Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Fourteen:
Time runs out for the Communist Party

SINCE ITS foundation in 1920 a curious process had taken a grip of the CPGB. In political theory the party had been in retreat. The leading role of the revolutionary party in its policies had given way on the industrial front to the TUC General Council, while the political break with reformism had been glossed over. Now the party was in the position which sections of the British left have been in ever since (and with no more likelihood of success): it was attempting to give the thoroughly reformist and parliamentary Labour Party a radical face. The class struggle, while still the party’s central concern, was coming to be seen more and more as the casting of block votes by bureaucrats at conferences.

The odd thing about this theoretical retreat was that the Communist leaders actually felt they had made considerable progress. The discovery of centralised organisation and disciplined common action, the use of the party newspaper as an agitational weapon, the establishment of factory branches and a day-to-day contact with the industrial rank and file – all these things were indeed tremendous practical advances considering the history of the revolutionary left in Britain. But the Communist Party leaders did not derive their satisfaction from these achievements. It was the big numbers and big events that most impressed them – the considerable circulation for the paper that promoted the Left-Wing Movement, the one million represented at the National Minority Movement Conference, the combined power of the General Council and the Russian union leaders, and ‘their’ Red Friday.

That they saw these things as the chief and most meaningful advances for the British working class showed how far the party had slipped into the bureaucratic and reformist way of analysing events. In 1925 party theory had to be reworked to give a coherent justification for such attitudes. The centrist theory that emerged is still very much with us in the British labour movement today. It was a theory which explained why the avowed reformists of the left of the TUC and Labour Party were going to lead the working class to revolution in spite of themselves. The analysis also had to locate a function for the Communist Party, as a strongly organised body of people who saw themselves as revolutionaries, within this overall process.

J.T. Murphy once more showed his aptitude for theory, but now, in 1925, it was dedicated to a political outlook very different from that of wartime or the early years of the party. Murphy analysed the general trends in the British labour movement as follows:

The working class is awakening and the fierce discussions raging throughout the Labour Party are ... the manifestations of life and vitality, a class thinking over the ways and means to reach the goal it has set before it. It is out of this process in the Labour Party and the trade unions, which are the basic material of the Labour Party, that our party, the majority of whose members are inseparable from the Labour Party by virtue of their union membership, will grow to a mass Communist Party. [1]

This process of advance the bureaucratic leaders were powerless to oppose:

It is one of the greatest ironies of history that the very people who are fiercest in the denunciation of the Communist Party, which contains the politics of the October Revolution, are repeatedly pushed into circumstances which compel them, time and again, to say and do the things which the Communist Party says are necessary.

For example, Mr Bevin was exceptionally loud-mouthed in his denunciation of the Communist Party ... We are not worried about Mr Bevin’s personal feelings for us. More important than Mr Bevin is the fact that the unions, in order to defend their interests, got together and in the process proved the soundness of our revolutionary theories [on Red Friday]. [2]

And according to Palme Dutt, in the inexorable march of history trade union officials will be made

to recognise the necessity of class unity against the capitalist attack, and in addition are forced more and more to recognise the necessity of winning into their hands the organisation and control of industry. [3]

Of course if you see no distinction between bureaucrats and the rank and file, then if the workers are forced by crisis to move left, so too must the bureaucrats in equal measure. The General Strike was soon to confound this idea absolutely.

A little problem remained. The new theory did not seem able to explain the vicious attack made on the left at the Liverpool Labour Conference. However, it proved quite adaptable. The Labour right might resist the onward advance of the workers but they would soon have to yield to the left. Palme Dutt explained:

... as soon as a change of conditions brings a real emergence and intensification of class struggle in Britain, it is natural that the class struggle, revealing itself first in its primitive economic forms without relation to political consciousness, should meet with heavy opposition and obstruction within the Labour Party ... but must eventually win its way forward, within the ranks of the Labour Party. [4]

A mechanical faith in progress is a necessary assumption for those who tail left bureaucrats in unions or reformist parties. If they made a concrete analysis of events or remembered past betrayals too well they would be forced to recognise the weakness of their position.

Although this much was common ground for the Communist Party leadership, the precise manner in which the inevitable force of circumstances would translate into reality was interpreted differently by Murphy and Dutt. At one point in early 1925, Palme Dutt, erratic as ever, appears to have had a brainstorm. During it he did show an insight into the need for Communists to win influence not by fawning on the bureaucratic ‘lefts’ but by sharply challenging them and asserting the need for revolutionary leadership. In some respects his arguments were most effective and in startling contrast to everything else that the Communist Party said at this time:

It is necessary to show that it is not sufficient to attack certain leaders, to call for a ‘more energetic’ policy etc., but that the supreme task is to forge in struggle an actual new leadership and a solid fighting force which can alone hew out a way for the workers. It is necessary to show that the Labour Party and the trade unions are by their nature incapable of leading the struggle of the working class in the present period, and in relation to the actual forces of the bourgeoisie and that such an effective struggle can only be waged by a solid phalanx of workers fighting under a united revolutionary lead such as can only be realised in a mass Communist Party. It is necessary to conduct such a criticism of every individual ‘left’ leader, and of every halting uncertain semi-revolutionary advance, at the same time as pressing forward action to the utmost, as to compel the realisation of this conclusion, alike by every measure of success and still more by every successive failure.

The role of the Communist Party becomes of special importance in relation to the ‘left’ leaders.

His analysis of the ‘lefts’ was excellent:

... so far as ideology and expression go, none of these left elements have so far shown any difference in principle from MacDonald and the right-wing.

... at this point arises an extreme danger – the greatest danger of the coming period. It inevitably follows from the character of the left that they have not the necessary clearness or cohesion to lead, to form a united force or to carry out serious planning or preparatory work. At the same time they are easily able, owing to the weakness of revolutionary development in England, and to the authority and prestige of their positions, to win the ear of the masses with a handful of phrases and promises, and so to gather the rising movement of the masses to themselves and then to dissipate it in a comic opera fiasco.

Thus accurately predicting the events of the General Strike, he went on to pose the alternative:

Against this danger the only safeguard of the workers is the Communist Party ... The Communist Party must conduct an unceasing ideological warfare with the left, exposing from the outset every expression that betrays confusion, ambiguity, vain bravado, frivolousness, opposition to actual struggle and practical subjection to the right-wing. The Communist Party must press forward every direct expression of struggle to the practical tests of immediate action or preparation. [5]

Unfortunately Palme Dutt dropped his stance as quickly as he had adopted it, and it never became party policy.

The fact that after 1924 the British Communist Party lost its sense of direction – towards the building of a revolutionary party – was very much due to the influence of the Russian state bureaucracy in the Comintern. Through inexperience, the early Congresses of the Communist International had had difficulty in finding a correct policy towards trade unionism. But the importance of a party of the Bolshevik type in achieving socialist revolution was never lost sight of. After 1924, however, the Russian leadership, now a Stalinist clique, had become absorbed in bureaucratic ways of thinking. It lost the Marxist perspective of class struggle and sought progress not by serious revolutionary work, but through diplomatic manoeuvres and bureaucratic combinations. This new tendency communicated itself to the constituent parties of the Communist International.

This is obvious from the stance of the British Communist Party after 1924. The theoretical edifice which it built to justify its support for the left union bureaucrats and Labour lefts bore no relation whatsoever to the sort of class analysis essential to meet the needs of the working-class movement. The starting point for this must, of necessity, be the working class itself.

Although the Communist movement in the mid-1920s may have forgotten the experience of the Russian revolution, the prime lessons of that revolution are still clear.

The mass of workers would change their consciousness only in the course of struggle, and the majority would only do so when the struggle reached revolutionary proportions. A revolutionary party is the first and absolute essential if this process is to take place, since the overthrow of capitalism must be consciously proposed and fought for. But this is not the whole equation. Until the last minute the party is inevitably a minority of the class, since reformist ideas hold sway until the outbreak of revolution.

So as the struggle develops another body is required, an unofficial organisation in which the party can argue its position among wide layers of the working class and through which the masses can transform themselves. In a crisis the class faces the immediate need to go beyond the constraints set by the bureaucracy, which always attempts to keep struggle within the bounds of capitalism. Furthermore, since the change in ideas occurs during the heat of battle, the alternative unofficial movement must be democratic – for it must both centralise the workers’ struggle and reflect their changing consciousness. It must be in constant contact with the rank and file and able to channel every change of mood instantly.

This cannot be done through official channels. Even if the best socialists could somehow win control of the top bureaucratic positions in the unions, without being corrupted along the way, the distance of the General Council from the rank and file at the point of production would make them incapable of giving the necessary leadership – leadership that reflects the highest point reached by workers’ consciousness at any moment and takes it that one realistic step further. And the obstacles in the way of a reformist road to socialism through union officialdom are doubly as great when it comes to trying to change society through parliament.

The new unofficial body has to draw its delegates directly from the rank and file, organised through collective units in factories, pits and offices. Its members have to be subject to instant recall so as to reflect majority opinion as soon as it changes. Furthermore, it has to be capable of acting for itself. It cannot depend on pressurising others to act for the working class. It has to challenge the inevitable barrier posed by the trade union and reformist bureaucracies.

In other words, there has to be a rank-and-file movement with the potential for becoming a workers’ self-governing organ – a soviet or workers’ council. Successful leadership for the rank-and-file movement, and indeed the building of such a movement, depends on both favourable conditions and the intervention of a revolutionary party, conscious of the character of reformist leaders and the means required to overcome their influence.

Despite its numerically small membership the best service the British Communist Party could have rendered would have been to direct the attention of the vanguard of workers to the dangers of reliance on the bureaucracy and towards realistically exploring whatever independent rank-and-file initiatives were possible.

The alternative, which the party actually followed, was to lead the best fighters of the working class into a situation where the treachery of the leaders resulted not only in the general defeat of the class, but also the complete disorientation of the vanguard. No one could have asked a party of 6,000 to save the British working class single-handed. But given the party’s pre-eminent position among the advanced and thinking workers, measures which built their confidence and self-reliance, combined with a Marxist understanding of the difficult period ahead, could and should have been offered.

This does not mean to say that the Communist Party were passive bystanders as the end of the coal subsidy drew near. The Workers’ Weekly had been counting off the weeks as they slipped by; the Second National Minority Movement Conference had called for preparation, and indeed every ounce of energy was put into what the party judged as effective preparation for battle. In January 1926 the central committee laid out what was at stake:

The miners, after the breathing space bought for the owners by the means of a subsidy, and the sham impartiality of the Coal Commission, are now threatened with an open attack on the seven-hour day, on the Miners’ Federation and on wages. The owners have thrown disguise to the winds ...

These facts, taken together with the steady, if unobtrusive organisation of the OMS [the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies] point to a definite determination on the part of the British capitalists to prevent a repetition of Red Friday, to challenge the organised Labour movement and smash it.

The party was not about to run away. It had confidence in the potential of the working class:

The workers can meet the capitalist attack and smash it, as on Red Friday. More: we believe that the British workers can turn their defensive into an offensive, and present a common demand for better conditions which will be the prelude to a complete victory over the capitalists. [6]

Yet the urgent measures the central committee proposed all went in the direction of the bureaucracy. Here is the complete list:

  1. Summoning by the General Council of a Conference of Trade Union Executives in accordance with Scarborough decisions, to give wider powers to the General Council to lead the whole workers’ industrial army.
  2. In addition to the campaign for granting full executive powers to the General Council, the completion of the Workers’ Industrial Alliance, to reinforce the workers’ defensive preparations against the coming crisis, and in particular the inclusion of the NUR, AEU, Boilermakers and General Workers, etc.
  3. A working agreement between the General Council and the Co-operative Wholesale Society, to ensure provisioning the workers, and a policy of mutual support between the two national centres of the trade union and Co-operative movements, the TUC and the Co-operative Union.
  4. Formation of Factory Committees elected by all workers irrespective of craft or sex, in accordance with the Scarborough resolution, to ensure unity of the workers from the bottom, and the calling by the trades councils and district committees, of conference to ensure union support for these committees.
  5. A national campaign for 100 per cent trade unionism, including a National Show Cards week ...
  6. Organisation of Workers’ Defence Corps, composed of trade unionists, and controlled by trades councils to protect trade union liberties against the Fascisti, and calling upon the General Council to take steps to place the workers’ case before the workers in the army, navy and air forces.
  7. Formulation of a Common Programme, for the whole movement (£4 a week for 44 hours) supplementary to the special demands of each industry ...
  8. The strengthening of relations between the General Council and National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement in order to secure the realisation of the unemployed demands. [7]

Five of these eight proposals were demands for the union leaders to act. Only points 4, 5 and 6 – referring to factory committees, 100 per cent trade unionism and Workers’ Defence Corps – gave any scope for rank-and-file self-activity, but as we shall see even these were not conceived of in such a way.

It was soon obvious to everyone that despite the fine words at Scarborough, the General Council was doing nothing seriously to prepare the movement. But still on 12 March 1926 the Workers’ Weekly editorial was headed ‘Let the leaders – lead’ and its tone was one of pleading:

Surely now, if ever, the Leaders of Labour must rise to the responsibilities? ... Now or never is the time for the General Council to prove its worth and to show that it has learned, as it should have done, that in such emergencies as these the highest wisdom is the ‘scorn of consequences’.

The final sentence was a threat without any teeth since the entire effort of the Communist Party was directed towards a successful official lead:

If the leaders will not lead, the rank and file must replace them by those who will. [8]

On 21 March the Communist Party had its last opportunity to state its position at a major conference – the National Minority Movement’s special Conference of Action. The 883 delegates were claimed to represent one million workers, even though no direct shop stewards’ representation was recorded. With the exception of 52 trades councils, 38 Minority Movement groups and 35 unemployed organisations, the rest of the 547 bodies spoken for were either union branches or district committees.

Far from denouncing the scandalous inactivity of the General Council, which was becoming daily more apparent, the Workers’ Weekly opened its report of the conference in this way:

The most unexpected event at the Minority Movement’s Conference of Action on Sunday last was the presence as a platform visitor of W.H. Hutchison of the General Council ... It is hoped that his guarded (but obviously sincere) approval of the conference decisions ... is an indication that the General Council is contemplating further action in line with the Scarborough decisions.

Tom Mann’s chairman’s address left no room for doubt as to the dedication of the Minority Movement to the workers’ cause in the coming battle:

Let no man mistake us. We are out for militancy. We are out to fight the capitalists. And we know there is no hope unless we fight them and beat them ... We are out for militancy; we are out for the workers, and if the hour comes we will ‘die with them without asking anyone’s help. [9]

The conference put especial emphasis on the formation of Councils of Action by the trades councils and Workers’ Defence Corps; but neither of these was thought of as providing an alternative to the officials. George Hardy, acting general secretary of the National Minority Movement, answered press stories about the Workers’ Defence Corps:

they imply that we are immediately going to arm the workers for a violent attack on capitalism. Nothing could be more laughably wrong ... the Workers’ Defence Corps is designed to protect trade union property, to steward meetings, defend Labour speakers at outdoor meetings, protect pickets and strike headquarters, and other such necessary activities. Most of these things have already long been done, but we want them done in an organised way. Hence Workers’ Defence Corps. [10]

The Councils of Action were expected to be hardly more challenging and were clearly seen as bodies that carried out official orders:

The normal work of the trades council ought to be suspended or handed over to a small sub-committee of the executive. On the Council of Action should be brought representatives of every section of the movement at present outside it: trade union branches not affiliated, co-operative societies (including women’s guilds), the organised unemployed, and Communist Party locals ...

Last year the General Council issued orders that coal should not be handled. Immediately they receive such instructions the council of action must see to it that pickets are out at every coal dump and railway siding. [11]

As the hour approached when the coal subsidy would end – and the coal lock-out be re-imposed, the Communist Party took comfort in its illusory faith in the General Council. Its final pre-strike editorial in Workers’ Weekly admitted the possibility of a sell-out, but declared that: ‘The TUC simply dare not do this thing.’ [12]

The reasoning behind this had been explained by George Hardy some months earlier. After referring to the slogan ‘All power to the General Council’, he explains:

Should they use that power wrongly, it only means that we have got another additional task before us of forcing them in the right direction, which direction they will ultimately have to take. [13]

Last-minute messages from RILU reinforced these mistaken views:

We are confident the British trade unions and the General Council, having taken the initiative in trying to establish world trade union unity, will view with disapproval the rejection of united action in a case of such importance to the working class. [14]


1. Communist International, number 9, pp. 12–13.

2. Communist Review, October 1925.

3. Workers’ Weekly, 31 July 1925.

4. Communist International, number 16, pp. 81–2.

5. Communist International, number 8, pp. 31–3.

6. Leading article in Workers’ Weekly, 15 January 1926.

7. Leading article in Workers’ Weekly, 15 January 1926.

8. Workers’ Weekly, 12 March 1926.

9. Workers’ Weekly, 26 March 1926.

10. Workers’ Weekly, 9 April 1926.

11. T.H. Wintringham, writing in Workers’ Weekly, 30 April 1926.

12. Workers’ Weekly, 30 April 1926.

13. Orders from Moscow?, pp. 50–51.

14. Sunday Worker, 25 April 1926.

Last updated on 15 August 2014