Review: 1926 General Strike – 9 days that shook Britain by Peter Taaffe

Nine days that shook British capitalism to its foundation.

To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 1926 General Strike in Britain and, more importantly, to draw out the lessons from this movement, Peter Taaffe – the Socialist Party’s general secretary – has written a book outlining the nine days that shook British capitalism to its foundation.

The book particularly deals with the revolutionary possibilities of the general strike and the question of whether the fledgling Communist Party had the right strategy, programme and tactics to take full advantage of the strike and the period.

To coincide with the book’s launch The Socialist spoke to Peter about the lessons of the strike movement for today’s generation of socialist fighters.

1926 General Strike by Peter Taaffe

Why have you written a book about the 1926 General Strike now?

One reason is in order to acquaint the new generation with these events, which are in danger of fading from the memory, given that it is 80 years since the General Strike. Also, while on the surface British society may appear to be different from the events of the General Strike, the underlying difficulties of British capitalism in this neo-liberal, globalised era point towards a mighty collision between the classes at some stage in the foreseeable future.

Also, the issue of the ’general strike’ – in the first instance, for one day – has come back onto the agenda of the workers’ movement today. When local government workers went on strike on 28 March this year, union leaders warned that it "would be the biggest since the General Strike", indicating that 1926 is still an important reference point for the British labour movement.

We have also seen recently the convulsive movements in France, in which the need for a general strike to defeat the Chirac government was raised.

The 1926 General Strike is the most important event in the history of the British working class. Not since the days of Chartism in the first half of the nineteenth century had the British ruling class been so shaken. In the titanic nine days of 3-12 May 1926 the organised working class came out in their millions in a generalised stoppage which posed all the fundamental issues of power.

Out of five-and-a-half million workers organised in trade unions, an estimated four million took strike action in waves or ’stages’ and a million miners were locked out at any one time. They were confronting the Tory government of Stanley Baldwin which included in its ranks figures like Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead. They were determined to crush the strikers in the hope that this would defeat the working class as a whole.

At the head of the million-fold ’workers’ army’ stood the General Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The right wing of this body, which today would be described as ’moderate’, was represented by trade union leaders like JH Thomas of the rail workers’ union (NUR), Walter Citrine, general secretary of the TUC, and the transport workers’ union leader, Ernest Bevin. These figures in general stood for a policy of ’class compromise’, which they believed could be achieved through negotiation with the employers and the government. Strike action was considered as a very last resort.

In 1926, however, their approach was totally ineffective. The gulf between the classes was too great. The mine owners – with the Tory government at their back – were determined to inflict savage reductions in wages and conditions.

The systematic attacks on workers in the whole preceding period prior to the General Strike had radicalised significant sections of the working class which, in turn, was reflected in a shift to the left in the unions.

Baldwin had spelt this out in 1925 in an interview with union leaders when he stated: "I mean all the workers of this country have got to take reduction of wages to help put industry on its feet." This led to the emergence of left-wing trade union leaders like A.J. (Arthur) Cook of the mineworkers, Alf Purcell of the furniture trades union and AB Swales of the Engineers union (AEU).

The right-wing trade union leaders were dragged reluctantly into the General Strike but were forced to do so because of the monumental pressure from below.

When the strike began, the response of the working class was immediate and massive. The wheels of industry ground to a halt. The arteries of Britain – its roads and railways – were choked and silent. All the carefully laid plans of the government to defeat the strike lay in ruins as the working class, kept in the dirt by capitalism, rose as in Shelley’s poem – "rise like lions" – in a magnificent display of working-class power.

Faced with a powerful and embattled working class and unprepared for a showdown in 1925, the Tory government bought time on ’Red Friday’ by proposing a nine-month subsidy to the coal industry. Like the retreat of Thatcher in 1981, who then took on the miners in 1984-85 when the Tory government was prepared, so the ruling class also then temporarily backtracked while they organised to crush the miners and thereby the working class.

Could there have been a revolution in Britain at that time?

There were some elements of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation in 1926. The working class created a network of ’Councils of Action’ or ’Strike Committees’. In significant parts of the country, these bodies began to assume the role of a rival workers’ ’government’ to Baldwin and his local representatives – cars and lorries carried notices "with the permission of the TUC". This terrified the ruling class and the right-wing trade union leaders, particularly as with each day the enthusiasm of the strikers, the numbers coming out on strike and those clamouring to do so grew with an irresistible force.

What was missing, however, was a mass Marxist working-class party able to develop working-class power and its organs as a step towards the socialist transformation of society

What was the role of the newly-formed Communist Party? Did the Communist International have any influence on the strike?

The role of the young Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in these events is also an important aspect of this book.

The Communist Party was a small but important party in 1926. As the British section of the Communist International (Comintern), its membership drew most of its support from workers who defended the Russian workers’ state and who considered themselves as revolutionaries. Only fragments of this party now remain, with little influence inside the British labour movement.

The CP could have emerged from the General Strike greatly strengthened both in numbers and in influence. They failed to do this because of their mistaken policies. However, they were not entirely to blame for this. By the time of the General Strike the young militants of the Communist Party were misled by the mistaken policies of the Communist International (Comintern), then under the direction of Stalin and Bukharin.

Impatient at the slow development of the young CP, they exerted pressure which led to the formation of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee. This was a bloc between the Russian trade unions and the General Council of the TUC, and particularly with its left wing. Only mild criticism was made of the leading Lefts, which did not adequately prepare the working class for the inevitable retreats that these lefts made during and after the General Strike.

What part did the Labour Party play?

As with the right-wing trade union leaders, the Labour Party leadership of MacDonald played a pernicious role. Ramsay MacDonald, the Blair of his day, as Labour leader, strove might and main to prevent the General Strike and, when this failed, did everything in his power to sabotage it.

He was assisted by those right-wing trade union leaders such as JH Thomas, leader of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).

He was described by his rich admirers as "one of the best waltzers in London" and lived on the Astor estate, often sharing "Lord Derby’s box on Grand National Day". MacDonald attacked the ’extreme Left’, militants, combative trade unionism and socialism.

Why did the TUC General Council betray the strike?

Because of the pressure of the working class, the TUC General Council could not avoid putting themselves at the head of this mighty movement. But they did this in order to call it off at the first convenient opportunity.

The right wing consciously prepared to sell out the General Strike. The left on the General Council, with the exception of Arthur Cook, the mineworkers’ union leader, went along with the betrayal of the strike. They were reformists. They believed that society could be changed by incremental changes rather than a social rupture, which is what 1926 represented.

In a period of acute capitalist crisis, which Britain was experiencing in 1926, this meant that these leaders would inevitably capitulate. Inherent in reformism in such a period is betrayal. This applies not just to the right but also to most of the left leaders. They were politically inconsistent and unorganised against the right in the run-up to the General Strike. Therefore they capitulated to the pressure of the right during the General Strike.

Most of the bitterness, particularly in the militant heartlands of South Wales, Durham, Scotland, etc, was directed against some of these lefts who the Communist Party, unfortunately, had failed to seriously criticise.

A general strike in a period similar to 1926 poses the question of power. In effect, two governments are established but this cannot last for ever.

This element of ’dual power’ had to be resolved either by a victory of the propertied classes, represented by the Baldwin government, or by the working class. Tied as they were to capitalist society, the General Council of the TUC bent the knee to capital.

The strike was defeated because the TUC general council capitulated – was it a complete defeat for the working class?

The General Strike was a defeat and a serious one at that. The ruling class took their revenge; the mine owners, without any pity, were determined to inflict brutal sacrifices on the miners and sought in the process to crush union organisation in the pits. The Tory Lord Birkenhead boasted in private: "The discredit of the Miners’ Federation is now complete."

The Economist put the total trade loss during the strike at between £300 million and £400 million. One hundred and sixty million working days were lost in strikes in 1926 as a whole.

However, the more politically developed sections of the working class began to draw far-reaching socialist or even revolutionary conclusions from this defeat. Even after this defeat, if the Comintern had broken with the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee and called for an organised left and socialist resistance to the capitulators of the General Council, then a powerful, conscious, Marxist movement could have been built in preparation for future battles.

This was not done as, incredibly, Stalin and Co., along with the British CP, continued to rub shoulders in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee with the capitulators. This was at a time when the miners were locked out and starving.

Is the working class more powerful today than it was in 1926? Could there be a general strike today or are those methods of struggle outmoded?

If you look at articles and letters that have appeared in The Guardian recently, the spokespersons of the capitalists are in no doubt that "a general strike is impossible" today [22 April 2006]. But Britain has gone to the brink of such a strike on a number of occasions since 1926.

In 1970, for instance, the newly elected Tory Prime Minister, Edward Heath, threatened the trade unions and the working class in a nationally televised broadcast with a ’general strike’ unless they were prepared to come to heel and accept cuts in their rights and conditions.

In both 1972 and, particularly, in the 1974 miners’ strike, the possibility of a general strike loomed. The strategists of capital have pondered the events of the past, have seen what happened in 1926 and are prepared, if necessary, to deploy the same means to defeat the working class.

In the 1980s, under Thatcher, the issue of a general strike to topple her government was again raised. In a similar situation, which could occur in Britain and in Europe in the next stage, the capitalists will be drawing on the lessons from the past. The working class, for its part, must also explore the events like 1926 to see how best to prepare for a similar situation in the future. We hope that this book will be a step towards realising that goal.

The 1926 General Strike posed the question of who ran society, with local workers’ committees controlling the distribution of goods etc.

If there was a general strike in Britain today, would it be similar?

There are some differences between the situations in 1926 and even France 1968, and the situation today in Britain and Europe. This is particularly evident on the issue of the political outlook, or consciousness, of the working class, then and now.

In both 1926 and 1968, there was a widespread awareness and attraction to the ideas of socialism as the alternative to capitalism.

However, with the collapse of Stalinism, and with it the planned economies of Eastern Europe, the capitalists were able to pursue a huge campaign against ’socialism’. In the 1990s, this coincided with an economic boom and the lurch to the right of the trade union and Labour leaders. This has thrown back consciousness.

Also, the economic situation is not yet as severe as 1926, and 1968 took place, paradoxically, when the economic boom in France and elsewhere had not exhausted itself.

On the other hand, the capitalists will pursue their neo-liberal agenda relentlessly but they will be challenged by a resurgent labour movement. Inherent in this situation is therefore the possibility of a general strike.

Because of all these factors taken together, this will probably mean that power may not be posed immediately in the minds of the working class. A ’general strike’ today therefore could initially take the form of warning strikes to exert mass pressure to extract concessions. But these would be staging posts along the way towards strikes like 1926. This is why this event retains its importance today.

At the same time, recent events in Nepal show how an almost classical general strike of the working class in the cities – supported by a mass peasant revolt in the rural areas – can develop even today. This strike posed starkly the question of power before the masses. But the general strike could not be maintained indefinitely unless power, including the formation of a workers and peasants’ government, passed decisively into the hands of the masses.

What would be the most important lessons that we could draw from the 1926 General Strike?

The General Strike of 1926 was a magnificent display of working-class power. The attempt to trivialise and belittle its significance by references to strikers playing football with policemen and other secondary features of the strike is meant to diminish it in the eyes of the present generation.

This is done quite consciously by capitalist historians together with the right-wing trade union leaders. They like to think that "never again" will a general strike occur in Britain. On the contrary, the situation that is developing in Britain will lead to a mighty collision, in fact a series of class conflicts between the classes which will put the issue of the general strike back onto the agenda.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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May 2006