IT IS 75 years since the general strike, when four million out of the five and a half million organised workers struck for nine days in May 1926. But the last thing the TUC leaders wanted was a successful general strike. When it started they did everything to end it.
Bill Mullins, Socialist Party Industrial Organiser explains how the TUC found itself calling a general strike.
1926 general strike
A showdown between the classes
TWO DAYS after the strike was called off, 100,000 more workers were on strike than at the beginning.
“There were no trains, no buses, no trams, no papers, no building, no power. In a strike, 100% is an unobtainable figure generally, but even this real 100% was frequently achieved”. (The Common People, Postgate and Cole.)
Winston Churchill summed up the attitude of the ruling class: “It is a conflict which, if it is fought to a conclusion, can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or in its decisive victory, there is no middle course open”.
British capitalism was weakened after the First World War. Simultaneously the British working class had been radicalised by the Russian revolution and the European-wide revolutionary movement which followed the war.
The British capitalists were forced to concede their dominance in world markets to American imperialism, the real victors of the war.
By 1925, exports from British industry had fallen to 76% of pre-war levels and imports had grown to 111%. The ruling class went on the offensive to attack working-class wages and conditions to boost profits.
The miners had elected a new union leader, Arthur Cook. He was a giant in comparison to other union leaders at the time.
He considered himself a follower of Lenin but he did not fully understand Lenin’s methods, in particular the need for a revolutionary party.
In March 1925 the coal bosses cut the miners’ wages and demanded they work an extra hour a day without pay. In a refrain familiar to Corus or Vauxhall workers, the capitalist press raged that this was the only way the coal industry could be saved.
Also, Baldwin, then Tory prime minister, made it clear that this was a prelude to a general offensive on all workers’ wages and conditions: “All the workers of this country have to take reductions”.
In response, Cook coined the slogan: “Not a penny off the pay not a second on the day”.
The miners appealed to the TUC, who threatened a general strike.
The government, faced with a militant working class, was unprepared for a showdown. To give themselves some breathing space they proposed a commission under Sir Herbert Samuel to examine the coal industry.
Meanwhile, they gave the coal bosses a nine-month subsidy to forestall any moves by them against the miners. They then used these nine months to prepare for a fight to the finish with the working class.
In 1981, Thatcher also retreated in the face of miners’ strikes against pit closures. She then spent the next three years building up coal stocks and preparing an inevitable struggle with the miners.
Churchill, a member of Baldwin’s cabinet, organised a scab army to break the strike. Lord Londonderry, the chief spokesman for the coal bosses, summed up the attitude of the ruling class: “Whatever it may cost in blood and treasure we shall find that the trade unions will be smashed from top to bottom”.
The ruling class’s ruthless determination stood in stark contrast to the faint heartedness of the TUC leadership, both Right and Left. Jimmy Thomas, the rail union leader, boasted that he had “groveled” before Baldwin in an attempt to avert the strike.
Left-winger Purcell condemned as “damned Russian gold” the £1.5 million collected by the Russian workers in support of the British workers.
The strike begins
IN MAY 1926, with the subsidy ended, the mine owners launched their attack on the miners’ wages and conditions. One million miners came out on strike and demanded that the TUC call a general strike.
But the TUC only called the first meeting of the general council strike committee six days before the deadline.
Jimmy Thomas spoke on 19 April 1926 about: “loose passions being let loose” and “every sane miners’ leader wants, as every employer wants – peace”. But the only peace the bosses wanted was a complete victory over the miners and the working class.
The ruling class mistook the cowardice of the union leaders for the workers’ mood. Millions answered the strike call and hundreds of thousands of others demanded to be called out. The TUC tried to control the strike but the movement developed its own momentum.
Non-trade unionists struck. 100 trades councils became ‘Councils of Action’. The employers were forced to ask them for permission to move essential goods.
The Councils of Action had the means of overthrowing the capitalist order and instituting a workers’ government, just as had happened in Russia in 1917.
But this would only have been possible if a revolutionary party had come to the head of the movement. Such a party would have called for the Councils of Action to be linked up nationally.
The Councils of Action would have made a class appeal to the rank and file of the army to assist the working class. A workers’ government, based on the Councils of Action, could have gone on to take state power and carry through a socialist transformation of the economy.
THE YOUNG Communist Party, formed a few years before, was found wanting. This wasn’t just through inexperience, it was under the influence of the increasingly Stalinised Communist International.
Trotsky, who at the time was isolated in Russia by Stalin, was a lone voice in the Communist International, warning that the British ruling class was preparing for a showdown.
Under Stalin’s influence the Russian leadership, instead of warning the British workers against their own leaders, created illusions particularly in the left of the TUC leadership by forming an Anglo-Soviet committee.
From the beginning of the strike, the general council conspired with Samuel. He recommended big cuts in the miners’ wages and all except Cook on the general council went along with this as they called off the strike.
Workers were stunned when they heard the news, the strike had won nothing for the miners, who continued their strike for another six months before being forced back to work.
The TUC did not even get a ‘no victimisation’ agreement, so even more rail workers, dockers and others came out again when they heard the terms of the surrender.
Power or defeat
THIS WAS more than a strike over wages and hours, which was recognised by all but the union leaders.
Trotsky had warned that inevitably an all-out general strike poses the question of who rules. Either it leads to power or becomes a severe defeat for the working class.
Marxists do not lightly raise the demand for a general strike. In periods of heightened class struggle we have called for a one-day general strike, such as during the miners’ strikes in the 1980s and the pit closure crisis in 1992.
The demand for a 24-hour general strike is a means of demonstrating its own power to the working class. It sends a shot across the bow of the ruling class, that unless they back off more serious action is likely.
The 1926 general strike affected all classes and demonstrated the potential power of the working class to run society. But its failure showed the crucial need for revolutionary leadership.
Without such leadership, even the working class’s most heroic efforts to rid itself of capitalism are unlikely to succeed. Without a revolutionary party, firmly rooted in the working class and its mass organisations, the reformist trade union and labour leaders will betray the movement.
We must ensure that this does not happen again by building a mass socialist revolutionary party that can play this vital role in the future.