When workers tasted power
The 1926 general strike – whose 90th anniversary we celebrate this month – was, alongside the movement of the Chartists in the 19th century, the most important event in the history of the British working class.
This alone makes the subject worthy of study and discussion, particularly for the younger generation of workers, in order to learn the lessons of this epochal event and its relevance today.
The Tory government in 1926 – headed by Stanley Baldwin – was determined to inflict a serious defeat on British workers as a means of rescuing their ailing capitalist system. David Cameron – backed up by the ‘big butcher’ of Downing Street, George Osborne next door – has carried out vicious austerity measures and treads in Baldwin’s footsteps today.
The whole period from the end of World War One until 1926 was characterised by a mighty tussle between the working class and its organisations and the government collectively representing the British capitalists.
A testing of wills took place throughout this whole period when a general strike came very close to breaking out. But both sides – the government and employers on one side and the working class and its organisations on the other – withdrew, sometimes at the last moment.
But so serious was the crisis of British capitalism that it could no longer afford the existing living standards of the working class and indeed demanded savage reductions. Lord Londonderry, a Durham mine owner, vowed to smash the unions from top to bottom. Class relations were explosive which resulted in Britain coming near to a general strike in 1919, 1921 and in the run-up to “Red Friday,” July 31, 1925.
In 1919, for instance, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a consummate representative of big business, declared to the trade union leaders: “If you carry out your threat and strike you will defeat us, but if you do so have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance.
“For, if a force arises which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered, if you have, are you ready?”
Lloyd George summed up here the essential characteristics of a general strike, which poses the question of power. An “either-or” situation exists where either the working class goes forward, takes power and begins to reorganize society on democratic socialist lines, or the official “leaders” retreat and the working class is defeated.
It is for this reason that before resorting to an all-out general strike socialists and Marxists carefully analyse all the factors involved and rather than immediately launching a head-on confrontation would resort to preparatory measures beforehand.
However, when the issue is posed baldly and a general strike is implicit in the situation, it is necessary to go forward and seize power. The cowardly trade union leaders in 1919 were typified by Robert Smillie, right-wing miners’ leader, who declared: “From that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were.”
This was not the reaction of the overwhelming bulk of trade unionists and the working class who understood that only the most serious working class resistance to the onslaught of the bosses was capable of ensuring a decent existence for them and their families.
This led to the victory – temporary though it was – of ‘Red Friday’, which forced the government and the coal bosses to retreat in the face of the miners’ intransigence. This was the miners’ and the working class’ revenge for “Black Friday” (April 15, 1921) when a bitter defeat was inflicted on them.
Interestingly, in the aftermath of “Red Friday,” Baldwin was accused by his own Tory press of an unprincipled retreat by paying “Danegeld” (tribute paid by the English to Danish Kings in the ninth to eleventh centuries to save land from being ravaged). Thatcher was accused of the same thing in 1984 when she was compelled to give in to Liverpool during the 1983-87 council battle.
However, in both 1925 and 1984, the representatives of the government were merely making a tactical retreat, the better to prepare to inflict defeat later.
Baldwin declared later in relation to 1925: “We were not ready.” Neither was Thatcher in 1981 ready to confront the miners head-on. She and her cronies built up the coal stocks and took on the miners in 1984-85.
The ruling class prepared very carefully for the inevitable confrontation. In contrast, the trade union leaders’ approach was described by one historian as “studied unpreparedness.”
Following “Red Friday,” all sides took stock. In the depths of the working class, a steely determination developed that this time the working class would be victorious. There was mass opposition to the repression that was being undertaken by the government, for instance against the Communist Party.
Wherever they went, the miners could feel the groundswell of support among the working class for their cause.
At the same time, the government was also preparing for an extra-parliamentary struggle, while the general council of the TUC was frantically looking for compromises – the basis for which did not exist.
The Minority Movement, which gathered the most combative elements of the trade unions in its ranks, pressed for nationalization of the mining industry “without compensation and with full workers’ control.”
The Minority Movement was potentially a massive weapon for the forthcoming general strike. However, it was hobbled by the false policy of the young Communist Party – under the direction of Moscow and Stalin – of not sufficiently criticizing the trade union leaders and demanding firm action from them. It was not just the right-wing trade union leaders but some of the so-called left who dragged their feet, not seriously preparing for the coming battle.
The right was openly trying to sabotage the struggle, with the National Union of Railwaymen’s leader Jimmy Thomas indicating that they would not oppose wage cuts if “reorganisation of the mining industry was to take place.” He confessed: “I… was almost grovelling”, pleading with the government for “peace”.
But the working class was preparing and saw no alternative but to strike. When it took place, all the preparations of the bosses and the government were puny when measured against the colossal response of the working class to the call for a general strike.
A sheet metal worker spoke for millions when he wrote: “Employers of labour were coming, cap in hand, begging for permission to do certain things… to allow their workers to return to perform certain customary operations… Most of them turned away empty… I thought of the many occasions when I had been turned empty away from the door of some workshop in a weary struggle to get the means to purchase the essentials of life for self and dependants.”
The general strike was solid and growing by the day. ‘Councils of action’ were formed during the immortal nine days of the strike. There were approximately 400 trades councils in operation and between 100 and 147 councils of action. An aide of Baldwin confessed: “The workers’ reactions to the strike call were much more complete than we’d expected.”
In our book 1926 General Strike – Workers Taste Power, we show the colossal sweep and verve of the general strike as the mass of the working class reached out not just for wage increases but for power. In answer to the government’s repression, calls for the organisation of defensive formations of the working class and defense corps would have received widespread support.
The tragedy of the general strike was the unpreparedness not just of the summits of the labor movement but also of the young revolutionary forces gathered around the Communist Party.
The general slogan of “All power to the General Council” acted to screen not just the right wing but also the left leaders who were dragging their feet. Trotsky had come out against this policy when he predicted in ‘Where is Britain Going?’ that a general strike was posed in Britain.
From day one, however, the general council of the TUC tried to find a way to end the strike. Its very success led them to increase their efforts at sabotage.
The general council called off the strike on 12 May, trooping off to Downing Street to capitulate to Baldwin. What followed was a festival of reaction, first against the miners and then against the rest of the working class.
This was a signal for the bosses to display that cold cruelty – which Osborne today possesses in spades towards, for instance, the disabled, the homeless, etc. – in attempting to impose a dictatorship of capital in the factories.
Baldwin was to admit later: “I provoked a general strike in 1926 as a means of demoralizing the trade union leaders and breaking up the unity of the unions which had become so manifest in 1925.”
The reward for the working class was hunger, unemployment and victimization of militants. The general strike was a defeat and a serious one at that. 160 million working days were lost in strikes in 1926 as a whole, the highest ever in a single year, and only rivaled by the later upsurge of workers’ militancy in the 1970s and 1980s. Afterwards trade union membership fell below five million for the first time since 1916.
However, this defeat was not accepted lying down by workers. The answer to Baldwin and the fainthearted trade union leaders was given at the Bournemouth conference of the TUC in September 1926 from a young miners’ delegate, who roared: “We will have another general strike without you, and we’ll win next time.”
Britain has come very close to a general strike since then. In 1972 when the Pentonville dockers were jailed, the TUC actually went on record for a 24-hour general strike. However, in making this declaration they had already been assured that the dockers would be freed by the ‘official solicitor’.
Nevertheless, it indicates that even the most obdurate trade union leaders can be pushed under mass pressure to move in the direction of general strikes.
During the Con-Dem coalition government, three general secretaries – Bob Crow of the rail workers, Lenny McCluskey of Unite and Mark Serwotka of the PCS unions – called for a one-day general strike when speaking at the rally following the anti-austerity demo of 20 October 2012.
That appears now to have dropped off the agenda but, under the impact of the continuing austerity of Osborne and Cameron, this idea will be revised. And not just in Britain but throughout Europe and the world.
Therefore, it is appropriate to re-examine the 1926 General Strike and learn the lessons for today in the battles to come.