From The Newsletter, 27 February 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Somebody said to me the other day that he could always recognize Socialist Labour Leaguers by the way ‘they harp on Black Friday, Red Friday and all that’. As a trend in the working-class movement we are, I suppose, distinguished by (among other things) a greater awareness of the lessons of the movement’s history and concern to impart those lessons. And that is not to our discredit.
The recent success of the railwaymen in extracting a small increase from their employers, and now the Government’s decision to subsidize the railways, provide good reason to recall both Black Friday and Red, with a view to helping the working class to do what must be done in the coming months.
After the great rail victory in the autumn of 1919, the Government and the bosses got ready their strike-breaking organization and waited for a better opportunity. This came in the spring of 1921, when unemployment had reached big dimensions and was affecting the mood of the workers. Against this background, an attack on the miners revealed weakness and worse in their leadership, and this in turn was used as the pretext for the railway and transport unions to cry off their solidarity obligations under the ‘Triple Alliance’ pact. The day when this happened, and the unions went down to defeat, so opening the road for a general drive against the workers’ conditions, is known in history as Black Friday.
Four years later, the occasion when the miners were faced with a fresh attack, and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress threatened a general strike in their support, so that the mineowners and the Government had to retreat, is known as Red Friday (1925).
The Government agreed to subsidize the coal mines for a year. Meanwhile, it further perfected its strike-breaking arrangements, and when the subsidy period ended, faced the miners with a brutal challenge. The result was the general strike of May 1926 – and its betrayal by the trade union bureaucracy, which ‘winded’ the movement for many years after.
What might have saved the day in 1921 and 1926 was a Marxist leadership firmly rooted in the working class and organized to take the initiative out of the bureaucrats’ hands. In 1921, however, the Communist Party had only just been created – and that only in the formal sense of the fusion of a number of propaganda groups. By 1926 the process of ‘Stalin-ization’ had begun, and this meant that the Communist Party, misled by Moscow’s flirtation with certain allegedly ‘pro-Soviet’ trade union leaders, did not see the need to prepare for independent leadership of the working class.
Listening the other night to the rebroadcast of Scrapbook for 1919 I caught the words: ‘Miners demand nationalization – government refuse.’ While appreciating that a lot of events have to be squeezed into a short space of time in these radio scrapbooks, and that this inevitably means some telescoping, it did seem to me a glossing-over of one of the most shameless swindles ever perpetrated on Britain’s miners.
In January, 1919, the miners demanded nationalization of their industry, and a strike ballot showed an overwhelming majority for action. The government was caught on the wrong foot – with riots in Glasgow and Belfast and mutinies in the forces, this was, from its point of view, no moment for a big industrial clash on a nation-wide scale. So it announced the setting up of a commission, the Sankey Commission, to investigate the problems of the coalmining industry. The Tory minister Bonar Law, Beaverbrook’s protege, wrote to the secretary of the Miners’ Federation on March 21, 1919, in the name of the Cabinet, that ‘the government are prepared to carry out in the spirit and in the letter the recommendations of Sir John Sankey’s report’.
The miners withdrew their strike notices, trusting to the Cabinet’s pledge. In June, the Sankey Commission reported in favour of nationalization. On August 18, Lloyd George, the Liberal head of the Coalition Cabinet, announced in the House of Commons that the Government rejected nationalization. In the subsequent debate a spokesman of the miners spoke of ‘a huge game of bluff’ and of his members having been ‘duped’.
That is the instructive truth behind the smooth formula: ‘Miners demand nationalization – Government refuse.’ And this, column is in business to keep straight the record of such episodes, and draw the perennial lesson – never to trust the promises of capitalist governments.
The John Bull article on the Socialist Labour League tells readers in one paragraph that a member had been ‘squeezed out’ because he devoted some of his spare time to seeing his girl-friend. This is presumably to warn all normal young people that the League is no place for them – all the ordinary person’s amusements must be given up: ‘abandon fun, all ye that enter here’.
A little later, however, it turns out that what is particularly dangerous about a certain well-known North of England Leaguer is that ‘he is neither a crank nor an ascetic ... He enjoys watching football or taking his wife and 18-months-old baby for a spin in their 1948 car’!
Another anomaly in the article concerns the membership figure of the League. ‘The League, he [Gerry Healy] said, now has branches in most big cities and a total membership of 1,200 (Fryer puts it at 400).’ One of the headlines to the article reads: ‘In cities throughout Britain – 1,200 fanatical members.’ That doesn’t show much confidence in the information provided by ex-comrade Fryer, does it?
A neighbour of mine, Mr. Norman Wallace, a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, has been distrained (I believe that’s the word) for non-payment of that part of his rates which goes for ‘civil defence’. He thinks that what is called civil defence is a fraud.
The chairman of the bench of magistrates who decided on this action was Frank Bailey, leader of the Labour group on Hornsey Borough Council, and his fellow-magistrate was Labour MP Harry Hynd.
Whether one agrees or not with Mr. Wallace’s type of individual protest, it is certainly, I think, disquieting to find prominent members of the Labour movement functioning as repressors of such a protest. Incidents of this sort bring up the whole question of Labour JPs and what happens when socialists take positions in the repressive organs of the capitalist State.
‘It is now the Communist Parties which are the advocates of the peaceful and constitutional path of transition to socialism by the support of the majority of the people expressed through a parliamentary majority (the Communist Party’s British Road to Socialism since 1951). The peaceful transition to socialism, which was once regarded as the hallmark of Social Democracy against Communism, has how become the hallmark of modern Communism ...’
– R.P. Dutt, Notes of the Month, Labour Monthly, January 1960
Last updated on 15.10.2011