Tony Cliff

Patterns of mass strike

(Part 1)

The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was radically different to the miners’ strike of 1972 in basic features and in outcome. Why? What was the historical background to 1984-5 that was so different to that of 1972? How are the differences related to the balance of class forces in the two periods? How did this balance of forces affect the relation between rank and file action and the trade union bureaucracy? How did the politics of the labour movement differ in the two periods? A correct diagnosis of the causes of these differences is key to finding the correct measures to overcome the weaknesses of the 1984-5 strike compared with 1972.

These are the problems that this article will address itself to.

We shall start by dealing with the Marxist concept of the mass strike, then look at some mass strikes that have actually taken place, including finally the 1972 and 1984-5 miners’ strikes.



Rosa Luxemburg, 1905 and the classic account of the mass strike

By far the most brilliant exposition on the mass strike is the classic work of Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, The Political Party and The Trade Unions, which deals with the role of the mass strike in forging the working class into a fighting unit, in bringing about their spiritual growth, changing them so that they become able to change society.

Rosa Luxemburg sketches the rising waves of strike in Russia in the ten years 1896-1905. In May 1896 a general strike of 40,000 textile workers took place in St Petersburg. This was followed by another general strike of the same workers in 1897. Following this, a whole number of small strikes took place until the next mass strike in March 1902 of the petroleum workers in the Caucasus. Then in November a mass strike of railwaymen in Rostov turned into a general strike. In May, June and July 1903, the whole of South Russia was aflame. Baku, Tiflis, Batum, Elizavetograd, Odessa, Kiev, Nikolayev, and Ekaterinoslav were in the grip of a general strike. The year 1904 brought with it war, and for a time a pause in the strike movement. But this ended with the defeat of the Tsarist army and navy at the hands of the Japanese. In December 1904 a general strike broke out in Baku. Before this news had time to reach all parts of the Tsarist empire a mass strike broke out in St Petersburg in January 1905. This was the start of the Russian revolution of 1905.

The sudden general rising of the proletariat in January under the powerful impetus of the St Petersburg events was outwardly a political act of the revolutionary declaration of war on absolutism. But this first general direct action reacted inwardly all the more powerfully as if for the first time awoke class feeling and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock. And this awakening of class feeling expressed itself forthwith in the circumstances that the proletarian mass, counted by millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of the tugging at these chains. All the innumerable sufferings of the modern proletariat reminded them of the old bleeding wounds. Here was the eight-hour day fought for, there piece-work was resisted, here were brutal foremen driven off in a sack on a handcar, at another place infamous systems of fines were fought against, everywhere better wages were striven for and here and there the abolition of homework. [1]

Mass economic strikes led to confrontation with the Tsarist regime, its police and army, and this led directly to political strikes. The latter awakened previously dormant workers to undertake economic strikes to improve their conditions, and the economic strikes again gave new impetus to the political strikes. The mass strike overcomes the separation of economics and politics that is inherent in reformism (as well as in its symmetrical opposite, syndicalism). The mass strike fuses together the struggle for reforms inside capitalism with the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. The mass strike is a bridge between the here and now and the socialist future.

In the mass strike workers stop being onlookers of history, or a stage army; they step on to the historical arena shaping their future and forging themselves.

In former bourgeois revolutions where, on the one hand, the political education and leadership of the revolutionary masses was undertaken by the bourgeois parties, and on the other hand the revolutionary task was limited to the overthrow of the government, the short battle on the barricades was the appropriate form of revolutionary struggle. Today, at a time that the working class must educate, organise and lead itself in the course of the revolutionary struggle, when the revolution itself is directed not only against the established state power but also against capitalist exploitation, mass strikes appear as the natural method to mobilise the broadest possible proletarian layers into action, to revolutionise and organise them. Simultaneously it is a method by means of which to undermine and overthrow the established state power as well as to curb capitalist exploitation.. . In order that the working class may participate en masse in any direct political action, it must first organise itself, which above alt means that it must obliterate the boundaries between factories and workshops, mines and foundries, it must overcome the split between workshops which the daily yoke of capitalism condemns it to. Therefore the mass strike is the first natural spontaneous form of every great revolutionary proletarian action. The more industry becomes the prevalent form of the economy, the more prominent the role of the working class, and the more developed the conflict between labour and capital, the more powerful and decisive become the mass strikes. The earlier main form of bourgeois revolutions, the battle on the barricades, the open encounter with the armed state power is a peripheral aspect of the revolution today, only one moment in the whole process of the mass struggle of the proletariat. [2]

Contrary to all reformists who see a Chinese wall between partial struggles for economic reform and the political struggle for revolution, Rosa Luxemburg pointed out that in a revolutionary period the economic struggle grows into a political one, and vice versa.

The movement does not go only in one direction, from an economic to a political struggle, but also in the opposite direction. Every important political mass action, after reaching its peak, results in a series of economic mass strikes. And this rule applies not only to the individual mass strike, but to the revolution as a whole. With the spread, clarification and intensification of the political struggle not only does the economic struggle not recede, but on the contrary it spreads and at the same time becomes more organised and intensified. There exists a reciprocal influence between the two struggles. Every fresh attack and victory of the political struggle has a powerful impact on the economic struggle, in that at the same time as it widens the scope for the workers to improve their conditions and strengthens their impulse to do so, it enhances their fighting spirit After every soaring wave of political action, there remains a fertile sediment from which sprout a thousand economic struggles. And the reverse also applies. The workers’ constant economic struggle against capital sustains them at every pause in the political battle. The economic struggle constitutes, so to speak, the permanent reservoir of working class strength from which political struggles always imbibe new strength ...

In a word, the economic struggle is the factor that advances the movement from one political focal point to another. The political struggle periodically fertilises the ground for the economic struggle. Cause and effect interchange every second. Thus we find that the two elements, the economic and political, do not incline to separate themselves from one another during the period of the mass strikes in Russia, not to speak of negating one another as pedantic schemes would suggest. [3]

The logical and necessary climax of the mass strike is ‘the open uprisings which can only be realised as the culmination of a series of partial uprisings which prepare the pound, and therefore are liable to end for a time in what looks like partial “defeats”, each of which may seem to be “premature”.’ [4]

For Rosa Luxemburg, ‘The most precious thing, because it is the most enduring, in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat’s spiritual growth. The advance by leaps and – bounds of the intellectual stature of the proletariat affords an inviolable guarantee of its further progress in the inevitable economic and political struggles ahead.’ [5]

And what idealism workers rise to! They put aside thoughts of whether they have the wherewithal to support themselves and their families during the struggle. They do not ask whether all the preliminary technical preparations have been made. The mass strike can ‘generate such a tremendous volume of idealism among the masses that they appear to become almost immune to the most terrible privations.’ [6]

Rosa Luxemburg’s account concentrates on the great dissolving effect of the mass strike on the boundaries between economics and politics in workers’ struggles. But she is also clear that it tends to dissolve other barriers as well – sectionalism, regionalism, etc. – at the same time as demonstrating the unbridgeable gulf between workers’ interests and those of the bosses and their state. Her description fits a number of mass strikes: Russia 1905, 1917; France and Spain 1936; Hungary 1956; Poland 1980, and others.

However, there are many mass strikes that have little in common with Rosa Luxemburg’s description. Where the workers are highly organised in trade unions, the extent of their independence from the conservative trade union bureaucracy is largely a function of their confidence in facing the capitalists. The higher the level of organisation and confidence of the rank and file in fighting the capitalists, the more able are they to break the shackles of the trade union bureaucracy, and vice versa. The extent to which a strike is a product of rank-and-file initiative, determines how near it is to the norm of the mass strike described by Rosa Luxemburg. Unfortunately many people use Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of the mass strike dogmatically, so that instead of comparing her concept with an actual mass strike, they use it to obscure instead of enlighten. The mass strike, like all social phenomena, is not absolute, but largely depends on the circumstances in which it takes place. To underline this we shall deal with two mass strikes which are completely different from those analysed by Rosa Luxemburg: the purely economic, bureaucratically centralised Swedish general strike of 1909; and the purely political, bureaucratically controlled Belgian general strike of 1913.



Purely economic and purely political general strikes: Sweden 1909 and Belgium 1913

(i) Sweden 1909 The Swedish general strike started on 2 August 1909. It followed a series of smaller strikes in July which met with lockouts in a number of factories. The aim of the strike was an improvement in the workers’ wages. Of the 500,000 workers engaged in manufacturing and transport nearly 300,000 obeyed the call of the central trade union leadership, and stopped work.

The strike was very tightly controlled from above. Keeping otder was the leitmotif of the leadership. Thus the General Secretary of the trade unions issued the following rule:

To maintain order, the strike committees shall choose a sufficient number of ‘special police’ from the best qualified persons. The strike committee in each place shall cooperate with the police, and the ‘specials’ shall be furnished with a card and shall bear insignia clearly showing their function. They shall conform scrupulously to the instruction of the police. [7]

The idea of setting up special trade union police was suggested to the President of the National Federation of Labour by the Minister of the Interior! The result was, indeed, perfect order. As one historian wrote:

Owing to the constant command of the labor leaders to keep order, to the excellent cooperation of the strike police with the regular police force, and to the almost complete cessation of liquor sales during the strike period, the public and the authorities could state that good order was less disturbed during the strike than in ordinary times, and that the attitude of the workers and their respect for social decencies were above all praise. [8]

The strike was completely solid. However, it achieved nothing. After a little more than a month, it was called off. Not a penny was added to the workers’ wages. The trade union leaders ‘surrendered practically without conditions’, and the strike was ‘a complete failure’. [9]

Following this, the employers went on the offensive. The number of workers locked out, or forced into defensive, strikes, remained quite large for a long time. On 9 September there were 124,351 in this position. On 1 October there were still 63,620. [10] In some industries the lockout continued for over a year – until 1 December 1910. These industries included clothing, cellulose, road and bridge construction, sawmills and textiles. Membership of the National Federation of Labour fell by 33 per cent in 1909, and even in the course of 1910 did not fully recover. [11]

The Swedish general strike was an extreme example of a bureaucratic mass strike.

(ii) Belgium 1913 A Special Congress of the Belgian Labour Party on 30 June 1912 decided to call a strike for universal male suffrage, and the abolition of the plural vote for the rich that rendered the workers ½, 1/3 or ¼ citizens. The Congress did not fix the date for the strike, but delegated full powers for this purpose to the National Committee for Universal Suffrage and the General Strike. This Committee did not decree a general strike until its meeting of 12 February 1913, and even then it was set for 14 April, two months later. The most suitable time for a strike, the leaders thought, was ‘the spring, when the workers’ gardens can be cultivated during the leisure period of the strike – an April stoppage would be practically an Easter vacation.’ [12]

Why the long pause, ten months, between the call for a general strike, and its actual launch? ‘Some of [the] leaders undoubtedly hoped, by playing for time, that something might turn up to avert the actual strike ... Though the methods of the leadership failed to avert the final occurrence of the general strike, the ten months’ delay did permit the evolution of a very peaceful general strike, by means of long organisation, constant propaganda, and the slow substitution of the calm reason of 1913 for the wild emotions of June 1912.’ [13]

Everything was planned and rigidly regimented. For example general instructions were issued as to the strictly peaceful nature of the strike, with scabs not even being challenged. The instructions were:

To be peaceful; all noisy processions and riotous demonstrations, and all alcohol, must be avoided. There must be no sabotage, no attacks on the liberty of work. Carry the message to the workers: ‘Cross your arms! Make the strike a joyful one. Keep it up six weeks and you will win.’ To keep it going for six weeks you must SAVE. Save out of your expenses at cabaret, sports, and gambling. Don’t compromise the trade union funds which are reserved for ECONOMIC strikes.

During July, August and September 1912, many large meetings were held in the cities and industrial centers, and the labor press repeated the arguments of the speakers. On the eve of the reopening of Parliament in November, thousands of meetings were held simultaneously over the whole country. To broadcast this propaganda the National Committee for Universal Suffrage and the General Strike issued a million copies of four manifestoes and five booklets with an edition of a million. Specialized propaganda of all kinds was organized for local appeal, for individual family discussion, for musical and sporting circles. There were general strike stamps, for correspondence, though later the Postmaster refused to allow these to be affixed to the mail. There were general strike buttons for enthusiasts and songs to awaken class sentiment even in the by-ways and small cottages of the poorest workers. [14]

Finance was organised in the most centralised and bureaucratic way possible, thus preventing any risk of spontaneous rank-and-file activity. The organisation of soup kitchens was also tightly controlled by the National Commission on Food Supplies.

The Commission’s task was to map out district and local areas in such a manner that not more than two hundred strikers should be brought together in any one spot, lest the strike cease to be peaceful.

Twice a day the common meal would gather the strikers together, encourage them and keep them peaceful and orderly, and would provide a place for orders to be given and for the plans of the leaders to be explained ... The Commission undertook its task with such care that it had even prepared some twenty different menus before the strike actually occurred! [15]

Leisure activities of strikers were also tightly regimented. ‘Schemes of all kinds were devised for study and amusement on the part of the strikers during the period of the strike. Fetes, concerts, brief readings of a humorous or Socialist character; preparation of temporary labor libraries, and arrangement for the fuller use of existing ones; the planning of collective visits by workers to the various museums and art galleries (no group to exceed twenty-five persons); daily excursions into the country and the full use of public parks for sports – these and other aspects of the possible strike were taken under careful consideration by the National Committee and its district committees.’ [16]

To prevent the hot-headed youth from misbehaving the leadership involved them in a special ‘Labour Police’.

To meet the danger of disturbance from the more militant of the young Socialists the Labor party leaders conceived the highly successful plan of turning the most influential of these youth enthusiasts into a special Labor police ... this scheme worked with extraordinary success. [17]

Strict measures were taken to prevent any wild orators from straying from the straight and narrow path:

After the strike started, all speakers at strike meetings were definitely appointed by the federation whose members were holding the meeting, lest tumult should arise from uncertified orators. [18]

The government was not sure that the Labour leaders would be able to control the workers completely. Hence ‘every possible precaution had been taken by the authorities. Soldiers and police were everywhere. The assembly of more than a few persons in front of any Catholic cooperative was forbidden. Railroad stations and tracks were patrolled, and the tunnels guarded by soldiers. Nunneries were guarded. On the first day of the strike military and police were present at six in the morning at all factories and workshops ... Before the 13th of April, railroads, bridges, and all strategic points were heavily guarded. Even in the most peaceful villages soldiers were stationed.’ [19]

The number of workers on strike – 450,000 – was very large indeed, comparable to the mass strikes in Russia in 1905, and far larger proportionally to the size of Belgium’s population.

What characterised the strike above all was calm and discipline:

From the start order and discipline were shown to a remarkable degree. Workers left the factories in excellent order, cleaned and oiled their machines and their tools, and left everything in such condition that there would be little rust to delay the resumption of work when the time came. Even opponents of the strike had to admit that this was pretty clear evidence that the strike was not against the individual employers.

The workers themselves walked around their towns, looking quietly in the store windows; slept late and went to bed early; cultivated their gardens; visited the local Matson du Peuple to read the press or learn the news from the local control committee; visited their parent in other towns, making the journey on foot lest they give any of their money to the state railroads! Many others availed themselves of the officially organized group visits to the museums and galleries or attended the labor musicales and lectures. The metal workers obtained work in France and sent a large part of their earnings back to the strike fund. The more energetic and militant’ occupied themselves with the actual running of the strike organism – helping in the soup kitchens, distributing strike cards, acting under the Propaganda Commission, or else functioning as ‘strike police’. [20]

The Belgian general strike was summed up by one historian as ‘the great silence’. The aspect of the strike that most impressed one observer, was ‘the profound quiet with which the strike started and the calm discipline with which it ran its course ... Cabling to his newspaper on the first day of the strike, the London Times correspondent bore witness that “Calmness is reported everywhere. The strike ... is perfectly peaceful.” At Charleroi, where the great majority of workers struck, there was “no molestation of men at work.” The same correspondent on the following day was able to report that “perfect order still prevails.” On the third day of the strike he telegraphed, “The same peaceful aspect and absence of disorder are maintained ... The strike leaders have fully carried the promise that the strike should be peaceful and the strikers have rendered admirable obedience to orders.” Though large numbers of foreign correspondents were in all parts of Belgium, watching the progress of the strike, the London Times could still declare of the fourth strike day, “The quiet has been complete so far ... there has been no ruffling of the calm on succeeding days.” On the 20th of the month the Times reported that “the strikers have a rather holiday and good natured demeanor and show nothing approaching that lowering, sullen aspect that portends earnestness in a desperate cause”.’ [21]

And so it went on until the end of the strike.

After ten days the strike was called off. In fact it achieved absolutely nothing. No change took place in Belgium’s suffrage law.

The Belgian strike was an extreme negation of Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of the mass strike: no spontaneity, no independent rank- and-file action, complete separation of politics from economics, no economic challenge to the capitalists, and no real political challenge to the state. Politics was limited to the most narrow concept of reform in the electoral system.



The 1926 general strike in Britain

The British general strike, although less regimented by the bureaucracy than the Swedish strike of 1909 or the Belgian strike of 1913, was nevertheless far nearer in type to them than to the mass strikes in Russia in 1905. The outcome was that the bureaucratically-called general strike of 1926 did not give the mobilised workers an opportunity to escape, even temporarily, from the grip of the bureaucrats. The shortness of the strike – nine days – prevented it creating a life of its own.

From the very beginning the TUC leaders made it clear that they intended keeping a tight grip on the strike. They took it upon themselves to decide who should come out on strike and who should not. A stronger rank-and-file movement would not have tolerated the arbitrary decision to bring certain workers out but others doing similar jobs not. Furthermore the bureaucratic fiat caused tremendous confusion.

Those called out were transport, printing, iron and steel, building trades workers (except such as were definitely employed on housing and hospital work), electricity and gas workers who were ‘to cooperate with the object of ceasing to supply power’ (but not light). Excluded from the call were engineers and shipbuilding workers, postmen (including those dealing with cables and telegrams – thereby leaving a very effective means of communication firmly in the hands of the government). The result was massive confusion:

The General Council decided that electricity could be supplied for lighting, but not for power, and sent out instructions accordingly. The Electrical Trade Union, however, had already given instructions that all of its members were to cease work except those supplying power for hospitals; and the Amalgamated Engineering Unions decided to cease work only when others had done so. The position was complicated by the fact that the original decision was impracticable. It proved impossible to separate lighting and power in the way that the General Council wished. Later in the strike the instructions about light and power grew vaguer and vaguer, like those telling local strike committees to meet local authorities and offer them power and light ‘for such services as home, shop and street lighting, social services, power for food, bakeries, laundries and domestic purposes’. It is not surprising that many towns sent deputations to Eccleston Square to find out what the instructions really meant

Difficulties of interpretation arose, also, from the General Council’s decision to let each union act separately in calling out its members. Typical of these was the confusion that came from the order calling out all budding workers, ‘except such as are employed definitely on housing and hospital work’. What did the words mean? The various unions concerned disagreed about them, sometimes violently. The secretary of the Wellingborough Strike Committee complained, after calling a mass meeting: ‘Each affiliated society secretary was on the platform with me, each with differently-worded instructions, each of which called on the members to cease work, and then went on to lay down rules and regulations which no one could interpret, but which made it impossible for the members to do so.’ [22]

The bureaucratic muddle created real anomalies. Thus from Sheffield it was reported that ‘in one case, the member of one Union employed by a firm upon outside work had been instructed to cease work, whilst other members of the same Union who were employed inside had to remain at work, and to their utter disgust, were compelled to blackleg officially upon their own fellow-members.’ [23]

With not all workers being called out, many, like the engineering and shipyard workers of Glasgow, had to use blackleg transport to get to work.

The call by individual unions (the membership of 82 unions were wholly or partially on strike) reflected the sectionalism of the trade union bureaucracy. Again and again we find that workers resented not being called out, and often ignored instructions and came out anyway.

The problem they experienced, however, was a lack of rank-and-file organisation through which this resentment could be channelled. By and large the local organisations were powerless or bureaucratically controlled. The main ones were the trades councils. It was these which at the outset formed joint strike committees or Councils of Action – probably between 400 and 500 all told.

The trades councils had always had very restricted powers. Negotiations over wages and conditions in industry were carried out either nationally or at the workplace. This limited the bargaining role of the trades councils, which brought together representatives of different trade union branches in a locality, hence did not relate directly to the workplaces, and could play no significant role in deciding wages and conditions. Furthermore they had no financial or other sanctions to bind their members in any way, only playing a role in issues away from the workplace, like health, education or housing, acting as pressure groups in the community.

During the great industrial militancy of 1910-20 the trades councils at best played a marginal role. Thus one historian, Alan Clinton, writes of their role in the rise of the shop stewards’ movement in the first world war:

Trades councils were largely organisations of the trade union machinery itself, not in any way adapted to the workshop problems which arose in the period and expressed themselves in the shop stewards’ movement. Though largely ignored at the time by trade union leaders, the trades councils as a whole reflected their policies and attitudes, if usually in a somewhat more radical form. Thus the relationship between the trades councils and the shop stewards’ movement was one of occasional co-operation rather than active support. [24]

A book on the history of the Sheffield trades council states that the development of the shop stewards’ movement during the first world war had nothing to do with the trades council. [25] Similarly the Clyde shop stewards assiduously avoided the powerful Glasgow Trades Council. [26] On issues away from industry – like agitation against the long food queues during the war, the Sheffield Workers’ Committee did, however, collaborate with the trades council. [27] On the same issue the Coventry Engineering Joint Committee also collaborated with its trades council. [28] But it was only in the aftermath of the shop stewards’ movement that J.T. Murphy and other leading Communists started to augment the significance of the trades councils. In 1922 Murphy became convinced that trades councils were ‘the means of drawing all the labour forces together for a class resistance ... it is easy to see that in the very near future the trades councils will play an ever increasing part in the class war.’ [29]

During the 1926 strike, because of efforts of union leaders to run the strike through the machinery of their individual unions, there was often considerable confusion locally, and many trades councils were bypassed. In some places ‘there were a number of different strike committees with conflicting powers. Such was the case at Leeds, where the GMWU and the transport unions ran separate strike committees that refused to acknowledge the authority of the Trades Council. In Sheffield the CP ran a parallel and independent strike committee.’ [30]

The picture in London was very chaotic. By 8 May some 15 Councils of Action existed. By the end of the strike there were around 70. But it was only after the end of the strike that the first conference of Councils of Action was held. When the strike began the London Trades Council called a meeting of union district committees and formed a very formal Central Strike Committee. Alas, ‘No effective contact was maintained [by the Central Strike Committee] either with the local Councils of Action or Strike Committees’. [31] As a result, ‘The Central Strike Committee became an organ without real power, its functions limited to convening meetings of local delegates and giving advice and guidance which it could not enforce.’ [32]

In Glasgow the Central Strike Co-ordinating Committee (CSCC) was established on 3 May. It was made up of 23 men, most of them union officials, and included Peter Kerrigan, the Communist, and William Shore, the right-wing secretary of the Glasgow Trades and Labour Council (GT&LC). As the engineers and shipyard workers were not called out until the last day of the strike they were hardly represented on the CSCC. The right wing dominated the building, transport and dock workers, who made up the bulk of the strikers.

The organisation set up by the CSCC to run the strike was complemented by Area Committees, sixteen of which were set up. Divisional Labour Parties were asked to set up these committees, and this they did between the 6th and 9th of May. [33] Often the chairmen were Labour Councillors. [34] The CSCC instructed the Area Committees to ‘maintain discipline throughout the Parliamentary Division ... prevent unauthorised propaganda ... give effect to any instructions that may be forwarded by the TUC, the STUC or the CSCC.’ [35]

Notwithstanding Kerrigan’s leadership of the CSCC, this body followed, practically slavishly, the line coming from the TUC. Many years later Peter Kerrigan wrote:

For the nine days of the strike I was to be busy, almost to the exclusion of all other activity, with the work of the Central Strike Co-ordinating Committee, of which I was first vice-chairman and then chairman. People ask me today: did I expect the betrayal of the General Strike? I always have to reply that, amid the struggle, I never thought of it. [36]

One historian, Morris, concludes: ‘... despite the Communist leadership, the CSCC does not seem to have issued any propaganda for the Communist demand for a Labour government and coal nationalisation, nor did it try to set up a Workers’ Defence Corps or Food Commissariat with the help of the Co-operative Societies ... The CSCC was prepared to criticize the TUC’s decisions, but not to change the character of the strike from that determined by the TUC.’ [37]

The CSCC did not find it necessary even to have a paper of its own, separate from the official Scottish TUC paper, The Scottish Worker. The suggestion of mass picketing, moved by Kerrigan, was rejected by the CSCC. [38]

Morris quite plausibly argues that ‘It is sometimes said in discussion of the General Strike that towards its end control was passing out of the hands of the General Council into that of local left-wing militants. This does not appear to have been happening within the CSCC ... Indeed, at no point throughout the nine days was the TUC’s authority questioned.’ [39]

In the North East, a Northumberland and Durham Joint Strike Committee was established, which led to a conference on 8 May at Gateshead Town Hall. It was convened by the Newcastle Strike Committee and attended by 167 representatives of 87 organisations, including 28 Councils of Action and 52 Strike Committees of Northumberland and Durham. The conference also included representatives from Carlisle, Workington and Middlesborough.

The Northumberland and Durham Joint Strike Committee suffered from a number of defects. First, the Durham Miners’ Association, patently the most influential union in the county, refused to join it. (It formed its own strike committee only two hours before the strike was called off). Secondly it was made clear that the strike committee was subject to the decisions of the TUC General Council and to those of the Trade Union Executives and not to any decisions which that particular conference might take. Furthermore ‘the Joint Strike Committee had virtually no importance north of Ashington or south of Gateshead.’ [40]

In Darlington there existed two strike committees: one, the Darlington Council of Action, a body centred on the local Trades Council; the other, representing far more workers, the Rail and Transport Strike Committee, [41]

The sectionalism that afflicted the Newcastle Strike Committee as well as the Darlington Council of Action, also affected the Trades Council of Middlesborough. A report of the Secretary of the Middlesborough Trades Council describes the first meeting of the Central Strike Committee which took place on 6 May:

The decision of the Trades Council re the forming of a Central Strike Committee was considered, and it soon became evident that centralised strike direction was not yet practical in Middlesborough, owing to the fear on the part of some of the delegates that it would result in what was termed ‘domestic affairs of individual unions being interfered with.’ The terms of the Trades Council resolution, however, were modified to meet the criticism by adding further words stating that the Central Strike Committee would not interfere with the domestic policy of any union, in any other than a constitutional way. Having regard to the discussion which took place on this point, it became evident that the Central Strike Committee could only hope to act as a co-ordinating and not a directional body at the outside, whatever may have been possible as the strike continued. [42]

In Birmingham the Trades Council empowered its Executive to create machinery to direct the coming strike. On 2 May 1926, the Executive called a meeting of full-time trade union officials from whom nine representatives were chosen to sit with the Executive as a Birmingham Trade Union Emergency Committee. ‘Politically the composition of the Emergency Committee was far from revolutionary, as might be expected from a body which contained four of the handful of Birmingham Labour magistrates (Brett, Hall, Haynes, and Rudland), a councillor (Crump) and an ex-councillor (Ager), and a former Coalition MP. The majority were longstanding trade union officials of maturity, responsibility and moderation. Ager was chairman of the Birmingham Borough Labour Party.’ [43]

In Sheffield the Central Dispute Committee was formed from the industrial section of the Trades and Labour Council, and with affiliated unions represented on it. The Central Dispute Committee saw its own purpose as ‘being a subordinate agent of the General Council of the TUC’. Its job was ‘limited to interpreting how best to apply locally a strategy determined by the TUC, and not to determining the strategy itself.’ [44]

Leeds was, according to an account of the Plebs League, ‘the worst organised town in England’ with ‘at least two and possibly four rival strike committees in existence.’ [45]

In general it was usual for the representatives of the transport unions (or the railway unions alone) to form executives independent of the Central Strike Committees, as for example in Birmingham, Glasgow, Darlington, Nottingham, Oldham, Crewe, Dunfermline, Gloucester and Stoke. [46]

I have not been able to find one case of shop stewards being represented on the Councils of Action or Joint Strike Committees.

The local committees – Trades Councils, Councils of Action or Joint Strike Committees – did not pull very hard at the leash of the TUC General Council. As one historian put it:

Taken as a whole, [the] mass of local evidence suggests that the majority of Trades Councils and strike organs were no more aggressive in temper or lawless in their behaviour than the General Council itself. They displayed on the contrary a strong determination to preserve discipline and demonstrate obedience. The avowal of the Northumberland and Durham strike committee was, in this respect, representative: ‘[We] were resolved even when it was against the most obvious requirements of the emergency not to go a single step beyond the Trades Union Executives’ instructions or prohibitions ... The disciplined attitude of the Joint Strike Committee towards Eccleston Square and the Trade Union Executives was assumed from the beginning and never questioned at any moment.’ [47]

The dependence of the rank and file on the trade union bureaucracy during the strike, also led to the largely pacific nature of relations between the strikers and, police. At the beginning of the strike the British Worker published a list of things that workers on strike were expected to do:

Do all you can to keep everybody smiling – the way to do that is to smile yourself.

Do your best to discountenance any ideas of violent or disorderly conduct. Do the thing that’s nearest – that will occupy you and will steady your nerves if they get shaky.

Do any odd jobs that want doing about the house.

Do a little to interest and amuse the kiddies now that you have the chance.

Do what you can to improve your health; a good walk every day will keep you fit.

Do something. Hanging about and swapping rumours is bad in every way. The General Council suggests that in all districts where large numbers of workers are idle sports should be organised and entertainments arranged. This will both keep a number of people busy and provide amusement for many more. [48]

Throughout the country there was heavy emphasis on friendly relations with the police. At Lincoln the Chief Constable was reported as a ‘constant friend of Labour: he resolutely refused to allow mounted police to enter Lincoln and asked the strike committee to supply the men needed as special constables.’ Bath Trades Council reported: ‘... have been complimented and thanked by Mayor and Chief Constable for maintaining perfect order; advised Mayor first day of strike to disband local specials as superfluities.’ At Ilkeston: ‘Police very good and sooner assisted than interfered with us’. At Yeovil: ‘There was a good feeling exhibited by the town police throughout’. In Leyton: ‘... very pleasant relationship with the police’. In Selby: ‘Police assistance could not be improved upon; our strike police and local police worked in complete harmony.’ In Sussex more than a thousand strikers ‘passed a vote of confidence on the local police sergeant and his constables which was received with musical honour’. [49]

At Peterborough ‘the Mayor and Chief Constable gave use of sports ground at reduced prices or free of charge to Committees who were organising concerts and games of tennis, bowls and football.’ [50] And ‘At Banbury joint concerts were arranged and both sides competed in a tug-of-war. At Norwich strikers and police organised a series of athletic matches under the auspices of the Chief Constable. In all of the eastern counties between London and the Humber; strike committees worked with police and civic leaders “to keep the peace and organise recreations”.’ [51]

The British Worker reported, under the headings Sports for the Masses, Strikers beat Police at Football, Music and Drama: ‘In many parts of the country excellent amusement and recreation facilities have been provided for the strikers and their families. Special football and cricket matches and a variety of other sports took place yesterday, while there were plenty of indoor attractions, such as concerts, dramatic entertainments and whist drives.’ [52]

Besides participating in sport, the other main cultural activity of workers on strike, it seems, was church going. In Battersea:

... on the second day of the strike the Mayor approached several local churches suggesting that, ‘to mitigate the unnecessary congregation of the public on the streets’, churches and union halls should be opened to the public for rest purposes, and perhaps simple services or lectures could be given. One minister, the Reverend J.W. Harford at the Lavender Hill Congregational Church, declared that he and his colleagues ‘unanimously fell in with the suggestion’. Not only would he open his hall and provide refreshments, but he would also be willing to give lectures. He suggested, under the heading Prophets and Priests of Democracy, lectures on Plato, Will Langland, John Wycltff and Thomas More. Other churches responded by opening their halls and, importantly, allowing their Sunday collections to be contributed to the Council of Action’s fighting fund ...

On Sunday afternoon the local NUR Transport Joint Strike Committee organised a church parade with banners, to march from Unity Hall in Falcon Grove to the nearby St Mary’s Church. Having sung O God Our Help in Ages Past, the congregation listened to a sermon. [53]

In Plymouth, ‘daily religious services were arranged and were attended’ by workers on strike. [54]

The Widnes NUR branch ended its meetings with God Save the King and the Dover Strike Committee requested strikers to sing Rule Britannia instead of The Red Flag when marching through the streets . . . There was a religious rather than revolutionary fervour about some of the [strike] bulletins. The editor of the Wigan Strike Bulletin naturally had an appropriate message for his readers on Sunday, 9th May: ‘My Dear Public, Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with All thy heart, soul, mind and strength and Thy neighbour as Thyself. Daily Bulletin, News from all points. Situation magnificent. Everywhere solid.’ The Saturday issue of Lansbury’s Bulletin, which circulated in Poplar, informed its readers that ‘Tomorrow is Sunday. You will come to our meetings at night, but I would like you to attend the Church services nearest your home ... It is Christ’s gospel of passive resistance which you are practising today.’ [55]

The situation was not, however, passive and pacifistic everywhere. In the major working-class areas of London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and many other northern cities the police perpetrated vicious and often sustained violence against the workers on strike:

At Preston, a mob of5,000 people who tried to storm the police station and release an arrested striker were only beaten back by repeated baton charges.. There were similar scenes in such important industrial centres as Middles- borough, Newcastle and Hull, where there were 25 arrests and 41 hospital admissions. At York another mob tried to release a prisoner, while Edinburgh and Glasgow both saw violent scenes stretching over four or five nights with missiles being thrown and hundreds of arrests. [56]

Had the strike continued beyond the nine days there would no doubt have been far more police violence. Many writers have pointed to ‘the very evident tightening up of police measures throughout Britain during the last weekend’. [57] However, the small number of Councils of Action which decided to set up workers’ defence corps is an indication of the relatively limited spread of police violence.

Outside the Fife coalfields the number of places where there was felt to be a need to form a Defence Corps was limited: in the Labour Research Department survey they were mentioned only at Aldershot, Chatham, Colchester, Croydon, Denny and Dunipace, St Pancras, Selley, Sowerby Bridge and Willesden. [58]

Proposals to set up such a corps were frequently made by members of strike committees, as it was Communist Party and National Minority Movement policy to press for this step to be taken, but most of these proposals were defeated. it seemed unnecessary to most trade unionists because, taking the country as a whole, violent incidents were exceptions to a general picture of calm, in which pickets and police respected each other’s functions. [59]

Of course a rapid radicalisation – or ‘real spiritual growth’ to use Luxemburg’s term – did take place among a minority of workers as a result of their participation in the strike. One proof of this is the significant growth in the membership of the Communist Party during the strike and the seven subsequent months of the miners’ lockout. [60]

We shall not, however, be dealing here with what happened to the CP and its industrial arm, the Minority Movement. Nor shall we look at the role of the Labour Party leadership and the part played by Moscow. We also will not deal with Trotsky’s brilliant critique of the trade union bureaucracy, and the CP’s trailing behind the ‘left’ leaders; nor with the weakness of Trotsky’s grasp of the real situation in the British working class at the time, which greatly exaggerated its combativity and the strength of its rank-and-file organisation. This weakness was a result of misinformation disseminated by the British CP leaders who oscillated between the syndicalism which they inherited from the SLP and the left reformism which they inherited from the BSP. (The Comintern exacerbated this oscillation and the misinformation.) Certainly these are important questions in their own right, but we are not attempting to deal exhaustively with the subject. Our concern here is with one central point; that is, that the British general strike was by and large bureaucratically controlled, with the rank and file hardly managing to show independence of action and spirit.




1. M.A. Waters (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York 1970), p.171.

2. R. Luxemburg, Ausgewãhlte Reden und Schriften (Berlin 1955), vol.I, pp.227-8.

3. Ibid., pp.201-2.

4. Ibid., p.274.

5. Ibid., p.187.

6. R. Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke (Berlin), vol.III, p.457.

7. W.M. Crook, The General Strike (Chapel Hill 1931), pp.126-7.

8. Ibid., p.140.

9. Ibid., pp.133, 115.

10. Ibid., p.133.

11. Ibid., p.142.

12. Ibid., p.87.

13. Ibid., pp.73-4.

14. Ibid., p.75.

15. Ibid., pp.80-83.

16. Ibid., pp.84-5.

17. Ibid., pp.79-80.

18. Ibid., p.80.

19. Ibid., pp.95, 87.

20. Ibid., pp.87, 95-6.

21. Ibid., pp.94-5.

22. J. Symons, The General Strike (London 1957), pp.64-5.

23. E. Burns, The General Strike, May 1926: Trades Councils in Action (London 1975), p.172.

24. A. Clinton, The Trade Union Rank and File. Trades Councils in Britain, 1900-40 (Manchester 1977), p.75.

25. J. Mendelson, W. Owen, S. Pollard and V. Thornes, The Sheffield Trades and Labour Council, 1858-1958 (Sheffield 1958), p.67.

26. J. Hinton, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement (London 1973), p.138; W. Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900-1920 (London 1969), p.140.

27. Hinton, op. cit., pp.237, 248, 263.

28. Ibid., p.223.

29. J.T. Murphy, Stop the Retreat, n.d. (1922).

30. Clinton, op. cit., p.126.

31. Burns, op. cit., p.139.

32. J. Jacobs, London Trades Council, 1860-1950 (London 1950), pp.129-30.

33. M. Morris, The General Strike (London 1976), p.321.

34. P. Kerrigan in J. Skelley (ed.), The General Strike, 1926 (London 1976), p.321.

35. Morris, op. cit., p.400.

36. Skelley, op. cit., p.316.

37. Morris, op. cit., p.401.

38. Skelley, op. cit., p.322.

39. Morris, op. cit., pp.402, 410.

40. R. Mason, The General Strike in the North East (Hull 1970), pp.22-3, 25.

41. Ibid., pp.27-8.

42. Burns, op. cit., p.146.

43. Skelley, op. cit., pp.211-2.

44. Morris, op. cit., p.438.

45. R. Postgate, E .Wilkinson and I.F. Horrabin, A Workers’ History of the General Strike (London 1927), p.46.

46. Burns, op. cit., pp.15, 123, 154, 171; Clinton, op. cit., pp.217, 219; G.A. Phillips, The General Strike (London 1976), p.197. The most extreme expression of sectionalism was the refusal by the Typographical Association in the majority of cases to agree to print local strike bulletins. ‘Old craft sentiments and prejudices, the whole tradition of sectionalism, of loyalty above all to one’s own union and to the behests of one’s own officials and Executive, cut across the lines of general solidarity ... The printing trades were particularly sticky, requiring much coaxing and lengthy negotiation in several instances before they would undertake provincial editions of the General Council’s own organ.’ (A. Hutt, The Postwar History of the British Working Class (London 1972), p.142. See also Phillips, op. cit., pp.173-5; C. Farman, The General Strike, May 1926 (London 1974), pp.173-4.) The printers of the British Worker in London were quite greedy. ‘The machine men ... put in, to begin with, very large demands. They claimed more than they would have earned in ordinary times. They were pleaded with, but would not take less.’ (M. Fyfe, Behind the Scenes in the Great Strike (London 1926), p.62.)

47. Account of the Proceedings of the Northumberland and Durham General Council and Joint Strike Committee, Labour Monthly, June 1926; Phillips, op. cit., pp.205-6.

48. British Worker, 5 May 1926.

49. Farman, op. cit., p.229.

50. Symons, op. cit., p.14.

51. Farman, op. cit., p.229.

52. British Worker, 9 May 1926.

53. Morris, op. cit., p.389.

54. Burns, op. cit., p.160.

55. Farman, op. cit., pp.193, 202.

56. P. Renshaw, The General Strike (London 1976), p.18.

57. Farman, op. cit., pp.339-40.

58. Burns, op. cit., p.70.

59. Morris, op. cit., p.78.

60. One cannot differentiate between the impact of the general strike and the long-drawn out lockout on the growth of the CP. At the time of the Seventh Congress of the Party in May 1925 its membership was 5,000. It rose to 10,730 by the Eighth Congress in October 1926. The vast majority of the 5,000 new recruits were miners. (L.J. Macfarlane, The British Communist Party. Its Origins and Development Until 1929 (London 1966), p.173.)


Last updated on 16.8.2004