Issue 178 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Revolution in the air

British workers played their part in the revolutionary upsurge at the end of the First World War--a fact that is often ignored by those keen to uphold the myth that Britain is immune to such social upheaval. Chanie Rosenberg describes the events of 75 years ago which shatter that myth

Even the police went on strike
Even the police went on strike

Britain is no stranger to revolutionary working class activity and has been to the very brink of a socialist revolution.

The year was 1919. Then all the requirements for the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling capitalist class and seizure of power by the working class were present--save one.

The First World War was ended on the Eastern front by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and on the Western front by the German Revolution of November 1918. Revolution was in the air throughout Europe. Britain was not immune. The workers were not ready to tolerate the old conditions and rebelled in a massive wave of strikes, totting up an unprecedented 35 million working days lost through strike action. The arms of the state itself, the army and police, were in tumult, and therefore untrustworthy as troubleshooters against industrial unrest.

The terrified government did not know which way to turn. It split with each succeeding crisis. Its promise of 'a land fit for heroes' became a bitter joke as ruling class profiteering soared and misery increased for the masses.

The conditions were ripe for revolution and the classes battled it out for the whole year.

Disaster loomed for the government at the start of the year as unit after unit of the army, navy and airforce mutinied. There were almost 50 mutinies in the first fortnight of the year, involving tens of thousands of troops. Their main demand was a refusal to be sent to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks.

Their mutinies also sought redress for a multitude of grievances, from bad food and sanitation to unnecessary drill, church parades and exploitation by officers. Some troops marched to parliament, to the terror of the cabinet, for whom they bore 'a dangerous resemblance to a Soviet'. The government gave in to all their demands.

At Milford Haven men on the patrol vessel HMS Kilbride hauled the naval flag down and hoisted the red one. The left Labour paper, the Herald, asked, 'Have you wondered why demobilisation is so slow? Perhaps you think it is merely "red tape". It is not. It is the Red Flag--in Russia.' It commented, 'Our masters are trembling for more than their Russian dividends, they are trembling for the security of the dividend-hunting system all the world over.'

The police were also up in arms against the government. Their main demand was recognition of their union, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, which was affiliated to the London Trades Council. Poor pay, long hours and a militaristic hierarchy fuelled their anger, and they struck on 29 August 1918 with a magnificent 12,000 of the Met's 19,000 strong force coming out. The army, called in to replace the police, fraternised instead. Lloyd George said, 'This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since.' The wartime law of death for mutiny was still in force, and commander-in-chief General Haig urged the government to use it. But the cabinet was so terrified of repercussions among workers that instead of shooting they capitulated to almost all demands--and added a pay rise 'to allay unrest'.

Churchill did not get his reinforcements to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia, and demobilisation accelerated rapidly from 37,000 per week at the end of 1918 to 185,000 per week in January, and 4 million out of the total 6 million by mid-December 1919.

The police settlement actually gave them 'more than they asked for' in terms of pay and reinstatement of all dismissed for union activity. However, union recognition was cleverly postponed till 'after the war', and the government busied itself to raise wages, improve conditions and build up an alternative organisation to the union, the precursor of today's Police Federation.

The government now had to think very carefully before using troops or police to break strikes. Regarding one strikebreaking operation the chancellor of the exchequer noted, 'We were proposing to count on the skilled artisans of the army. We could not be certain of them.'

At the same time the big battalions of the working class were limbering up for action. The engineers on the Clyde were talking of a general strike. At the very heart of the economy was the million strong army of the miners, backed by the railway and transport unions, all of whom were clamouring for a resolution of their separate claims, and each pledged to support the others. If they all came out, as they threatened to do, the government could not have weathered the storm.

The first big industrial battle was the 40 hours strike in Glasgow from 27 January to 12 February, led by a mixture of official local organisations--not the executive of the engineering union which was hostile--and the unofficial Clyde Workers' Committee, made up of experienced shop stewards, all of whom were socialists, and who had led large and successful unofficial strikes during the war. The workers' response was terrific, with 100,000 out and nearly all factories closed. At the same time Belfast had a month long near general strike.

However, the strike in Glasgow did not develop into a general strike, but remained largely within engineering, the trams, docks, building workers and municipal employees. The disunity, and the localisation of the strike largely in Glasgow and Belfast, plus the government's lack of any further need for armaments, allowed the hardliners to wield the big stick and smash the strike. They used troops from England--the local barracks were kept strictly indoors and inactive, as they would certainly have fraternised with the workers. The strike was violently smashed and the leaders injured and imprisoned.

The government could heave a sigh of relief before it confronted the main threat--the miners. It decided to woo the miners with a softly, softly approach.

The government has no direct communication with workers; to control them it needs the mediation of a go between whose interests at least partly coincide with its own but to whom the workers will listen. The trade union officials fulfilled this role. The union leaders were very disunited. Robert Williams, leader of the transport union, remarked, 'I can clearly see that in formulating our various demands separately and distinctly... we shall be taken in detail and smashed separately.'

After a month of high publicity, on 25 February, the miners delivered an ultimatum to the government in the form of a ballot result of 615,164 to 105,082 for strike action to demand a 30 percent wage rise, a reduction of the working day from eight to six hours, and nationalisation of the mines. A profound desire to smash coal capitalism, a demand won 42 times at Trade Union Congresses since 1882, was now actually capable of being realised.

The government offered the sop used many times to defuse a situation--a Royal Commission under Mr Justice Sankey to inquire into wages, hours and conditions in the pits, and 'any scheme... for the future of the coal industry, whether on the present basis or on the basis of joint control, nationalisation, or any other basis'. Also, in an unprecedented move, the miners themselves could take up half the places on the commission.

The masses of miners, with their hardened realism, saw the commission for the deception it was: 'The Government propose this Committee for the purpose of indefinitely delaying a settlement.' But their leaders were wooed and won. Miners' leader Robert Smillie admitted, 'I have not the slightest doubt that the miners... could, within a month, stop every mine in the country till the mines are nationalised. That will stop all the railways and other industries dependent upon coal... We do not want to do that. We want to act "constitutionally".'

The two 'left wing' miners' leaders Smillie and Frank Hodges, stomped up and down the country arguing for Sankey, 'and in the end we won', very narrowly. This was the first of three major turning points in the industrial and political situation--the deflection of the revolutionary potential by the trade union officials.

The second came three weeks later with the publication of the Sankey Commission's interim report on 20 March. The interim report offered crumbs--albeit big ones--amounting to a wage increase of about 20 percent and a cut in hours from eight to seven. But on the crucial question of nationalisation, while stating with forked tongue that private ownership 'stands condemned and some other system must be substituted for it', the final report was deferred till June, when hopefully the steam would have blown off.

Again union leaders found enough concessions to urge the recalcitrant miners to accept the interim report. Again they succeeded. And the great miners' strike, which would have heralded a revolutionary situation, did not take place. The government could breathe again.

A revolutionary peak is of short duration. By the time the final report came out on 23 June, which in fact had a majority for nationalisation, the government was sufficiently confident to scorn the result and refuse any change. To the outraged miners, 'deceived, betrayed, duped', as one miners' MP put it, Lloyd George showed two fingers, confident that though a miners' conference on 3 September unanimously denounced the government's action, it would not call a strike then--and he was right. The revolutionary fever of January to March had died down.

And yet there came a third turning point in the struggle when, with correct leadership, the revolutionary embers could have been revived. After a summer of continued mass strikes--including the biggest strike of the year, 450,000 cotton workers over 18 days in June and July--the government, having ridden the crisis but failed so far to reduce wages to prewar levels, decided to deal a mortal blow to working class unrest.

Contemporary cartoon on how Churchill will 'finish this nonsense of an England fit for heroes'
Contemporary cartoon on how Churchill will 'finish this nonsense of an England fit for heroes'

It decided to provoke a strike on the railways, whose dispute over pay had not yet been settled, by demanding draconian wage cuts, even forcing the right wing Jimmy Thomas, the railway leader, to support a strike.

The strike lasted from 26 September to 5 October, was rock solid, and joined by footplatemen whom the government had unsuccessfully tried to divide from the railwaymen by an earlier wage bribe. It was supported by large groups of other workers who demanded to be called out in sympathy. As late as this even the troops proved unreliable by fraternising with the workers, and had to be sent back to barracks. But the other workers were not called out in sympathy and Jimmy Thomas and other union leaders did their best to damp down all enthusiasm.

So, while the strike succeeded in holding railway wages for a year, the potential for revolution was again squashed.

The year 1919 raised three distinct revolutionary opportunities around 26 February, 20 March and, though at a lower level, 26 September. They were all sold out by the trade union leaders, the first two by 'revolutionary, left wing' leaders, the third by a right wing leader. The differences in left-right political outlook were subordinated to the sell out role of the trade union officials.

The state was centralised and had an overall view of the whole economic and political situation in the country, assisted by an extremely high level of spying and surveillance. It was united in its aim--to smash and control the rebellious workers so as to drive wages down to prewar levels.

Battles cannot be fought and won unless there is symmetry between the combatants. And the working class had no such united general staff promoting its interests. The trade union officials acted as a conservative layer cramping and confining workers' struggles.

In 1919 all the requirements for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and seizure of power by the working class were present--save one. That is the mass revolutionary party. This party is active inside the unions and all other workers' organisations, maximising their strengths and overcoming weaknesses and divisions.

In 1919 there was a semi-revolutionary situation which could have turned into a revolutionary one with a clear lead given by such a party. That level of working class struggle can return. Then we must be ready.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page