80th Anniversary – British General Strike – 1926

After the defeat of Chartism in the middle of the 19th century, the General Strike of 1926 was the most momentous event in the history of the British working class with tremendous revolutionary potential. However it was defeated by the combined forces of the British state, the TUC and the Labour Party. To mark the 80th anniversary of this event LALKAR has been publishing a series of articles to explain the background to the Strike, its actual course and the final betrayal and surrender by the treacherous leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party and the lessons to be drawn therefrom.

Part six, the concluding part, appears below.

Part 6

Sequel to the Surrender

In these disgusting times of bourgeois triumphalism and colossal apostasy on the part of the TUC-Labour Party leadership, only the miners and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) stood firm, grimly determined to fight on. Following the publication of the order by the General Council for cessation of the General Strike, Cook reaffirmed the miners’ refusal to return to work; and the CPGB sent a telegram to all parts of the country in which it denounced the treachery of the General Council to the miners and the entire working class, the pusillanimity of the so-called left-wingers on the General Council, and put forward the following slogans:

Refuse to return to work!

Reject the Samuel Memorandum!

Affirm your solidarity with the miners!

No lengthening of hours!

Demand Emergency Conferences of Strike Committees and Councils of Actions!

Force the Union leaders to continue the Fight!

In putting forward the above slogans, the Communist Party stressed that “the working class is bigger than any leader. If the old leaders turn traitor or coward, the workers are capable of taking charge themselves. … There will be talk of loyalty and discipline. The Communist Party declares that the greatest loyalty is loyalty to the working class; the finest discipline is one that helps the workers to beat the bosses, not the bosses to smash the workers” (quoted by R Page Arnot in The General Strike, p.234, referred to as RPA).

In his message, broadcast by the BBC on 12th May, Baldwin had spoken about the need to “forget all recrimination” and appealed to the employers to “act with generosity”. Scenting victory, the ruling class showed it characteristic ‘generosity’ by visiting every possible retribution on a working class in retreat. Millions of workers were offered their jobs back, but only at reduced wages. Some were victimised and hounded out of their jobs – in private industry and public service alike. Workers were asked to sign humiliating documents, and railway unions made to affix their signatures to agreements which described the strike as a “wrongful act” against the companies.

The miners, be it said in their undying honour, and to the eternal shame of the TUC-Labour Party leadership, soldiered on single-handedly for nearly seven months after the withdrawal of the General Strike. Their was a bitter, hard and determined fight, which witnessed the cruelty, violence and meanness of the bourgeois state, on the one hand, and the noble, dignified and heroic resistance of the mining communities, on the other hand. Pickets were subjected to wholesale arrests, baton charges were made at pit meetings, and miners frequently beaten up. The Government attempted to block foreign relief aid reaching starving miners and their families; local authorities were instructed to withhold relief, suspend free milk for babies and free meals for school children of the very poor. An Act was passed empowering the Ministry of Health to suspend Board of Guardians disobeying Whitehall instructions to suspend relief. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children backed Baldwin, issuing a report that there was no urgent need among miners’ children.

Thankfully, not every voluntary society behaved in this shameful manner. The Women’s Committee for the Relief of Miners’ Wives and Children, headed by Dr.Marion Phillips, raised £313,000 and did a fine job of distributing this relief among the miners’ families. In spite of Government attempts at blocking foreign aid, such aid did find its way from many parts of the world – the biggest contribution came from the Soviet Trade Unions, who subscribed £1 million for the Miners’ Relief Fund, raised through a voluntary levy of Soviet workers. Unlike the General Council, the miners gratefully accepted the fraternal aid from their Soviet comrades.

In the end the miners, left alone by the betrayal of the TUC-Labour Party leadership, were forced, through the sheer torments of hunger, back to work. The Miners’ Union at its Delegate Conference on 26th November officially ended the Strike. The Government, which in the aftermath of the end of the General Strike had repealed the Seven-Hour Act of 1919, now took advantage of the end of the coal strike and introduced the hated Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927, which outlawed all sympathetic strikes, making the funds of any union engaging in illegal strikes liable in respect of civil damages; it provided for the protection of blacklegs; it severely curtailed the right to picket; it substituted ‘contracting in’ for contracting out with regard to the political levy; it banned civil servants from joining or remaining in a union which had any political objects or was linked with any other union – with the purpose of severing links between the Civil Service unions and the TUC as well as the Labour Party; it prohibited all local and public authorities from insisting on trade union membership as a condition of employment; it empowered the Attorney General to restrain a trade union from using its funds to support an illegal strike; lastly it made it an offence for any worker to refuse to accept employment “under a common understanding”, when it was offered by an employer during the strike.

This then was the true meaning, and method, of Baldwin’s declared aim of securing “even justice between man and man”!

The combined effect of the betrayal of the General Strike, the employers’ offensive, the defeat of the miners’ strike and the draconian anti-working class legislation, was bound to, and did, have a demoralising effect on the working-class movement. Trade union membership, for the first time since 1916, fell below 5 million as compared to 5.5 million before the General Strike; trade union funds suffered an aggregate loss of £4 million – dropping from £12.5 million to £8.5 million in a year; the number of strikes declined drastically – in the fours years proceeding the General Strike between 400,000 and 600,000 workers were involved in strikes each year (in 1926 alone, 160 million working days were lost through strikes), in 1927 and 1928 the figures had declined to just over 100,000.

Why did the General Strike Fail?

Here briefly are the reasons for the failure of the General Strike.

First, the British ruling class and the Conservative Party proved to be more experienced, organised and resolute, and hence stronger, than the British working class and its leadership – the General Council of the TUC and the Labour Party.

Second, whereas the British ruling class and the Conservative Party entered this momentous struggle fully prepared, the TUC leadership, with its mystic faith in the report of the Samuel Commission and a negotiated settlement, had made no preparations whatsoever.

Third, whereas the general staff of the British bourgeoisie, the Conservative Party, waged this important struggle as a united and organised body, consciously defending the interests of its class, the general staff of the British working class – the TUC General Council and the Labour Party – “proved to be either downright traitors to the miners and the British working class in general (Thomas, Henderson, MacDonald and Co.), or spineless fellow-travellers of these traitors who feared a struggle and still more a victory of the working class (Purcell, Hicks and others)” (J.V.Stalin, CW, Vol.8, p.170).

Fourth, treating it as a measure of an exclusively economic character, the TUC and the Labour Party leadership refused to turn it into a political struggle; in fact the General Council of the TUC “feared like the plague to admit the inseparable connection between the economic struggle and the political struggle” (J.V.Stalin, CW, Vol.8 p.174). In direct contrast to this the Conservative Government, from the outset, correctly treated the General Strike as a fact of tremendous political importance, which could only be defeated by measures of a political character, that is, by invoking the authority of the crown and parliament, and by the mobilisation of the army and police.

By refusing to raise the question of power, the TUC doomed the strike to inevitable failure, for, “as history has shown, a general strike which is not turned into a political struggle must inevitably fail” (ibid, p.171).

Finally, although the stance of the CPGB throughout the strike was basically correct, although as a party it alone stood solidly with the miners and the working class generally, although it made an heroic effort, especially through the Minority Movement, to provide leadership to the working class during those stormy days, it has to be admitted that, owing to its small size and young age, its prestige among the British working class was still small – a circumstance which “could not but play a fatal part in the course of the general strike” (ibid). However, the correctness of the stance of the Communist Party is shown by the fact that by the autumn of 1926, its membership doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 and resulted in a vastly increased circulation of its publications.

Lessons of the General Strike

There are three principal lessons of the General Strike.

First, that the crisis in the British coal industry, and the consequent General Strike, bluntly brought to the fore the question of socialising the instruments and means of production – that of winning socialism – without which there is no question of solving the crisis in the coal industry or any other. Those of us who have lived through the Coal Strike of 1984-85 will need no convincing on this score. Without recognising this inseparable connection between the economic and political struggle, without turning the former into a political struggle – a struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism – working class victory cannot be won.

Second, without a strong Marxist-Leninist Party, enjoying the confidence and support of the millions of proletarians, it is impossible for the working class to be victorious.

Third, the British General Strike proved conclusively, if such proof was needed, that in any major confrontation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, between labour and capital, the trade union and Labour leadership would unfailingly betray the cause of the proletariat and desert to the side of the enemy. It proved conclusively, too, that international social democracy could always be relied upon to act as a reliable friend of international imperialism in the form of a Trojan horse within the working-class movement.

Lesson drawn by the

TUC-Labour leadership from the General Strike

If the CPGB at the time correctly drew the above conclusion from the events of the General Strike, the lesson drawn by the TUC and Labour leaders from the same happenings was just to the opposite, namely, ‘Never Again’ would they be party to such an enterprise which they had not wanted in the first place, and which they had called off at the earliest opportune moment. Only the cooperation of the workers with capitalists, argued these traitors to the working class, in the reorganisation and rationalisation of industry, aimed at increased productivity, could ensure trade union recognition and higher wages. With the logic of servitors as their guide, the TUC leaders entered into discussions with an influential group of employers headed by Sir Alfred Mond, the founder of ICI, on questions such as rationalisation and industrial strife, that is, on questions of redundancy, speed-up and wage cuts – all this at a time when Britain, like the rest of the capitalist world, was firmly and inexorably heading for the worst economic crisis it had ever experienced.

In the aftermath of the General Strike, for its part, the Labour Party too reaffirmed its faith in the gradual parliamentary road to socialism and determined never to take any kind of direct action. From now on, persuading the middle-class voter, rather than leading the working class, was to be higher still on its agenda. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Labour representatives on the Government (Blanesborough) Committee signed a majority report, advocating cuts in unemployment benefit.

Labour the Third Capitalist Party

In the light of the conduct of the Labour Party in the years scanning the period between the first and second Labour Governments, when Labour had stuck to a bi-partisan approach in the field of internal and external politics alike, when it had opposed every working-class mobilisation at home and supported with barely disguised glee every brutal imperialist suppression of the revolutionary national liberation movements abroad, notably in China and India, when it had tenaciously opposed all united action with the CPGB and made vicious use of ‘loyalty clauses’, bans and proscriptions against the Communists as a means of stifling all working-class mass movements, or avoiding any involvement with them, the CPGB was obliged to review its attitude towards the Labour Party. In particular, it had to answer three important questions. These were:

First, should the CPGB, now being hounded out of the Labour Party and the trade unions, continue its struggle to stay inside it?

Second, in the light of Labour’s home and foreign policy and practice, should the Communist Party go on calling for the election of a Labour Government?

Third, should the CPGB put up candidates now that the Communist candidates could no longer be adopted by local Labour Parties?

Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt, among others, led the fight for a reversal of the Party’s line on all these issues, arguing that whereas in 1920 Labour’s programme still incorporated many working-class demands and its constitution allowed affiliated organisations to have their own programmes and policy, by 1928 it had become a third capitalist party, had “surrendered socialism”; while its disciplinary measures made it impossible for affiliated parties to propagate their own programme. They therefore proposed that the CPGB discontinue its attempts to affiliate to the Labour Party, refuse to vote for Labour candidates unless the latter agreed to support the party’s policy, and stand candidates against people like MacDonald and Henderson.

Although representing, at the time, the minority of the Central Committee of the CPGB, the Pollitt-Dutt viewpoint won the day with some considerable help from the analysis of the European scene made by the Comintern. According to this analysis, being in the grip of a severe economic crisis and intensified competition, all the capitalist countries were pushing ahead at a furious pace with rationalisation, resulting in the growth of trusts and a tendency of the latter to merge with the state. The effects of this rationalisation and trustification on the working class manifested themselves in ruthless exploitation, closures of vast enterprises and chronic unemployment on an unprecedented scale. In most European countries social-democracy led the workers. While preaching socialism, everywhere the social-democratic parties were in reality collaborating with capitalism. Although several European countries had by then had the experience of social-democratic governments, far from bringing socialism nearer, they had only served to strengthen capitalism and betray the working class.

Faced with this stark reality, the CPGB at its 1928 Congress justly denounced the Labour Party for having “come out unmistakably as the third capitalist party” – a characterisation to which the Trotskyite social-democrats of the SWP, Cliff and Gluckstein, take such a strong objection, dubbing it as the “ultra-left insanity” of the Communist Party. On the eve of the 1929 General Election, the CPGB, in its pamphlet ‘Class Against Class’ – the programme with which it entered that election – elaborated further on its 1928 statement. Declaring itself in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the programme went on:

“The Communist Party … enters the General Election … to reveal to the working class the nature of the present crisis, to expose the sham of parliamentary democracy maintained by the Tories, Liberals and Labour alike. … Three parties … appeal to you in the name of the ‘NATION’. One party – the Communist Party – appeals to you in the name of the working class. No Party can serve two masters. No Party can serve the ‘nation’ so long as the nation is divided into two warring classes. … No Party can serve the robbers and the robbed. … The Communist Party is the Party of the workers, the oppressed” (p.7).

We may now marvel at the sagacity and the political acumen of the Troto-revisionist fraternity who, nearly eight decades after the CPGB’s above characterisation of the Labour Party as “the third capitalist party”, ignoring all the rich experience of this long period, and in total disregard of the lessons of the General Strike and of the experience since then, are still calling upon the working class to elect a Labour Government “committed to socialist policies”, or, since this illusion is no longer sustainable, to elect a right-wing Labour Government “under pressure to implement socialists policies”. Oh well! Ears, as the saying goes, never grow higher than the forehead!