Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Seven:
The missed opportunity

THE FOUNDING Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) – the Communist Unity Convention – took place from 21 July to 1 August 1920.

A number of groups which stood on the platform of ‘soviet power’ were involved in the discussions: the BSP, the SLP, the Workers’ Socialist Federation, the South Wales Socialist Society, a number of left-ILP members and sections of the National Guilds League. Of these the BSP, and after them the SLP, were by far the most important. Over a period of many months’ negotiation these groups, raised in the British tradition of sectarian bickering, managed to overcome their differences. However there were losses on the way. A substantial proportion of the SLP preferred to stay with de Leon’s sectarian schemes and did not join the new party. Neither did Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation.

The delay in establishing the party had a serious bearing on its future. Had the CPGB been established at the time of the rising militant struggles of 1918–19 it would have got off to a grand start. Intervention in events would have trained and consolidated the small and politically weak party. But this was not to be.

With the armistice of November 1918 trench warfare on the battlefields of continental Europe gave way to class warfare at home. In return for self-sacrifice the British people had been promised ‘a land fit for heroes’. Instead the ‘victory’ brought them the same rotten housing, the same boss, the same or lower wages, the same old system of exploitation. The workers’ response was to organise and to act on a scale never seen before. On average 4½ million working days had been lost in strikes during each of the war years. In 1919 the figure was a massive 34,483,000.

Predictably, the first confrontation occurred in the armaments industry. This was a crucial fight. For if the power of the shop stewards’ movement was to be maintained, the workers had to guarantee that the inevitable fall in demand for munitions would not result in mass sackings and the victimisation of militants. The issue on which the stewards chose to stand their ground was therefore shorter hours.

The way this battle was conducted showed both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement. Placing tremendous emphasis on the rank and file had the virtue of overcoming bureaucratic control; its vice was that unless there was a clear central leadership (in the revolutionary sense of that word) there was a tendency for the movement to fragment. Workers in one area would fight this week on one issue; next week another area might take up a different issue and so on. To fight a united battle the centrifugal tendency engendered by always looking to workshops and the rank and file had to be countered by a strong sense of politics and a conscious aim for centralisation. This was not to be.

When the war ended and engineering workers began to be laid off, Glasgow was once again in the vanguard. On 27 January 1919 the Clyde Workers’ Committee, in conjunction with sympathetic local officials, called a strike for a 40-hour week. The shop stewards’ leaders were fully aware that much more was at stake than hours or even employment. On 1 February Gallacher wrote: ‘Choose ye this day ... between workers and capitalist, between constitutional methods and working-class action. Shame on you if you fail now. Join the fight.’ [1]

Some 100,000 workers did just that on Clydeside. The spirit of the strikers was magnificent. There were roving mass pickets of up to 5,000 workers; many women were involved; a daily news bulletin was published and sympathy action spread to other parts of Scotland and to Belfast. Yet the strike was still fairly localised. That was why the government was able, on 1 February, to send troops into Glasgow and break the spirit of the strikers. Once the Clyde had collapsed shop stewards all over the country fell victims to the sack and the dole.

Of course the presence of tanks and machine guns on the streets of one city was intimidating, but if there had been strikes in every city and in every industry, not just concentrated in one or two engineering centres, then the government would have been totally powerless. Why was the 40-hours strike so easily isolated and smashed? The answer lay not in the strength of the government but in the shop stewards’ political ideas. Although they had a conception of the ‘self-emancipation of the working class’ being ‘the act of the working class itself’ , they did not conceive of the role of a workers’ political party in drawing all sections of the class into action.

Writing 15 years after the event, J.T. Murphy tells us that the ‘greatest mistake’ of the Clyde Workers’ Committee

lay in the fact that it had done nothing to prepare the movement beyond the Clyde. Although it was represented on the National Committee of the Shop Stewards, it had not even acquainted this committee of its plans. [2]

He was quite correct to point out this blunder, but as we have already noted the stewards nationally shared this haphazard attitude towards centralised organisation. At the very moment when the stewards’ national administrative council was most urgently needed to spearhead resistance to unemployment, Solidarity published the following note:

To the National Administrative Committee of the Shop Stewards and Workers’ Committees. Your existence is being doubted. The war [is] finished. Are you? [3]

The council was clearly inactive at this time of crisis, and the initiative was left to the government and the trade union bureaucracy.

The union leaders were well aware that by abjectly surrendering to the bosses during the war they had alienated the membership. Accordingly they sought to redress the balance by a display of some very left-wing rhetoric. They managed, in conjunction with the government, to steer British capitalism safely through what John Maclean called the ‘rapids of revolution’. A brief survey of Cabinet discussions shows how close Britain came to major civil disorder.

On 8 January 1919 the prime minister, David Lloyd-George, informed the Cabinet:

‘... some 1,500 soldiers (Army Service Corps at Park Royal) had arrived in Downing Street. Attempt to stop them marching to White hall, without success.’

Chairman of Imperial Staff: ‘The soldiers’ delegation bore a dangerous resemblance to a Soviet.’ [4]

On 22 January Lord Curzon said that:

he was alarmed by the fact that no concerted action was being taken ... combating the spread of Bolshevism in this country. [5]

On 24 January the Cabinet was worried about a police strike that risked spreading. Six days later they discussed the use of troops in Glasgow. General Childs agreed that this had worked in the past but warned:

at that time we had a well-disciplined and ignorant army, whereas now we had an army educated and ill-disciplined. [6]

Nevertheless the risk had to be taken, and as we have seen, it paid off for the government.

But from now on the Cabinet’s main tactic would be much less direct than the large-scale deployment of troops. They had in the official trade union machine a more reliable ally. Winston Churchill explained this to his colleagues on 4 February 1919:

the trade union organisation was very imperfect, and the more moderate its officials the less representative it was, but it was the only organisation with which the government could deal. The curse of trade unionism was that there was not enough of it, and it was not highly enough developed to make its branch secretaries fall into line with head office.

Bonar Law added that he

thought that the trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy, and if the trade union organisation was against us the position would be hopeless. [7]

The defeat of the Clyde engineers in January 1919 still could not turn back the flood-tide of working-class demands. Every day of that year an average of 100,000 workers were to be on strike. A vast range of industrial, social and political issues flared up together, fanned by war weariness and the profiteers’ open enjoyment of their wartime gains, and ignited by the initial outburst of militancy in the first month of the new year. A new feature of the industrial militancy of 1919–1920 was the willingness of many sections of workers to engage in sympathetic action to back the demands of other workers.

The period from 1911 to 1919 had been an artificially prolonged boom for the economy, and this was to continue into the spring of 1920. Unemployment was low throughout the decade, while prices rose at a tremendous rate – with a particularly inflationary period after the war. Since trade union organisation was necessary if workers were to attempt to keep up with the runaway cost of living, and as labour was scarce, there was a rapid growth in union membership. In the pre-war period from 1910 to 1914 the total membership of all unions rose by roughly 65 per cent, and in the next six years the 1914 figure rose by more than 100 per cent to a peak of 8,334,000 in 1920. [8]

This represented a tremendous advance for the working class, and the uncontrolled and unofficial character of many of the strikes showed that the new members were not a passive tool in the hands of the bureaucrats. But there was no force capable of presenting a revolutionary direction to the turbulent masses. The working-class movement, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and this was quickly filled by the trade union leaders. The uncertain situation gave people like Robert Smillie of the miners and Jimmy Thomas of the railworkers a constant headache. Nevertheless they were the sole centralising force in this vast army, and therefore their decisions carried tremendous weight.

The officials felt both the need to rein in the masses and to maintain their credibility by a show of left-wing demagoguery. The contradictory character of this new phase of trade unionism was represented by the Triple Alliance, recognised as the most powerful trade union body in the country until the debacle of Black Friday in April 1921. The Alliance of the MFGB, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) and the National Transport Workers Federation had its origins in the ‘labour unrest’ of pre-war days. Despite the widely-held conviction that the Triple Alliance was a victory for syndicalist ideas of industrial unity and general strikes, the trade union leaders adopted the strategy as a means of enhancing their bureaucratic control.

A historian of the Alliance has outlined its function quite clearly:

[It] was not designed to make rapid responses to sudden crises. Nor was it primarily intended to undertake sympathetic strikes in support of the sectional claims of its constituents ... To many of its founders, indeed, it was valued as a means of averting stoppages ...

... the Alliance was in no sense a ‘victory for the syndicalist idea’. It was not, that is to say, a concession to rank and file militancy ... it was designed specifically to control and discipline such militancy. [9]

In 1919 and 1920 the Triple Alliance was able to contain and destroy militancy because it also appeared poised to lead the class forward. This meant that the membership of all three constituents of the Triple Alliance felt constrained to wait for their leaders to move as one body. The government saw this and was able to buy off one section and thus paralyse the other two. Three unions for the price of one was a bargain indeed!

The strategy was unveiled on 1 February 1919 when the 48-hour week was conceded for railworkers. Unrest on the railways was by no means abated, as the implementation of the new hours by a number of employers provoked spontaneous strikes over cuts in meal times and tea breaks. The increasingly militant mood rang a warning bell for the Cabinet, but they found an ally in J.H. Thomas, who told a meeting of London tube workers:

We as trade unionists have got to keep clearly in mind that we have to make our sectional claims consistent with and part of our duty as citizens of the state. [10]

At the same time the miners were spoiling for a fight. Even before the beginning of the 40-hours strike on the Clyde, the miners demonstrated their readiness to struggle. In a conference at Southport on 14 January the Miners’ Federation resolved to demand a 30 per cent increase in wages, a six-hour working day, and nationalisation of the mines with a measure of workers’ control. When these demands were rejected, the federation referred the issue to the members. A ballot returned an overwhelming majority in favour of strike action. (The voting was 615,164 to 105,082), and notices were duly tendered.

Presented with this ultimatum in the latter days of February the government found itself in a hazardous position. All the advantages were on the side of the miners. Coal stocks were at famine level, London having only three days’ supply. At the same time the other members of the Triple Alliance (railwaymen and transport workers) were in consultation with the miners, and had themselves tabled demands for which they were in negotiation. In short, Mr Lloyd George and his colleagues were confronted with the alarming prospect of a general strike fraught with revolutionary implications. [11]

Lloyd George adroitly nominated a Royal Commission presided over by Mr Justice Sankey to look into the miners’ case. An Interim Report presented on 20 March considered a wage advance of two shillings per shift, a reduction of the working hours from eight to seven, with effect from 16 July 1919, a six-hour day with effect from 13 July 1921, and indicated that its final report would recommend the nationalisation of the mines.

The miners’ leaders, Robert Smillie and Frank Hodges, accepted the inquiry. With great difficulty they persuaded their members to postpone action until the Interim Report was published on 20 March. Frank Hodges later wrote in his autobiography that he and Robert Smillie

threw in the whole weight of our argument and influence to get the men and delegates to accept the Royal Commission. Hours, days, were spent in this tussle and in the end we won. [12]

The difficulties that the leaders faced were due to the hardened realism of many in the pits. Writing of the feeling in South Wales, Ness Edwards recalled:

that it was generally felt by the active rank and file elements that this Sankey Commission was merely a tactic of the government to put off the evil day of the trial of strength ... for had they pressed forward their nationalisation proposal considerable chance of success existed. [13]

However the militants were in a minority. The Sankey Commission was accepted by a massive majority of miners in a ballot in April 1919. The strike notices were withdrawn and the coal crisis ended for the time being.

The government sighed with relief. On 23 June the Sankey Commission presented its final report, recommending nationalisation of the mines and the granting of a share of control to the miners. After the impetus for the strike had passed Lloyd George knew that the announcement on whether or not the report would be implemented could be put off.

Hardly had the mining crisis subsided when in June 300,000 cotton workers struck for a 48-hour week and a 30 per cent wage increase. They won. In July the police went on strike against a government Bill prohibiting trade unions in the police force. The strike was only partial and centred on London and Liverpool. It was beaten and many policemen were sacked.

Now the railwaymen began pressing forward their claim for higher wages. The government procrastinated. Negotiations dragged on from February to August, by which time the mining crisis had passed. In August the government tried to bribe the locomotive men, who were in a separate union, ASLEF, by meeting their demands, hoping by this to isolate the NUR. In September, following the same line, the government presented the NUR with the provocative imposition of wage cuts. This time, however, it miscalculated: the locomen, spurning the August bribe, struck to a man with their comrades in other grades. Thomas and his executive committee felt the strike was inevitable, for anything less would have resulted in a series of local and sectional walk-outs. The strike lasted from 27 September to 6 October.

That the NUR executive failed to invoke the Triple Alliance in order to fight a united struggle was a significant turning point for the post-war movement. Two weeks previously Thomas had congratulated the miners for not taking action on their own, yet here were the railworkers doing just that. Despite the tremendous militancy throughout the country the possibility of united action by the leading unions was being systematically undermined from the top. In its place came bureaucratic negotiation. Even though the government was forced to improve its offer its major objective had been attained and a serious crisis avoided.

Rank-and-file confidence is not something that can be accumulated and stored like money in a bank vault. It is a perishable commodity which dissipates if unused for any length of time. The union bureaucracy, by methods of bargaining and procrastination, can all too easily set the agenda and timing of workers’ struggle. It requires a strong counterweight to prevent this.

On 18 August Lloyd George announced in the House of Commons that the government rejected nationalisation of the mining industry, thus throwing overboard the Sankey Report. The miners’ campaign had been dragging on for so long that there was no enthusiasm for immediate strike action in response. The spark had gone out of the miners’ spirit.

Nevertheless the MFGB leaders were compelled to react. They put the issue before the Triple Alliance, which decided to suspend a ballot for action on the nationalisation issue until after the Trades Union Congress the following week. The crucial decisions were therefore firmly passed on to the TUC. Feeling was running high when it met on 8 September but in no part of the debates or motions was there any recommendation of a course of action to be taken. Smillie moved the miners’ resolution on nationalisation, which rejected the government’s position and in the event of it not changing its mind called for ‘a special Congress to be convened for the purpose of deciding the form of action to be taken to compel the government.’ Thomas seconded the resolution and congratulated the miners on the great service they had rendered to the trade union movement by the conduct of their case before the commission. In the course of his speech he made the significant statement that the miners had:

shown themselves statesmen in coming to the congress, because had they attempted to take action on their own, I should have been the first to condemn them. [14]

Few would have imagined that this threat would be carried out seven years later to bring the General Strike to a close.

On 9–10 December 1919, the Special TUC met in London. It took two important decisions. Firstly action for nationalisation of the mines was to be replaced by an educational campaign on the theme of ‘mines for the nation’. Secondly a resolution was passed creating a General Council which would be an executive body for the TUC with a greater role than the old Parliamentary Committee. Like so many things in this period of transition, the latter move bore a left and a right face. The left face implied that the General Council was to be a ‘General Staff of Labour’ and champion the fight of the workers in all their battles. The shrewd right face was represented by Ernest Bevin of the Transport Workers. He was bureaucracy incarnate, and saw in a reorganised TUC a body suited to those days of mass membership and large units of organisation which, directed by an executive, had the power to win negotiations and thus minimise strike action.

In March 1920 the TUC finally buried the idea of general strike action to win nationalisation of the mines.

Throughout 1919 the government had tried to isolate one section of the working class from another, and largely succeeded in doing so. Even if they were forced to make concessions, they managed to avoid the danger of a general, united, revolutionary working-class movement. The post-war boom made it possible for the employers to meet most of the unions’ wage claims; and the policy of the trade union and labour leaders enabled government and employers to avoid a direct confrontation of classes.

In summer 1920 the first signs of the end of the post-war boom began to show. Wholesale prices stopped rising, sagged and began to fall steadily. By winter severe depression set in and unemployment started rising from month to month. In the autumn of 1920 there were 250,000 unemployed. By the end of the year the figure had risen to 700,000. By February 1921 the million mark was passed. By March it was 1.3 million, by June over 2 million (17.8 per cent of insured persons). The number fell a little at the end of 1921 and was 1.5 million in 1922, but it was to be many years before the unemployed total fell below one million.

The employers took advantage of this situation with a big offensive on workers’ standards of living, clawing back all the gains of the war and post-war period.

On 31 March 1921 the miners were locked out, as they refused to agree to a wage cut and to the replacement of the uniform national wage agreement by district agreements. The miners appealed to their associates in the Triple Alliance, the railwaymen and transport workers, who declared a general railway and transport strike in their support. But on Friday 15 April – Black Friday – Jimmy Thomas of the NUR and Robert Williams and Ernest Bevin of the Transport Workers betrayed the miners and called the action off.

The miners, now completely on their own, struggled on for three months and then capitulated, accepting the owners’ terms. After the 1921 lock-out the average wage per shift worked went down to less than half what it was in the winter months of 1920-21. [15]

Throughout industry the employers’ attack was pressed home. Reductions were enforced on engineers, shipyard workers, builders, seamen (the ships’ cooks and stewards unsuccessfully struck), cotton operatives (after a general lock-out). By the end of 1921 wage-cuts averaging no less than eight shillings a week had been suffered by 6,000,000 workers. [16]

Before the termination of the miners’ strike on 4 July a great cotton lock-out took place ... Five hundred thousand workers were locked out from 3 June until 27 June when they resumed on the basis of four shillings and five pence reduction in the pound [22 per cent] on current wages.

Then came the turn of the workers in the engineering industry, who were involved in a fourteen weeks’ lock-out which began in March 1922. Hardly had this started when the shipbuilding workers were plunged into a defensive struggle against wage reductions. These were followed by the strike of the printing trades against a demand for 15 shillings a week reduction in wage rates. These defensive struggles continued in the various industries right through 1922. [17]

The downturn in the class struggle led to a weakening of the power of the rank and file in the face of the employers and increasing dependence on the trade union bureaucracy.

By far the strongest shop stewards’ organisation during the war existed in the engineering industry. In 1919 the defeat of the 40-hours strike put an end to this power. As J.T. Murphy put it:

independent activity of the trade unions and the re-transfer of workers from the engineering industry and the dismissal of active shop stewards readily reduced the shop stewards’ committees to propaganda bodies within the unions. [18]

The 1922 lockout of engineers killed the shop stewards’ movement stone dead. As Murphy explained to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern (November 1922):

In England we have had a powerful shop stewards’ movement. But it can and only does exist in given objective conditions. These necessary conditions at the moment in England do not exist ... You cannot build factory organisations in empty and depleted workshops, while you have a great reservoir of unemployed workers. [19]

The massive retreat of the working class after 1919 affected the rank and file’s independence from the trade union bureaucracy. Such independence is a function of the confidence of workers in the face of the employers.


1. The Worker, 1 February 1919.

2. Murphy, Preparing for Power, pp. 176–7.

3. Solidarity, January 1919.

4. British Government Cabinet Papers, CAB 23/9, WC 514/9.

5. CAB 23/9, WC 518 (6).

6. CAB 23/9, WC 522.

7. CAB 23/9, WC 525(1).

8. British Labour Statistics, Historical Abstract 1886-1968 (London 1971), table 196.

9. G.A. Phillips, The Triple Alliance in 1914, in Economic History Review, February 1971, p. 63.

10. G. Blaxland, J.H. Thomas: A Life for Unity (London 1964), p. 121.

11. Allen Hutt, The Post-war History of the British Working Class (London 1972), p. 18.

12. F. Hodges, My Adventures as a Labour Leader (London 1925), p. 90.

13. N. Edwards, History of the South Wales Miners Federation (London 1938), p. 116.

14. TUC Annual Report 1919, pp. 263–6.

15. Robin Page-Arnot, The Miners’ Year of Struggle (London 1953), p. 339.

16. Hutt, page 62.

17. Murphy, Preparing for Power, pp. 213–4.

18. Murphy, Preparing for Power, pp. 207–8.

19. Fourth Congress of the Communist International (London 1923), p. 62.

Last updated on 15 August 2014