Paul Foot

‘An Agitator of the Worst Type’

A portrait of miners’ leader A.J. Cook

(January 1986)

Originally published as a pamphlet in January 1986 by the Socialist Workers party.
Based on a talk given at the Socialist Workers Party Easter Rally, Skegness, April 1985.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

IT WAS a sunny morning in June 1924, and the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, Fred Bramley, had had a good breakfast. He settled down comfortably at his desk to read the Daily Herald, which, in a sort of way, he owned. On the front page he read something which propelled him out of his chair and down the passage to the office of his assistant general secretary, Walter Citrine.

‘Have you seen who’s been elected secretary of the Miners’ Federation,’ he bawled. ‘Cook! A raving tearing Communist. Now the miners are in for a bad time.’ [1]

Who was this raving, tearing Communist who had caused such consternation in the upper echelons of the TUC, and whose election at 39 as leader of one of the largest and most powerful trade unions on earth had shocked the press and the government?

Arthur James Cook was born at Wookey in Somerset in 1885, the son of a soldier. He had worked for a short time on a farm but before long had moved with thousands of other farmworkers into the pits of South Wales. From his earliest youth, he had taken a keen interest in what went on about him, and cared about it. Perhaps, he concluded, God would put it all right. He became a teacher in the Baptist Youth, and by the age of eighteen had reached the rank of deacon.

On his first day in the pits, a fall of rock killed the man working next to him, and young Arthur had to drag the body to the surface. The conditions in the pits soon persuaded him that heaven would have to wait. What mattered immediately was a better life on earth, and under it. In 1905 he joined the Independent Labour Party, and campaigned vigorously for Labour candidates in the 1906 election.

Soon he was moving fast to the left. The newly-elected Liberal government did little to curb the greed of the coal-owners. The gap between the hard and dangerous work of the miners and the huge surplus wealth of the owners did not seem to play a part in the official politics which he encountered. The socialism of the ILP seemed to have no contact with the hard and bitter struggle fought by the men around him. A new political creed was sweeping the South Wales coalfield at the time. It was called syndicalism. Its advocates argued that the power of the workers to organise or disrupt their own production – their power to strike – was the only power which the owners were likely to recognise: the only power which might change the miners’ conditions and the only power which could eventually change society.

The new power was anathema to the new Labour leaders, who called for voting instead of striking. Ramsay Macdonald, who later became leader of the Labour Party, wrote a furious attack on syndicalism. He grudgingly admitted that its roots, though weak in the rest of the country, were strong and deep in the South Wales coalfield. Macdonald noted that when ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, the American socialist leader, came to Britain to preach his brand of anarcho-syndicalism, the only place he got a really good reception was South Wales. His ideas had already been sown by another foreign influence: by the Spanish immigrant workers brought into the Merthyr area by the ironmasters in 1907. They were brought in as blacklegs, but they proved a constant menace to the coal-owners and the ironmasters with their sharply-defined anarcho-syndicalist ideas and their enthusiasm for strikes.

In 1911, the young Cook went to the Central Labour College in London, where his half-formed ideas were given new force by books and lectures. He had to cut short his time there by a year – chiefly because the owners threatened to evict his family unless he paid the rent – but by the time he left, he was a convinced Marxist, and a lifelong supporter of independent working-class education.

At college he read the brilliant pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step, written by his fellow rank-and-file miners in South Wales. The pamphlet – one of the landmarks in our trade union literature – exposed the treacherous role which the union leaders had played in the struggle with the coal-owners. Its answer was to reform the Miners’ Federation, to bring the power of officials much more firmly to heel, and to place the union and the people who ran it under the control of the rank and file.

The pamphlet had a profound effect on the young Arthur Cook. In 1913 he resigned from the ILP, and joined instead the South Wales Socialist Society, which talked a militant working-class politics far more to his liking. When the First World War began the following year, most miners didn’t go to the slaughter in the trenches, since coal was vital to the war effort. Cook was against the war – and, after 1917, for the Russian Revolution.

As the war ended, he was arrested for sedition, apparently for advocating revolution in connection with the food shortages of early 1918. The highest tribute to him came from John Williams, deputy chief constable of Glamorgan, who had been following him about like a sniffer dog. ‘Cook,’ Williams declared in one of his frequent letters to the Home Office, ‘is an agitator of the worst type and has been the cause of the major portion of labour unrest in this district since 1913.’

The agitator spent three months in prison for that offence, which didn’t spoil his chances in the various elections he fought for officials’ places in the union after the war. He fought on the ideas and principles of The Miners’ Next Step. If he won an election, he promised, he would seek to make his office part of the rank-and-file struggle for better conditions and a better society.

This strategy fitted the mood of the South Wales miners after the war. In 1919 Cook was elected secretary of the Rhondda No.1 Lodge by 18,230 votes to 17,531. It was a narrow victory, but until then Cook had been virtually unknown in official union circles. The position in the Rhondda gave him a platform – and a springboard into neighbouring areas, where he started to use his powers as a preacher to the full. ‘With uplifted arms,’ a contemporary account records in 1920, ‘he warned his hearers of the coming revolution.’

In 1921 he played a vigorous role during the Great Lock-out imposed by the coal-owners, which the miners lost on ‘Black Friday’. In losing the battle, Cook seemed for a moment to lose his confidence, and started to prevaricate about workers’ power.

This upset the small Communist Party, which had been formed from the various revolutionary socialist parties in 1920. Cook joined the Communist Party at the beginning of the lock-out, but left a few months later after being called to the militant Maerdy lodge to answer for his apparent ‘vacillations’ at the end of the lock-out.

In its obituary of Cook ten years later, the Communist Party paper The Daily Worker claimed that Cook had been expelled. He was not. It was far more likely that he left the party with the party’s explicit permission. For A.J. Cook was already a considerable figure in the South Wales coalfields, and his progress would certainly have been hindered by formal party membership.

Certainly, everything he did in the next two years had the full approval of the Communist Party. He campaigned for the Miners’ Federation to break with the British Trades Union Congress and join the Red International of Labour Unions, a revolutionary breakaway organised from Russia. The South Wales miners voted to join the RILU, though the proposal was lost in the Federation at large. Soon afterwards, the Communist Party took the lead in forming the Miners Minority Movement, a rank-and-file movement among miners devoted to clearing out the federation’s traditional leadership and building unity with workers in other industries.

The Minority Movement was tested in fire almost before it was fully formed. Frank Hodges, the secretary of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, was elected an MP in the 1924 General Election. To his surprise and disgust, he was told he could no longer be secretary of the Federation if he insisted on taking his seat. He went to parliament, and resigned the secretaryship.

The succession was keenly fought. A.J. Cook was almost unheard of outside South Wales, and in South Wales itself he had the keenest fight of all, winning the nomination there by only a handful of votes out of 150,000. The Minority Movement campaigned hard for Cook all over the coalfields. When he won, again by a small majority, there were many, including Fred Bramley at the TUC, who were amazed. Men like Bramley, not for the first time, had misjudged the mood in the coalfields. It was hardening with every month.

As soon as A.J. Cook got into the MFGB offices at Russell Square he announced that expenses and perks for the secretary were forthwith abolished. He made it clear that he would not accept fees for any speech made anywhere because of his position. Then he set about the most striking innovation of all. Every weekend, he announced, he would speak in the coalfields about the miners and the working-class movement.

These decisions were shocking enough to the stout-hearted and stout-bellied gentlemen at the TUC, but worse was to follow. Wherever he went, Cook made it clear that he stood uncompromisingly for class war. The Daily Mail of 21 June 1924, a few days after his election, reported:

‘Mr A.J. Cook, the secretary of the Miners’ Federation, was the guest of a social evening held by the Holborn Labour Party at 16 Harpur Street, Theobalds Road, WC, last night. Mr Cook said that Mr J.H. Thomas and Mr Tom Shaw had no political class consciousness, and that the Labour leaders and trade union leaders were square pegs in round holes. He was glad to find some Red Socialists in London. He hoped he would find more later. Mr Cook added: “I believe solely and absolutely in Communism. If there is no place for the Communists in the Labour Party, there is no place for the Right Wingers. I believe in strikes. They are the only weapon”.’

With quotations like that ringing in the ears of the Labour leaders, Arthur Cook set off for the series of weekend meetings in the coalfields which went on all the way to the General Strike and beyond. This was one of the most extraordinary agitations in the history of the British working class movement. Old miners today still remember the impact of these huge meetings, to which Cook would often speak two or three times over, so that all could hear.

What was it about the man which made him so electric and compelling a speaker? Middle-class commentators of the time could not understand it. Beatrice Webb, who met him during the General Strike, was not impressed. She wrote in her diaries:

‘He is obviously overwrought, but, even allowing for this, it is clear he has no intellect and not much intelligence. He is a quivering mass of emotions, a mediumistic magnetic son of creature not without personal attractiveness – an inspired idiot, drunk with his own words, dominated by his own slogans.’

I read that quotation during the 1984-5 miners’ strike in The Guardian, whose industrial correspondent, as though to appease the intellectual snobbery of that paper’s readers, applied it freely to Arthur Scargill. Its tone and purpose was aptly satirised by John Scanlon, who published a book in 1930 called, rather prematurely, The Decline and Fall of the Labour Party. ‘It was noticed, too,’ wrote Scanlon, ‘that when Mr Cook addressed meetings, he did not hold the lapels of his jacket as all good statesmen do. Mr Cook took his jacket off.’

A better description of the ‘mediumistic magnetic sort of person’ came from someone who was much closer to him: Arthur Horner. Horner’s response to the declaration of war in 1914 was to leave his pit – Maerdy in South Wales – and cross the sea to Ireland to fight in the Irish Citizens’ Army against the British. This won him two years in prison on his return, but the miners of Maerdy never lost their respect for him. While he was in prison, he was elected checkweighman for the No.1 pit and thus ensured of employment there on his release.

Arthur Horner was a founder member of the Communist Party, and an enthusiastic agitator for the Miners Minority Movement. He knew Cook from his earliest youth.

‘I never lost my admiration for him,’ wrote Horner in his autobiography. ‘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 many 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 meetings. They would applaud and nod their heads 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 they were suffering.’ [2]

What was the consistent theme of Cook’s speeches in that year from the summer of 1924 to the summer of 1925? He warned that coal exports were falling and that the coal-owners would try once again to make the miners pay. The owners wanted longer hours and shorter pay.

Another 1921 was coming, he predicted. It would be much tougher and more brutal than last time. The workers must prepare their forces for it. They must learn the lessons of 1921, chief among which was the failure of the ‘Triple Alliance’ – or ‘Cripple Alliance’, as it had proved itself – between coal, steel and transport unions. Next time, there must be unity. Transport workers, especially those on the railways who moved coal, needed to be alerted now, and prepared for struggle.

Though Horner had said that the meetings were mainly of miners, other workers, especially railwaymen, started to flock to them. There’s no doubt at all that Cook’s campaign in the coalfields for those twelve months had a lot to do with the trade union’s answer to the coal-owners, when, as Cook predicted, they posted their lockout notices and their demands for lower pay and longer hours.

ON 31 JULY 1925, the unions announced that if the owners persisted with their lock-out in the pits, not a cobble of coal would be moved by road or rail. So determined was the answer that the Tory government stepped into the breach, offering the coal-owners a nine-month subsidy, pending a public inquiry (which would of course be packed with friends of the owners).

Red Friday! Arthur Cook was jubilant. He called it ‘the greatest day for the British working class for thirty years’. But he warned that this was an ‘armistice’, not a victory.

He urged the workers to prepare for the counter-attack of the employers and the government. Off he went once more on another round of meetings, this time armed with another weapon. In the autumn of 1925, the Communist Party had launched a new paper whose purpose was to attract and organise left-wing socialists who were not in the party and were unlikely to join it. They called it the Sunday Worker. It was edited by a Communist Party member, but its tone and orientation were quite different to that of the Workers’ Weekly, the party’s official paper. For at least three years it became almost synonymous with A.J. Cook, and hardly an issue was published without a long interview with him or article by him.

Week after week, he called on the workers to prepare. But the TUC leaders – notably J.H. Thomas, Ernest Bevin and Arthur Pugh – were terrified of what would happen if the whole trade union movement got engaged in open class war with an elected government. As the coal-owners and government prepared for class battle, and as A.J. Cook urged the workers towards it, the other trade union leaders got ready to fly the field.

Alone on the left, Cook suspected his colleagues. When the coal-owners again posted their lock-out notices and a General Strike was called in support of the miners by a conference of trade-union executives on 30 April 1926, the other miners’ leaders left for the coalfields to prepare. But Cook stayed behind in Russell Square. He was suspicious.

Late that night he tried to get hold of the TUC leaders. He found, not altogether to his surprise, that they were in Downing Street – without the miners’ representatives – seeking to call the General Strike off before it was started. He rushed to Downing Street, cornered the leaders in a waiting room, and denounced them. As the argument raged, a messenger came in from the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. The government was not prepared even to discuss a sell-out. They did not believe a General Strike could be called. They had all gone home to bed.

So the General Strike started. The workers responded with a solidarity and an enthusiasm which amazed the government and terrified the TUC. After nine days, the government called the union leaders back – again without the miners – and suggested to them that the time had come for them to call the strike off. They agreed at once. Not a single concession was granted. The miners would still have to work longer hours for less pay, and conform to district agreements. By now, however, the TUC leaders were not concerned with the issue. They were horrified at the threat to the very powers which gave them credibility and self-importance. As J.H. Thomas put it, in a famous phrase: ‘If it came to a fight between the strike and the constitution, heaven help us unless the government won.’

The miners, of course, could have nothing to do with the settlement. They were forced to stay on strike – locked out on impossible terms – after the rest of the movement had collapsed. Cook’s worst fears that the unity and solidarity between miners and other workers might be broken had been realised.

His first task, then, was to set the record straight about the General Strike. He did so in a magnificent pamphlet, The Nine Days. The pamphlet is comparable in many ways with Karl Marx’s famous pamphlet on the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France. More scholarly works have been written, of course, on the Commune and on the General Strike. But the two pamphlets are hot with the struggle of the times. They are written at the time and for it. The Nine Days’ opening paragraph goes straight to the point:

‘Ever since last July when “Red Friday” wiped out the stain of “Black Friday” and brought joy to the heart of every worker, the capitalist class of Britain, backed by a strong Tory government, has been preparing to retrieve its position; while many of the Labour leaders, almost afraid of the growing power of Labour industrially, knowing the activities of the government and their preparations, remained inactive.’

Cook argued that the entire capitalist system was paralysed by the General Strike. ‘A few days longer’ and the coal-owners would have been forced to concede. The victory would have given a magnificent boost to British Labour and to Labour throughout the world.

But the victory had been thrown away by people whose only desire seemed to be to call off the strike.

All profits from The Nine Days went to the Miners’ Wives and Children Fund, for the miners were now entrenched in a life-and-death struggle for the whole future of their union.

During the 1984-5 miners’ strike we were used to saying that this was the biggest struggle in all European and American history. In terms of time, of course, that is true. But in terms of the numbers of people involved, the lock-out of 1926 beats everything else hollow. In 1984-5, 150,000 miners were on strike (at most) for a year. But in 1926 there were nearly a million miners. There were more miners in South Wales then than there are now in the entire country. Coal was more important to the running of the country then: there were no nuclear power stations, and no power generated from the use of oil.

Little has been written of those ferocious seven months from the end of the General Strike to the end of the lock-out. Most history books – even those which support the workers – devote pages and pages to the General Strike, and then announce that ‘the miners struggled on for seven months to inevitable defeat.’

Perhaps they will write that way about 1984 and 1985. At the time, though, it didn’t feel like that. Nor did it in 1926.

Reading the Sunday Worker for those months of 1926, in fact, it is uncanny how often the echo calls down the years. So many features were the same: the early confidence and enthusiasm; the importance of the communal kitchens; the emancipation of the women. Again and again, the paper pays tribute to the ‘astonishment’ of the miners’ leaders and supporters at the role of the women in the pit communities. ‘Half my meetings are women,’ said Herbert Smith, the miners’ president. ‘They are always the toughest half.’ Arthur Cook found himself, to his surprise, giving interviews to the Sunday Worker about birth control and women’s suffrage, subjects in which he had not shown the slightest interest before the strike.

Then there were the bad things: the flooding of the coalfields with police from outside forces; the mass arrests; the discrimination against miners’ families by the Board of Poor Law Guardians (the equivalent of the DHSS); the revenge of judges and magistrates – and of course the press, which Cook described as ‘the most lying in the world’.

The press had hated Cook ever since he was first elected. Now, in the full flow of the lock-out, they brought out all the tricks of the trade to damage him. Their tactic was familiar to us. By use of demonology – the study of the devil – they sought to detach the miners’ leader from the miners. All Cook’s qualities were described as characteristics of the devil. His passionate oratory became demagogy; his unswerving principles became fanaticism; his short, stooping stature became the deformity of some gnome or imp. In particular, Cook’s independence of mind and thought was turned into its opposite . He was the tool of others, the plaything of a foreign power – for Cook himself had provided his tormentors with the identity of his ‘controllers’.

Typical of the ruling-class agitation at the time was a London meeting held on 9 June 1926, only a month into the lock-out. The speaker was Sir Henry Page Croft, a right-wing Tory MP who had confessed himself ‘greatly interested’ in the ‘new experiments’ in power in Italy under the aegis of that country’s new leader, Benito Mussolini. Sir Henry summed up the campaign against Cook in a fiery speech, fully reported (with all the reactions to it) in the Morning Post.

‘I want to warn you most seriously that the government of Russia is making war on this country daily,’ Sir Henry said. ‘Mr Cook,’ he went on (cries of ‘Shoot Him!’, ‘Lynch Him!’) ‘has declared that he is a Bolshevik and is proud to be a humble disciple of Lenin. He is treating the miners of this country whom we all respect and honour (Cheers!) as cannon fodder in order to achieve his vainglorious ambitions.’ [3]

Those cries of ‘Shoot Him!’, ‘Lynch Him!’ were not just extravagances shouted out in the heat of the moment. The Home Secretary, a specially nasty specimen called Sir William Joynson-Hicks, had let it be known that although of course he was firmly in favour of law and order and was absolutely against any form of violence, he would not take it too hard if someone gave Mr Cook a taste of his own medicine.

Patriots and leaders of the master race therefore came together and plotted violence against the miners’ leaders. Wherever Cook went, he was under threat from some bold band of ex-officers or fascist oafs. At one meeting such a group did corner him at the foot of a platform and smashed his leg against it. The injury was a source of constant pain for the rest of his life.

Yet the press campaign was a complete failure. Throughout the seven months, the loyalty and admiration for Cook among the miners and supporters grew. Ellen Wilkinson, then a young left-wing Labour MP, wrote: ‘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.’ [4]

A woman signing herself Mrs Adamson went even further: ‘Cook is trusted implicitly. The malicious attacks of the capitalist Press only serve to strengthen the loyalty the miners and their wives feel for him.’ [5]

There was dramatic proof of this in South Wales. ‘The Western Mail, published in Cardiff, put the coalowners’ case more blatantly than any other newspaper in the country, and Bevan was particularly affronted when it made a vicious, and, as he believed, obscene attack on A.J. Cook. He therefore organised a huge procession to Waumpound, the mountain between Ebbw Vale and Tredegar, where copies of the Western Mail were solemnly burned and buried, Bevan delivering the funeral oration. He also had the paper banned from the Tredegar library.’ [6]

IN SPITE of all this loyalty, in spite of the women, in spite of the tremendous solidarity among workers all over the country symbolised by the miniature miners’ lamps dangling from peoples’ lapels, the owners had the whip in their hand, and they used it. An ominous phrase creeps into the Sunday Worker as early as 22 August: ‘Reports of a drift back to work are greatly exaggerated’.

They were exaggerated, but still there was a drift back to work. By the end of August, 80,000 miners were back – less than 10 per cent of the total. 60,000 of those men were in two areas, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. A Notts Labour MP sponsored by the miners, George Spencer, was trying to organise a separate return to work, and, eventually, a separate union. Spencer followed the press by appealing to the Notts miners about Cook’s political views. At the Miners’ Federation conference in September he demanded to know whether the ‘views of revolution’ spoken by A.J. Cook were the views of the Federation. Cook replied: ‘I am in Mansfield next week. Come and ask me there.’ Spencer was thrown out of the conference as a blackleg.

Yet the situation in Nottinghamshire was desperate. A.J. Cook set up a special headquarters there and rushed from meeting to meeting. He was like a beaver desperately trying to dam the flood. When he spoke, in, say, Hucknall, thousands of miners who had gone back to work would openly pledge to rejoin the strike. They would do so, perhaps for two or three days, and then, bowed down by shame and hunger, would drift back to work.

As Cook felt the tide ebbing away from him (as he had always expected it would do) he redoubled his efforts to win the key to victory: solidarity from other trade unionists, especially transport workers. He wrote anxious letters to Bromley, the engine drivers’ leader, and to Cramp and Thomas of the National Union of Railway-men. Some industrial production was being maintained, he pointed out, because foreign coal and scab coal was being shifted round the country by rail. An embargo on ‘black coal’ (as he called it, rather absurdly) would stop the owners.

The replies were as blunt as ever. The railwaymen had ‘done their bit’ during the General Strike. The General Strike had now been called off, and the union leaders could not see their way to protecting their own members if they were victimised for helping the miners. Thus throughout the seven months there was not a single gesture of strike solidarity for the miners from transport trade unionists.

Cook never stopped making the point. He enrolled the Labour Research Department, newly-formed under the influence of the Communist Party, to provide the figures for the workers to show just how huge a dent the miners had made in the side of British capital. In October, the LRD published The Coal Shortage: Why the Miners Will Win, with a foreword by A.J. Cook.

The effect of the strike on the economy, the pamphlet showed, was catastrophic. Pig iron production, which had averaged 538,000 tons a month from January to April, was down to 14,000 tons in August. Steel production, 697,000 tons a month from January to April, had slumped to 52,000 tons. The president of the Federation of British Industries, Sir Max Muspratt, had estimated the total cost of the strike to the beginning of October at an incredible £541 million (enormously greater in real terms than even the most exaggerated estimate for the cost of the 1984ndash;5 strike). ‘By the end of the year,’ the pamphlet concluded, ‘the loss would amount to between £1,000 and £1,500 million.’

This was followed in November by The Miners Struggle and the Big Five Banks, again with a foreword by A.J. Cook, in which he wrote: ‘The miners are not broken – they continue to fight; their destiny is in your hands. An embargo on blackleg coal and a levy on all workers must be adopted to save the miners from defeat.

‘And to the miners who are fighting I say: Every honest worker in the world admires your courage and loyalty in the fight which was forced upon you by the rapacious mine-owners, who have at their service the banks, the press and the resources of the press.’

This was not whistling in the dark. Even in November, as the Miners’ Federation delegate conference met to discuss the drift back to work under pressure of unspeakable hunger and poverty in the coalfields and the intransigence of the owners and the government, the solidarity of the majority astonished owners and ministers.

But the shock steeled their determination to grind the miners down. Defeat stared the union in the face, yet the loyalty of the miners, especially in the ‘hard areas’ such as South Wales and Durham, was apparently unshakeable. Militants like Arthur Horner urged a ‘stepping up’ of the strike and more pressure for solidarity action. Others, like Aneurin Bevan, called for an orderly return.

Cook knew that an end of the strike meant defeat – not just on hours and wages but on district agreements which would, effectively, break the union for a long period, perhaps for ever. He wanted the strike to go on, but he knew it could not do so without new sources of funds. He staked all on a levy of trade unionists, and was prepared to compromise to get it.

Here is the first sign of the waverings which he had shown as the struggle faded in 1921. In July 1926, a clutch of bishops, wringing their hands and washing them on alternate days, ‘came forward’ with proposals to settle the dispute. The proposals were no more than a request for another government subsidy, another ‘moratorium’, this time for four months, and ‘independent compulsory arbitration’ at the end of it.

The coal-owners, of course, would have no truck with these suggestions. They were for an outright victory in the wake of the General Strike, and when their Christian consciences clashed with their dividend payment, God was asked to wait. The government agreed with the owners (as they always did). The miners’ response was therefore irrelevant. Perhaps because it was irrelevant, the executive of the Federation accepted the proposals, and Cook recommended them in the Sunday Worker.

A ballot was held on the bishops’ proposals. The miners rejected them, against the advice of their own executive. The ‘tactic’ therefore boomeranged, and although Cook’s personal stock did not fall, there were some militants who wondered aloud why he had wavered.

In September, at the TUC Congress in Bournemouth, he wavered again, more crucially. The General Council had promised him a voluntary levy of all trade union members. But they wanted something in exchange. Cook had to agree to speak against any full-scale public debate on the union leaders’ sell-out of the General Strike.

Jack Tanner of the Engineers Union refused to accept the General Council’s report on the General Strike. He moved that the conference ‘refer it back’, and hold a full debate on the behaviour of the General Council during the Nine Days. The conference responded warmly to his appeal, and there were plenty of wet trousers on the platform. If the vote went against them, Thomas and Co. would have to justify themselves in public!

Their saviour was A.J. Cook. He intervened, to thunderous applause, just after Tanner had spoken. ‘We have a million miners locked out,’ he said. ‘We are more concerned just now to get an honourable settlement for these million men than we are in washing dirty linin in this Congress.’ The motion was defeated.

For this, Cook earned himself a thoroughly deserved rebuke in the Sunday Worker, from George Hardy, secretary of the National Minority Movement. ‘What did he gain?’ asked Hardy. ‘A pious resolution, and a false sense of security because the leaders were not with him.’

They were not. They did not even deliver the levy until they knew it was far too late. By the time the levy funds started to trickle in, the miners were broken. The drift back to work had turned into a flood, especially in the Midlands. While the ‘hard areas’ still remained solid (Durham miners balloted to stay out even after a delegate conference had ordered a return), there was nothing for it but to go back on the owners’ terms.

ARTHUR COOK had anticipated the full extent of the defeat, but the immediate impact of it was lost on him. As soon as the miners went back to work, he accepted a long-standing invitation to Moscow. Throughout the strike, he had faced down the red-baiters by assuring them that he did support revolutionary Russia. Russian workers, he pointed out, in spite of the most terrible hardships, contributed more to the strike fund than the combined contributions of unions affiliated to the TUC.

In Moscow, where he spent several weeks, Cook was lionised. The visit acted as a kind of cushion against the fearful reality of the British coalfields. But when he returned in late January 1927 there was no hiding place.

Up and down the coalfields, there was unrelieved gloom. There had been mass sackings of lodge and branch officials. Those that were allowed back to work were browbeaten from the first hour. The wages and hours ‘negotiated’ in the new ‘district agreements’ (a euphemism for the owners’ terms) were horrific. Ancient union privileges, such as the rights of the men to elect their own checkweighmen, were torn up.

Down the mine, there was harassment and speed-up, with the inevitable fatal results. In March 1927, for instance, 66 miners were killed in an explosion and fall at Cwm colliery. Everyone except the owner agreed it was due to speed-up following the lock-out.

The union was lucky to survive at all. In many places, it didn’t. At Maerdy pit, in South Wales, the proud flagship of the Federation for a quarter of a century, the owners wreaked terrible revenge. They refused to recognise the union, and victimised anyone known to be a member. In 1927 there were 377 employed members of the lodge at Maerdy; in 1928, only eight; in 1929, 25. In 1927, the lodge had 1,366 unemployed members; in 1928, 724; and in 1929, 325. This was not because the overall unemployment figures were falling – quite the reverse. It was just that to stand any chance of getting work, men were forced to leave the union (or the area).

The Great Depression is usually placed in the 1930s, when unemployment climbed to over three million. The Great Depression in the South Wales coalfield started immediately after, and as a direct result of, the Miners’ Lock-out. The poverty of the mining families, especially those in the more militant pits where the sackings and victimisations were the hardest, is, literally, unimaginable. Those that could afford the journey left the area. Other miners simply drifted away from their families to seek some sort of work during the week in or around London, or to beg in the London streets. Almost as soon as he got back to his office in Russell Square, Cook found himself besieged by South Wales miners who came to the offices day by day to beg for money or a crust of bread.

Arthur Horner has a lovely story of how he and a couple of tough Communists took Cook to task for giving away most of his salary to such beggars. He told Cook that if he gave away everything he had it would make precious little difference to the problem, and reminded him that his own family had a right to live. One afternoon, Horner and two comrades went themselves to the miners’ headquarters to protest. While they were with Cook, the doorman came in to say an unemployed miner had asked to see Cook. ‘I will deal with him,’ said Horner, gruffly, and stormed out to berate the wretched fellow for begging from his union secretary.

The man told Horner his story. Horner gave him half the money he had saved to keep him in London for a week. He returned to Cook and the others, intending to bluff it out. He found them giggling. They had been listening at the keyhole to find out, as Cook put it, how a ‘really hard man’ deals with a ‘really hard problem’.

What could be done for these desperate members? Cook’s instinct was to mobilise them. At a huge anti-government meeting on Penrhys Mountain, South Wales, on 13 September 1927, Cook proposed, almost by accident, that the ‘starving masses’ in the miners’ area should march to London, to what he called ‘the fountain head of the trouble’. Wal Hannington, the Communist Party agitator who followed Cook, took up the idea. He had already run hunger marches of the unemployed in the depression of 1921, and was to organise many others in the 1930s. He proposed a miners’ hunger march from South Wales to London. The proposal was acclaimed with a mighty roar.

The march, which took place that November, was a tremendous success. It is fully chronicled in Wal Hannington’s book, Unemployed Struggles. Though the book was written in 1936, long after Hannington had fallen out with Cook, he pays generous tribute to the miners’ leader for his role. Cook spoke to enormous meetings on the road: of 3,000 in Swindon; 5,000 in Reading and more than 100,000 in Trafalgar Square.

You often meet old socialists who will tell you proudly of the hunger marches of the old days. What they don’t tell you is that these marches were hated and denounced by the leaders of the TUC and of the Labour Party. The organisers were variously described as rabble-rousers, agitators, Communists and incendiaries, and the union mandarins seized every opportunity to smear the marchers – sometimes even by ridiculing their shabby clothes! A.J. Cook’s part in the 1927 Hunger March endeared him still further to the rank-and-file miners, but infuriated his colleagues in the TUC, who were developing a new policy to shield themselves from their self-inflicted impotence.

They called it ‘conciliation’. The time had come, they argued, to stop talking about class war and to start talking with the employers.

A.J. Cook didn’t call it conciliation. He called it collaboration. He took over a regular column in the Sunday Worker. Week after week he savaged J.H. Thomas and the other trade union leaders. He started, as always, from the condition of the workers, especially of the miners. He asked whether there was the slightest sign that the capitalist system had relented, or was treating workers better than previously. On the contrary, the workers were worse off, the rich better off. Exploitation, the engine of the system, was working at a tremendous pace, but it did not solve the basic problems of society; it made them worse. Unemployment and poverty were on the rise. Why should the working-class movement collaborate? What would they get out of it?

The questions were not answered. They were ignored. At the 1927 TUC Congress in Edinburgh in September, George Hicks, the building workers’ leader, once a Marxist and a man of the left, devoted his presidential address to the new concept of ‘conciliation’. The reward for this initiative came on 23 November, when a group of employers under Sir Alfred Mond, a South Wales industrialist, called for a conference to discuss the ‘common interests’ of trade unionists and employers. The new TUC president, Ben Turner of the wool workers, readily accepted. He started talking to Mond regularly, and on 12 January 1928 a delegation from the TUC met a delegation of employers headed by Mond.

Cook protested furiously. The TUC, he said, had no mandate to enter such discussions with employers. No such idea had been put to the movement, or decided at any democratic conference. He attended the Mond-Turner conference at Burlington House in January 1928 and scathingly attacked both sides for congratulating each other when workers he represented had not enough to eat. He rushed out a pamphlet, The Mond Moonshine, whose preface by the old ILP member Joseph Southall is worth quoting in full:


Mundus the Wolf said to the shepherds: ‘Why should there not be peace between you and us, seeing that we both depend on the sheep for a living so that our interests are the same?’

Then Bender, Diggitt and Lemon, three of the Shepherds, said: ‘Let there be peace and cooperation’ and with this most of the shepherds agreed for they thought: ‘Why should we have the danger and trouble of fighting the wolves who speak so pleasantly?’

But Cocus, sturdy shepherd, who had fought hard for the sheep when other shepherds fled, did not trust the Wolves, and especially old Mundus whose origin was doubtful ...

And Cocus answered: ‘Are not the jaws of the wolves red even now with the blood of the sheep?’

To which Lemon replied loftily: ‘Cocus speaks only for himself – the Council of Shepherds will deal with him.’

And Bender (who had charge of the shearing, and was naturally woolly in consequence) said to the Wolves:

‘Let us get round a table and explore every avenue, without prejudice, to hammer out ways and means to get out of the present chaos on to the highway of comfort and prosperity like that of Rome, which was not built in a day.’

Now what he meant by all this nobody knows, but while he was speaking the Wolves made off with a number of lambs and many valuable fleeces. Then did the Wolves rejoice for they knew the value of sheep’s clothing.

Mundus was Mond of course, and Cocus, Cook. Bender was Ben Turner; Diggitt was Ben Tillett and Lemon was Walter Citrine. This was the theme of Cook’s pamphlet, which was published in March 1928, and was followed in the late summer by another entitled Mond’s Manacles.

‘There can be no peace with poverty or unemployment,’ it ended. ‘There can be no peace with capitalism.’

These attacks on his colleagues goaded them to reply in the only way they knew. The cry went up: Cook must be expelled! Under the heading TUC TIRED OF MR COOK’, the Daily Express of 16 January 1928 had this to say:

‘Relations between Mr A.J. Cook, the miners’ secretary, and his colleagues on the General Council of the Trade Union Congress have almost reached breaking point.

‘So much indignation has been roused among his colleagues by his behaviour that the council may not be content to pass a mere vote of censure, and more drastic measures may be taken. The possibility of excluding Mr Cook from further meetings is being discussed. It is an open secret that since he joined the General Council last September [1927] Mr Cook has provoked angry scenes at every meeting. Matters have reached the stage at which he has been threatened more than once with physical violence by several of his colleagues.’

These attacks, which were widely publicised in the press, led to Cook getting an offer of help from an unexpected area.

The ‘Mond Moonshine’ had been having its effect on the Labour Party too. Hypnotised by the prospect of a General Election in which it might once more gain office, the Labour Party leadership were rapidly cutting out of speeches, policies and documents any reference to class war or to socialism. There policies spoke about ‘one nation’ and ‘pulling together in both sides of industry’. This appalled those members of the ILP who were still committed to socialist ideas. In particular, John Wheatley, perhaps the most dedicated socialist ever to get to parliament for the Labour Party, publicly declared his view that defeat at the polls was better than a victory under Ramsay Macdonald and the then Labour leaders.

Wheatley’s secretary and assistant at the time, John Scanlon, called Cook to a meeting in the House of Commons attended by some of the more left-wing MPs of the ILP. The meeting spawned the idea of a ‘public campaign’ to win back both the Labour Party and the trade unions to class struggle and socialist solutions to capitalist crises. Thus was born the ‘Cook-Maxton’ manifesto.

The idea was simple. The two most popular orators of the labour movement at the time – Arthur Cook of the miners and James Maxton, the fiery ILP MP for Bridgeton in Glasgow – would travel the country speaking to a ‘manifesto’ which sought to put the blame for the country’s ills on capitalism, and urged the Labour Party to commit itself to socialist policies if ever it formed a government.

The campaign was launched at a monster meeting in St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow in July. So many people turned up that the speakers had to speak again at an overflow meeting outside. But at once, the campaign ran into trouble. John Wheatley wanted it to encourage dissident Labour Party members to refuse to support Mondist right-wing candidates at the election. Maxton disagreed, arguing that it was not the job of the campaign to split the Labour Party. Maxton’s view prevailed. Because no one trusted Cook to curtail his revolutionary ardour, he was asked to write out his Glasgow speech and submit it for approval before making it. Although the speech reads well enough, it lost its originality and fervour; and the meeting was a bit of a flop.

This difficulty continued throughout the campaign. Lots of people agreed with Maxton and Cook. The basic arguments seemed unanswerable. It was pointless making friends with enemies such as theirs. It was clear that the interests of the classes were opposed to one another, and that any policy based on collaboration was bound to shackle a future Labour government, and drive it into the arms of capitalism, but what could people who agreed do about it? If the argument was not a guide to some sort of action, then it quickly lost its initial attractiveness. It was the analysis without the remedy – the prerogative of the quack throughout the ages.

So the Cook-Maxton campaign livened up left-wing politics for a brief summer, and then everyone settled down to what seemed the only practicable task on offer: the return of a Labour government.

On and on went Cook, however. He seemed indomitable. At the TUC in Swansea in September 1928 he faced his tormentors once more. He spoke powerfully against Mondism, and against any further meetings between the employers and the General Council.

‘You cannot under the capitalist structure avoid unemployment,’ he said. ‘Do not have alliances with the enemy. That is breaking a vital principle and is going to bind us with shackles to capitalism.’

He was followed to the rostrum (this Congress was the first to introduce the rostrum) by Herbert Smith, the miners’ president and Cook’s staunchest ally in the lock-out of 1926. Smith was brutal. He savaged Cook from his first sentence.

‘I do not speak for Arthur Cook and I do not speak for Herbert Smith. I speak for the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, which supports the General Council.’

Smith was correct. The Miners’ Federation itself had moved to the right under the pressure of the employers’ offensive. Cook was isolated not only on the General Council; he was in a minority among his fellow miners. At the MFGB conference that summer of 1928, a resolution approving Mondism had met with fierce resistance, but had been passed.

Smith’s blunt attack exposed the weakness of Arthur Cook’s position. Cook was on the General Council and was able to speak at the TUC because he was secretary of the Miners’ Federation. Yet bhis own ideas about the political and economic situation were now opposed by his own union.

From all sides, both in the Congress proceedings and outside the conference hall, the questions rained down on him. Who did Cook think he was? Was he not abusing his position both as miners’ secretary and as member of the General Council in expressing his extremist views? Were not the miners Mondists now? Why should the miners’ union and the TUC be used as a sounding board for Communist ideas by someone who was elected to represent an organisation which thought and voted quite differently? What right had Cook to expect to hold either position if he continued to abuse both?

Cook had an answer. He had been elected on the programme of the Minority Movement in 1924 – a programme which was absolutely opposite to that now promulgated by his union. He would stick to that, whatever happened. He rose at the TUC to give his accustomed reply. As he spoke, he collapsed, and was rushed to hospital.

IT WAS a bleak autumn for Arthur Cook. He had never been a fit man. He suffered from many of the familiar miners’ illnesses, bronchitis, emphyzema and so on. The pain in his leg from the fight in 1926 had never gone away. Now, worse news was to come. The doctors confirmed what he had dreaded: that he was being eaten up by cancer and would be lucky to live another five years.

In hospital, he mused on the contradictions of his position. The truth was that his central argument did not stand up. True, he had been elected on the platform of the Minority Movement in 1924. But there had been enormous changes since then, all for the worse. Strong, confident lodges had been destroyed. People’s faith in the union was immeasurably weakened. In slump and poverty, working people did not turn in the mass to ideas of revolutionary change. They withdrew, sought immediate ways out of their difficulties, and geared for compromise, however hopeless or ridiculous it appeared.

The mood had changed completely. Cook knew that in spite of all his popularity among the miners, if he stood and fought again on the same platform he would almost certainly be defeated. The support of the rank-and-file miners – the rock on which he had built his reputation and his confidence – had slipped away from him.

In these circumstances what use was his old and famous slogan: ‘You can only take what you are strong enough to take and only hold what you are strong enough to hold’? This slogan – the core of the syndicalist ideas of his youth – was fine as long as the curve of workers’ militancy and confidence pointed upwards. But what happened when it turned down – what if you could take nothing, and hold precious little? What role was there for the syndicalist then – especially the syndicalist who had reached high office through expression of his militant views?

Was he to pretend that the mood was different and continue to campaign against his colleagues on the basis of a militancy which did not exist? Or was he to retreat to compromise, to hold what he could even if it meant rejecting some of the ideas with which his closest followers associated him?

No doubt his illness, and the short span of life in pain which loomed in front of him, played a part in his decision. No doubt the tough and wily Walter Citrine, who visited him in his hospital bed, had some influence on him. Whatever the cause, by October that same year, 1928, he was writing in the Sunday Worker advocating caution, compromise, walking before you can run, and the importance of a Labour government as a first step to socialism.

At once, one of his staunchest supporters wrote and urged him not to slide. Harry Pollitt, a Manchester engineer who had devoted his life to the Communist Party, wrote on 25 October:

‘Dear Arthur,

‘Glad to hear of your recovery, but amazed at the sharp turn of events so far as your policy is concerned. I believe that your present line is the most dangerous to yourself that you have ever taken. Unless you are more than careful, you will find that more dirty actions will be taken by the MFGB in your name and over your signature, against the militant miners, than have ever been taken before.

‘Your notes in last week’s Sunday Worker are appalling. I wouldn’t presume to write you, only for our close friendship, and no one knows better than I do all you have gone through. But you know you have had our backing and help as well. For the last two weeks I have been speaking all over Lancashire on the Swansea TUC stating the fight you put up there, getting support for you, making your position clear, and then you throw it all away in the misguided conception you are doing the right thing. You are not. You could sweep all the coalfields on the one union issue, but unless you break with them, you’ll find it too late.’

Pollitt’s letter ended:

‘I beg of you, for the sake of the miners’ best interests and your own, resume your open fight. It will rally to you all that is best in the movement. When you have been fighting the hardest, you have had the greatest mass support. On your present lines, you’ll not only lose it, you’ll knock the heart out of thousands of the MFGB’s best lads. Is it worth it? Of course it isn’t. They believe they have got you down. They’ll wipe their feet on you. They won’t forget all they have to pay you back.’

It was a moving and prophetic appeal. But the crucial problem disturbing Cook – should he resign as secretary or should he continue and compromise – was not touched on. There was something fundamentally dishonest about using the prestige of elected office to preach policies which were not acceptable to the majority of the electorate – the union membership. This dishonesty, however, probably didn’t even occur to Harry Pollitt. So his letter was of little help. Cook replied, sadly and pathetically:

‘Dear Harry,

‘Regret delay in answering your letter. Am much better now, but not yet A1. Now don’t worry; shall not go over to the reactionaries. They wait for my body. Tactics may be wrong, but I am up against difficult proposition – when to force issue. Cannot explain by letter but should like to see you as they are out for a smash. Future must be thought out.

‘Do not blame rank and file but b— machinery which keeps rank and file at bay. Their power in machine – when and how to test it ... I am firm in one national union and want to swap coalfields, but when and how. See me soon. I have nought to fear in a fight. Yours ever for the workers, AJC.’

This letter – one of the very few which survive from Cook – shows that in late October he was still thinking of a tactical withdrawal, while keeping friends and counsel among the Communists. As with so many tactical withdrawals, it soon turned into a rout.

Before long Cook was making peace with the TUC leadership, and even the Labour leadership which he had denounced so mercilessly for the previous five years. In February, he attended a meeting with the Labour leaders in which he agreed that the next Labour government could postpone the nationalisation of the mines beyond the first session of parliament. He spoke more and more enthusiastically for the Labour Party on public platforms in the run-up to the 1929 election.

In March, for instance, he said:

‘I have fought for and will continue to fight for a Labour government as a step to socialism; to repeal the pernicious 8-hours Act; to secure a Minimum Wage, adequate pensions at 60, nationalisation of the mines, minerals and by-products. A Labour government would bring new life and hope to the workers; it would increase faith in trade unionism and would lead us nearer to socialism.’

In the election campaign, he was persuaded, as an ultimate humiliation, to speak for Ramsay Macdonald at Seaham Harbour, where his friend Harry Pollitt was standing as a Communist. Pollitt records with some relish that he waited outside a hall until Cook arrived in a big car, and deliberately turned away when Cook ‘waved a cheery greeting’ across the street.

Making peace with Ramsay Macdonald and Co. meant making peace with the establishment in general. In April 1929, Cook found himself at the Mansion House in the City of London at a luncheon for the chief helpers of the Miners’ Distress Fund, a charity sponsored by the Prince of Wales.

The Prince made a pretty speech, and then, to everyone’s surprise, Cook was on his feet congratulating the Prince on his ‘whole-hearted enthusiasm’ for the miners’ fund, and especially for his appeal the previous Christmas on the radio. Only eleven months previously, Cook had mercilessly scoffed at wealthy city slickers and royalty who sought to solve their consciences with charity for the miners. Now in a burst of warm-hearted impetuousness he appeared in public as yet another groveller before royalty.

He never had the time or health to taste the bitter fruits of the 1929-31 Labour government to the full. He watched aghast as the Eight Hours Bill was not repealed, how there were no provisions for adequate pensions at 60 or a minimum wage for miners.

He saw very quickly that the Labour government was not bringing new life and hope to the workers. Instead, it brought more unemployment, more sickness and more despair. He noticed that in two years the government had decreased faith in trade unionism and had postponed any socialism by as long as anyone could see into the future. He noticed (indeed he even remarked, once, in public) that while Macdonald had regretted he could not nationalise the mines in the first session of parliament, he did not nationalise them in the second session either. By the third session, Macdonald (and Thomas, and Snowden) had joined the Tory Party in a government which postponed nationalisation for another sixteen years.

In January 1931 his right leg was amputated above the knee. He bore the pain and disability with his usual cheerfulness and good spirits. Visitors from across the political spectrum came to see him in hospital. One of the more persistent of them was Sir Oswald Mosley, Labour MP for Smethwick, who was outraged by the spinelessness of the Labour government. He demanded more public spending to cut unemployment, and a programme of public works which heralded what later became known as Keynesianism. Mosley wrote a manifesto along these lines, and persuaded Arthur Cook to sign it.

A few months later, Mosley and John Strachey, Cook’s former editor and aide, broke with the Labour Party to form the New Party. Both men pleaded with Cook to be a founder member of the party, but Cook refused. He would not leave the Labour Party, he said, but he promised he would vote for the New Party at the next election.

He never got the chance. He now hardly ever left the trade union hospital at Manor House, Golders Green, in North London. On a bitterly cold night, 2 November 1931, a nursing sister approached him to prepare him for sleep. ‘Sister, it’s cold tonight,’ smiled Cook. ‘Go make yourself a cup of tea before you attend to me.’ She did. When she returned the miners’ secretary was dead. He was 47 years old.

THE OBITUARIES in the Press gushed with relief for a dead enemy. They rejoiced in Cook’s death-bed conversion. ‘Miners’ leader who turned against the Communists: Extremist views which became considerably modified’ was the Daily Mirror’s verdict.

Harry Pollitt’s warning had been cruelly vindicated. The reactionaries ‘wiped their feet on him’. Cook had become, by the end, a victim not just of appalling illness but of the syndicalism which inspired him. A union leader carried to office by militant policies and workers’ confidence is like a marker buoy. As long as the seas are high, it guides, leads and moves with the current. When the tide goes out, the buoy is left on the sand, without purpose, marking nothing.

The position of such a leader is his greatest obstacle. To renounce it, to return to the rank and file, seems to be throwing away enormous advantage. Yet to stay in a position which is not properly representative leaves no option but to compromise or to cheat. Cook was not a cheat, so he compromised.

The first and most obvious lesson is the importance of socialist organisation, rooted and committed to the rank and file. In such an organisation we can keep our socialist commitment not just in the flow of the tide – which is easy – but in its ebb as well.

When the workers’ confidence turns down, when employers and rulers win the day, the only way to keep high the aspirations for a new social order is through association with other socialists, learning from and teaching one another, extending our understanding of how the revolutionary tide has ebbed and flowed in the past. But, above all, we need to relate to whatever active struggle, however tiny, there is going on. Perhaps the worst aspect of A.J. Cook’s compromise in 1929 was his turning away from the unofficial miners’ strikes at Dawdon in County Durham, and Binley in Warwickshire.

However great the victory of the ruling class, it can never escape the continuing class struggle. Since the society it governs is founded on exploitation, there will always be people resisting it, sometimes aggressively, confidently and successfully; more often defensively, and unsuccessfully. This resistance is the only real hope for lasting change. Association with it by organised socialists is the best guarantee that the socialist ideas which inspire us can be kept alive and relevant in the bad times as easily as they can in the good. Tactical demands and practical slogans are cut down to size at such a time – but this way they never lose contact with socialist aspirations or the living battles of real people on which they depend.

So is that the end of the story? Can we dump A.J. Cook in the dustbin of history along with all the other trade union leaders who took office to change the world and ended up changing only themselves?

No, most emphatically, we cannot, for there is another vital ingredient to the end of this story.

The Communist Party, which moved A.J. Cook for high office, which championed him through his great campaign of 1924-5, which ordered him to cede ‘all power to the General Council’ in the 1926 General Strike (even to the extent of surrendering the newsprint for the Sunday Worker to the TUC) was embarked at the time of Cook’s greatest doubt and illness on a campaign of the most hideous sectarianism and insularity.

This was the notorious ‘Third Period’, ordered from Stalin’s Moscow and adopted by those Party members who were more susceptible to the ‘line’ from Russia than they were to the real experiences of the working people they pretended to represent.

In the ‘Third Period’, the line went, capitalism was in complete disarray, and socialist revolution was on the agenda. In such a period, the greatest obstacles to revolution were not the bankers or the industrialists, but the ‘fakers’ on the left who pretended they had a way forward and therefore deliberately obstructed the revolution. The crucial task in such an ‘epoch’ (a favourite revolutionary word) was to ‘break with’ the old order in the working-class movement. Unions which flirted with Mond had to be abandoned and new revolutionary unions set up in their place. Strikes had to be called in opposition to the union leadership – even if they were hopeless – with the specific aim of challenging that leadership.

The full force of the rhetoric which Communists used to turn on the ruling class was now turned on the elected leaders of the working class. Workers’ Life, the weekly party paper, trumpeted – on 13 December 1929:

‘In an era in which the prospect of revolutionary mass struggle looms ahead, our tactics should be based on the assumption that the purpose of the Left Social-Democratic manoeuvres is only a counterrevolutionary one.’

Every single sentiment in that sentence was the exact opposite of the truth. December 1929 was not ‘an era in which the prospect of revolutionary mass struggle looms ahead’. The purpose of the ‘Left Social-Democratic manoeuvres’ (meaning those on the left of the Labour Party) were to shift the party to the left or hold it where it was, but without moving too quickly or jeopardising election chances – nothing whatsoever to do with counter-revolution. The false conclusion, however, flowed freely from the false facts: here’s Workers’ Life again, on 30 August 1929, just before Cook collapsed during his speech at the Swansea TUC:

‘The Communist Party must energetically fight the Left Social-Democrats as the most dangerous enemies of the working class.’

The most dangerous enemies. Worse than bankers or employers or Tories or spies!

The fight against these ‘most dangerous enemies’ gathered force through 1929. The Communist Party press and the party faithful whipped themselves into a lather of self-righteous fury against them.

Poor Arthur Cook got it worst. At the moment his doubts were first expressed, the Communist Party jumped on him from a vast height. ‘A.J. Cook joins the Old Gang’, announced the Sunday Worker on 15 March 1929, and every issue of the Party press from that date until his death sought some new form of malicious gossip about him. ‘Cook the Renegade!’ became an almost obligatory headline.

The paper reported that Cook had been, without a break, a member of the ILP since 1905 (which was nonsense); that he had called in the police at the TUC Congress (which was not true) and that he was as bad a ‘social fascist’ as you could find anywhere – worse even than Jimmy Maxton.

(‘Social fascist’ was a phrase coined by the Communist Party to describe people who called themselves socialist but supported policies which took the unions into the same organisations as the employers – because this was also a crucial industrial policy in Mussolini’s fascist Italy. It was grotesque, even as a description of the right-wing union leaders, let alone people like Cook and Maxton, and utter political nonsense – as the Communist Party was to discover later and at appalling cost when the real fascists turned on Communists and ‘social fascists’ alike.)

Meanwhile Cook’s accolade for the Prince of Wales gave Workers’ Life a marvellous opportunity, and the paper scarcely referred to the miners’ leader without adding the tag ‘that notorious friend of the smiling Prince’.

Cook was immediately stung to reply. His answer in Workers’ Life took the form of an open letter to his old friend and comradeArthur Horner, who was himself soon to run foul of his party’s domineering sectarianism.

‘I am constrained to reply,’ wrote Cook, ‘hoping yet that we can reconcile our differences and still continue our comradeship which was forged in class struggle.

‘You know that you were wrong when you stated that I have joined the enemies of the revolutionary struggle – neither has what you term the trade union and Labour Party bureaucracy got hold of me ... I have and shall continue to oppose Mondism because I am working and fighting for socialism.

‘You know as well as I do the terrible conditions in the coalfields, and the suffering of the women and children. I have been compelled to do the most unpleasant tasks of begging for food, money, boots, and cast-off clothing. Practically every day young men, stranded, call for food, clothing and shelter at my office. I have done my best for them. Every day the post brings letters to me and Mrs Cook begging for help, especially from expectant mothers, terrible epistles of agony and despair.

‘I have heard their cry for help, and have done all I can to give assistance. I have helped all I can, begged all I can, till I have been almost demented and in despair, because I hate charity and reliefs which make us all beggars ...

‘I now want remedies instead of relief. The more poverty increases, the more our people sink into despair and become the hopeless prey of all the most reactionary influences and movements.’

The remedy, he went on, lay in industrial and political power. Industrial power had to be built up in the trade unions, political power sought through the Labour Party.

‘This cannot be done,’ he wrote, ‘by forming new unions, thus dividing the workers and intensifying the struggle between workers and leaders in our present weakened state.’ Nor could it be done, he concluded, by standing Communist Party candidates against Labour candidates in a ‘first past the post’ electoral system, where Communist candidates who did well would only split the workers’ vote and let the Tories in.

The letter, published on 29 April 1929, bore tragic testimony to the awful dilemma which Cook faced. It exposed his weakness as a militant leader of a demoralised and passive workforce. But it was not the letter of someone who had abandoned the ideas and principles of his life and youth; and, on the subject of breakaway unions at least, it undoubtedly won the argument.

The Communist Party, however, was not in a mood to argue. Denunciation was more appropriate to their line, which was being dictated with more and more urgency from Moscow. The same party which, a few years later, would fling itself at the feet of any opportunist trade union leader who offered a cliché on behalf of the Popular Front, now drowned the most powerful and principled union leader their movement had ever known in stale sectarian polemic.

Cook persevered. He wrote again to Labour Monthly, the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, which published his letter in June. He started by complaining that he had been misquoted, which he had been. On the policy of breakaway unions, he wrote:

‘The Communist Party are trying to destroy the only means for protection now, and the only means to create and construct a new social order. They are out to smash the MFGB, the TUC and the Labour Party – quite an ambitious proposal. No more insane object could ever have been formulated outside a lunatic asylum.’

His article ended with a desperate plea for comradely argument and assessment:

‘Comradeship means something higher and nobler than the example set by the Communist Party in their campaign of personalities, hate, vilification and destruction. We must fight capitalism with all the weapons at our disposal in an organised fashion. This needs power, which only trade unions can create by industrial and political argument.’

For this appeal, Arthur Cook got the usual kick in the teeth. A note at the end of the article declared:

‘The Labour Monthly says farewell to him without regret and with the contempt that he deserves.’

The Labour Monthly and its party were saying farewell to a lot of other Communists during 1929. In the eighteen months after the General Strike, 5,000 people had joined the Communist Party, doubling its membership. They joined in disgust at the sell-outs of the General Council and the rightward drift to Mondism following the defeat of the miners. These 5,000 people were overwhelmingly working-class militants, many of them victimised, who were looking for a new lead to strengthen the working-class movement.

But in place of policies which would expose the false ideas put forward by the trade union leaders and strengthen the rank and file, the party simply denounced those leaders and trumpeted crazy notions for new revolutionary trade unions. The Communist Party literature and press reeked of stale jargon. Life in the party became monkish and fanatical. All those who argued with Communists were seen to be against them. All those persuaded by the weakness of the workers to seek salvation in the Labour Party were denounced as reformist and revisionist trash.

The 5,000 left almost as soon as they had joined. Party membership dropped from 10,730 in October 1926 to 5,500 in March 1928, and to 3,200 in December 1929. Soon after this the party took its great leap forward to a daily paper (made possible only by a generous subsidy from Russia), but membership in December 1930 was down to 2,555.

For Arthur Cook, the sectarianism of the Communist Party was first a shock; secondly an excuse. As the abuse mounted, so he no longer felt it necessary to argue his position with his former comrades.

If they really were intent on forming new unions, what need was there to debate with them his own awkward and embarrassing position?

His only way out of his impasse was to resign the secretaryship, and perhaps fight for it again with a militant programme. If he’d won again, he could easily have seen off his adversaries in the TUC. If he’d lost, he would be a rank-and-file miner again, no doubt unemployed, and too ill to work, but at least clear and confident in his politics. There never was at any time in Arthur Cook’s life the slightest suggestion that he kept his position because he needed the money or liked the life-style. He was giving a huge proportion of his small income away anyway.

Resignation, forcing another election, was a powerful and practicable alternative. Any friend or comrade could have advised him down that road. But the know-alls of the Communist Party were so eager to denounce a precious new ‘social fascist’ that they could not even open a dialogue with him.

Thereby hangs a moral. The only point in remembering our past is so that it can guide us in the present. In spite of all the obvious differences in scale and detail, the period which followed the defeat of the miners in 1926 is grimly similar to the times we live in now.

As we try to steer our tiny socialist craft through the same sort of stormy waters, what dangers loom up ahead? On the one side is the huge Rock of Reformism, to which we are lured by the prospect of defeating a vicious and victorious Tory government. Sink your differences, sing the sirens on this rock. Submerge your strikes and demonstrations, put all your energies into knocking out the Tories at the next election, and replacing them with a Labour government pledged at least to improve the lot of working people at the expense of the rich and powerful.

We can see that rock more clearly now than socialists could see it after 1926. Then, there had never been a majority Labour government. Now, we have had years and years of majority Labour governments, most of them in peacetime conditions. We have watched all those governments turn against the people who elected them, and savage them.

As they do so, thousands of their supporters turn away. The ideas which inspired generations of socialists are polluted because, it seems, they cannot be put into practice.

Nevertheless, as after 1926, the current pulls us still towards that rock, and we must steer hard against it; hard for independent socialist organisation rooted in the self-activity of workers, which alone holds out the prospect of real change.

But as we pull the tiller over, we had better beware other sirens on rocks which are perhaps less obvious and where the warnings are less shrill. Theirs are the voices which beckon us away altogether from the real, living working-class movement, which becalm us in eddies and pools where other socialists are sailing around in smaller and smaller circles, amusing and abusing one another with great gusto, but having no effect whatever on what workers say and do, and so no effect whatever on the world outside.

Sectarianism is the philosophy of socialists who have ‘discovered the truth’ about revolution and consider it to be so obvious that everybody else must have discovered it too. ‘Everybody else’, therefore, must be ‘selling out’. Sectarianism is the creed of those who cannot see that most workers – by far the great majority of them – will stay ‘reformist’ either because they do not see an alternative, or because they fear the alternative, until all other roads are shut to them. Sectarianism is the hiding place for socialists who refuse to accept that they must be part of the working-class movement or they are finished.

What then, in 1985, is a fitting epitaph for Arthur James Cook?

There are some who might prefer the obituary in the Daily Worker of 3 November 1931, which could hardly contain its pleasure that another ‘social fascist’ had died in agony.

‘Throughout his whole career,’ it concluded, ‘Cook wavered from side to side, finally ending up in the camp of the workers’ enemies, but still trying to cover up his treachery with high-sounding phrases and gaudy promises.’

Some might prefer that, as I say, if only because it is safe. It is, however, wrong, offensive and arrogant, and will cut off whoever says it from any miner who ever heard A.J. Cook speak, or talked to others who heard him.

I prefer the epitaph written by Robin Page Arnot, who was, I think, on the staff of the Daily Worker at the time, and who later wrote a series of marvellous histories of the British miners and their struggles.

‘There never had been a British miners’ leader like Arthur James Cook; never one so hated by the government, so obnoxious to the mine-owners, so much a thorn in the flesh of other general secretaries of unions; never one who during his three years’ mission from 1924 to 1926 had so much unfeigned reverence and enthusiastic support from his fellow-miners. Neither to Tommy Hepburn nor Tom Halliday, neither to Alexander McDonald or Ben Pickard, neither to the socialists Keir Hardie nor Robert Smillie did the miners of Britain accord the same unbounded trust and admiration as they reposed for those three years and more in A.J. Cook. That support was his strength, and it was his only strength. When he lost it, he lost the ground on which he lived and moved and had his being. Today his faults are forgotten or forgiven amongst the older miners who tell the younger men their recollections of past days; and still in every colliery village there abides the memory of a great name.’ [7]

I prefer that epitaph because it seems to me that one of the important tests of socialists’ behaviour is how we relate to, and how we criticise, great working-class leaders who can lead their class in the heat of the struggle, impervious to the most awful onslaught from the other side. Of such leaders Arthur Cook was undoubtedly one.



1. Walter Citrine, Men and Work, p.77.

2. Arthur Horner, Incorrigible Rebel (London 1960), p.72.

3. Morning Post, 10 June 1926.

4. Sunday Worker, 6 June 1926.

5. Sunday Worker, 18 July 1926.

6. Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan (London 1962), vol.1, pp.70-71.

7. Robin Page Arnot, The Miners: Years of Struggle (London 1953), p.541.

Last updated on 27 October 2019