Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Eight:
The first few years of the British Communist Party

LENIN EXPECTED that the newly-formed Communist Party of Great Britain would be characterised by the following features:

Unbreakable ties with the mass of the workers, the ability to agitate unceasingly among them, to participate in every strike, to respond to every demand of the masses – this is the chief thing for a Communist Party, especially in such a country as Britain. [1]

But the Communist Unity Convention did not bode well for such an interventionist party. Alfred Purcell, shortly to be elected to the party’s provisional executive, put the party’s attitude to workers in struggle in these terms:

it was our business to go to them and say: ‘While you are prepared to revolt, we, at the same time, are prepared to show you the machine that must be used in order to take possession of the means of production’ ... It was useless continually prodding and pinpricking the working class; we were not going to get the best from the working class by doing that; we had to take them in hand and show them the way. [2]

On paper the party’s industrial policy was ‘that it shall be the duty of the branches to form Communist groups in trade union branches and to work inside the trade union movement’ [3] but there was little more said on industrial work, apart from the interjection of a Birmingham shop steward who believed that ‘the only party who could discuss these activities were the shop stewards ... our activities were perfect through the shop steward movement.’ [4] Evidently many of the old ideas about the separation of politics and economics, as well as a propagandist approach, still persisted. The best elements of the shop stewards, people like Arthur MacManus and J.T. Murphy, were not present at the Communist Unity Convention.

Things improved when a few months later at the Second ‘Unity’ Congress in Leeds, 29–30 January 1921, a section of the SLP – including MacManus, Murphy and Tom Bell – joined the party. Although the SLP element was in a small minority in the party they played a dominant role in the leadership in the first years of its existence. It was they who framed the first strategies for Communist industrial work, since most of the former BSP members were clearly unsuited for such a task. Their presentation of policy was an improvement on the past, but they still saw the role of the political party primarily as a sort of militant leaven to rank-and-file activity. The first issue of The Communist, the party’s newspaper, carried an article by MacManus which said that the ‘Task awaiting the Communist Party’ was to

take fullest advantage of every opportunity to acquaint the workers of Communism; explain it to them inside of the workshop and outside; assist and encourage the formation of shop steward committees in every workshop, plant or factory; develop the interest of the worker in that committee; explain the possibility which is latent in such organisation, and by insistent discussion and endeavour to wean away his faith from the false moral values of capitalism. [5]

Though this article showed an understanding that political work and industrial agitation were connected, the link was still put in an abstract and basically propagandist way. The Communist Party had not recognised that the decline of the engineering shop stewards’ movement necessitated a change of tactics. The lesson of the wartime period, that the trade union officials could not be trusted, was still understood, but the party tended to wait on the spontaneous activity of the rank and file to deliver the action. Amidst retreat and rising unemployment, such activity was not forthcoming.

The party was not soft on the officials, calling the Triple Alliance ‘the greatest fraud of modern times’, [6] but the alternatives suggested were vague and general, however formally correct they might have appeared. This was illustrated by an open letter issued after the miners’ ‘Datum line’ strike of October 1920, in which an advance in wages was won, but the pressing political issues of nationalisation and workers’ control were not broached:

The chief defect of the Triple Alliance ... is the fact that [it] is in the main run by reformist leaders. A Triple Alliance strike means a general strike, and a general strike means probably a revolution ...

So long as the Triple Alliance is not controlled by revolutionaries – or at any rate a militant rank and file, just so long will the leaders of it, when brought to the brink of a strike, shrink from the responsibility involved in a general stoppage ... In order to win the next struggle, the intervening period must be spent in overhauling all the machinery of the federation, from the district to every pit. At every election of a lodge secretary the candidates should be tested by their fitness in, and capabilities for, a national strike ...

Remember that reformist leaders will shrink back at the last minute.

Remember these things and select men who understanding that a strike may lead to revolution will not on that account shrink back. [7]

This was an excellent description of the likely behaviour of officials confronting large-scale struggle. It was far superior to the analysis given by the Communist Party just before 1926 and was a visionary forewarning of the events of Black Friday, then six months away. But the course of action proposed – the demand to ‘overhaul’ the federation, was an insufficient guide to action for party members and sympathisers on the ground.

As the danger of a national lock-out of miners drew nearer in April 1921, The Communist warned its readers to ‘Watch your leaders’. [8] Practically every issue for the next few months contained the same call. The 30 April edition had a variation on the theme when it said:

We repeat, watch your leaders! Watch even the left-wingers for their own sakes as well as your own. Being a ‘leader’ is very unhealthy work. One is cut off from the influence of the rank and file, and is plunged into the artificial life of hotel, conference and the political maelstrom. The most vigorous left-winger is apt to wilt and fade under these circumstances. Watch them!

But apart from passively ‘watching’, the concrete activity proposed for the Communist Party and its supporters was totally unrealistic:

See there is a workers’ committee in every workshop, mill and factory. Link these committees up in every industrial area with a general workers’ committee, which shall act as the potential strike committee for your area. Get this local area committee in touch with the National Workers’ Committee Movement ... Then the general strike which we foreshadow means revolution. Certainly. [9]

Throughout the period before Black Friday The Communist carried practically no detailed discussion of how the membership should intervene in particular struggles or what strategy should be pursued.

This weakness was discovered by Radek who, as secretary of the Communist International, reported on the state of the British Communist Party. He wrote:

To my question, what do you tell the masses, what is your attitude to nationalisation? What is your attitude to the present concrete claims of the workers? one of the [British] comrades replied: ‘When I ascend the rostrum at a meeting I know as little about what I am going to say as the man in the moon; but being a Communist, I find my way along when I speak.’

Radek retorted:

We consider it our duty to say the following, even to the smallest Communist Parties; you will never have any large mass parties if you limit yourselves to the mere propaganda of Communist theory. [10]

Radek’s criticism and the shock of Black Friday showed the British Communists that their approach to industrial work was unsatisfactory. The party was traumatised and was forced to reconsider its whole approach, and in particular to think about building a leadership inside the trade union movement. For the British unions were foundering. As reports arrived of trade unionists ripping up their membership cards in disgust, Torn Bell called on every Communist to bail the movement out. Denunciations were not enough.

Let the treachery of the leaders by all means be placed on record and exposed, but we must go further. We must win the confidence and support of the masses by hard persevering work, helpful criticism and personal sacrifice on behalf of the masses themselves. Beginning in a small way, and encroaching on the leadership of the organisations, capturing post by post, and all the time rendering useful service to the workers, that is the most effective way to shift the reactionary leaders and gain the leadership for Communism. [11]

Bell had laid to rest the syndicalist notion that all leadership was evil and corrupting. But to jump from a feeling that action could come only from rank-and-file movements independent of the officials, to a position of seizing every union post and thus overcoming the restraints of bureaucracy, was indeed an enormous leap. However, it is important to understand the conditions in which this leap was made before considering its political implications. In 1921 the situation was viewed with alarm. By April 1922, with hundreds of thousands of engineers locked out, the tone was one of desperation. The Communist’s headline was: Fight, damn it! Fight!, and it went on to say:

It is scandalous that [the unemployed] should have to take the lead in everything. [A] Has all the spirit passed out of the employed trade unionist? Fight! Damn it! Fight! [12]

Tom Bell’s argument, that opportunities for a rank-and-file movement had passed, and that the Communist Party should now offer ‘hard persevering work, helpful criticism and personal sacrifice’ was a good starting point for a discussion of union activity. But there were dangers if the significance of Black Friday was not understood. Two different lessons could be drawn. One was that no trade union leader, neither left-talking Robert Williams, nor out-and-out right-winger Jimmy Thomas, could be trusted. They had to be challenged from below, not just by propaganda but by consistent work related to the level of the movement. The alternative conclusion could be that Black Friday had occurred because the Triple Alliance chiefs were ‘bad’ leaders who should be replaced by ‘good’ ones. At a time when rank-and-file workers were losing confidence and self-organisation was in decay, the latter seemed an easier option.

But there was quite a resistance in the party to any move to the right – to the orientation on trade union electoralism. To give an example, here is an extract from an excellent article in the Communist Review. It posed all the problems and began elaborating some of the solutions. It started by criticising the pure syndicalist approach which Tom Mann had put forward in a recent Herald article. First it quoted Mann’s article:

‘Refuse to allow executives to shape the policy for the rank and file. The membership must decide upon the objective and the policy by which it shall be achieved, and executive committees and officials must carry out the desires of their members’. This is echoed and re-echoed throughout the land, both in the Red Trade Union International and the Workers’ Committee movement.

This form of protest will not do ... Leaders we need and must have. The democracy which the revolutionaries should aim at is the democracy which will enable the workers to do more than merely examine a ballot paper ... It must enable the workers to quickly remove leaders who will not lead. [But] the cry of ‘Elect new leaders’ sounds very much like an echo of the old socialist parties ... Elect new leaders by all means, but will anyone kindly calculate the number of years necessary for a formal ballot box removal of the reactionary trade union bureaucracy? ... The reactionary leaders will have to go. But they will have to be removed by a fight directly against them rather than through formal removal via the ballot box.

This does not mean that we should relax for one moment the attack through the union ballot box ... Indeed the ballot box method stands in the same category in relation to unionism, as parliament does in relation to the conquest of the state. Both are weapons to be used ... [But] in neither case have we control of the elected person. One of the elementary measures we should popularise ... is the right of having the power to recall the elected person.

Then we should consider greater measures of organised action whereby the masses will thrust aside the reactionaries as the struggle widens and deepens ... One section cries out for the One Union for One Industry, another for One Big Union, and some for workers’ committees ... They sidetrack the masses on to a formal, debate concerning forms of organisation ... The swiftly changing phases of the struggle have swept away the condition which made the shop stewards and workers’ committees the natural mass expression of the requirements of the moment ... We need much more than propaganda for industrial unionism. We need plans of immediate organised action, definitely related to the existing organisational forces of the proletariat, the application of which will force them into action. For it is by action that situations are produced which offer the opportunities necessary for the revolutionary changing of leadership ...

We gave vigorous criticism of the leaders of the union movement in the crisis leading to Black Friday. We exposed them. We warned the masses to ‘Watch their leaders’. We fostered the idea that the Triple Alliance would fail. But when it did fail the revolutionary movement was nearly as demoralised as the union movement in general. We had not, to any large extent, considered or advised the masses what they could do in such an eventuality. Yet everything cried out for the preparation of a new centre of leadership in the organisations involved, to which the masses could gravitate as the leaders moved towards failure. The lesson is obvious and exceedingly important. Immediately there is the least sign of action developing in any organisation the revolutionary movement, and especially the Communist Party, ought to immediately take the measure of all the forces operating, the potentials of the situation, the limits of the organisations involved, and how the organisations can be used to drive the leaders along the revolutionary path or out of the way. [13]

This article shows that effective Communist work in the trade unions requires attention to detail, the ability to work inside the unions but carry the struggle beyond them when it becomes possible, an awareness of the value of resolutions, election campaigns and so on but also the aim of building a rank-and-file leadership to fight the bureaucracy rather than pursue purely organisational reforms to remove them.

However there were other reactions in the Communist Party to Black Friday and its aftermath. One was to call for the TUC to fight workers’ battles. This call for ‘a General Staff of Labour’ had been a favourite slogan of the BSP. In 1920 Murphy, writing in the shop stewards’ newspaper, had poured scorn on this idea:

The General Staff of officialdom is to be a dam to the surging tide of independent working-class aspiration and not a directing agency towards the overthrow of capitalism. [14]

But two years later his tone had changed. Analysing what would be the development of trade unions in a crisis he still refers to the rank and file, but they play second fiddle to the bureaucrats:

To get the everyday results from wage negotiations etc. in an era of expanding capitalism (the era in which the trade unions made their greatest progress) became an art in which Mr Thomas excelled. It was in this era that practically all the trade union leaders of today came to power at the head of powerful organisations with strong vested interests binding the membership.

Revolutionary leadership under these conditions could only be the exception and not the rule. Only when the general economic situation changes and forces the masses of leaders into revolutionary situations and policy can there be a general revolutionary change in leadership. Such change is rapidly taking place today and producing all the forces making for a change of leadership. The capitalists can no longer make the old concessions and the fate of the unions and the masses is now at stake. Under these circumstances it is useless and wrong to relate to trade union leadership as a static unchangeable monument. It is subject to changed circumstances as is everything else. Nor can we assert that the change will come along a single track. This will operate in many ways. In some cases the union leaders will feel their fate bound up with the fate of their union and will fight even in a revolutionary fight. In others, new elections will throw up new leaders through the normal operation of the union apparatus, and still again, changes may be made through the organised pressure and activity of minority movements. [15]

There were reasons why Murphy shifted his ground so far from his earlier position. Although the Bolsheviks’ achievements in the Russian revolution led him to abandon a generalised hatred of all leadership, the implications for revolutionary leadership in trade union struggle had still to be thought through. Murphy had not recognised the fundamental difference between revolutionary leadership – the art of encouraging rank-and-file self-reliance, and reformist leadership – which consists of spurring bureaucrats to act on behalf of the rank and file.

In the June 1922 edition of All Power, Tom Quelch also took up the question of leadership. His answer was to return to the theme he had popularised in his BSP days. In an article prophetically entitled: ‘Under the Banner of the General Council’ he wrote:

The struggle must be waged under the banner of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. We want no Black Fridays, no Triple Alliance debacles, no puny blowing-off of individual trade union pop-guns against the mighty cannon of capitalism. We want an intelligent understanding of the strength and purposes of the enemy and the rallying of all working-class forces to meet it on something like equal terms.

All trade unionists must insist on the General Council, which has been informed of all the succeeding stages of the negotiations, taking charge of the struggle. [16]

Harry Pollitt, a rising star in the Communist Party, followed Tom Quelch in his proposal:

Get your branch to demand the General Council of Trade Unions to issue a definite ultimatum to the employers that no further reductions will be tolerated. A special trades congress should be convened so that the whole union movement can agree on a plan of campaign and action, not only to resist reductions, but to immediately challenge the employers’ right to run industry. [17]

In another article Pollitt suggested that it would be possible first to give the General Council the necessary power and then improve its composition:

We support the aim of the present General Council [for more power] not because we have such great faith in it, but because the principle is right, but once the principle of centralised leadership is established the next step is to change the personnel of the General Council. This can be done by steady persistent work inside the unions. Take a long view of things. The more revolutionary delegates we get elected the sooner do we break down the present system whereby the general secretaries determine who goes on the General Council ... and sheer necessity will throw up a General Council that responds to the needs of the times. [18]

The idea of ‘sheer necessity’ transforming the unions was to become a favourite of the Communist Party. What mechanical determinism!

A completely opposite position was put forward by Pollitt’s close ally in the Communist Party, the talented but highly erratic Rajani Palme Dutt. In the Labour Monthly, which he edited, Palme Dutt gave a brilliant refutation of the growing trend in the party. He believed that:

... the cry for the General Council as the solution for the labour movement is as foolish as the cry for the League of Nations in the international field ... And the parallel is so exact because the error at bottom is essentially the same: the belief that a combination of the existing forces will achieve a solution, when it is the existing forces themselves that are at fault.

His conclusion: class unity cannot be achieved on a purely trade union basis. What is needed is unity under political party leadership.

only the political struggle of the working class as a class can unite the workers; the only uniting force of the working-class movement can be a political party of the working class. The trade unions are by their nature separatist: only a political party can be the combining force ... Unless that party develops the working-class movement will continue to drift in sectionalism and confusion. Only when a political party of the working class can unite the workers around the common demands of the political struggle and so rally around those demands the manifold organisations of the working class, only then and by those means will the unity of the working class be achieved. [19]

Palme Dutt’s counter-position of revolutionary party to trade union officialdom, and his understanding that the one precludes the other, was an important warning. We shall see that it was not heeded, for Palme Dutt was out of step with the rest of the Communist Party leadership.

By the end of 1922 the battle of ideas was over, and the theory of the General Council as ‘General Staff’ (with a modified leadership, hopefully) was enthroned in the Communist Party. By suggesting that the bureaucrats might be prepared to face up to the needs of class struggle when the crisis of capitalism became critical, this theory fostered the most dangerous illusions.

Of course revolutionaries cannot be abstentionist towards the right and left in the trade union bureaucracy. Whatever resolutions, organisational changes or actions the left bureaucrats take should be applauded, but only insofar as they provide opportunities for rank-and-file action.

As a revolutionary party, the CPGB held out the only possibility of conducting a revolutionary strategy in the unions. However there was no guarantee that it would do so, unless it was theoretically clear. Unfortunately this was not the case.

The party’s early industrial policy reflected one wing of the factions that formed the party in 1920 – the SLP/shop steward grouping which made propagandist calls for workers’ committees. These were inappropriate for the 1920 period, not just because of the local contraction in engineering, but because post-war only a minority of any particular workforce – pit, factory or rail depot – saw the need for independent rank-and-file organisation. A pure rank-and-file strategy, basing itself on the self-activity of the majority in any section, was bound to fall flat.

In the crisis following Black Friday 1921 the policy of working within unions to campaign on the most basic of issues, from local grievances to national pay campaigns, would have been far more fruitful than calling for workers’ committees which were not viable at that time. But the new strategy that the Communist Party adopted went much further than that. It was largely derived from the BSP. It aimed at conquering the unions or, if that proved impossible, finding left bureaucrats to cooperate with. This grouping in the party put forward slogans about making the TUC a ‘General Staff of Labour’ and giving ‘More Power to the General Council’. This led them to strive for more left-wing officials as their chief aim. These ideas were totally misguided. Their starting point was the false premise that the basic problem was the organisational machinery of the trade unions, rather than the self-confidence and fighting power of the rank and file.


1. Lenin, On Britain (London 1973), p. 363.

2. Official Report of the Communist Unity Convention held in London, 31 July to 1 August 1920 (London 1920), p. 7.

3. Communist Unity Convention, p. 32.

4. Communist Unity Convention, p. 50.

5. The Communist, 5 August 1920.

6. Tom Bell, in The Communist, 30 September 1920.

7. The Communist, 7 October 1920, article signed by A. MacManus and A. Inkpin.

8. See for example The Communist, 9 April 1921.

9. The Communist, 30 April 1921.

10. Communist Review, December 1921.

11. The Worker, 17 September 1921.

12. The Communist, 1 April 1922.

13. Communist Review, 4 February 1922.

14. Solidarity, December 1919.

15. The Communist, 30 September 1922. Our emphasis.

16. All Power, June 1922.

17. Harry Pollitt, Pioneering Days (London 1940) pp. 159–160.

18. The Worker, 16 September 1922.

19. Labour Monthly, October 1922.


A. The backbone of the unemployed workers’ movement of the time came from the large number of victimised engineering militants and veterans of the shop stewards’ movement. They played an important role in organising the fight of the locked-out engineers in 1922.

Last updated on 15 August 2014