80 years since the general strike - From world war to councils of action

Jack Conrad begins a series of articles examining the 1926 general strike

Without doubt, the May 3-12 general strike of 1926 is one of the most important events in the history of the working class movement in Britain. Other strikes have lasted longer. Some much longer - most memorably the year-long 1984-85 miners' Great Strike. However, the 1926 general strike pitted the strength of organised labour as a whole against the state. It too had the miners at the centre of the battle - there were around a million of them - but was conducted on a much wider front and directly involved the TUC and all trade unions. What was at stake was state power. Hence any party, any movement which is serious about socialism must painstakingly and critically study the general strike and draw theoretical and practical lessons for today's and future struggles. Peddling nostalgia and unthinking hand-me-down stories have no place in Marxism.

Obviously the immediate origins of the 1926 general strike need to be traced back to the late 19th century and the relative decline of British power, as against Germany and the USA. Britain no longer enjoyed the position of being the world's workshop. From the 1870s it merely occupied first place amongst a handful of rapidly closing rivals. That external challenge brought about a sharp intensification of the class struggle domestically. Rates of exploitation had to be increased. One attack followed another.

But it was not all one way. Under these testing conditions the working class giant finally awoke from its long post-Chartist slumber and entered a whole series of battles that were to culminate in the 1926 general strike.

It ought to be stressed that the British state also faced massive discontent in Ireland - from Larkin to Carson - and a militant women's suffrage movement. This is often completely forgotten or left out in economistic accounts of the general strike and the circumstances surrounding it. Eg, Peter Taaffe's book 1926 general strike (2006) includes neither Ireland nor the suffragettes. Trade unions, bosses, wages and conditions become a form of tunnel vision which excludes such crucial political questions.

After a huge upswing in economic struggles, especially from 1910 onwards, things appeared to be heading for a strategic confrontation - the Webbs, Sydney and Beatrice, spoke of a potential revolution. Millions upon millions were taking strike action. However, the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 put a stop to all that. There was a tidal wave of patriotic madness. The TUC and the Labour Party stopped marching against war and put themselves at the service of king and country. Class war at home was drowned by imperialist war against Germany. So, not least for the sake of brevity, we shall begin our discussion of the origins of the 1926 general strike with World War I and crucially the impact of the October Revolution in Russia.

October showed what could be done ... if there was a Communist Party. The Bolsheviks inspired advanced workers everywhere to follow suit. In Britain this beacon of hope combined with a steadily growing war weariness; together they put class war (and a general strike) back on the agenda.

Strikes - especially amongst engineering workers - became frequent from 1915 onwards. In turn the army and navy became ever more rest­less in the last two years of the war. With the end of hostilities, reluctance to demobilise the forces meant a growing spiral of dislocation within the state machine. Mutinies and desertions, increasingly common in 1917, became organised and ever more dangerous to the capitalist class. Soldiers unwilling to return to France staged mass demonstrations and in January 1919 troops effectively took over Calais in protest at the refusal to demob them. Only by dispatching two divisions from Germany was the mutiny broken. And, as is often the case, it was in the navy that discontent took the most politically defined forms. At Plymouth and Portsmouth the red flag was run up on several ships, and ships' committees became widespread, with delegates going from ship to ship and from port to port.

Against this backdrop, the counterrevolutionary intervention against Soviet Russia could only mean further politicisation and provide a vital common cause. In March 1919 the miners' federation demanded the withdrawal of British troops from Russia. In April, supported by other unions, it proposed the same thing to a joint conference of the Labour Party and TUC. The general part of the resolution was endorsed. But the miners also proposed a series of defiant actions which would force government compliance with this and other demands (the lifting of the blockade against Germany, the end of conscription and release of conscientious objectors). TUC chair H Stuart-Bunting would not accept this part of the resolution. It "implied taking industrial action" for political ends. And that, according to many trade union tops, would mean plunging Britain into "revolution and civil war".1

With even the Black Watch and Coldstream Guards refusing to embark for Russia, a police strike and a swelling economic movement around wages, there was a ready militant minority. When it came to stopping British intervention against Soviet Russia, the minority demanded words be turned into deeds. The role of revolutionaries was crucial to its transformation into a majority.

On January 18 1919 a national conference of 350 delegates met in London under the slogan, 'Hands off Russia'. Called by the London Workers' Committee in association with the British Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and the International Workers of the World, it agreed a resolution moved by Harry Pollitt pledging "to carry on active agitation to solidify the labour movement for the purpose of declaring a "¦ general strike "¦ unless the unconditional cessation of allied intervention had been officially announced "¦ and we are satisfied as to the truth of the announcement".2

The resolution was not designed to be a paper one. Nor was it. Meetings and organisation followed and in May Harry Pollitt, Sylvia Pankhurst and a small band of Workers' Socialist Federation members began a determined campaign of agitation among London dockers and shipyard workers, urging them "to refuse to touch any ship that is to carry munitions to Russia".3

Reflecting the growing influence of those arguing for direct action, a broad Hands off Russia campaign was set up in June 1919 at a conference in Manchester. Its president was AA Purcell, a member of the parliamentary committee of the TUC, and also included on its national leadership were CT Cramp, industrial secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, Tom Mann, general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and George Peel, secretary of the National Shop Stewards' Committee.

The same month saw the Russian question dominate debates at the Labour Party conference. James Sexton of the Dock Labourers was typical of the right wing and the times. He claimed to be a "revolutionist of a social character and believed in social revolution". That said, he did not believe in "letting mad dogs loose".4 Frankly, the best left forces wanted just that - if by "mad dogs" was meant the self-activity of the working class.

The BSP, from 1916 a Labour Party affiliate, advanced the call for a national conference "having as its object the organisation of a general strike that shall put an end once and for all to the open and covert participation of the British government in attacks on Soviet Russia".5 This was overwhelmingly defeated, no small thanks to a wily speech by Ernest Bevin, in which he warned against ill-prepared action that must result in failure.

In spite of that the left still won the day by a substantial 1,893,000 to 935,000 majority for its resolution committing the Labour Party to consult the parliamentary committee of the TUC "with the view to effective action being taken".6

Unmoved and now on the territory of the Labour Party's NEC, the right continued to obfuscate. As the constitution would in the future serve a Labour government, it must not be torn apart by mad dogs. The government should be persuaded by parliamentary words to leave Russia alone. Nothing more. Faced with deliberate inaction from the official centres of leadership, the triple alliance of railway, transport and mining unions decided (217 delegates to 11) to recommend a ballot on industrial action among its members. That was on July 25 1919. Four days later, Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war, announced the withdrawal of British troops. Showing the undying commitment ministers of the crown have to the truth, Churchill swore blind that the decision had been made a year before! As to the other demands around conscription and conscientious objectors, what was the fuss all about? They had already been dealt with or were in the process of being so.

Such a retreat could only but be temporary. Battle was soon renewed. Emboldened by Labour Party and TUC shilly-shallying over Soviet Russia, the government rejected the Sanky commission's report on the mines. Set up under Sir John Sanky (1866-1948) in 1919, the commission recommended among other things higher pay, shorter hours and public ownership of the coal mines. These recommendations were due in part to the miners' nominees who sat on it, but also owed a lot to a sense of liberalistic justice brought about by the tilting balance of class forces.

Instead of acting themselves to secure these con­cessions, the miners' leaders decided to pass the buck to the TUC, apparently hoping it would organise general strike action in their support. Their trust in the TUC was sadly misplaced. Not for the first time, nor the last, the result was a timid "educational campaign"; on this occasion the theme was "mines for the nation".7 Furious, the miners' federation demanded that the parliamentary committee of the TUC organise a special congress to consider a resolution calling for "trade union action in the form of a general strike".8 On March 4 1920 they got the former but by 3,732,000 votes to 1,050,000 not the latter. Like many other government-sponsored commissions of enquiry - primarily set up as a sop, designed to put off decisions and cool ardour - the Sanky commission report sank without trace.

Single issue

Sanky and the setback suffered by the miners did not mean class peace. In April 1920 Polish forces, armed and diplomatically backed by British and French imperialism, launched a wide-ranging offensive against the Soviet republic. The Hands off Russia campaign wrote to every working class organisation emphasising that "more pious resolutions won't force the hand of the government, but resolutions backed by industrial action will".9 The need was pressing. Rolling back the Red Army, Polish forces had cut deep into Ukraine. Things appeared exceedingly bleak.

But on June 12, the very day that The Times gleefully reported the Polish capture of Kiev as a "great triumph", alongside a congratulatory message from George V to the former left nationalist, Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935), now the marshal in command of its armed forces, the workers in Britain delivered a blow surely worth more than 10 extra divisions to the Red Army. After being told that there was the prospect of strike pay, the East India dockers loading Polish-bound munitions onto the Jolly George walked off the job. The work of Pollitt, Pankhurst and their comrades had at last paid off.

Suddenly the whole working class was ablaze with confident indignation and was readying for action. In Russia they had their battle standard. Effectively a single-issue campaign, but such narrowness is characteristic and even suits the needs of any mass movement in its earliest stages. Of course, once battle is seriously joined on any level, the most varied tactics and the most far sighted strategy becomes a necessity. Keeping single-issue campaigns, single-issue then turns into its opposite. From being a means to mobilise the widest forces it becomes a barrier to forward momentum and in point of fact invites demobilisation and defeat.

In 1920 it was the capitalist class that blinked first and that left the workers' movement brimming with confidence but strategically untested.

The Hands off Russia campaign grew by leaps and bounds. Demonstrations outside the Polish embassy drew huge crowds. The TUC and Labour Party were bombarded with resolutions. The dockers' union reaffirmed its support for the London men and demanded that no docker be used for sending arms to the enemies of Soviet Russia. Making matters even worse for reaction, the Red Army executed a brilliant counterattack. The terrain, the sheer scale of operations and the limited forces employed on both sides meant a war of rapid movement. The Poles had overextended themselves. Supply lines could not be maintained. General Tukhachesky struck a timely blow and succeeded in driving Pilsudski's forces out of Ukraine, across the plains of northern Poland and to the very outskirts of Warsaw itself.

If Poland fell it would unleash a revolutionary deluge. At least that was the desperate calculation made by Lenin and his beleaguered comrades in the Kremlin. Instead of relying on maturing the organisation and consciousness of the working class in Germany, they clutched at the straw of military methods. Dreadfully disappointed by the post-World War I failures in Austria, Hungary and Germany, they were also emboldened by the stunning successes of the Red Army in conducting the civil war in Russia. The German revolution would be bump-started by minority action and through the land corridor provided by Poland the Red Army would come to its aid. Central Europe could only but follow and after that ... The gravitational centre of world socialism would then shift from Moscow to Berlin, from backward Russia to advanced Germany. Such were the ambitions and illusions of war communism.

To begin with, the British lion was full of bombast and snarling threats. Winston Churchill belligerently told the cabinet: "We ought to take the transport workers by the throat".10 In the House of Commons Lloyd George spoke the unmistakable language of war and The Times warned that another conflict was imminent and must be faced "with the same unanimity and the same courage with which we faced the crisis of 1914".11 The Baltic fleet was given contingency orders. British troops were used against Danzig (Gdansk) dockers, who had struck against the landing of munitions for the Polish army. To leave no doubt, foreign secretary Lord Curzon dispatched a 'diplomatic' note threatening war unless there was an end to the Red Army's advance.

However, the working class in Britain had its own answer. On July 21 1920 the Hands off Russia campaign issued a statement which highlighted the danger of war. It demanded "direct action to prevent it".12

There was an almost instant rallying of the working class, including the Labour Party. On August 4 1920 its headquarters wired all its branches and trades councils warning of the "extremely menacing possibility" of an escalation of the Polish-Russian war.13 "Citizen demonstrations" were announced on the following Sunday, August 8 1920. According to its own estimates, they "met with an unparalleled response".14 Suitably flushed, on August 9 Labour and TUC leaders, meeting in the House of Commons, set up a national Council of Action. Pressed on by the movement below, it cast caution to the wind and gave notice to the government that "the whole industrial power of the organised workers will be used to defeat this war". A message was sent notifying the executives of all affiliated organisations "to hold themselves ready to proceed immediately to London for a national conference" and advised them "to instruct their members to 'down tools' on instructions from that national conference".15

One day after, the national Council of Action met the prime minister, Lloyd George. He assured them that Britain's intentions were peaceful. It would continue to support the Poles and Russian whites, but there would be no deployment of British forces. Labour's claim that the government was engineering an "intolerable crime" against the Soviet republic was "ridiculous". All it wanted to do was to preserve Polish independence.

This "promise" that there would be no British intervention "robbed" the national conference, which met three days later in the Central Hall, Westminster, "of some of its drama".16 It also, as Ralph Miliband suggests, allowed some of the most rightwing figures in the labour movement the chance to stand on a political platform remarkably similar to the BSP's that they had flatly rejected little more than a year before. Parading themselves as principled leftists, JR Clynes, JH Thomas, AG Cameron and other Labour notables made near revolutionary speeches. Before the singing of the Red flag and the Internationale the thousand delegates fully endorsed the setting up of local councils of action and agreed to the threat of strikes "to resist any and every form of military and naval intervention against the Soviet government of Russia".17

Such bold statements from the united body of the organised working class undoubtedly stayed the hand of British imperialism. As we have shown, this was not because of bureaucratic initiative, but the determination of revolutionaries, grouped under the banner of the Hands off Russia campaign. Their pro-Soviet propaganda, their successful agitation among dockers, their skilful combination of official and unofficial avenues were responsible for winning virtually the entire labour movement to threaten a general strike. Labour leaders claimed that it was they who saved the country from war. But, as Miliband again points out, Labour was not in fact "called upon to challenge the constitution" and it is "impossible" to tell how its leaders "would have behaved had the government actually embarked on offensive operations against Russia".18

Though it was plain that the leadership had no revolutionary intentions, the TUC and Labour Party machines were swept along by events because they were determined to keep control of them. As a result of this dialectic of bureaucratic conservatism and a spontaneous mass movement there came into being the national Council of Action and 350 local councils of action.

Lenin and the councils of action

It is more than worthwhile repeating Lenin's thoughts on the Council of Action in Britain. Besides showing how backward Soviet Russia was able to defeat imperialism through proletarian internationalism, they point to the relationship between bureaucratic officialdom and the self-movement of the working class.

Though the military offensive into Poland failed to rouse the workers of Warsaw, and though the Red Army was soon forced to withdraw, Lenin had no hesitation in claiming a "great" victory. Lloyd George had been compelled to advise the Polish government to sue for peace. Imperialism, for the moment at least, would have to suspend its plans to kill off Soviet Russia through force.

For Lenin, the consummate proletarian politician, this victory could not be simply viewed in military terms. There was far more to it than the advance or retreat of this or that army. It was within the higher field of politics that the Soviet republic had won its real victory, a "victory over the minds and hearts of the masses of the workers". As Lenin was never tired of repeating, the proof of that could be seen all too clearly in the national Council of Action in Britain - just about still the world's number one imperialist power.

Here are Lenin's two most interesting comments on the Council of Action. The first set of remarks were made in the course of his keynote speech delivered to the 9th Conference of the Russian Communist Party on September 22 1920. Lenin makes the point that, despite retreat from the "walls of Warsaw", the whole fight to save the revolution had had a "powerful effect on the revolutionary movement in Europe". Crucially Britain, where the movement had been raised to "an unprecedented level". With hindsight some might suggest that Lenin was overly optimistic. But that is to miss the point and fall into the trap of 'what is had to be' fatalism. Lenin was out to lead the masses in making history. He was not dealing in probability, but the revolutionary possibilities contained within a given situation. So the main point we should draw from what he had to say is the soviet-like features and inner logic of the Council of Action.

"When the British government presented an ultimatum to us, it transpired that it would first have to consult the British workers. The latter, nine tenths of whose leaders are out and out Mensheviks, replied to the ultimatum by forming a Council of Action.

"Alarmed by these developments, the British press raised a hullabaloo about what it called this 'duality of government'. It had every reason to say so. Britain found herself at the same stage of political relationships as Russia after February 1917, when the soviets were obliged to scrutinise every step taken by the bourgeois government. This Council of Action unites all workers, irrespective of party, just like our All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the period when Gotz, Dan and others were running things, a kind of association which runs parallel with the government, and in which the Mensheviks are forced to act in a semi-Bolshevik way.

"Just as our Mensheviks finally got confounded and helped win over the masses to our side, the Mensheviks in the Council of Action have been forced by the inexorable course of events to clear the way to the Bolshevik revolution for the worker masses of Britain. According to testimony by competent persons, the British Mensheviks already consider themselves a government, and are prepared to replace the bourgeois government in the near future. This will be the next step in the general process of the British proletarian revolution."

Lenin extended these remarks on the Council of Action and the "decisive turning point" it represented for Britain during his speech to the leather workers' congress a week or so later, on October 2 1920. He was quite clearly wildly wrong in thinking that the "old leaders of the British workers" had undergone some sort of a conversion to communism. But he was right to suggest they could play a centrist Menshevik role in the event of the Council of Action finding itself the real power in the land.

"When the red troops approached the frontier of Poland, the Red Army's victorious advance created an unprecedented political crisis. The main feature of this crisis was that, when the British government threatened us with war, and told us that if we advanced any further they would fight us and send their warships against us, the British workers declared that they would not permit this war. Let me tell you that Bolshevism is spreading among the British workers. However, the communists there are just as weak today as we were in March, April and May 1917, when we had one-tenth of the votes at conferences and congresses. At the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets in June 1917, we had no more than 13% of the votes. A similar situation exists in Great Britain: there the Bolsheviks are in an insignificant minority.

"But the point is that the British Mensheviks have always been opposed to Bolshevism and direct revolution, and have favoured an alliance with the bourgeoisie. Today, however, the old leaders of the British workers have begun to waver and have changed their minds: they were opposed to the dictatorship of the working class, but now they have come over to our side. They have set up a Council of Action over there in Britain. This is a radical change in British politics. Alongside parliament, which in Great Britain is now elected by almost universal suffrage (since 1918), there has arisen a self-appointed Council of Action which relies on support from the workers' trade unions with a membership of over six million. When the government wanted to begin a war against Soviet Russia, the workers declared that they would not allow it, and said they would not let the French fight either, because the French depend upon British coal, and should this industry come to a standstill it would be a severe blow to France.

"I repeat this was a tremendous turning point in British politics. Its significance to Great Britain is as great as the revolution of February 1917 was to us. The revolution of February 1917 overthrew tsarism and set up a bourgeois republic in Russia. There is no republic in Great Britain, but her thoroughly bourgeois monarchy has existed for many centuries. The workers can vote in the parliamentary elections, but all foreign policy is conducted outside parliament, for it is in the province of the cabinet. We have long known that the British government are waging an undercover war on Russia and are helping Yudenich, Kolchak and Denikin. We have often met with statements in the British press to the effect that Great Britain has no right to send a single soldier to Russia.

"Who then voted for this measure? What act of parliament authorised war on Russia in the aid of Yudenich and Kolchak? There have been no such acts, and by actions like this Great Britain has violated her own constitution. What then is this Council of Action? Independently of parliament, this Council of Action has presented an ultimatum to the government on behalf of the workers. This is a step towards dictatorship [ie, working class rule - JC] and there is no other way out of the situation. This is taking place in Great Britain, which is an imperialist country with 400 or 500 million people enslaved in her colonies. She is a most important country, which rules the greater part of the population of the earth. The advance on Poland has led to such a turn of affairs that the British Mensheviks have entered into an alliance with the Russian Bolsheviks. That is what this offensive has done.

"The whole of the British bourgeois press declared that the Councils of Action meant the soviets. They were right. It did not call itself by that name, but actually that is what it was. It is the same kind of dual power as we had under Kerensky from March 1917 onwards: a time when the provisional government was considered the only government, but actually could do nothing of significance without the Soviet of Workers' and Peasants' Deputies; a time when we said of the soviets, 'Take over all power'. A similar situation has now arisen in Britain, and the Mensheviks on this 'Council of Action' have been obliged to adopt an anti-constitutionalist course. This will give you some idea of what our war with Poland has meant" 19.