

In an article written just before his death, entitled Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, Trotsky wrote that in the period of capitalist decline there is an organic tendency for the trade union apparatus to fuse with the state machine. This tendency would periodically break down under the pressure of the masses, but it was always present. However, in the First World War, with the working class disorientated and bewildered, this phenomenon reached new heights. Trade union leaders and officials not only supported the war but also sat on innumerable government and joint industrial councils to promote the war effort. Ernest Bevin, the dockers’ leader, was a member of dozens of such government committees. The trade union apparatus became totally embroiled in the social machinery of the state. The Clydeside strike revealed this collusion in practice when the strikers were faced with the combined opposition of employers, government and the union bureaucracy. All the unions, except for the mineworkers, signed a new agreement – the Treasury Agreement – that effectively introduced for the first time industrial conscription into Britain.

By May 1915, Asquith established a Coalition government, which drew into office the Labour leader Arthur Henderson and two other Labour MPs. This was important in fostering the idea of national unity. New draconian laws were then introduced, granting enormous powers to the government over the munitions industry, authorising compulsory arbitration of disputes and the suspension of trade practices. Munitions workers were not allowed to leave their jobs without a “Leaving Certificate”. Such measures introduced the virtual militarisation of labour, allowing the complete subordination of the working class to the war machine.

However, whilst the tops of the Labour movement were prepared to carry out the dictates of the ruling class, it proved another matter altogether for the workers on the shop floor. Within a few days of the introduction of the Munitions Act, miners in South Wales rejected the wage offer made by the government’s arbitration committee. In response, Lloyd George on behalf of the government declared that all strikes were now illegal. Within two days of this announcement, 200,000 miners had struck work, forcing the government to beat a hasty retreat and to concede to most of their demands.

In December 1915, further industrial turmoil on Clydeside forced the fox-like Lloyd George and the ever-pliable Arthur Henderson to intervene personally and meet the shop stewards of the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC). However, their presence served simply to antagonise the workers and, to their astonishment, they were repeatedly shouted down at meetings. As sweet-talk proved ineffective, the government turned to more repressive measures against the workers. In early 1916, the CWC newspaper was banned, and a number of unofficial strike leaders arrested and imprisoned. Six leading shop stewards were later arrested and deported from Glasgow, on pain of imprisonment if they returned. Among those detained by the authorities was John MacLean, who was subsequently sentenced to three years imprisonment for sedition. As a result of this repression, the industrial storm centre shifted from the Clyde to the engineering factories of Sheffield and South Yorkshire. Astonishingly, by July 1916, over 1,000 workers nationally had been placed under arrest for illegal strike activities under the Munitions Act. Even all the government’s war measures could not suppress the class struggle.

Revolutionary Objectives

Given the class collaboration of the trade union leaders, rank-and-file organisation in the form of shop steward committees spread throughout the country, and linked up to form the National Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement. Many of its leaders were committed members of the socialist groups, the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist Party, which attempted to give the industrial movement a revolutionary direction.

In December 1916, a new Coalition government was formed with Lloyd George as Prime Minister. An astute representative of the British ruling class, he rested increasingly on the Labour and trade union leaders to police the workers. In doing so, Lloyd George systematically drew these leaders into government posts explicitly responsible for the war effort. Henderson now entered the War Cabinet, John Hodge, secretary of the Steel Smelters, became Minister of Labour, and George Barnes of the Engineers became Minister of Pensions. Their authority as Labour and trade union leaders was then systematically exploited by the bourgeoisie to hold back the growing discontent in the working class, compounded by attacks at home and the needless loss of life abroad.

The year 1917 was to mark a turning point not only in the world war but also world history. On the home front, there was a major change in the industrial climate. In the engineering industry, 1917 was the peak year for strikes, with over 300,000 workers involved in action and two-and-a-half million working days lost. The new rank-and-file National Shop Stewards Committee was to the fore in strikes at Barrow and on the Tyne in March 1917, and in Coventry in November. In May, a rash of strikes broke out at munitions centres on the Clyde, Sheffield and London, against the extension of dilution and the use of the Munitions Act. Despite coercion and arrests under the Act, the strike movement did not decline, but on the contrary, it increased in intensity and scope. The class struggle, originally subdued by the pro-war mood, had once again re-ignited with a bang.

In the international arena, revolutionary events in Russia turned the world on its head. The first Russian Revolution of February 1917 (March in the new calendar) swept away the 1,000-year old Tsarist despotism, and placed power into the hands of the working class. As in 1905, the masses spontaneously created their own organs of self-rule, the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies. Unfortunately, the masses were not conscious of their power and handed it to the socialist leaders (the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks), who, in turn, handed it over to the bourgeoisie in the form of the Provisional government. Nevertheless, the Revolution had an enormous impact on the Labour movement internationally. In Britain, a Convention was called in Leeds, in June, to celebrate the event. The Convention, called by the leaders of the Independent Labour Party, attracted 1,150 delegates, 371 of whom were from the trade unions. It was an occasion for high spirits and great “revolutionary” speeches. So much so, that Ramsay MacDonald spoke in favour of establishing Soviets in Britain! He moved the following successful resolution:

“This Conference of Labour and Socialist and Democratic organisations of Britain, hails the Russian Revolution. With gratitude and admiration it congratulates the Russian people upon the Revolution which has overthrown a tyranny that resisted the intellectual and social development of Russia, which has removed the standing menace to aggressive imperialism in Eastern Europe, and which has liberated the people of Russia for the great work of establishing political and economic freedom on a firm foundation and of taking the foremost part in the international movement for working class emancipation from all forms of political, economic and imperialist oppression and exploitation.”

Phillip Snowden, who would later became a Lord and abandon the Labour Party to join MacDonald’s National Government, also addressed the Leeds Convention. Here he displayed great “revolutionary” passion by reiterating the words of a telegram sent in response to one sent by the Russian Soviets:

“The largest and greatest Convention of Labour, socialist and democratic bodies held in Great Britain during this generation has today approved Russia’s declaration of foreign policy and war aims, and has pledged itself to work through its newly constituted workmen’s and soldiers’ council for an immediate democratic peace. The Convention received your telegram of congratulation with gratitude and enthusiasm.”

But the February Revolution failed to solve the problems of the Russian masses. The socialist leaders, both Menshevik and Social Revolutionaries, pledged their loyalty to the Kerensky government, which, in turn, pledged its loyalty to the capitalists and landlords. As a result, the situation of the Russian masses grew steadily worse in face of demands for increased sacrifices for the imperialist war. In the space of nine months, the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky worked steadfastly to turn the revolution into a socialist revolution, as a stepping-stone to a world socialist revolution. With the slogans “peace”, “bread”, and “land”, they won over the masses represented in the soviets and took power peacefully in October 1917. The Bolshevik Revolution – ten days that shook the world – had dramatic international ramifications. The Revolution proved to be the greatest event in human history. Capitalism and landlordism were thrown into the dustbin of history. For the first time ever, the working class and poor peasants came to power and established a democratic government based upon soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants. While the heroic Paris Commune proved a short episode, the Bolshevik Revolution managed to hold out in the face of an orchestrated attempt internationally by the bourgeois to overthrow the government.

Electrifying effect

“Socialists – genuine and not make-believe Socialists – have seized the reins of power. . .” stated the British socialist paper, The Call on 29 November 1917.

“For the first time we have the dictatorship of the proletariat established under our eyes… The Bolshevik success has been carried out with the sympathy and support of the town workers and the common soldiers… Peace and bread, the suppression of the war-profiteer and the greedy landlord – this is what Lenin and his friends are trying to obtain for their own countrymen and for the distressed world at large. Are we going to help them?”

The paper revealed the deep internationalist spirit of the British working class who rallied to the side of the Russian masses.

Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the Revolution, immediately issued an appeal to the workers of the world to put an end to the bloody war, publish all the secret treaties of the imperialists and follow their revolutionary example in the fight for a world revolution. It had an electrifying effect in Britain and throughout war-torn Europe.

The Russian Revolution roused the Labour movement and lifted the sights of workers everywhere. This created a revolutionary ferment in the ranks of the movement, which began to exert tremendous pressure on the leadership. Revolution was in the air – literally. As a result the Labour Party and the TUC moved towards semi-opposition to the war policies of the British government. Things began to turn into their opposite. A by-product of this pressure was the resignation of Henderson from the Cabinet, although Barnes and Hodge chose to remain. In early 1918, under the impact of the Bolshevik agitation at Brest-Litovsk under the skilful direction of Trotsky, the idea of peace negotiations – the “Memorandum on War Aims” – was endorsed by a conference of Allied labour leaders.

In the last year of the war, the Shop Stewards’ Movement in Britain had assumed an immensely powerful position. TUC membership had also jumped from less than two-and-a-quarter million in 1913 to over four and a half million in 1918. There were extensive moves towards further trade union amalgamation and federation, such as with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation. This process was extended further with the formal ratification of the Triple Alliance of miners, railway and transport workers, which was originally planned in 1914, but was postponed due to the outbreak of war. At the Labour Party’s Nottingham Conference in January 1918, there were unprecedented scenes of jubilation. The Bolshevik Litvinov, the representative of the Soviet government, received a standing ovation, amid cheers for Lenin and Trotsky. Later, at a special Labour Party conference at Central Hall, Westminster, amid the flames of revolutionary Russia, the party decided to adopt a new Socialist Constitution, the famous Clause Four, pledging to secure for the workers the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, based upon workers’ control and management.

The tidal wave of unrest during the war swelled to new heights in 1918. This was reflected in the monster May Day demonstrations on the Clyde, an unprecedented police strike in August and mutinies at a number of South Coast naval bases. A new rash of unofficial rail strikes broke out in September, with further unrest in the South Wales coalfield and in the Lancashire cotton industry. The crisis of British capitalism was also affecting the state itself. The police, who formed their own union, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, in October 1913, had struck at the end of August over recognition, employing flying pickets to bring out police stations. Amazingly, this was still during the war. One should still be aware that while the government was forced to grant wage rises, and reinstate those dismissed, it failed to bring about the recognition of the NUPPO, with the government only prepared to concede a Police Representation Board. Consequently, thousands of police joined the union as a result of this militant stand.

Internationally, war was giving birth to revolution. Within a few short months, the November 1918 German Revolution brought the World War to an abrupt end. Sailors had mutinied and workers’ and soldiers’ councils, following the example of the Russian Revolution, were established all over Germany. The Hapsburg and Hohenzollern empires followed the dynasty of the Romanovs into oblivion. The German Revolution was a further beacon to the working class everywhere, which increasingly looked to revolution to solve its problems. Unfortunately, at the head of the German workers stood not a Bolshevik party as in Russia, but the right-wing social democrats Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske, who set about opposing the Revolution.

It was the German Revolution and not the plans of the politicians or generals that had brought the First World War to an abrupt end. The armistice to end war was signed on 11 November, a week after the outbreak of the Revolution. Like wild fire, revolution spread throughout Europe as workers and soldiers decided to take their fate into their own hands. The masses poured onto the stage of history in a torrent, filled with the desire to put an end to the Old Order and build a new world for themselves. In Bavaria, a soviet republic was proclaimed, but was quickly overthrown by counter-revolutionary forces. In Hungary a similar regime held power for months but was eventually drowned in blood by Western powers. A series of revolutions and counter-revolutions, which developed in rapid succession, terrified the capitalist class internationally. They were literally shaking in their boots.

“The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution”, noted the cunning Lloyd George. “There is a deep sense not only of discontent, but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to another.”

With workers looking at the example of Soviet Russia, the capitalist system appeared on the brink of being overthrown.

The British government, together with the bourgeoisie internationally, regarded the Soviet government as a mortal threat to their system, to be eradicated as quickly as possible. In their struggle with the Bolsheviks, the imperialist powers gave whole-hearted support to the counter-revolutionary White armies. In July 1918 the British dispatched an expeditionary force to Archangel and Murmansk to overthrow the Bolsheviks. In all, twenty-one imperialist armies of foreign intervention were dispatched against revolutionary Russia. As soon as news of this became apparent, a protest movement mushroomed in one country after another. In Britain, the ILP issued a manifesto against the counter-revolutionary intervention of the British government. Later, a national “Hands off Russia” Committee led by Harry Pollitt and others was established and garnered support from all sections of the Labour movement. The British working class, demonstrating its internationalist instincts, rallied unequivocally to the cause of the Russian Revolution – the first break in the chain of world capitalism.

General Election

Within three days of the armistice, an emergency Labour Party conference withdrew the Labour ministers from the Coalition and proclaimed its “protest against any patching up of the old economic order.” In the ensuing general election, Labour fought with a very radical manifesto, Labour and the New Social Order, specifically demanding

“The immediate nationalisation and democratic control of vital public services such as mines, railways, shipping, armaments, and electric power; fullest recognition and utmost extension of trade unionism... the abolition of the menace of unemployment... the universal right to work or maintenance, legal limitation of the hours of labour and the drastic amendment of the Acts dealing with factory conditions, safety and workmen’s compensation.”

It contained the appeal for a new society:

“The view of the Labour Party is that what has to be reconstructed after the war is not this or that government department, or this or that piece of social machinery; but, so far as Britain is concerned, society itself… We of the Labour Party… recognise, in the present world catastrophe, if not the death, in Europe, of civilisation itself, at any rate the culmination and collapse of a distinctive industrial civilisation, which the workers will not seek to reconstruct… The individualist system of capitalist production… with the monstrous inequality of circumstances which it produces, and the degradation and brutalisation, both moral and spiritual, resulting there from, may, we hope, indeed have received a death-blow. With it must go the political system and ideas in which it naturally found expression. We of the Labour Party, whether in opposition or in due time called upon to form an Administration, will certainly lend no hand to its revival. On the contrary, we shall do our utmost to see that it is buried with the millions whom it has done to death.”

The poll was deliberately called as a snap election. Although Lloyd George’s National Coalition was returned with a thumping majority in this “Khaki” election, giving the Coalition Tories 359 seats and the Coalition Liberals 127 seats, this was certainly not an accurate reflection of the mood in society or the growing support for the Labour Party. Many soldiers were still to be demobbed and the voting registers were hopelessly out of date. The revolutionary feeling of the soldiers returning from the front had not been translated into parliamentary arithmetic, which dramatically lagged behind the real situation in Britain. Despite this, Labour had become the effective opposition, with two-and-a-half million votes (up dramatically from half a million in 1910) and a record 57 seats in the Commons.

The opening days of 1919 were preparing another explosion in the class struggle. The working class had been promised a “home fit for heroes”, and now many were determined to fight for it. A new revolutionary chapter in the history of the British working class was about to open. It represented the retying of a knot of struggle that had been broken by the war, but on a much higher level than ever before.


[1] Clausewitz, On War, p.119, London 1968

[2] Forward, 15 August 1914

[3] J.T. Murphy, Preparing for Power, London 1972

[4] Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde, pp.18-19, London 1949

[5] Cole and Postage, op. cit, p.495

[6] Daily Telegraph, 19 August 1914