From The Newsletter, 24 May 1958.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
The full-employment phase after the first world war was much shorter than this time, but it saw some tremendous struggles by the British workers to make the most of their opportunities.
Greatest of these was the railwaymen’s fight in 1919, and it is worth recalling today how they won.
An attempt to bribe the loco-men to leave the rest in the lurch proved a failure. ‘Vigilance committees’ arose among the National Union of Railwaymen rank and file, and the union secretary, J. H. Thomas, complained that they were breathing down his neck all the time.
Other unions were asked to show active solidarity, and when a general conference of trade unions was convened it was understood that a general strike would be the outcome.
Two days before the conference was due to take place the Government gave in.
W.H. Crook tells us, in his valuable study of international labour history The General Strike (1931), that ‘the union executives had experienced greatest difficulty in keeping many other transport groups from joining the railwaymen.’
Towards the end of 1920 the boom burst, and in a few months unemployment rose to a million.
This was the background to ‘Black Friday’, the day in 1921 when the railway and transport unions refused to come to the aid of the miners, and opened a new period in which lock-outs, wage-cuts and mass dismissals were the dominant themes in industry.
Only towards the middle of 1923, after the trade unions had lost two million members in two years, did the workers, led by the Minority Movement, begin to turn the tide against the employers. The new phase culminated in ‘Red Friday’ (1925), when the solidarity of all sections with the miners forced the Tory Government to retreat and wiped out the evil memory of ‘Black Friday’.
How the splendid promise of ‘Red Friday’ was dashed in the betrayal of the General Strike less than a year later is another story.
Never was it more important than now for the workers to recall the lessons of the years 1919 to 1926, so as to learn from the experiences of that period instead of having to undergo the same setbacks a second time.
We may be sure that the employers and their Government have deeply studied those years and are consciously applying the lessons of history so far as they are concerned.
‘Act now, don’t await Summit.’ Seeing this headline in the Daily Worker of May 15 gave me quite a shock. Then I noticed the ‘strap-line’ in smaller type: ‘Moscow pleads with Mac.’
The appeal was directed not by the communist paper to the British workers but by the Soviet Government to the British Government, the Daily Worker’s role being to applaud and ‘rally support’.
Before it had finally emerged that this was the standard Stalinist method in the fight for peace, Tom Wintringham wrote in his useful book The Coming World War, published in 1935:
‘The essential thing about most of the work of our friends the pacifists ... is that it consists of an endeavour “to convince the bourgeois State”. The essential thing about the work of those who want peace must be the attempt to convince the working class of their power to end the bourgeois State, thereby ending war.’
This passage was omitted (with a number of others) from the 1936 edition. The line of the Communist Party had meanwhile become what it has substantially remained ever since: to substitute for the independent struggle of the working class the organization of pressure on the ruling class to come into alignment with the current schemes of Soviet diplomacy.
Today many pacifists are in practice closer to the Marxist position on war than the Communist Party is!
Last updated on 10.10.2011