R. Palme Dutt
Original Published: The Communist International, No. 21, June 1926
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
THE British and international bourgeoisie are singing their song of triumph over the defeat of the British general strike. It is a song that will be short-lived. The British general strike is not only the greatest revolutionary advance in Britain since the days of Chartism, and the sure prelude of the new revolutionary era, but its very defeat is a profound revolutionary lesson and stimulus. Gigantic tasks await the working-class vanguard in Britain: but henceforth the old conditions can no longer continue; the old British social fabric of parliamentary and democratic hypocrisy has received shattering blows; and the British working class has entered into a new era, the era of mass struggle, which can only culminate in open revolutionary struggle. By their methods of suppressing the general strike, by their open dictatorship and display of armed force, by their ruthless prosecution of the struggle on the basis of war, by their transference at last of the methods of armed force from the colonies into Britain itself, the British bourgeoisie has taught the proletariat a lesson of inestimable revolutionary value. The defeat of the general strike is itself a gigantic piece of revolutionary propaganda.
Not the masses were defeated, but the old leadership, the old reformist trade unionism, parliamentarism, pacifism and democracy. The masses stood solid: these broke down; these were the real casualties of the fight; and the masses will learn to fling them aside when it comes to the future struggle. The driving home of this lesson, the shattering of the old traditions and leadership, the tireless preparation for the future struggle, and above all the building up of an iron revolutionary vanguard of the workers and kernel of new leadership—these are the tasks that follow or the collapse of the general strike.
The general strike has brought the British working class face to face with the political issue of power, with the legal and armed force of the State. The old trade union tradition has been brought to its highest culminating point, only to have its complete impotence shown unless it can pass into this higher plane. The masses have entered into the full highway of mass struggle, and shown a solidarity, courage, tenacity and class-will, which affords the guarantee of future revolutionary victory. This time they entered the struggle with the old traditions, apparatus, leadership, all fundamentally opposed to the struggle, and only dragged along with them by the force of their mass-will; their limbs were shackled by the myriad trade union-economic-pacifist-legalist-constitutional-democratic traditions; and under these conditions defeat in the first shock was inevitable. But the positive lessons of the struggle are stronger than all the treacheries of the reformist leadership. The class-character of the State has been exposed. The trappings of parliament, democracy, trade union legalism and economism have been torn aside, and laid bare the naked class-power opposition with its ultimate weapon of armed force. The future struggle in Britain can henceforth only be the revolutionary mass struggle with an open political aim. The bourgeoisie have themselves shown the way forward to the proletariat.
The first British general strike is so decisive a turning point in British history, its whole process so complete a picture of the existing stage of the Working-Class Movement, and the lessons to be drawn from it on fuller analysis so infinite and varied, that at the present moment in a pamphlet written immediately after the calling off of the general strike, it is only possible to deal with a few of the simplest and plainest issues.
The first British general strike was at once the culmination of a whole epoch, and the beginning of a new era. It was the extreme point of the development of the old trade unionism and economic struggle, which by the inevitable process of concentration and enlargement had reached the point of automatically passing into a political struggle, i.e., a conflict with the whole forces of the State, whereas the fight was still being endeavoured to be fought by the old means. It was at the same time the reflection of the new revolutionary forces, of the complete economic and social unsettlement and decline of British capitalist society, of the consequent pressure of the masses towards more fundamental aims, of the younger militant workers who were driving forward the old leaders, of an incipient mass struggle which went far beyond trade unionism.
This double character is the secret of its history. It was essentially a political struggle, the first stage of the revolutionary struggle of the masses for power; but this struggle was endeavouring to find expression through an obsolete apparatus of liberal trade unionism and parliamentarism which was wholly unsuited for it and could only betray it. From this arises its tremendous significance in the future and the reason for its immediate failure in the present.
From 1911 to 1926 everything was driving with cumulative impetus to a clash between the whole forces of capitalism and the working class in Britain. In 1911, in the first great national Railway Strike, for the first time the State with its armed forces appeared as a direct protagonist in an industrial dispute. Troops lined the railways and bridges. In words that sunk deep into the memory of every militant worker, the Prime Minister, Asquith, declared that the whole resources of the State were behind the railway companies. From that date the most far-sighted of the militant workers knew that there was something more than the economic struggle of trade unionism in front in the path to emancipation. And from that date the Government became more and more directly concerned in every large-scale industrial crisis, and more and more concentrating attention on the preparations for large-scale conflict with the whole trade union forces.
This outcome of liberal trade unionism was inevitable with the concentration of capitalism. Liberal trade unionism can only exist alongside liberal free trade capitalism, where competition still has free play. Once the industries are linked up and syndicated into national trusts, closely interlocked and organised through the banks and the State, there is no more room left for the free play of bargaining. The trade unions are compelled to mass their forces likewise on a national scale to meet their opponents. Henceforward every slightest economic struggle becomes in fact a trial of strength of massed class forces: the liberal principle of competition has disappeared. Thus in modern state capitalism it follows that trade unionism can only either become the slave of the trusts, as in America and Germany to-day, or else, if the slightest attempt at economic struggle continues, trade unionism must enter on the path of revolutionary class struggle, involving struggle with the whole State. This has been the situation confronting trade unionism in Britain during the twentieth century.
Thus the history of the past fifteen years has been a history of so-called industrial crises which have been in fact veiled political crises. 1911-1914 were years of ascending unrest. After the war the political character became even more open. 1919 was the revolutionary year. In 1920, with the Council of Action to stop the war on Russia, the trade unions were brought into play on a direct political issue. With 1921 came the supreme test: and the trade union leaders, in terror at the magnitude of the issues opening out before them, surrendered at the last hour without a struggle and betrayed the working class. It took four years for the working-class to recover from this deadly blow: but the lesson of Black Friday sank deep, and by 1925 the mass pressure of the united working class front was so strong that the trade union leaders dared not deny it. (“It has been a crucifixion,” said Bevin, the transport leader, of the four years since Black Friday, “we cannot go through it again.”) The Government was so taken back by the strength of working-class solidarity on Red Friday, 1925, that it deliberately postponed the conflict and paid the £20 millions subsidy in order to prepare more completely. The date of conflict was fixed for nine months ahead, for May Day, 1926.
During all these years the bourgeois view was gathering more and more definite shape, that this constant impending menace of a general strike must be dealt with once and for all, that the old liberal methods of manuvring, corruption and trickery were no longer adequate, that a smashing blow must be dealt, and that the legal rights of the trade unions must be curtailed. The Extreme Right has gathered strength; Liberalism has been eclipsed. The policy of stabilisation has contributed to this necessitating the driving down of all the workers’ standards. Already in the crisis of 1925 the Prime Minister, Baldwin, had declared in an unguarded moment: “The wages of all workers must come down”—a statement which it was subsequently attempted to deny. The attack on the miners’ wages was, as in 1921, only the spearhead of a general attack on the wages and conditions of all workers in order to stabilise capitalism on a basis of lower wages and longer hours; and for this reason, the Government and the employers, after due preparation, pursued a policy actually to provoke the general strike in order to make the attack of the widest possible scope, as was shown in the obviously prepared campaign that immediately followed the collapse.
Thus it seemed that with 1926 the time had come for the long prepared decisive blow. A Conservative Government was in power with an absolute parliamentary majority. The political aspirations of the Labour Party had been thrown into discredit and confusion by the record of the MacDonald Government. The international situation following on Locarno, despite the subsequent unexpected fiasco of Geneva, was favourable for concentration on the fight on the home front. It was a question of Now or Never. The whole bourgeois and governmental policy drove straight to the fight with open provocation.
But at the same time the revolutionary awakening of the masses was reaching a point not before equalled. Behind all the rapid and startling transformation of the social and political fabric in Britain in the twentieth century lay the accelerating decline of British capitalism. From the beginning of the twentieth century the standards of the masses, as shown by the figures of real wages, began to decline. This was already reflected in the pre-war unrest, in the sweeping radical-liberal electoral vote, and then in the subsequent disillusionment and industrial unrest end militancy. The whole process was powerfully hastened by the results of the war. There followed the four million vote for the Labour Party and the throwing up of the mockery of a Labour Government. Following on its failure came the Left trade union wave and the growth of an influential Minority Movement. Through all this process can be seen the steady deepening and widening and revolutionising of the mass movement in England, the gathering pressure towards more fundamental demands, towards revolutionary issues, towards the struggle for power, groping through the forms and institutions of an obsolete epoch and gradually beginning to find its way. The consciousness of the struggle for power was not yet in more than a primitive stage: the strong consciousness already developed was the sense of class solidarity and the need for united defence against the capitalist attack. But this was already preparation for the fight and when the fight came, the spirit of the masses was ready to take it up, and to force on their unwilling leaders the revolutionary measure of the general strike.
It was not accidental that the crisis came on the issue of the miners’ wages. Alike in 1921, in 1925, and in 1926, the issue was the miners’ wages. This issue summed up the existing situation. In the first place, it was just such a broad economic issue as wages and the fight against a reduction of wages that could most easily unite the whole body of the working class at the present stage. In the second place, the coal industry was the acutest expression of the whole crisis of British capitalism; the brunt of the decline had fallen hardest on the miners; the inability of capitalism to find any solution, and the naked struggle between profits and the livelihood of the workers was there most clear. Thus the issue of the miners’ wages summed up the whole issue of capitalism and the working class in Britain, though in a concealed form, and not yet with a conscious and direct expression.
So it came about that all forces by 1926 had brought England, the classic home of capitalist stability, to become the scene of intensest class conflict, reaching the verge of civil war.
Never was any crisis more completely prepared and forewarned than that of May Day, 1926.
From July, 1925, the Government made its intentions absolutely: plain and visibly carried out its preparations. In their defence of the subsidy the Government made clear that they regarded the subsidy only as a means of obtaining a truce in order to prepare a smashing defeat of the working class. It is only necessary to recall two typical declarations of the days immediately following Red Friday. Joynson-Dicks, the Home Secretary, declared:—
He was going to say straight out what the Prime Minister was alleged to have said in conference—namely, it might be that, in order to compete with the world, either the conditions of labour, hours or wages would have to be altered in this country.
He said to them, coming straight from the Cabinet Councils, the thing was not finished. The danger was not over. Sooner or later this question had got to be fought out by the people of the land. (August 2, 1925)
Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and second in command of Baldwin, used even more militant language to describe the approaching struggle:—
In the event of a struggle, whatever its character might be, however ugly the episodes which marked it, he had no doubt that the national State would emerge victorious in spite of all the rough and awkward corners that it might have to turn. But if they were going to embark on a struggle of this kind, let them be quite sure that they had decisive public opinion behind them. As the struggle widened, and it became, as it must, a test whether the country was to be ruled by Parliament or by some sort of other organisation not responsible by our elective processes to the people as a whole, new resources of strength would come to the State, and all sorts of action which we should now consider impossible would, just as in the time of the war, be taken with general assent as a matter of course. (House of Commons, August 6, 1926 .)
This language was sufficiently definite. No less definite were the preparations made. The emergency organisation of the Government already initiated under Lloyd George alongside the Emergency Powers Act of 1920, and elaborated under successive Governments (including the “Labour” Government), was pushed forward to a high pitch. In August the Coal Commission was appointed to prepare the diplomatic ground, and wrap up the proposal for a reduction of wages in a voluminous report, which would afford the Right Wing Labour leaders the basis for betrayal. In September, the O.M.S., or Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, was instituted under the auspices of all the leading generals, admirals, and diplomats, with the official blessing of the Government, and by the date of the crisis had enrolled 75,000 volunteers. In October, the Communist leaders, who were alone concentrating all their forces on warning and preparation for the crisis, were put into prison. In January a secret circular to local authorities (from the Ministry of Health) put them in possession of the necessary arrangements and their duties. By February, Joynson-Hicks announced that the Government was “ready.” Inspired Press statements indicated the character of the plans: a small cabinet was to be instituted with the supreme power, consisting of Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill, Birkenhead, Joynson-Hicks, Cave (law officer), Bridgeman (navy), Worthington-Evans (army), and Hoare (air), the country was to be divided into fourteen districts, with a Government Minister in absolute control in each, with military officer, transport officer, supply officer, &c.; registers of volunteers and stocks were ready; troops were to be posted. When the crisis came, the Government had 200,000 commercial vehicles at its disposal, by reason of a previous subsidy arrangement to private owners; and stocks of coal to supply gas, electricity and utility services for five months. In addition the police service had been inconspicuously increased.
In the face of these open preparations of the Government, the official Labour direction made no attempt to meet them. When the crisis finally broke out, MacDonald in the heat of the moment at the Trade Union Conference which decided on the general strike declared the truth about the Government’s policy during the nine months:—
From that day to this, the Government have not devoted five minutes’ time to considering the coal problem except so far as it is associated with O.M.S.
But right through the nine months there was no recognition of this fact, and no warning of the workers, but only the whole time lulling and disarming and suggestions of a peaceful settlement; so that at that same Conference Bevin could make a statement which, set alongside MacDonald’s, sums up the position:—
The Trade Union Movement had had no thought of war. The General Council had believed peace would accrue.
Alone the revolutionary Left, represented by the Communist Party and the Minority Movement, concentrated all its energy on warnings and preparation. They demanded:—
(1) Unification of the Trade Union command through the General Council.
(2) Factory Committees.
(3) 100 per cent. Trade Unionism.
(4) Agreement between Trade Unions and Co-operatives for supplies during the struggle.
(5) Workers Defence Corps against Fascism.
(6) Propaganda to the soldiers and sailors.
The majority of the official leadership, while maintaining platonic pledges of solidarity with the miners, preferred to place their hopes on a possible peaceful settlement, an expected continuance of the subsidy, &c. At Christmas, 1925, came out a manifesto of the Labour Party Leader, MacDonald, for “Industrial Peace” in the Rothermere capitalist journal, Answers; and at the same time a manifesto for “peace and goodwill in industry” was issued, signed by Lansbury along with leading employers. In January, 1926, the General Council met the miners; and, according to the Daily Herald, the prevailing view was that “conflict was not inevitable”; the Chairman of the General Council, Pugh, declared that “no special significance need be attached to the Conference. No steps of any kind could be taken until the Report of the Coal Commission had been issued” (Daily Herald, January 20, 1926). At the end of January the General Council appointed its special Industrial Committee to maintain contact with the miners, consisting of Thomas, Pugh, Walkden (Right Wing); Tillett, Bromley, Hicks (Left tendency); and Hayday, Walker and Citrine. According to The Times correspondent, “the committee can hardly be said at present to have formulated any policy, but it is going on the assumption that the subsidy cannot be suddenly stopped in May” (The Times, January 30, 1926). In February, the Co-operative Wholesale directors officially disclaimed any intention to help the workers in a struggle or even grant credits. The same month the General Council turned down the question of more powers, and issued a circular refusing to carry out the Scarborough Congress instruction to call a Conference of trade union executives on this question. In March the Coal Commission Report appeared, with its proposals for the reduction miners’ wages; and, while the whole capitalist Press conducted propaganda in its favour as an impartial verdict, the Labour Movement placed an official ban of silence on every individual leader to allow no adverse expression of opinion (there were plenty of welcomes by Right Wing leaders); so that the real meaning of the Report was only expressed in the Communist Press. When the final crisis came, the General Council exerted all its pressure on the miners to induce them to abandon their position and accept the Report; and only the stubborn opposition of the miners prevented their realising this. Right to the last the official Labour direction maintained the policy of obscuring the issue and concealing the combative plans of the Government. Even after the blow had fallen, the official Labour organ came out with a leader headed “Mr. Baldwin Blunders Into War,” which declared that only “one phrase caused the breakdown” (a “phrase” about miners’ wages) and added the fool’s judgment that Mr. Baldwin “has spent £20,000,000 of the nation’s money to no purpose” (to very efficient purpose from the bourgeois point of view); while the final issue of the Labour organ before the conflict came out with an appeal to Mr. Baldwin as to a god above the battle: “Let him cease to be the tool of Big Business. Let him be the Prime Minister of the People” (Daily Herald, May 3, 1926).
The failure of the official Labour direction before the conflict was not only a failure to foresee it or to prepare for it. It was also a direct breaking of the working-class ranks and playing into the hands of the Government. At the Scarborough Trades Union Congress, in September, where the tide of working-class feeling after the success of Red Friday ran high, many strong resolutions were carried, on the proposals of the Communists, but not one of the resolutions came from the official leadership, or even from the Left leaders, and no attempt was made to put them into operation after the Congress. On the other hand, at the Liverpool Labour Party Conference in October, the Right Wing leaders of the Labour Party, panic-striken for their own position at the red light of Scarborough, forced the whole trade union machine (by very narrow majorities) to be put into operation to carry out the exclusion of the Communists; and the Left leaders put up no opposition. This direct invitation to the Government was followed within a fortnight by the arrest of the Communist leaders. The protests of the Labour Party leaders were formal and without backing, and devoted mainly to expressing disapproval of the Communists rather than of the Government. Finally, when the Coal Commission Report came out, the Right Wing leaders openly welcomed and acclaimed it; and the Left leaders again attempted no counter-propaganda and did not even express opposition. Hodges declared that “the constructive proposals of the Coal Commission give one cause to rejoice”; MacDonald acclaimed the Report as “a conspicuous landmark” and “our triumph”; Henderson welcomed the “valuable reforms” and expressed the view that “within the limits of the Report it is possible to find a solution.” Thus the position was that during the nine months the Right Wing leaders were actively engaged, with the passive acceptance of the Left leaders on the General Council, in sabotaging any measures of defence, in breaking up the working-class ranks, and in playing up to and acclaiming the Government’s policy in direct opposition to the registered policy of the Working-Class Movement.
Under these conditions the general strike was in fact surrendered by the reformist leadership before it was called. The calling of a general strike by leaders such as MacDonald, Thomas and Henderson, who had a hundred times declared their opposition to the whole principle of a general strike, and who had sabotaged all measures of preparation, was a sufficiently ominous sign that the struggle, after all attempts to avoid it had failed, would be surrendered at the first opportunity, and failure even courted as a means to discrediting all revolutionary action of the working class.
What caused the final breakdown, in view of the fact that the reformist leadership was ready to surrender at the outset?
Two forces, which between them expressed the intensification of the class struggle in Britain. On the one side, the pressure of the masses, expressed most powerfully in the rigid refusal of the miners to accept any reduction of wages and the determination of the other workers to stand by them, which pressure compelled the leaders to take up a position from which they tried in vain later to retreat. On the other side, the determination of the Government to force a conflict on the widest possible ground, to call this time at last the quasi-revolutionary bluff of the reformist leaders and compel them to fight, and not to accept their surrender until the whole forces of the working class had been brought into action.
The strength of the mass pressure preceding the conflict was shown in the demonstrations, meetings and branch and district resolutions which poured in on the Union Executives, as well as in all measurable evidence of conferences and ballots. The Miners’ Conference of April 9 was with difficulty restrained from carrying a downright rejection of the Coal Report (which was the demand of the Lancashire miners, and according to general opinion would have been carried if put to the Conference); instead a resolution was unanimously adopted repudiating any reduction in wages, increase of hours or district agreements. This resolution, binding the miners’ executive, was the irremovable obstacle which the Right Wing leaders on the General Council were unable to get round by all their arts. The ballot votes taken shortly before for a workers’ alliance of united action of the mining, transport and engineering workers were also significant; in addition to the unanimous support of the miners’ and the transport workers’ delegate meetings, they showed majorities in those Unions where full ballots were taken, of 25,000 to 2,000 in the iron and steel trades, of 43,000 to 4,000 in the Workers’ Union, and of 70,000 to 31,000 in the engineers; while for the railwaymen Thomas refused to take ballot. The Minority Conference of Action on March 21, which united delegates of over a million organised workers, astounded even the leaders of the Minority Movement by the tremendous response. This response meant that one-quarter of the organised Working-Class Movement not only willed united action and a revolutionary lead, but was ready, without the assistance of the official movement, to find the means of sending delegations and organising to give expression to their will.
In the face of this mass pressure the reformist leaders could not openly deny their pledges of solidarity to the miners. They could only endeavour to confuse the issue, to appeal to the Government and public opinion, to express confidence of a peaceful settlement, to hunt for a “formula” to concentrate every effort, not to maintaining the front of the workers; but to find a “way out.” They sought to water down their pledge from an explicit “no reduction of wages” (February) to a promise of solidarity in seeking “an honourable settlement,” “an equitable settlement” (April). They exerted pressure on the miners to retreat from their position. They appealed to the Government, both publicly and privately, in conference and in backstairs parleys, to help them out.
But this precisely the Government was not prepared to do. The Government stood firm, leisurely and unmoved. The subsidy must go; wages must reach an economic level; no temporary prolongation of the subsidy would be considered unless this basis was accepted. The appeals of the Right Wing Labour leaders grew desperate and (in Thomas’s own word) “grovelling.” The General Council leaders were prepared to surrender the position and accept the basis of the Coal Report, but they could not carry with them the miners. The Miners’ Executive, unshakable, bound by the mandate of the delegate conference, represented the unbreakable will of the working class. Between the bourgeoisie and the working class there could be no compromise. And because they could not be counted to carry with them the working class, the offers of surrender of the Right Wing leaders were of no value to the Government and were rejected with contempt. A dozen times the act of treachery and surrender was prepared during those last feverish days of the negotiations, and as many times broke down for the same reason. The Government went steadily forward with its final preparations for the inevitable conflict which it was determined to carry through. By the middle of the final week, three days before the Emergency was officially proclaimed, the posters announcing it were being printed, while negotiations were still in full swing. Dispositions of troops were being made; leave was stopped certain naval manuvres were cancelled; reserves were being called up. On Friday, April 30, at the same time as negotiations were going on, the Privy Council was meeting and drawing up the necessary Emergency proclamations for the inevitable conflict. As Bevin declared at the Trade Union Conference on May 1, which finally decided on the general strike, “the Government behind the scenes was mobilising its forces for war.”
Consequently the efforts of surrender beforehand on the part of the Right Wing Labour leaders failed. For once these past-masters of cant and servility found themselves rejected; their arts and manuvring no longer availed; they were kicked back with contempt by the Government into the ranks of the workers (the worse for the workers); and they returned with tears in their eyes to the Labour Conference to swear “before God” they had had no thought but peace:—
In the name of all that I hold sacred, I tell the British public that I have never been associated with a body of men that have striven, that have turned phrases and words and facts over more patiently to make peace. (MACDONALD at the Trade Union Conference, May 1.)
If we had had another half-dozen hours, the Government could not have decently drawn the sword at all. They would not give us time. (Ibid.)
Mr. Thomas said he almost grovelled to get peace. Never in his whole experience had he begged and pleaded so hard, not alone in the interests of the miners, but as his duty to the country. “We We failed.” (THOMAS at the Trade Union Conference, April 30. Daily Herald, May 1, 1926.)
So these Right Honourable Privy Councillors signed the order for the general strike, in which they did not believe and which they did not want.
The Trade Union Conference carried the general strike unanimously. The roll-call of Unions ready to come out was taken: it showed 3,653,217 ready, against 49,511 refusals.
One last effort at surrender was made by the Right Wing leaders on the eve of the conflict. On the night of Sunday, May 2, twenty-four hours before the general strike orders were due to take effect, when the miners’ dock-out and the Government Emergency were already in operation, the General Council leaders in charge of the negotiations (it is to be noted that by a skilful stroke of the Right, MacDonald and Henderson had been added “on behalf of the Parliamentary Labour Party” to the Trade Union Industrial Committee which already contained Thomas, and these three gentlemen became the dominant representatives of the workers in the negotiations) were ready to desert the miners and accept a Government formula for settlement without the miners. This fact did not become known until two days after the conflict had begun, in the House of Commons debate on Wednesday, May 5, in the course of which both Thomas and MacDonald declared that the Trade Union representatives had already accepted the Government formula, when the Government broke off negotiation on the issue of the Daily Mail:—
Mr. J. H. Thomas said that on the vital Sunday evening the negotiating committee of the Trade Union Council sitting at Downing Street received in the Prime Minister’s handwriting a form of words which they agreed to accept as the basis of a settlement. They were getting into touch with the miners to secure their agreement, but the news of the stoppage of the Daily Mail was brought to Downing Street of which they knew nothing till then. The first that they knew of it was the ultimatum from the Government breaking of} negotiations at the very moment when they were agreed on acceptance of the Prime Minister’s form of words. They had in fact taken the responsibility of saying that whatever the miners’ views might be, the T.U.C. representatives would accept it. (J. H. THOMAS in the House of Commons, May S, 1926.)
Thus the General Council representatives had already deserted the miners before the general strike began.
But the Government brushed this surrender aside; and in doing so revealed their intentness on engaging the conflict along the whole line. They declared that the General Council representatives were “not plenipotentiaries” since they could not carry with them the miners. They declared that the issue of the general strike far, outweighed the original issue. And they finally broke off negotiations on the issue of the Daily Mail—a spontaneous action of the workers themselves of which the leaders had no knowledge and which they were ready to disown and apologise for. But when they came to the Cabinet room to make their explanations, according to the statement of MacDonald, “they found the door locked and the whole room in darkness.” Their explanations were not wanted when the hour of action had begun.
The Baldwin Government had gone to war, had gone to war for the “freedom of the Press”; not over the miners, not over the degradation of the workers’ standards, not over the attack on the whole Working-Class Movement, but for the “freedom of the Press”; the Baldwin Government, which holds the press chained, curbed or forbidden all over the world, and which came fresh from the impounding and seizing of the issues of the Workers’ Weekly six months ago and the imprisonment of the editorial staff.
But the Trade Union leaders were not disposed to raise these things. They issued a statement that the stopping of the Daily Mail was “unauthorised” and had been done without their knowledge. And they entered the struggle with the one thought to find by one way or another the most rapid way out to call it off.
In this way the general staffs of the two sides entered the conflict.
The leadership of the working class went to battle with treachery thus already manifested in their ranks and concealed from the workers, with the knowledge among themselves that there was this treachery in their ranks, with division between the General Council and the miners, with division between Right and Left in the General Council itself. And alongside, the Daily Herald came out in its last issue on the eve of the conflict, with its final admonition to the workers in flaming letters: “TRUST YOUR LEADERS! Heed none who speak ill of those in command. Any who try to sow distrust are the worst foes of Labour, worse than any Capitalist.”
The British Government and the bourgeoisie went to battle with a single front and aim, closing all divisions against the common enemy, with every weapon prepared to prosecute war without reserve to complete victory, and with battle cries calculated to raise the issue to its widest extent.
And yet, despite this contrast of the two leaderships, the shock of the massed battlefront of the entire organised working class shook the whole fabric of society in Britain as it had not been shaken for two and a half centuries.
The greatest strength of the bourgeoisie was that they recognised with absolute clearness the political character of the conflict.
They recognised from the outset that it was not simply a question of a particular figure of wages, nor yet a question of a particular industry, but that it was a struggle of the whole organised strength and power of two classes, in which every weapon of class-power needed to be brought into play. “Either you govern here or we do. There cannot be two dictatorships.”
This political character of the conflict was much more clear to the bourgeoisie than to the working-class leaders, who remained to the last clinging to the assertion that it was a “purely industrial conflict.” The distinction of the economic and political struggle was to them all in all as the one rope of salvation against being submerged in the flood of revolutionary issues inevitably raised by the actual character of the fight. But the distinction is, in fact, in any large-scale conflict, extremely artificial. As MacDonald himself declared on the occasion of “Red Friday”:—
If Trade Unionism had to mobilise itself for the legitimate purpose of industrial defence, especially when a Government was concerned, the difference between that and mobilisation for industrial action was extraordinarily thin. (MACDONALD In the House of Commons, August 6, 1925.)
The political struggle is simply the concentrated and most highly organised expression of the economic struggle: and as soon as an economic struggle, of even the most limited original scope, passes to the stage of a general strike, the issue of the relations of class-power is inevitably raised. To imagine that the bourgeoisie, if pressed, will fail to use all the weapons of its dictatorship (out of respect for some supposed rules of the “industrial” game like a game of football) is naive folly.
The bourgeoisie recognised the brute fact that the actual struggle was between the capitalist dictatorship, with its whole apparatus of legal and armed force, and the Working-Class Movement with its mass-loyalty and gathering challenge to the whole capitalist order. This clearness gave them strength in action. They threw without hesitation or scruple every resource and weapon into the field to maintain their class-power against the still confused and half-conscious challenge of the working class.
In the first place, the bourgeoisie directly brought the political issue into the open. They raised all the cries and slogans of their class-power—“democracy,” “parliament,” “the Constitution,” “freedom,” “King and Country,” “the freedom of the Press”—in order to mobilise all the resources of class-strength and loyalty which they could still command. To meet this would have required the most merciless exposure of the hypocrisy of these cries and of the real dictatorship behind. But the trade union and Labour Party leaders, on the contrary, accepted these slogans and endeavoured to vie with the Government in expounding their loyalty to them. Thus the bourgeoisie exploited the confusion in the ranks of the reformist leadership in order to paralyse the action of the working class.
In the second place, the bourgeoisie brought into play all the weapons of their dictatorship. The whole government apparatus was mobilised and worked overtime. There was no question of any appearance of neutrality of “the State above the classes.” It was a war between the Government and the working class. When the “independent” Press of the millionaires was smashed by the action o£ the working class, the Government not only took up the war publicly on its behalf, and on behalf of its sacred right to deceive the people, but directly issued its own official organ under armed protection and brought up its print to the millions. The whole strike-breaking apparatus was directly organised by the Government under the protection of the whole civil and military power. The police and special police were spread in a network over the industrial centres, to the number of a quarter of a million, to protect the strikebreakers. The full power of the law was brought into play. The police courts were filled with strikers, strike-pickets, Labour speakers, agitators, literature-sellers, demonstrators in hundredsbut not a single strike-breaker, special police rowdy, coalowner or capitalist propagandist (nor a single member of the General Council). Under the Emergency provisions any one could be summarily arrested and imprisoned for any action or speech likely to cause “disaffection”; and this was interpreted to include the mere issuing or even possession of leaflets inciting to strike. The process of law was set into motion with unprecedented rapidity to secure within a week of the strike a High Court of justice decision that the general strike was “illegal” and every striker and trade union official was personally liable and outside the protection of the law (the calling off of the general strike followed immediately within twenty-four hours of this decision). Finally the Army, the Air Force and the Navy were brought into play. Warships were stationed outside the ports; and when at Newcastle the strikers appeared to be gaining the upper hand, cruisers were dispatched to command it from the sea. Troops were concentrated in all the industrial areas; the East End of London was covered with the picked Guards troops; armoured convoys were transported through the streets; and armoured cars and tanks paraded through London. In the last days of the strike, just before the calling off, the first incidents had already begun of the use of the troops against the population (soldiers at Hull and marines at Middlesbrough).
Against all this concentrated attack the reformist leadership of the. trade unions and the Labour Party was completely confused, paralysed and helpless. They could not admit that the working class was at war with the State. To admit that they were at war with the State would have been to admit their own bankruptcy. For them the sanctity of the Capitalist State, its super-class character, the sanctity of the Capitalist Democracy were the corner-stone of their political being. If that corner-stone collapsed, if the card-castle of Capitalist Democracy came tumbling down, there was nothing left but the naked revolutionary struggle. Therefore, they could only shut their eyes to all that was going on around them. They remained feebly and helplessly protesting to the end that it was a “purely industrial struggle.” Anybody with one eye in his head could see that it was not. It was not a fight with a group of employers. It was a fight with the whole forces of the State. The official Labour direction had to remain with its head in the sand to the end. They remained protesting their loyalty to the Crown and Constitution, that is, to the very forces that were being organised against them. In their official strike organ they directly suppressed the news of the wholesale arrests that were taking place, the police raids (which moved even a Right Wing Labour M.P. like Haden Guest to protests against their wanton brutality), the breaking up of meetings, the mounted police baton-charges into helpless crowds. The bravest fighters of the working class, who were going to prison in hundreds, were without honour in the Labour organ, which instead was publishing news of jolly billiard matches between police and strikers in some remote village, or advising strikers to stay at home and amuse the children. Such was the culmination of hypocrisy to which Reformist Pacifism was reduced in the actual class struggle.
The British Worker, the organ of the General Council, proclaimed again and again in large black type:—
The General Council does NOT challenge the Constitution. It is not seeking to substitute unconstitutional government. Nor is it desirous of undermining our Parliamentary institutions. The sole aim of the Council is to secure for the miners a decent standard of life.
Or again, in explanation of the distinction:—
Do make every one understand that this is an industrial, not a political dispute. It concerns wages, decent conditions of life, fair methods of negotiation; not the Constitution, nor the Government, nor the House of Commons.
These proclamations were issued when the struggle had already entered into a full political stage, and when the masses were feeling the full weight of the Government attack. The General Council, instead of recognising the new plane of the struggle, and coming out boldly in opposition to the Government, instead of utilising the Government’s attack in order to make clear to the masses the real character of the struggle, remained protesting the original industrial character of the conflict and the innocence of its intentions, and servilely affirming its loyalty to a Government which was hitting the working class on the head. The General Council refused to see that even the fight for wages, in the stage which had now been reached, necessarily involved the fight against the whole apparatus of the Government, and that, if this fight was not faced, the fight for wages also could not be carried on. Instead of saying “We are fighting for decent standards of life, and not against the Government and Constitution,” they should have said, “We are fighting for decent standards of life, and, since the Government and the Constitution stand with the employers against this, therefore we are compelled to fight the Government and Constitution.”
The General Council was not ready for this. Therefore, the General Council could not carry on even the original struggle. The General Council had to abandon the struggle for wages.
Four million workers entered on the struggle.
The solidarity was absolute. With a unanimity and discipline that staggered the organisers themselves the workers responded to the call. Not only that, but many more workers came out than were called. It was impossible for the General Council to restrain the enthusiasm of the working class.
Bromley, one of the leaders of the General Council, declared in the House of Commons that they had had to send masses of workers back to work who had come out in sympathy, and claimed credit for the General Council that they had succeeded in preventing hundreds of thousands from striking. The organ of the General Council, the British Worker, announced:—
The trouble everywhere is to keep those men at work who have not yet been ordered to strike. (British Worker, May 6.)
Even under the limited conditions of the struggle, with the only partial calling out that took place and the extensive system of permits of the General Council, the power of the action of the masses was shown. The productive processes of the country were effectively paralysed. The mines, the docks, the railways, the repair shops, the printing presses were all deserted. The handful of activities of almost entirely middle-class strike-breakers could not affect the real losses of the stoppage, as the business world clearly enough knew. The Government, despite all their elaborate preparations, were taken aback by the vastness and extent of the movement. The newspapers stopped; and a paralysis much greater than the war descended on the country. The Government, in complete possession of the finest printing machinery in the world, with troops to guard it, was unable even to bring out a tiny newspaper until the second day (and even then their sole type-setter to begin with was a onetime linotype operator who had become a master-printer and. a business manager). When The Times appeared on the second day, it consisted of one tiny sheet, 33 centimetres by 20. The supply of volunteers was wholly inadequate. On the third day, after two days’ hard recruiting, the Government boasted that in the whole London area they had won 12,000 volunteers. In the whole Northern Division they had won 10,000.
Not only that, but the masses showed a capacity and initiative of active struggle which swept past the passive inactivity of the General Council. All over the country a terrific struggle was undertaken against the Government’s strike-breakers. Masses of workers held up the strike-breaking lorries and ’buses, and forced the drivers to descend. The Government responded with violence. Wholesale police charges, mounted police charges, and arrests were carried out in defence of the strike-breakers. Collisions took place all over the country. In vain the General Council issued instructions to the workers to remain passive, to remember that it was an “industrial” conflict, to remain at home and mind the children or look after the garden, and to keep off the streets. The workers pressed forward into the fight with unhesitating class-instinct, left completely without official direction; against the endless admonitions and rebukes of their legalist pacifist leaders, with only the revolutionary nucleus in each locality to guide, and threw themselves again and again into the struggle.
The difficulties of the Government were shown by the fact that in the Newcastle District (the great coal, iron and shipping region of the North East coast) the Government Minister in charge, Sir Kingsley Wood, declared it impossible to continue his task of maintaining the government apparatus of supplies, and invited the local strike committee to help him out-which they refused to do. Immediately on this, the Government sent an urgent message to all localities, instructing no surrender and no co-operation with the local strike committees.
It was at this point, when the strikers were visibly gaining ground, that the Government brought into play the military and legal weapon. A direct Government incitement to violence was issued to all troops on May 7 in the following terms:—
All ranks of the armed forces of the Crown are hereby notified that any action which they may find it necessary to take in an honest endeavour to aid the civil power will receive both now and afterwards the full support of His Majesty’s Government.
On May 8 occurred the first uses of the troops against the population at Hull and Middlesbrough. On May 9 the first armed convoy was conducted through London, with an escort of cavalry, mounted police, sixteen armoured cars and two regiments in full war kit. At the same time the Government had begun to recruit a new Auxiliary Corps or Civil Constabulary Reserve, to be composed solely from Officers Training Corps members, Territorials, Special Police and ex-soldiers “vouched for at Territorial Army units headquarters.” Meanwhile the legal attack was pushed forward. The speech of the Liberal lawyer, Sit John Simon, in the House of Commons declaring the strike illegal and every official calling it liable “to the uttermost farthing of his personal possessions” was broadcast by the Government. On May 11 came the High Court judgment of Sir John Astbury officially declaring the general strike illegal.
Thus the intensity of the struggle was growing with every day, and it was clear to all that critical events were threatening throughout the country. The solidarity of the strikers was greater than ever, and their spirit and confidence unbroken. The number of the strikers was increasing with every day of the strike, and indeed reached its highest point the day after the “settlement.” Impatient of the delays and hesitations of the General Council, bodies of workers all over the country were joining the strike without waiting for central orders. In addition increasing numbers of industries were becoming paralysed and throwing out more workers. Numbers of unorganised workers were joining the Unions in a body.
At this moment came the sudden capitulation of the General Council on May 12.
The capitulation of May 12 came as a thunderclap without warning to the majority of the workers all over the country. Nevertheless it was in fact only the inevitable sequel of all that had gore before.
From the outset of the strike the scene presented by the central direction was in startling contrast to the scene throughout the country. The natural unity of the struggle throughout the country was replaced at the centre by paralysing divisions and, on the part of certain responsible leaders, unconcealed hostility to the whole general strike itself. Those leaders who had voted the general strike out of fear and not out of conviction, and who had never believed they would have to carry it out, were now exerting all their efforts to paralyse its action and bring it to a speedy conclusion. Thomas openly declared during the struggle that he was against the general strike. MacDonald made in the House of Commons the speech of a strike-breaker and a coward. He is reported to have said:—
I again ask this House if it cannot do it (resume negotiations). I am not speaking for the Trades Union Congress at all. I am speaking for nobody. I have not consulted my colleagues. I am speaking from my own heart. I am not a member of a Trade Union, and therefore am a little freer than some of my colleagues, and can do things for which perhaps I will get blamed to-morrow by the trade unionists, but I cannot let this opportunity go. (MACDONALD in the House of Commons, May 5, 1926.)
The intrigues of the Right Wing leaders were neither countered nor exposed by the Left leaders, but in the interests of “unity” the facts were concealed and the workers left without warning.
From this situation resulted a paralysis of direction at the centre. From the moment of the calling of the general strike there was no decisive attempt to follow up the fight, but only hesitation, delay and a continual vacillating between the possibilities of negotiating or a vigorous prosecution of the struggle. Just as there had been complete failure to prepare the struggle, just as there had been complete failure to present the issues and stand up to the Government, so there was equal failure to conduct the struggle; and for the same reason, namely, the confusion and fundamental opposition to the whole struggle within the leadership. The general strike had been called, but almost by accident or mistake rather than conviction on the part of the majority of the leadership; and the working-class leaders were as lacking in self-confidence as the Government was abounding in it. The sacrifice, the fighting force and the enthusiasm of the working class were thrown into the field; but instead of there being behind them the strongest leadership to exact the maximum advantage and drive the hardest blows upon the Government, there came from the General Council only efforts to restrain the workers, to send workers back to work, to prevent more workers coming out, legalist-pacifist appeals, pleas, apologies, protests that they did not wish the fight, rallying behind the Archbishop of Canterbury, &c. Everything depended upon the most rapid blows being dealt before the Government and the bourgeoisie had time to organise more fully; but the strikers waited in vain for the follow-up move to the first calling out. The “second line” that was to follow the first was continually talked about, but until the last day nothing was done.
It was therefore only a question of time when the cracking up at the centre would occur. The critical turn of events and the intensified offensive of the Government hastened its occurrence. On May 11 came the court judgment of the illegality of the general strike and of the personal responsibility of the leaders. That same evening the General Council decided the time had come to call off the strike. They seized on the pretext of the Samuel Memorandum (which was simply a re-hash of the Coal Report and its proposals for the reduction of miners’ wages) as offering a “new” hope of settlement; and presented it like an ultimatum to the minerswho had not been consulted. Then the General Council at last took their courage in their hands-the courage of treachery -and after a last unsuccessful plea publicly deserted the miners. Late that night the miners left; MacDonald and the General Council remained together. Next morning the General Council went to the Prime Minister and made their surrender. The miners issued an official statement, disclaiming all responsibility for the calling off of the general strike.
It was a capitulation without conditions. The Samuel Memorandum, which was in any case worthless, was in no way formally binding on the Government. The Government was able to claim its formal victory of unconditional surrender as well as its material victory. The General Council did not even secure any conditions for the return to work of the strikers or the protection of the Unions, as the events of the next few days were to show.
It was a capitulation, based on the desertion of the miners. The miners were left fighting alone.
It was a capitulation without any justifying basis in the situation of the struggle or in the readiness of the Working-Class Movement throughout the country. The Working-Class Movement throughout the country was solid; the strikers’ ranks were daily increasing, the engineering, shipbuilding and electrical workers had just added half a million more to the strikers; there was no hint of unreadiness to continue the struggle. On the contrary the news of the calling off was received everywhere with mystification and disbelief; strikers’ meetings were held demanding continuance; hostile demonstrations took place outside trade union offices and were dispersed by the police with casualties.
What was the reason of the capitulation at this point?
Two reasons are discernible in the statements so far made by the leaders most directly responsible.
One was the fear of the possibilities in front, with the Government’s military threats and the legal attack.
The other was the fear of the revolutionary possibilities and the Working-Class Movement passing out of their control. In the House of Commons on the day after the settlement Thomas stated:—
What he dreaded about this struggle more than anything else was that by any chance it should get out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control. Every sane man would know what would happen then. That was why he believed that the decision yesterday was such a big decision.
The price of the betrayal of May 12 is a heavy one. A campaign of repression has followed immediately on the capitulation and is being pushed to the furthest extremes. This campaign has been actively organised by the Government (alongside hypocritical talk of “reconciliation”) and taken up with obvious concerted preparation by the whole body of employers. The Government on the day after the settlement issued a notice to employers through their official organ in two million copies under the heading “No obligations,” stating that the Government had undertaken no obligations with regard to the reinstatement of strikers; and at the same time the Government set the example in its own departments under the Admiralty and War Office in refusing to reinstate strikers or in penalising them on return. The employers have demanded new agreements shackling the unions from undertaking further strikes save after due and long notice, conciliation machinery, &c.; have refused to give any promise of taking back strikers save individually, with discrimination and at their leisure; have insisted on the retention of the non-union strike-breakers in future to work alongside the trade unionists; and in some cases have endeavoured to prohibit trade unionism or to prohibit trade unionism in the supervisory grades. The shameful Railway Agreement, signed by Thomas, Cramp, Bromley and Walkden, and conceding all these points (no guarantees on reinstatement save “as soon as work can be found”; recognition of the strike as “a wrongful act” and of the companies’ rights to legal damages; guarantees against future strikes save after proper negotiation, and no support for unauthorised strikers; no strike participation for supervisory grades; exclusion from settlement of all militant workers—“persons guilty of violence or intimidation”) is typical of the employers’ policy, and has served as a model for the other industries, in particular the transport settlement and the printing settlement.
By this means the Government and employers are endeavouring to extract the maximum advantage from the capitulation in order to bind trade unionism hand and foot. New legislation is also threatened to curtail the powers of the union.
The campaign of repression has been particularly heavy against all militant workers and Communists. It has been, in fact, heavier after the “settlement” than before, the whole emergency apparatus and dictatorship being maintained in force. A typical example may be given from the police reports:—
Under the Emergency Regulations. John Forshaw, 47, was charged at the Salford Police Court with having at his premises in Peacock Street a document headed a “Great Betrayal,” likely to cause disaffection among the civil population. He was found guilty, and remanded in custody for judgment. The police stated that they found on the premises copies of the document and a duplicating machine complete with stencil. The last paragraph of the stencilled copy called on all workers who had returned to cease work and to convene conferences to decide upon action in support of the miners. The document was signed “Salford District Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain.” Six other men were charged at the same court for having copies of the document in their possession.
From this it will be seen that in England after the General Council’s capitulation the mere possession of a document accusing the Labour leaders of “betrayal,” and advocating a continuance of the strike, was dealt with by the police and punished with imprisonment.
The lesson to be learnt from the heavy price that is being paid needs to be a heavy one. The future of the working class depends on that lesson being learnt, and on the correct analysis of the experiences that have taken place.
In a characteristic article in the Vienna Arbeiterzeitung on “The Lessons of the English Struggle,” Otto Bauer, the spokesman of the Second International, endeavours to save his colleagues by throwing the blame for the defeat on the English masses. Not the noble strike-heroes, MacDonald, Thomas, &c., were responsible, but the backward English masses who could not rise to the height of their conceptions-this is the typical AustroMarxist version. Communism, he declares, with its easy explanations ready to hand of the betrayal of the working class by their leaders, is simply repeating the bourgeois individualist outlook of explaining history in terms of individual leaders and is remote from Marxism.
In the same way Austro-Marxism sought to cover up the treachery of the Social Democratic leaders in the war under the plea that the “mood of the masses” was to blame; while the unsavoury Barmat scandals were explained away in the Arbeiterzeitung by the statement that “the entire population had become corrupt.”
This version of the events and lessons of the English strike is not only a shameless travesty of the facts and an insult to the whole English working class which every English worker who has been through the strike would spit back in his face with contempt (the actual facts are the exact contrary: it is only necessary to consult the leaders’ own statements to see how their whole problem and preoccupation was how to hold in the masses, to prevent more strikers coming out, to prevent the struggle extending, to call it of at any price before they lost control of the whole movement), but in addition it is a shameless travesty of Communism and Marxism.
Not this or that individual leader, but a whole policy, a whole social stratum of leadership in the Working-Class Movement, the whole Second International, failed in the British general strike. Only by the relentless exposure of this failure can the mass-movement advance. The development of the mass-movement is not a passive reflex of economic and social conditions, for Herr Bauer to observe from a coffee-house window. The development of the mass-movement proceeds by the interaction of masses and leaders in relation to every struggle and change in conditions. And it is precisely this dialectic of the mass-movement which Bauer ignores, and by ignoring abandons the whole kernel of Marx’s living and fighting teaching. (How vulgar and un-Marxist to Bauer’s sensitive ears must sound Marx’s reference to the English Labour leaders as “sold to the bourgeoisie.”) The leadership of the Second International is to-day the expression and instrument of capitalist influence in the Working-Class Movement. It is precisely this corrupting, stupefying, distorting, betraying influence, embodied in this leadership which needs to be most mercilessly fought if the working class is to advance. And the greatest lesson of this influence and its meaning has come for the English proletariat in the general strike of 1926 and its betrayal.
What is the position? A new phase of struggle has opened out before the English working class. The old trade union: struggle, the old parliamentary struggle, have merged into a new mass-struggle which has raised completely new problems. But the whole apparatus, policy and leadership of the Working-class Movement has continued to reflect the conditions of the old struggle, of the old limited sectional struggle, of the period of adaptation to the capitalist state; and is fundamentally hostile to the new struggle or to the endeavour to solve its problems. In consequence, faced with these new problems, the Working-class Movement has had to find itself unready and retreat. But these new problems have to be solved if the Working-Class Movement is to recover and advance.
What is the stage of advance which the general strike represents? The old sectional trade union action had already been condemned on all hands as no longer effective. In the conditions of capitalist decline it was no longer possible to win by this means any important gain in particular industries, or even to check the capitalist degradation of working-class conditions by piecemeal defeating of the workers. A more fundamental class battle with the capitalist regime was necessary. There followed the sweep forward of the trade unions into the parliamentary battle after the war, not merely to secure parliamentary representation for trade union legislative purposes, but to win a Labour Government. But the limitations of parliamentarism were already beginning to become apparent after the experience of the MacDonald Government. And in addition, whatever hopes might still be entertained therefrom for the future, and illusions still to be lived through, it was clear to all that the parliamentary future hopes provided no answer to the current struggle of the workers, to the immediate tack of the capitalists and driving down of working-class standards. Therefore the conception of combined trade union action gained ground and overwhelming force; until at last, when the renewed capitalist attack on wages and hours came in 1926, the general strike of the trade unions was proclaimed to answer it.
The general strike was proclaimed as an economic battle of the whole working class. Its advance was that it was the first attempt at a battle of the whole working class, without distinction of sectional interests, against the attack of the whole capitalist class. Its weakness was that it endeavoured to remain confined as a limited economic struggle, without recognising that such a confrontation of the strength of two classes becomes inevitably a political struggle, and in fact a revolutionary struggle. In consequence the Government was able to take advantage of the confusion of the Working-Class Movement and bring every weapon into the field against it, while the Working-Class Movement remained uncertain in aim and completely taken aback by the methods of the Government. Under these conditions defeat was inevitable. These conditions of the struggle must not be repeated.
The collapse of the general strike was the final collapse of the methods of the old trade union economic struggle, as it has been fought in the past, which reached its extreme culminating stage in the general strike and can go no further. The workers are now face to face with the legal and armed force of the State. The future struggle can only be carried forward as the direct political revolutionary struggle with the State. The lesson of the defeat of the general strike of 1926 is not the failure and discrediting of the weapon of the general strike, but the necessity of carrying the general strike forward to the inevitable political revolutionary struggle.
What are the new conditions of the struggle?
First, the new struggle is, by the Government’s declaration, an illegal struggle, and it is necessary to calculate on this. The High Court declaration of the general strike as illegal is very important. What does it mean? If the General Council calls another general strike, it will have to be prepared to be declared an illegal body. Either this alternative will have to be faced or the General Council will have to abjure the general strike, conform to the requirements of capitalist society, and in fact surrender the leadership of the working class. But what was the purpose for which the general strike was instituted? To organise the common action of the working class. Therefore, the General Council will either have to surrender its function and become a clerical, co-ordinating and negotiating body of the trade unions with no connection with action; or else it will have to be prepared to be declared an illegal body in a crisis.
Thus trade unionism so long as it remains sectional, so long as it remains company-tied and shackled with conciliation machinery, is of too great value to the employers to be attacked and declared illegal. But the revolutionary trade union struggle of to-day, which alone can be of value to the workers under modern conditions, is made illegal.
Second, the new struggle is inevitably a struggle against the Government. This has been demonstrated once and for all by the present experience. No matter how limited the original scope, a mass struggle is inevitably a political struggle against the Government and can only be fought as such.
Third, the struggle inevitably brings into play the armed forces of the State. Failure to recognise and prepare for this is to court surrender, and abandon all future struggle. But this can only be prepared for by propaganda among the soldiers and sailors, workers’ defence, &c., which goes beyond the whole existing movement.
Fourth, and as a consequence of the above, the struggle becomes inevitably a struggle for political power for the working class. Neither can the sacrifices demanded for the struggle be forthcoming or justified for any less objective, nor in fact can any more limited objective be obtained in so fundamental a struggle.
But a struggle of this character is in fact of a completely new type for the English Working-Class Movement; and the question therefore inevitably arises whether the apparatus of the movement is fitted for such a general struggle. The experience of 1926 throws an important light on this. The trade unions proved able to assemble the masses and to call them to battle upon a broad economic issue. But as soon as the struggle became political in character, it passed beyond the possibility of trade union direction. Such a struggle demanded a single unified direction and movement, with a single aim, a clearness of objective and outlook parallel to that of the Government, and a readiness to lead in every field of the struggle. But such a lead can only be the lead of a political party. The Labour Party, however, could not provide such a political leadership required, not only because the existing leadership of the Labour Party is rotten to the core with reformism and parliamentarism and therefore incapable of giving any leadership to the class struggle of the workers save to betray it, but also because the Labour Party itself is a loose federal body of exactly parallel character to the trade unions, and therefore incapable of uniform centralised direction. Only a centralised revolutionary political party can have the necessary unity, concentration, single aim and rapid adaptation to all the needs of the struggle. This iron necessity to the workinb class of a revolutionary political party to lead their struggle is a central lesson of the present crisis for the whole English Working-Class Movement. It is the central need for the trade unions at the present stage. Only a mass Communist Party, acting in conjunction with the trade unions as the mass organisations of the workers, can lead the whole working class to victory.
The general strike of 1926 and its collapse leaves the working class confronted with urgent tasks.
First, the fight against reaction; against the attack on the trade unions and on organisation rights; against the attack on wages and hours (in which the miners are still bearing the brunt of the combat); against the attack on the militant workers; to rally the working class and re-form the front.
Second, the fight against the disintegration of the Working-Class Movement, desertion of the unions, breaking up of the front, splits and exclusions; instead to show the way forward for the revolutionary workers to fight for the leadership, and on this basis to recruit for the unions and for 100 per cent. trade unionism.
Third, the fight against the reformist leaders responsible for the collapse of 1926; refusal to allow the episode to be covered in oblivion; relentless exposure of their rôle, and analysis of the lessons of the struggle; fight to drive them out of the Working-Class Movement, and to win revolutionary leadership in the movement.
Fourth, the fight to drive home the lessons for the future from the struggle of 1926: the exposure of bourgeois democracy, the exposure of the rôle of the bourgeois State, the necessity of the political struggle for power.
Fifth, the fight for the unification of the working-class ranks, both through the combination of the trade unions, the concentration of power in the hands of the General Council, and also above all through the development of factory organisation and the formation of factory committees.
Sixth, the fight for preparation to meet the new conditions of the struggle and for the new methods required: in particular, for the organisation of Workers’ Defence Corps directly under the auspices of the trade unions, and for the institution of working-class propaganda from the whole organised Working-Class Movement to the army, navy and air force.
Seventh, in conjunction with all this, and most important of all, the fight for the mass Communist Party as the sole means to establish the new revolutionary leadership in the English Working-Class Movement.
1. NOTE: Probably a typo and should read 1925—Transcriber
2. Comrade Forshaw has since died as the result of the intensification of an old illness, due entirely to his treatment in prison when on remand.