Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Twenty-One:
The ending of the strike:
Fact and fiction

MANY EXCUSES were given by the TUC leaders for calling off the General Strike. The most common was that if they had not acted the strike would have crumbled. Thus John Bromley, general secretary of ASLEF, said on the night of 10 May that unless the General Strike was called off, there would be ‘thousands of trains running’.

‘It is not good, we cannot go on any longer,’ Ben Turner of the National Union of Textile Workers and a member of the TUC General Council, wrote in his diary during the closing hours of the strike:

During Monday night spoke to Cramp at top of steps about it being desirable strike should not go on above the week out. He declared also it must not go on much longer. Tuesday, Thomas saying ditto. Our reports are weakening: 4,000 trains running, etc. Report Bristol docks weakened, Southampton strikers weakening, etc. [1]

After it was all over Thomas said: ‘The criticism is – Why did we not go on? We could not have gone on.’ In an article he contributed to Answers magazine in January 1927, he wrote that ‘there was a wonderful service of trains on all lines in the kingdom within a short while of the strike being called.’ [2]

The argument was completely phoney. Thus P.S. Bagwell, historian of the NUR, writes: [3]

The belief that the volunteers were on the point of re-establishing the train services to something like their normal pattern was, however, a myth. The following figures issued by the railway companies themselves show the extent to which volunteer labour had been able to meet the nation’s needs for goods and passenger services:


Passenger trains
as a percentage of normal

Goods trains
as a percentage of normal


First day of strike

Last day of strike

Last day of strike

London, Midland and Scottish




London and North Eastern Railway




Great Western Railway








So the railway companies had failed completely in their attempt to run the railway system without railwaymen.

We have already seen the government’s estimation of the continuing strength of the strike on 11 May, when the Minister of Labour reported to the Cabinet that it was still spreading in many areas. On the day the strike was called off the TUC Intelligence Committee submitted the following appraisal to the General Council:

The reports received from all quarters ... show a remarkable spirit in the country ... The numbers who are standing continue to grow. Every day adds to the number of idle factories and workshops ... The government has endeavoured to impress the country with the improvement in railway facilities. The actual improvement, though real, is very small ... The reports to hand from local strike committees and independent observers indicate no real breach in the solidarity of the strike ... The reports coming into this office do not confirm or explain the government’s claims ...

Some of the reports with regard to railwaymen returning to work are clearly quite untrue ... The Slough Observer issued Monday evening stated that the local station master reported ‘A steady flow of our men back to work’, and this was broadcast over the wireless, according to a report from Slough ... This steady flow consists only of one Signalman and one porter (father and son) and one platform inspector.

It may be that the government are making big claims on the basis of a staff consisting in the main of supervisory grades, clerks, and more or less isolated railwaymen in the rural areas ... There is no real evidence of wavering on the part of the trade unionist core of the strike ... As a whole, the strike is perfectly solid ... While there are no indications of any important tendency on the part of men on strike to resume work, many reports show that the strike is extending and the factories and workshops not directly involved are slowing down or shutting down ... many factories are stopping owing to shortage of fuel, shortage of raw material, lack of power, or inability to get their output transported. [4]

The British Worker on Tuesday evening, 11 May, one day before the strike was called off, asserted in block type on its front page:

The number of strikers has not diminished; it is increasing. There are more workers out today than there have been at any moment since the strike began. [5]

On the same day the TGWU issued the following summary of typical reports from the districts:

LONDON AND HOME COUNTIES. Mass meetings held throughout the area were well attended, great enthusiasm being displayed. Out of 40,000 passenger workers employed in the metropolitan area not one has returned to work.

SOUTH OF ENGLAND. Central Strike Committee perfectly satisfied with the position. Wonderful enthusiasm was displayed at a series of highly successful meetings.

WEST OF ENGLAND. The general position is more than satisfactory, the workers displaying a great spirit of determination.

SOUTH WALES. Everything is as solid as ever.

MIDLANDS. The position continues satisfactory. Successful meetings have been held throughout the area.

LANCASHIRE AND PART OF CHESHIRE. Position as solid as ever.

SCOTLAND. Position as solid as ever.

NORTH OF ENGLAND. Spirit and determination good.

YORKSHIRE. Position as solid as ever. Good order everywhere.

EAST COAST. The position is even better than when the strike began.

LIVERPOOL AND DISTRICT. The position is as solid as ever.

BRADFORD. The BBC rumour to the effect that tramwaymen had gone back to work is denied by the trades council, the secretary of which body says that the situation is as sound as a bell.

EAST GRINSTEAD. Still going strong. Earl de la Warr and miners’ MPs have been addressing large and enthusiastic demonstrations.

DIDCOT. Morale excellent. 99 per cent solid.

LEICESTER. Solid and enthusiastic response in all places.

EASTLEIGH. 3,600 members solid in the fight.

CARLISLE. Spirit excellent. Support for TUC assured.

DERBY. The arrangements are working well and the men are in good spirits.

SWANSEA. About 40,000 out. Wonderful spirit generally.

SWINDON. The position is unchanged. No news of any wavering.

POPLAR. The spirit of the workers is intensifying rather than diminishing. The government’s display of armed force has been met with amusement and contempt. [6]

The Cabinet on 12 May reported that as far as London was concerned:

The general position is very little altered save that there are more people out, many, of course, through force of circumstances. [7]

Another excuse for calling off the strike was its cost. The General Council had no qualms about spurning a £26,000 donation from the Russian unions, [8] but they still begrudged every penny drawn on their precious union funds. Ernest Bevin complained bitterly of the strain of the strike on the TGWU’s finances:

With almost all the members drawing strike pay, the nine days’ General Strike and its aftermath cost the union close on £600,000, a financial set-back from which it took years to recover. But for the support which they had given the miners, Bevin reflected bitterly, the TGWU would have been the second wealthiest union in the country. Now he had to start again from the beginning in order slowly to build up its financial strength to the point it had reached in April 1926. [9]

Bevin forgot what he had said at the Memorial Hall when he spoke on behalf of the General Council recommending the General Strike:

Even if every penny goes, and every asset is swallowed up, history will write that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do this rather than see the miners driven down like slaves. [10]

The NUR spent £1,100,000 on strike benefit to its members. The total cost of the strike to union funds, stated Citrine, was nearly £5 million. [11] Here were complaints about the cost of the strike when one million miners and their families, who weren’t receiving strike pay, were being starved and brought to their knees!

After the excuse about the cost came the argument that the miners were far too selfish – they were not grateful for all the help we, the union leaders, had given them. Thus John Bromley, in ASLEF’s Locomotive Journal, gave the General Council’s verdict: ‘After all the sacrifices made by other unions the miners both deserted their comrades who were fighting for them, and themselves.’

How was this extraordinary conclusion reached? The miners were in fact being accused of deserting the true bureaucratic path of shoddy compromise:

The General Council never had any reason to doubt that, had the Miners’ executive accepted the advice of the General Council to adopt the Samuel Memorandum, and joined with the General Council in calling off the strike, the lock-out notices would have been withdrawn, negotiations set on foot, and an acceptable arrangement arrived at. [12]

The vile charges that the union leaders were prepared to heap on the million miners still facing lock-out and starvation were aptly expressed in an entry Citrine made in his diary:

Thoughts on the Termination of the General Strike ... Had the miners risen to the appeal that Pugh made them last night, in one of the most earnest addresses I have ever heard, they would have come along and said to us: ‘We are disappointed with the result. It is not what we had hoped for, but we realise that your men have made a sacrifice for us. We cannot expect you to do more. We will go back to our members and tell them that, on our own responsibility, having placed our case in your hands, we had called the strike off.’ But not they!

They had neither the loyalty to the Congress, nor to their colleagues, nor the appreciation of the sacrifices of the movement, to enable them to rise above their restricted vision of their own coalfields. [13]

How strange it was for Citrine to talk of loyalty. Throughout the strike, he and his colleagues showed a respect only for the laws, institutions and religion of the class enemy. They had demonstrated nothing but contempt for the miners and for their own members by their back-door negotiations and by their surrender without such elementary preconditions as the full reinstatement of all strikers.

Of course, if all else failed there was one further way of excusing the disaster that had befallen the movement: pretend that the General Strike had not been sold out at all! Only the TUC lefts were brazen enough to employ this stratagem. Thus on 13 June Purcell wrote in the Sunday Worker that the stoppage was merely a ‘preliminary encounter’ and:

More real working-class progress was made in those few days than has been made in as many years previously ... Those who talk about the failure of the General Strike are mentally a generation behind the times in which we live. [14]

An even more startling re-write of events came from the pen of Hicks in the same issue:

Was the General Strike a victory or defeat?

I reply: Who has gained the most from it? The working class has gained infinitely more from the General Strike than has the capitalist class ... ‘A Great Victory’.

Of course the General Strike has been a success – a great victory. Those who talk about the General Strike being a failure and of the uselessness of the General Strike as a weapon must be living in a world of their own imagining. [15]

It is clear who ought to have been in an asylum.

Was Cook, the miners’ general secretary and another notable left, exempt from criticism? Even though the miners’ leaders refused to compromise their demand of ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day’, they were prisoners of bureaucratic methods. Cook’s account shows that he resented the behaviour of the General Council, but he took no effective measures to counter their policies of passivity and then surrender.

To have turned the tide would have taken a direct appeal to the rank and file and a serious mobilisation of miners to prevent scab food transport and the like. Cook did not call for such things because he looked to his fellow union leaders to guarantee solidarity. The miners’ leaders left their members as passive spectators to the doings of the bureaucracy. They stopped their own pits and strengthened pickets in mining areas but did not go beyond the limits set by the General Council. Cook’s anger and dismay at the outcome were genuine enough, but this was not turned into positive action. Clear evidence that the bureaucratic straitjacket affected all officials in 1926 was Cook’s willing participation in a cover-up of the TUC’s crime aft er the end of the strike.

In June 1926 Cook wrote the pamphlet The Nine Days, which was a damning indictment of the TUC. Regrettably he contradicted the spirit of the whole pamphlet in his last sentence:

We hope still that those leaders of the TUC who feel that a mistake has been made will rally to our cause and help us to victory. [16]

Some hope!

One example of the bewildering speed with which Cook was ready to change from sharp criticism of the TUC General Council to covering up for it is the following. There was to be a Conference of Trade Union Executives on 25 June. However, two days before this the General Council of the TUC and the Miners’ Federation issued a joint statement postponing the meeting

so that a united policy may be adopted to resist to the fullest possible extent the government’s action’.

The General Council and the Miners’ Federation regard it as of the greatest importance at this juncture that all sections and parties should avoid statements, either in speech or writing, which create friction and misunderstanding and which divert attention from the purpose in view. [17]

To show his full support for this agreement Cook withdrew The Nine Days from circulation. In justification he wrote: ‘Both the industrial side of the movement and the parliamentary Labour Party are now absolutely with the miners.’ [18] [A]

In September the TUC Congress was held in Bournemouth. An attempt was made by Jack Tanner of the Minority Movement to refer back paragraph 13 of the General Council’s report dealing with the mining situation and the General Strike. Speaking in the name of the AEU, he said:

We feel that an attempt is being made to prevent the workers, and the delegates here particularly, from knowing the whole truth in respect to the national strike ... The General Council have been traitors, cowards and weak fools ... the General Council sold the miners in calling off the national strike when they did call it off. [19]

W.C. Loeber of the NUR seconded the reference back. Cook intervened:

I do hope Congress will recognise that we have over a million miners out at the present moment, and we are more concerned just now to get an honourable settlement for those million men, than we are in washing dirty linen in this Congress. Whatever our feelings may be, whatever view we may take of the mistakes made, this is a mutual arrangement arrived at while our men are on the road. The Miners’ Federation do not burk inquiry. They welcome it. But that inquiry must come when our men are working. [20]

Cook’s intervention put an end to the debate. His prestige was very high and Congress gave him a standing ovation. The reference back was heavily defeated: 775,000 to 3,098,000. [21] The MFGB sided with the General Council.

But Cook’s salvation of the General Council’s reputation did not help the miners one bit. For the TUC never once, during the gruelling six-months’ lock-out that followed the General Strike, put an embargo on coal. Cook was trapped in the bureaucratic machine like all the rest.

Why did the TUC really back down?

From the beginning the government treated the General Strike as a constitutional and political issue. ‘It is not wages that are imperilled,’ declared Baldwin solemnly, ‘it is the freedom of our Constitution.’ Trade union leaders were ‘threatening the basis of ordered government and going nearer to proclaiming civil war than we have been for centuries past.’ [22]

On 6 May the British Gazette published a statement by Baldwin: ‘Constitutional government is being attacked ... The General Strike is a challenge to parliament, and is the road to anarchy and ruin.’ [23] On 10 May its front page carried the following:


Attempted Revolution – Its Purposes and Results

... it is what I have called it – an attempted revolution. Were it to succeed the community would thenceforth be ruled not by parliament, not by the parliamentary Labour Party, not by the rank and file of the trade unions, not by the moderate members of the Trade Union Council, but by a revolutionary small body of extremists who regard trade unions not as the machinery for collective bargaining within our industrial system, but as a political instrument by which the industrial system itself may be utterly destroyed.

... From such a fate may the courage and resolution of our countrymen save the civilisation of which they are the trustees. [24]

For their part, the General Council was frightened to accept the challenge that the strike was industrial and political. It went against the whole concept of trade union leaders hip as part of the Establishment. For decades the incorporation of trade union leaders into government-sponsored conciliation machinery had run parallel with the incorporation of Labour Party leaders in parliament. To accept that the General Strike was a political challenge to the state would undermine both. Throughout the strike the General Council repeated again and again that the dispute was purely economic.

Four of the seven issues of British Worker published before the strike was called off carried an identical declaration from the General Council, that it did

not challenge the Constitution. It is not seeking to substitute unconstitutional government. Nor is it desirous of undermining our parliamentary institutions. The sole aim of the council is to secure for the miners a decent standard of life. The council is engaged in an industrial dispute. In any settlement the only issue to be decided will be an industrial issue, not political and constitutional. There is no constitutional crisis.

The three remaining issues carried an identical Message to All Workers!:

The General Council of the Trade Union Congress wishes to emphasise the fact that this is an industrial dispute. It expects every member taking part to be exemplary in his conduct – not to give any opportunity for police interference. The outbreak of any disturbance will be very damaging to the prospects of a successful termination of the dispute. The council asks pickets especially to avoid obstruction and to confine themselves strictly to their legitimate duties.

The trade union MPs repeated the same in their speeches in the House of Commons. They used every opportunity to state that the strike was not aimed at the Constitution. John Bromley, speaking in the House on 5 May said: ‘Any suggestion that the dispute is a challenge to the Constitution, or an endeavour to overthrow the government is quite wrong.’ [25] Thomas, on 8 May, went as far as to declare in the House: ‘I have never disguised that in a challenge to the Constitution, God help us unless the governent won.’ This dispute, he contended, ‘was merely a plain, economic, industrial dispute.’ [26]

It was part and parcel of their position in not challenging the state that the General Council encouraged football matches between strikers and police.

As daily reports from the regions showed, from the first the strike was solid and as it spread it paralysed the national economy more and more. So the question of power rose inevitably as a logical extension of the strike. To render the strike effective, the trade unions had to challenge the emergency organisation of the government by using mass pickets. The logic of the mass strike demanded an open challenge to the state, and this was becoming increasingly clear during the final days before the strike was called off.

But the trade union leaders had no intention whatsoever of overthrowing the government through industrial action. To challenge the state was to put a dagger in the heart of the trade union bureaucracy. Take the following vignette from Aneurin Bevan’s In Place of Fear:

I remember vividly Robert Smillie describing to me an interview the leaders of the Triple Alliance had with David Lloyd George in 1919 ... ‘He said to us: “Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps. We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices, and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us.

‘“But if you do so,” went on Mr Lloyd George, “have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,”asked the prime minister quietly, “have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” From that moment on,’ said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were.’ [27]

If Lloyd George had told revolutionary leaders, ‘You are stronger than the state’, the simple reply would be: ‘Excellent. Move over.’ But the trade union leaders were not revolutionaries.

In 1926 the government knew very well what a spineless bunch of people the union leaders were. The assessment of Tom Jones, assistant secretary to the Cabinet, was very acute indeed:

The General Strike could not succeed because some of those who led it did not wholly believe in it and because few, if any, were prepared to go through with it to its logical conclusion – violence and revolution. [28]

In a mass strike, if there is no leadership capable of posing correctly the question of power and leading the working class to an assault on the state, then the strike must inevitably retreat, leading to defeat and demoralisation.

The converse of the trade union bureaucracy’s kowtowing before the state is its fear of the unruly rank and file, its fear of workers’ rebellion against the incorporation of the trade union leaders into the establishment, as well as the incorporation of the Labour Party leaders into parliamentary institutions. During the General Strike the leadership trembled at the very idea of rank-and-file independence, even though at no stage did that become an actuality. They suffered from deep paranoia on this subject. Thus Thomas told the House of Commons the day after the strike ended:

What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this: If by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control, every sane man knows what would have happened. I thank God it never did. That is why I believe that the decision yesterday was such a big decision, and that is why that danger, that fear, was always in our minds, because we wanted at least, even in this struggle, to direct a disciplined army. [29]

An even franker admission of the same fear was given by Charles Dukes, secretary of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, at the Special Conference of Union Executives, held in January 1927:

Every day that the strike proceeded the control and the authority of that dispute was passing out of the hands of responsible executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and was wrecking the movement from one end to the other. [30]

Of course, this was a fantastic exaggeration. But for the bureaucracy even a shadow of revolution is a frightening sight.


1. Bagwell, p. 479.

2. Bagwell, p. 479.

3. Bagwell, p. 479.

4. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

5. British Worker, 11 May 1926.

6. TUC Library, Box HD 5366.

7. CAB 27/332.

8. Morris, p. 264.

9. Bullock, pp. 353–4.

10. Quoted in Cook p. 7.

11. Crook, p. 468.

12. Locomotive Journal, July 1926, quoted in S. Nearing, The British General Strike (New York 1927), pp. 108–9.

13. Citrine, p. 204.

14. Sunday Worker, 13 June 1926.

15. Sunday Worker, 13 June 1926.

16. Cook, p. 24.

17. The Times, 24 June 1926.

18. The Miner, 26 June 1926. Emphasis in the original.

19. Report of the TUC at Bournemouth, September 1926, pp. 388–90.

20. Report of the TUC at Bournemouth, p. 392.

21. Report of the TUC at Bournemouth, p. 392.

22. Hansard, 1 May 1926.

23. British Gazette, 6 May 1926.

24. British Gazette, 10 May 1926.

25. Hansard, 5 May 1926.

26. Hansard, 8 May 1926.

27. Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear (London 1952), pp. 20–21.

28. Jones, volume 2, p. 53.

29. Hansard, 13 May 1926.

30. TUC General Council, Report of Proceedings of a Special Conference of Executives, 20–21 January 1927, p. 58.


A. This was not Cook’s only activity at the time. On 3 July 1926 he conducted secret negotiations behind the backs of the MFGB executive with S. Seebohm-Rowntree, the chocolate magnate, Sir William Layton, editor of The Economist, and F.D. Stewart, Rowntree’s private secretary, and came to compromising conclusions. (See further, Tony Cliff, The tragedy of A.J. Cook, in International Socialism, second series, no. 31.)

Last updated on 15 August 2014