A study in bureaucratic inertia
Jack Conrad shows that, while the Tory government assiduously and ruthlessly prepared for the 1926 general strike, the TUC was content to pass left-sounding resolutions
Red Friday, July 31 1925, saw the humiliated government of Stanley Baldwin agree to a nine-month subsidy for the country's coal mines. Despite this, the Communist Party of Great Britain argued that what had occurred was not in any definitive sense a runaway victory. The Workers' Weekly editorial explained why:
"What has been achieved is the imposition on the capitalist class of an unstable truce, which cannot lead to industrial peace but only to renewed class conflict. Behind this truce and in the industrial peace talk which will accompany it, the capitalist class will prepare for a crushing attack upon the workers. If the workers are doped by the peace talk and do not makRe effective counter-preparations then they are doomed to shattering defeat ... The government, acting on the behalf of the capitalist class, is certain to prepare for a new struggle with the working class under more favourable conditions than this time."1
The government was determined that Britain, in the words of Winston Churchill (now chancellor of the exchequer), was to be governed by parliament rather than "some other organisation not responsible by our elective processes".2 This, remember, from a Tory Party that gained its 200-seat "oppressively swollen majority" through the so-called 'Zinoviev letter' and panicking the middle classes. The October 1924 general election was rigged. Ramsay MacDonald's minority Labour government was overthrown not by a mere vote of the combined bourgeois bloc of Tories and Liberals in parliament. There was an anti-democratic conspiracy at the heart of the state that involved the Secret Intelligence Service, Conservative Party HQ and foreign office grandees.
In January 1999 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under Robin Cook published its own heavily sanitised official account. After an 11-month study its chief historian Gill Bennett (with the assistance of Moscow archivists) concluded that the document was probably forged by white Russians (MI6 assets). They wanted to "derail the treaties" between Britain and the Soviet republic. MI6 assured the foreign office that the document was genuine. Securocrats were also responsible for leaking it to the Conservative Party. The Bennett study names Joseph Ball (MI5), who joined Tory central office in 1926, and Desmond Morton (MI6), a close friend of Churchill. He was appointed a personal assistant during World War II. Stewart Menzies, a future head of MI6, later admitted passing the Zinoviev letter to the Daily Mail.3
Although Labour gained a million votes, the Liberal Party collapsed. William Gladstone's great party had been reduced to a pathetic 40 seats. In class terms Britain was rapidly polarising. The middle ground virtually disappeared and the right was turning to the methods of naked force. The mailed fist was clearly visible. While Labour leader MacDonald lamented Baldwin's surrender to "militants" and "agitaÂtors", the government made preparations for the impending new struggle. Within five days of Red Friday it had underway a complete overhaul of its machinery of repression. Once this was concluded, the state machine would be ready for civil war.
The police, army and navy were given detailed contingency orders. The country was arranged into 10 areas, each under a minister as a commissioner. Civil service staff were appointed for each division. They were to handle transport, food, postal services and coal. Within each area local structures were created with a chairman selected by the government to conÂvene and preside over a volunteer service committee. All officials were given plenary powers conferred on the government by the Emergency Powers Act. They could requisition, fix prices and order arrests. To put the whole thing in motion, all that was needed was a telegram from Whitehall containing the single word - "Action".
Baldwin's government actively promoted the "strictly neutral" Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies. An overt general-strike-breaking organisation.
OMS pretended to support the "legitimate efforts of trade unions", only opposing "unconstitutional" activity.4 It recruited some 100,000 mainly middle class volunteers, who were secretly trained as drivers, telegraph operators and for "protecting the public services". The ruling class had another line of defence - the British fascisti. In the words of home secretary Joynson-Hicks, recorded in cabinet minutes, this counterrevolutionary scum was "at the disposal of the government".5 The fascisti had made the fight against "a general strike designed to paralyse the country" the core of their programme. To second the "efforts of the OMS" they drilled, attacked communist meetings and even kidnapped the CPGB's Harry Pollitt (his assailants were caught, tried and acquitted).
In contrast to those of the government, TUC and LaÂbour Party preparations were noticeable by their absence. The leaders of the British labour movement put their faith in the constitution. Despite a few imperfections, such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and other so-called feudal relics, Britain was more or less fully democratic. Therefore Marx, Engels Lenin and Trotsky were all irrelevant. Germany and Russia had been absolute monarchies. Britain was ruled by a sovereign parliament, elected by its people. After the socialist dawn the minor constitutional imperfections will be ironed out. Meanwhile, the TUC and the Labour Party was willing to threaten the government but not to actually do anything practical by way of turning threats into unconstitutional reality. Negotiations and British common sense would see them through the crisis.
Hence, as if controlled by a Jeckyll and Hyde syndrome, the TUC's studied inertia was matched by high-pitched leftist rhetoric. In its own way the Socialist Workers Party manifests the same symptoms: at home it does Respect and popular frontism, abroad the same organisation morphs into anarcho-leftism.
At the Scarborough TUC, held in September 1925, extraordinarily militant-sounding resolutions were passed. Even CPGB initiatives won resounding majorities. Believing that the government would back down, as it had in 1920 over Russia and on Red Friday, and wanting to keep the loyalty of the left-moving rank and file, trade union bureaucrats gave their block votes 2,456,000 to 1,218,00 for a declaration seconded by Pollitt that, "The union movement must organise to prepare the trade unions in conjunction with the Labour Party and the workers to struggle for the overthrow of capitalism."6
Abandonedly, bureaucrats went on to pledge support for the right of self-determination for the colonies. Like the SWP the trade union bureaucracy is habitually more leftwing when it is a question of issues outside Britain. Arguing against the motion, JH Thomas - NUR leader, former colonial secretary in MacDonald's government and anchorman of class collaboration - desperately implored congress not to make itself appear "ridiculous". He was defeated by 3,082,000 to 79,000 votes - a margin that reflected the almost universal desire of the right to pose left.
Needless to say, bureaucratic leftism was a mask of convenience. The trade union leaders showed their true face when it came to concrete questions. Asked to re-affiliate trades councils, they ruled the motion out of order. Asked to extend the powers of the TUC, they referred it back. Asked to organise workers' defence corps, they fearfully rejected the call. And when it came to elections to the general council, right reformists - including, after an absence of two years, the very self-same JH Thomas - found themselves returned. The same block votes were used at the Liverpool conference of the Labour Party, which not only endorsed the miserable record of the short-lived MacDonald government, but - albeit with a thin majority - barred communists from individual membership.
Immediately after Red Friday the Communist Party launched a concerted campaign to alert the working class to the oncoming battle. The Workers' Weekly carried a front-page box in every issue showing how long remained before "the termination of the mining agreement and the opening of the greatest struggle in the history of the British working class ... we must prepare for the struggle".7
Up and down the country the CPGB ceaselessly called for the class to be put on a war footing and for agitation in the army and the navy. While urging "the organisation of workers' defence corps", the Communist Party attacked the OMS as "the most complete scheme of organised blacklegging and strikebreaking yet devised, and is the most advanced form of fascism yet reached in this country".8
The government was so disturbed by the communist danger that police raids were ordered on the party's King Street headquarters and the offices of the London District, the Young Communist League and the National Minority Movement. Large quantities of papers were seized as well as busts of Lenin and Zinoviev and a mysterious metal sphere (the King Street lavatory ball cock).
Twelve prominent comrades were arrested and charged on three counts: conspiracy to "publish a seditious libel", incitement to "commit breaches" of the 1797 Incitement to Mutiny Act and conspiracy to "seduce persons serving in his majesty's forces to whom might come certain published books and pamphlets, to wit, the Workers' Weekly, and certain other publications". The trial of the communist leaders became a trial of communism. The prosecution was out to prove the illegality of the party. Communism was financed from Russia, it seeks to establish "forms of government by force", creates antagonisms between different classes and "involves the seducÂing from their allegiances of the armed forces of the crown".
Despite widespread condemnation of the trial and clever defence arguments, the jury only took 20 minutes to return guilty verdicts. In his summing-up, judge Rigby Swift stated that it was no "crime to be a communist" or "hold communist opinions", but "it was a crime to belong to this Communist Party". Harry Pollitt, William Gallacher, Wal Hannington, William Rust and Albert Inkpin got one year. The remaining comrades - Ernie Cant, Tom Bell, Tom Wintringham, Arthur MacManus, JT Murphy and Robin Page Arnot - were sentenced to six months. Tom Bell does not overstate his case when he says: "No better testimony could be given to the influence of the Communist Party in this period."9
However, it ought to be said that the CPGB's leadership displayed a completely casual, irresponsible, attitude towards itself. Everyone with sense enough could see that a strategic confrontation was in the offing. As we have shown, the CPGB repeatedly said so and urged corresponding preparations. Why then did it not take measures to ensure the freedom of its most important comrades in the nine months leading up to the general strike?
The imprisonment of the CPGB 12 did nothing to damage the party's standing nor halt the growing response to its message. On the contrary. Membership, although still pitifully small, had more than doubled since 1922 to 5,000. A measure of our immediately realisable mass base, however, was the highly successful National Minority Movement.
The NMM was formed in August 1924. Led from the beginning by communists - Harry Pollitt and Tom Mann were its most famous leaders - it was a skilful application of the united front tactic, a policy that, if it is to be principled (ie, serve the programme), must involve both unity and criticism. 10 In Communist Review, the CPGB's monthly journal, JR Campbell insisted that, when it came to the 'official' left, it is the "duty of the party and the Minority Movement to criticise its weakness relentlessly and endeavour to change the muddled and incomplete leftwing views of the more progressive leaders into a real revolutionary viewpoint". 11 Unfortunately that duty was by no means consistently carried out.
The task of the NMM was "not to organise independent revolutionary trade unions or to split revolutionary elements away from existing organisations affiliated to the TUC "¦ but to convert the revolutionary minority within each industry into a revolutionary majority". There was a mass feeling in Britain for radical change and significant numbers thought of themselves as revolutionary socialists. For the moment though, they looked to leftwing Labour MPs and trade union officials as their legitimate leaders. Ideologically amorphous and therefore organisationally incapable of coordinated, disciplined action, this layer had both to be engaged with and, most importantly, gone through. In other words there had to be an ideological struggle waged to defeat left reformists and centrists of every kind.
By marshalling the militant minority among the rank and file, the CPGB sought to overcome the petty sectionalist prejudices of trade unionism and increase the fighting capacity of the class. Although having affiliations from official trade union bodies, the NMM was structured along industrial lines - there were, for example, miners', metal workers' and transport minority movements. Each in its own way was seen as a precursor to a powerful, single union in each industry. And, as the NMM grew, so would the Communist Party. Or at least that was the calculation.
The March 20 1926 national conference of the NMM had a record 883 delegates, representing nearly one million organised workers (almost a fifth the number affiliated to the TUC). From the chair Tom Mann pointedly condemned the royal commission, which reported on March 6 - it "very cunningly conÂtinued the policy of splitting the workers".12 The NMM called for every trades council to be reconstituted as a council of action "by mobilising all the forces of the working class movement in its locality". It also demanded the TUC general council convene a National Council of Action.
Yet one has to admit that the main solution proffered by the CPGB was problematic. It advocated binding powers, even "all power", for the TUC (after that was achieved, the idea was to fight for a change in its composition).13 This hardly readied the working class for betrayal by the TUC - as inevitable as the betrayal of pension rights by Dave Prentis, Mark Serwotka, Matt Wrack and other left trade union leaders today. The NMM adopted a resolution, moved by rank-and-file miners' leader Arthur Horner, stating along these lines that it was "imperative that all the forces of the working class movement should be mobilised under one central leadÂership to repel the attack and to secure the demands of every section of the workers".14 Of course, that "one central leadership" was the TUC.
Not surprisingly the royal commission on the coal industry under Sir Herbert Samuels agreed with the coalowners that in order to make the industry profÂitable there would have to be heavy wage cuts and an end to national agreements. This dashed TUC hopes, but confirmed CPGB expectations. Among ordinary workers there was deep-felt anger, recognition that if the miners lost the whole class would lose too, and a consequent determination to stand together. Pushed on by mass pressure for action and effectively committed to unleash it on May 1 1926 - unless the government backed down on the miners - the TUC at last summoned union executives to a meeting in order to explain and affirm its plans. This was on April 29! The TUC had only discussed its plans for the first time 48 hours before!
Not surprisingly then, the underlying purpose of these plans amounted to a last-ditch attempt to secure a negotiated settlement. Ernest Bevin tried to excuse the general council's irenic complacency. But all he could do was pathetically wag the moral finger at the government and promise to remain the victim. We are "not going to begin wielding the big stick", he told Baldwin. "We did not start it."15
Talks began on the night of April 29 and dragged on till the next day. The government would not budge. Baldwin took an "extremely simple but very stubborn line" throughout the general strike. The TUC had, he knew, no intention of risking a bloody civil war. But it was trying to intimidate the government with the threat of "political revolution - the destruction of the constitution". Baldwin was now in a poÂsition to demand that "the perpetrator must surrender".16
Thus even in the midst of talks his side was already provocatively firing the opening salvo. The coalowners began their lockout. OMS recruiting posters were put up throughout the country. In Buckingham Palace the king signed a state of emergency proclamation. Orders in council were issued in the form of emergency regulations. Local authorities were told to prepare themselves. So against its wishes and compromising instincts the TUC general council found itself the general staff of a general strike. It was to prove incompetent, suffocating, apologetic and treacherous.
The TUC's first move was to claim the right to negotiate for the one million miners. Little did the MFGB imagine that meant selling them out. The TUC was also concerned that the strike would take place in carefully controlled, discrete stages. Workers would not be brought out en masse. They would be ordered to strike one wave after another - with the more moderate transport and general unions going first - and individual unions having responsibility for their members and ensuring the continued functioning of health, food and sanitary services.
By marching the workers into battle in two lines and a series of sectional columns, a tight bureaucratic control was to be maintained. By organising in this fragmented way, it was calculated that the class-wide self-activity witnessed in Russia could be prevented or diluted. These tactics, which owed more to fear of the rank and file than determination to beat the enemy, meant of course that the impact of the strike was diminished. The general strike would be a series of independent sectional strikes and for some time would only be partial. Finally, while it was quite correct to maintain essential supplies and services, the TUC was quite willing to see existing management continue to manage. There was no call or thought of imÂposing workers' control over these vital areas of the economy.
With such blundering safeguards in place the trade union bureaucracy discovered the courage, in the immortal words of Fabian snob Beatrice Webb, to behave "like pigs". A roll call of the union executives was taken. The response was overwhelming. In block vote terms there were 3,653,527 for the strike, a mere 49,911 against (unions with a membership of 319,000 had to consult their governing bodies).
Bevin announced that trades designated in the "first line" would begin their strike at 11.59pm on May 3 1926. Raising himself to what he doubtless imagined were the heights of stentorian rhetoric (which, as any psychologist could tell, unconsciously revealed his real financial fears and mindset), Bevin described the bureaucracy in heroic terms: "We look upon your 'yes' as meaning that you have placed your all upon the altar for this great movement and, having placed it there, even if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves."17 Jumping to their feet, the leaders of Britain's trade unions hurrahed and sang the 'Red flag' before joining the biggest May Day demonstration London had seen for years.
However, despite the song (with its barbed refÂerence to flinching cowards) and the obvious willingness to fight below, the TUC still hoped and prayed that "something will turn up" - ie, a negotiated settlement. On May 2 1926, instead of readying its army, TUC leaders were closeted with Baldwin, attempting to come to an accommodation based on acceptance of the royal commission's recommendations. The TUC's determination to avert the general strike, not bring it off, left Baldwin in no doubt. Certain that the general council did not believe in the strike, certain it would not take it through to a struggle for power, he reckoned he was on a sure winner - Baldwin demanded "uncondiÂtional" surrender. That was too much "¦ for the moment.
So the strike began because of the government, not the TUC. The government was determined on confrontation and a strategic defeat of the working class. The TUC was supine and unsure. Courts and establishment figures lined up to deÂnounce the strike as illegal. The TUC said all it wanted was to safeguard the miners. John Reith gave unlimited BBC air time to Baldwin, but decided that neither MacDonald nor the archbishop of Canterbury nor even Lloyd George would be allowed to broadcast.
In its British Worker, the TUC called for football matches with the police and insisted that the whole thing was nothing but a non-political trades dispute. In parliament and in Churchill's unbridled British Gazette the government claimed to be defending "freedom and the constitution" and rained down accusations that the TUC was opening the way for revolution. The TUC pleaded its innocence. The government deployed the army and navy and used OMS volunteers - shambolic on the rails, docks and trains, effective as brutal special constables. The TUC turned down Soviet workers' aid and urged strikers to quietly sit it out for the duration at home or in the garden.18
Broadly speaking, TUC instructions were faithfully obeyed by trade unionists. Even though the weakest sections were in the first line, there were only a tiny number of scabs. From every locality, from every union, TUC headquarters at Eccleston Square received countless daily reports - all giving details of a strike that was solid beyond even the most optimistic expectations. Government plans began to show signs of fraying. Nevertheless for the moment the mass of workers remained under TUC control.
Despite provocation, the overwhelming majority of strikers bent over backwards to avoid the violence the TUC was so concerned to prevent. With only the minimum of trouble the authorities were allowed to move food, unload goods at the docks and run a skeleton train, bus and tram service. Inevitably though, whatever the TUC intentions, a general strike remains a general strike.
A general strike can be dressed up as a purely economic dispute between workers and employers; its initiators can speak the language of compromise and negotiation. Yet, whatever the heartfelt wishes, orders and beliefs of those at the top, a general strike can never be a routine trades dispute. It involves the working class organised as a class and can only but have a political dynamic that challenges the state. With the country at a standstill, workers can only but gain a sense of their collective strength. The demands of picket line, publicity, decision-making, coordination, looking after the young, the old and the infirm and enforcing the strike lead to new, invariably unofficial and unconstitutional, answers. Initiative, inventiveness and latent energy are released. Old leaders find the situation slipping out of their hands. Workers think, debate, discover and gravitate towards revolutionary ideas.
The 1926 general strike had all the hallmarks of a stage-managed bureaucratic affair. That explains how establishment historians can get away with portraying it as an example of the British people's inherent reasonableness and conservative instincts. From the beginning the strike was consciously infused with religion, respectability and a daft TUC sense of fair play. The general council rightly thought itself the epitome of law-abiding responsibility. Nor can there be any doubting that the mass of workers had no idea of breaking the law, let alone making revolution. Yet with each day that passed things began to change.
The situation itself eroded and broke down the barriers that kept apart the parallel sectional strikes. With every street corner debate and picket-line discussion a collective began to take shape. The 400 or so councils of action and strike committees helped overcome divisions and to a greater or lesser degree secured a unified, horizontal approach to the struggle. True, none of them exÂperienced a sudden rush of calls from rank-and-file workers demanding their transformation into organs of insurrection and dual power. But then there was no fusillade of bullets to teach. Britain 1926 was moving according to a slower tempo than Russia in 1905 or 1917. Workers were still reformist and the British state was infinitely more skilful and resourceful than Asiatic tsarism. Yet things moved.
Within the first few days the TUC was facing demands that the strike be exÂtended to all workers. Those who had not yet been ordered to strike were clamouring to join the fray. Local officials telegrammed that they were having the utmost difficulty in keeping them at work. There were many reports of 'second line' workers coming out in spite of the TUC schedule. In all, 50% of engineering workers struck before they were given the official call. Non-unionised workers - 'nons' - were joining the strike too: another piece of evidence exposing as a lie the TUC claim that the strike was called off because it was collapsing. In point of fact there were 100,000 more workers out the day after the TUC had capitulated and 'ended' the strike than the day before.
The TUC called it off on the ninth day not from fear of failure, but of success. Throughout the strike treacherous negotiations had been proceeding via all sorts of circuitous routes. Confronted by a government that showed not the least sign of compromise, and by increasing assertiveness and independence below, the TUC was squeezed as if by a vice. To maintain its existence as intermediary between labour and capital and preserve its funds, the bureaucracy had to betray its own social base and sabotage the general strike.19
If it lasted another week or fortnight, let alone the holy month, the buÂreaucratic straightjacket would have started to unravel and our Labourites would have been in real trouble. The mad dogs would have taken the lead and possibly overseen the realisation of "political revolution - the destruction of the constitution". Not necessarily working class rule - that would require the organisation of the class into a revolutionary party. But the working class would certainly have been in a position to vastly extend democracy, loosen the grip of capital and prepare themselves for power.
Clashes between workers and police were beÂcoming more and more frequent in the second week. Surely, given a bit more time, they would have spiralled into full-scale battles. The cosy relationship between strike committees and the local authorities could not have survived that. Indeed, in the hurricane of self-activity that would have resulted as soon as the TUC's bureaucratic control slackened or began to break down, the councils of action would have begun to take over aspects of power locally and started to see themselves as alternatives to the existing state structure. The intervention of troops might have momentarily driven the workers from the streets.20 That is true. But then at the same time the whole ideological apparatus of rule by consent in this country would have shattered. More, if there had been a serious fightback, then the minds of the workers in uniform would surely have been receptive to the revolutionary call - join your brothers and sisters, form soldiers' and sailors' councils of action.
Nowhere did things go anywhere near that far. Nevertheless, there were many, many examples of strike committees and councils of action beginning to show the first signs of developing into soviets. Because most militant workers realised they were not only fighting against the miners' wage cuts but against a future attack on themselves, because they had gained a sense of themselves as a class, they were increasingly willing to circumvent the TUC's pacifistic instructions.
Towards the end of the strike certain councils of action began to enforce aggressive picketing so as to gain control over the movement of food and other supplies, and prevent blacklegging. Even on the fourth day of the strike "the cabinet was told that the use of mass pickets and a shortage of police was seriously hampering the movement of supplies".21 Intervention by the Civil Constabulary Reserve and the subsequent show of military force was answered by elementary measures of self-defence, ranging from pickets carrying walking sticks to full-blown workers' defence corps. In short, where necessity demanded it, workers took the initiative and developed the methods of organisation and violence that terrifies reformist leaders.