J. T. Murphy
Source: The Communist International, Vol. IV, No. 3, February 28, 1927
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
THE recent inquest on the General Strike and the Miners’ Lock-out has brought out a crop of documentary statements, an examination of which will enable the workers to draw very decisive conclusions. The General Council has issued its supplementary report. The miners have issued their version of the events. The Independent Labour Party has expressed its views in the “New Leader” and “Lansbury’s Weekly” has published an article by Cole and endorses it editorially. There is a striking unanimity on many aspects of this great struggle as well as deep and fundamental differences to which it is necessary still to direct attention.
The one outstanding feature of the inquest is the fact that it is an investigation of the leadership of the struggle and not an investigation of the actions of the masses. All and sundry bear tribute to the spirit, the solidarity, the self-sacrifice of the masses. All else within these reports is an examination of the line taken by the leaders. In the examination it is necessary to observe that all the criticism is directed either against the General Council or the miners as trade union bodies and there is not the slightest reference to the parties and sections of the parties involved.
Logic of the Irresponsibles
For example, a large proportion of the General Council and the Miners’ Executives are members of the Independent Labour Party and the Lansbury group and practically all of them are members of the Labour Party. Have these no responsibility for what has taken place? If membership of these bodies means that in the greatest crisis in the history of the British working class they have nothing to say, nothing to do, no part to play, of what value are they if it be asserted that these are political parties and not groups we have to ask does not this fact add to their responsibility rather than take from it? We answer yes without reserve and the Communist International and its parties are prepared to be judged on this basis and have unhesitatingly and publicly submitted their conduct to examination.
But it must be observed that the most significant feature of the reports of the General Council and the Miners’ Executive is the repudiation of the General Strike as a political event with the greatest political significance. In the midst of the strike they were unanimously denouncing its political significance. The Labour Partys’ leading organ said likewise. The I.L.P. headquarters closed down. “Lansbury’s Weekly” closed down and the “Left Leadership” with it. All of them fell in behind the General Council and said not a word as to the course the General Council was pursuing.
In order to justify this surrender of responsibility for the action of their adherents, “Lansbury’s Weekly” and the “New Leader” now advance the theory that it is necessary to close down under such circumstances, and the miners were wrong in not realising that once they had called on the rest of the unions to strike on their behalf it was indispensable that the entire control of the dispute, even including the right to settle it against the miners’ wishes, should pass to the General Council. “When men fight as allies they must accept all the limitations which fighting together involves.”
The “New Leader” of January 21st says: “The miners should have realised that when the General Council took command of the united movement it was inevitable that it should have the final word in negotiations.” The logic of this means that “the miners should have surrendered to the General Council as a preliminary to surrendering to the Government, that having called upon the trade unions to fight with them and having secured repeated pledges in Congress and in the Council that they would fight with them, they ought to have become party to the policy which refused to fight, repudiated the Scarborough Trades Union Congress, repudiated the declared policy of the whole trade union movement including the Miners’ Federation.”
“Lansbury’s Weekly” goes still further and says: “the miners were wrong in not accepting the responsibility of leadership,” meaning in this case that the miners’ leaders should have repudiated the men and acted against their wishes. Mr. Bevin of the General Council who believes also that the miners should have pursued this policy in the name of discipline to the General Council has therefore no grounds for complaint against this “outside body.” The unity of “Right and Left” is established in this case.
Where were Miners Wrong?
Where were the miners wrong in their dealings with the General Council? In our judgment they were wrong in placing their faith in the General Council, in continuing to believe that the General Council would lead a fight and not promptly exposing the General Council immediately they perceived the tendency to depart from their pledges to resist wages reductions and the lengthening of working hours. By not doing this they helped to create the impression that the General Council would fight and to inspire confidence in the General Council. Had the miners exposed them from the beginning, and they were in a better position to do this than anybody else, Pugh, Thomas, Bevin, MacDonald, etc., would not have been debating now as to what each understood on the memorable April 30th, 1926, when Pugh, Bevin, MacDonald, Thomas and Co. led the Trade Union Conference to a decision in favour of the General Strike.
Both the General Council’s report and the miners report use many words on this question. There is not the least doubt in anybody’s mind as to what the mass of workers were fighting for. Their decision and their view had been formed by two years of agitation and repeated decisions which were crystallised in the slogans of the miners, and the General Council’s apologetics will convince nobody on the matter. They broke, the alliance with the miners in fact and not vice-versa. That is the plain truth of the matter. They did worse. They kept up the appearance of an alliance in order to bring the miners to submission both on wages and hours. This is proven by their own report. On February 26th, they were in favour of the miners’ slogans. On March 10th, the Coal Commission Report was issued and then began the change of front—adopting a two-faced policy. Not daring to openly say that the Coal Commission Report should be accepted entirely and that now the miners’ demands were out of place, they kept up the appearance of support to the miners and actually began to negotiate reductions and, as I have shown in detail elsewhere (see “The Political Meaning of the Great Strike”) presented the Government with a Black Friday before the Strike which it refused to accept because it had a bigger objective in view. They called the Strike, they say, not to support the miners’ demands but to re-open negotiations for the purpose of helping the Government to secure what they had already offered before the Strike. The story of the Strike leadership as revealed in these reports is that of the Government wiping the floor with the capitulators and using their panic to browbeat the miners. Those who refuse to fight their real enemies always turn round with ferocity upon those who urge them to be manlike and fight. So the end of their capitulation on May 12th only intensified their anger with their “allies.” The report of the General Council then gives the following mournful, story. In June
“. . . . the Council, however, were anxious not to prejudice the discussions that were taking place with the Miners’ Federation, and hoped that by the time the Report was ready, a basis of settlement might be found. . . .”
After the introduction of the eight-hour law
“. . . . the General Council decided to invite the Executive Committee of the Miners’ Federation to consult with them in order to ascertain the best means of rendering practical assistance to the Federation in resisting the attempt to lengthen the working day, and to ascertain whether the Council could assist in bringing about negotiations for a settlement of the dispute.”
When on October 22 the miners asked for a special conference to decide upon an embargo and levy, the General Council says:
“At this meeting the question was again raised as to whether the Council could take any action to assist to re-open negotiations. . . .”
A special “Mediation Committee” was appointed to “explore the possibilities of settlement.” On October 28 the Mediation Committee met the Government to “elucidate further information as to their attitude.” On November 5th, it met the miners and from then onwards proceeded to quarrel as to what they were mediating about, disputing with the miners on the point that in discussion with the Government everything must come under view, wages and hours, too. And “Lansbury’s Weekly,” Bevin and Co., and the I.L.P. have the cheek to call this “entering into an alliance,” “fighting as allies.” It is, but not with the miners. The General Council “changed horses while crossing the stream,” and the I.L.P. and “Lansbury’s Weekly” have gone with them. From March 19th, the alliance with the mineowners and the Baldwin Government began to be established and subsequently was established.
Miners and I.L.P. Leaders
Of course, the miners’ leaders are not immune from criticism by any means. This report shows all too frequently their efforts to do what “Lansbury’s Weekly” says they ought to have done much earlier, i.e., “accepted the responsibility of leadership” (Lansbury version) and sought a settlement in the true spirit of trade union collective bargaining principles. They sought an accommodation with the General Council (a pact of silence) and the postponement of the special conference as a bargain for financial aid, and got stabbed in the back for their pains by Bromley and later by others. They listened to the Bishops, they flirted with the I.L.P. cartel scheme, indeed, they denied the political character of the struggle. But with all their shakiness they have listened to the voice of the masses.
They did not crawl before the Government. They did accept international aid. They did attempt to prepare the workers for the crisis.
We cannot say this of the Independent Labour Party. The I.L.P. Conference prior to the strike ignored the oncoming crisis. There is an unusual amount of tiredness and detachment in the I.L.P. leadership even when the fight was on. Its members on the General Council were permitted to pursue their own course. In general, it waited for something to turn up, refusing all united front proposals made by the Communist Party. Its leader, MacDonald, denounced “unscientific reductions” and schemed for real reductions.
When the General Council began to change its front on the publication of the Coal Commission Report, it was declared by the “New Leader” on March 12th, 1926, that the Labour movement should prepare with courage but “first of all address itself to the good sense and the co-operative conscience of the nation.” It did nothing to prepare the movement or its own members for the struggle. Its leaders on the General Council were too cowardly to tell the workers that they believed the miners to be wrong. MacDonald himself supported the strike decision and afterwards when the struggle assumed the form of an isolated struggle of the miners the party leadership especially, refused the united front offer of the Communist Party for the embargo and levy, and its leaders grew more detached. MacDonald went for a trip to the Sahara. He was very tired and the American newspapers would more than pay his expenses.
The Blue Lagoon
The Editor of the “New Leader,” after boosting certain phases of the Coal Commission Report and succeeding in sending Cook on to the wild cat scheme of “selling cartels,” grew more detached. He found it increasingly difficult to write about the miners. On November 12th he wrote “with increasing reluctance I have just laid down a fascinating book about native life in the South Seas. It is time that I wrote my article about the miners. But try as I will, what I see is the blue lagoon and the rustling palm grove.” How sad! Bring in the tea, William—and the ladies! The struggle? Leave it to Maxton, our Left leader. So MacDonald got the desert, the editor got dreamy and later got the sack. Perhaps this accounts for Maxton’s quandary as 1927 opens with the miners defeated, the government preparations for its offensive on the trade unions and the unemployed, etc., in full swing, for by January 7th, Maxton has got to the following condition: “I had been writhing in mental anguish to find a subject upon which to write this week. Parliament was not sitting, Christmas and New Year topics were exhausted. The subject I had anticipated did not develop as expected. . . Nor have I any desire to hold either the honour or responsibility of leadership.” Nevertheless when the inquest takes place the new editor of the “New Leader,” Brockway, who is or was prior to his editorship the secretary of the remarkably tired and detached leadership, expressed “the hope that from this moment onwards the Labour movement will be best advised to look forward rather than backwards.” In other words, don’t review the past for fear you may discover too much about the leadership of the present.
He further declares: “We believe that almost everyone in the Labour movement, if honest with himself, will now admit the first great mistake was the absence of organised preparation for the General Strike.” “Lansbury’s Weekly” also says: “The General Council did wrong first in making no preparations for the strike.” But we would ask why should the General Council have made preparations for the strike if the miners should have capitulated from the beginning, for this is what both the “New Leader” and “Lansbury’s Weekly” prove in effect by their subsequent argument, whilst the General Council from May 12th, we are told by their report were already convinced that there should be no fight.
“Lansbury’s Weekly” says the miners made a mistake in “not making terms sooner than they did although on this point we are bound to admit that all terms offered them were terms more or less of surrender.” “Lansbury’s Weekly” says that the miners were wrong in not realising “that once the general strike had failed it was (a) impossible to secure an embargo and that (b) consequently the possibility of an out and out victory was very unlikely.” This is defeatism of the worst type uttered for the purpose of covering the failures of this group to fight for the embargo on the transport of coal. Here. there is no difference whatever between the position of the General Council’s Right, Left, Middle and “Lausbury’s Weekly.”
In order to carry justification for defeatism still further, the Lansbury group have told us more than once, “that we were wrong in judging the leadership from a revolutionary point of view.” Now they outline the case as follows: “The root of the trouble lay in the failure to understand what a general strike involves, in not realising that a general strike was bound to be either a failure or a revolutionary movement designed to overthrow the government, not necessarily by force, but rather in a constitutional manner.” It proceeds to say: “The Council was in part composed of people who never had the least faith in the general strike as a weapon and did not hesitate to tell the trade unionists so. Men who hold such views should not have been asked or been allowed to take part in organising or carrying on a general strike.”
Here is sophistry with a vengeance. Did “Lansbury’s Weekly” ever carry on a campaign for the change of leadership before the strike? No. On the contrary, it conducted a campaign inspiring confidence in the General Council especially its Left leaders. Did it warn the workers of the danger of permitting the strike to be called by men who did not believe in it? No. The General Council was the only possible body to lead the dispute, but it could not lead it “unless it was given full powers to settle as well as conduct the strike.”
Common Policy of Surrender
So we are faced with the following situation. On one side the General Council, because of its unreliability, ought not to have been allowed to lead a general strike, which means under existing circumstances there should have been no general strike, i.e., the workers should not have supported the miners and the praise lavished upon their action is humbug. On the other side, the General Council could not lead the strike, not because it was unreliable, but because it had not the power to conduct or to settle the strike. This is contrary to fact. It did not require any more power than it received to call the general strike. It did not require any more power to extend the strike. Nor does the General Council attempt to justify itself for calling off the strike on account of its lack of power.
The confessions reveal that the General Council, the Labour Party, the I.L.P. leadership and its press pursued a common policy of retreat and capitulation in the face of a situation which demanded foresight, courage and daring. They reveal the miners’ leaders as unclear as to the political significance of their action as the General Council but more responsive to mass pressure which increasingly came under the ideological influence of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement which alone pursued a clearly defined class war policy.
Outside the ranks of the Communist movement there was throughout the struggle not only a complete lack of preparation, but an organised effort to suppress its political significance and confine it within the limits of an ordinary trade union dispute. The miners attempted the latter no less than the General Council. So long as this is the situation the trade unions will tread the path of defeat. Much more than the transformation of the Miners’ Federation into an industrial union is necessary—important as that it. Much more than the return of a Labour government as early as possible is necessary, pleased as we shall be to see it. The value of any demand before the Labour movement, whether it be a demand for a “fighting General Council,” “Industrial Unionism,” “A Labour Government,” etc., depends entirely upon the progress of the working class in the shedding of its illusions as to the character of the class war and the nature of the tasks which lie before it, and the development of the Communist Party into its great leading party. The documents published are an impetus to this direction for they show clearly when placed alongside the record of the Communists that the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Minority Movement were alone in making working class interests govern their policy throughout the struggle.