Tony Cliff

The tragedy of A.J. Cook

(Spring 1986)

From International Socialism 2 : 31, Spring 1986, pp. 69–111.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A.J. Cook was the burning flame of the seven-month long bitter and heroic struggle of the miners in 1926. He was the most vilified trade union leader in the history of Britain and by far the most popular leader the miners had had. Imbued with deep attachment to his class, Cook was able to touch the profound feelings and aspirations of his audience.

Arthur Horner, himself quite an effective speaker with a significant influence among South Wales miners, could write the following about Cook:

In the months before the 1926 strike, and during the strike, we spoke together at meetings all over the country. We had audiences, mostly of miners, running into thousands. Usually I was put on first. I would make a good, logical speech, and the audience would listen quietly, but without any wild enthusiasm. Then Cook would take the platform. Often he was tired, hoarse and sometimes almost inarticulate. But he would electrify the meeting. They would applaud and nod their heads in agreement when he said the most obvious things. For a long time I was puzzled, and then one night I realised why it was. I was speaking to the meeting. Cook was speaking for the meeting. He was expressing the thoughts of his audience, I was trying to persuade them. He was the burning expression of their anger at the iniquities which they were suffering. [1]

Cook always appealed to the best in the miners – to their loyalty to their mates, to their community, to their class, their readiness to sacrifice, their deep pride. Thus one month before the miners’ resistance collapsed, on 23 October 1926, Cook wrote:

These are epic days. We of this generation shall be remembered in spite of ourselves. We are confronted with a crisis far greater than that of 1914. The triumph of coal owners will be the prelude to national ruin. [2]

One of the best things he saw and appealed to was the change in the women, their heroic sacrifice and their determination. On 2 July 1926. he wrote: ‘I have been through the great coalfield of Durham, Yorkshire and Notts, and I am astonished by the spirit I find there. The women are especially wonderful. I think they are even greater heroes than the men.’ [3] And in an article on 28 August after describing how scabbing had been stopped in Derbyshire and the number of scabs cut back, he wrote:

I put my faith to the women of these coalfields. I cannot pay them too high a tribute. They are canvassing from door to door in the villages where some of the men had signed on. The police take the blacklegs to the pits, but the women bring them home. The women shame these men out of scabbing. The women of Notts and Derby have broken the coal owners. Every worker owes them a debt of fraternal gratitude. [4]

A week before the collapse of the miners’ resistance. Cook wrote: ‘I wish to see a Women’s Section of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. The greatest feature of all this struggle has been the amazing loyalty and activity of the rank and file and the great work of the men and women in the local committees, the boot retiring shops, and the relief committees in every district ...’ [5]

Cook was loved and admired by the miners and their families. Ellen Wilkinson, at the time a left-wing Labour MP, said in an interview: ‘In thousands of homes all over the country, and particularly miners’ homes, there is hanging today, in the place of honour, the picture of A.J. Cook. He is without a shadow of a doubt the hero of the working women.’ [6] Another woman, Mrs. Adamson, wife of an extreme right-wing MP, went even further: ‘Cook is trusted implicitly. The malicious attacks of the capitalist press only served to strengthen the loyalty the miners and their wives feel to him.’ [7]

However, the intimacy, the closeness of Cook to the miners was flawed. Again and again, under difficult circumstances in the struggle, cleavages would appear between Cook and the rank and file he so loved. This is the essence of the tragedy of A.J. Cook.

Working-class history is not free from tragedy. Individuals have been broken by the juggernaut of history. Cook was not the first or last workers’ leader to be beaten. The fate of Rosa Luxemburg or Leon Trotsky, not to speak of the thousands of Communards or the workers of Spain, Chile or South Africa, was in no way easier than that of Cook. The real tragedy of Cook is not that he was beaten when the miners were brought to their knees in 1926, but that he disintegrated, losing his way completely at the end of his life.

This was not only a product of objective circumstances, but of subjective conditions too, above all his syndicalism with which we deal later on. Cook’s strength as the authentic voice of the miners as a whole became his weakness: had he been a consistent Marxist-Leninist, his voice should have been the voice of the vanguard, not the miners as a whole.

Cook was a militant and revolutionary workers’ leader. He was sincere in his belief that he was a Marxist. Thus, when standing for election as Secretary of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) in March 1924, Cook wrote in his Address: ‘I am proud to be a disciple of Karl Marx and a humble follower of Lenin.’ However he had a serious deficiency in his thoughts and actions: he was not a consistent follower of Marx or Lenin. He was very much a revolutionary syndicalist.

Throughout his early life as a miner and his involvement in mining activities, Cook was influenced by the militant syndicalists of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF).

Cook, born in Wookey, Somerset, on 22 November 1883, spent his youth as a farm labourer in the heart of the West Country. In 1900, barely past his seventeenth birthday, he moved to South Wales and became a miner. For a number of years he was a member of the Salvation Army and active as a Baptist lay preacher. Having been disillusioned with the Baptist failure to promote an improvement in social conditions, he was converted to socialism and in 1905 joined the ILP. A year or so later he became an elected official of his lodge in Rhondda No. 1 District. Between 1906 and 1918 he was to hold at different times the position of Chairman, Secretary and President.

Many Rhondda syndicalists were members of the ILP: Noah Ablett was a leading member of the ILP in 1906, so were W.H. Mainwaring, George Dolling and many other prominent miner syndicalists. This rise of syndicalism among the South Wales miners was part, and a significant part, of the ‘labour unrest’ of 1913–14. [8]

Meetings of what subsequently became the Unofficial Reform Committee (URC) began in May 1911. The URC was established towards the end of the Cambrian Combine Strike, a strike that went on from November 1910 to August 1911. At its peak it involved around 30,000 men. A most important feature of this strike was its unofficial character. This arose because the leadership of the SWMF refused to abandon existing policies of conciliation as a means of settling disputes. This strike was the prologue to the first ever national miners’ strike of March 1912, which lasted for four weeks. The issue in the national miners’ strike was that of a minimum wage for miners. It was an official strike–but overwhelmingly the result of pressure from the rank and file. The URC played a crucial role in the events of 1911 and 1912. As a matter of fact, throughout 1910 to 1926 the SWMF was the most militant section of the MFGB, and in it by far the most advanced part was the Rhondda, by a long way the largest mining district in South Wales.

The influence of the URC becomes clear when one notes that already in 1911 Noah Ablett and Noah Rees, leading spokesmen of the URC, were elected to the SWMF Executive Council. (In 1913 Frank, Hodges and William John of the URC joined the same body.) Cook too was a participant in the URC from its inception.

Revolutionary syndicalism differs significantly from the teachings of Marx and Lenin. Syndicalists argued that the emancipation of the working class would he achieved by direct industrial action, and the general strike would lead to workers’ control over the economy and society. There is no clear role here for political struggle and a political party. Syndicalism was largely the inverse side of the coin of reformism. Syndicalism grew out of the feeling of revulsion for Labourism: the incorporation of the Labour Party leaders in parliament, the failure to relate to workers’ needs and day-to-day struggles, and the incorporation of the trade union leaders in government-sponsored conciliation machinery and the increasing alienation between the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file. Syndicalism was a reaction to parliamentary politics and conciliatory trade unionism. It was also a recoil from SDF ‘Marxism’. This ‘Marxism’ was the crude economic determinism of the Second International, in which the collapse of capitalism was regarded as inevitable and independent of human action. Like the Labour Party the SDF also separated politics from the industrial struggle, and looked down on Wage militancy and strikes.

However not all syndicalists were averse to political action. They were at best not clear regarding political activity, with some completely opposed to it and some supporting it but without the slightest idea of the nature of this activity. Many syndicalists identified political activity, with parliamentary activity to the exclusion of all else. Some syndicalists did not rule out parliamentary activity but saw it as subordinated to the extra-parliamentary industrial movement.

The syndicalist movement was quite amorphous, lacking theoretical clarity and a definite organisational structure (without branches or a formal membership). There was no clear line of demarcation, ideologically and organisationally, between the main syndicalist bodies and other socialist organisations. Thus Tom Mann was a pioneer of the 1880s and 1890s of trade union organisation, joint leader of the 1889 dock strike, member of the SDF, subsequently National Secretary of the ILP, and a decade or so later a leading syndicalist. Noah Ablett, George Dolling, Frank Hodges, W.H. Mainwaring (Secretary of the URC), A.J. Cook and others, were at one and the same time syndicalists and members of the ILP. The Syndicalists were also involved with another organisation–the Plebs League. In January 1909 a Plebs League was established in South Wales. Local syndicalists like Ablett, Frank Hodges, W.F. May and Cook used this as a broadly-based propaganda body embracing ILP branches and SWMF lodges. By the middle of 1910, a network of about 50 Plebs League activists had been established. [9] At the same time Ablett, Dolling, Mainwaring and Cook were also members of the Daily Herald League, an organisation that included, besides syndicalists, also supporters of Guild Socialism, radical Christian Socialists, and protagonists of the diffusion of property ownership (like Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton), i.e. it was an ideological shambles.

In short, the political associations with which these syndicalists were connected were such a mish-mash of diverse views that they could never have acted together as a coherent political force within the industrial struggle. No wonder, then, that Cook and other syndicalists were forced to see this struggle in purely trade union terms – of however militant a variety. Syndicalism’s lack of clear theory militated against the creation of a stable, disciplined revolutionary organisation. It confirmed negatively Lenin’s statement that there cannot be a revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory.

But still syndicalism was far nearer to revolutionary socialism, to communism–as Lenin and Trotsky argued – than reformism. ‘Pre-war revolutionary syndicalism was a Communist Party in embryo,’ wrote Trotsky on 13 July 1921. [10] ‘Revolutionary Syndicalism, despite its denial of a party, was essentially nothing but an anti-parliamentary party of the working class,’ Trotsky stated at the Third Congress of the Communist International. [11]

The organisation of the URC was very loose indeed. Included in it was a hard core of unofficial leaders in the Rhondda, and their immediate supporters in the Cambrian Combine Committee and in the Plebs League, together with a network of contacts throughout the coalfield who generally sympathised with it. Soon after its foundation, the URC acquired a mouthpiece in a monthly, shortly to become a fortnightly, the Rhondda Socialist. The contradictory, amorphous nature of syndicalism, and its attitude to politics, was clear from the start.

Soon after its appearance, the paper was obliged to make its editorial policies explicit. Referring to a correspondent who had criticised the Rhondda Socialist for having ‘no definite policy–that it is a jumble of Syndicalism, Labourism and Socialism’ and that ‘these conflicting views have the effect of confusing the workers’ it stated editorially:

Now, there are various ‘schools of thought’ in the Socialist Movement ... But we are, as Socialists, all united for one objective–we all desire to abolish capitalism and establish the Socialist State ... Naturally, we differ as to the best means of bringing it about, and we think that it would be more than foolish for the Rhondda Socialist to ignore this honest difference of opinion and to dogmatise that there is only one way ... [12]

Alas, the Rhondda Socialist was itself guilty of ‘ignoring this difference in opinion’ by covering it over through refusing to debate the issues to the end. It continued to be a muddled, centrist publication, the mouthpiece of revolutionary syndicalists and reformists alike. By far the most important publication of the URC, a syndicalist manifesto, was The Miners’ Next Step, published in December 1911; its first edition of 5,000 sold out by February 1912.

A great number of miners participated in drafting this pamphlet. Its authors were Noah Ablett, Noah Rees, Will Hay, George Dolling, W.H. Mainwaring, and C.L. Gibbon. [13] In addition hundreds of other miners, among them Cook, participated during four or five months of discussion, in drafting and redrafting the pamphlet.

The aim of The Miners’ Next Step was to overcome sectionalism, so that the slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ would not be an empty phrase: ‘The sectional character of the organisation in the mining industry renders concerted action almost impossible, and thus every section helps to hinder and often defeat the other.’ [14] ‘It might, and probably would be, deemed advisable to have a strike of the whole organisation to defend one man from victimisation.’ [15]

The struggle for higher wages should not be separated from the struggle against capitalism. The improvement of wages and conditions was envisaged as a step towards the eventual taking over of the pits by the miners.

That a continual agitation be carried on in favour of increasing the minimum wage, and shortening the hours of work, until we have extracted the whole of the employers’ profits. That our objective be, to build up an organisation, that will ultimately take over the mining industry, and carry it on in the interest of the workers. [16]

Trust in the power of the rank and file was associated in the pamphlet with extreme opposition to all leadership.

Leadership implies power held by the leader. Without power the leader is inept. The possession of power inevitably leads to corruption. All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions. No man was ever good enough, brave enough, or strong enough, to have such power at his disposal, as real leadership implies ... This power of initiative, this sense of responsibility, the self-respect which comes from expressed manhood, is taken from the men, and consolidated in the leader. The sum of their initiative, their responsibility, their self-respect becomes his ...

The order and system he maintains, is based upon the suppression of the men, from being independent thinkers into being ‘the men’ or ‘the mob’ ... Sheep cannot be said to have solidarity. In obedience to a shepherd, they will go up or down, backwards or forwards as they are driven by him and his dogs. But they have no solidarity, for that means unity and loyalty. Unity and loyalty, not to an individual, or the policy of an individual, but to an interest and a policy which is understood and worked for by all. [17]

What, if any, is the role political action should play in the revolution? On this the pamphlet is not clear at all. As a matter of fact, as different individuals took part in writing it, considerable difference in emphasis between chapters show themselves. Completely missing is an understanding of the problem of the massive unevenness in the consciousness of workers, the fragmentation of the working class, and the need for a revolutionary party to overcome these. The question of the power of the capitalist state, and the need to smash it, for which a party, as leader and organiser of insurrection is vital, is not even touched upon.

Cook was inclined at the time to be against political action. In March 1912 he presented the case for the negative in a students’ debate on whether ‘in the opinion of the House political action is essential to the interests of the working class.’ [18] In 1912, Cook left the ILP in an anti-political mood.

The anti-leadership concept of the URC, together with its looseness, meant that once any of its supporters got into an official position in the union, the URC fell into complete confusion: the anti-leadership concept opened the door for leaders to be free from democratic control by the rank and file.

The entire history of the URC was one of recurring splits between the younger generation of militants fresh from the collieries and those who, pursuing the aim of reorganisation, had gone into the official apparatus. The URC was a channel upwards for rank-and-file grievances, but it was also an escalator which carried the best militants up the structure of the union and dropped them into the bureaucratic mire when they reached the top.

Although the URC, as its name implied, was in favour of organisation and action separate from the official machine, unofficial strikes, for example, were never an alternative to official ones. The URC itself organised countless strikes, but apart from their immediate objective, the URC leaders saw them as a means of shifting the officials in the right direction. The immediate effect of the URC attitude was that strike committees never took on a permanent existence apart from the lodge in the same way that engineering strike committees had done. Thus the miners never developed their own workers’ committees. Much of the minimal self-organisation the URC possessed was closely tied in with the official machine.

Mining trade unionism was based on the unity of the workplace, the community and the collective organisation, since the colliery, the union lodge, and the pit village were all found in the same location. Thus the nature of the industry discouraged the division into skilled and unskilled trade unionism that was found in engineering. Most organised coalminers were members of one body, the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain. The engineering industry, by contrast, had more than 200 unions. The unit of organisation of these numerous unions tended to be the geographical branch, not the workplace. This was because many members were in small workshops scattered over wide areas, and because each union organised just a section of the workforce in any one factory.

In mining, because there was no split between workplace and union branch, the grievances of the rank and file tended to be channelled directly into the official machinery, as were the efforts of militants. While this situation allowed for greater rank-and-file influence within the union, it inhibited rank-and-file action independent of it.

In engineering the union branch was poorly attended and bore little relation to the immediate concerns of the workplace. These were more effectively dealt with by shop stewards who, for much of the time, had to operate independently of the official structure in order to represent workers on day-to-day issues. [19]

The Workers’ Committee, by J.T. Murphy, was the clearest exposition of the engineering shop stewards’ movement. It proposed a complete national structure which – unlike that proposed by The Miners’ Next Step – was an alternative source of authority to the existing unions. Such a position was fully explicable in terms of the multiplicity of engineering unions and their craft jealousies, just as the URC’s position was fully explicable in terms of mining.

Because The Workers’ Committee was proposing an alternative structure to the unions it had to be interested in its own special forms of organisation. It represented a mass rebellion against the officials and the constitution, since both of these were seen to reinforce the sectionalism of the class and cripple it as a fighting force.

For the URC the union constitution and how it could be improved to give full control from below was the centre of their work. The strongest organising force for them was held to be the union itself. Of course to function as an agitational current at all, the URC had to hold meetings. The production and distribution of propaganda required some sort of limited centralisation, but the level of organisation could afford to be low, since the intention was not to substitute for the union, but to increase its own centralisation. The internal life of the lodge, the regional and national conferences were the arena wherein the clash of militants and bureaucrats would occur.

The result was the loose attitude to self-organisation that ran right through the history of the URC. The main weakness of the URC was that it aimed to bring union leadership to heel rather than building an alternative leadership. It was more a concept of acting as a ginger group than as building an organisation completely independent of the trade union machine.

In 1913 the SWMF Executive Council (EC) adopted aspects of URC policies: struggle for unifying conditions throughout the coalfields, and the abolition of anomalies between various grades left by the Minimum Wage Act. In addition the SWMF adopted the resolution moved by Frank Hodges, a leading member of the URC and an agent in Garw Valley, and member of the SWMF EC to establish a Triple Alliance of the Miners, Railwaymen and Transport Workers. These successes caused a crisis in the URC. A number of its supporters saw no need to continue with unofficial agitation. Those of the URC who got on to the SWMF EC especially came to this conclusion. Thus Noah Ablett wrote that when Hodges’ resolution regarding the Triple Alliance was accepted by the MFGB,

... the old order of trade unionism may be said to have been buried. For who can deny that with the exception of the Minimum Wage Strike, the old order was that the Federation was a kind of shield which the workman could use to protect himself when attacked. But now to this shield is added a weapon of attack. [20]

Other supporters of the URC – working miners – took a completely different position, and came to the conclusion that no URC supporter should stand for a full-time position in the union. C.L. Gibbons attacked Noah Ablett together with the rest of the SWMF EC for dismissing the fight for the abolition of the piece-rate system of payment in the mines as utopian. Reviewing the career of EC ‘revolutionaries’, Gibbons asserted in the South Wales Worker:

They were pledged to abstain from supporting reactionary policies; they were not to take part in the administration of such policies; they were to keep revolutionary policies and militant programmes to the fore; they were to force the EC to take action along lines laid down by the militant section in the coalfield. Have they done this? Unhesitatingly we answer ‘No’. They have ceased to be revolutionary except in words. [21]

Given the loose, undisciplined nature of the URC, the inevitable conclusion drawn was that revolutionaries should not seek election to the EC of the union, but concentrate on pure propaganda. The same conclusion was drawn by the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) regarding standing for any union office. Union office corrupts, avoid temptation!

The cleavage between the rank and file and the SWMF EC was exacerbated by the fact that there were hardly any working miners on this august body. Thus in 1913, out of 21 members of the SWMF EC, 14 were Miners’ Agents, 6 were Checkweighers, and only one was a working miner. [22] (The agent was the union official, the checkweighman held a sort of half-way position between gang-leader and shop steward.)

When the war broke out the political weakness of the URC led to its complete paralysis. Not that there were no serious industrial disputes in the South Wales coalfields: in July 1915 and 1918 in particular, there was considerable unrest, but in neither did the URC play a significant role.

The main cause of the paralysis of the URC was the split in its ranks regarding its attitude to the war. Noah Rees, Frank Hodges and Will John, members of the SWMF EC, supported the war and participated in the recruitment drive.

George Barker and Tom Smith, two of the closest supporters of the URC, went with the pro-war section of the EC initially, not moving to a position critical of the war until its later phases. Even Ablett did not make any unambiguous statement of opposition to the war until 1917; indeed, he advanced as a reason for accepting the Lloyd George terms in July 1915, the need to assist the war effort. [23]

Even Cook’s attitude to the war was not overtly anti-imperialist. Initially he was involved in protests against the high price of food. [24] As the war deteriorated into a bloody stalemate and the spectre of conscription loomed, the anti-war elements became more outspoken. By the end of 1915 a Rhondda Valleys’ Anti-Conscription Committee had been established with W. Phippen as chairman and W.H. Mainwaring as one of the secretaries. In April 1916 Cook was able to declare:

Daily I see signs among the working class with whom I move and work of a mighty awakening. The chloroforming pill of patriotism is failing in its power to drag the mind and consciousness of the worker. He is beginning to shudder at his stupidity in allowing himself to become a party to such a catastrophe as we see today. [25]

In February 1917 a mass meeting of Lewis Merthyr workers passed a resolution ‘that we resist the comb-out by every means in our power even to laying down tools.’ The following month Cook made his opinion of the war clear:

necessary to free my class from the curse and I am no pacifist when war enslavement of capitalism ... As a worker I have more regard for the interests of my class than any nation. The interests of my class are not benefited by this war, hence my opposition. [26]

On the industrial-economic field there was also an awakening. The rapidly-rising cost living due to the war shattered the industrial peace in the coalfields. In July 1915 200,000 miners struck in South Wales and after five days Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, accompanied by Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, and Arthur Henderson, arrived in Cardiff, and after 24 hours negotiations granted the miners their claim for wage improvement. The July 1915 strike galvanised the militants, and former leaders of the URC made a reappearance on the syndicalist platform. [27]

Cook was prominent in this revival: when the URC met at the Aberystwyth Restaurant, Tonypandy, in August 1915, Cook was delegated, along with Ablett, Mainwaring and B.R. Pryce, to draw up a manifesto urging the reorganisation and centralisation of the SWMF, and at the next meeting he was chairman. [28]

Another factor besides rising living costs added to the aggravation among the miners. Until the end of 1916 miners were exempt from conscription. However in January 1917 the War Office instituted a comb-out of all unskilled men and those who had entered the mines since 1914. In April the demands of the Western Front forced the extension of this. In January 1915 the War Office made known its intentions to conscript a further 50,000 miners with an extra 50,000 to be held in reserve. [29]

A new spur to the anti-war movement was the Russian revolution of February 1917. On 15 April Cook chaired a mass meeting of the Lewis Merthyr workmen which called for a ‘Conference to get a resolution passed in favour of peace negotiations’. Cook attended the Leeds Convention of June 1917 summoned to welcome the Russian Revolution and to support the foreign policy of the Russian Provisional Government. In the first week of July Cook was involved with Tom Mann, Noah Ablett and Arthur Horner in meetings at Ynyshir and Porth (where Cook was chairman) where resolutions were passed demanding ‘an immediate conference of the belligerents, to negotiate an immediate cessation of hostilities on the lines of the Russian Manifesto, of no annexations, no indemnities.’ [30]

It is interesting to note that the anti-war position of Cook (and Tom Mann, Noah Ablett and Arthur Horner) did not go beyond the position of the Russian Mensheviks and SRs that was vehemently damned by Lenin as pacifist and a cover-up for the imperialist war effort of Russia’s Provisional Government.

When the URC reappeared, over the conscription issue, ‘it was of some significance that ... very few of its former leaders had been associated with it ... It reinforced the antipathy that seemed to exist between former leaders of the URC now on the SWMF EC and the revolutionary-inclined leadership now emerging in the districts.’ [31] This antipathy towards the former leaders expressed itself in the following words of two leading anti-war rank-and-file URC people, George Dolling and Nat Watkins:

Today there are those in the Socialist ranks who, having grown respectable and law-abiding, act the part of the puppy dogs of Capitalism. Those we expect to bark like any capitalist mongrel because we attempt to live up to the faith that is in us. But’, they continued, addressing themselves to the former leaders of the URC, ‘from you we expect better things. Act and live up to it by writing up a line of encouragement so that this work may go on.’ [32]

In March 1918 Cook was arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for making speeches likely to cause disaffection. In cross-examination Cook said he favoured a revolution by argument, not force, but proceeded to say he wanted the Triple Alliance to use argument with the government to bring about the confiscation of private ownership in food commodities, and if that failed that he would suggest a general strike of the industries of the country. [33]

The same woolliness, semi-pacifist definition of revolution, was shown by Cook in a speech to the MFGB Conference some four years later, when he said:

I stand for revolution – some of my friends say blood – no, revolution of thought. You must have a mental revolution ... I do not want to fight with guns ... I believe in the organised might of the working classes. [34]

No whiff of Marx’s words about violence being the midwife of a new society, not a word about the need for the armed working class to overthrow the capitalist class.

With the end of the war, the impact of Bolshevism became immense. As the Home Office commented on 18 November: ‘since the tremendous events of a week ago, the pacifists have been busy tearing off their disguise, and re-appearing in their proper garb as revolutionaries.’ The Rhondda militants certainly welcomed ‘Bolshevism’: Noah Ablett, in a speech at Ton Pentre which was reported verbatim to the Home Office, stated, ‘I rejoice in Bolshevism; I am proud of it. We can do the same in this country, and now that the war is over I wish good luck to the German Bolsheviks as well. Good luck to any working class wherever the germ of Bolshevism reigns.’ [35] Writing many years later Cook remembered the inspiration of the Russian revolution: ‘We felt that what Russia could do we could do and must do, if the workers were ever to be freed from slavery.’ [36]

In February 1919 the South Wales Socialist Society (SWSS) was formed, which former members of the URC now joined. The URC leaders saw in the SWSS a coordinating centre for the activities of industrial militants from which all political questions – parliamentarism and relations with the Labour Party – would be excluded. This was what Cook had in mind when he stated, in opening the inaugural conference of the SWSS, that what was wanted was some kind of Syndicalist Federation:

The Society was open to all who accepted the class war theory and the Society was to be composed of groups of trades which would consider their own problems and receive the co-operation of the whole in bringing about reforms in their own industries ... [37]

The Conference was in fact split between advocates of Cook’s policy and those who supported political action of some sort. [38]

The confidence of the rank and file in the year 1918, when Britain to proletarian revolution than ever before or after, was the main focus of The Miners’ Next Step, that the grievance of any member would be met with the whole strength of the Union, became a fact. In February 1920 30,000 miners in the Rhondda struck against the dismissal of two members, and the two were reinstated. At the end of March 1920, 10,000 miners of the Tredegar Combine struck in support of two miners denied payment of the minimum wage. Similarly at the end of 1920, 45,000 struck in the Rhondda over the alleged victimisation of 11 men. [39]

This high level of class solidarity was the background to the negotiations to establish a Communist Party in Britain in which the SWSS was now involved. The SWSS split asunder, moving in two directions: one faction towards the Communist Party of Great Britain that was emerging around the BSP and the Communist Unity Group; the other faction joining the Communist Party, British Section of the Third International (CPBSTI) around Sylvia Pankhurst. Cook joined the latter organisation–but for largely syndicalist reasons:

The latter’s appeal derived from its syndicalist-inclined programme and it subsequently attracted some of the Rhondda activists, notably A.J. Cook, Dolling and T.J. Watkins. In September 1920 a conference was held at which ... ‘a dozen ex-members of the SWSS’ almost all from the Rhondda, decided to set up a ‘Communist Party of South Wales’, presumably affiliated to the CPBSTI as Whitehead, its secretary, attended and expounded its policies at the conference. Cook and Dolling stressed the need for the party to be ‘anti-political’ ... At the root of this development in South Wales lay the desire to find a form of organisation that would express the purely industrial character of the URC and which would not be subject to centralised political control. For Cook in particular this remained a cardinal factor of his outlook. [40]

In December 1919 Cook became a full-time union official: he won the post of second agent to the Rhondda No. 1 District.

The year 1920 saw Cook entering the mainstream of events on a national level. His election as miners’ agent gave him a seat on the SWMF EC and hence a representative status at MFGB Conference.

A test for Cook, and turning point both for him and for the MFGB was the Datum Line strike (16 October to 3 November 1920). It was so called because under the temporary terms of settlement, the wage advance granted was made to depend upon output reaching a given point – the Datum Line. The settlement was to last only five months, in which period the mine owners and miners were jointly to work at a permanent settlement. In other words it was a truce – but a truce that in fact benefitted the mine owners very much, as the dispute was postponed to the summer season.

Cook campaigned vigorously throughout early October 1920 for strike action against the government terms, and the miners’ rejection of these terms by a massive 453,670 majority gladdened him – he actually seconded the resolution calling for the strike to commence. During the strike Cook supported the URC agitation for a seizure of the mines, and at Tonyrefail persuaded a conference of local lodges to call for a seizure of the mines by the Triple Alliance. [41]

Cook found the ‘Datum Line’ principle abhorrent, and he began a bitter campaign against the MFGB leadership whom he dubbed ‘the lieutenants of the capitalist class’ ...

He expressed the need for ‘the reorganisation of the Federation from the bottom up, and in a potent article Cook attacked the whole structure of working-class representation: ‘The MFGB, Triple Alliance and TUC are fast becoming manufacturing centres for resolutions, glorified state institutions earning the praise of the capitalist class. We are led at the heels of the politicians, the atmosphere of the House of Commons is pervading the trade union executives. The very machine we have built up for our emancipation is being used to crush us.’ [42]

The Datum Line agreement was to be a turning point in the miners’ struggle – a prologue to Bloody Friday, and following it, the lockout of miners in 1926.

In January 1921 Cook became a representative of the SWMF on the MFGB Executive Committee.

Revolutionary syndicalists turned bureaucrats

Central to the revolutionary bureaucrats was their opposition to the trade union bureaucracy. However, they did not understand the basic cause of the existence of bureaucracy and its relation to the rank and file. The bureaucracy is an inevitable product of the role of trade unions under capitalism. The trade union bureaucracy is a distinct, basically conservative, social formation. It faces both ways, balancing between the employers and the workers. It holds back workers’ struggle from getting out of control, but it has a vital interest not to push the collaboration with employers and state to a point where it makes the unions completely impotent.

The trade union official also balances between different sections of his own union. He keeps in check the advanced sections of the union who are the more active and rebellious, by relying on those who are more passive, apathetic and ignorant.

The official also strengthens his hold on the union by juxtaposing it to other unions. Sectionalism helps the union official to mobilise the backward members of his own union.

As only in revolutionary periods does the working class achieve homogeneity, a bureaucracy is an inevitable product of trade unionism. No union can exist without a bureaucracy dominating it. Therefore even the most left person coming to head a union is bound to be trapped into the bureaucracy.

The syndicalists also did not understand the other side of the coin of the unevenness in the consciousness of workers – the need for a revolutionary party organising the vanguard of the class. The unions are more effective, more able to fulfil their task, the larger the mass of the membership. The revolutionary party is completely different. The revolutionary party deserves its name if it is ideologically homogeneous, bound by unity of action and organisation.

Lacking an understanding of the nature of the trade union bureaucracy, its relation to the heterogeneity of workers’ consciousness, and the need for a revolutionary party organising the vanguard of the class, the syndicalists failed to understand the connection between the trade union bureaucracy and reformism.

Throughout the years you find again and again Cook wavering between rank-and-file workers and the trade union bureaucracy, and between the Communist Party and the Labour Party.

Following Black Friday and the three months’ lockout, Cook found himself in deep conflict with the rank and file. Cook, together with Ablett, representing South Wales on the MFGB EC, voted to accept the terms of settlement dictated by the owners. Many of the rank and file thought differently. On 17 June 1921 the terms were rejected in South Wales by 110,616 to 40,909 (and nationally by 434,614 to 180,724). At the end of June, nevertheless, notwithstanding the ballot result, the MFGB decided to accept the mine owners’ terms and call off the dispute. Despite the pleading of Cook and Ablett, at the SWMF Conference nearly half the delegates voted against the agreement (112 for, 109 against). [43]

The actions of Cook and Ablett bought criticism from men they represented. Two lodges in the Rhondda No. 1 District called for Cook’s resignation. Once the settlement of the 1921 lockout took place, Cook left the Communist Party. He stated that the Party was ‘a hindrance to the whole of the British trade union movement ... They are causing division inside the ranks of the whole movement, and I am of the opinion that we shall, as a trades union movement, eventually have to fight the Communist Party.’ [44]

Cook’s alignment with the MFGB EC led to a break not only with the CP but for a whole year also with the rank-and-file militants in the union. The defeat of the miners in 1921 strengthened the hands of the right on the MFGB EC. Now Frank Hodges, the Secretary of the MFGB, argued that the only way to raise wages was by co-operating with the mine owners in raising productivity. This was agreed by the whole EC, including Cook.

From the autumn of 1921 Cook was carrying out what must be regarded as a campaign in the Rhondda for improved productivity and harmonious relations with colliery managements. At mass meetings in October he was urging miners to boost output by the production of ‘clean’ coal and the acceptance of the double shift system hitherto strongly resisted in South Wales. These meetings were followed up by approaches to managements with the aim of concluding agreements to keep open marginal collieries on the basis of a co-operative approach to productivity problems. ‘This heart-to-heart discussion’, said Mr Cook, ‘is winning the confidence of the men, and is resulting in a far more interested and harmonious working.’ [45]

Here we see a classic demonstration of the fact that while the line of division between left and right union officials is of importance, the cleavage between the bureaucracy and the rank and file is of even greater consequence. Without the discipline of a revolutionary party over the union official, however left he may be, he is bound to move, under pressure of the union machine, away from the rank and file.

The co-operation between union and management led to no improvement in miners’ wages. As a matter of fact, wages were cut to the bone, conditions deteriorated, unemployment and non-unionism spread widely. After a year Cook swung back, leftwards.

Towards the end of 1922 a renewal of the rank-and-file movement took place. In September, Cook joined S.O. Davies, Noah Ablett, George Daggar, J. Thomas and D.L. Davies in signing a Manifesto calling for the construction of an organisation to withstand the attacks of the employers, and urging MFGB affiliation to the Red International of Labour Unions. [46] This was the start of a new unofficial movement, later to be named the Minority Movement. However, this movement was radically different from the pre-war URC or even the movement during the war and the first year after it. In the first place, full-time union officials played a far greater role – a central role – in the Miners’ Minority Movement. As miners were at the time on the defensive, with the threat of victimisation over their heads, it fell to the officials to keep the movement going. Cook summed up the sort of relationship established between the left-wing union officials and the rank-and-file militants:

Many of the younger leaders ... realised that the rank and file at the pits dare not, for fear of victimisation, express themselves, [and] decided to make a move again, unite the advanced movement to renew hope and confidence. Again, as in 1910, conditions have forced men to think, and in every district a Minority Movement is being formed, this time with the help of many of the full-time officials, who cannot be victimised by the powerful coal magnates. [47]

The political backbone of the Miners’ Minority Movement was provided by the Communist Party. Cook was by far the most important official associated with the MMM, its foremost leader, although he was not a member of the CPGB.

The MMM was very much encouraged by changes in the economic conditions of the mining industry in 1923. Due to the French occupation of the German Ruhr and the cessation of production there, a boom in British coal exports took place. The rank and file became more confident and militant.

In February 1924 the SWMF Conference adopted practically the whole programme of the MMM. Hopes rose that the MFGB would follow suit. But that was not to be.

In March 1924, on a fairly high poll, Cook was elected secretary of the MFGB. He secured 217,664 votes to his nearest rival, Joseph Jones of Yorkshire, who received 202,297 votes.

The heightened militancy among the miners, together with hopes kindled by the election of the first Labour government, led miners to demand the ending of the 1921 wage agreement: a return to national settlement instead of district settlement, and a general improvement in wage levels. In December 1923 a ballot of MFGB members took place on EC recommendation, to end the 1921 agreement: 510,303 voted for the recommendation, and 114,558 against. Accordingly, on 17 January 1924, the EC gave three months’ notice to end the agreement. However, the newly-elected Labour government defused the situation. On 15 April the Minister of Labour appointed a Court of Inquiry under Lord Bookmaster, a Liberal ex-Lord Chancellor. The result: the basic principles of the 1921 agreement – district settlement instead of national settlement of wages – remained intact, but an improvement in the standard of wages was granted.

The new agreement caused a rift between Cook and the MMM. Cook, together with the rest of the leadership of the MFGB, supported the agreement, while the MMM strongly rejected. It was Cook who recommended the agreement to the May Conference of the MFGB. A resolution to reject the agreement was moved by South Wales and seconded by Scotland. McNallty of Scotland said:

‘It is no use humbugging yourselves, the owners know that you are not going to fight, and have treated you accordingly in your negotiations. I am sure that if you had put forward the same militancy as in 1921, you would have got better terms without a strike than you have got today.’

E. Williams of South Wales said: ‘We see no hope in this agreement, except that we shall guarantee an average profit to the shareholders.’

Notwithstanding the efforts of Herbert Smith, the President of the MFGB, and A.J. Cook, the opposition to the agreement at the Conference was quite large. 311 voted against the settlement (including South Wales, Scotland, Lancashire and Leicester) and 473 for. [48]

Following the MFGB Conference, the MMM called on the rank and file to carry industrial action against the agreement. ‘The policy of the militant miners must be to resist the Agreement, whether in a majority or in a minority.’ Cook, the MMM explained, allowed himself to be swayed by the EC. [49]

Influenced by the campaign of the MMM, the Conference of SWMF came out against the agreement on a card vote – 87,000 against, 65,150 for.

The 1926 lockout

The most important chapter in Cook’s life began on 1 May 1926, during the seven months of the miners’ lockout in 1926. He never fought so hard, never got as much support from the miners; his life was immersed in the struggle of the miners he so loved. And in the support of the rank and file was Cook’s strength. He was making as many as six speeches a day in an attempt to keep up the spirits of the miners. He found the going more and more tough. [50]

One former miner remembered in 1941:

Never were such vast crowds seen in the coalfields – perhaps never in Britain – as that which the Miners’ General Secretary, Mr. A.J. Cook addressed. From North, South, East and West, came the crowds – far beyond the limits of the immediate district in which he spoke; on foot, by cycle, train, and bus the people came; large numbers who were not miners went to swell the crowds ...

He got, and held, the crowds. It was unusual to have a miners’ official going through the coalfields in this way ...

Seldom has there been such feeling as swept the crowds ... That Mr. Cook was a subject of great devotion was undeniable. He was a prophet among them. To this day men speak of those gatherings with awe. That the speaker paid with his life is beyond doubt. [51]

Especially great was the role of Cook in staving off the collapse of the miners’ resistance, and even reversing the trend when the miners did go back to work. Again and again Cook held meetings at villages where a number of miners had returned to work under the whip of hunger, and he inspired them to come out again. He gave them the courage to face the hunger, and the police brutality. ‘The coalfield resembled a battlefield with an “army of occupation” attempting to break the spirit of a hostile, turbulent population ...’ [52] Cook was marvellous.

But now in 1926, more than ever before, was the isolation, the loneliness of Cook manifest. And this is a paradox. Cook loved the miners, and the miners loved him. How can one speak of his isolation?

The tragedy of Cook was that he had no structured relations with workers, either in his union, or even more so, with members of other unions. He was trapped at the head of a union machine, and related to other workers through their leadership. When ‘left’ leaders – people like A.B. Swales, A.A. Purcell, George Hicks – all revolutionary syndicalists before the war, and now sympathisers of the Minority Movement – betrayed the miners (not one of them voted in the General Council of the TUC against calling off the General Strike) – Cook did not denounce them. The discipline of a party was missing – the reciprocity between rank and file and leadership, the accountability of all was not there. Hence a leader of one union – let us say Cook – can approach members of other unions only through their leaders.

The bureaucrat’s attitude was demonstrated by Cook when, on 7 October 1926, at a special conference of the MFGB, he argued against the proposal of Arthur Horner and E. Morrell to call for an embargo on foreign coal. This is what Cook said:

I cannot see how you can go over the heads of the unions unless you get the unions to do it. I say here quite definitely it is hopeless to get an official action on an embargo on coal unless the union will operate it. You have no right to get men out who cannot have the protection of their union ... [53]

The efforts of individuals, not even of Cook with his confidence in the magnificent potential of the working class, could not overcome the unevenness and sectionalism which rends the class, which is encouraged by the trade union bureaucracy, and which in turn nurture it. A revolutionary party is indispensable to fight those contradictions. The lack of a party to support Cook led him to vacillations that sometimes bordered on capriciousness. The revolutionary party gives one a sense of realism. Being rooted in the class, made up of the most advanced workers, it allows elasticity and adaptation without falling into unprincipled opportunism. Of course struggle demands improvisation. But in order for this not to degenerate into simple vacillation, the tactics and strategy must be based on a sober assessment of the real forces in combat. As Lenin repeated again and again: strategy and tactics must be based ‘on exact appraisal of the objective situation.’ [54] Strategy and tactics must take cognisance of the consciousness of the workers. Only an organisation, a revolutionary party, makes it possible to grasp the real workers’ consciousness and to adopt suitable tactics and strategy.

Isolated in the midst of the multitude of miners, Cook suffered from continual alteration of mood, with bewildering rapidity moving from optimism to pessimism. Actually neither the euphoria of optimism nor the morass of pessimism are of any use. ‘Pessimism or optimism? Calculation of forces. Sober appraisal and fervent dedication,’ writes Lenin. [55]

Volatility in his tactics led Cook quite often to fall into the trap of manoeuvring, which deceived the enemy less than it embarrassed his own side. One can juxtapose an overoptimistic statement by Cook for public consumption with a very pessimistic statement in private. Taken together Cook sounds simply dishonest, conflicting violently with Marx’s dictum that Communists must always tell the workers the truth.

On the one hand he was declaring that 97 per cent of the recruits for the police and armed forces ‘have come from the working classes, and thousands of them miners, who will not shoot against their kith and kin when the orders comes’. Furthermore:

We have got the whole trade union movement in the country pledged to defend the miners’ hours, wages and national agreements. Abroad we have made agreements that no coal shall come into this country. The Government and the owners know we have got the organisation that can fight and win. My last word to the Government is, count the cost. The cost of a strike of the miners would mean the end of capitalism. [56]

And a bare month before the total crumbling of the miners’ resistance Cook wrote an article, the headline of which was: ‘THE TIDE HAS TURNED! ... No time for defeatists now! ... WE CAN WIN ... In the name of the dead, the living and the unborn, I say fight on – the darkness is behind us – the dawn breaks and victory is within our grasp.’ [57]

Yet practically on the same day Cook sent opposite signals to Tom Jones, deputy Secretary to the Cabinet. Thus in his diary entry for 14 April 1926, Jones wrote: wandering in the House of Commons ‘when I ran into Cook. Cook turned aside and whispered to me “I’d like to see you tonight”. I whispered back my Hampstead telephone number.’ Next day, 15 April, Cook told Jones:

We are economically in the weakest position we have ever been, and while a lot of our chaps won’t agree with me, we shall have to have a national minimum not only with plusses above it but minusses below it. I asked him what was the most helpful thing I could do in the interests of peace. He said, to get the owners to meet the PM as early as possible, next week, then to bring the miners to meet them, a joint conference with the PM presiding, and to keep them together while they thrashed out the wages issue ... [58]

While publicly Cook never tired of repeating the slogan he coined: ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a second on the day’, behind the scenes he was involved in negotiations that contradicted it completely. Thus on 3 July 1926 he was involved in negotiations with F. Seebohm Rowntree (the chocolate magnate), Sir Walter Layton (editor of The Economist) and F.D. Stuart (Rowntree’s private secretary). As a result Cook signed a document which agreed:

With a view to increasing output, and so reducing the cost of production, the Miners’ Federation:

(a) To co-operate in a scheme to deal with voluntary absenteeism, if necessary by penalties.

(b) To ensure the working of the full shifts in Durham and Northumberland.

(c) To work double shifts in South Wales or any other area in which it is practicable, and is desired by the owners.

(d) To discourage any restrictions of output and co-operate in the establishment and full utilisation of machinery to settle any question of alleged restriction.

(e) To assist in the extension to as many grades as possible of the principle of piece work, or some other system of payment by result.

In an accompanying letter Cook wrote: ‘... if the Government will accept the proposals herewith put forward as an alternative to the passing of the [8–Hours] Act as a basis for discussion, the Miners’ Federation will do everything they possibly can to increase output and to develop machinery for securing peace and goodwill.’ [59]

The proposed deal came to nothing, but the MFGB in 1929 set up an investigating committee which reprimanded Cook as the secret agreement was in violation of the rules of the MFGB, being carried out without the knowledge of the EC. J. Williams, a left-wing delegate for the Forest of Dean, declared the 3 July 1926. document: ‘... a piece of deception unprecedented in the history of Trade Unions.’ [60] If we did not know that Cook was neither a self-seeker nor sell-out merchant we might have assumed that he was a hypocrite, but the simple truth was that he was trapped.

One of the saddest chapters of the seven months was connected with the Bishops’ Memorandum.

On 14 July the MFGB EC had to consider the mediation proposal of a number of church leaders. The proposal was that the miners should resume work immediately, on the conditions that pertained prior to 30 April, that the government should grant temporary assistance pending a national settlement to be reached within four months on the basis of the Samuel Commission Report. If the negotiations failed, an independent arbitrator should fix the award. [61] Cook was one of the main advocates of the Bishops’ Memorandum. Had those terms been agreed, what would have prevented the mine owners from imposing their plans of a longer working day and a cut in wages after four months? The neutral arbitrator?

It is sad to know that Cook was one of the main advocates of the Bishops’ Memorandum. The Memorandum met with strong dissent from the ranks. When Cook reported to the MFGB Special Conference of 30 July on the EC agreement to the Memorandum, he met with strong opposition. E. Morrell, a member of the MFGB EC, moved a resolution in the name of the SWMF condemning the Miners’ Federation Executive. A similar resolution to that of South Wales was also passed by the Durham EC with special emphasis that the ‘accepting of the principle of compulsory arbitration’ was always opposed by the union. [62]

Arthur Horner strongly attacked the Memorandum, and denounced Cook and Herbert Smith for advocating it. Nye Bevan, too, denounced Arthur Cook and George Spencer (President of Notts) for both being defeatist under the cloak of ‘facing facts’. [63]

Cook replied:

I make absolutely no apologies for continuing to recommend terms of settlement like those agreed on between ourselves and the representatives of the Churches. On these terms we could rouse the whole nation: no government would dare to refuse them. [64]

A precursor of the Broad Democratic Alliance?

Cook saw in the EC agreement with the Bishops’ Memorandum a clever manoeuvre: putting the mine owners and the government on the defensive. Alas, the manoeuvre must always be subordinated to a strategy and tactics based on the actual relation of forces. In every strike, obviously, manoeuvre can be helpful: but the condition is that it is not so clever as to hoodwink one’s own side instead of the other. As morale is key in the struggle, if the manoeuvre weakens one’s own side’s morale, it is harmful. The most effective policy is the straightforward, honest one.

After a number of long and strong speeches by Herbert Smith and Arthur Cook, they managed to carry the Conference, to win the vote, but by less than two to one: 460 to 255 (the opposition included 130 from South Wales, 120 Durham, 5 Forest of Dean). All other districts supported the MFGB EC.

The resolution then went to a district vote. This gave a majority – of 34,614 against the MFGB EC stand. (367,650 to 333,036): South Wales, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland and Forest of Dean voted against. [65]

To reject the Bishops’ Memorandum, Horner argued, was not enough. One had to make the miners’ fight more effective. For that he suggested that the Federation withdraw all the safety men in the pits. Horner nearly won the Conference notwithstanding the vehement speeches against him by Cook and Herbert Smith. 360 voted for withdrawal, 428 against. (For the withdrawal, South Wales, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Forest of Dean.) [66]

But Arthur Cook and Herbert Smith did not give up, and these continuous debates in one conference after another caused considerable damage to the morale of the miners. It also encouraged the government to believe it could secure a settlement on the basis of the Samuel Report, including wage cuts.

At the 7 October Special Conference, the question of withdrawal of safety men was raised again. E. Morrell and A. Horner proposed that safety men be withdrawn, that an embargo on foreign coal be imposed, that a special Trade Union Congress be called to impose a levy and that outcropping be stopped. Herbert Smith led the attack on the resolution, with strong support from Cook. By the way, it is quite illuminating, to see the arguments used by Cook against the suggestion of the withdrawal of safety men:

If you adopt the resolution from South Wales, so far as the safety men are concerned, if you were to withdraw the safety men, we would have the blue jackets, and you would have the soldiers protecting the men at work, and you would have a repetition of 1921, which I hope never to see again.

How far Cook was out of step on this issue with the militant miners is clear from the fact that this time the great majority of Conference delegates voted for Horner’s resolution (589 to 199). [67] But whatever the conference decision, Smith and Cook did not intend to carry it out. So they adopted delaying tactics, asking the Districts for their views.

While this was happening in public, Cook was busy for a number of weeks in discussions with the Coal Committee of the Cabinet, offering them a compromise solution to the dispute. On 3 September Jones’s diary has the following entry:

Mr Cook said he would very much like a private talk with me this evening. He was desperately afraid that the claim which the miners now had might be ruined at the very first meeting unless the ground were prepared properly. He was having a terrific fight, etc. etc. I agreed to meet him ... [68]

Covering up for the TUC and Labour Party leaders

Cook vacillated between exposing the treacherous role of the TUC leaders in the General Strike and covering it up.

A couple of weeks after the end of the General Strike, Cook wrote a best-selling pamphlet, Nine Days, which was a deadly indictment of the TUC. Regrettably he contradicted the whole of the pamphlet in its 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.’ [69] What a 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 going to be a Conference of Trade Union Executives on 25 June. However, two days before, 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 reaction.’ ‘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.’

To show his full support for this agreement Cook withdrew from circulation his pamphlet Nine Days. In justification of this step Cook wrote: ‘Both the Industrial side of the Movement and the Parliamentary Labour party are now absolutely with the miners.’ [70] It seems Cook fell into the oldest sin of opportunism, considering unprincipled combinations the highest art in politics.

In fact the cessation of criticism was hardly mutual. John Bromley, Secretary of ASLEF, and member of the General Council, leaked in the July issue of his union journal to the public a large part of the Report which the General Council had prepared for the Conference. Needless to say the General Council’s Report was full of attacks on the Miners’ Federation.

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. He spoke 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.

W.C. Loeber (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 burke inquiry. They welcome it, but that inquiry must come when our men are working. [71]

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. The MFGB sided with the General Council!

Then Bob Smillie, the veteran miners’ leader, moved from the platform an emergency resolution recording ‘high appreciation of the generous financial assistance both national and international ... afforded the miners’ and calling for continued financial support. [72] ‘Generous financial support’! Compare these words with a statement of W.P. Richardson, the MFGB treasurer, on the total financial aid received from British trade unions:

just 3s per member during the whole twenty-six weeks of the stoppage, or just over 1d per week per member. If we take the total Labour vote at the last election, which is the proper figure to take in assessing the assistance given by the movement, we find that it works out at 2s per voter for the whole period of the stoppage or just under 1d per voter per week ...

To these organisations and to all others who have helped us, the miners are deeply grateful, but when all is said and done, the hard fact remains that the total contribution received from the movement is less than 1d per head per week. [73]

Another humiliating event was the Labour Party Conference in October in Margate. On the eve of the Conference, Cook wrote in The Miner: ‘The miners trust and believe that the Leader of the Labour Party will sound a clarion call which will rally the whole movement to take active and practical measures, such as an organised levy for the miners.’ [74]

This referred to MacDonald, who did more than practically any other Labour leader to betray the General Strike and the miners!

The Labour Party Conference repaid Cook’s soft words with a slap in the face. In his Presidential address Robert Williams (founder member of the Communist Party, expelled from it for scabbing on Black Friday) said:

‘The Miners’ decision to continue the dispute is heroic. They may be likened to the sightless Samson feeling for a grip of the pillar of the Temple, the crashing of which may engulf this thing we call British Civilisation ... I venture to opine that had one-tenth of the money which was spent on the conflict of May had been spent on obtaining publicity for Labour’s plans ... a settlement of the mining dispute ... would have given justice to the mine workers and a lasting benefit to the Community! ... Sight is lost of the fact that the majority of our Trade Unionists are served by one or another form of conciliation machinery between Union and employers ... it should not be forgotten that conciliation has played, is playing, and must continue to play, an important part in trade union work. If peace should be sought for internationally, I say, let us seek industrial peace through methods of conciliation ... In a resourceful, resilient, industrial community like our own, we cannot subvert or overthrow, we must supersede capitalism.’

The miners, said Williams, called for an embargo: ‘This despairing policy may be magnificent, but it is not war.’ The Communists and Minority Movement, he taunted, ‘still believe in the General Strike.’ [75]

Cook’s hope that the Labour Party Conference would organise a levy for the miners was dashed. All the big unions, with the exception of the Miners’ Federation, voted a resolution to this effect down.

At the same time at the conference, Harry Pollitt moved the reference back of the NEC Report listing fourteen local organisations expelled from the Labour Party, for refusing to operate the 1925 Liverpool Conference decision relating to Communists. Cook remained silent. The miners’ delegation sided with the Labour Party NEC, and the reference back was defeated by 209,000 to 3,414,000.

The Miners’ Federation turn on the Communist Party and the Minority Movement

When the miners’ struggle collapsed and their spirits plunged, Cook lost his vigour and heart. He was sliding without being able to stop himself falling. Of course no individual can be immune from the impact of a massive defeat of his class. A revolutionary party can mitigate the impact. It is far less volatile, much more stable, than the class. In periods of defeat, a revolutionary party does not simply mark time; it uses the pause for training its members, for steeling them.

After the end of the 1926 lockout Cook was very depressed. He was worn out, strung out on the barbed wire of that battlefield. Unemployment, particularly after the massive defeat of 1926, increased exploitation without breeding a radicalisation of the masses. On the contrary, demoralisation, atomisation, and disintegration dominated the class. The whole trade union movement, not least the Miners’ Federation, was moving rapidly rightwards.

Both Cook’s isolation and the right stance of the Miners’ Federation were shown clearly in its 1927. Conference. Herbert Smith went on a massive offensive against the CP and Minority Movement. Turning on Arthur Horner, the leading Communist in the union, Smith said: ‘You are doing as much harm as Spencer ... I want to give some advice to Horner or anybody else that unless they are prepared to stand four square and carry out the policy of this Federation, then you have to get out.’ [76]

Others sang the same tune. W.P. Richardson, Treasurer of the MFGB, alleged that ‘where Spencerism exists it is where the other extremes are given a chance ... where encouragement has been given to weaken our ranks.’ J. Robson of Durham said: ‘I can tell my friends here, Mr Horner in particular, that where the Communists and Minority Movements strongest in Durham, there we have the weakest position.’ [77] And this, is the same J. Robson who a year before called on the union to withdraw the safety men from the pits!

This attack on the CP took place less than a year after the end of the lockout when the sacrifice of CP members was so impressive – out of 5,000 arrests some 1,200 were Communists! About a quarter of all Communists were arrested.

During the whole attack on the CP and Minority Movement Cook kept completely silent.

A resolution moved by the left for a referendum on whether the CP should be allowed to affiliate to the Labour Party and the right of Communists to be delegates to Labour Party conferences was rejected on card votes by 420 to 220. South Wales abstained. [78]

The move to the right was accompanied by workers pinning their hopes on the electoral success of the Labour Party. The mass of the workers concluded that industrial action failed, and one therefore has to look to the ballot box as the means of improving workers’ conditions. Cook also talked about moving from struggle to electoralism. ‘We should start our political agitation [for a Labour government] immediately. One Million miners in the country must all become political agitators for a Labour Government.’ [79]

In his final summing up of the seven months of the lockout, again Cook emphasised an electoral, parliamentary strategy. He wrote:

The magnificent victory at Central Hull, following the local elections, and the bye-elections at Hammersmith, Wallsend, etc., show that Toryism is finally broken in Britain.

The price which Toryism has paid for the defeat of the miners is its own elimination on the political field. [80]

Arguments similar to Cook’s were used by Ramsay MacDonald in an interview published in The Miner of 16 October 1926.

The mining crisis is now entering the political field. The situation left by the industrial struggle will be a purely political one ...

I want to use the columns of The Miner to say this to the men in the industry: Turn the same splendid fighting power, the same endurance, the same determination and heroism which you have shown in the industrial struggle into a new task which awaits you, namely, the winning of a Labour Government. Surely the lesson of the last year is this. The miners cannot win justice for themselves until they have a Labour Government in power which can nationalise the whole industry. Therefore, for them, a Labour Government is a vital need which they must work for with all the might they possess. [81]

In the days, weeks and months following the 1927 Miners’ Federation Conference a massive vendetta was launched against Cook. Participating in this were leaders of other unions, as revenge for Cook’s criticism of their betrayal of the General Strike. His mere presence was a reminder of their past misdeeds. However leading members of the Miners’ Federation also participated in the campaign of hate against Cook. They were looking for a scapegoat for the defeat of the miners.

The September 1927 TUC Congress witnessed the Miners’ Federation joining the witch hunt against the Communist Party and the Minority Movement. The General Council’s Report to the Congress included the following resolution of the General Council of February 1927: ‘That those Trades Councils which are affiliated to the Minority Movement ... shall not be accorded recognition by the General Council nor allowed to participate in any work carried on under the auspices of the General Council.’ [82] A number of miners’ delegates defended the Minority Movement. Cook kept mum. The reference back of this part of the General Council’s Report was defeated very heavily: 148,000 to 3,746,000. [83] The MFGB voted with the right.

Then the question of the Anglo-Russian Committee was raised. The General Council decided unanimously to break it up. This time Cook, elected at the same Congress to the General Council for the first time, did intervene. However, he did not oppose the resolution outright. Instead he suggested that the decision should be postponed until the new General Council discussed the issue, and it was referred to the districts.

When it came to voting, the NUR voted against, and the MFGB abstained. And this after the Soviet trade unions contributed some three-fifths of all the money collected for the miners throughout the lockout! The vote went the General Council’s way by 2,551,000 to 620,000. [84]

The Cook-Maxton Manifesto

In November 1927 Sir Alfred Mond, Chairman of ICI and Tory MP, and a group of big employers from a number of industries, approached the TUC General Council with a proposal that they should meet and discuss a drive for ‘rationalisation of industry’ which would be carried through more smoothly if there were harmony with the trade unions. The General Council, of which Ben Turner was chairman, accepted the invitation, and in July 1928 there was issued an agreed Interim Report which supported rationalisation and cooperation between the trade unions and the employers. The agreement fitted the mood of the TUC leadership following the General Strike of ‘Never Again’. After all, the only alternative to collaboration with the employers was organising the defence, the resistance of workers to the employers’ offensive, while building up forces for a renewal of struggle.

The ‘Mond-Turner’ proposals became known by instalment between April and July 1928. As the Mond-Turner was a denunciation of the General Strike and all it stood for, Cook was impelled into opposition. At the TUC General Council, he alone voted against the negotiations with Mond. He started to publish a number of articles on the subject: The “Peace” War: Why I am not a Mond-ite; Peace, What? My Alternative Policy [85], and two pamphlets: The Mond Moonshine: My Case Against the ‘Peace’ Surrender (1928) and Mond’s Manacles – the Destruction of Trade Unionism, with a Foreword by Arthur Horner (1928).

In June 1928 Cook, together with James Maxton, the ILP Chairman, launched a counterblast to Mond-Turner, known as the Cook-Maxton Manifesto. The Manifesto denounced all forms of ‘class collaboration’, called for ‘unceasing war against capitalism’, protested that ‘much of the energy which should be expended in fighting capitalism is now expended in crushing everybody who dares to remain true to the ideals of the movement’, and announced a national campaign of conferences and meetings to recall the labour movement to its task of destroying the capitalist system.

The Cook-Maxton campaign spurred the right to a massive vindictive attack on Cook.

On 17 May 1928 the Miners’ Federation EC got a complaint from the TUC General Council regarding Cook’s pamphlet, The Mond Moonshine. The EC put heavy pressure on Cook and he gave way. He explained that because the pamphlet included personal attacks on members of the General Council, he decided to ‘stop publication by telegraphing the publisher to this effect, but it was impossible for the publisher to comply with this, as the pamphlet was already in circulation.’ The EC accepted Cook’s explanation, and the following resolution was agreed upon: ‘That this Executive Committee reply to the letter from the Trades Union Congress that we regret the pamphlet complained of was issued ... The Executive Committee disassociates itself from the issue of the “Mond pamphlet” and authorises Mr Thomas Richards to continue the meetings of the Sub-Committee [with Mond].’

The Miners’ Federation Conference of July 1928 in Llandudno was the scene of a heightened campaign against Cook.

Herbert Smith defended the Mond-Turner Agreement and then went on to say the following about Cook’s anti-Mond pamphlets:

If anybody told me we were going on satisfactorily I should say that they were not facing facts. Our membership is going down. Why? Because of issuings of pamphlets. Making statements for which this Federation is not responsible. Causing to get asunder with each other. Playing the non-union men’s game. It is worse than Spencerism.

Speaking on an EC resolution condemning the Communist Party and the Minority Movement, Herbert Smith said: ‘... these dissensions caused by the Communists and Minority Movement is responsible for 80% of the non-Unionism.’ The EC resolution was carried overwhelmingly on a card vote – 620 to 8. Among districts voting for the resolution were South Wales and Yorkshire, against South Derby (6. votes) and Forest of Dean (2 votes). [86]

The Conference also witnessed a long and sharp attack on Cook for his contributions to the Federation’s weekly, The Miner. After a long and venomous attack on him, Cook said in desperation:

I want to make myself quite clear without making any speech. I will give you a pledge. I have never controlled this paper. I have never attempted to interfere with the Constitution. As a matter of fact, so far as I am concerned, I shall not write again to The Miner, and therefore, you can have The Miner and do as you like with it. [87]

To rub salt in Cook’s wounds, Joseph Jones, the unsuccessful candidate for the Secretaryship of the Federation in 1924, launched a bitter attack on Cook, accusing him of having in July 1926 received proposals to end the dispute from Seebohm Rowntree, Sir Walter Layton and F.D. Stuart involving wage cuts and a longer working week. As we have already mentioned, the MFGB set up a committee to inquire into the allegations.

Cook was very wounded. Arthur Horner remembers: ‘Several times, while this so-called inquiry into his conduct during the strike was going on, Cook wanted to throw his hand in and resign. But I helped to persuade him not to do so. He was a sick man, a very sick man.’ [88]

The Miners’ Federation Conference was followed by the TUC Congress in Swansea. The General Council Report included the following: ‘... persons associated with the National Minority Movement will not in future be eligible to attend the Annual Conference of Trades Councils.’ Supporting the General Council in the name of the Miners’ Federation, G. Macdonald said: ‘We agree that there are disruptive elements within the Trade Union Movement, and there is no Trade Union that knows more about these disruptive elements than the Miners, and there is no Trade Union that has paid a higher price for those disruptive elements than the Miners.’ Herbert Smith also spoke in support of the resolution. Cook stayed silent. The resolution was ‘carried by an overwhelming majority’, i.e., there was no need to count the votes, and there was no card vote. [89]

In a debate on the Mond-Turner Agreement Cook did participate. Although he made it clear that he was very much against the Agreement, he was so polite towards other members of the General Council that Herbert Smith could start his speech in support of the Agreement with these wounding words: ‘Mr President and friends, everybody will be delighted at Mr Cook’s quick conversion. He has said this afternoon that the members of the General Council are doing their best and thinking of their members.’ [90]

A few weeks later, on 13 September, the Miners’ Federation EC condemned a Manifesto signed by Cook, S.O. Davies and Harry Hicken (all members of the EC), defending the CP and Minority Movement against the resolution of the Federation at Llandudno. Cook and his friends capitulated. On 12 October they issued the following statement: ‘After discussion on the Executive Committee of the MFGB and explanation given thereat we withdraw our support to the signatures we made to the Manifesto published by Mr Horner on the Llandudno Conference.’

So what happened to the Cook-Maxton campaign? It failed to generate any significant groundswell of support. It fizzled out. Trying to build an alliance between the left in the trade unions and the left in the Labour Party was an impossible task. Cook was very isolated in the trade union movement, and Maxton’s position in the Labour Party was far from strong. The ILP was a very loose organisation. It is true it had 140 MPs in 1930, but when it was demanded from them to commit themselves to abide by ILP policies, only 17 were prepared to continue as ILP members on those terms. The rest resigned and supported Ramsay MacDonald. Outside Scotland the old power of the ILP was fading. When the Cook-Maxton Manifesto was published, Maxton was forced to beat back a challenge to himself within the ILP.

The Cook-Maxton campaign was aimed to put socialism back on the agenda, but it had very little to say about what was to be done. It fell between two stools. It was on the one hand far too soft and centrist to have a long-term survival, and on the other it was far too small to have an immediate impact. One can make use of a small axe that is sharp, or a massive axe that is blunt. But what can one do with a small axe that is blunt?

The Cook-Maxton campaign was also ground between the massive right leadership of the TUC and Labour Party and the small Communist Party, now increasingly on an ultra-left binge of Third Period Stalinism.

Cook was forced to drink the bitter hemlock to its dregs by kowtowing to the moguls of the Tory press.

The financial conditions of miners and their families was so desperate, they were so destitute that in this extreme an appeal for financial support, signed by Herbert Smith, President, Thomas Richards, Vice-President, W.P. Richardson, Treasurer, and A.J. Cook, Secretary, was sent to all daily newspapers and other periodicals. Unlike the fighting miners, the begging miners were treated kindly by the Tory press.

The Report of the Executive Committee singled out for special mention amongst donors. The Daily Mail, the newspaper which was the inveterate opponent of higher wages or improved conditions for the miners, was now, in response to the appeal, prepared to use its columns for this particular form of charity and had organised the sending of 114,000 hampers of food and cast-off clothing ...

The Executive report concluded ‘Our very best thanks are due to the Daily Mail and its readers and to all the organisations concerned.’ [91]

On 18 April 1929 Cook participated in a lunch at the Mansion House in the City of London of the Miners’ Distress Fund, a charity sponsored by the Prince of Wales. The prince made a speech and Cook followed it. He said:

We owe the Prince a very real measure of thanks. His wholehearted enthusiasm on the miners’ behalf in this matter has brought the Throne quite close to the populace ... His conduct and his attitude have shown that all mankind have great qualities in common, one man with every other ...

You, Sir, have done a marvellous thing. Never was 1 so impressed as by your speech on Christmas Day night. I was with two Communist friends, and when your name was announced to speak on behalf of the Miners’ Fund, they undoubtedly scoffed. But they listened to what you had to say, and when you had finished, with tears in their eyes, they put their hands in their pockets and gave what money they had on them to the fund. It was a wonderful appeal you made to the country that night. [92]


A few weeks later, during the general election campaign Cook went to give support to the Labour candidate in Seaham Harbour.

This was a mining constituency and at the time there was 3,000 miners in Dowdon Colliery who had been on strike for over ten weeks. The Labour candidate was Ramsay MacDonald. Another candidate was a Communist, an old friend of Cook’s, Harry Pollitt. A few days after the elections. Cook rejoined the ILP, and hence the Labour Party, which he had left some quarter of a century earlier.

The second Labour government

Labour came to office in June 1929, Cook was a completely broken man. This explains the most agonising act – Cook’s joining Ramsay MacDonald’s camp – and that notwithstanding this government’s complete betrayal from its very beginning, all of the promises the Labour leaders gave during the election campaign. The Labour Party Election Manifesto included the following: ‘The disastrous Act by which the Tory Government added an hour to the working day of the miners must be at once repealed.’ At the Annual Conference of the Labour Party in October a resolution ‘that we press for the immediate repeal of the Eight Hours Act’ was passed unanimously. But things did not work out like this.

A meeting of the leadership of the Miners’ Federation with Cabinet members made it clear that the government did not intend keeping its promise. Instead of restoring the Seven Hours Act of 1919 the miners were offered 7½ hours – which meant no change at all for districts such as Yorkshire. The Yorkshire delegates to the Miners’ Federation Conference on 5 November 1929 refused to accept the government proposals on hours, but after long and very painful discussions the majority of the delegation reluctantly accepted the proposal. Herbert Smith, since 1921 President of the Federation, whose base was in Yorkshire, left the chair and the conference in disgust, never to return to the chairmanship. When the Bill came to the House of Lords which contained many mine owners, it was amended to make its impact on miners’ conditions was even worse. An amendment was introduced to permit a ‘spread-over’ of 90 hours a fortnight. This amendment meant that in some districts the miners would still be on eight hours.

In the latter months of 1930 the miners’ leaders were asked by Ramsay MacDonald to agree to the spread-over. This caused great resistance among miners. There were desperate strikes throughout the early winter of 1930–31. The new year opened with a lockout of South Wales miners who had refused the spread-over.

Ramsay MacDonald’s betrayal of his election promises met with great resentment in the Miners’ Federation. The only advocate of MacDonald in the leadership of the Federation was A.J. Cook. It is really embarrassing to read the minutes of the Conference of the Federation in 1929, 1930 and 1931. At the 1929 Conference, again and again delegates demanded from the Labour leaders to keep the promises they gave in the elections. But Cook said: We must ‘face the economics of the situation’ and must not endanger the existence of our government.

An old colleague of Cook’s from South Wales, W. Mainwaring, complained of the way Cook used the economic difficulties of the country as justification of the Labour government refusing to keep their promise to reintroduce the seven-hour day. ‘We ought without any hesitation, to declare to the Labour Government that we have considered their position, that we have no power to come away from our position and ask you to fulfil the pledge we have all commonly given to the people of the country.’ Cook in reply: ‘... we would be false to the men we represent if we did not face the economics of the situation.’ [93]

At the next Conference of the Miners’ Federation in August 1930, at Weston-super-Mare, the attack on Cook was even sharper. Herbert Smith, with contempt, quoted Cook’s reaction to the debate in the House of Lords that led to a further worsening of the original suggestion put by the government regarding miners’ working hours. Herbert Smith quotes Cook’s words from Hansard: ‘I can now declare that, whatever may be the personal view of myself or any of the Executive, any application that may come to the Miners’ Executive will be considered on its merits in the light of economic facts, and in the interests of the whole of the miners and the mining industry.’ Cook in reply spoke like a ‘statesman’: We have to act responsibly. We are sitting now with Government at the top table! [94]

At the next Special Conference of the Miners’ Federation, on 28 November 1930 in London, Cook continued the apology for the MacDonald government. Objective international economic conditions justify its policy and in any case the miners are dependent on the government and cannot act for themselves in the present situation. When the adjourned conference met again on 4 December, Cook went out of his way to defend the government, attack Communists and praise the Minister of Mines, Emanuel Shinwell:

These are the friends who have initiated these schemes and brought them to fruition, but it is only the beginning, it will be the end if you turn them down. Whatever may be the views of Mr. Shinwell, let me say this, he is a worker, he is not a shirker. No man has worked harder night and day to try to bring more revenue, some means of sustenance, some increased trade, some means of obtaining better wages for the people we represent ...

The Communists have sent out leaflets. We have played the Communist game. They want to destroy ... It is another revolution but it means destruction to our own people ... [95]

How sad – attacking Communists, attacking revolution, while praising MacDonald and Shinwell.

Alas, the miners would have to learn again the extent of MacDonald’s treachery. After a long discussion between representatives of the Miners’ Federation and representatives of the Cabinet, including Ramsay MacDonald, Emanuel Shinwell and Arthur Henderson, the government made it clear that it would not support a Minimum Wage Bill when the temporary Eight Hours Act of 1926 expired in 1931. Instead the government put the following proposal: the 7½-hour day with spread-over would continue for another twelve months, and that during this period wages in all the 7½-hour districts would not be reduced. This was put to two successive special conferences of the Miners’ Federation on 25 June and 2 July 1931. The Miners’ Federation EC bent to government pressure and decided to recommend the government’s proposals to the Conference. The EC won, but only after a very long and bitter argument.

To make it clear how bad the government proposals were, when a Bill incorporating them was moved by MacDonald in the House on 6. July, neither the Tories nor the Liberals opposed or amended it. Next day the Bill went through Committee in less than two hours and then was read a third time and passed. Next day the House of Lords agreed the Coal Mines Bill without opposition.

What was Cook’s behaviour throughout all these developments? When at the special conference of 19 March 1931 J. Williams of the Forest of Dean accused the Miners’ Federation EC of throwing away the 7-hour demand, it fell to Cook to deny it. [96] Cook went as far as to apologise for the Labour government’s opposition to the introduction of a Minimum Wage Bill. He said: ‘... unless the Government give a subsidy to pay the minimum wage, there would be no work in South Wales or elsewhere.’ And one must ‘appreciate the situation. Everything which could be done has been done.’ [97] The debate continued at the special conference of the MFGB on 2 July. Herbert Smith moved a resolution demanding from the Labour government a restoration of the 7-hour day as from 9 July 1931. Cook replied for the Executive: ‘... no man who has been through all the discussions has the right to say that the Government has let us down, because I declare as Secretary of this Federation, they have not let us down. They have done nothing to let us down ... It is no use saying what they ought to do. It is what they can do.’ [98]

The EC won the majority at the conference, but by less than two to one – 346 to 186. This time the opposition was not restricted to Yorkshire. After twenty months of Labour government it was now joined by South Wales, Cumberland and Forest of Dean.

Another embarrassing episode in Cook’s continuing decline was the support he gave to Ernest Bevin at the Trade Union Congress of September 1931 held in Bristol against those who argued that the workers should not pay for the crisis of capitalism by wage cuts or longer hours. This argument was put very well by G. Lumley of the Miners’ Federation:

Our immediate task is to prevent any reduction in the standard of life either of the employed workers or the unemployed workers ... We are told that it is because of the serious difficulties that confront the owning class of this country that ‘it is necessary to have drastic reductions in Unemployment Benefit as a prelude to a reduction in the wages of the working class. If that is actually the truth it can only mean one thing, that the capitalist class can only stabilise their system at the expense of the members of the working class, and if that is the case our duly as leaders of the working class movement in the country is to see to it that the capitalist class does not succeed in stabilising that system at our expense, and to take the necessary action to make it more difficult than ever for the capitalist class ever to be able to stabilise industry again.

Cook attacked Lumley:

If we could increase the wages by 1s a day we would do it, but to do it under the present capitalist system would shut up more pits ... There are those who blindly think that the way to destroy capitalism is to destroy the industries where the life of our men are invested ... What is the use of passing resolutions again and again against reductions [of wages] when you cannot prevent them because of the economics of our industry? Do not shut your eyes to the economics of your industry ... [99]

And imagine, these words were said after Ramsay MacDonald had already broken with the Labour Party. In August this happened, and he headed now a National government which in all but name was a Tory government.

On 2 November 1931 Cook died from cancer from which he had suffered for years. He died six days after the National government’s massive electoral victory.

In conclusion

Cook’s tragic life is a lesson on the limitations of industrial militancy. Deep attachment to the working class, incorruptibility, are very necessary, but not sufficient attributes, of an authentic workers’ leader. Cook’s loyalty to the miners did not prevent rifts arising again and again between him and them. In 1921 and 1924 deep cleavages opened up between Cook and the militant miners. In the five years between the defeat of the miners in 1926 and his death the cleavage turned into a yawning chasm.

These discords between Cook and the rank-and-file miners were caused, as we have tried to demonstrate throughout the present article, by Cook’s not being a member of a revolutionary workers’ party. Prior to the first world war he belonged to the syndicalist movement which was very amorphous, lacked theoretical clarity and definite organisational structure. Its anti-leadership concept, together with its looseness, meant that when any of its supporters became a full-time union official he was completely free from any democratic control by the rank and file. It is not an accident that in the 1920s many trade union bureaucrats were formerly militant syndicalists: Frank Hodges, founding member of URC became an extreme right-wing leader of the Miners’ Federation (and ended his life as director of several companies – colliery, iron and steel, chemicals, finance, etc, and a supporter of Spencerism); Robert Williams, General Secretary of the Transport Union, founding member of the CPGB, ended as a scab during Black Friday; A.B. Purcell, A.A. Swales, George Hicks, all three voted on the TUC General Council to end the General Strike. It goes without saying that it was not confined to the syndicalist movement to create leaders who started on the left and then moved to the extreme right. The struggle exhausts people, brings on nervous failures, causes consciousness to suffer from ideological confusion and decay. But where the individual is isolated from the support of a cohesive organisation the process of disintegration is bound to run free.

But could Cook not be prevented from sliding down the slippery slope of intellectual decay by being a fellow-traveller of the CPGB? Could it have helped him to stand up to the pressure of the trade union machine, and safeguard his ties with the rank and file? The answer is no.

First of all, fellow-travelling is not a stable relationship. We saw how Cook broke with the CP in 1921, and then distanced himself from it and the Minority Movement in 1924. The rift became deeper and permanent in the last few years of Cook’s life.

Secondly the CP itself was far from holding a consistent, critical attitude to the trade union bureaucracy. In July 1917 J.T. Murphy wrote, exaggerating the role of the rank and file vis-à-vis the leadership: ‘... the shop stewards’ duties do not involve leadership, as a matter of fact the whole movement is repudiation of leadership.’ Now, in 1922, the same J.T. Murphy swung round completely, arguing for an orientation on the union leaders – even right-wing leaders. He wrote: ‘Are 6 million Johnny Thomases easier to convert than one, or have you some grudge against a particular Jimmy Thomas that you wish one of them to be ignored?’ This was after Jimmy Thomas’s betrayal of the miners on Black Friday!

A year later, leading CP militant Harry Pollitt wrote: ‘A few leading men, if they would only see the opportunity before them, can at this moment achieve anything by coming together on a clear definite programme ...’ He went on to quote with approval the words of George Hicks, the ‘left’ General Secretary of the building workers’ union AUBTW: ‘What is needed are about half a dozen trusted men to draw up a programme ...’ [100]

In the years 1925–6 the CP acted as a left cover for the lefts on the General Council. It fell into unprincipled combination with Purcell, Swales and Hicks. It substituted diplomacy for honest revolutionary criticism of the trade union bureaucracy. After the catastrophic defeat of 1926 the CP leapt into ultra-leftism, ‘Third Period’ Stalinism, denouncing all and sundry as social fascists. This phenomenon of swinging from tail-ending to its opposite, adventurism, is not uncommon in history. And the hand of Moscow was heavy during both states and during the turn from one to the other.

Trotsky was absolutely right in making no concessions to any of the left bureaucrats, not even to Cook, who was the most radical of them. He always mentioned Cook in the same breath as Hicks, Purcell and the other lefts. For example on 5 March 1926 he wrote:

Both the rights and the lefts, including of course both Purcell and Cook, fear to the utmost the beginning of the denouement. Even when they in words admit the inevitability of struggle and revolution, they are hoping in their hearts for some miracle that will release them from these perspectives. And in any event they themselves will stall, evade, temporise, shift responsibility and effectively assist Thomas over any really major question of the British labour movement. [101]

In the final analysis the crisis of Cook was a crisis of his politics.

Let us be clear what we mean by politics. Not simply the recognition that workers in struggle come into conflict with the state–with the police practically always, and with the army sometimes. The active role of the police or army in a strike does not turn the strike into a political strike. Beating up of strikers by the police or the National Guard has been very common for a generation in the United States, where the political level of the working class is very low indeed. Proletarian politics, as Lenin explained, is concentrated economics, ie, it starts where workers go beyond sectional demands and come out as a class against the ruling class.

Political struggle and economic struggle are qualitatively different, although together they make a unity. They differ not only qualitatively, however, but also temporally. Economic struggle may weaken the political interests of workers for a certain time, and vice versa, a defeat of the industrial struggle may cause workers to turn to political struggle. This political activity may go in either a purely parliamentary, or otherwise an extra-parliamentary direction, depending on the concrete situation and the past experience of the masses, included in which the strength of a political revolutionary leadership is paramount.

No consistent working-class politics is possible without, or independent of, a revolutionary party. The trade unions as such cannot lead consistent working-class political struggle. Embracing masses of the working class, the trade unions reflect the unevenness that riddles the class, and the sectionalism that rends it. The structure of the unions reflects the structure of capitalism, thus both uniting workers and dividing them. Accordingly the MFGB did not include railwaymen and the NUR did not include miners. The unions contain both advanced workers and backward ones. Only in a period of revolutionary ferment does the working class achieve homogeneity; in ‘normal’ times it is very heterogeneous.

The revolutionary party must be rooted in the class but be a separate, cohesive disciplined unit of the class. Its aim is to lead the working class to power. To carry this mission it must win over the majority of the proletariat and lead its mass organisations, above all the trade unions. To achieve such influence, the party must lead in the day-to-day struggle to convince workers of the need to transform society. The party has to show the real relation between the struggle inside capitalism for reforms, and the struggle to overthrow capitalism, for revolution. The reformists are against revolution, and for reforms; except that quite often – when capitalism is in deep crisis – they oppose reforms in practice too. The syndicalists do not distinguish clearly between the struggle for reform and revolution. They subsume both under one heading – direct industrial action. Marxist revolutionaries are both for reforms and revolution, with a clear view that the achievement of reform, the deeper capitalism is in crisis, is a by-product of a revolutionary struggle. From the slogan ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ to become more than rhetoric, one must endeavour always to generalise the struggle, to involve the maximum number of workers, and to widen the issues raised. To go beyond the sectional and temporary struggle for reforms to the revolutionary transformation of society is the mission of the revolutionary party.

The task of the revolutionary party is to level up the consciousness of workers. It has to raise the confidence, enthusiasm, perseverance, and creativeness of workers. To do this the party has to be a cohesive, disciplined unit. Otherwise any passing mood in the class or section of the class will disorient it. The revolutionary party is a school for tactics and strategy of the class, the university of the class, bearer of revolutionary theory.

Cook gave himself completely to the cause of the working class. His tragedy was that he did not belong to a revolutionary party from which he could have got succour and to which he could have contributed his significant talents.


1. A. Horner, Incorrigible Rebel, London 1960, p. 72.

2. The Miner, 23 October 1926.

3. The Miner, 2 July 1926.

4. The Miner, 28 August 1926.

5. The Miner, 20 November 1926.

6. Sunday Worker, 6 June 1926.

7. Sunday Worker, 18 July 1926.

8. See the very good article by Mike Haynes, The British Working Class in Revolt: 1910–1914 in International Socialism 2 : 22.

9. M.C. Woodhouse, Rank and File Movements Among the Miners of South Wales, 1910–1926, DPhil, Oxford 1969, pp. 40–42.

10. L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol. I, New York 1945, p. 160.

11. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 34.

12. Rhondda Socialist, 1 May 1912, Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 74.

13. R. Page Arnot, South Wales Miners, 1898–1914, London 1967, p. 327n.

14. Unofficial Reform Committee, The Miners’ Next Step, first published 1911. New Edition London 1972, pp. 21–2.

15. Ibid., p. 27.

16. Ibid., p. 30.

17. Ibid., pp. 19–20.

18. P. Davies, The Making of A.J. Cook, His Development within the South Wales Labour Movement, 1900–1924, Llafur, Vol. II, No. 3, 1978, p. 44.

19. T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike, London 1986, p. 70.

20. South Wales Worker, 4 April 1914, Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 111.

21. South Wales Worker, 13 June 1914, Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 112.

22. R. Page Arnot, op. cit., pp. 380–1.

23. Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 130.

24. Porth Gazette, 13 August 1914, Davies, op. cit., p. 46.

25. A.J. Cook, The Awakening, Merthyr Pioneer, 5 April 1916, Davies, op. cit.

26. Ibid., p. 47: (The ‘comb out’ refers to conscription.)

27. Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 131.

28. Davies, op. cit., p. 46.

29. Woodhouse, op. cit., pp. 139, 142.

30. Davies, op. cit., p. 47.

31. Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 148.

32. The Pioneer, 13 July 1918, Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 149.

33. Davies, op. cit., p. 47.

34. MFGB Conference, 19 July 1922.

35. Davies, op. cit., p. 48.

36. A.J. Cook in Labour Monthly, November 1927, Davies, op. cit.

37. The Pioneer, 22 February 1919.

38. Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 150.

39. Ibid., pp. 183–4.

40. Ibid., pp. 109–1. When the CPBSTI merged with the CPGB in January 1921 Cook became a member of the latter.

41. Workers’ Dreadnought, 6 November 1920, Woodhouse, op. cit., pp. 204–5.

42. Rhondda Leader, 4 November 1920; A.J. Cook, The Great Awakening: The Coal Crisis and its Lesson, The Workers’ Bomb, November 1920, Davies, op. cit., pp. 51–2.

43. South Wales Miners’ Federation Special Conference, 30 June 1921.

44. Merthyr Pioneer, 1 October 1921, Davies, op. cit., p. 54.

45. Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 262.

46. All Power, September 1922.

47. All Power, December 1922.

48. MFGB Special Conference, 19 May 1924, pp. 25, 27, 29.

49. Workers’ Weekly, 30 May 1924.

50. Daily Herald, 11 October 1926.

51. J. Lawson, The Man in the Cap. The Life of Herbert Smith, London 1941, pp. 215–6.

52. H. Francis and D. Smith, The Fed, London 1980, p. 60.

53. MFGB Special Conference, 7 October 1926, p. 54.

54. V.I. Lenin, Works, Vol. 26, p. 135.

55. Ibid., Vol. 32, p. 327.

56. Quoted in W.H. Crook, The General Strike, North Carolina Press, 1931, pp. 295, 338–9.

57. The Miner, 23 October 1926.

58. T. Jones, Whitehall Diary, London 1969, Vol. II, pp. 13–16.

59. Report of Sub-Committee of MFGBEC (22 October 1928) re Cook’s 3 July 1926 Document, MFGB Conference, Blackpool July 1929, pp. 210–11.

60. Ibid., p. 182.

61. MFGB Special Conference, 30 July 1926, p. 46.

62. Ibid., pp. 16–21.

63. Ibid., pp. 37–9.

64. The Miner, 13 August 1926.

65. MFGB Special Conference, 16 August 1926, pp. 4, 44.

66. Ibid., pp. 36–7, 63.

67. MFGB Special Conference, 7 October 1926, pp. 35, 45.

68. Jones, op. cit., pp. 69, 73.

69. A.J. Cook, Nine Days, London 1926, p. 24.

70. The Miner, 26 June 1926.

71. Report of the TUC Bournemouth, September 1926, pp. 388–92.

72. Ibid., pp. 392, 420.

73. MFGB, Annual Volume of Proceedings for the Year 1926, pp. 250–1.

74. The Miner, 9 October 1926.

75. Labour Party Conference, Report 1926, pp. 167–72.

76. MFGB Annual Conference, Southport, 25 July 1927, p. 111. G.A. Spencer, Nottingham Labour MP, led a breakaway from the MFGB to establish the Miners’ Industrial Union at the end of the 1926. lockout. This union advanced a policy of cooperation with the coalowners. It had wide membership in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and East Midlands. But its influence was significant in other areas also, notably South Wales, where company unionism became a powerful force.

77. Ibid., pp. 35, 39.

78. Ibid., p. 166.

79. The Miner, 2 October 1926.

80. The Miner, 4 December 1926.

81. The Miner, 16 October 1926.

82. TUC, September 1927, p. 151.

83. Ibid., pp. 320–1, 336.

84. Ibid., pp. 358–70.

85. Sunday Worker, 22 January 1928, 29 January 1928.

86. MFGB Conference, Llandudno 1928, pp. 173, 110, 114.

87. Ibid., p. 135.

88. Horner, op. cit., p. 101.

89. TUC Congress 1928, pp. 143, 355, 361.

90. Ibid., p. 437.

91. Report of the MFGB EC of June 1929, The Relief of Distress, MFGB Conference, Blackpool, July 1929, pp. 199–201; and R. Page Arnot, The Miners. Years of Struggle, London 1953, pp. 534–5.

92. The Times, 19 April 1929.

93. MFGB 1929 Conference, Blackpool, p. 74.

94. MFGB 1930 Conference, Weston-super-Mare, pp. 94, 99–100.

95. MFGB Special Conference 1930, London, pp. 114–6.

96. MFGB Special Conference, 19 March 1931, p. 21.

97. Ibid., pp. 26, 37.

98. MFGB Special Conference, 2 July 1931, pp. 54–5, 57–68.

99. Trade Union Congress Report, September 1931, pp. 419–20, 423–4.

100. T. Cliff, Patterns of Mass Strike, International Socialism 2 : 29, p. 26.

101. L. Trotsky, Writings on Britain, Vol. II, p. 141.

Last updated on 9 August 2016