This year sees the 70th anniversary of the 1926 General Strike. The strike began when 1 million miners were locked out by their employers for refusing to take a pay cut. The response of the British working class was magnificent. Over 2.5 million workers responded to the call for action. However, their heroism was not matched by the trade union leaders who, even in the heat of the battle, were plotting to betray their own members. The traditional view of the events of May 1926 has helped to disguise the disgraceful role of the trade union leaders. Enshrined in history books is the idea that the strike was dominated by football matches between police officers and strikers, rather than bitter class conflict. It is a version of history that reinforces the idea that Britain is exceptional, having evolved gradually by democratic and constitutional methods rather than revolts and revolutions. King George V summed this view up perfectly in his diary entry of 12th May 1926 when he said, 'Our old country can well be proud of itself, as during the last nine days there has been a strike in which 4 million people have been affected, not a shot has been fired and no one killed, it shows what a wonderful people we are.'
However, there is an alternative view of the strike, one which shows that at least a minority of workers were willing to play by a different set of rules. For example, in East Fife 700 strikers joined a defence corps which ensured that police did not attack picket lines. More importantly not only were the workers more militant than is remembered, it is now clear that the strike was in fact gaining strength when the TUC's General Council called off the vital solidarity strikes. All union leaders, both on the left and the right of the movement, were involved in leaving the miners isolated.
It is often said by socialists that workers' struggle is 'hidden from history'. This is literally the fact in the case of the General Strike. There was at the time of writing not one book on the subject in any of London's major book shops! However, if you hunt around you will find what you are looking for.
The great strike was the climax of a series of struggles that began with the strike wave of 1919. This was a time when Lloyd George, the prime minister of the time told the leaders of the TUC, 'In our opinion we are at your mercy'.1 He was not exaggerating. The working classes of Europe, inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, were in revolt and Britain was no exception. The cities of Glasgow and Belfast were paralysed by a general strike. Troops and sailors mutinied and, if that was not bad enough for the government, the police went on strike and organised flying pickets! 'The trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy and, if the trade union organisation was against us the position was helpless', Bonar Law said of the events of 1919.2 The best account of this movement is Chanie Rosenberg's 1919, Britain on the brink of revolution. The book not only brings together accounts of all the different strikes, but it also shows how this militancy was dissipated by Lloyd George's clever use of negotiation and intimidation.
Between 1921 and 1922 Britain experienced a number of bitter and protracted sectional struggles. Both the miners and engineers were locked out and forced to take pay cuts. The defeat of the miners was known as Black Friday. However, from 1923 the trade union movement experienced a recovery. There was a halt in the decline of trades union membership and a slight increase in the number of strikes.3 For an in depth analysis of the changes in the structure of trade unions and disputes of the era, there is no better account than Hugh Armstrong Clegg's A History of British Trade Unions (vol 2, 1911-1933). An eventual showdown between the employers and unions was inevitable.
When Tory Stanley Baldwin took office on 29 October 1924, the country faced serious economic problems. The decision of the government to return to the gold standard meant that a major revaluation of sterling had to take place and this put pressure on export industries including coal. Coal exports fell from 65 million tons a year to 43 million tons and by 1925 the industry was losing £1 million a month. As usual the workers were expected to pay for the crisis. Baldwin summed up the employers' position when he said, 'All workers of this country have got to take a reduction in wages to get this country on its feet'.4
The Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) was the largest and strongest union in the country with 800,000 members. Their leader was A J Cook, the most radical trade union leader Britain has produced. The miners were to be the first group of workers to fall under Baldwin's axe. On 30 June 1925 the mine owners announced their intention of ending the National Wages Agreement fixed in 1924. This would have led to the break up of national pay bargaining and to wage cuts. Fearful that the rest of the trade union movement would suffer the same treatment, the TUC responded to massive pressure from ordinary rank and file trade unionists, and agreed to support the miners by placing an embargo on the movement of coal.
Baldwin was forced to back down. He gave a nine month cash subsidy to the mine owners. He also organised a Royal Commission to look into the miners' case (the use of a commission was a tactic adopted by the government again in the 1992 pit crisis). 'It is difficult to express in words the indignation and consternation with which the public has received the government's capitulation to the extreme socialists', The Daily Mail worried on Red Friday.5 Why did Baldwin back down? According to his biography he said, 'we were not ready'.6 Everybody knew that the 'day of reckoning' had merely been postponed for nine months. The chair of the MFGB, Herbert Smith, said at their annual conference that year, 'We have no need to glorify about a victory. It is only an armistice.'7 The key to victory was how each side prepared in the coming months.
There are two good accounts of the General Strike itself: The General Strike 1926 by Christopher Farman and The General Strike by Julian Symons. Readers may notice that authors of books on the General Strike do not use much imagination with their titles! Both these books are sympathetic and good factual accounts of the strike. Symons was a novelist and Farman a journalist for the Sunday Times. Neither of them have a close connection with the left. However, they both clearly demonstrate the failure of the TUC to prepare for the strike, and how, once it began, the workers rose to the challenge.
The Daily Mail may have believed that the government had rolled over in the face of a united TUC, but in fact Baldwin used his nine months well. He created the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS), a glorified name for a scabbing agency. He enrolled tens of thousands of 'special constables' and imprisoned 12 leading members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The organisation also put the fear of God into the leaders of the TUC by claiming that the strike would be a threat to the British constitution. The TUC was to spend an inordinate amount of time claiming that it was only a trade dispute. These preparations alone would not have secured victory for the government. United working class action could have swept it away, but how did the trade union movement respond?
The following exchange gives some indication. Thomas, leader of the rail workers, asked, 'How are the mine workers going to be saved?' A J Cook replied, 'Working class families, knowing that a strike was inevitable, would be laying secret supplies. My own mother in law has been taking in an extra tin of salmon these past weeks.' Thomas replied, 'Good God, a revolution on a tin of salmon!'8 It may sound flippant, but for those nine months the TUC did nothing either technically or politically to prepare for the strike. It always hoped that a solution would be found or that it could bluff its way through as it had on Red Friday. The report of the official inquiry decided that miners' wages had to be cut. By 1 May 1926 over 800,000 miners were locked out. Using the pretext of unofficial action by printers on The Daily Mail who refused to print an article attacking the miners and calling on the readers of the Mail to support 'King and country!'9 Baldwin ended negotiations with the TUC. The strike began.
A J Cook described workers' reaction to the strike:
What a wonderful response! What loyalty!! What solidarity!!! From John O'Groats to Land's End the workers have answered the call to arms to defend us, to defend the brave miner in his fight for a living wage.10
While workers celebrated, the militancy of the response was stronger than the TUC really wanted it to be.11 The railways were out almost to a man - on the last day of the strike 98.9 percent of engine drivers were out.12 None of London's tramcars were in operation. There were exceptions to the rule: in places such as Bristol, Grimsby and Chatham an almost normal bus service ran. However, in all the major accounts of the strike, trades council after trades council reported that the strikes in their area were solid. The real problem was not keeping the workers out on strike but keeping those in the second wave in work!13
Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet The Mass Strike argues that if vast numbers of workers go into action the movement can become a challenge to both the economic power of capitalism and the political authority of the state. Sadly this did not occur during the General Strike. It was a solid strike but the TUC was able to keep it passive. The TUC encouraged sectionalism by calling groups of workers out in waves. Some key groups, such as post and telecommunication workers, were never going to be called out. This action limited the impact of the strike. Secondly the TUC did nothing to strengthen the strike. It refused to set up workers' defence groups even though picket lines were attacked by police and the government was using the OMS to the best of its ability. It even refused much needed money donated from Russian workers. Finally it tried to depoliticise the strike, as is clearly demonstrated by the instructions given to the strikers in the first edition of the British Worker, the TUC's official strike paper:
Do all you can to keep everybody smiling - the way to do this is to keep smiling yourself Do your best to discountenance any ideas of violent or disorderly conduct Do the thing that is nearest - that will occupy you and will steady your nerves
Do a little to interest and amuse the kiddies now that you have the chance Do what you can to improve your health, a good walk every day will keep you fit Do something. Hanging around and swapping rumours is bad in every way.14
However, strikers did not limit themselves to the TUC's instructions. There are two good books that give a real flavour of the activities of the strikers. Firstly there is Robin Page Arnot's The General Strike May 1926, an account that chronicles the strike day by day, and includes many relevant contemporary documents. Secondly there is 1926 The General Strike, edited by Jeffrey Skelley, which contains both regional studies and personal reminiscences of Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) activists of the time.
These two accounts smash two important myths: firstly that the strike was passive. Defence committees, such as that in East Fife mentioned above, were set up in many other parts of the country although not on such a large scale as East Fife. Arnot's book describes how each day the number of violent confrontations with the police and scabs increased. Buses were never able to run in Poplar and Bermondsey.15 In Edinburgh a football pitch was used to impound vehicles that did not have trade union passes16 and in Leeds a scab bus was halted by strikers who were armed with guns!17
The second argument the books demolish is that the strike was being weakened by strikers returning to work. In fact, both government and TUC reports suggest that the strike was getting stronger. A report by the TUC intelligence committee stated, 'There is a small return to work in some outlying areas, this was due to lack of information by the TUC and was easily offset by those joining the strike and industries closed by it'.18 As the strike entered its second week, key industries were closing down through lack of supplies.
There are, however, real weaknesses with these books. Both authors were members of the CPGB, and although Skelley's book is a collection of essays, the vast majority are written by CP members or fellow travellers. Both give good accounts of the strikes but fail to explain how or why the leaders of the TUC sold out the strike. This is no accident. The CPGB at the time of the General Strike did not want to break politically with the left leaders of the trade union movement.
Most major libraries and many trade union centres have a whole section of pamphlets and handbills dating from the strike which give a valuable insight to events in certain areas. I have seen reports of the General Strike in areas such as Sheffield, St Albans and Southwark. Also worth hunting out are copies of the British Gazette (the government's strike paper) and The British Worker (the TUC's equivalent). They show clearly who was in control.
The best accounts of the General Strike by far are Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein's Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 and a short pamphlet by Duncan Hallas and Chris Harman, Days of Hope - The General Strike of 1926. Both give a general outline of the events and explain the role of the trade unions and the failure of the left, especially the CPGB, in dealing with the historic events that were occurring. In his collection of essays, 'Where is Britain Going', published under the title Leon Trotsky on Britain, Trotsky addresses three arguments. First is the notion that the only political changes in Britain have come through gradual reform. Secondly, he is critical of the role played by both left and right wing trade union leaders, and finally he is critical of the role of both the Russian CP international leadership under Zinoviev and the CPGB. Although Trotsky overestimates the revolutionary situation of Britain at that time and is factually wrong on some aspects (this is due to his lack of information and exaggeration of the situation by revolutionaries in Britain), it is still a brilliant collection of essays that are as relevant today as they were then.
For nine days the working class was solidly behind the miners. The strike was not defeated by the strong arm of the state or a lack of determination on the part of the strikers themselves. It was the leaders of the unions who called off the strike without any agreed terms. It was the union leaders who left 800,000 miners to fight on their own for six months and eventually to be starved back to work.
While the mass of workers accepted the leadership of the TUC, the CPGB, instead of challenging this, reinforced the TUC's dominance with their slogan, 'All power to the General Council'. Only one lone voice, that of Leon Trotsky, stood out not only against the right wing of the trade union movement but also against the left wing. Trotsky argued that:
Both the right wingers and the left wingers, including Purcell and Cook, have the greatest fear of commencing the final action. Even when they verbally admit the inevitability of struggle and revolution they hope in their heart of hearts for some kind of miracle that will deliver them from this prospect. At any rate they will put a brake on the movement, they will evade and wait and see.19
Of course revolutionaries would rather see a left wing trade union leader than one from the right, but at the end of the day they all behave as a conservative social group scared to unleash the power of the working class. The biggest fear any trade union leader has is that the movement may get out of their control. Charles Dukes of the GMWU explained, 'Every day that the strike proceeded the control and the authority was passing out of the hands of responsible Executives and into the hands of men who had no authority, no control and wrecking the movement from one end to the other'.20 Although the General Strike did not reach the heights of a revolutionary movement, the mere shadow of revolution was enough to scare them. Ben Turner, a right wing member of the TUC in 1926, wrote to the Sunday Worker, a CP influenced paper:
I don't think you were just to the General Council in dividing us into left and right wingers...the absolute unanimity of the General Council in declaring the General Strike off did not divide us into left wingers and right wingers.21
The strike constituted an ultimate test for the left wingers, a test which they all failed - even A J Cook, who was described in a Home Office intelligence report as 'an agitator of the worst kind'.22 The best introduction to A J Cook is a pamphlet by Paul Foot, named after this comment.23 The role of A J Cook in the General Strike has reached mythical proportions and he was without doubt the best leader the British trade union movement has had. But the fact remains that throughout the strike, even though he was critical of the leadership of the TUC, he would never go over their heads and argue for rank and file solidarity. Even when the TUC were urging their members to go back to work, leaving the miners isolated, Cook offered no concrete alternative. Cook's brilliant pamphlet The Nine Days exposes the role of the General Council in dealing with the government behind the MFGB's back. However, according to P Davis's book, A J Cook (part of a series of books on lives of the left), there were at least two occasions when Cook himself had meetings with industrialists without his members' knowledge.
The Nine Days was a time bomb as far as the TUC was concerned. It was published while the miners were still out on strike. The TUC asked Cook to withdraw it for as long as the dispute continued as it would create division in the movement. Cook obliged, giving the TUC the cover they needed. He maintained his illusions in the left wing leaders. His pamphlet ended with the following : 'We hope still that those leaders of the TUC who feel that a mistake has been made will rally to our cause and help us to victory'.24
There were two main left wing parties during the General Strike. The first was the Labour Party. Although many thousands of its ordinary members threw themselves into the strike, the attitude of its leadership can be summed up by this quote from Beatrice Webb:
The General Strike will fail... We have always been against a General Strike ...The failure of the General Strike will be one of the most significant landmarks in the history of the British working class.25
The leader of the Labour Party, Ramsay MacDonald, did everything he could to end the dispute. It was the Labour Party, at the expense of the miners, who benefited when despair of industrial action led workers to look for salvation through the ballot box.
The CPGB was the other main left organisation. Even though the CPGB had only about 5,000 members at the beginning of the strike, its influence far outweighed its size, and, at the time, it was still a revolutionary organisation. No one could deny the bravery of its members. Of the 5,000 workers arrested throughout the strike, 1,200 were members of the CPGB. The problem was not the bravery of its members, but the poor political direction given by their leaders. The CPGB's political weaknesses were twofold. Firstly it was uncritical of the president of the Communist International, Zinoviev, and slavishly followed his directions (it became even more of a mouthpiece of the Russian leadership when Stalin came to power). Secondly, it failed to provide an alternative to the TUC or at least give a lead to the minority that could challenge the TUC.
There are two books on the role of the CPGB in the General Strike. The first is James Klugmann's History of the CPGB (Vol 2, The General Strike 1925-1926). This is the official history of the CPGB. It was commissioned in July 1956 and was not produced until 1968.26 (Readers can draw their own conclusions as to the cause of this delay.) This is a useful book but is uncritical of the role of the party in the strike and gives a crude analysis of the turns it made.27 These turns were made not in response to the day to day needs of the movement, but at the orders of Russia. The communist parties of the world paid a high price for their unprincipled zig zags at the behest of Russia. It has been said that 'when they were zigging they should have been zagging and when they were zagging they should have been zigging'.
A much more useful book is Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse's A History of Communism in Britain published by Bookmarks. This gives an accurate picture of Trotsky's criticism of the failure of both the Russian and British communist parties. The introduction by Chris Bambery in the reprinted version is particularly useful.
The cost of betrayal was immense. A bulletin produced by the Hull strike committee described the situation thus: 'Alarm - Fear - Despair - a victorious army disarmed and handed over to its enemies'.28 Most employers saw the surrender as a green light to break up union organisation and victimise trade union militants. Yet 24 hours after the strike was called off, 100,000 more workers went on strike, some against management attacks, some believing that the government was lying about the ending of the strike.
Five months after the strike ended, 45,000 rail workers had still not been allowed to return to work. Some unions had to promise not to strike in support of other workers before they were allowed to return to work. The miners paid the highest price; they would be starved back to work six months later. The strike did not have to go down to defeat. The Daily Herald summed up the leadership's role when it said, 'We shall never have another revolution for Mr Baldwin has announced that the strike is unconstitutional, and so the TUC packed up and went home.' The Daily Herald was wrong on one count. While the actual events of May 1926 will never recur, a situation of social crisis and class struggle will. Understanding the General Strike will help make sure that the movement does not make the same mistakes again.
> 1 T Cliff and D Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: the General Strike of 1926 (Bookmarks, 1986), p84.
2 C Rosenberg, 1919 Britain on the Brink of Revolution (Bookmarks, 1987), p36.
3 H A Clegg, A History of British Trade Unions Since 1889, Vol 2, 1911-1933 (Clarendon Press, 1985), p568.
4 T Cliff and D Gluckstein, op cit, p129.
5 H A Clegg, op cit, p390.
6 J Symons, The General Strike (Cressit Press, 1957), p20.
7 Ibid, p18.
8 C Farman, The General Strike May 1926 (Rupert Hart Davis, 1972), p50.
9 J Symons, op cit, p34.
10 R Page Arnot, The General Strike May 1926 (E P Publishing Ltd, 1975), p153.
11 J Symons, op cit, p52.
12 T Cliff and D Gluckstein, op cit, p197.
13 R Page Arnot, op cit, p174.
14 T Cliff and D Gluckstein, op cit, p203.
15 J Symons, op cit, p75.
16 T Cliff and D Gluckstein, op cit, p163.
17 J Symons, op cit, p75.
18 Ibid, p210.
19 TUC General Council Report of Proceedings of a Special Conference of Executives, p58.
20 J Symons, op cit, p211.
21 T Cliff and D Gluckstein, op cit, p246-247.
22 P Davies, A J Cook (Lives of the Left) (Manchester University Press, 1987), p260.
23 P Foot, An Agitator of the Worst Kind (Bookmarks, 1986). 24 A J Cook, The Nine Days, p24.
25 B Webb, Diaries 1924-1932 (London, 1956) p90.
26 J Klugman, History of the CPGB, Vol 2, The General Strike 1925-1926 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1969), p163-164.
27 Ibid, p142.
28 C Farman, op cit, p215.