1926 General Strike:
9 days that shook Britain
TO COMMEMORATE the 80th anniversary of the 1926 General Strike in
Britain and, more importantly, to draw out the lessons from this
movement, Peter Taaffe (pictured left) – the Socialist Party’s general secretary – has
written a book outlining the nine days that shook British capitalism to
The book particularly deals with the revolutionary possibilities of
the general strike and the question of whether the fledgling Communist
Party had the right strategy, programme and tactics to take full
advantage of the strike and the period.
To coincide with the book’s launch the socialist spoke to Peter about
the lessons of the strike movement for today’s generation of socialist
Why have you written a book about the 1926 General Strike now?
One reason is in order to acquaint the new generation with these
events, which are in danger of fading from the memory, given that it is
80 years since the General Strike. Also, while on the surface British
society may appear to be different from the events of the General
Strike, the underlying difficulties of British capitalism in this
neo-liberal, globalised era point towards a mighty collision between the
classes at some stage in the foreseeable future.
Also, the issue of the ‘general strike’ – in the first instance, for
one day – has come back onto the agenda of the workers’ movement today.
When local government workers went on strike on 28 March this year,
union leaders warned that it "would be the biggest since the General
Strike", indicating that 1926 is still an important reference point for
the British labour movement.
We have also seen recently the convulsive movements in France, in
which the need for a general strike to defeat the Chirac government was
The 1926 General Strike is the most important event in the history of
the British working class. Not since the days of Chartism in the first
half of the nineteenth century had the British ruling class been so
shaken. In the titanic nine days of 3-12 May 1926 the organised working
class came out in their millions in a generalised stoppage which posed
all the fundamental issues of power.
Out of five-and-a-half million workers organised in trade unions, an
estimated four million took strike action in waves or ‘stages’ and a
million miners were locked out at any one time. They were confronting
the Tory government of Stanley Baldwin which included in its ranks
figures like Winston Churchill and Lord Birkenhead. They were determined
to crush the strikers in the hope that this would defeat the working
class as a whole.
At the head of the million-fold ‘workers’ army’ stood the General
Council of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The right wing of this body,
which today would be described as ‘moderate’, was represented by trade
union leaders like JH Thomas of the rail workers’ union (NUR), Walter
Citrine, general secretary of the TUC, and the transport workers’ union
leader, Ernest Bevin. These figures in general stood for a policy of
‘class compromise’, which they believed could be achieved through
negotiation with the employers and the government. Strike action was
considered as a very last resort.
In 1926, however, their approach was totally ineffective. The gulf
between the classes was too great. The mine owners – with the Tory
government at their back – were determined to inflict savage reductions
in wages and conditions.
The systematic attacks on workers in the whole preceding period prior
to the General Strike had radicalised significant sections of the
working class which, in turn, was reflected in a shift to the left in
Baldwin had spelt this out in 1925 in an interview with union leaders
when he stated: "I mean all the workers of this country have got to take
reduction of wages to help put industry on its feet." This led to the
emergence of left-wing trade union leaders like A.J. (Arthur) Cook of
the mineworkers, Alf Purcell of the furniture trades union and AB Swales
of the Engineers union (AEU).
The right-wing trade union leaders were dragged reluctantly into the
General Strike but were forced to do so because of the monumental
pressure from below.
When the strike began, the response of the working class was
immediate and massive. The wheels of industry ground to a halt. The
arteries of Britain – its roads and railways – were choked and silent.
All the carefully laid plans of the government to defeat the strike lay
in ruins as the working class, kept in the dirt by capitalism, rose as
in Shelley’s poem – "rise like lions" – in a magnificent display of
Faced with a powerful and embattled working class and unprepared for
a showdown in 1925, the Tory government bought time on ‘Red Friday’ by
proposing a nine-month subsidy to the coal industry. Like the retreat of
Thatcher in 1981, who then took on the miners in 1984-85 when the Tory
government was prepared, so the ruling class also then temporarily
backtracked while they organised to crush the miners and thereby the
Could there have been a revolution in Britain at that time?
There were some elements of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary
situation in 1926. The working class created a network of ‘Councils of
Action’ or ‘Strike Committees’. In significant parts of the country,
these bodies began to assume the role of a rival workers’ ‘government’
to Baldwin and his local representatives – cars and lorries carried
notices "with the permission of the TUC". This terrified the ruling
class and the right-wing trade union leaders, particularly as with each
day the enthusiasm of the strikers, the numbers coming out on strike and
those clamouring to do so grew with an irresistible force.
What was missing, however, was a mass Marxist working-class party
able to develop working-class power and its organs as a step towards the
socialist transformation of society
What was the role of the newly-formed Communist Party? Did the
Communist International have any influence on the strike?
The role of the young Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in
these events is also an important aspect of this book.
The Communist Party was a small but important party in 1926. As the
British section of the Communist International (Comintern), its
membership drew most of its support from workers who defended the
Russian workers’ state and who considered themselves as revolutionaries.
Only fragments of this party now remain, with little influence inside
the British labour movement.
The CP could have emerged from the General Strike greatly
strengthened both in numbers and in influence. They failed to do this
because of their mistaken policies. However, they were not entirely to
blame for this. By the time of the General Strike the young militants of
the Communist Party were misled by the mistaken policies of the
Communist International (Comintern), then under the direction of Stalin
Impatient at the slow development of the young CP, they exerted
pressure which led to the formation of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union
Committee. This was a bloc between the Russian trade unions and the
General Council of the TUC, and particularly with its left wing. Only
mild criticism was made of the leading Lefts, which did not adequately
prepare the working class for the inevitable retreats that these lefts
made during and after the General Strike.
What part did the Labour Party play?
As with the right-wing trade union leaders, the Labour Party
leadership of MacDonald played a pernicious role. Ramsay MacDonald, the
Blair of his day, as Labour leader, strove might and main to prevent the
General Strike and, when this failed, did everything in his power to
He was assisted by those right-wing trade union leaders such as JH
Thomas, leader of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).
He was described by his rich admirers as "one of the best waltzers in
London" and lived on the Astor estate, often sharing "Lord Derby’s box
on Grand National Day". MacDonald attacked the ‘extreme Left’,
militants, combative trade unionism and socialism.
Why did the TUC General Council betray the strike?
Because of the pressure of the working class, the TUC General Council
could not avoid putting themselves at the head of this mighty movement.
But they did this in order to call it off at the first convenient
The right wing consciously prepared to sell out the General Strike.
The left on the General Council, with the exception of Arthur Cook, the
mineworkers’ union leader, went along with the betrayal of the strike.
They were reformists. They believed that society could be changed by
incremental changes rather than a social rupture, which is what 1926
In a period of acute capitalist crisis, which Britain was
experiencing in 1926, this meant that these leaders would inevitably
capitulate. Inherent in reformism in such a period is betrayal. This
applies not just to the right but also to most of the left leaders. They
were politically inconsistent and unorganised against the right in the
run-up to the General Strike. Therefore they capitulated to the pressure
of the right during the General Strike.
Most of the bitterness, particularly in the militant heartlands of
South Wales, Durham, Scotland, etc, was directed against some of these
lefts who the Communist Party, unfortunately, had failed to seriously
A general strike in a period similar to 1926 poses the question of
power. In effect, two governments are established but this cannot last
This element of ‘dual power’ had to be resolved either by a victory
of the propertied classes, represented by the Baldwin government, or by
the working class. Tied as they were to capitalist society, the General
Council of the TUC bent the knee to capital.
The strike was defeated because the TUC general council capitulated –
was it a complete defeat for the working class?
The General Strike was a defeat and a serious one at that. The ruling
class took their revenge; the mine owners, without any pity, were
determined to inflict brutal sacrifices on the miners and sought in the
process to crush union organisation in the pits. The Tory Lord
Birkenhead boasted in private: "The discredit of the Miners’ Federation
is now complete."
The Economist put the total trade loss during the strike at between
£300 million and £400 million. One hundred and sixty million working
days were lost in strikes in 1926 as a whole.
However, the more politically developed sections of the working class
began to draw far-reaching socialist or even revolutionary conclusions
from this defeat. Even after this defeat, if the Comintern had broken
with the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee and called for an organised
left and socialist resistance to the capitulators of the General
Council, then a powerful, conscious, Marxist movement could have been
built in preparation for future battles.
This was not done as, incredibly, Stalin and Co., along with the
British CP, continued to rub shoulders in the Anglo-Russian Trade Union
Committee with the capitulators. This was at a time when the miners were
locked out and starving.
Is the working class more powerful today than it was in 1926? Could
there be a general strike today or are those methods of struggle
If you look at articles and letters that have appeared in The
Guardian recently, the spokespersons of the capitalists are in no doubt
that "a general strike is impossible" today [22 April 2006]. But Britain
has gone to the brink of such a strike on a number of occasions since
In 1970, for instance, the newly elected Tory Prime Minister, Edward
Heath, threatened the trade unions and the working class in a nationally
televised broadcast with a ‘general strike’ unless they were prepared to
come to heel and accept cuts in their rights and conditions.
In both 1972 and, particularly, in the 1974 miners’ strike, the
possibility of a general strike loomed. The strategists of capital have
pondered the events of the past, have seen what happened in 1926 and are
prepared, if necessary, to deploy the same means to defeat the working
In the 1980s, under Thatcher, the issue of a general strike to topple
her government was again raised. In a similar situation, which could
occur in Britain and in Europe in the next stage, the capitalists will
be drawing on the lessons from the past. The working class, for its
part, must also explore the events like 1926 to see how best to prepare
for a similar situation in the future. We hope that this book will be a
step towards realising that goal.
The 1926 General Strike posed the question of who ran society, with
local workers’ committees controlling the distribution of goods etc.
If there was a general strike in Britain today, would it be similar?
There are some differences between the situations in 1926 and even
France 1968, and the situation today in Britain and Europe. This is
particularly evident on the issue of the political outlook, or
consciousness, of the working class, then and now.
In both 1926 and 1968, there was a widespread awareness and
attraction to the ideas of socialism as the alternative to capitalism.
However, with the collapse of Stalinism, and with it the planned
economies of Eastern Europe, the capitalists were able to pursue a huge
campaign against ‘socialism’. In the 1990s, this coincided with an
economic boom and the lurch to the right of the trade union and Labour
leaders. This has thrown back consciousness.
Also, the economic situation is not yet as severe as 1926, and 1968
took place, paradoxically, when the economic boom in France and
elsewhere had not exhausted itself.
On the other hand, the capitalists will pursue their neo-liberal
agenda relentlessly but they will be challenged by a resurgent labour
movement. Inherent in this situation is therefore the possibility of a
Because of all these factors taken together, this will probably mean
that power may not be posed immediately in the minds of the working
class. A ‘general strike’ today therefore could initially take the form
of warning strikes to exert mass pressure to extract concessions. But
these would be staging posts along the way towards strikes like 1926.
This is why this event retains its importance today.
At the same time, recent events in Nepal show how an almost classical
general strike of the working class in the cities – supported by a mass
peasant revolt in the rural areas – can develop even today. This strike
posed starkly the question of power before the masses. But the general
strike could not be maintained indefinitely unless power, including the
formation of a workers and peasants’ government, passed decisively into
the hands of the masses.
What would be the most important lessons that we could draw from the
1926 General Strike?
The General Strike of 1926 was a magnificent display of working-class
power. The attempt to trivialise and belittle its significance by
references to strikers playing football with policemen and other
secondary features of the strike is meant to diminish it in the eyes of
the present generation.
This is done quite consciously by capitalist historians together with
the right-wing trade union leaders. They like to think that "never
again" will a general strike occur in Britain. On the contrary, the
situation that is developing in Britain will lead to a mighty collision,
in fact a series of class conflicts between the classes which will put
the issue of the general strike back onto the agenda.
1926 general strike
workers taste power
by Peter Taaffe
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