Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


Chapter Twenty-Four:
In conclusion

IN MAJOR CLASS STRUGGLES all social and political theories are put to the ultimate test of practice. Ideas and beliefs that persist long after they have ceased to explain the world around them are suddenly illuminated by the light of practical struggle. Those that pass such a rigorous examination are validated more surely than any words could do.

The General Strike of 1926 was one such test. It has long been encrusted by myths that obscure the real lessons. These serve both to shield the vicious ruling-class attack on British workers and the trade union leaders who betrayed them in the midst of battle.

The most enduring myth which the General Strike has reinforced is that violent class war is somehow foreign or ‘un-British’. Both Tory and Labour politicians subscribe to this idea since it justifies and reinforces their self-importance as members of parliament, where such conflict is ‘resolved’. The events of 1926 are given as proof that not even in times of major disputes do the British lose their sense of fair play or forget the rules of civilised behaviour.

The truth is entirely different. The miners’ lock-out, the mass victimisation of strikers, the wage cuts and longer hours were a barbaric reminder of what capitalism will do if workers allow it. The dole queues of the 1930s, still remembered with sorrow today, were the result. The general passivity of the strike made its defeat and the demoralisation that followed all the more certain and was the deliberate outcome of the trade union bureaucracy’s cowardly policies. There was nothing especially British about this. Reformists the world over have behaved as appallingly (though usually with less effect).

There is an opposite reading of the General Strike which was put forward by Leon Trotsky, who saw the event as a missed revolutionary opportunity. Was Britain in a revolutionary situation in 1926?

First of all, we must make it clear that not every revolutionary situation leads to a revolution. Without a revolutionary party, even the most revolutionary situation can end in defeat of the working class and counter-revolution. Secondly, the revolutionary situation itself depends on a number of basic factors. Society must be in an economic, social and political impasse. All sections of society must feel more and more that it is impossible to go on in the old way. The working class finds its situation intolerable. The ruling class loses confidence that it can go on as before and splits, one section being inclined to crush workers’ opposition with an iron fist, another section trying to buy the workers off. The division in the ruling class increases the confidence and combativity of the working class – while the struggle of the working class deepens the split in the ruling class. The workers are encouraged to fight even harder. And so it goes on, the crisis in one camp feeding the strength and confidence of the other.

The 1926 conflict was real enough. The stoppage involved millions of workers; the army and navy were deployed; armoured cars rolled through the streets. But to judge if there was a feeling of insecurity among the ruling class, one can best compare the Cabinet papers of 1926 with those of 1919–1920, or compare the entries in the Whitehall diaries of Tom Jones, deputy secretary to the Cabinet, for the same period. As we have seen, there was turmoil in government ranks in 1919–1920. We find nothing like that in 1926. The public statements of the government did not reflect its real feelings and the use of troops was mostly for show.

In 1919–20, while the government feared an outbreak of revolution, they showed complete calm in public. In 1926 they deliberately fostered alarm about the usurpation of constitutional authority. In 1919–20 there was no open talk about revolution. In 1926 dire warnings of revolution were the fashion.

What about the working class?

The workers showed great solidarity and readiness to fight. But this largely took the form of passive endurance.

So the General Strike neither showed that class war was alien to British politics, nor was it a failed revolution. The working class lacked that crucial subjective element needed to turn a defensive action into an offensive one, a ruling-class attack into a revolutionary upheaval.

After the event many complained of the workers’ passivity. But the leaders who later complained, including those of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement, were not free from blame for this. Is workers’ activity like a revolver that can be kept unused for years in the leaders’ pocket and then taken out and fired at will?

To overcome this inertia, the product of lack of control over their working lives and the debilitating effect of ‘leave it to us’ reformist leadership, workers have to win confidence in themselves and in the party that organises and leads them. Class consciousness, and the confidence of workers that they can control and change things, is the product of workers’ own activity, of the collective interaction of people and parties in the objective world of the class struggle. The reformist bureaucracies can never be expected to provide the catalyst for this vital self-activity of the working class. The tragedy of 1926 is that the leadership of the Communist Party also completely failed to lead the workers – and so provided nothing either.

If the Communist Party had given the correct leadership, could it have broken the shackles imposed by the trade union bureaucracy? Such a question cannot be answered with certainty. In the final analysis it is the class struggle that decides, but the failure of the Communist Party to challenge the trade union leadership in the months before the strike and during it ensured that this class struggle did not take place.

Yet one thing is beyond doubt: while the victory of the strike could not have been guaranteed even with correct leadership from the Communist Party, at least the nature of the defeat would have been radically different. Defeat can educate substantial sections of the working class and strengthen their revolutionary ideas, whatever the effects of conservative bureaucratic inertia. The inheritance of the past can be challenged by the living forces of the present. But nowhere was this challenge articulated, whether by word or deed, in 1926.

The General Strike was the classic example of bureaucratic methods of trade union action. It entirely confirmed Trotsky’s statement that

If there were not a bureaucracy of the trade unions, then the police, the army, the courts, the lords, the monarchy would appear before the proletarian masses as nothing but pitiful ridiculous playthings. The bureaucracy of the trade unions is the backbone of British imperialism. It is by means of this bureaucracy that the bourgeoisie exists ... The Marxist will say to the British workers: ‘The trade union bureaucracy is the chief instrument for your oppression by the bourgeois state. Power must be wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie and for that its principal agent, the trade union bureaucracy, must be overthrown.’ [1]

In a revolution hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of people are swept up into struggle and the unfolding of events is decisively shaped by their action. The twists and turns of the fight are thoroughly unpredictable. The same could certainly not be said of the General Strike. Its broad outlines – the very date of the conflict, the initial rhetorical support of the miners by the TUC, the government’s determination to call its bluff, and the calculated betrayal – all these things could have been discerned after Red Friday.

The government openly admitted that its climbdown in July 1925 was a device which it needed to win time in order to marshal its forces for a concerted attack. In granting the nine month coal subsidy in 1925 the government set a timetable which was there for all to see, yet when time ran out no group on the side of the workers was politically prepared. In many ways this fact is more remarkable than the course of the General Strike itself. For on the face of it there should have been no failure to foresee the sell-out.

With a correct revolutionary policy the Communist Party could not guarantee the conquest of power by the proletariat – the logical outcome of the mass general strike – but at least it could have guaranteed the conquest of a large section of the proletariat to the ideas of workers’ power and communism. It is not the objective situation that explains the devastating impact of 1926 on the working class for decades to follow. It was the subjective element: the bankruptcy of the Communist Party, who served as cheer leaders for the ‘left’ bureaucrats – Purcell, Swales and Hicks – while these acted as cover for the Thomases, Bevins and MacDonalds.

The 1926 stoppage was one example of the mass strike, which has a long history dating from 1842 to the present day. In her pamphlet on the subject Rosa Luxemburg used the spontaneous struggles of Russian workers in 1905 as the basis for an analysis of mass strikes. The British General Strike must be considered as very different, the summit of bureaucratic manipulation.

Even so the reality of class war did appear on the stage, although it was heavily disguised. For example, the relationship of economic struggle to politics was much discussed. But it was not the workers’ movement that used it to advantage, as the Petersburg Soviet had done. It was Baldwin’s government that attacked, roundly denouncing the strike as a threat to the Constitution, while the TUC energetically denied it was anything more than an industrial dispute. By pretending the strike was purely economic the whole field of ideological and physical force was left free for the ruling class.

But even this was not enough to break the spirit of the workers. It took a sell-out from the top.

The key to understanding the 1926 strike, its half-hearted engagement and callous betrayal, is the trade union bureaucracy. The role of this group as a brake on workers’ struggles is a theme which runs throughout this book. It is not simply a question of denouncing the very obvious sell-out. Many other questions have been discussed: how the bureaucracy arises and under what laws it functions.

For example, in the period between 1919 and 1926 we saw how the bureaucracy’s freedom of manoeuvre was relative. Its behaviour was never a simple reflection of the wishes or pressure of the rank and file, nor was it at liberty to act as it liked. The General Strike was a classic case. The TUC had to lead when the lock-out notices were served, or it would have lost control altogether. But that leadership was designed in every detail to paralyse the rank and file and prevent a decisive challenge to the ruling class.

The bureaucracy acted just a like a safety valve on a boiler. If pressure builds up too much it opens and the necessary steam is released. But the purpose of a safety valve is not the release of steam, but the prevention of the boiler from exploding.

Beneath the surface events lay the problem of mass reformism. Why did the officials – a group supposed to represent and serve the interests of the rank and file – become the polar opposite: a bureaucracy which pursued its own separate goals and had the rank and file serve its interests?

Under capitalism the working class is exploited and oppressed. If it is not forged into a self-confident force through collective struggle, its individual members are made to feel weak in the face of the monopoly of the forces of violence maintained by the state and the concentrated power of capital – the foreman, the threat of the dole, and so on upwards. Unless a crisis overtakes them, workers’ mass organisations, the unions, seek only to negotiate within the system. Given time they develop a group of specialists who make the power entrusted to them by the rank and file their own personal property. Now all relations appear inverted. The union machine becomes an end in itself, the rank and file its stage army. The funds are to be conserved, not wasted in upholding action. The bureaucracy blames the rank and file for letting it down, not vice versa. The trade union discipline, born of a felt need for class solidarity, is used, as it was in 1926, as a means of holding back workers’ action. If the rank and file remains alienated from its collective power and does not reclaim this through its own activity, then the rank and file will remain dominated by the bureaucracy.

The historical roots of the bureaucracy and its role have also been discussed at length. Our comparison of British and Russian trade unions showed that the key to the bureaucracy is not the officials themselves, but the general situation of the working class, and in particular its consciousness as a class. We looked at the revolutionary trade union movements of Britain in the 1840s and Russia in 1905–17, and saw how different these were from the British unions of the 1850s or 1926.

It was in these latter periods that the bureaucracy was able to rise up and consolidate its position. The bureaucracy (and reformist leaders in general) can play a key role in maintaining, or more often retarding, the workers’ movement, but they do so within the general framework set by the balance of class forces and workers’ consciousness. Nevertheless they can, by their influence, dramatically alter that balance.

To put it another way. The bureaucracy is not the only explanation for the failure of the British working-class movement to realise socialism. The question of political organisation and consciousness is also of paramount importance. Take the example of craft unionism. The skilled labour aristocratic unions grew up after the defeat of Chartism and during economic boom. Though they had conservative policies they were not dominated by bureaucracy in the early days, because at that time the skilled rank and file were self-reliant in face of their employers. The later ‘new unions’, after 1889, were politically left-wing (thus they supported founding a Labour Party to oppose the Liberals), but had a strong bureaucracy – because the rank and file lacked sectional strength and needed a strong centralising force to make an impact. That is why the two strong right-wing bureaucrats of 1926 were J.H. Thomas, of the largely unskilled NUR, and Ernest Bevin of the TGWU, which owed its origins to the new unionism of 1889.

So a Marxist analysis of the trade union bureaucracy cannot make do with appearances, but must show how the surface events are constructed from the deeper forces that are at work. And crucial among these is the balance of class forces at the point of production and the political consciousness of the working class.

A history of bureaucratic crimes is not enough. Though a necessary first step, this cannot break the vicious circle that has led successive working-class revivals to defeat. Socialists can no more ignore the internal debates and issues of trade union struggle now than they could in 1926, for the mass of advanced workers are still there.

For as long as socialists have lived in this country they have argued about trade unionism. The pioneering efforts of analysis of Marx and Engels are as valid today as when they were written. Nevertheless they left many detailed issues unanswered. This was inevitable, given the period when they were writing. The chief features of modern trade unionism were barely visible. The same goes for the writings of Russian revolutionaries who, though they made great advances in many fields of Marxism, had practically no experience of mass reformist unions.

There were other traditions, such as the South Wales Unofficial Reform Committee and the workers’ committee movement during the First World War. These were both extensions of syndicalism. In terms of general analysis these currents were far weaker than Marx, Engels or Lenin. But the latter had approached the problem of unions largely from the outside. Despite their lack of theory, these British revolutionaries had been involved from the inside – ranging from the Cambrian Combine strike of the pre-war ‘Labour Unrest’ to the fight of munitions workers against government war-time attacks on conditions.

For this reason they stressed some of the essential features that the more important thinkers had overlooked. In particular they recognised the conflict between the interests of the rank and file and the bureaucracy. They went further, putting forward practical measures to overcome the official stranglehold. When circumstances were favourable unofficial movements were built. These are still relevant today since they are among the few models we have of a serious alternative to the rule of the officials.

However, exclusive emphasis on the rank and file/bureaucracy divide led such movements not only to reject reformist politics of the Labour Party kind or official union methods, but to deny all politics, including the revolutionary party. Indeed the concept of any type of leadership was repudiated. This attitude was soon seen, even by its promoters, as false. But the question remained – what kind of leadership is needed in the class struggle – both in terms of a revolutionary party and inside the unions?

The first problem began to be solved when the Communist Party was set up in Britain in 1920. But the trade union problem was more difficult. It was through the Russian revolution and the Comintern that real steps towards a Marxist strategy for working inside trade unions became possible. This does not mean that there were no revolutionaries in trade unions before then, but until economic and political action could be fused by the linking of trade union work with the building of a revolutionary socialist party, progress was inevitably limited within the narrow horizons of trade unionism.

The British Communist Party was the product of a marriage between the ideas of the Communist International and home-grown socialist organisations. The weakness of the Comintern in matters of trade unionism was a serious handicap. The establishment of the RILU as a Communist split from the reformist union movement itself symbolised the mistakes of those early years. But as 1926 approached, the attempt to ditch RILU and form alliances with left union officials pushed the party in the opposite direction – towards accommodation with reformist bureaucrats. This accommodation was part and parcel of the massive move to the right by the increasingly Stalinist Comintern leadership, which not only led to errors in Britain at that time, but to the massacre of the Chinese Revolution.

Domestic factors were also important in shaping CPGB policy. The party inherited two ideas from the past. On the one hand there was the syndicalist attitude, which viewed socialist parties as a propaganda outlet for purely industrial activity. On the other hand many former British Socialist Party members brought with them to the new party the idea that politics had nothing to do with trade unions. Up to Black Friday 1921, these two factors coexisted in the party and led to a propagandist view of its role, both politically and industrially.

The crisis that followed Black Friday forced a questioning of old positions and an awareness of the need for intervention. The unrealistic policy of calling for workers’ committees was dropped and party work in the unions stepped up. The tactical questions asked at the time are still of the utmost relevance: how important is the official machine (conferences, the passing of formal resolutions, union branch work and so on), or is the rebuilding of shopfloor organisation in the factories the sole concern? How can a real leadership in the unions be created? Are left bureaucrats a useful ally, or should agitation be organised only under party auspices?

Unfortunately, while there were many path-breaking ideas put forward, the final results of the discussion led to serious mistakes. On the one hand the weaker aspects of the South Wales mining tradition were used in creating the National Minority Movement. The party centred its work on working among the rank and file, but in order to influence trade union branches and officials at the expense of rank-and-file struggle. Even worse, the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee led the Communist Party to place great faith in the TUC lefts. The valuable work of the party’s factory cells and the agitational impact of the Workers’ Weekly newspaper were squandered in such enterprises.

The idea the party now held, that the fundamental division in the unions was between right and left, was as false as the old one which ignored politics and saw only the division between rank and file and bureaucracy.

This does not mean that the differences between right or left ideas amongst workers is not important. It is upon this difference – this unevenness in consciousness – that revolutionary parties are established as separate from reformist ones. But just as important is the fact that objectively, rank-and-file workers – whether reformists, centrists or revolutionaries – have a common interest in opposing and overthrowing the system (whether they are aware of it or not!). In contrast union bureaucrats – reformist, centrist or verbally revolutionary – have a common group interest which means they must confine workers’ struggle within the system.

Reformist workers can become revolutionaries through struggle, officials cannot. The proof is 1926. Despite the massive issues, the General Council learnt nothing. Instead it wanted to limit the strike and invented the nonsensical idea of separate ‘waves’ of action which caused utter confusion. The bureaucracy wished union head offices to retain control and so reinforced sectionalism. They feared to challenge the state and abandoned control over food, while encouraging football with the police, churchgoing and the wearing of medals. Most significant of all, in 1925 the left bureaucrats Purcell, Hicks and Swales, discovered in the heat of class struggle that their identity of interest lay with right-wingers like Thomas, Pugh and Bevin.

So how should revolutionaries approach the two divisions in the workers’ movement – between the left and right or between the rank and file and the bureaucracy? Unevenness in workers’ consciousness makes necessary the building of a revolutionary party in conscious distinction to reformism. Its politics must be based on rank-and-file self-activity and distrust of bureaucrats. This party can and must be argued for even in periods of minimal class struggle, though at such times these ideas may appeal to only a tiny minority and activities may be largely confined to propaganda. But at times of intense industrial militancy a far wider group will be open to revolutionary politics, and many will be drawn to the party through direct experience of struggle. In such a period the principle of workers’ self-activity needs to take the form of direct agitation for independent rank-and-file organisation, and political leadership by the party.

Between these two extremes there can be a whole range of different levels of party activity, balancing propaganda against agitation, work inside the union machine against opportunities for action beyond it and so on. The right/left split among union leaders may at times be exploited to take the fetters off rank-and-file action. But this split must be understood as one internal to the bureaucracy. Despite the differences between left and right-wing officials, they form a common social group. Workers too hold a wide variety of opinions, yet are of a single class. It is the clash of interest between the bureaucracy and rank and file that overrides any superficial similarities between, say, a left union official and a militant worker.

Many such political questions were raised in 1926 and before. In the Communist International there was the polemic of Trotsky against the central leadership of Zinoviev and the rising star of Stalin. British issues were very much to the fore in this debate. The dominant trend in the International hoped that a mass revolutionary party would come in Britain through alliances with left-wing union officials and Labour Party politicians. British Communist leaders accepted this viewpoint. Trotsky, however, argued that there was no alternative to the building of a principled revolutionary party sharply critical of reformists of every hue.

In Britain J.T. Murphy and R. Palme Dutt were occupied with similar questions. Red Friday, the left resolutions of the TUC Congress at Scarborough and the Left Wing Movement, all posed the question of the revolutionary attitude to reformism and bureaucracy in an acute form.

So the period up to and including 1926 is important for several reasons. The General Strike itself was a textbook demonstration of bureaucratic methods and the harm they can do. The path that led to this catastrophic defeat posed the problem of how a revolutionary party should function in a non-revolutionary situation and orientate towards trade unionism.

The issues raised in this book – the hold of officialdom, the building of a Marxist party, rank-and-file action and trade unions – are still with us today. Their solution is hinted at here; but the real answer can only be realised in practice, by the moulding of a revolutionary organisation with a clear concept of how to combat mass reformism. A knowledge of the events of 1926 can hopefully assist in this task.


1. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol. 2, p. 248.

Last updated on 15 August 2014