CPGB and the miners

William Sarsfield continues his series on the founding of the CPGB 100 years ago

The fledgling Communist Party hit the ground running after its founding conference (July 31-August 1 1920). It played an exemplary role in the high-profile Hands Off Russia campaign, whose leadership was “a truly united body of the British working class, without bans and proscriptions, and with the driving force from the side of the militants”.1

But now a domestic battlefront opened too. In late August 1920, the miners voted for all-out strike action to win a wage rise and to force sizeable reductions in the price of domestic coal. The party assessed the prospects in the lead article of its weekly, The Communist, headed ‘Manifesto’.

Yet, despite rank-and-file pressure, the bureaucracy of the Triple Alliance transport and railway unions leant on the Miners Federation to wade once more into the quagmire of pointless negotiations with the bosses. No concessions were on offer: only the familiar trap of a productivity deal, dubbed a ‘datum line’. The CPGB’s open letter - under the by-lines of Arthur MacManus (chair) and Albert Inkpin (secretary) - urged miners to steel themselves for a bigger battle to come.

William Sarsfield


The Communist September 9 1920

Fellow workers - the executive committee of the Communist Party feel it incumbent upon themselves to advise you to watch with ever increasing vigilance the series of crises - industrial and political - through which we are now passing. Despite all the lying and deceit of the capitalist newspapers, the Council of Action, representing on this rare and refreshing occasion the underlying spirit and determination of the organised masses of the country hitherto unknown, have prevented yet another open attack upon Soviet Russia.

The declaration of the Miners’ Federation for a general strike, to commence on or after September 25, presents to us a first-class industrial crisis, which may have far-reaching effects on the development of the organised labour movement. The transport workers and railway workers have shown unhesitating loyalty to, and solidarity with, their allies, the mineworkers. The Triple Alliance will now have an opportunity of showing whether the confidence reposed in it by organised labour in general has been justified.

We hope and urge that trade unionists employed in every section of industry will not be led away by the studied propaganda of abuse and misrepresentation employed to destroy the miners’ worthy and commendable effort to determine the price of the commodity, for the production of which they are mainly, if not entirely, responsible. They who control supplies must inevitably control prices, and the mineworkers undoubtedly can give or withhold the necessary supplies of coal ...

We desire to warn the revolutionary trade unionists and communists against the possibility of intervention on the part of the government in this dispute, which will mean the abandonment in part, or in its entirety, of the miners’ claim. Signs are visible on all hands that the master class have lined up with more solidarity than ever in order to prosecute the class war against the legitimate demands of the mineworkers in particular and of trade unionists in general ...

Our duty, therefore, is clear in recommending to militant trade unionists that they cannot hope for any radical improvement in their economic status, unless and until they have broken the power of the capitalist and landlord class, who live their vicious and indolent lives at the expense of the productive members of the community. Things are reaching a stage in which the workers must definitely assume control of their lives and conditions by controlling the factories and workshops, running industry and transport for themselves - the working class. The majority of the working class despise the present government, as well as all other capitalist governments.

The militants must be prepared, therefore, to take advantage of every industrial and political crisis in order to strengthen their position and to encourage and inspire their fellow wage workers with a desire for the definite and conclusive overthrow of bourgeois civilisation, based as it is upon unemployment, prostitution and exploitation of the wage workers.

The Communist Party urges the toiling masses to prepare by every means in their power - through trade union branches, the existing trades councils, and the newly appointed Councils of Action - to assume responsibility for the control of the resources of the country, which is rightfully theirs, and for the administration of the means whereby they live.

Russia has shown us a magnificent example and has given to us an encouraging and inspiring lead that we must follow, if we are to break the bonds of capitalism which keep us in wage-slavery and subjection. Italy and its splendid organised proletariat is on the threshold of momentous developments in this direction. Germany, Austria, disillusioned Poland, draw nearer to the establishment of soviet governments. There is no country in the world where the workers could so easily become the masters of their own destiny as in Great Britain, and we, therefore, appeal to our revolutionary comrades in every trade, in every occupation, in every industry, to be loyal, to be vigilant and unceasing in their efforts for the final overthrow of the capitalist regime.

The workers alone can free the working class.

Open letter to miners

The Communist October 7 1920

Without strike or lockout, without the stoppage of a single wheel they [the miners] have been out-manoeuvred, forced to retreat from a discussion of the terms they put forward, forced into discussion of the terms put forward by the owners ...

The barrage sent up by the capitalist press in the last week of August and the first week of September made such a noise that few people realised how strong was the miners’ position. They were really unassailable. All the curses of the kept press were as ineffective as the curses of these creatures usually are. The bad house of capitalism was shrieking, because it was trembling. The miners’ case was on a basis of rock ...

They were basing their claim on the human needs of labour ... Every member of the working class understood something of the miner’s life and so was willing to back him in almost any claim for increased wages ... The workers knew that the cost of living had gone up by 30% since the miners’ last increase and ... in spite of the newspaper barrage, the workers realised as clearly as could be that the reduction of 14s, 2d in the price of coal was a move on their own behalf and against the coal-owners, the coal profiteers and government; on that alone they were willing to back the miners in their strike. The workers of the country knew full well that the government had cheated the miners over the Sankey report2 ... they knew that the government would try to cheat both them and the miners once again. In a word, their whole attitude was sympathetic.

That was the strength of the miners’ position four weeks ago ... The miners held the strategic position; they had only to hold tight; the press barrage would have exhausted itself, leaving them unharmed, and bit by bit the government would have been forced to discuss the one and indivisible demand, they would have bluffed, no doubt, but finally they were bound to yield to the miners. A situation with potentialities for labour would have been created.

What has happened? The opportunity of mastery over events has been frittered away. Point after point has been given to the enemy. The strongest positions have been flung away. They dropped the 14s, 2d - they dropped it for a sort of understanding that prices would not be raised at once. Then they found they could not get their 2s. The government had cheated them, and then began the alienation of the workers generally. The question of output was put forward. It was urged with all skill and advocacy by the prime minister - inspired by the owners, who had been whispering in Downing Street from the very first.

Presently the federation yielded again - wisely this time, perhaps - for once they had abandoned the 14s, 2d, they had thrown away their strongest position. The conference postponed the strike. The government and the owners proceeded once more to drive a hard bargain, knowing that the threat of a strike was now empty - at any rate, of a national strike, backed by all the forces of the federation. And, last of all, driven from point to point, distrusting the Triple Alliance, without any feeling that they had a movement behind them, distrusting even their ability to call again the strike they had once postponed, the miners’ conference in something like despair agreed to submit the owners’ proposal to a ballot vote of their members.

It is, it has been, a melancholy business. It is necessary for the rank-and-file colliers to note exactly what were the lessons, as well as the fundamental causes which led to the debacle. We need not ponder over minor matters, though there are obviously a number of things in which defective machinery, defective leadership, defective tactics went far to destroy the conduct of the campaign

The chief defect of the Triple Alliance goes more deep than these. It is the fact that the Triple Alliance is in the main run by reformist leaders. A Triple Alliance strike means a general strike, and a general strike means perhaps a revolution! No-one but a revolutionist will face the possibility of revolution.

No-one but a revolutionist, faced with the prospect of casting the country into a general strike, will persist in a demand for 2s or anything similarly small. Every strike leader feels his responsibility. But what nerves him to decide is revolutionary outlook; what unnerves him is a reformist outlook. So long as the Triple Alliance is not controlled by a revolutionary - or at any rate a militant rank and file - just so long will the leaders of it, when brought to the brink of the strike, shrink from the responsibility involved in a general stoppage.

And now that you have examined the causes of defeat, let us see what this ‘datum line’ means. This ‘datum line’, which has to be reached before wages are advanced, is simply payment by results on a national scale. As capitalism develops, as the big boss becomes bigger and bigger, he meets the advance of trade unionism by new methods of super-production. ‘Greater output’ is now the formula by which the employer is going to sweat money out of his wage-slaves and coin their blood for profits ...

Again, the Miners’ Federation is the vanguard of British trade unionism, and a defeat of the vanguard affects the whole movement. Feeble though it may be from a communist standpoint, the class solidarity of the British workers is beginning. They are beginning to respond, they are emboldened by the victory of a section and, when a section loses, they feel the shock of defeat. The miners’ defeat will be felt through the whole movement ...

What ought the miners to do? It is well to recognise defeat, it is well to face it clearly and admit it. But, that done, what is the next step?

Therefore, the next movement in the mining industry must insist on control of prices, control of conditions, control by the workers.

A renewal of the struggle will take place soon. Of that there is no doubt. What is doubted is whether it will be unsuccessful like this one has been.

In order to win the next struggle, the following period must be spent in overhauling the machinery - of the federation, of the districts, of each pit. At every election of a lodge secretary the candidate should be tested by their fitness in, and capacities for, a general strike.

  1. . J Klugmann History of the Communist Party of Great Britain Vol 1, p79: ‘Formation and early years: 1919-1924’.↩︎

  2. . The Sankey report recommended the nationalisation of the coal industry.↩︎