Tony Cliff & Donny Gluckstein

Marxism & Trade Union Struggle:
The General Strike of 1926


THE KEY question for Marxists is how to relate to the working class. In countries where the workers are organised in unions, this question then takes the form of how should Marxists approach trade unionists and their struggles. Nowhere is the problem illustrated better than in Britain.

The history of the British working class is one of heroism and betrayal. There have been tremendous struggles, ranging from Chartism in the 1840s to the great miners’ strike of 1984–5. There have also been a succession of catastrophic defeats engineered by trade union leaders and Labour politicians.

The event that best sums up these aspects is the 1926 General Strike. This was easily the biggest single strike in British history. Including the miners, who were locked out by the coal-owners, fully 3½ million workers were involved. The millions who were drawn into this tremendous show of working-class solidarity felt they were caught up in a battle, not just to defend the miners from wage cuts and longer hours, but for the destiny of their class. The time of the General Strike has rightly been called ‘the days of hope’ of the British labour movement. Everywhere the rank and file responded to the strike call with a vigour and enthusiasm that exceeded all expectations.

The dreadful end of the strike could not have been in greater contrast. On 12 May 1926 the TUC General Council committed an act of black treachery when it surrendered unconditionally, at the very moment that the numbers on strike climbed to a new peak. The betrayal of the General Strike dealt a crushing blow to the labour movement, a blow from which it took decades to recover.

When Rosa Luxemburg wrote her pamphlet The Mass Strike in 1906, she argued that if vast numbers of workers go into action this is a challenge to both the economic power of capitalism and the political authority of the state. She showed how, in Russia in 1905, workers had, through their own struggles, transformed their political ideas and acquired the power to change the society around them. In the 1926 General Strike the TUC, aided and abetted by Labour Party leaders, did its best to prevent such developments. Whether in the area of picketing, the movement of essential supplies, or strike organisation, the bureaucratic method prevailed.

Those who were on strike were carefully segregated from those who were supposed to continue working. The government strike-breaking operation was, with one or two notable exceptions, allowed to continue unhindered. Above all, the TUC hotly denied that any political intentions could be read into their actions.

That trade union bureaucrats should behave in this way is not, perhaps, so surprising. They have never behaved very differently. What is remarkable, for a strike of such magnitude, is that the bureaucracy had almost total success in limiting the strike and engineering its defeat. Local strike organisations sometimes asked the TUC to clarify its instructions, because these seemed so nonsensical. But once explained, the TUC’s instructions were practically never challenged. The contrast between the potential of this mass strike and the historical reality is one of the chief issues for socialists.

To understand the unquestioned authority of the bureaucracy during the General Strike, we must look at the British Communist Party, at that time an avowedly revolutionary organisation. Although the Communist Party possessed a limited membership, it had the confidence of substantial numbers of trade union militants. The party should, on the face of it, have acted as a small but serious alternative source of authority to the TUC General Council. Tragically, until the end, the party did not attempt to counter the general direction that the bureaucrats imposed on the strike by word or deed. It did not act as a revolutionary party.

Yet when the Communist Party had been founded in 1920 it had pledged to apply the lessons of the 1917 revolution in Russia, and to build a mass socialist movement in Britain. As part of the Communist International it could draw on the experience of the Bolsheviks in fulfilling this task. Furthermore, in its trade union work it could learn from recent movements in Britain which had overcome the conservative influence of union officials – the war-time shop stewards’ organisations and the Unofficial Reform Committee in the South Wales coalfield.

The British Communist Party made pioneering efforts towards building a Marxist party in Britain. Its debates on trade union strategy, unofficial strikes and so on, though they often led to false conclusions, raised many important points which are relevant for socialists today. Although many of its initiatives proved misconceived, as much can be learnt from the mistakes as from the successes.

The Minority Movement, which was set up by Communists in 1924, is a good example. It grew out of a campaign to stop the retreat, a collapse in union power that had been continuing since the miners were left to fight alone on ‘Black Friday’, 15 April 1921. The Minority Movement quickly attracted the support of a large number of militant trade unionists. But it failed to prepare its membership politically, and in 1926 made no attempt to counter the orders of the union officials during the General Strike.

On the political field the notion of an independent revolutionary party in sharp opposition to reformism, which had been central for the Bolsheviks in Russia, was replaced for the Communist Party in Britain by an effort to act as a left ginger group in the trade unions and Labour Party.

Much of this degeneration can be traced back to the rise of Stalinism in Russia and in the Communist International. In its early days the Communist International had been, under the influence of Lenin and Trotsky, an invaluable guide to revolutionaries. In those years its discussions on trade unionism, though marred by insufficient experience in this field, raised far-reaching questions about the nature of revolutionary intervention.

One outcome of these early debates was the Red International of Labour Unions, which sought to win unions to Communism and away from the reformist federation of unions based in Amsterdam. The Red International of Labour Unions ran into problems because its founders did not understand Western trade unions. But the situation became far worse when the group around Stalin gained pre-eminence in the Communist International. Now the policy was to seek unity between the Russian trade union leaders and reformist bureaucrats in Europe, and this had serious consequences for the political direction of the British Communist Party.

Underlying all these issues is the nature of unions themselves. We offer here a comparison between trade union traditions as different as the Russian and the British in order to highlight some of the basic characteristics of trade unions. To this is added a study of the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin on trade unionism.

As the epitome of trade union bureaucratic methods, the 1926 General Strike raised problems these thinkers did not deal with. Why does a trade union bureaucracy emerge, and how is its behaviour governed? What is the relationship between trade unionism and Labour Party politics? How important is the division between left-wing and right-wing union officials?

In order to establish guidelines for the work of revolutionary socialists in the trade unions, we must answer these questions. Our first principle must be that of Marx, that ‘the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class itself’. Socialists must therefore always take as their central focus the activity of rank-and-file trade unionists. But to apply this principle in times of retreat for the workers’ movement, when a general lack of confidence in the working class leads to a low level of activity, calls for an understanding of complex strategies. In this the experience of the early years of the British Communist Party and the General Strike can be invaluable.

The events of 1926 are not just of historical interest. They are vital for socialists today. The problems we face in the mid-1980s are substantially the same as those of sixty years ago. The names of government ministers and trade union leaders may have changed, but the task we face – to build a mass revolutionary socialist party and to overcome the influence of the trade union bureaucracy in order to release the power of the organised working class – is the same.

Last updated on 15 August 2014