Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1129/32371

From The Socialist newspaper, 14 April 2021

Lessons from history

1920s-30s Britain

A working-class movement fighting unemployment and capitalism

Unemployed workers from Jarrow marching to London in 1936, photo National Media Museum/CC

Unemployed workers from Jarrow marching to London in 1936, photo National Media Museum/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Scott Jones

"Realising only by the abolition of this hideous capitalist system can the horror of unemployment be removed from our midst, I here and now take upon myself a binding oath, to never cease from active strife against this system until capitalism is abolished and our country and its resources truly belong to the people."

With this oath running through their minds, thousands of unemployed workers set off in November 1922 from all parts of Britain, with every main road carrying marchers, braving snow and rain to descend on London. Cheer after cheer arose in Hyde Park and it seethed with excitement as contingents arrived. News spread that Scottish marchers had linked up with their comrades from the North of England and were approaching. The sound of Welshmen could be heard singing as a London band and East End dockers led them into the park.

Numbers swelled to 70,000 as they descended on parliament - to be met with row after row of police - to protest mass unemployment in the first hunger march organised by the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM).

Turbulent period

This was a time of mass unemployment, industrial unrest, capitalist crisis and the scars of a recent flu pandemic. A hundred years on, the situation facing the working class is relatable.

Following the slaughter of World War One, Prime Minister David Lloyd George promised a "land fit for heroes", but by spring 1921, millions were unemployed, some 23.4% of Britain's workforce.

But it was also a period of revolution, with the workers and rural poor in Russia, led by the Bolsheviks, taking power in 1917, and the end of the carnage of WW1. There followed revolutionary movements across Europe, including strikes, mutinies and the formation of communist parties modelled on Russia's revolutionaries.

The Communist Party of Great Britain, which had only been formed in 1920, set about organising the country's unemployed with the formation of the NUWM on 15 April 1921.

Protests and action by unemployed workers had already taken place. It was common for groups to march separately along places like Oxford Street in London, demonstrating and collecting money. But the NUWM was set up to organise the unemployed into a mass, organised movement.

The NUWM adopted the principle of 'work or full maintenance at trade union rates of wages.' A national headquarters was established, and national officials elected.

Wal Hannington, who was national organiser for most of the NUWM's existence, later described it: "There is no other organisation in Britain which has crammed so much intense and persistent agitation into the period from 1921 to 1936 as the NUWM."

As well as fighting for demands for real help for the unemployed and an end to the variation in the meagre relief that was available, the organisation also recognised what Marx and Engels described as capitalism's need for a "reserve army of labour". The NUWM argued that the unemployed were being used to drive down wages and conditions of those in employment.

This is exactly what the British government and the bosses were doing. This whole period was one of struggle between the working class and its organisations and the government representing capitalism and the bosses.

Mass strike movement

Huge strikes took place in 1919, 1921 and 1925, culminating in the almighty 1926 general strike, when workers tasted their own power, and revolution was on the cards in Britain. Mass hunger marches organised by the NUWM took place in 1922 and 1927 and then continued in 1930, 1932 and 1934, as well as the famous Jarrow crusade in 1936, during the Great Depression.

"The scene was of chronic poverty and human degradation in a setting of slum housing. They were scenes not unique to South Wales, but common throughout the distressed areas of the country," described South Wales miners' union leader and NUWM activist Will Paynter. The welfare state did not exist and the means-tested 'dole' (unemployment benefit) was insufficient and degrading.

The hated 'means test' was introduced in 1931 by the National Government. It required unemployed workers to sell possessions before receiving any benefit. And if there was a working member of the household, that too disqualified the applicant. These conditions drove workers into action.

One day of action against means testing in South Wales saw 300,000 march - over 10% of the Welsh population at the time! The situation was the same in the other coalfields, in the docklands of London and Liverpool, the shipbuilding areas of North East England and Glasgow, the industrial areas of the Midlands, and elsewhere.

The role of the organised working class and the trade unions was vital in the movement of the unemployed, combined with the leadership of the Communist Party.

The leadership of the Labour Party, despite being in power twice during the 1920s and 1930s, followed the lead of the Liberals and Tories and either simply ignored the pressing needs of the working class or worse, openly sided with the bosses and attacked workers living conditions.

Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald even joined a national government with the Tories, and hunger marches on his watch were met with police violence and prison for the NUWM leaders.

However, all the struggle and potential were also squandered because of the political degeneration of the Communist Party (CP) and the Communist International under its Stalinist leadership. This mirrored the process in the Soviet Union after Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition was defeated by Stalin and a growing bureaucratic caste within the Soviet state and the Communist Party.

For example, between 1929 and 1934 the CP adopted an ultra-left policy, denouncing the Labour Party in Britain as 'social fascist'. This sectarianism placed an enormous obstacle in preventing official recognition of the NUWM by the workers' movement. Equally, the CP's political volte-face after 1934 led to class-collaborationist policies which blunted the struggle against capitalism.

Global financial crash

Years of austerity inflicted by the Tories and the modern heirs to Labour's MacDonald and the Liberals' Lloyd George, combined with the Covid-crisis, have seen unemployment rise again, with the potential for it to get much worse.

Following the global economic crisis in 2008, the Socialist Party launched Youth Fight for Jobs, taking inspiration from the heroic and determined hunger marches and unemployed workers' activists of the NUWM in the 1920s and 1930s.

Youth Fight for Jobs recreated the Jarrow march on its 75th anniversary in 2011, as young people and socialists, with the support of trade unions, walked in the footsteps of the NUWM.

Mass unemployment, especially among young people, is back on the agenda, and so is Youth Fight for Jobs and the lessons of the NUWM.

The NUWM ranks recognised that they were not only fighting for themselves and their families, but for their communities, their class, and future generations. They saw that capitalism was the problem and poverty and unemployment would always exist as long as that system exists.

Today, we must fight for a mass political alternative to accompany the day-to-day trade union and unemployment struggles, built by working-class people and fighting for socialism - which will banish unemployment and all of capitalism's other ills, for good.

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation

 

Your message: 

 


In The Socialist 14 April 2021:


Covid-19

'Covid passports' discriminatory and questionable - fight for workplace safety

Covid inquiry? Workers must decide


News

Tensions escalate in Northern Ireland

How to deal with the tax-dodging mega-rich? Nationalise!

NHS pay: reject Tories' miserly 1% 'offer' - Fight for full 15% rise

Amazon - union vote lost

Tory hypocrisy over housing benefit cut

US cops shoot dead another black man


Elections

Every voter in Wales has the opportunity to vote for TUSC

TUSC: Launching a working-class electoral alternative in London

London housing crisis: vote TUSC to fight back


Workplace news

PCS elections: Support the Broad Left Network for a democratic, fighting union leadership

St Mungo's maintenance workers on indefinite strike

Thousands of London bus workers strike across multiple companies

Rally for sacked RMT rep Declan

East London cleaners fight outsourcing and redundancies

Bristol Water workers walk out

SPS Technologies workers end strike after management backs down

Thurrock Council workers strike against pay cuts

Deliveroo workers strike and protest


Lessons from history

1920s-30s Britain: A working-class movement fighting unemployment and capitalism


Campaigns news

Youth under attack

Students in action: Protest on 21 April

Why you should join the Socialist Party

Cardiff: Hundreds protest to free Siyanda

Worcester: Kill the Bill

Fighting fund target smashed. Can we do it again?


Readers' opinion

The Socialist Inbox


 

Home   |   The Socialist 14 April 2021   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook






Related links:

Capitalism:

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: Vaccination, Innovation & Capitalism

triangleRight-wing study concludes youth like socialism

triangleNew wave of radicalisation in Latin America

triangleCOP26: Socialist change to end the climate crisis

triangleRising against a rigged and rotten system

Working-class:

triangleEngland football team

triangle'Socialism is the hope of the world'

triangleCapitalist sleaze and cronyism

triangleNo trust in billionaire owners - kick them out and reclaim the game

Unemployment:

triangleWe will not be the lost generation

triangleFight for jobs and safety

triangleFight for your future at the online rally

Unemployed:

triangleBooks that inspired me: The Road to Wigan Pier

triangleThe Socialist Inbox

Workers:

trianglePublic sector pay - NHS, teachers - Prepare for action!

Britain:

triangleSocialist Party national youth meeting

Labour:

trianglePreparing for struggle in post-Covid Britain

Working class:

triangleThe Israeli working class

Jobs:

triangleYouth Fight for Jobs is back

Youth Fight for Jobs:

triangleYFFJ: more urgent than ever

Wales:

triangleSwansea and West Wales Socialist Party: Instability continues in the Middle East

South Wales:

triangleEvery voter in Wales has the opportunity to vote for TUSC

Jarrow:

triangleThe Socialist inbox

Labour Party:

triangleCWU elections: Vote for a fighting, campaigning, socialist EC member

Revolution:

triangleBristol North Socialist Party: Reform or revolution?

Dockers:

triangleStriking Portuguese dockers show the way forward

WW1:

triangleHow the catastrophe of WW1 sparked revolution

Shipbuilding:

triangleCammell Laird shipbuilding workers strike against job cuts on merseyside

Depression:

triangleCoronavirus news in brief

Great Depression:

triangleBooks that inspired me: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

1926 general strike:

triangle100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

Jarrow Crusade:

triangleJarrow March: an inspiring show of solidarity between workers and youth

Historic events

Historic events

7/7/21

Terry Fields

Terry Fields MP, Prisoner DV 3695 - The jailing of 'poll tax' rebel and Militant

9/6/21

Clyde

The 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation and work-in

26/5/21

Bob Marley

Get up, stand up - don't give up the fight!

12/5/21

Northern Ireland

British state absolves itself from killings during 'the Troubles'

28/4/21

Ireland

How partition of Ireland derailed a revolutionary struggle for national and social liberation

14/4/21

Capitalism

1920s-30s Britain: A working-class movement fighting unemployment and capitalism

7/4/21

Brixton

1981 Brixton riots: Racism and poverty - the anger explodes

24/3/21

Strike

Lessons of the 2011 pensions strike: when workers showed their power

24/3/21

Commune

150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

10/3/21

Rosa Luxemburg

150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg's birth

3/3/21

Women

A history of International Women's Day

3/3/21

Racism

1981: New Cross Massacre

24/2/21

Militant

How militant trade unionism defeated the 1971 Industrial Relations Act

3/2/21

Capitalism

1971: Rolls-Royce crisis - when the Tories nationalised in order to secure the interests of British capitalism

27/1/21

Arab

Ten years since the 'Arab Spring'

triangleMore Historic events articles...


Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube

LATEST POSTS

CONTACT US

Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 077 7221 5281

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 078 0983 9793

ABOUT US

ARCHIVE

Alphabetical listing


July 2021

June 2021

May 2021

April 2021

March 2021

February 2021

January 2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2002

2001

2000

1999