Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Eleven:
The writing on the wall:
The Communist Party and ‘Red Friday’

THE PERIOD from early 1925 to December 1926 was dominated by the battle of miners and coalowners. On 29 July 1925 Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the miners’ leaders ‘that the government would not grant any subsidy to the industry, and that it must stand on its own economic foundations.’ [1]

Next day the Daily Herald reported a conversation between Baldwin and representatives of the MFGB in which the prime minister twice insisted that ‘all the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet.’ [2]

Baldwin’s statement about the necessity for universal wage cuts was a catalyst for trade union leaders’ resistance. They all knew that these were not empty words. The government’s decision to return to the gold standard in April 1925 increased the probability of an employers’ attack on workers’ wages. A return to the gold standard meant effectively a major revaluation of sterling, and this put particular pressure on export industries, including coalmining.

Some signs of this capitalist offensive were visible in the summer of 1925. In June the AEU informed the General Council that it had received demands for longer working hours and a lowering of wages in the engineering industry. Shortly afterwards the woollen textile unions were confronted by a call for a 10 per cent wage cut. Almost simultaneously craftsmen in the railway workshops were asked for a reduction of 5 per cent. [3]

On 23 July the Special Industrial Committee of the General Council of the TUC decided to call sympathetic action on behalf of the miners should it be necessary.

‘Their duty was clear,’ said A.G. Walkden, of the Railway Clerks’ Association. ‘The General Council was brought into being to deal with that sort of situation. They did not want to see the miners let down.

They realised that after 1921 when the miners were defeated, everyone else was attacked. There had been four years of disaster since. The railway magnates were waiting their chance to get this union down. That would happen in every industry.’

And Walter Citrine, acting secretary of the TUC, made the same point:

If the industries fought singly they would be broken singly. Only if they could get trade unions to rally to the support of the miners now had they any chance of settlement in other industries threatened by attacks. [4]

The decision was timely. On 30 July the mine-owners announced that they would end the 1924 agreement, cut wages, abolish the national minimum, revise wage determination from national to district agreements, and maintain standard profits, no matter how low wages fell. That same day the Special Industrial Committee, having met the transport unions, resolved that the movement should refuse to handle coal. The decision was immediately and unanimously ratified by a Special Conference of Trade Union Executives.

Next day Baldwin met the miners’ executive and the special committee of the TUC jointly. He explained that the coalowners had agreed to suspend lock-out notices, that a Royal Commission into the coal industry would be appointed, and that the government would, in the meantime, guarantee financial subsidies until 30 April 1926. Such were the events surrounding ‘Red Friday’.

The capitalist press greeted the government’s announcement of 31 July with fury. The Daily Express raged, in an editorial entitled Danegeld, about extortion by the use of force, and the Daily Mail in another headed A Victory for Violence, expressed the feelings of the great majority of Tories.[A] But Baldwin had no choice but to back off. As he told his biographer, G.M. Young, several years later: ‘We were not ready.’ [5] The government had been caught off balance by the unity of the trade unions in support of the miners.

How did the Communist Party prepare for ‘Red Friday’? Its whole method was summed up in the title of an article by Harry Pollitt: Make the leaders lead. [6] The ten-point programme recommended in the Minority Movement’s paper confirmed the general direction:

Items for immediate attention

  1. Send name and address of TU branches you know have voted for affiliation.
  2. Get your branch to affiliate to the Minority Movement.
  3. Have your branch apply for a speaker from the Minority Movement.
  4. Have our literature on sale at branch meetings.
  5. Get your branch to affiliate to the trades council if not already affiliated.
  6. Have your branch pass a resolution on international unity.
  7. Form a minority group in your area.
  8. Order literature from this national office at once.
  9. Subscribe to The Worker. [7]

The essence of these proposals was that militant efforts must be directed through official channels.

In many ways the result of Red Friday, though hailed as a success by the left, weakened the possibility of successful mass struggle. If battle had broken out in July 1925, for a start the government would have been less fully prepared. A miners’ strike in the approach to winter was far more of a threat than one which began in spring. But more important, if the general strike had not been officially planned and dominated, but had broken out spontaneously in August 1925 it would have had a better chance of success. Class unity would have been built from the bottom up, the self-reliance of mass pickets, the solidarity won by rank-and-file miners’ pickets reasoning with rail and transport workers, would have been to the fore. The studied sectionalism of May 1926, which allowed millions of workers to be held in reserve as passive spectators, might have been overcome.

If the Communist Party had had a proper understanding of trade unionism it would have recognised that Red Friday and Black Friday were not poles apart – they were but two different examples of what the trade union bureaucracy was capable of. In neither case had the rank and file been involved in real struggle on their own behalf. Both times bureaucratic calculation had determined the decisions that were taken. On Black Friday a full Triple Alliance strike in the atmosphere of post-war turmoil was judged too risky an enterprise, since it would inevitably mean a serious clash with the state. On Red Friday, with the loss of membership and tremendous financial damage since 1921 still fresh in their minds, the bureaucracy felt it had to make a defensive stand. As the rank and file were still pitifully weak the TUC felt confident that it could control and limit the action.

However the Communist Party drew the wrong conclusion from both Black and Red Friday. In 1921 the recognition of a crisis in the leadership of the working class led the party to propose the idea of ‘more power to the General Council’. Yet it was precisely the dangers of such a bureaucratic combination that Black Friday had demonstrated. Red Friday now reinforced the impression that the current labour organisations were capable of leading the working class to victory.

Whatever secret doubts the main Communist Party leadership had harboured about the left trade union leaders were swept away by Red Friday. Gallacher’s reaction may appear rather extreme, but he was merely expressing what was inherent in the policy of the party and the Minority Movement – the idea that the main purpose of revolutionary activity in the unions was to ‘make the leaders lead’:

Comes a real working-class crisis, and what happens? ... The leadership passed into the hands of good proletarians like Swales, Hicks, Cook and Purcell. And this proletarian leadership and the proletarian solidarity it was capable of organising and demonstrating was the real big thing that came out of the struggle.

These comrades must be encouraged and strengthened, the united movement they represented must be developed and stimulated so that it may be possible to pass from defensive to offensive action.

Gallacher then described the encounter between the prime minister and the TUC leaders before Red Friday:

Swales and his colleagues were not timid, cowardly, middle-class place-hunters. Strong in their working-class courage, with a united working class behind them, they slammed back straight at Baldwin. ‘All right,’ said Swales, ‘I also am a pacifist just as you are, and if it comes to a fight we’ll use every available force to smash you and the employers you represent.’ And there spoke the working-class dictatorship.

There we had what Marx calls ‘the confrontation of classes’. The Capitalist Class and the Working Class, face to face, sizing each other up and prepared for the conflict that can only be ended by the Dictatorship of the Working Class overcoming and suppressing those who put privilege and profit before the welfare of the workers. [8]

While praising the behaviour of the left trade union leaders, the Communist Party consistently argued that the stand of Red Friday had won only a temporary truce. The Workers’ Weekly carried regular warnings, counting out the weeks to the expiry of the subsidy. The idea of impending struggle set the tenor of the Second National Minority Movement Conference on 29 and 30 August 1925.

The conference was attended by 683 delegates. Apart from 145 Minority Movement branches, these included representatives from 41 trades councils, 126 metalworkers’ organisations, 103 building workers’ organisations, 75 transport workers’ bodies, 33 miners’ lodges and a few others. All this added up to a claimed representation of 750,000 workers. It was noticeable that two important recent disputes, an unofficial strike of seamen and the violent struggle of anthracite miners in South Wales, while noted, evoked only messages of sympathy, rather than a detailed discussion. The idea of a rank-and-file restructuring of the trade unions by the election of all officials, the right of instant recall and so on was not even mentioned.

The main thrust of the conference inevitably centred on the coming national conflict over the miners. Tom Mann’s chairman’s address could hardly have laboured the point more heavily:

Are we prepared to meet the opposing forces when the next round begins? ... We ought really to prepare and that without delay. I feel confdent, I may say without a moment’ s hesitancy, that all present at this Conference are fully determined to be prepared. [9]

There are two forms of preparation for a war. The first is technical, the second is political. In a class war, where the main weapon is the ideological readiness of the combatants, technical factors come a poor second. Indeed, it is impossible to prepare the technical side effectively unless the political needs of the class are fully understood. And most important of all if the ‘general staff’ of your army can be expected to stab you in the back right in the middle of the crucial battle, then the troops must be prepared to form their own independent leadership. This was certainly not the impression given at the Minority Movement Conference.

No attempt was made to counter the chief weakness in the workers’ camp, the domination of the movement by a treacherous trade union bureaucracy.

The only way to form effective plans of battle was to assess the rank-and-file mood and thus the true strength of the class. But the conference showed that no one in the Minority Movement leadership was looking in this direction. Since Red Friday the Communist Party was under the illusion that Swales and the General Council sitting at a table with Baldwin represented class facing class, just as the 683 delegates embodied the support of 750,000 workers. How else are we to interpret the estimate of the Minority Movement’s influence given by the Communist MP Saklatvala to the conference:

the actions of the Minority Movement for the last two years have cemented and closely knitted up the workers in every trade union movement so that we have saved one million miners, with five million souls dependent upon their earnings to be kept from starvation. [10]

This was no isolated boast. It was repeated to the Comintern by British delegates a few months later:

I think that it is not an exaggerated claim, and I think that anyone who cares even to casually study the British labour movement would agree that it was the Communist Party and the Minority Movement, more than anybody else or any other organisation, who were responsible for preparing the ground which made possible and inevitable what is now known in British labour history as ‘Red Friday’. [11]

The proof of this claim was not the action of the rank and file or even the Communist Party itself, but:

If you had seen the press, the newspaper placards, that were got out all over the country, talking about the Communist victory, the Communist policy, the Communist gains, and bemoaning the fact that the Minority Movement had gained the ascendancy in the trade union movement, and that something had got to be done about it! [12]

Of course, if one’s reference point is not the rank and file but the union bureaucracy or the ‘red scare’ tactics of the press, such an exaggeration is fully explicable. A hint of realism might have entered the proceedings if the circulation of The Worker, the National Minority Movement paper, had been considered as a partial measure of the movement’s real influence. In the spring of 1926, when the movement’s ‘Conference of Action’ claimed to represent one million workers, The Worker announced that it was aiming at, but had not yet reached, a fortnightly circulation of 25,000 copies! [13]

The Communist Party’s self-image in the trade union movement was indeed an accurate index of how it generally understood revolutionary work in the trade unions at this time:

Take, for example, London, where for the purpose of conducting the party work its apparatus and organisation are divided into 29 local organisations under the supervision of the London Committee. In this area there are at least 500,000 trade unionists, organised within more than 4,000 local trade union branches ... The party is handicapped, however, having only 1,400 members in London, of whom not more than 1,000 are members of trade unions, the rest being housewives and unemployed.

... in the central industrial body of London, on the London Trades Council, with its various 125 councils sending delegates, there are 47 Communists, the fact that we have managed to get not only into 125 local Trades Councils but have also managed to get out of their 125 delegates 47 Communists, you will agree that our work is well directed and effective. I want you to take this as proof of the effective, well co-ordinated, well-organised fraction work in London. [14]

The problem with the party’s interpretation of its work was not only that it mistook delegates on trades councils (positions far removed from the rank and file at the point of production) as evidence of major industrial strength. It also tended to equate its periphery of trade union support with political influence for the party, and see events such as Red Friday as an example of its political power.

Around every interventionist Marxist party there are those workers who, though not full members, sympathise with revolutionary ideas and would agree with nine out of ten points in a political programme ranging from Marxist theory to international and domestic policies. These are a party’s immediate source of recruitment and growth. There are others, often greater in number, who – as workers facing the boss – are ready to fight. They may well disagree with nine out of ten points in the party programme but are willing to act on party industrial initiatives. An even more diffuse source of support may come from some who attend union branches and are only prepared to vote for left-wing resolutions or delegates rather than acting themselves.

These peripheries do not remain static. In periods of struggle many passive trade unionists will become militants; many militants may move towards a more generalised understanding of society, and so on. At other times the party’s emphasis may have to be limited to the direct periphery of political sympathisers. While the situation may shift, the important distinction between these groups should not be forgotten. This is essential, for it is on the basis of the different political weights of each of these layers that an assessment of appropriate tactics is made – how to build the party, what forward industrial initiatives can be taken.

In 1926 the CPGB combined a blindness to the distinction between these peripheries with a confusion between bureaucratic positions and real rank-and-file influence. The result was a complete inability to make the fine tactical judgements that were required.

The party’s attitude to its own trade union officials also revealed problems, as is shown in this testimony from George Hardy, leading Communist Party member and acting secretary of the National Minority Movement in 1926:

We must work with our comrades to seek and obtain influential positions in the trade union movement. But there is a tendency, on the part of some of the other comrades, that when our comrades obtain these positions ... they commence fault-finding with party members who are trade union leaders. We have two perspectives arising on this question.

On the one hand [we] try to bring non-Communist left-wing union officials closer to the Communist point of view, by being very lenient with them, by being very persuasive, by long discussions, by trying to influence them in every way. Yet, on the other hand, when our party members become trade union officials, there is a tendency sometimes to say: ‘Now that you are a Communist trade union official, you must do as we lay down, and every part of our policy must be put into operation.’ Comrades, this is an impossibilist attitude towards trade union officials who are Communists. We must not put the comrades in an impossible position. The attitude will lose influence for the party ... A Communist trade union official, loaded up with details, who even drifts away from the party line, should not be regarded because of this alone as a hopeless right-winger. [15]

The Scarborough Congress of the TUC, following closely on from Red Friday and the Second Minority Movement Conference, reinforced every one of the illusions. The militant speeches of Swales and company, the resolutions in favour of factory committees, against imperialism and interference in Germany, seemed to confirm everything that the Communist Party said about its own influence and the sincerity of the lefts on the General Council. Murphy, for example, wrote:

When Swales delivered his opening speech the real temper of the Congress began to manifest itself. The more militant he became the more the delegates responded to his fighting challenge.

As the Congress proceeded not everything went exactly the way of the lefts but:

Then came a welcome change. Young comrade Josephs of the Garment Workers moved that the trade unions should aim at the overthrow of capitalism and set to work to create factory committees as the unifying machinery for the workers in their struggles. Pollitt seconded. I heard that Thomas could not go against the resolution because he had instructions from his delegation to vote for it.

A compositor supported the resolution, and then a miner, Sexton, amidst laughter from the Congress, tried to scotch the resolution by describing it as a Communist plot. Congress on a card vote declared for the ending of capitalism. [16]

That the Communist Party could believe the union bureaucrats would seriously attempt to build a powerful factory committee movement, let alone abolish capitalism, showed how far they had drifted since the founding of the party. Even the Second Congress of the Comintern, which underestimated the importance of rank-and-file organisation as an independent force in workers’ struggle, had still visualised factory committees as a base from which the bureaucracy could be fought within the unions. But it had never suggested that trade union leaders could be induced to build such organisations, for obvious reasons. Bureaucrats might find it convenient to pass worthy resolutions, they might even be induced to tolerate tame stewards’ organisations as long as they served as channels for official instructions, helped recruitment and the collection of subscriptions. But they were not in the business of undermining their own authority by restructuring the union movement from the bottom upwards! The factory committee resolution remained a dead letter.

The true test of bureaucratic conferences has always been their willingness to act on concrete and immediate issues, but the Communist Party did not see any significance in the fact that the recent unofficial strike of seamen was almost totally ignored at Scarborough. This was a particularly scandalous episode, with the seamen’s leader, Havelock Wilson, pleading with the employers to cut the wages of his members. This is what he said to the employers:

It is better for us to suggest a reduction (and when I say that is what we suggest, I want you to understand that this is our offer) and we advise you strongly to accept it. Well, that is the position. So we offer you the £1. [17]

Only the Minority Movement had put any effort into aiding the striking seamen, but the Scarborough conference preferred to show solidarity with its own kind, and passed over Havelock Wilson’s behaviour in silence.

Red Friday and Scarborough did have the appearance of left triumphs. But the same could not be said of the Labour Party’s Liverpool Conference at the end of September 1925. This was a scene of vicious anti-Communist witch-hunting at which the ‘good proletarians’ of the General Council remained enigmatically silent, and watched their ‘comrades’ get hammered.

The government was quick to take its cue from the evident lack of support for the Communist Party among Labour movement leaders and arrested twelve of its leading members, including Gallacher, Pollitt, Campbell, Bell, Murphy and MacManus. Despite, or perhaps because of, their spirited political defence and exposure of the political bias of the judiciary, several of them were given sentences that ensured they were behind bars when the coal subsidy ran out.

The bitter anti-Red attacks made at the Labour conference had been seen before, and similarly the ‘lefts’ had stayed silent before. There had been, for example, fewer official messages of support to the Second National Minority Movement Conference than to the first. This had been explained away not by the fact that the radicalism of the lefts was merely skin-deep, but that they were so serious in their revolutionary ardour that anything (such as association with a vocal minority) which might impede their mission of mass struggle had to be avoided:

Some prominent trade union leaders who sent telegrams of support to the Minority Movement conference last year refrained from doing so this year.

We can understand the reasons. Firstly, the fact that the press set up a howl after Red Friday has frightened the trade union right wing, who have communicated their fear to some of the lefts. Secondly, some of the lefts, recognising that a struggle is bound to come with the employers, believe that they will mobilise the workers for the struggle more easily if they are not openly identified with the Reds of the Minority Movement.

The Communist Party’s answer to them was:

So follow the Minority lead and be not afraid. [18]

Ridiculous though this argument was, it was dredged up as an explanation of events at Liverpool:

Was all that has been written and spoken about the leftward trend of the working class simply a delusion? ... The big trade union leaders were scared stiff by the anti-Red clamour of the press. They believe that they are on the eve of heavy struggle and that the less association that they have with the ‘Reds’ the more public sympathy they will get and the better able they will be to rally their forces. [19]

Harry Pollitt’s explanation was even more ingenious:

He said the left-wing were silent at Liverpool because it was obvious to them that they had only two alternatives: Liberalism of the [Labour Party] executive committee, or Communism. They were not ready to accept Communism fully. We must redouble our work. [20]

Nonsensical though this logic was, it was rigorously applied to the ‘lefts’ to explain every failing or omission right from the summer of 1925 to the General Strike and even beyond.

The events of late 1925 did however elicit a serious and important political debate within the Communist Party, during which it sought to rationalise its current approach to the working-class movement and the turn-round in policy that had been made since the founding of the party. The theory of the ‘general staff of labour’ had moved from the margins of party thinking in the early 1920s to occupy an ever more important place. Although always false, its origins lay in a recognition of the need for centralised working-class leadership, as opposed to the shop stewards’ total reliance on spontaneity.

In the early days of the theory it had at least been understood that the party itself would have to fill the leading posts with its own members, or very close sympathisers, if a genuine leadership was to be created. But in 1925 the sense of urgent struggle, the founding of the Anglo-Russian trade union committee, Red Friday and Scarborough had finally dispelled even this qualification to the slogan of ‘More Power to the General Council!’ ‘All power’ to the likes of Swales and Hicks as well as right-wingers Thomas and Pugh (for were they not on the General Council too?) was only a step away now.


1. Robin Page-Arnot, The General Strike (London 1926), p. 34.

2. Quoted in Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 35.

3. G.A. Phillips, The General Strike: The politics of industrial conflict (London 1976), p. 54.

4. TUC Library, GC Box 123, SIC 23 July 1926.

5. Quoted in G.M. Young, Stanley Baldwin (London 1952), p. 99.

6. The Worker, 28 February 1925.

7. The Worker, 4 April 1925.

8. Workers’ Weekly, 7 August 1925.

9. Report of Second Annual Conference of National Minority Movement (London 1925), p. 8.

10. Report of Second Annual Conference of National Minority Movement, pp. 16–17.

11. Aitken Ferguson to the Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Comintern on 26 February 1926, quoted in Orders from Moscow? (London 1926), p. 25.

12. Ferguson, quoted in Orders from Moscow?, pp. 25–6.

13. The Worker, 20 February 1926.

14. Orders from Moscow?, p. 32.

15. Orders from Moscow?, pp. 38–9.

16. Workers’ Weekly, 18 September 1925.

17. G. Hardy, Those Stormy Years (London 1956), p. 175.

18. Leading article in Workers’ Weekly, 4 September 1925.

19. J.R. Campbell in Workers’ Weekly, 9 October 1925.

20. Workers’ Weekly, 9 October 1925.


A. Not everyone on the Labour side was enthusiastic about Red Friday either. For example, J.H. Thomas thought that there was ‘nothing more dangerous for the future of the country than that employers and government were compelled to concede through force what they refused to concede through reason.’ (New York Times, 19 August 1925, quoted in W.M. Crook, The General Strike (Chapel Hill 1931), pp. 295–6.)

Last updated on 15 August 2014