Days of black and red

In the second article on the general strike and its turbulent background Jack Conrad looks at the delayed birth of the CPGB and the course of events from black Friday to red Friday

The Communist Party of Great Britain was  born in the post-World War I cauldron of class struggle. October 1917 proved that there was an alternative to capitalism and the murderous barbarism it had unleashed. The party of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev showed what had to be done. The Communist Unity Convention of July 31-August 1 19201, later known as the 1st Congress, represented the culmination of a rapprochement process - crucially between the British Socialist Party and the majority of the Socialist Labour Party, organised in the Communist Unity Groups - around the universal necessity of emulating the Bolsheviks.

Nowadays, of course, most comrades on the left fail to see the significance of how the CPGB was formed. Ever ready to parrot Trotsky's rather shallow criticisms of the shortcomings of 1926, they are sadly incapable of recognising that its birth in 1920 and rapidly growing influence over the next few years is remarkably prescient when it comes to the problems of today.

Before 1920 the left was divided into numerous rival sects - some within the Labour Party, some without. But all were theoretically impoverished, trammelled in their contribution to the class struggle and often loathed each other with an exaggerated passion. Sounds familiar, does it not? The merger of the BSP and CUG produced far more than the sum of its two parts. The CPGB was a qualitative leap: to date the highest organisational achievement of the working class movement in Britain.

That fact totally escapes contemporary leftists. Typically their confessional sect is imagined as the sole guardian of the Marxist flame, and therefore the party in embryo, and/or, certainly with the bigger groups, they are set on building this or that rival half-way house - Campaign for a New Workers' Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Labour Representation Committee, Respect. A Marxist party, a Communist Party organised on the basis of democratic centralism - that is no longer relevant or is too advanced for workers in Britain, we are flippantly told. The perspective of uniting the left on the basis of a Marxist programme - eg, as outlined in my book Towards a Socialist Alliance party (2001) - seems beyond our so-called 'Marxists'. The result is predictable. The left continues to be disorganised by the organisations of the left and the working class goes into battle disarmed.

That the CPGB founding congress took place was a good thing, naturally. Arguably though, it could have taken place a couple of years earlier. Vital years. Unity was held up because of the petty delays imposed by the leaders of the SLP, Workers' Socialist Federation and other even smaller groups. Despite the urgings of Lenin and his comrades in Moscow, there was proprietorial foot dragging and pig-headed sectarianism.

Failure to reach agreement put off unity time and time again. This mattered. After all, during the final year of World War I and the two years that followed, the class struggle in Britain reached an intensity not witnessed since the days of Chartism. A Communist Party would have further heightened the situation. The subjective feeds into the objective. Had the Party been formed in 1918, it too would have been positively affected. Circumstances test, train and transform. The CPGB would have grown and been steeled in the fire of struggle.

Obviously individual members of the newly formed CPGB took part in the Hands Off Russia campaign. Nonetheless the CPGB's main organised contribution was limited to issuing revolutionary slogans and giving general advice. Even after the party's 2nd Congress in January 1921, which brought in the Communist Labour Party,2 Communist Party (BSCI)3 and left members of the Independent Labour Party, the content and style of party work did not change much.

Valuable though the CPGB's intervention was, more was needed - strategic thinking, mass agitation, daring action. In part the limitations were due to the inevitable teething troubles associated with the fusion of revolutionaries previously marshalled in opposed organisations. But the biggest handicap suffered by the CPGB was an inherited economism.

All components of what went on to establish the early CPGB were deeply rooted in the culture of militant trade unionism. That carried many pluses, but not a few minuses. Essentially, the road to socialism was envisaged as being via workplace issues and the strike weapon. Not that the Labour Party or the TUC were ignored. The CPGB made a significant impact on both. That provided a certain class, as opposed to sectional, dimension. There was much impassioned propaganda in favour of socialism too.

However, it has to be admitted that there was a tendency to downplay - that is, a failure to prioritise - political issues such as the monarchical constitution, Ireland, the British empire, women's rights, the environment and gaining hegemony over non-proletarian classes and strata. A birth defect left unchallenged by the economic offensive which ensued against the working class.4 Incidentally, the pressures this produced saw a stratum of half-hearted trade union officials desert the CPGB and thousands of ghostly paper members evaporate away.5


The rise and triumph of capitalism is closely associated with gold and its functioning as world money; though only four countries - Britain, Germany, France and the US - maintained what might be called a pure gold standard, whereby internal money circulation took place in the form of gold, or paper notes which could be exchanged for gold. Weaker powers - Japan and Russia - made do with token coinage and paper money - a percentage which was backed by gold or overseas bonds that were convertible to gold.

The gold standard imposed a self-discipline welcomed by capitalism's stern ideologues. Not only were relations between various countries regulated - debtors and creditors - but so too were relations between classes. Obviously value is closely linked with the degree to which the working class is exploited and therefore the degree to which the working class can force concessions. By lessening absolute exploitation (the length of the working day) or relative exploitation (the intensity of labour) the working class improves its position, but this erodes the profitability and competitive position of the capital concerned which cuts back on production and this sees a rise in unemployment levels; working class bargaining power is thus weakened. That way the invisible hand of the market beats the working class with golden fists. At least that was the theory of Richard Cantillon (1697-1734) and David Hume (1711-76).

World War I and the abandonment of the gold standard showed beyond doubt that capitalism had entered its declining phase. Essential laws remained but were overlaid by new determinates. The epoch was, concluded Lenin in his Imperialism, one of "transition from the capitalist system to a higher socio-economic order."6 Free competition and money gave way to monopoly, militarism and organisation. In a perverted, negative way capitalism anticipated the socialist future.

Total war demanded massive state intervention and the subordination of short-term profits to the needs of the military machine. Prices and returns were fixed by bureaucratic decree. Gold reserves were freely used by the state to import strategically vital supplies; export of gold by individuals prohibited. The link between gold and the currency had to be abandoned. Hard money became soft money or even token money. As each power turned to autarchy, exchange rates between currencies floated. Money and value drifted apart. Corruption, need and state power filled the vacuum.

The most hard-pressed countries paid soldiers and purchased supplies at home in fiat (token) money unbacked by gold. In conditions of endemic shortage inflation pushed prices skyward. At the same time class peace at home was bought in return for allowing the growth of trade unions and giving basic living standard guarantees. Rationing and subsidies kept people alive. As the war dragged on, however, and bled Europe white, social antagonisms inexorably reached breaking point.

Ancient ruling houses were swept away. Hohenzollerns, Romanovs, Hapsburgs. Borders were redrawn. Poland was born again. The Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrated. Economically too Europe was left a shadow of its former glory. Britain's industrial and banking supremacy dissolved and never returned. Foreign assets had to be sold off to pay for the carnage. Sterling could no longer operate as the hub of the world economy. Germany was reduced from a creditor to a chronic debtor country. France, which had been the world's lender, lost a staggering fortune with the overthrow of tsarism and the removal of Russia from the capitalist global system. Only the US managed to hang on to the gold standard.

Pummelled by World War I and the October Revolution, the ruling class in Britain desperately needed to turn the screw at home. Britain emerged from the war victorious. It too, however, had been transformed from a creditor to a debtor country. Economically its decline was impossible to hide and was only partially offset by continued military strength and an extensive empire. A position paralleled by the US in the 21st century. Though it does not possess a formal empire, the US runs on a black hole of credit and increasingly relies on unmatched military power to ensure its global interests.

Besides being in hock to the US to the tune of £8 billion, Britain faced a drive by Germany, desperate to meet the huge reparations demanded under the Dawes plan, to flood the market with cheap manufactured goods and coal. All that, and a determination to put sterling back on the gold standard, meant collective capital was bent on imposing reduced wages, speed-ups, longer hours and welfare cuts. Indeed, re-establishing the gold standard - partially achieved in 1925 and finally abandoned in 1931 - was synonymous with attacking the working class and the attempt to re-impose the disciplines of classic capitalism.

Carrot and stick

With unemployment spiralling and all too recent memories of the Hands Off Russia campaign, the ruling class employed both carrot and stick. The Welsh wizard, Lloyd George, had been the main advocate of the carrot. Politically the future of his Liberal Party hung on the doomed project of constructing some kind of radical bourgeois party as an alter­native to Labour. A leftish populist party. So the 'great' war leader had to keep on promising a land fit for heroes.

In February 1919 he persuaded the cabinet to finance a reconstruction programme by "giving a probably quite genuine description of the direct action threat within the labour movement". At £71 million it was, he claimed, "a cheap insurance against Bolshevism". Again in January 1920 Lloyd George played on fears of revolution to get his way for populist measures. Tom Jones, the deputy cabinet secretary, comments in his well-known memoirs that the "PM did a lot of unsuspected leg-pulling, as he does not believe in the imminence of the revolution". Clearly, though, he could never have done that "leg-pulling" unless working class militancy was actually perceived as a pressing threat.

Instead of going over the history of Britain since 1914, let us quote the editor of The Times. Even before the end of World War I he was urging Lloyd George to call an early election so as to "re-establish the authority of parliament against attempts to 'hold up' the country by unconstitutional methods". Discontent was "due to sheer Bolshevism and not any genuine industrial grievance".7 And after all on a number of occasions - January-February 1919, summer 1920 - the cabinet was preoccupied by the working class danger and negotiating political and economic concessions.

As explained above, British capitalism was in no position to keep on giving. Indeed it had to claw back what had been spent on anti-Bolshevik "insurance" and more. The Bank of England's imposition of deflation finally wrecked Lloyd George's reconstruction programme and forced him to take up the stick.8

The first battle was with the miners. On March 31 1921 they were locked out because of a refusal to accept swingeing wage cuts and an end to national pay bargaining. De­feat was by no means a forgone conclusion. Alan Hutt makes the pertinent point in his The post-war history of the British working class, that it was "only nine months since the triumph of the Council of Action" - the spirit of unity and determination "was very much alive".9 The miners appealed for strike solidarity from their associates in the triple alliance (rail and transport unions).

Against the threat of what would have amounted to a general strike the Lloyd George government now determined to fight in order to put a stop to the militant menace. After two years of waiting to 'press the button' the government moved quickly and decisively. 'Public opinion' had been prepared through a concerted £100,000 propaganda campaign. Free speech was curbed - the cabinet issued "instructions" for the "systematic prosecution" of those making "seditious speeches".10 It invoked the new Emergency Powers Act, troops were brought in from Ireland, Malta and Silesia and machine gun posts were installed at pit heads.

The National Union of Railwaymen and Transport Workers' Federation leaders crumbled. Bureaucratic sectionalism proved stronger than bureaucratic solidarity. On April 15 1921 JH Thomas stood on the steps of Unity House and handed waiting reporters an announcement to the effect that there would be no triple alliance strike. Despite strenuous efforts by the Communist Party there was no rank and file revolt.

Black Friday, as it became known, had a shattering effect. The triple alliance had surrendered before fighting its Waterloo, the MFGB was left irate but alone. After a bitter 11-week lockout it ignominiously surrendered. With the miners down, one section after another followed. Shipbuilders, engineers, boilermakers, seamen, cotton workers and agricultural workers all suffered wage reductions and erosion of organisational strength. Unemployment benefit was cut. Trade union membership, which had reached a record 8,340,000 in 1920, nearly halved, as a result of rising unemployment and the bosses' offensive, to 4,250,000 in 1923.


Desperate, the working class turned towards the Labour Party in an attempt to defend itself. Lloyd George had thrown down the working class industrially, only to see it spring up in political form. His nemesis had arrived. The general elections of 1922, 1923 and 1924 gave successive boosts to the ongoing realignment in British politics. The two-party Liberal-Tory system was mutating into a two-party Labour-Tory system via an unstable and transitory three-party Liberal-Labour-Tory system.

At the beginning of the 1850s Marx thought the Tories would soon be extinct; that the line of division in British politics would be that between liberalism and socialism. He assumed a quick development of revolution in Britain and mainland Europe. Confronted by revolution, the aristocratic landlords would have sought protection in the arms of the Liberal Party, making it the sole party of the propertied classes.

But Marx's prediction was made on the eve of the 1851-73 boom, which yanked the rug from under the feet of Chartism and pushed the workers' movement along the path of trade unionism. The factional struggles within the aristocratic-bourgeois ruling bloc continued to dominate politics. The electoral swing between Liberals (who had evolved from the aristocratic Whigs into what could be called the aristocratic party of the bourgeoisie) and Tories provided the vent for voter discontent.11 Though it must be emphasised that the numbers of voters were tiny until the 1880s and even then remained a minority of the adult population - only in 1929 did women finally achieve full parity with men and could Britain really be said to have universal suffrage.

With the relative decline of British capitalism, the Liberal Party suffered a series of strategic fissures and defections. First to cleave away were the Irish. Next the trade unions. Finally the industrial capitalists themselves. Terrified by working class militancy and the rise of the Labour Party, they looked to the certainties of invented tradition. They decamped to the Conservative Party, transforming it into the party of capitalism. The ruling bloc underwent a final 'bourgeoisification'. Through no effort of its own, Labour was left as the main party of social reform.

Those who have over the last couple of decades light-mindedly predicted the imminent demise of the Tory Party and/or the Labour Party because of this or that bad election night performance ought to ponder George Dangerfield's splendidly written account of the sudden fall of the Liberal Party contained in his book The strange death of liberal England (1935). Tory and Labour are historically constituted class parties. Their end will surely come only with radically changed circumstances - eg, overthrow of the constitution.

Despite the efforts of Bonar Law, who led the Tories out of the Lloyd George coalition government, fearing that it was creating "an amalgamated 'bourgeois bloc' which leaves the socialists as the sole alternative", in the mid-1920s Labour had for the first time become an (if not the) alternative party of government.12

Though in terminal decline and with the followers of Asquith and Lloyd George at loggerheads, the Liberal Party could within the three-party system play the role of king-maker. Because Labour was seen as the "best bulwark against violent upheaval and class wars", the Liberals were in January 1924 prepared to forgo the chance of another coalition with the Tories and instead place in office a minority Labour Party administration.13 It could be educated. The Tories reasoned along the same lines. JCC Davidson, later chair of the Conservative Party, rejected coalition on the grounds that "any dishonest combination of that sort which means sacrificing of principles by both Liberal and Tory to deprive Labour of their constitutional rights - is the first step down to the road of revolution".14

Ramsay MacDonald's government proved eminently worthy of their trust. Because it was not just a ready pupil, but a teacher's pet, the Labour government was, though, "a great joke for the popular press". Ministers grabbed the fat salaries, donned top hats and tails, learned to speak proper and carried out an undeviating imperialist policy at home and abroad. Labour did everything to prove to the establishment it was fit to govern. Snowden's budget omitted a levy on capital, and, in the mocking words of Robert Graves, "did nothing more newsworthy than provide a 'free breakfast table' by reducing the import duties on tea, coffee, sugar and chicory".15

Cravenly, all foreign office material was referred to the Tory leader, Baldwin, for 'bi­partisan' consultations. Underlining his commitment to continuity, MacDonald also gave two Liberals government portfolios - Lord Chelmsford, an ex-colonial governor, and Lord Haldain, the former war minister and architect of Britain's post-1914 centralised war machine, who entered the 'socialist' government as chair of the Committee of Imperial Defence.

So the first Labour government was a kind of popular front (in point of fact that is a description that fits the Labour Party itself). Nevertheless, quite correctly, Comintern - including under the leadership of Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev - argued that communists in Britain should help put Labour into office (albeit metaphorically they depicted this as akin to the rope supporting the hanged man). Still heresy for permanently childish 'left' micro sects today.

Not surprisingly industrial action was automatically condemned by MacDonald's government, and when London tramworkers struck for higher pay the anti-trade union Emergency Powers Act was evoked, which meant the military would be deployed. A special cabinet committee consisting of Arthur Henderson, Sidney Webb, Josiah Wedgewood and JH Thomas was established to oversee strikebreaking operations. Only the speedy ending of the strike, "coupled with a strong private protest from the general council16 of the TUC, who were said to have hinted at the possibility of a general strike if the act was enforced, smoothed the matter over".17

The TUC and Labour Party NEC might pro­test against the government's anti-working class measures. But, in what was to become a standard response, ministers brushed all objections aside. Workers had to stop being greedy. The Labour government was not for one class, but the whole nation. Strong-arm measures had to be used because the "epidemic of labour revolts" was frighteningly reminiscent of "what was happening in Russia in 1917 against the Kerensky government".18

Strategic confrontation - the stage is set

The decision to recognise the Soviet Union and begin trade negotiations did ruffle anti-Bolshevik sensibilities. But it was on a different, though related, issue that the government "chose to invite defeat". Ralph Miliband is right to say that, in view of his government's "meticulous observance of constitutional rules and procedures", there is a "certain irony" that MacDonald left office over his opponent's claim that it had been "guilty of grave constitutional impropriety".19

The issue was the decision not to proceed with the prosecution of JR Campbell, editor of the CPGB's Workers' Weekly. After he was charged with inciting mutiny for his 'Open letter to the fighting forces' - in which he exhorted soldiers and sailors to "turn your weapons on your oppressors" - there was a storm of protest from all sections of the workers' movement.20 All of a sudden the director of public prosecutions thought better of it, supposedly because of Campbell's magnificent war record. Anyway, for whatever reason, the case was dropped.

Delivering a schoolmasterly whack over the knuckles, the Liberals and Conservatives tabled a censure motion. MacDonald had been wounded in such parliamentary skirmishes before. Now, though, with Labourite reformism standing exposed and a viable alternative developing on the left, he felt a compelling need to rally the official labour movement around him and use the communists as a scapegoat. So he treated the matter as one of confidence. He resigned. Thus ended the first Labour government.

On October 24 1924, in the closing straight of the subsequent general election campaign (polling was only five days away), the foreign office released the so-called 'Zinoviev letter'. It was published in The Times and the Daily Mail. Purportedly it exposed a dastardly Moscow plot to subvert British civilisation. Addressing the central committee of the CPGB, Gregory Zinoviev, president of the Comintern, was said to have issued instructions to bring to bear the greatest pressure to ensure ratification of trade treaties with the Soviet Union. There were also bloodcurdling references to communist cells in the army and preparations for the revolutionary seizure of power.

No matter how transparent a forgery it was, it did the trick. Though the Labour vote increased, the Liberal vote collapsed in a panicked middle class rush to the Conservatives. The Tory vote soared by two million and gave them 152 extra MPs and, in Allan Hutt's phrase, an "oppressively swollen" majority.21

An "oppressively swollen" majority, it needs stressing, obtained through naked fraud. The 1924 election was rigged. A violation of any kind of democracy. The Tory government was clearly the result of a conspiracy hatched between SIS securocrats, foreign office grandees and Conservative Party insiders, presumably with the tacit blessing of Buckingham Palace. Of course, in terms of high politics all this is of the utmost importance. For anarchists and economists almost a matter of indifference. But in terms of a working class political response it not only requires that the elections results be declared invalid, it invites demands for the rooting out of all individuals directly or indirectly responsible for what amounted to a criminal coup to stop the re-election of MacDonald's government.

With a Conservative landslide and, in April 1925, a return to the gold standard, the stage was set for a strategic confrontation between the working class and capital - a confrontation which again found the miners in the front line. For long the sick man of British capitalism, the coal industry was in a particularly bad state. In pursuit of an elusive profit margin, on June 30 1925 the mineowners issued a demand for the repeal of the seven-hour day and a return to eight hours. Also they proposed drastic wage reductions and the abolition of the principle of the minimum wage. The miners refused to surrender their hard-won gains and appealed to the TUC.

Surprisingly a special meeting of the general council on July 10 1925 pledged its "complete support" for the miners, and "undertook to cooperate wholeheartedly with them in their resistance to the degradation of the standard of life of their members".22

Why this sudden determination to stand firm against the government? Some have suggested it was due to the changed composition on the TUC general council. JH Thomas had stood down to become a Labour minister. He and other inveterate rightwingers had been replaced by left reformists such as Swales, Hicks and Purcell.

However, as John Foster says, the "key factor" was "pressure from below", spurred on by the erosion of wages, rising unemployment and an improved bargaining position for British workers because of the French occupation of the Ruhr.23 This pressure from below was given organisational form and a political cutting edge by the National Minority Movement, launched in August 1924 by the CPGB and its allies.

In that sense it was the CPGB which was responsible for Red Friday. If the TUC did not take the lead, its leaders were well aware that the CPGB wanted to do so. Without the TUC Ernest Bevin said he feared "unofficial fighting in all parts of the country" and "anarchy".24 Ramsay MacDonald admitted he was haunted by similar visions: "Had no general strike been declared, industry would have been almost as much paralysed by unauthorised strikes."25

As it turned out, the government was not yet ready. Faced with the miners' intransigence and TUC willingness to threaten a general strike, Baldwin's government decided to manoeuvre. Making a swift tactical retreat, on July 31 1925 - Red Friday - it announced a royal commission of inquiry into the coal industry and agreed to subsidise the mineowners for nine months, after which the commission was to deliver its report. The government had been humiliated. The gold standard was thrown into jeopardy. Baldwin was subjected to a whispering campaign by Churchill and Birkenhead, advocates of an anti-socialist 'bourgeois bloc'. And on behalf of the Tory old guard Lord Salisbury submitted a long cabinet memorandum:

"The precedent we are setting leads straight to nationalisation. I need not say that, to a government pledged as we are, this conclusion is absolutely unacceptable ... Is there any ground on which, in our retreat, we could hope to make a stand; and if there be such ground, which I do not perceive, have we the strength to hold? "¦ For good reason or bad we retreated because we did not venture to fight. We have not only thought it right to give way to force, but we have condoned the breaking of their contracts by the allied unions, and we have actually agreed to pay a large sum for the arrangement. Whatever our ultimate intentions, there is no doubt that this is how the trade unions themselves and the world regard that event. Who will believe us, after the experience of the last few days, when we say we will die in some ill-defined ditch rather than accept the nationalisation of the coal industry, the nationalisation of every other distressed industry ... the moral basis of the government seems to me to have dropped out."26

In other words the government had to re-establish its right to govern the governed.