Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Sixteen:
Revolutionary mass strike
or bureaucratic nightmare?

ON THE OUTCOME of the 1926 strike depended the fate of millions of workers and their union organisations. The world had seen previous crises of this sort. Many had generated mass strikes in which the ruling class offensive was beaten off and the working class had made dramatic advances. Not all led to successful revolutions, but in the struggle the workers had been forged into a fighting unit. They had undergone a spiritual growth. They were changed so that they became able to change society. Even in defeat a substantial core of workers remained more class-conscious and determined than before.

By far the most brilliant exposition on such strikes is the classic work by Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, The Political Party and The Trade Unions. She sketches the rising wave of strikes in Russia in the ten years 1896–1905. In May 1896 a general strike of 40,000 textile workers took place in St Petersburg. This was followed by another general strike of the same workers in 1897. Following this, a whole number of small strikes took place until the next mass strike in March 1902 of the petroleum workers in the Caucasus. Then in November a mass strike of railwaymen in Rostov turned into a general strike. In May, June and July 1903, the whole of South Russia was aflame. Baku, Tiflis, Batum, Elizavetograd, Odessa, Kiev, Nikolayev, and Ekaterinoslav were in the grip of a general strike.

The year 1904 brought with it war, and for a time a pause in the strike movement, but this ended with the defeat of the Tsarist army and navy at the hands of the Japanese. In December 1904 a general strike broke out in Baku. Before this news had time to reach all parts of the Tsarist empire a mass strike broke out in St Petersburg in January 1905. This was the start of the Russian revolution of 1905. Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her book:

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

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

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

In former bourgeois revolutions ... the short battle on the barricades was the appropriate form of revolutionary struggle. Today, at a time that the working class must educate, organise and lead itself in the course of the revolutionary struggle, when the revolution itself is directed not only against the established state power but also against capitalist exploitation, mass strikes appear as the natural method to mobilise the broadest possible proletarian layers in to action, to revolutionise and organise them. Simultaneously it is a method by means of which to undermine and overthrow the established state power as well as to curb capitalist exploitation ... In order that the working class may participate en masse in any direct political action, it must first organise itself, which above all means that it must obliterate the boundaries between factories and workshops, mines and foundries, it must overcome the split between workshops which the daily yoke of capitalism condemns it to. Therefore the mass strike is the first natural spontaneous form of every great revolutionary proletarian action. [2]

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

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

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

The logical and necessary climax of the mass strike is

the open uprisings which can only be realised as the culmination of a series of partial uprisings which prepare the ground, and therefore are liable to end for a time in what looks like partial ‘defeats’, each of which may seem to be ‘premature’. [4]

For Rosa Luxemburg,

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

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

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

However, there are many mass strikes that have little in common with Rosa Luxemburg’s description. Where the workers are highly organised in trade unions, the extent of their independence from the conservative trade union bureaucracy is largely a function of their confidence in facing the capitalists. The higher the level of organisation and confidence of the rank and file in fighting the capitalists, the more able are they to break the shackles of the trade union bureaucracy, and vice versa. The extent to which a strike is a product of rank-and-file initiative determines how near it is to the norm of the mass strike described by Rosa Luxemburg.

The bureaucratically-administered general strike

Unfortunately, Luxemburg’s analysis is sometimes used dogmatically, so that instead of comparing her concept with an actual mass strike the truth is obscured rather than enlightened. For the mass strike, like all social phenomena, is not a fixed absolute. Its character largely depends on the circumstances in which it takes place.

This applies particularly to the British General Strike of 1926 which, as we shall see, was very different from the romantic picture which has come down to us through left-wing folklore. It had little in common with the sort of revolutionary mass strike described by Rosa Luxemburg.

From the very beginning the TUC leaders made it clear that they intended to keep a tight grip on the strike. They took it upon themselves to decide who should stop work and who should not. A strong rank-and-file movement would not have tolerated the arbitrary decision to bring certain workers out but not others doing similar jobs. Without such a challenge the bureaucratic fiat held good, but the result was tremendous confusion.

Not all workers were called out. The TUC strategy was instead framed as a strike in ‘waves’ – one group of workers was to strike while others waited. This, it was hoped, would produce a satisfactory compromise before a total stoppage occurred. The first wave was to involve workers in the following industries:

Workers in general engineering, textiles and light industry were not included, nor were those in the postal or telephone service, despite the fact that unions in these industries had voted as solidly for the strike as those whose members were called out.

Had all trade unionists been called out from the beginning, the impact would have been far greater. In the first ‘wave’, the first eight days of the strike, two million workers came out. The second ‘wave’ brought out another half-million: engineers, shipyard workers and textile workers. So altogether there were 2½ million on strike on the last day. In addition one million miners were locked out.

Thus the total number of trade unionists involved was 3½ million, who comprised two-thirds of all organised workers. This made the stoppage really a partial general strike since, with one in three workers unionised, only a quarter of Britain’s labour force were directly involved.

The interdependence of different sectors of industry made nonsense of the hastily cobbled together idea of separate waves. To weaken the strike further, and increase the muddle, workers were not expected to act on the call of the TUC but wait for specific instructions to come from their own union:

The General Council recommends that the actual calling out of the workers should be left to the unions, and instructions should only be issued by the accredited representatives of the unions participating in the dispute. [7]

The General Council’s attempt to maintain the autonomy of individual union head offices prevented concentrated strike organisation and exacerbated the sectionalism that was endemic to the trade union movement.

Whereas the government had centralised the ruling class campaign, the individual unions rather than the General Council were the administrative machinery that ran the strike. The separate unions were left to interpret the TUC call in their own way. As a result confusion reigned supreme. Union branches received conflicting strike orders. Since there was no coordination at the top, there was no way for local union groups to resolve contradictory orders except through a terrible waste of time and effort – and still chaos prevailed.

The task of interpreting TUC guidelines involved some unions in countless problems, especially in industries such as electricity and building, of which only sections fell within the TUC lists. Take the example of electricity, where the TUC was asking for a discrimination between light and power, and between various kinds of power. On 7 May the General Council announced:

Local strike organisations are authorised to offer to meet employers immediately and offer to supply light and power for such services as house, street and shop lighting, social services, power for food, bakeries, laundries and domestic services. [8]

It was an impossible selective process; and this on the fourth day of the strike. The London district of the electricians’ union (ETU) pointed out that to divide power and light was a technical impossibility, and called on all members of the ETU in power stations to come out on strike. The General Council thereupon instructed them to go back to work! [9] A sub-committee of the General Council dealing with electricity and gas suggested to the General Council that all workers in those industries should be called out, but this was still under consideration at the end of the strike. [10]

But this did not end the problems. Should workers not called out use electricity produced by scabs? This question was put to the National Strike Organisation Committee by the Northumberland and Durham Strike Committee. The reply given was: Yes, they should. [11]

A similar muddle was caused among building workers. The General Council’s instructions were not at all clear:

Building Trade – All workers engaged on building, except such as are employed definitely on housing and hospital work, together with all workers engaged in the supply of equipment to the building industry, shall cease work. [12]

Each union interpreted the instructions differently.

The headquarters of the different unions provided conflicting guidelines on how to interpret the TUC’s directives, so that the problem of deciding who ought to be on strike within each union was made more complicated by the fact that members of other unions on the same building site were working to different rules. This meant that on some building sites one set of workers had been ordered out and another ordered to report as normal. [13]

The secretary of a building workers’ federation strike committee at Wellingborough described his problems:

I called a mass meeting ... each affiliated society secretary was on the platform with me, each with differently worded instructions, each of which called on the members to cease work and then went on to lay down rules and regulations which no one could interpret, but which made it impossible for the members to do so. [14]

Similarly Charles Spraggs, the Birmingham district organiser of the housepainters’ and decorators’ union, had quite a struggle coping with the problem.

Some men engaged on hospital and school building weren’t called out and this caused no end of dissension and we had some lively meetings. At our biggest branch they all turned up and gave me an uncomfortable time. I won in the end but it was a very rough night. The men who were complaining wanted all out or none out. It was all black and white. They felt that if they were out then all should be out. Some wanted none out. [15]

The Huddersfield Workers’ Bulletin of 11 May suggested the only logical solution to the muddle: ‘A meeting of the Central Strike Committee in conjunction with the members of the unions in the building trades met, and it was jointly agreed to recommend that all members be withdrawn from the industry.’ [16]

But this advice came too late to reverse the damage. Margaret Morris summed up the chaos of the strike in the building industry thus:

In the building industry as a whole ... although the general response was good, wrangling delayed the start of the strike and led to a yo-yo movement: some building workers did not come out until the middle of the strike, while others were sent back to work by their unions. [17]

Workers in other industries also suffered from muddled and contradictory instructions. According to James Jefferys, the historian of the engineering union, the contradictory instructions from Head Office created

confusion among the engineers as to who was to come out and who was to stay in. Many members were engaged on motor-car manufacture and vehicle building, which was not clearly defined in relation to the instructions for transport workers. Some districts consequently interpreted motor-car manufacture as ‘Transport’, while others did not. Coventry settled the confusion in their area by calling out all motor-car workers and the Wolverhamnton Strike Committee very quickly agreed upon a policy which brought the motor-car industry in that area to a complete standstill. [18]

In Sheffield

The 7,000 engineers, divided amongst various craft unions, working in anything from the largest steel firm to the smallest tool Shop, were in receipt of confusing orders from the General Council. Most of them came out unordered on 3 May. The officials were horrified when they discovered on 5 May that they had misinterpreted the instructions and were now expected to send their members back to work. The AEU delegates reported to the [Central Dispute Committee] that they were ‘in an extremely difficult position as all their men were out. The district committee believed it to be disastrous for them to return’ ... they were, they felt, being ordered to blackleg. The 2,000 foundry workers had waited for official instructions, but they found their position equally unacceptable, and their committee decided on 8 May to ‘again visit our national executive Council with a view to getting permission to withdraw all members.’ [19]

Similar chaos prevailed in the Sheffield steel industry:

The several thousand cutlery workers in the NUGMW came out on 3 May but were ordered back to work on 5 May, where they apparently waited for their power and steel supplies to be cut off, so they could then claim benefit for being laid off ... Along with union members who continued to work because their officials refused to authorise strike pay there were the non-unionists. As a result, all of Sheffield’s major steel firms, with the exception of Hadfield’s, and most of the small metal firms which had enough coal in stock, stayed partially open. [20]

At the beginning of the General Strike, the Sheffield Central Dispute Committee bemoaned the fact that the TUC’s instructions ‘tend to destroy morale and render sections of the strike ineffective on account of the numbers who are still at work and being sent to work.’ [21] But the General Council was deaf to such complaints.

Another example of muddle came from the North-East:

One transport union had called out all men concerned with transport of food but given permits for transport of building materials; another had stopped all the latter but was giving some permits for transport of food ... In Nottingham ... two days were taken up with a dispute between the TGWU and the NUGMW because the former had called out its brewery men, the latter not, so the discussion turned on the question – ‘is beer food?’ Despite all efforts both local and national no settlement had been reached by the end of the strike. [22]

There was another very serious negative aspect of the partial strike: on 4 May the Glasgow Central Strike Co-ordinating Committee reported that engineers and shipbuilding workers were forced to use buses run by blacklegs – due to the TUC’s instructions to go on working. [23]

Key sections of the trade union movement were kept completely uninvolved until the end of the strike: gas workers, post and telephone workers, those working directly for the government in naval dockyards, among others. On the other hand there was one section of workers called out who should not have been: printers working for the socialist press. Their stoppage considerably reduced the effectiveness of those arguing the workers’ case.

Sectional narrow-mindedness led the printing unions to refuse to print Labour papers if their members working for the capitalist press were called out. In the majority of cases the Typographical Association refused to print local strike bulletins. Even when it came to printing provincial copies of the British Worker, the TUC’s own strike paper, it demanded much coaxing and lengthy negotiations with the local branches of the print unions. Again with the London edition of the British Worker, narrow sectionalism reared its ugly head. ‘The machine men ... put in, to begin with, very large demands. They claimed more than they would have earned in ordinary times. They were pleaded with, but would not take less.’ [24]

The government side had no scruples about fighting its corner. Apart from the British Gazette, which gave free reign to the unbridled class warrior instincts of Winston Churchill, it possessed a powerful propaganda weapon in the wireless, for the BBC was completely an arm of the government.

One final aspect of the British General Strike that made it unique among mass strikes must be mentioned. This was the issuing of strike pay to all workers out on strike – with the exception of the locked-out miners. This considerably strengthened the control of the trade union bureaucracy over the rank and file.


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

2. Rosa Luxemburg, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften (Berlin 1955), vol. 1, pp. 227–8.

3. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, pp. 201–2.

4. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, p. 274.

5. Luxemburg, Ausgewählte, p. 187.

6. Rosa Luxemburg, Gesammelte Werke (Berlin, no date), p. 457.

7. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 162.

8. British Worker, 7 May 1926.

9. Raymond Postgate, Inner History of the General Strike, in Locomotive Engineers Journal, July 1926.

10. The Story of the ETU: An official history (London 1952), pp. 119–120.

11. TUC library, Box HD 5366, SOC 11 May 1926.

12. Page-Arnot, The General Strike, p. 161.

13. M. Morris, The General Strike (London 1976), p. 35.

14. R. Postgate, R. Horrabin and E. Wilkinson, A Workers’ History of the General Strike (London 1926), p. 25.

15. Morris, p. 34

16. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

17. Morris, p. 36.

18. J.B. Jefferys, The Story of the Engineers 1800–1945 (London 1946), p. 232.

19. S. Benton, Sheffield, in Morris, pp. 431–2.

20. Benton, in Morris, pp. 432–3.

21. Benton, in Morris, p. 438.

22. Robin Page-Arnot, The General Strike in the North East, in L.M. Mundy (ed.), The Luddites and other essays (London 1971), pp. 270 and 279.

23. S. Bhaumik, Glasgow, in Morris, p. 401; and P. Carter, The West of Scotland, in J. Skelley, The General Strike 1926 (London 1976), pp. 131–2.

24. H. Fyfe, Behind the Scenes of the General Strike (London 1926), p. 62.

Last updated on 15 August 2014