Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Twenty-Two:
The left parties and the strike

THE TUC committed a disgusting act of betrayal when they dropped their public face of defiance and called the strike off, but the Labour Party did not even rise to mouthing defiance, so craven was its attitude. At no time did it come out clearly in support of the strikers nor even the million miners who faced poverty wages or longer hours. Thus Ramsay MacDonald’s reaction to Red Friday was:

The government has simply handed over the appearance, at any rate, of victory to the very forces that sane, well-considered Socialism feels to be its greatest enemy. If the government had fought their policy out, we should have respected it. It just suddenly doubled up. The consequence has been to increase the power and prestige of those who do not believe in political action. [1]

Throughout the General Strike itself Labour leaders showed the utmost hostility to the whole idea of action. The defeat and the victimisations that followed did not soften their attitude. Thus MacDonald wrote in June 1926:

The General Strike is a weapon that cannot be used for industrial purposes. It is clumsy and ineffectual. It has no goal which when reached can be regarded as a victory. If fought to a finish as a strike, it would ruin trade unionism, and the government in the meantime could create a revolution; if fought to a finish only as a means to an end, the men responsible for decisions will be charged with betrayal ... The real blame is with the General Strike itself and those who preached it without considering it and induced the workers to blunder into it. It was not (because of its nature it could not be) of help to the miners ... I hope that the result will be a thorough reconsideration of trade union tactics. Large industrial operations of either offence or defence cannot be planned by platform speeches. If the wonderful unity in the strike which impressed the whole world with the solidarity of British labour would be shown in politics, labour could solve mining and similar difficulties through the ballot box. [2]

The most venomous attack on the General Strike is to be found in the diary of Beatrice Webb, mother of Fabianism. On 3 May, the eve of the General Strike, she wrote:

The General Strike will fail ... We have always been against a General Strike ... The failure of the General Strike of 1926 will be one of the most significant landmarks in the history of the British working class. Future historians will, I think, regard it as the death gasp of that pernicious doctrine of ‘workers’ control’ of public affairs through the trade unions, and by the method of direct action ... On the whole I think, it was a proletarian distemper which had to run its course and like other distempers it is well to have it over and done with at the cost of a lengthy convalescence. [3]

A few days after the strike, on 18 May, she added: ‘The failure of the General Strike shows what a sane people the British are.’ [4]

Beatrice Webb’s special fear was that workers might discover industrial action to be more effective than the dead-end of electoral politics. So for the Webbs the sad defeat of the General Strike was of benefit, since it pushed people towards parliamentary activity. On 31 May she wrote:

The parliamentary Labour Party will again dominate the situation. After the unconditional surrender there was despair of industrial action; to this has been added renewed hopes in salvation through the ballot box. [5]

Then on 21 August she made this entry in her diary:

So far as I can see the only organisation that comes out stronger for this disaster is the parliamentary Labour Party – for the simple reason that the prestige of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress has been destroyed and the strike as a weapon has been discredited ... the agony of the Miners’ Federation might mean a Labour government after the General Election. [6]

For 19 October we read the following:

The victory of the coal-owners or of the miners would be deplorable – one hardly dare say which of the two would be most destructive to the commonwealth. [7]

In the next few months Beatrice Webb’s wishes came true. The miners went down to a crushing defeat from which it took half a century to recover, but as a reward Labour did well in the municipal elections! The Times of 3 November 1926 reported:

The success of the Labour Party in the municipal election was widespread, and in some places sweeping ... The principal successes were in the coal-mining areas and industrial towns and boroughs which have been suffering from depression.

Why did the Labour Party leaders have such an antagonistic attitude towards the General Strike?

The Labour Party is sustained by the trade unions, from which it gets a vast proportion of its membership and finance. However, as Lenin explained, the Labour Party does not reflect the trade unions’ membership, but its bureaucracy. The unity of the two wings of the movement – the Labour Party and trade unions – is based on the fact that both are incorporated into the establishment, the first into the parliamentary establishment, the second into conciliatory arrangements with employers and government.

Ideologically the Labour Party has never been an exclusively working-class party. At its founding conference, it threw out a motion calling for ‘a distinct party ... based upon the recognition of the class war’. It has represented itself as a national party whose aim is to integrate the demands of the working class with those of the nation.

Ramsay MacDonald, who was undoubtedly the major intellectual and political figure in the Labour Party in its first three decades, associated the party in his writing with the rejection of Marxism.

‘Neither Marx nor Engels,’ he wrote, ‘saw deep enough to discover the possibilities of peaceful advance which lay hidden beneath the surface ... any idea which assumes that the interests of the proletariat are so simply opposed to those of the bourgeoisie as to make the proletariat feel a oneness of economic interest is purely formal and artificial’. Instead he offered a definition of socialism that drained it of its class content in favour of a higher ‘organic’ social unity. ‘Socialism marks the growth of society, not the uprising of a class. The consciousness which it seeks to quicken is not one of economic class solidarity, but one of social unity and growth towards organic wholeness.’ ‘Socialism is no class movement ... It is not the rule of the working class; it is the organisation of the community.’ [8]

In similar vein Keir Hardie wrote: ‘The propaganda of the class hatred is not one which can ever take root in this country ... Mankind in the main is not moved by hatred but by love of what is right.’ [9]

Morgan Phillips, then secretary of the Labour Party, wrote in an election pamphlet before the 1945 general election: ‘Let us remove at the outset any lingering impression of the outworn idea that the Labour Party is a class party.’ [10] Similarly,

Harold Wilson warned the 1961 Conference: ‘We shall ... as a national party and a nationally-based government, be frank in condemning all who shirk their duty to the nation. The professional fomentors of unofficial strikes and those who easily follow them, equally with businessmen who cling to out-of-date methods and out-of-date machinery because it yields them a profit. [11]

The synthesis of opposition to class war and acceptance of the need to articulate workers’ needs is founded on the assumption that there are no irreconcilable differences in society, that politics is about making compromises, that consensus is desirable. The Labour Party is a contradictory phenomenon. It expresses both workers’ opposition to the social status quo and at the same time blunts that opposition. The party’s task is to inculcate the workers with the idea of ‘national’ rather than class interest, reshaping working-class demands and integrating them in terms of national values. Thus the British capitalist system is ‘our economy’, the people who protect the bosses’ property are ‘our boys in blue’.

Labour’s nation/class synthesis is not a stable one. It depends above all on the state of the economy and how far concessions to workers can be achieved without challenging the system. So it involves compromise between workers and capitalists. The Labour Party aims at social reform within capitalism. But the ability of capitalism to sustain such reforms is not constant. A time of slump is different to when the system prospers. If the Labour Party is in power it comes into conflict with workers who are forced to defend their living standards, often in defiance of the policies of the government they elected.

This was the experience of the 1924 Labour government. It will be repeated again and again. The rhetoric may change: whether the emphasis is put on maintaining capitalism and class collaboration, or on expressing workers’ needs, is determined by whether Labour is in opposition or in power. But whatever the current tone, in opposition the party is impotent, and in office it is managerial, hence in conflict with workers’ interests.

The attempted synthesis of ‘nation’ and ‘class’ make for a policy of gradualism. To achieve progress within the system, the party dare not go so far as to antagonise all other classes in society. ‘Softly, softly’ is the watchword; building a consensus is the aim.

Accepting the national interest as a point of reference leads the Labour Party to accept parliament as the expression of the nation, as the highest peak of national achievement. Hence the party’s ‘parliamentary cretinism’:

the Labour Party has always been one of the most dogmatic – not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. Empirical and flexible about all else, its leaders have always made devotion to that system their fixed point of reference and the conditioning factor of their political behaviour.

... the leaders of the Labour Party have always rejected any kind of political action (such as industrial action for political purposes) which fell, or which appeared to them to fall, outside the framework and conventions of the parliamentary system ... And in this respect, there is no distinction to be made between Labour’s political and its industrial leaders. Both have been equally determined that the Labour Party should not stray from the narrow path of parliamentary politics. [12]

Between the Labour Party and the trade unions, there is not simply unity, but also a contradiction. Both are reformist, both accept the synthesis of ‘nation’ and ‘class’, both accept gradualism and parliamentarism. But the two wings of the Labour movement have different functions. The Labour Party is purely electoral. Hence it relates to its supporters as a multitude of individuals. The trade union bureaucracy must relate to groups of workers as collectives. With this separation of politics and economics, the Labour Party leadership is always an outsider to the industrial struggle. In contrast to this, the trade union bureaucracy can never completely avoid heading the industrial struggle, even if only in order to restrain it.

The union bureaucracy can be, and is, incorporated into capitalist state institutions – but this incorporation cannot be absolute. If it were, the unions would cease to be unions, and the bureaucracy would lose its raison d’être, its role as intermediary between capitalism and workers, between the capitalist state and the working class.

For the leaders of the Labour Party the industrial struggle must be subordinate to parliamentary activity. Ramsay MacDonald put it thus in 1912:

‘Any project of social reconstruction which founds itself upon reality must begin with the facts of social unity, not with those of class conflict, because the former is the predominant fact in society’. As to parliament, it was ‘essential to social coherent life’; ultimately, industrial disputes would have ‘at length to be settled by the House of Commons as representative of the common interest of consumers and as guardian of social order and peace.’ [13]

And this was written at the time of the first national miners’ strike, and in the midst of the ‘Labour Unrest’.

How estranged the leaders of the Labour Party were from the industrial struggle is clear from the words of C.D. Buxton, President of the Board of Trade, informing the Cabinet after the end of the 1912 miners’ strike of

the almost complete collapse of the Labour Party in the House of Commons as an effective influence in labour disputes. They were not consulted with regard to, and had no share in the Seamen’s or Transport Workers’ movement last summer. During the railway strike, they attempted to act as a go-between for the men and the government. But they had very little influence over the actions of the men, or on the result. During the Miners’ Strike ... the Labour Party exercised no influence at all.

Furthermore, he said, ‘Their elimination is a distinct loss to industrial peace.’ [14]

J.R. Clynes, future deputy leader of the Labour Party, told the 1914 Labour Party Conference: ‘ ... too frequent strikes cause a sense of disgust, of being a nuisance to the community.’ [15]

Above all Labour leaders oppose industrial action for political aims. This was expressed strongly by J. McGurk in his presidential address to the 1919 Labour Party Conference:

Referring to the movement ‘that was already afoot to employ the strike weapon for political purposes’, he said that this ‘would be an innovation in this country which few responsible leaders would welcome ... We are either constitutionalists or we are not constitutionalists. If we are constutionalists, if we believe in the efficacy of the political weapon (and we do, or why do we have a Labour Party?) then it is both unwise and undemocratic because we fail to get a majority at the polls to turn round and demand that we should substitute industrial action.’ [16]

After the General Strike, Clynes, who was also secretary of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers and had been a minister in the 1924 Labour government, wrote:

We learnt that a national strike could not be used as a weapon in a trade dispute ... There is one way, and one only, to alter unfair conditions in Britain. It is through the ballot box, and not through violence or resistance. [17]

For the Labour Party leaders the industrial struggle is at best of secondary importance, and at worst a diversion from the real important activity – elections. The fact that the two wings of the movement are intertwined ideologically, as well as structurally, does not prevent conflict between them, especially when the Labour Party is in office. When union leaders had the gall to oppose cuts in wages and unemployment benefit in 1931, Sidney Webb told his wife: ‘The General Council are pigs. They won’t agree to any cuts.’ [18] In fact every time the Labour Party has come into office sharp clashes have taken place between trade unions on the one side and the Labour government and Labour Party on the other. This was the case in 1924, 1931, 1950, 1968–9 and 1979.

The pattern of conflict between the two wings of the movement at such times is quite complex. One finds some union leaders supporting the Labour Party and government, while others clash with them. To add to the complexity, in some cases one and the same person is both a leader of a union and a Labour MP – as were Thomas, Clynes, Bromley and Purcell in 1926. Furthermore the various unions do not enter into conflict with government policies to an equal extent. Much depends on the specific situation, on the ideological influence of Labourism on different union leaders, and above all on the pressure of the rank and file on those leaders.

The tail that failed to wag the dog

The members of the Communist Party showed great enthusiasm, energy and self-sacrifice throughout the strike. One measure of this is the high proportion of Communists among those arrested. Of 5,000 persons prosecuted for acts committed during the strike, 1,200 were members of the Communist Party, and 400 of these were sent to prison. [19]

The political lead given to the members, however, was poor.

Throughout the nine days of the strike, the leaders of the party tail-ended the General Council. One can see this clearly by reading through the daily Workers’ Bulletin, the party’s publication, during the strike. The first issue of 4 May is summed up by its own slogans:

All it needs is for every man to stand fast and the fight is won ...
Every man behind the miners!
Not a penny off the pay! Not a minute off the day!
No government has the right to order men and women to starve!
An injury to one is an injury to all! [20]

The General Council could not have taken exception to one word of this.

The second issue of Workers’ Bulletin did differentiate itself from the British Worker by making clear that in its view the General Strike was not only industrial but also political. It included a statement by the executive committee of the Communist Party, headed The Political Meaning of the General Strike:

The first watchwords of the General Strike ... have been and remain: ‘All Together Behind the Miners. Not a Penny off the Pay. Not a Second off the Day!’

But now that the struggle has begun, the workers have it in their power to put an end once and for all to this continued menace to their living standards and working conditions. Simply to beat off the employers’ present offensive means that they will return to the attack later on, just as they did after Red Friday last year. The only guarantee against the ravenous and soulless greed of the coalowners is to break their economic power.

Therefore let the workers answer the bosses’ challenge with a challenge of their own: ‘Nationalisation of the mines, without compensation for the coalowners, under workers’ control through pit committees!’ ... If the strike ends, though it be with the defeat of the coalowners, but with the government’s power unshaken, the capitalists will still have hopes of renewing their attack. Therefore the third essential slogan of the General Strike must be:

‘Resignation of the forgery government! Formation of a Labour government!’

‘Not a penny off the pay: Not a second off the day!’

‘Nationalise the mines without compensation under workers’ control!’

‘Formation of a Labour government!’ [21]

What practical steps did the CPGB suggest?

The Communist Party continues to instruct its members and to urge the workers to take every practical step necessary to consolidate our position against the capitalist attack. Such essential steps are: to form a Council of Action immediately; to organise able-bodied trade unionists in a Workers’ Defence Corps against the OMS and Fascisti; to set up feeding arrangements with the Cooperative Societies; to hold mass meetings and issue strike bulletins, and to make their case known to the soldiers. [22]

And that is all! Not a word of criticism is to be found of the bureaucratic way the strike was run, nor any practical suggestions for what to counterpose to the General Council’s instructions. In all the eight issues of the Workers’ Bulletin published during the strike, the most important aspects of the struggle were totally excluded. There was nothing about the partial nature of the strike or the way that the engineers, shipyard workers and textile workers were kept at their posts to the last day of the strike. No mention was made of the fact that the gas, post and telegraph workers were never brought out at all. There was not a word about the mess caused by calling on power workers to stop power, but not light; nor about the mess created for building workers.

The Workers’ Bulletin passed over the passive nature of the picketing in silence, as it did over the General Council instructions to keep strikers off the streets, to be involved in concerts, sports and country walking. It did not talk about the strikers’ games with the police, or the church events in which strikers were involved. There was no discussion of the composition of the Councils of Action or joint strike committees, which were dominated in the main cities by full-time officials. There was not even a word about the way the Councils of Action or Central Strike Committees completely abided by General Council instructions.

The last issue of Workers’ Bulletin during the strike was number 8, of 12 May. It published the following item without comment:

Labour JPs in court
A sensation was caused at Birmingham on Tuesday, following a police raid on Monday night on the offices of the Birmingham Joint Trade Union Emergency Committee. The principal defendants were Frederick William Rudland JP, secretary of the Birmingham Trades Council, George Haynes JP, secretary of the Midland Bakery Co-operative; Charles F. Barett JP, who contested the Ashton Division at the last election. Defendants were remanded on bail. [23]

What a crime – arresting respectable magistrates!

The most significant omission from the Workers’ Bulletin was of practically any criticism of the General Council. As late as 11 May, one day before the strike was called off, we find the demand for ‘All Power to the General Council’ repeated as the key to victory for the struggle:

The Trades Union Congress at Scarborough refused to grant further powers to the General Council. The Workers’ Weekly, the organ of the Communist Party, commenting on the decision, stated candidly that such powers would not be granted by the endorsement of a formal resolution but that economic conditions would enforce such powers being taken by the General Council. Only a few months have elapsed and the whole of the trade union movement is in accord with the General Council acting as the National Strike Committee. All the executives of national unions have agreed to place the conduct of the struggle in their hands. The Communist Party is right in its slogan of
All power to the General Council.
Join the Communist Party and stiffen the militant action of the Trade Union Movement.
Down with the forgers’ government – form a Labour government
. [24]

The Communist Party did not take a position of general opposition to the right-wing and centrist leadership of the TUC, but acted as fellow-travellers of the left on the General Council, and at best as ginger groups at local level. As George Hardy, acting secretary of the Minority Movement, remembers:

... we sent out from Minority Movement headquarters instructions to our members to work for the establishment of Councils of Action in every area. We warned, however, that the Councils of Action were under no circumstances to take over the work of the trade unions ... The Councils of Action were to see that all the decisions of the General Council and the union executives were carried out. [25]

Because of the soft line taken by the Communist Party during the nine days, Hamilton Fyfe, editor of the British Worker, could write:

The Communists have ... kept very quiet ... On the Continent, in America even, it is the extremists who come to the top in crises. Here they have sunk out of sight. [26]

For the same reason, one finds not a mention of the ‘red bogey’ in the diary kept by Citrine throughout the strike.

Communist Party members were active on the great majority of Councils of Action or joint strike committees. They were heavily represented in South Wales and industrial Scotland, in Merseyside, Middlesbrough, and around Manchester. Party fractions were active in all but ten of London’s seventy Councils of Action, and Communists dominated those in Battersea, Poplar, Stepney, Bethnal Green, West Ham, Islington, St Pancras and Camden Town. The secretary of the London Trades Council was a Communist Party member, Duncan Carmichael. In Glasgow, the chairman of the Central Strike Co-ordinating Committee, was the leading party member Peter Kerrigan, and there were another four Communists on this committee. In the Northumberland and Durham committee a leading role was played by Robin Page Arnot, a member of the Communist Party executive. [27]

It is one thing for a revolutionary to sit on a council or committee, but it is quite another to get that body to follow a revolutionary policy. From what we know of the General Strike one has to make quite a leap to arrive at the conclusion of the Eighth Communist Party Congress which, in October 1926, claimed that

in actual practice the Councils of Action in nearly all the industrial centres more or less followed the party lead in one form or another ... and events were forcing them closer and closer to our line as time went on. [28] [A]

Following in the footsteps of the Eighth Congress, James Klugmann, in his official history of the CPGB, goes on to point out a number of Councils of Action of special virtue. We shall remind ourselves of a few of these examples.

Klugmann asserts that of all the local strike bodies, the Northumberland and Durham General Council and Joint Strike Committee showed ‘probably the most effective exercise of power.’ [29]Yet as we have already noted it was top-heavy with officials: the chairman and secretary were respectively area secretary of the TGWU and northern divisional officer of the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers. The committee’s third most prominent member was a district official of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers. And how did it work? Anthony Mason, historian of the committee, tells us that when it met in conference ‘no really important decisions were taken.’ [30]

Most members of Glasgow’s Central Strike Co-ordinating Committee were full-time officials and ‘at no point throughout the nine days was the TUC’s authority questioned’.

At Middlesbrough, Klugmann tells us, ‘there were four party members and a number of close associates of the party on the Central Strike Committee. This was an extremely effective committee.’ [31] But as we saw, Middlesbrough’s Central Strike Committee ‘would not interfere with the domestic policy of any union ... [and] could only hope to act as a Co-ordinating and not a directional body.’ [32] Emile Burns threw further light on this ‘extremely effective committee’ when he described its financial arrangements:

The financial position of the Central Strike Committee has been materially helped by a grant which was received on 7 May from the Darlington and District Labour College (£7) ... The expenses exceeded this grant, and it has been decided to ask the trades council to meet the deficit. [33]

Finally, as regards the Central London Strike Committee, we have already quoted the following statement: ‘The Central Strike Committee became an organ without real power, its functions limited to convening meetings of local delegates and giving advice and guidance which it could not enforce.’ [34]

If the Communist Party really had such a lot of influence on the Councils of Action, the question must be asked: why did the strike develop so badly and end so catastrophically?

The Theses of the Eighth Congress of the CPGB went on to contradict their earlier claim that there was decisive Communist influence in the Councils of Action:

The presence in most regions of trades councils and strike committees dominated by the right-wing elements was ... a factor militating against the effective extension and defence of the strike and its regional co-ordination. [35]

To lead is to foresee, and the Communist Party leaders foresaw nothing. After the strike they had to admit that they did not expect the betrayal by the General Council. George Hardy wrote:

Although we knew of what treachery the right-wing leaders were capable, we did not clearly understand the part played by the so-called ‘left’ in the union leadership. In the main they turned out to be windbags and capitulated to the right wing. We were taught a major lesson; that while developing a move to the left officially, the main point in preparing for action must always be to develop a class-conscious leadership among the rank and file. [36]

The Workers’ Weekly, in aggrieved surprise, said:

We warned our readers of the weakness and worse of the right wing on the General Council – but here we confess that reality has far exceeded our worst forebodings ... The Communist Party had in fact consistently warned the workers that such was likely to happen, but even the Communist Party can be forgiven for not believing it to be possible that once the struggle had begun these leaders should have proved themselves such pitiful paltroons as to surrender at the very moment of victory. [37]

Only after the strike ended, in a flash of insight, did the party leadership understand the role of the ‘Left’ on the General Council. On 13 May the Communist Party issued a statement stating, inter alia, the following:

... most of the so-called left wing have been no better than the right. By a policy of timid silence, by using the false pretext of loyalty to colleagues to cover up breaches of loyalty to workers, they have left a free hand to the right wing and thus helped to play the employers’ game. Even now they have not the courage to come out openly as a minority in the General Council and join forces with the real majority – the workers – against the united front of Baldwin-Samuel-Thomas. [38]

The Eighth Congress of the CPGB repeated: the ‘Lefts’ were

apologists for the General Council ... aiders and abetters of the right-wing during the strike ... unashamed agents of the Trade Union Congress ... a set of phrase-mongers who had won easy fame as ‘revolutionaries’ on the issue of international trade union unity. [39]

There was no mention of who had assisted the ‘Left’ to gain this ‘easy fame’. And for many months there was no word of self-criticism for the CPGB or the Comintern line.

Only after the strike did the Communist Party suddenly find out how bureaucratic and inefficient was the leadership of the strike. The Eighth Congress declared:

The partial calling out of workers caused confusion, and the strike was not extended rapidly enough. The refusal to call out workers in public services and the stoppage of the workers’ press along with the capitalist press, weakened the strike. [40]

The party still apologised, however, for the Comintern’s mistakes. The continued policy of sucking up to the Judases on the General Council was defended by pretending that: ‘The Anglo-Russian Committee is not a union between the leaders, but a union between the millions of trade unionists of Russia and Britain’. [41] By an irony of history it was the General Council that a few months later talked of sticking to its principles(!) and decided to break off relations with the Russian unions.

Because the Eighth Congress assiduously avoided self-criticism it prepared the party very badly for the difficult times ahead. Instead of facing up to the impending collapse of the miners’ struggle, at a time when some 150,000 miners had already been starved back to work, the congress put the following scenario forward for the miners’ struggle:

This congress emphatically declares that victory is possible. The lock-out is undermining the whole economic and political position of British capitalism ...

What is called for?

  1. Undertake in conjunction with the MFGB a campaign to secure 100 per cent stoppage in the wavering districts.
  2. Carry out all over the country an energetic campaign in favour of the embargo and the levy.
  3. Demand the dissolution of the present government. [42]

The Communist Party totally failed to understand the impact of the massive defeat represented by the General Strike and the disintegration of miners’ resistance, and hence the move of the whole trade union and labour movement to the right. There was but a tiny minority of workers who learnt important lessons and moved leftwards. The vast majority were demoralised. Yet the Eighth Congress declared: ‘The General Strike and the mining lock-out have awakened the class consciousness of the rank-and-file workers who are moving to the left.’ [43]

Worse was to come. After the miners caved in, the perspective for revolution became even rosier. Thus in December 1926 William Gallacher prophesied that ‘the day will soon come when the oppressed and exploited working class will form a workers’ republic in Britain.’ [44]

Such blinkered optimism continued to flourish in 1927 and 1928, and made the CPGB leadership all too ready to accept Stalin’s stupid policy known as the ‘Third Period’. Now the reformist allies of the past were discovered to be no more than ‘social fascists’, an analysis as bad as trusting them to be ‘good proletarians’.

Again, it was the optimism of the CPGB leadership which led the Eighth Congress to put forward fantastic targets for party growth. After declaring that the party membership had more than doubled over the months May to October 1926, from 5,000 to 10,730, the task was now ‘once again to double our membership’. [45] In fact party membership fell consistently: from 10,730 in October 1926 to 7,377 in October 1927; from 5,500 in March 1928 to 3,200 in December 1929. It finally reached 2,555 in December 1930. [46]

Trotsky superbly summed up the CPGB and the ‘British experiment’ as follows:

The Minority Movement, embracing almost a million workers, seemed very promising, but it bore the germs of destruction within itself. The masses knew as the leaders of the movement only Purcell, Hicks and Cook, whom, moreover, Moscow vouched for. These ‘left’ friends, in a serious test, shamefully betrayed the proletariat. The revolutionary workers were thrown into confusion, sank into apathy and naturally extended their disappointment to the Communist Party itself, which had only been the passive part of this whole mechanism of betrayal and perfidy. The Minority Movement was reduced to zero; the Communist Party returned to the existence of a negligible sect. In this way, thanks to a radically false conception of the party, the greatest movement of the English proletariat, which led to the General Strike, not only did not shake the apparatus of the reactionary bureaucracy, but, on the contrary, reinforced it and compromised Communism in Great Britain for a long time. [47]


1. Manchester Guardian, 4 August 1925.

2. Socialist Review, June 1926, p. 8.

3. M. Cole (ed.), Beatrice Webb’s Diaries 1924–32 (London 1956), pp. 90 and 92–3.

4. Cole, p. 98.

5. Cole, p. 102.

6. Cole, p. 113.

7. Cole, p. 122.

8. David Coates, The Labour Party and the Struggle for Socialism (Cambridge 1975), p. 137.

9. Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London 1961), p. 21.

10. Quoted in L .Panitch, Social Democracy and Industrial Militancy (Cambridge 1976), p. 10.

11. Panitch, p. 53.

12. Miliband, p. 13.

13. Quoted in Miliband, p. 34.

14. CAB 37/110 (1912) no. 62, S. Buxton, Industrial Unrest, pp. 4–5, quoted in J.M. Winter, Socialism and the Challenge of War (London 1974), p. 25.

15. Quoted in Miliband, p. 38.

16. Miliband, p. 69.

17. J.R. Clynes, Memoirs 1924–37 (London 1937), pp. 95–6.

18. Cole, p. 281.

19. Workers’ Weekly, 22 October 1926.

20. Workers’ Bulletin, no. 1, 4 May 1926.

21. Workers’ Bulletin, number 2, 5 May 1926.

22. Workers’ Bulletin, number 2, 5 May 1926.

23. Workers’ Bulletin, number 8, 12 May 1926.

24. Special Strike Bulletin, issued by the Sheffield District Committee of the Communist Party, no. 6, 11 May 1926, in B. Moore (ed.), The General Strike in Sheffield (Sheffield 1983), p. 47.

25. Hardy, p. 185. Our emphasis.

26. Fyfe, pp. 68–9.

27. Workers’ Weekly, 21 May 1926 and 28 May 1926; TUC Library, Box HD 5366; Klugmann, p. 154; MacFarlane, p. 165; and R. Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions 1924–33 (London 1969), p. 72.

28. Report, Theses and Resolutions of the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Battersea, 16–17 October 1926, p. 7.

29. Klugmann, p. 160.

30. Mason, p. 26.

31. Klugmann, p. 156.

32. Burns, p. 146.

33. Burns, pp. 147–8.

34. Jacobs, p. 129.

35. Eighth Congress of CPGB, p. 64.

36. Hardy, p. 188.

37. Workers’ Weekly, 21 May 1926.

38. Workers’ Bulletin, 13 May 1926.

39. Eighth Congress of CPGB, p. 12.

40. Eighth Congress of CPGB, p. 65.

41. Eighth Congress of CPGB, p. 68.

42. Eighth Congress of CPGB, p. 74.

43. Eighth Congress of CPGB, p. 71.

44. Imprecor, 30 December 1926.

45. Eighth Congress of CPGB, p. 72.

46. MacFarlane, p. 302; and Hugo Dewar, Communist Politics in Britain (London 1976), p. 85.

47. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 253.


A. This view conforms with the statement we have already quoted from the Executive Committee of the Comintern, 8 June 1926, which said: ‘the Councils of Action organised by the trade unions actually developed into district soviets. The departments organised by the General Council already assembled in their structure and functions, the departments of the Petersburg Soviet in the period of so-called “dual power” (February–November 1917).’

Last updated on 15 August 2014