The Great Betrayal?

Was the general strike of 1926 the great betrayal?

From Organise #67. Written after the public sector strike or 2006, when 1 million workers went on strike. Reprinted in Freedom, 2 July.

The Public Sector strike in March of this year saw one million workers on strike in what was the largest industrial disruption since the General Strike of 1926, eighty years previously. The strike against changes in the Local Government Pension Scheme was an example of the Trade Unions responding to the anger of their membership with a demoralising one day action. Following the strike, the unions declared all action postponed pending talks – all momentum was deliberately lost.

So, was the story any different in 1926? Was the General Strike an expression of working class self-determination? Or was it a revolutionary strike aimed at overthrowing the ruling class?

The way that the General Strike, or should that be The General Strike as it is the only one to have taken place in Britain, is remembered is often with a strong romanticism and the notion of terrible betrayal by union leaders.

What was the background to the strike and how did the union leaders manage to get away with such a `betrayal’?

`Black Friday’, April 1921

In 1921, the Government announced a wage cut for miners. This attack brought a militant response from large sections of the working class and the potential for a mass strike movement in defence of wages. The `Triple Alliance’ of miners, railway workers and other transport workers’ unions frightened the state. The Russian Revolution was only four years old and a revolutionary wave of working class struggle continued throughout Europe. The government sent troops into the coalfields and geared up for a confrontation. The miners were left to fight alone when the `Triple Alliance’ collapsed on what became known as `Black Friday’. Driven back to work after three months, the miners were given wage cuts of between 10% and 40%. This defeat left the miners feeling both betrayed and isolated. The overall level of working class confidence and combativity was also affected and trade union membership fell dramatically. It was not until the latter part of 1924 that the class struggle appeared once more on the rise.

`Red Friday’, July 1925

In 1925 the government threatened another vicious reduction in miners’ wages, along with a lengthening of the working day. There had been a devaluation of the pound to 90% of its pre-war value and the British bosses were determined that the working class would shoulder the burden of maintaining the country’s place in the world economy. Faced with this threat the Trades Union Congress re-convened the `Triple Alliance’, now more generally known as the `Cripple Alliance’ and the Transport and Railwaymens’ unions again pledged to stand with the miners if the governments’ threat was carried out. On this occasion the government decided to back down and the decision was hailed as a victory for the workers, a `Red Friday’ to avenge the Black one four years earlier. But why did the government decide to hold back?

The retreat was essentially tactical. The strategists of the ruling class were not confident that the cuts could be successfully imposed at this point and wished to postpone the confrontation. In his report on the industrial situation to the King, Maurice Hankey, Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet said: “The majority of the Cabinet regard the present moment as badly chosen for the fight, though the conditions would be more favourable nine months hence.”

A nine month subsidy was given to the mining industry and a Commission (the Samuel Commission to investigate the problems of the industry was set up as a smokecreen. The government began to oversee the stockpiling of coal and made preparations for a massive class confrontation. Plans were drawn up for the temporary `nationalisation’ of the road haulage industry, for the maintenance of `order’ and recruitment of volunteer strike-breakers. This latter would be handled by the Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies, a right-wing `private’ organisation led by elements in the ruling class, established for just such an occasion.

That the ruling class really weren’t sure that the `Triple Alliance’ would perform another `Black Friday’ turn for them is evident. Whilst the government didn’t take the revolutionary rhetoric that emanated from the September 1925 TUC Congress on face value, they were still worried that the momentum for action might carry the trade unions further than their leadership might have wanted. They lacked confidence in the Trade Unions ability to control their membership.

The state was also unsure about the influence of the Communist Party, both its strength amongst workers and its intention. On October 14th 1925 the Home Secretary ordered the arrest of 11 leaders of the party who were subsequently imprisoned for periods of between six and 12 months on charges of seditious libel and incitement to mutiny. The majority were, however, released before the General Strike in May 1926.

The Samuel Commission came up with its `impartial’ findings in early 1926. It found that there had indeed been mismanagement of the British coalfields but wage cuts and increased hours were still inevitable in order to make the industry competitive in the world market. So, a full year in which the government was able to prepare for confrontation was lost for the workers. Anger reached a boiling point with the results of the commission and the ending of the subsidy. The TUC was forced to call a general strike, unsure of its ability to control it but afraid that by not putting itself at its head it would be by-passed. When J.R. Cleynes (of the General and Municipal workers union) said that “I am not in fear of the capitalist class. The only class I fear is our own,” he was being remarkably honest for a union leader! Up to the last minute, the leadership of the TUC attempted to lash-up a deal with the government and made plain their hope that a general strike would be averted. Meanwhile, the British press was busy creating hysteria about the impending class warfare. When printers at the Daily Mail, as right-wing a rag then as now, went on unofficial strike when asked to publish another anti-union article, the TUC repudiated the action.

On the 4th May 1926 the size and breadth of the General Strike took everyone by surprise, not least the TUC, who had organised very little in preparation for the action. The overwhelming organisational lead was taken at a local level, particularly through Trades Union Councils, local strike committees and quickly organised `Councils of Action’ which involved strikers and their supporters. In some areas, embryonic workers’ militias formed and violent clashes occurred throughout the country, despite the best attempts of the TUC to maintain a blissful calm. `Unorganised’ workers in some areas were amongst the first to strike and everywhere joined their unionised comrades. Despite efforts by strike-breaking students the country was coming to a standstill and in many areas little or nothing moved without the agreement of the strikers. The state for its part, geared up for an escalation, aware of the possibility that things might get `out of hand’. Battleships were anchored in the Clyde, the Mersey and elsewhere whilst the army and navy were put on standby, all leave being cancelled.

Understandably the trade union leaderships were extremely anxious and used every opportunity to display their moderation and horror at the way they were being treated by the government. In response to the publication of the British Gazette, the anti-strike bulletin of the government, the TUC published the British Worker. This daily bulletin continually emphasised that the strike was an industrial dispute and nothing more, whilst encouraging local strike committees to organise sports activities and `entertainments’. The famous football matches between strikers and the police were a product of such suggestions. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin described the general strike as “[a] challenge to parliament and the road to anarchy and ruin”.

The Betrayal?

But whilst the TUC issued demands that the workers “stand firm”, they pointedly refused to call out power and electricity supply workers and waited until a week into the strike before calling out maritime workers. By this time the TUC had already entered into secret negotiations to end the strike. None of their demands were met. But on May 12th, the General Council of the TUC called off the General Strike. The news, relayed through the British Worker, came as a shock to most strikers and on 13th May there were more workers out on strike than ever before. The workers were deliberately not told that the mineworkers union had opposed the ending of the strike and imagined that a victory of some description had been won. Confusion reigned and as news of the capitulation filtered through there was a general sense of bitterness and dockworkers, engineers, railway workers and others continued the strike unofficially. Eventually though, the momentum was lost and the workers drifted back to work. The abandoned miners continued their strike officially but were isolated, slowly ground down and defeated.

The revolutionaries

What was the role of would-be revolutionary organisations within the working class during The General Strike?

The largest organisation claiming to be revolutionary at this time was the Communist Party of Great Britain. Since 1924 the party had been attempting to build a rank and file movement in the Trade Unions. This became known as the National Minority Movement and it attracted hundreds of thousands of workers, the majority of whom were not party members. Initially this movement looked like a semi-syndicalist movement but in August 1925 its direction was adjusted by the leadership.

At this time the Communist International was pursuing a policy of fawning support for the `left’ leaders of Trade Unions. This was part of a general accommodation to international capitalism and suited Russian foreign policy. The Communist Party, rather than attempt to build up any movement independent of this left leadership emphasised the need for the bureaucrats to have ever more control, urging the workers to “follow the TUC and insist on the formation of the Workers’ Alliance under the supreme authority of the General Council”. During the General Strike itself Communist Party members threw themselves into building the local Councils of Action and strike committees. The party grew rapidly during the strike. At no time, however, did the Communist Party attempt to prepare the workers for a `sell-out’ by the TUC leadership by building independent organisation or even the nucleus of autonomous struggle. Whilst the party had no confidence in the traditional right-wing leaders in the TUC they saw a genuine “proletarian leadership” emerging amongst the newer left wing leaders (much as today’s Communist Party and other leftists see such leadership in Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka et al).

The small revolutionary forces which rejected such a perspective included the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF) who opposed the CPGB’s slogan of `All Power to the General Council (of the TUC)’ with the slogan `No power to the General Council – All power to labour through its strike committees and mass meetings’. But it remained just that – a slogan. Whilst some workers did try to maintain their strike committees and defend their self-organised structures, the APCF mostly remained a voice in the wilderness as the Stalinist ice age decended.

So, was The General Strike betrayed? Could things have turned out differently?

The Trade Union leaders certainly didn’t betray the workers, except in the sense that they betrayed their trust. Rather, the Trade Union leaders played their role according to their class interest – which just happened to be different to that of their members. They were forced by pressure from below to call the strike and did everything in their power to make sure that it didn’t go beyond `an industrial dispute’. They left the miners to fight on their own, facing certain defeat.

But why didn’t the workers take the leadership out of their hands and extend the struggle? Certainly the creativity and organisational ability of the rank and file trade union members and, indeed, many non-unionised members, saw the strike maintained. The local initiatives were the life-blood of the struggle. Given time, the local Councils of Action may have linked-up and established a counter-power to the government. But, the fact remains that the majority of workers trusted their unions to defend their interests and did not see the need to take the struggle either out of the bureaucrats’ hands or on to a higher level of struggle – the fight for power. Although workers were confused and angry that the struggle was called-off, they did not have confidence or independent organisation to carry it on.

The Communist Party, which had built a considerable rank and file movement over the previous two years, decided to put their faith in the left wing trade union leaders, rather than the self-organising abilities of the working class.