Chris Harman


The Trade Union Bureaucracy in Britain

The General Strike

(June 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.48, June/July 1971, pp.23-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The General Strike of 1926 was the decisive turning point in the class struggles of the inter-war years. It was the culmination of all the struggles of previous years, the final confrontation between an employing class determined to force down wages and a working class confident of its ability to resist such cuts.

The Union Leaders

Throughout most of its history the British trade union movement has been dominated by leaders whose bureaucratic behaviour and political opinions (Liberal or right wing Labour) has made them incapable of leading the class successfully in major confrontations. In 1925-6, however, it appeared to many people that for the first time a major departure from this tradition was taking place. Some union leaders were speaking in tones not only quite different from those adopted by right wingers like Ramsey MacDonald or Jimmy Thomas, but also quite close to those of revolutionary socialists.

Three leaders in particular epitomised this trend – Purcell of the Furniture Workers, Swales of the Engineers and Hicks of the Building Trade Workers. The first was Chairman of the TUC in 1924, the second in 1925 and the third was to be on the Special Industrial Committee of the TUC set up (in mid-1925) to deal with the mining dispute.

All made speeches far more ‘extreme’ than those normally associated with ‘left wing’ union leaders. Certainly their language was far more militant than one would hear from, say, a Jack Jones or a Hugh Scanlon today.

Purcell addressed the 1924 Conference of the TUC in the following terms:

‘Even a Labour government having a sufficient majority leaves us confronting capitalism on the field – capable of resistance and with the will to resist to the last ditch. A well disciplined industrial organisation is the principal weapon of the workers – a weapon to strike with if need be.’

He could write that:

‘... Workers must organise specifically and universally in direct opposition to capitalism and its political methods. They must so organise as to be able, when the war drum sounds, to silence it forever. We have to declare openly that only militant and universal organisation of the working class can remove the war danger ... Europe industrially organised – Russia, Germany, Britain and France and the rest – is the first step towards the complete destruction of war-lords, market riggers, national and international reactionaries, racial and political strife promoters, in short all working class exploiters. Our patriotism must be that of loyalty, unashamed and unflinching, to our class the world over ...’ [1]

Six months later he could say, after hearing in the House of Commons of governmental strike-breaking plans:

‘I do not think we will flinch from our duty, which is our class first, in order to see that we are well protected and guarded.’ [2]

Alonzo Swales was equally outspoken, as, for instance, in this presidential address to the Trade Union Congress in 1925:

‘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 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 co-ordinated effort and work with mutual good will and understanding.’

Against the background of such statements it was possible for much of the revolutionary left to believe the trade union leadership was undergoing a complete transformation. [1*]

One of the chief theoreticians of the British CP could hold that the difference between the leadership of the TUC and that of the Labour Party was that between ‘a leadership which is approaching more and more full recognition of the class struggle and a leadership which directly denies the class struggle ... At the moirtent the friends (of the class struggle) predominate in the General Council ...’ [3]

Swales’ speech (quoted above) was described in the Party’s weekly paper as ‘the most realistic speech to be delivered to a Trade Union Congress in years.’ [4]

A week later it was argued that Bevin was ‘aiming at becoming the centrist leader of the General Council, with Thomas on his right and Purcell on his left.’ [5]

Red Friday

The first confrontation was not long in coming. Renewed competition from German coal was once again cutting into the coal-owners’ profits, and unemployment among the 1,200,000 miners was soaring up to 11½ per cent. On 30 June 1925 the mining employers felt strong enough to inform the union that they were ending the current wage agreement four weeks later. Unless the union accepted a wage cut and abolition of national agreements its members would be locked out from that date.

Everyone involved knew that not only miners’ wages were at stake. Prime-minister Baldwin inadvertently made the same, point in a discussion with miners’ representatives:

Miners: But what you propose means a reduction in wages.

Baldwin: Yes. All workers in this country have got to face a reduction in wages.

Miners: What do you mean?

Baldwin: I mean all the workers in this country have got to take a reduction in wages to help put industry on its feet.

The preparations for an Industrial Alliance, proposed by the Engineers, had not progressed far enough for it to intervene in this dispute. But the support for it showed that the organisations of the working class were prepared to fight. When the government appointed a Committee of Inquiry to look into the mine-owners’ proposals, the Miners’ Federation refused to participate. They considered that to do so would be to accept the principle of wage reductions. Instead they prepared for struggle and called upon the TUC to aid them.

Here was the opportunity for the mass defensive action of which the more outspoken members of the General Council had been thinking. A Special Industrial Committee of the Council, under the chairmanship of the ‘left’ Swales was appointed. It was able to obtain the unanimous agreement of the transport and railway unions that a lockout of the miners would be countered by a complete embargo on any movement coal.

At a time when stocks of coal throughout the country were very low, such a decision meant the stoppage of all industry within a matter of days. Baldwin had previously vowed he would not give ground, no doubt hoping the unions would get cold feet. Now, however, he was helpless, He knew, as he later admitted, that his class ‘were not ready’ to take on the whole labour movement. A single defensive move by the chess pieces of the trade unions had put them in check.

Twenty four hours before the lockout was due to begin, Baldwin announced that the government was prepared to avert the stoppage by giving a subsidy to the mineowners for nine months. Wage levels would be maintained while a Royal Commission (under Sir Herbert Samuel) made a detailed inquiry.

The labour movement saw in this decision a great victory’ for itself. RED FRIDAY proclaimed the Daily Herald headlines. A statement from the General Council spoke of ‘an enormous stimulus to every trade unionist’.

The Months of Preparation

However, the struggle was far from over. The bulk of the Tory press regarded Baldwin’s climb down as a shameful retreat which would soon have to be reversed. The Home-Secretary, Joyson-Hicks, indicated the temporary nature of the agreement that had been made:

‘I say, coming straight from the cabinet councils that the danger is not over. Is England to be governed by parliament and the cabinet or by a handful of trade union leaders.’

Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that on Red Friday

‘the government were impressed with the fact that the country as a whole was not sufficiently informed about the character and consequences of such a struggle ... We therefore decided to postpone the crisis in the hope of averting it, or if not averting it, of coping efficiently with it when the time comes.’ [6]

On the side of the employing class preparations began to be made in the light of that perspective.

The decisive fact in July had been the coal shortage. Through the coming winter this began to disappear without any conscious effort by the government. The miners had little choice but to continue digging coal which would be stockpiled as a weapon against them. More important from the authorities’ point of view was preparation to transport coal and other goods in a strike situation. In September a statement over the names of various noted dignitaries appeared in the press calling for volunteers to join an ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS). The government welcomed this and began perfecting its own official war machine. The country was divided into ten regions, each under a Civil Commissioner with a staff of civil servants, and arrangements perfected for transporting food, post and coal in any emergency. Over the subsequent months divisional conferences discussed such questions as the safe conduct of transport and the employment of special mobile squads of policemen. In the same period 12 leaders of the Communist Party were tried and imprisoned for between six and twelve months.

On the trade union side a corresponding need for preparation had been recognised in official statements immediately after Red Friday. The Chairman and Secretary of the TUC had warned that

‘the trade union movement must be alert and vigilant in case the necessity should again arise for it to act in defence of its standards.’

The General Council pointed out in September that

‘It could not escape the feeling that a further attempt might be made to enforce wage reductions or a lengthening of hours.’

The leaders of the Miners Federation were even more explicit. Herbert Smith (the President) told his members:

‘We have no need to glorify about victory. It is only an armistice and it will depend upon how we stand between now and 1 May next year.’

The Secretary, A.J. Cook went even further:

‘Next May we shall be faced with the greatest crisis and the greatest struggle we have ever known and we are preparing for it ... I don’t care a hang for the government or the army or the navy ... We have taken on not only the employers but the strongest government of modern times.’

The Trades Union congress at Scarborough in September was filled with much of the enthusiasm of a victory rally. Swales’ speech (quoted above) set the tone for a whole series of declamatory rhetoric and left wing resolutions. The British Empire was condemned; the Dawes plan (for the reconstruction of Europe on the basis of American capital) was opposed; plans for united work with the Russian Trade Unions were endorsed; a resolution calling for the development and strengthening of ‘workshop organisation’ so as to struggle ‘in conjunction with the Party of the workers for the overthrow of capitalism’ was carried.

The CP’s Workers’ Weekly was certainly impressed by 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.’ [7]

The language of speeches and resolutions seemed to indicate that 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.’ [8]

Yet rarely in history can the hopes of masses of people been so ill-founded.

In the first half of the nine month period after Red Friday, while the government was publicly supporting the OMS and setting up emergency committees, the General Council and its Special Industrial Committee (still chaired by the ‘left’ Swales) did precisely ... nothing.

In the next four and a half months it did hardly any more. It waited until January to discuss feeding arrangements in the event of a major stoppage with the Co-operative Wholesale Society, and even then nothing definite was organised. Finally, on February 19th it decided that it would take no further steps until the Samuel Commission reported. When the crisis finally burst around it, the TUC General Council found (according to one of its more prominent members)

‘... that the only definite steps taken were of a mediatory character. No definite proposals (for action) had been formed and put down.’ [9]

Outside the General Council, little more was done by the official organisations. The attempt to set up the Industrial Alliance continued, but was effectively ruined when the NUR used as an excuse to withdraw the fact that the Locomotive-man’s union would not merge with it to form an industrial union. Everything in fact bears out J.T. Murphy’s contention that

‘discussion of ... preparations ceased, with the exception of those openly identified with the Minority Movement such as A.J. Cook, and a few leaders associated with Lansbury’s Labour Weekly.’ [10]

Quietism on the union side did nothing to deter the government from its preparations. On 10 March the Samuel Commission presented its report. As was to be expected of a body made up of two former senior government officials and an industrialist it came down on the side of wage cuts, although adding a lot of vague talk about the need to investigate reorganisation of the industry. Nevertheless, the press treated the document as if it were a sacred text, the living embodiment of impartial truth. What of the TUC leaders?

On 19 February the Industrial Committee had unhesitatingly declared:

‘... The Trade Union Movement ... would stand firmly and unitedly against any attempt to degrade the standard of life in the coal fields.’

Now, however, it seemed impressed by the general publicity campaign in favour of the report. It wrote to the Miners’ Federation that ‘matters have not yet reached the stage where any final declaration of General Council policy can be made’, although such statements had been made previously. Again, whereas before it had opposed any reductions now it merely called for negotiations between the miners and the owners ‘to reduce points of disagreement ot the smallest possible dimension.’ Swales’ eloquent leftism was giving way to a mellower, more conciliatory note.

The right wing and ‘centre’ in the General Council had a clear attitude, even if they did not make it public. Arthur Pugh (Chairman of the TUC in succession to Swales) believed that ‘sound tactics implied an acceptance by the miners of the report in substance, subject to subsequent negotiation on any point of reasonable modification,’ [11] and Bevin was privately drawing up elaborate blue-prints for putting the report into operation ‘to the advantage of the miners’. [12] Only the miners’ leaders spoke in terms which implied outright rejection of the report.

The coal-owners, however, felt ready for a confrontation, even if the TUC leaders did not. On 16 April they announced a lockout to begin a fortnight later unless the union accepted wage reductions. They were not prepared to resume negotiations on a national basis.

The General Council had little choice. Its fine words of the previous summer meant that it had to take some action. It called a special conference of all union executives to discuss support for the miners. But this was not to meet until April 29th. Meanwhile the Council did its utmost to get negotiations going. And it thought it would be successful.

‘Everyone was persuaded by the press, by speeches, or by their own reluctance to face the issue, that there was bound to be a settlement.’ [13]

Negotiations dragged on, even after the special conference of executives had started its meeting. But still the coal-owners would not give ground. Finally Thomas was compelled to report that success was not in sight, although ‘In all my experience I have never begged and pleaded like I begged and pleaded today.’ The attitude of the owners and of the government faced the General Council with a choice. Either its members could eat their words and give into the government or they had to prepare some sort of mass defensive action in the hope that the government would still make concessions. On Saturday 1 May they recommended to the conference of executives that it give to the General Council the power to call co-ordinated strike action in support of the miners.

Bevin spoke in the most grandiose terms about the significance of the vote:

‘... You have placed your all upon the altar of this great movement, and, having placed it there even if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write down that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do its all rather than see the miners driven down like slaves.’

The delegates left the conference believing that preparations would be put into action for a General Strike as from 26 hours later.

On the Brink

But the General Council was actually to devote little time to such preparations, even at this stage. It had called the strike, but saw this as only a negotiating weapon, a last desperate attempt to make the government and the owners give ground. Within hours of the strike call it was visiting Baldwin for further discussions and actually agreed on a ‘compromise’, which accepted ‘the (Samuel) Report as a basis of settlement, and we approach it with knowledge that it may involve some reduction in wages.’ [14] The employers had in reality given no ground at all. But Thomas could say ‘Never mind what the miners or anybody else say, we accept it.’ [15]

However, the government did not want just acceptance of compromise by the TUC leaders. It wanted to defeat the unions so as to be able to impose its own terms all down the line, and not only on the miners. In no other way could the long term problems of British capitalism be dealt with. Having seen how unwilling the trade union leaders were to take decisive action, the cabinet had decided to use the refusal of printworkers to print a lead article in the Daily Mail as a pretext for calling the agreement off.

The Strike

Even at this stage the TUC were not talking of a ‘General Strike’. They spoke of a ‘national strike’, and only called out initially certain industries. Others were to be called out later, as a ‘second line of defence’. The rest, including those in such vital services (from the government’s point of view) as the postal service were not to be called out at all. Furthermore, the instructions calling the strike were far from clear. In the localities it was not always obvious who should be on strike and who should not.

Government preparations were much more extensive. Volunteers were asked to come forward and break the strike or to act as special constables. The lists of OMS volunteers were used similarly. Public parks were requisitioned as supply dumps. Two battleships were anchored in the Mersey and battalions of troops marched through Liverpool as if for battle. The Emergency Powers Act was implemented to give the police a whole number of new grounds for arrest.

But despite the combination of half-hearted leadership and governmental provocation, the response of workers to the strike call, according to the TUC, ‘surpassed all expectations’. Government and trade union leaders were equally amazed at the enthusiasm. The General Council’s organising committees ‘were from the start embarrassed by the eagerness of many non-manual workers to join the strike.’

There is little space here to go into the details of the organisation of the strike. But a few points can bring out the degree of mass enthusiasm and initiative. In the localities the Trades Councils were responsible for ensuring that local union branches kept to the General Council’s instructions. Many of them created ‘Councils of Action’, drawing together representatives from the major unions and other sections of the labour movement in each area. A greater willingness to take action existed more than at a national level. Mass meetings were organised, local strike bulletins produced, pickets allocated, sometimes on a mass basis to stop all movements of strike-breaking traffic and in a few places Workers’ Defence Corps were formed to protect workers from police attacks and to prevent scabbing. In at least one area, Fife, the regular police were virtually put out of existence by such bodies. [16] In other areas (such as Doncaster and Barnsley) unorganised mass picketing enabled the police to inflict large scale casualties. Overall, more than a thousand people were to be arrested in the strike, a hundred of them Communist Party members.Usually the offence was ‘having under his control any document containing any report or statement ... likely to cause disaffection ... among the civilian population’: in other words, printing or distributing strike bulletins.

Such activism in the localities was not matched by activism at the centre. A Strike Organising Committee had been set up with the ‘left’ Purcell as the chairman. But it seems to have regarded its chief role as being that of keeping down the activism of the localities. According to one historian of the strike:

‘It was feared that in some provincial towns and cities extreme left-wing elements might take control and conduct the strike as a purely political affair. Hence the Strike Organising Committee tried from the first to maintain a control over provincial activities which was simply unworkable.’ [17]

When the government started issuing its own daily paper the British Gazette, the TUC replied with the British Worker. But there could hardly have been greater contrast between the tone of the two. The government proclaimed that the strike ‘is not a dispute between employers and workmen. It is a conflict between trade union leaders and parliament.’ [18] The British Worker lamely replied that

‘The General Council... wishes to emphasise that this is an industrial dispute ... The Council asks pickets to avoid obstruction and to confine themselves strictly to their legitimate duties.’ [19]

Neither Swales, nor Hicks, nor Purcell, nor any of the other ‘lefts’ now repeated their conference phrases of only eight months before about the ‘destruction of wage slavery’. Instead they sat on TUC committees concerned to stop bulletins in the localities using such language.

Ending the Strike

The strike had tapped the latent enthusiasm of millions of workers. They began to see the possibilities of mass action achieving a solution to suffering and frustrations previously taken for granted. Through the Councils of Action and Strike Committees they began to express independent initiative as never before. The lessons learnt in sixteen hard years of struggle were being applied in a massive and unfaltering display of class solidarity. Yet the only centralised leadership for the movement remained the General Council of the TUC. And there the desire for a quick negotiated settlement still prevailed.

The rebuff from Baldwin had forced the General Council to translate its threat of a mass strike into action. But it was still ready to seize upon any opportunity to restart discussions With its opponents. On the fifth day of the strike, the Special Industrial Committee began to work out a scheme for ending the strike with the author of the Samuel Report, although he assured them that he had ‘received no authority from the government’ and could ‘give no assurances on their behalf. According to A.J. Cook,

‘it seemed that the only desire of some leaders was to call off the General Strike at any cost without any guarantees for workers, miners or others.’ [20]

Two days later they agreed with Samuel upon a memorandum which accepted wage deductions in the mines. Not one ‘left wing’ voice was raised against such a proposal. The whole General Council was united in its determination to call off the strike. Yet there was not even the guarantee that the government would consider the memorandum as binding. Samuel had made that clear.

The Miners’ Federation alone suggested that there was a problem. Its leaders asked whether there were any guarantees that other workers who had been on strike would not be victimised when they returned. According to A.J. Cook he received the reply: ‘You may not trust my word, but will you accept the word of a British gentleman who has been governor of Palestine.’ [21] Those ‘lefts’ who had voted overwhelmingly against colonialism in the conference halls made no protest.

It emerged clearly from such discussions that there were no guarantees at all against victimisation, except for the promise of a man who had served the British ruling class faithfully all his life and, on his own admission, could not commit the government or the employers to anything.

What was involved at this point was not a willingness of trade union leaders to issue calls for revolution, or even to lead a limited offensive against the employing class. It only required the most elementary knowledge of the basic tactics of the wages struggle to see that there should be no return to work without cast iron guarantees that the agreement was binding on the government side and that there would be no victimisation. The right wing trade union leaders, however, were not interested in such guarantees, and the ‘lefts’ did not raise the question either. Instead Swales helped Thomas to make the agreement with Samuel, and Purcell joined Bevin in pleading with the miners’ leaders to accept the formula. [22]

The Miners’ Federation rejected the memorandum, and decided to keep on fighting, alone if necessary. But the General Council were determined to end the strike. A deputation went to see Baldwin, assuring him that the strike was over, and asking for guarantees that the miners’ lock-out would be ended and that there would be no victimisation. He replied in vague generalities.

That afternoon, the ninth of the strike, the press (or rather those papers still being published in a stunted form) announced the General Council’s ‘surrender’. Baldwin broadcast a speech making it clear that he too regarded the outcome as an unconditional victory for the government. ‘The General Strike ... has ended without conditions entered into by the government.’

Bigger Than Ever

Throughout the country the news was greeted with amazement. There had been few signs that the strike was weakening. Indeed, only the day before hundreds of thousands of workers in engineering and ship-building, the so-called ‘second line of defence’, had been called out – by a General Council that had already decided to end the strike. In many unorganised factories the few unionised members who had come out were now faced with certain dismissal. And even in massive organised concerns there was no guarantee at all against selective victimisation and imposition of worse conditions. Millions of working people, bewildered by the turn of events, felt it best to do nothing and remain on strike. The result was that except for a limited restarting of transport services in some provincial towns there was no immediate break in the strike.

The next day the employers tried to ram home their victory. In the railways notices were posted announcing the workers would only be taken back on an individual basis with reductions in wages. Elsewhere similar conditions were being made. Trying to shut the door after the horse had bolted, the executives of various unions (the T&GWU and the G&MWU, the three railway unions) instructed their members to stay out until re-employment on the old terms was offered.

In the localities, militants were doing their utmost to keep the struggle going. Twenty four hours after the General Council had called the strike off, the number who had stopped work had actually increased by 100,000. The Communist Party issued an appeal calling for ‘emergency meetings of all strike committees and Councils of Action, with a view to continuing the struggle and forcing the leaders to do so.’

These leaders were adamant, however, that the struggle was not going to continue. The rail unions hastened to sign a return-to-work agreement with the management which apologised for the strike, and effectively left it in the companies’ hands as to who would be re-employed.

‘On the strength of this, railwaymen ... were gradually persuaded to return to work ... In many places attempts were made to stay out ... but ... this beginning of reorganisation and reforming the line came too late ...’ [23]

As late as October 1926 something like 45,000 railwaymen had still not got their jobs back.

A similar picture emerged in most other industries. Union organisations were broken completely in some places, militants victimised in others, grovelling apologies from union leaders obtained elsewhere. Such was the extent of victimisation over all that Bevin could boast that ‘only’ 1,500 members of his union had been victimised.

Yet even at this late stage it should have been possible for the union leaders to reform their ranks, reassert the solidarity of the strikers, and at least prevent general dismissals. They refused to do so, ‘left’ as well as right. Why?


Among union leaders generally the excuse for calling off the strike was the claim that it was cracking. There is, however, no evidence whatsoever for that assertion. In most sectors the strike was actually growing in strength. Other statements by individual union leaders give a truer picture of their motives.

Thomas made his position absolutely clear:

‘What I dreaded most about this strike was this: If by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who knew how to exercise some control ... That is why I believe that the decision yesterday was a big decision.’ [24]

Dukes, of the G&MWU made the same point some months later:

‘Every day the strike proceeded the control and the authority of the dispute was passing out of the hands of responsible executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and was wrecking the movement from one end to the other.’ [25]

The General Council had not wanted the strike. It had felt compelled to make a gesture in defence of the miners. Only in that way could it assert its own importance within existing capitalist society and at the same time prevent itself being outflanked by militants below. But the government forced the strike upon it. Once this had happened there was continual danger to the established leaders of the strike ‘getting out of control’ and of the rank and file engaging in a struggle which could no longer be played according to the rules of existing society, but which would mean a complete challenge to that society. And in such a fight a trade union bureaucracy that had grown up in existing society would have no place. The newly insurgent rank and file would rapidly cast it off.

Rather than face such a prospect, the leaders preferred to put their trust in a government which was determined to weaken enormously the working class organisations that gave the bureaucrats their prestige.

In all this the ‘lefts’ in the union bureaucracy behaved no differently from the right. At each stage the left and right leaders shared the same assumptions and drew the same conclusions. The only added role of the ‘lefts’ was to increase the confusion and bewilderment of militants below. [2*] As the Communist Party leaders were to write, after the strike:

‘The events of 1926 have shown that Purcell, Hicks and Bromley were only with the miners while it was a question of phrases and resolutions ... When the crisis came they ran away, and those who were once the critics of the reactionaries are now their most fervent apologists.’ [27]

The CP and the Minority Movement

It has not been the intention of this articte to deal in detail with the question of the policy followed by the Communist Party in the period up to the General Strike. [3*] But two points do need to be made: firstly the CP in its public propaganda was as much deceived by the left phrases of the union officials as anybody else. And secondly, that the developing Stalinist forces in the Comintern played a major role in bringing this about.

Among the other ‘left’ gestures of the TUC had been an agreement early in 1925 to work jointly with the Russian trade union organisation through an ‘Anglo-Russian Joint Trade Union Committee’ for an international defensive alliance of trade unions.In doing so it had broken with the predominant anti-Communism of the European trade union movement. Moreover, at a time when a general election was being fought on a programme of anti-Communism (the Zinoviev letter) it seemed to have made an important stand.

At first there had been considerable scepticism in the British CP about the significance of such gesture.The Workers’ Weekly had made the point that ‘Unity that is based upon political agreement among leaders is useless unless backed up by mass pressure’ and Harry Pollitt had written that

‘The workers organised under the leadership of the National Minority Movement ... have witnessed on so many occasions defeats and betrayals . . . that they realise that even at this time it is necessary to bring the question of International Trade Union Unity down from the clouds to the sphere of practical politics.’ [28]

But in the months that followed both the leaders of the British Party and their advisers in Moscow were so carried away by the seeming friendship of prominent union leaders that they completely forgot such reservations. By the time of Red Friday and the Scarborough Conference they described the ‘present General Council of the TUC’ as ‘in many respects the most progressive official body in the trade union movement’. [29]

Accompanying this belief in the sincerity of the ‘lefts’ was an unwillingness to criticise them. In the months between Red Friday and the General Strike the failure of the General Council to make preparations was rarely criticised, and, when it was, the tone was mild. Rank and file militants were in no way prepared for the sell-out which was to come. When the CP issued its appeal condemning the sell-out, and wrote that ‘most of the so-called left-wing have been no better than the right’, this was the first indication that the ‘so-called lefts’ could not be trusted to run the mass struggles of the class. Indeed, on the eve of the strike. T.A. Jackson had made an explicit distinction between the majority of trade union leaders who would retreat when they saw any revolutionary implications and others who ‘do not look for a path to retreat’ and had ‘sufficient courage to stand firm on the demands of the miners, but are totally incapable of moving forward to face all the implications of a united working class challenge to the state.’ [30]

Such an analysis of the role of the ‘left’ union leaders meant that no preparation was made for militants to take the initiative when the sell-out occurred. In every locality mechanisms for keeping the strike going had to be improvised on the spot.

Yet a year before the whole policy of the CP had been to build up the sort of united class institutions that could both hold the class together in struggle and prevent leaders selling out. They had seen this as meaning a struggle both to use the old institutions of the labour movement and to create new organs to control them. More power was demanded for the General Council of the TUC, as a way of ensuring that sectional differences could be over-ruled in any major confrontation; but this demand was always coupled with demands for a democratisation of the TUC, based, for instance, on the representation on it of trades councils directly linked to the factory floor. For the CP at this period the call for the Industrial Alliance only made sense when linked to the demand that at the local level union branches and factory committees would form Councils of Action. In this way the fight for united action of the whole trade union movement was linked to the fight for rank and file control over the actions of that movement’s leaders.

Uncritical support for the trade union ‘lefts’ after Red Friday shattered the cohesion of this programme. The central slogan became ‘All power to the General Council’, no longer linked to any demand for the transformation of that institution. The ‘left’ leaders were relied upon to ensure that it acted in the interests of the class - with what consequences we have seen. Such an attitude meant that in their preparations for struggle (which were much greater than those of the whole official movement of the trade unions put together) the revolutionaries of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement did not prepare for the eventuality of a sell-out. If they expected a sell-out from Thomas and the like, they expected Purcell, Hicks, Swales and the rest to counter it.

Even after the strike, the lessons were not learned all at once. The Stalinisation of the Communist International meant that no criticism of the party line during the nine months ever took place. It meant further that the one man – Trotsky – who, from the distance of Moscow saw through the words of the ‘lefts’, had to be ignored by the leaders of the British CP.

After the General Strike, as before, there was still a tendency for the CP to continue its policy of collaboration with the ‘lefts’. A statement of the party’s EC warned against the danger of ‘a reaction within our party against working with left-wing leaders’. [31] And the slogan ‘All Power to the General Council’ was retained.

This approach was eventually abandoned – but only when the harm had been done. At the time when criticisms of every hesitation of the ‘lefts’ was required, the party which alone could have begun to build an alternative source of direction for the struggle, feted to do so.


The General Strike of 1926 was a watershed in the history of the class struggle in Britain. Previous defeats, such as that of Black Friday, had weakened the unions and meant worse conditions for their members. But they had not entailed any massive loss of faith in the effectiveness of united action. In 1926 millions of workers had put their hopes in such action as never before – and were sold out by those leaders whose words had gone furthest in expressing their own desire to fight. It was to be many years before such hopes were to build up again. In the meantime, the British ruling class got its way. The massive misery occasioned by the slump of the thirties, which elsewhere produced determined and militant action, produced despair in Britain. Workers had, by and large, lost the faith they had had in the twenties that they could challenge the powers-that-be.

The union leaders survived, and so did the unions, but on the basis of collaboration with the employers, negotiating one wage reduction after another, exerting themselves to the full to prevent renewed class conflict.

In 1927, George Hicks, the ‘left’ of 1925, was Chairman of the TUC, His presidential address was quite different to Swales’ two years earlier. He called for a ‘direct exchange of practical views’ between employers and union leaders – a call taken up in the ‘Mond-Turner’ talks of the following months which prepared the ground for forty years of class-collaboration and bureaucratisation of the unions.

Some lessons of the strike stand out clearly: never trust the government; freedom of speech in a situation of social crisis is a myth; the right wing union leaders will sell out. Such lessons will be accepted by most people on the left today. But there is another one, which is much more important precisely because it is often ignored by those who should know better: the ‘left’ wing of the trade union bureaucracy is part of a social group that is isolated in all sorts of ways from workers on the shop floor, and can only be trusted in so far as it is directly and immediately controlled by shop-floor militants.


1*. There was another reason for acceptance ef such a standpoint, to do with the line of the Comintern. But we will deal with that later.

2*. The only partial exceptions were the miners’ leaders, Smith and Cook This can be explained only by the fact that it was in the miners’ union that the Minority Movement was best organised and best able to discipline left leaders. Nevertheless, on three occasions Cook played into the right wing’s hands. Firstly, in the days before the strike broke, when he agreed to accept wage reductions, but was over-ruled by his executive. [26] Secondly after the strike, when agreed to the TUC not calling an early meeting of trade union executives, and finally at the TUC annual conference of 1926 when he agreed to dampen down the debate on the strike.

3*. This has been done fairly well in Brian Pearce’s pamphlet The Early History of the CPGB.


1. Plebs, March 1925.

2. quoted in Palme Dutt, Communist International, 1925, no.16.

3. Palme Dutt, ibid.

4. Workers’ Weekly, 11.7.25.

5. ibid., 18.7.25.

6. On December 25, quoted by A. Hutt, The Post-War History of the Working Class, London 1937, p.114.

7. Workers’ Weekly, 18 September 1925.

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

9. Bevin, quoted in A. Bullock, Ernest Bevin, p.299.

10. The Political Meaning of the General Strike, London 1926.

11. Quoted in Bullock, op. cit., p.295.

12. For details see ibid., p.295-8.

13. Page Arnot, op. cit., p.117.

14. J. Symons, The General Strike, London 1957, p.46.

15. ibid.

16. R.W. Postgate and others, A Worker’s History of the Great Strike, London 1927, p.43.

17. Symons, op. cit., p.64.

18. British Gazette, 5 May.

19. British Worker, 5 May.

20. Quoted in Hutt, op. cit., p.153.

21. A.J. Cook, Nine Days, London 1926, p.20.

22. Bullock, op. cit., p.333.

23. Postgate, op. cit., p.90.

24. quoted by Hutt, op. cit., p.135.

25. Quoted in Symons, op. cit., p.211.

26. Postgate, op. cit., p.76.

27. Statement by Gallacher, Hannington; Inkpin, Pollitt and Rust in Workers’ Weekly, 25 September 1926.

28. Workers’ Weekly, 28 January 1925.

29. ibid., 31 July 1925.

30. ibid., 30 April 1926.

31. ibid., 4 June 1926.

Last updated on 16 November 2009