Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Fighting the rising Stalinist bureaucracy

8. The General Strike in Britain

The Anglo-Russian Committee

IN THE WINTER and spring of 1925, while Trotsky was recuperating in the Caucasus he wrote a book, Where is Britain Going? Just then the leadership of the Comintern was attaching great importance to a new link established between the Soviet and British trade unions.

A delegation of Russian trade unionists attended the Hull Congress of the TUC in September 1924, following which in November six delegates of the TUC went to Russia. These discussions resulted in an agreement to set up an Anglo-Russian Committee to work for international trade union unity. At a conference held in London the following April, a Joint Declaration was issued, and the Committee established. At the Scarborough TUC of September 1925 the policy was endorsed, and Tomsky was received as a fraternal delegate.

The Congress buzzed with revolutionary fervour. Alonzo Swales in his Presidential address said:

We are entering upon a new stage of development in the upward struggle of our class ... The new phase of development which is world-wide has entered upon the next and probably the last stage of revolt. It is the duty of all members of the working class so to solidify their movements that, come when the time may be for the last final struggle, we shall be wanting neither machinery nor men to move forward to the destruction of wage slavery and the construction of a new order of society based upon coordinated effort and work with mutual goodwill and understanding.

A large number of extreme left speeches and resolutions followed. The British Empire was condemned; the Dawes Plan for the reconstruction of Europe with American capital was opposed; plans for united work with the Russian trade unions were endorsed. The Communist Party’s Workers’ Weekly was very impressed with the proceedings:

The Congress was intent on its work from start to finish. When Swales delivered his opening speech the real temper of the Congress began to manifest itself. The more militant became the mood, the more the delegates responded to his fighting challenge. [1]

A general offensive by the mine owners was expected shortly, and the language of speeches and resolutions at the Congress seemed to indicate that the official union leaders were preparing for the showdown in a few months’ time.

Everyone looked to the General Council to give the lead ... In many places it was assumed that the General Council was secretly making the full preparations. The presence on the council of a left wing (comprising Purcell, Swales, Hicks, Tillet, Bromley and others) lent colour to this idea. [2]

It was against this background that Trotsky wrote his book Where is Britain Going? In essence it was directed against the Russian leadership’s mistaken hope that the General Council of the TUC would swing leftward under the influence of the Anglo-Russian Committee and that Communist influence would gradually transform the Labour Party.

The left turn of the British trade union leadership was very shallow. It was largely a result of the disgust felt throughout the trade union movement, even among the right wing of the bureaucracy, with the policies of the first Labour government of 1924. [3] The first months of 1924 saw a rash of strikes, principally in transport. Workers wanted to use the partial economic recovery and the existence of the government they themselves had elected to advance their position. But the MacDonald government acted as scabs.

The Comintern leadership, above all Zinoviev, was very impressed with the left phraseology of the TUC leaders. Zinoviev even came to the conclusion that in Britain the revolution could be victorious without the Communist Party playing a crucial role. At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern (June-July 1924), Zinoviev, referring to the leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain, such as Bob Stewart and Arthur MacManus, made this cryptic comment:

In England, we are now going through the beginning of a new chapter in the labour movement. We do not know whither the Communist Mass Party of England will come, whether only through the Stewart-MacManus door – or through some other door. And it is entirely possible, comrades, that the Communist Mass Party may still appear through still another door – we cannot lose sight of that fact. [4]

Zinoviev was looking for a short cut. By talking of this mysterious ‘other door’, he implied that a mass revolutionary party could be built by the current around the Labour and TUC lefts.

There followed a policy of manoeuvring and unprincipled flirting with the leaders of the TUC and the lefts of the Labour Party.

Where is Britain Going?

Trotsky’s book starts from a conviction that Britain was moving towards a social crisis of the first magnitude. The decline of British capitalism had been continuous since the end of the nineteenth century. Britain was squeezed by German capitalism, and since the First World War by that of the United States.

Britain today stands at a critical point ...

The powerful and ever-growing world pressure of the United States makes the predicament of British industry, British trade, British finance and British diplomacy increasingly insoluble and desperate ...

During the war the gigantic economic domination of the United States had demonstrated itself wholly and completely. The United States’ emergence from overseas provincialism at once shifted Britain into a secondary position. [5]

The decline of British industry and the strains in the empire added to the deepening crisis of British capitalism.

For a time Britain’s decline, accelerated by the First World War, was hidden by the disruption of the German economy. But Germany, aided by the United States, was now manifestly recovering its strength and reappeared as Britain’s most dangerous competitor in the world market.

The crisis of British capitalism showed itself at its most extreme in the coal industry. This old, technically backward industry was in sharp competition with the German mining industry. As Trotsky wrote elsewhere, in a letter of 5 March 1926:

The present miners’ wages are maintained by a subsidy from the state, burdening an already crippling budget. To continue the subsidy means to accumulate and deepen the economic crisis. To withdraw the subsidy means to produce a social crisis. [6]

Britain, Trotsky argued, was drifting into a massive industrial dispute in the mining industry.

With regard to the [future] miners’ strike, it is not of course a question of an isolated strike, however big it may be, but the commencement of a whole series of social conflicts and crises. [7]

The economic crisis would bring with it a sharp political crisis in the workers’ movement: a crisis of Labourism, of Fabianism.

The struggle for workers’ emancipation demanded a break with the traditional ideas that dominated workers’ thinking. Trotsky therefore launched a massive and brilliant assault on these traditions. The traditions, to which Trotsky returns again and again, could be summed up under four headings: religion, pacifism, gradualism and parliamentary democracy. All these in essence were one: submission to the ruling class.

Trotsky gave a brilliant analysis of Labourism, stripping it of its social pretensions and showing it to be dependent on the traditions of the Conservatives and Liberals. He pointed out its acceptance of the prevailing bourgeois ideas – its fetishism of religion, monarchy and empire, its insularity, its ignorance and narrow mindedness, and its pacifist hypocrisy while supporting the aims of state and empire. These difficulties were all sharply exposed:

The outlook of the leaders of the British Labour Party is a sort of amalgam of Conservatism and Liberalism, partly adapted to the requirements of the trade unions, or rather their top layers. All of them are ridden with the religion of ‘gradualness’. In addition they acknowledge the religion of the Old and New Testaments. They all consider themselves to be highly civilised people, yet they believe that the Heavenly Father created mankind only then, in his abundant love, to curse it, and subsequently to try, through the crucifixion of his own son, to straighten this highly knotty affair a little. Out of the spirit of Christianity there have grown such national institutions as the trade union bureaucracy, MacDonald’s first ministry and Mrs. Snowden. Closely tied to the religion of gradualness and the Calvinist belief in predestination is the religion of national arrogance. [8]

Trotsky then goes on to quote Ramsay MacDonald: ‘Socialism is based upon the gospels’. ‘It is an excellently conceived [sic] and resolute attempt to Christianise government and society’.

Trotsky’s polemic against Fabian pacifism is unsurpassed. He starts by quoting MacDonald:

Socialism does not believe in force ... Socialism is a state of mental health and not a mental sickness ... and therefore by its very nature it must repudiate force with horror. It fights only with mental and moral weapons.

And Trotsky comments:

MacDonald is against revolution and for organic evolution. He carries over poorly digested biological concepts into society. For him revolution, as a sum of accumulated partial mutations, resembles the development of living organisms, the turning of a chrysalis into a butterfly and so forth; but in this latter process he ignores just those decisive, critical moments when the new creature bursts the old casing in a revolutionary way.

Trotsky deflates the Fabians with sarcasm.

Even the chick which has taken shape in the egg has to apply force to the calcareous prison that shuts it in. If some Fabian chick decided out of Christian (or any other) considerations to refrain from acts of force the calcareous casing would inevitably suffocate it. British pigeon fanciers are producing a special variety with a shorter and shorter beak, by artificial selection. There comes a time, however, when the new offspring’s beak is so short that the poor creature can no longer pierce the egg-shell. The young pigeon falls victim to compulsory restraint from violence; and the continued progress of the short-beak variety comes to a halt. If our memory serves us right, MacDonald can read about this in Darwin. Still pursuing these analogies with the organic world so beloved of MacDonald, we can say that the political art of the British bourgeoisie consists of shortening the proletariat’s revolutionary beak, thereby preventing it from perforating the shell of the capitalist state. The beak of the proletariat is its party. If you take a glance at MacDonald, Thomas and Mr. and Mrs Snowden then it must be admitted that the bourgeoisie’s work of rearing the short-beaked and soft-beaked varieties has been crowned with striking success – for not only are these worthies unfit to break through the capitalist shell, they are really unfit to do anything at all. [9]

That the ruling class, faced with its overthrow, would resort to violence, was for Trotsky glaringly obvious, and the pacifism of the Labour leaders both stupid and harmful.

What does the renunciation of force in the final resort signify? Only that the oppressed must not adopt force against a capitalist state: neither workers against the bourgeoisie, nor farmers against landlords, nor Indians against the British administration and British capital. The state, constructed by the violence of the monarchy against the people, the bourgeoisie against the workers, the landlords against the farmers, by officers against soldiers, Anglo-Saxon slave owners against colonial peoples, ‘Christians’ against heathens – this bloodstained apparatus of centuries-long violence inspires MacDonald with pious reverence. He reacts ‘with horror’ only to the force of liberation. [10]

‘Gradualism’ can on the surface appear as slow progress, while in reality it is an adaptation to the existing order. Rejecting revolutionary force means complete surrender to the bourgeoisie, servility to the existing state, to bourgeois legality and force. It certainly does not mean opposing the bourgeois state’s violence in Britain and in the Empire.

Fabianism prided itself on its peculiar British tradition which was unadulterated with alien Marxism. Trotsky retorted that the Fabians cultivated only the conservative national traditions while completely overlooking their progressive strands.

From Puritanism the MacDonalds have inherited – not its revolutionary strand but its religious prejudices. From the Owenites – not their communist enthusiasm but their reactionary Utopian hostility to the class struggle. From Britain’s past political history the Fabians have borrowed only the spiritual dependence of the proletariat on the bourgeoisie. History has turned its backside on these gentlemen and the inscriptions they read there have become their programme. [11]

Trotsky goes on to consider the two major British revolutionary traditions: that of Cromwell and of the Chartists.

The British social crisis of the seventeenth century combined in itself features of the German Reformation of the sixteenth century with features of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. [12]

The Puritans rose magnificently to face the social crisis of the time.

Cromwell was a great revolutionary of his time, who knew how to uphold the interests of the new bourgeois social system against the old aristocratic one without holding back at anything. This must be learnt from him, and the dead lion of the seventeenth century is in this sense immeasurably greater than many living dogs.

... Cromwell was in no case a ‘pioneer of labour’. But in the seventeenth century drama, the British proletariat can find great precedents for revolutionary action ...

It can be with some justice said that Lenin is the proletarian twentieth-century Cromwell. [13]

The British proletariat should be inspired by Cromwell and his followers:

... the British proletariat should borrow this spirit of self-confidence and aggressive courage from the old Independents. The MacDonalds, Webbs, Snowdens and others have taken from Cromwell’s comrades-in-arms only the religious prejudices and combined them with a purely Fabian cowardice. The proletarian vanguard has to combine the Independents’ revolutionary courage with a materialist clarity of world-outlook. [14]

The working class movement of Britain has another great national tradition – Chartism.

The era of Chartism is immortal in that over the course of a decade it gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle – from petitions in parliament to armed insurrection. All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat – the interrelation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions and co-operation, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection, even the inter-relation between the proletariat and the peasantry – were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement, but found in it their principled answer. Theoretically this answer was far from always irreproachable in its basis. The conclusions were not always fully drawn, and in all the movement as a whole and its theoretical expression there was muck that was immature and unfinished.

But then Chartism was the rising movement of a young class.

It can be said that the Chartist movement resembles a prelude which contains in an undeveloped form the musical theme of the whole opera. In this sense the British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past but also its future ... Chartism did not win a victory not because its methods were incorrect but because it appeared too soon. It was only an historical anticipation. [15]

Trotsky goes on to deal with the nature of the trade union bureaucracy. He was very precise in locating the specific role of this bureaucracy in the political wing of reformism.

The Labour Party ... is only a political transposition of the ... trade union bureaucracy. The Labour Party and the trade unions – these are not two principles, they are only a technical division of labour. Together they are the fundamental support of the domination of the British bourgeoisie. [16]

The Fabian leadership of the Labour Party and bureaucracy of the trade unions were the greatest bulwarks of capitalism. Trotsky writes of the Fabian leaders:

These pompous authorities, pedants and haughty, high-falutin’ cowards are systematically poisoning the labour movement, clouding the consciousness of the proletariat and paralysing its will. It is only thanks to them that Toryism, Liberalism, the Church, the monarchy, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie continue to survive and even suppose themselves to be firmly in the saddle. The Fabians, the ILPers and the conservative trade union bureaucrats today represent the most counter-revolutionary force in Great Britain, and possibly in the present stage of development, in the whole world. [17]

Trotsky does not see any qualitative difference between the MacDonalds and the ‘Lefts’ – A. Purcell, G. Hicks, A.J. Cook.

The left wing of the Labour Party represents an attempt to regenerate centrism within MacDonald’s social-imperialist party. It thus reflects the disquiet of a part of the labour bureaucracy over the link with the leftward moving masses. It would be a monstrous illusion to think that these left elements of the old school are capable of heading the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat and its struggle for power. They represent a historical stage which is over. Their elasticity is extremely limited and their leftness is opportunist through and through. They do not lead nor are capable of leading the masses into struggle. Within the bounds of their reformist narrowness they revive the old irresponsible centrism without hindering, but rather helping, MacDonald to bear the responsibility for the party’s leadership and in certain cases for the destiny of the British Empire too.

The crucial task of the Communist Party is to fight the Labour leaders including the ‘Lefts’. They

convert the political feebleness of the awakening masses into an ideological mish-mash. They represent the expression of a shift but also its brake. [18]

The path of the Communist Party, as the future great party of the masses, lies not only through an implacable struggle against capital’s special agency in the shape of the Thomas-MacDonald clique but also through the systematic unmasking of the left muddleheads by means of whom alone MacDonald and Thomas can maintain their positions. [19]

A couple of years after the general strike Trotsky returned to dealing with the trade union bureaucracy.

If there were not a bureaucracy of the trade unions, then the police, the army, the courts, the lords, the monarchy would appear before the proletarian masses as nothing but pitiful ridiculous playthings. The bureaucracy of the trade unions is the backbone of British imperialism. It is by means of this bureaucracy that the bourgeoisie exists, not only in the metropolis, but in India, in Egypt and in the other colonies. [20]

A particularly unsavoury role is played by the Labour ‘Lefts’.

... the highest post in the mechanism of capitalist stabilisation is no longer occupied by MacDonald and Thomas, but by Pugh, Purcell, Cook and Co. They do the work and Thomas adds the finishing touches. Without Purcell, Thomas would be left hanging in mid-air and along with Thomas also Baldwin. The chief brake upon the British revolution is the false, diplomatic masquerade ‘Leftism’ of Purcell which fraternises sometimes in rotation, sometimes simultaneously with churchmen and Bolsheviks and which is always ready not only for retreats but also for betrayal. [21]

Trotsky brilliantly foresaw the pathetic role of the ‘Lefts’ in the coming General Strike. On 5 March 1926, two months before the General Strike, 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 in words they admit the inevitability of struggle and revolution they are hoping in their hearts for some miracle which 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. [22]

Trotsky saw through the tinsel and glitter of the 1925 Scarborough TUC Congress that had so mesmerised the leaders of the Communist Party of Great Britain as well as Zinoviev.

The resolutions of the congress were the more to the left the further removed they were from immediate practical tasks ... to think that the leading figures at Scarborough might become the leaders of a revolutionary overthrow of power would be to lull oneself with illusions ... It must be clearly understood: this sort of leftism remains only as long as it does not impose any practical obligation. As soon as a question of action arises the lefts respectfully surrender the leadership to the rights. [23] [1*]

Whatever the relative strength of the ‘Lefts’, the Rights were bound to direct them:

The rights win despite the fact that the lefts are more numerous. The weakness of the lefts arises from their disorder and their disorder from their ideological formlessness. [26]

This was written months before the betrayal of the General Strike on 13 May 1926 which so astounded British socialists.

The 1926 General Strike

The general strike of May 1926 was a watershed in the class struggle in Britain in the inter-war years. Its defeat was decisive for the working class, bringing to an end a long though not uninterrupted period of working class militancy, leading to a prolonged domination of the class-collaborationist right wing of the trade unions, and to entrenched right-reformist domination of the Labour Party.

By the mid-1920s the British ruling class as a whole wanted a readjustment of the economy. As in every capitalist crisis the working class was expected to pay the price. So in some ways the battle of 1926 was no unusual event. The system has always tried, and will always try to make the workers solve its problems. But the very depth of the crisis and scale of the struggle made 1926 exceptional. This was to be battle of Titans, with the ruling class ready to pit its combined economic, political and ideological batallions against the workers and their chief defensive organisations, the trade unions.

On 29 July 1925 Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the miners’ leaders ‘that the government would not grant any subsidy to the industry and that it must stand on its own economic foundations.’ [27]

Next day the Daily Herald reported a conversation between Baldwin and representatives of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain in which the Prime Minister twice insisted that ‘all the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet.’ [28]

On 30 July the mine owners announced that they would end the 1924 agreement, cut wages, abolish the national minimum, revise wage determination from national to district agreements, and maintain standard profits no matter how low wages fell. The same day a special conference of trade union delegates resolved unanimously that the movement should refuse to handle coal.

The next day Baldwin met the miners’ executive and a special committee of the TUC jointly. He explained that the coal owners had agreed to suspend lock-out notices, that a Royal Commission into the coal industry would be appointed, and that the government would, in the meantime, guarantee financial subsidies until 30 April 1926. This was ‘Red Friday’. Baldwin had no choice but to back off. As he told his biographer, G.M. Young, several years later: ‘We were not ready’. [29]

After ‘Red Friday’ the union leaders sat with folded arms, making no preparations for the future government and employers’ offensive against the miners. The historian Alan Bullock, in his biography of Ernest Bevin, writes:

In the seven months between [October 1925] and the crisis at the end of 1926 which led straight into the General Strike, the full General Council did not once discuss what was to happen when the government subsidy came to an end on 30 April nor concern itself with preparations for the support of the miners – apart, of course, from receiving the reports of the Special Industrial Committee in the normal course of its monthly meetings.

... the Industrial Committee took no more active steps than the General Council itself. It met twice between 1 October 1925 and 1 January 1926, resolving on the first occasion (25 October) to watch the course of events and meet again in 1926 ‘if circumstances warrant it’, and on the second occasion (18 December) not to seek additional powers as suggested at Scarborough. [30]

Throughout the nine months prior to 1 May 1926 the ‘Lefts’ on the General Council of the TUC showed not one iota more initiative than the right wingers. When on 1 May 1926 over one million miners were locked out the TUC reluctantly called a national strike.

From the beginning the TUC leaders made it clear that they intended to keep a tight grip on the strike. They took it upon themselves to decide who should stop work and who should not. Not all workers were called out. The TUC strategy was instead framed as a strike in ‘waves’ – one group of workers was to strike while others waited. Had all trade unionists been called out from the beginning the impact would have been far greater.

The interdependence of different sectors of industry made nonsense of the hastily cobbled together idea of separate waves. Notwithstanding the terrible leadership, throughout the nine days – 4-12 May – the strike was rock solid. Workers showed both massive enthusiasm and dogged determination. Everywhere the strike grew in power by the day. More and more of industry ground to a halt. As a matter of fact the bureaucracy was holding back floods of workers who wished to be involved. The chief problem the officials faced was not getting people out but keeping members at work. This was evidence of the really militant spirit of the workers. A large number of non-unionists went on strike when their unionised workmates came out.

During the strike the ‘Left’ union leaders tail-ended the Right. And the Communist Party tail-ended the ‘Lefts’. The central slogan of the Communist Party throughout the strike was, ‘All power to the General Council’! This slogan became a cover for the activities of the TUC leadership.

While the strike was going strong, behind the back of the workers the leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party were conspiring with government ministers and officials on how to end it. The secret negotiations started on the fourth day of the strike (7 May) and went on until the strike was brought to an end. Throughout, not only were the rank and file workers kept in the dark but the miners’ leaders too were lied to. On 12 May the strike was called off. This was a complete surrender. The decision to surrender was unanimous. The two miners’ representatives on the 32-strong General Council were absent (Tom Richards was ill and Robert Smillie stayed in Scotland to assist his members there).

The decision of the General Council to call off the strike was taken without consulting the miners. Only afterwards were the miners’ representatives notified of it. The ‘Lefts’ on the General Council behaved no differently to the Rights. Later Ben Turner, a right-winger on the General Council made this highly significant comment in a letter to the Communist Party-influenced Sunday Worker:

I don’t think you were just to the General Council of the TUC. You divided us into left-wingers and right-wingers [but] the absolute unanimity of the General Council in declaring the General Strike off did not divide us into left-wingers and right-wingers. [31]

The miners, abandoned, fought on alone for another six months.

After the end of the General Strike, the TUC ‘Lefts’ were brazen enough to pretend that the general strike had not been sold out at all. Thus on 13 June Purcell wrote in the Sunday Worker that the stoppage was merely a ‘preliminary encounter’ and,

more real working-class progress was made in those few days than has been made in as many years previously. Those who talk about the failure of the General Strike are mentally a generation behind the times in which we live. [32]

An even more startling rewrite of events came from the pen of Hicks in the same issue:

Was the General Strike a victory or defeat?

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

Of course the General Strike has been a success – a great victory. Those who talk about the General Strike being a failure and of the uselessness of the General Strike as a weapon must be living in a world of their own imagining. [33]

Trotsky’s reaction to the General Strike

On the third day of the General Strike Trotsky wrote:

The fundamental importance of the General Strike is that it poses the question of power point-blank ...

We must look facts in the face: the principal efforts of the official Labour Party leaders and of a considerable number of official trade union leaders will be directed not towards paralyzing the bourgeois state by means of the strike but towards paralyzing the General Strike by means of the bourgeois state.

What was necessary for the salvation of the strike was a radical change in leadership:

... success is possible only to the extent that the British working class, in the process of the development and sharpening of the General Strike, realises the need to change its leadership, and measures up to that task. There is an American proverb which says that you cannot change horses in mid-stream. But this practical wisdom is true only within certain limits. The stream of revolution has never been crossed on the horse of reformism, and the class which has entered the struggle under opportunist leadership will be compelled to change it under fire.

... An implacable struggle against every act of treachery or attempted treachery and the ruthless exposure of the reformists’ illusions are the main elements in the work of the genuinely revolutionary participants in the General Strike. [34]

The Communist leaders and the collapse of the General Strike

A half confession of error by the leadership of the CPGB followed the collapse of the General Strike.

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

Although we knew of what treachery the right-wing leaders were capable, we did not clearly understand the part played by the so-called left’ in the union leadership. In the main they turned out to be windbags and capitulated to the right wing. We were taught a major lesson; that while developing a move to the left officially, the main point in preparing for action must always be to develop a class-conscious leadership among the rank and file. [35]

The Workers Weekly, in aggrieved surprise, said:

We warned our readers of the weakness and worse of the right wing on the General Council – but here we confess that reality has far exceeded our worst forebodings ... The Communist Party had in fact consistently warned the workers that such was likely to happen, but even the Communist Party can be forgiven for not believing it to be possible that once the struggle had begun these leaders should have proved themselves such pitiful poltroons as to surrender at the very moment of victory. [36]

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

... most of the so-called left wing have been no better than the right. By a policy of timid silence, by using the false pretext of loyalty to colleagues to cover up breaches of loyalty to workers, they have left a free hand to the right wing and thus helped to play the employers’ game. Even now they have not the courage to come out openly as a minority in the General Council and join forces with the real majority – the workers – against the united front of Baldwin-Samuel-Thomas. [37]

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

apologists for the General Council ... aiders and abettors of the right-wing during the strike ... unashamed agents of the Trade Union Congress ... a set of phrase-mongers who had won easy fame as ‘revolutionaries’ on the issue of international trade union unity. [38]

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

The Comintern leadership did not indulge in any self-criticism – even semi-criticism – at all. It argued that it was clearly right, that if mistakes were committed it was because of defects in the national leadership in Britain.

Two months before the General Strike, a meeting of the Seventh Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International approved the policies adopted by the CPGB. In his opening speech Zinoviev said that the best results over the past year had been gained in Britain (and China). The policy of the CPGB showed how united front tactics should be used. [39]

Immediately after the General Strike the Comintern leadership started singing a new tune. Now the British Communist leaders were reprimanded for their failure to criticise the TUC openly and sharply enough.

To add to the muddle, Stalin, at a meeting in Tiflis on 8 June, while referring to the leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party as ‘downright traitors or spineless fellow-travellers of the traitors’, nevertheless affirmed that the attitude of the CPGB was absolutely correct throughout, one of the reasons for its failure in the strike being that it enjoyed little prestige among British workers.

Stalin continued to argue the crucial need to preserve the Anglo-Russian Committee. In July 1926 at a joint Plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission he said:

The ... task of the [Anglo-Russian Committee] is to organise a broad movement of the working class against new imper­ialist wars in general, and against intervention in our country by (especially) the most powerful of the European imperialist powers, by Britain in particular.

... if the reactionary trade unions of Britain are prepared to join with the revolutionary trade unions of our country in a bloc against the counter-revolutionary imperialists of their country, why should we not welcome such a bloc? [40]

(Trotsky’s comment on these words was sharp and to the point: ‘Stalin cannot understand that were the “reactionary trade unions” capable of waging a struggle against their own imperialists, they would not be reactionary trade unionists.’) [41]

For months after the general strike not a word of criticism was made of the CPGB by the Comintern. However, six months later there was a change. In December the ECCI criticised the Central Committee of the CPGB for a tendency to tone down its attack on the General Council, including its left wing. Bukharin endorsed this criticism in his opening speech to the Plenum of the ECCI: the CPGB was not consistent and severe enough in its criticism of the ‘left’ leaders. [42]

On every major question in British politics preceding the General Strike Trotsky offered by far the best approach. His brilliant characterisation of the intellectual shallowness, religiosity and vacillating nature of the MacDonalds and Thomases is as fresh today as it ever was. Furthermore, it is just as appropriate to their modern equivalents as it was in 1925 and 1926. Trotsky saw straight through the seeming differences between these right-wing reformists and the more left sounding George Lansbury in the Labour Party or union leaders such as Cook, Purcell and Hicks. Beneath the appearance he divined the common reformist and bureaucratic traits.

Though incorrect in some details, Trotsky’s penetrating analysis overcame the great geographical distance and paucity of information which cut him off from Britain. [2*]

His skill came from the depth of his Marxism. Unlike so many who were caught up in the degeneration of the Russian revolution, Trotsky kept a firm grasp of the two fundamental lessons of Bolshevism – that a victorious struggle depended on the leadership which only a revolutionary party could offer, and that the emancipation of the working class could not come through bureaucrats, however radical they might sound, but only through the activity of the working class itself. There was no other way, however much the Communist Party leaders in London and Moscow would have preferred it. [44]

After the formation of the United Opposition Zinoviev, after further vacillation, agreed with Trotsky that the bloc of the Soviet trade unions with the British General Council should be broken. Unfortunately some in Trotsky’s own wing, like Karl Radek, still opposed the break-up of the Anglo-Russian Committee.

The ARC Lingers on to Death

Even after the debacle of the General Strike and defeat of the miners, Stalin and Bukharin continued with the policy of a bloc between the top circles of the Soviet trade unions and the General Council. Meetings of the ARC continued to take place – in Paris in July 1926, in Berlin in the following month and in April 1927. On his return from the last meeting Tomsky, the leader of the Russian delegation, reported that all the decisions were unanimous and that the enemies of the working class, who hoped for the dissolution of the ARC, were disappointed. His report was approved by the Russian trade union council. The principal decision had been won on non-intervention in each others’ affairs. The ARC had nothing to say about the British government note of 28 February 1927 to the Soviet government that carried the threat of a rupture of diplomatic relations; or about the British navy bombardment of Nanking.

Finally, in September 1927 the TUC decided to break up the ARC. The same Congress decided to enter into a period of close collaboration with the employers, under the Mond-Turner agreement.


1*. Elsewhere Trotsky pointed out: ‘In Marx’s era the trade unionists used to adopt radical resolutions in regard to Poland, but put the question of Ireland and India quite differently’. [24]

Now the ‘Lefts’ showed great sympathy for the Soviet Union. Trotsky was very shrewd in explaining this: ‘... in the sympathies of many lefts for the Soviet Union (alongside hostility towards their own communists) there is contained a good deal of the deference of the petty bourgeois towards a strong state power ... one cannot build revolutionary perspectives on such a deference’. [25]

2*. One important prediction of Where is Britain Going? proved completely wrong. Trotsky wrote:

‘A certain analogy would appear to arise between the fate of the Communist and Independent [ILP] parties. Both the former and the latter existed as propaganda societies rather than parties of the working class. Then at a profound turning in Britain’s historical development the Independent party headed the proletariat. After a short interval the Communist Party will, we submit, undergo the same upsurge. [Therefore] the Communist Party will occupy the place in the Labour Party that is at present occupied by the Independents.’ [43]

In no sense did Trotsky suggest that the Communist Party and ILP shared common politics, and the witch hunt of Communists which took off just after Trotsky wrote the book soon put paid to any idea that revolutionaries could lead from inside the Labour Party.


1. Workers Weekly, 18 September 1925.

2. R. Page Arnot, The General Strike, London 1926, p.66.

3. See T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, The Labour Party, a Marxist History, London 1988, Chapter 5.

4. International Trade Union Unity, London 1925, p.18.

5. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol.2, London 1974, pp.4, 6, 9.

6. Ibid., p.140.

7. Ibid., p.142.

8. Ibid., p.36-7.

9. Ibid., pp.51-2.

10. Ibid., p.46.

11. Ibid., p.39.

12. Ibid., p.92.

13. Ibid., pp.85-7.

14. Ibid., p.105.

15. Ibid., pp.93-4.

16. Ibid., p.248.

17. Ibid., p.57..

18. Ibid., p.128.

19. Ibid., p.153.

20. Ibid., p.248.

21. Ibid., p.245.

22. Ibid., p.141.

23. Ibid., pp.138-9.

24. Trotsky, Challenge (1926-27), p.196.

25. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol.2, p.140.

26. Ibid., p.138.

27. Page Arnot, p.34, quoted in T. Cliff and D. Gluckstein, Marxism and the Trade Union Struggle. The General Strike of 1926, London 1986, p.129.

28. Ibid., p.35, Cliff and Gluckstein, op. cit., p.129.

29. Quoted in G.M. Young, Stanley Baldwin, London 1951, p.99; Cliff and Gluckstein, op. cit., p.130.

30. A. Bullock, Ernest Bevin, London 1960, Vol.1, pp.289-90 in Cliff and Gluckstein, op. cit., p.170.

31. Sunday Worker, 23 May 1926, Cliff and Gluckstein, op. cit., pp.246-7.

32. Sunday Worker, 13 June 1926, Cliff and Gluckstein, op. cit., pp.258-9.

33. Ibid..

34. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol.2, pp.144-6.

35. G. Hardy, Those Storm Years, London 1956, p.188.

36. Workers Weekly, 21 May 1926.

37. Workers Weekly, 13 May 1926.

38. Report, Theses and Resolutions of the Eighth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Battersea, 16-17 October 1926, p.12; Cliff and Gluckstein, Marxism and the Trade Unions, pp.278-9.

39. Degras, Vol.2, p.262.

40. Stalin, Works, Vol.8, pp.193-4.

41. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol.2, p.227.

42. Degras, Vol.2, p.314.

43. Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol.2, pp.118-9.

44. Cliff and Gluckstein, Marxism and the Trade Unions, p.155.

Last updated on 31 July 2009