Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

The 1919 Rail Strike

(February 1960)

From The Newsletter, 13 February 1960.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

‘A notable feature was a revolt of the compositors and printers’ assistants, who threatened to strike and stop the newspapers altogether unless the railwaymen were allowed to present their case and unless abusive posters were abandoned.’ This fact, recorded by the Webbs in the 1920 edition of their History of Trade Unionism was typical of the great railway strike of 1919. It was the other side of the famous publicity campaign organized on behalf of the NUR by the Labour Research Department. Such solidarity by all other sections of the working class with a section on strike had not been seen before in this country and was not to be seen again until 1926. C.F.G. Masterman, a Liberal politician, noted in a newspaper article at the time that ‘before the strike ended the railwaymen had rallied nine-tenths of the industrial workers to their side’ and ‘were increasing sympathizers from the middle classes by hundreds of thousands a day’.

Wartime rationing was still in force in 1919, and the Government intended to withdraw ration cards from strikers and their families; but the co-operative movement foiled that scheme by publicly agreeing to honour in their shops any vouchers issued by local strike committees.

The soldiers, sent to guard railway stations, in some cases fraternized with the pickets, and had to be withdrawn to barracks. In contrast to what it had done in the railway strike before the 1914 war, the Government announced that it would not try to use troops to run the trains; and everyone knew that this announcement had been forced from them by the mood in the ranks.

The railwaymen won their battle in 1919, and inflicted such a fright on the employers and their Government that a general offensive against the working class was held off until 1921, when the post-war slump was well under way and mass unemployment hampered the workers’ resistance. Unfortunately, the time so gained was not fully used by the Labour movement, or the capitalists could have been deprived for good of their power to do harm.

In the crisis on the railways the NUR leaders were careful not to call on the miners’ and transport workers’ unions to fulfil their obligations under the ‘Triple Alliance’ concluded during the war. (The Webbs’ record that the miners’ and transport workers’ officials had difficulty in ‘restraining their own members from impetuous action in support of the railwaymen’). Nothing was done to foster and develop the sympathy spontaneously expressed by soldiers. Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail and leading Press Lord of the day, expressed the gratitude of the ruling class in characteristically dramatic terms : ‘Without labour unions our strike last week would have been a civil war. It was the control of the men by their leaders which made it a peaceful struggle’ (quoted in K.G.J.C. Knowles’ Strikes, 1911–1947 [1952]).

The railway strike of 1919 was a great and inspiring victory. Compared with what could have been won for the whole working class at that time by a really single-minded and determined militant leadership it must be seen, however, in a different light – as an occasion when British labour ‘missed the bus’ and allowed capitalism a fresh lease of life in this country.

Constant Reader Unpersoned

Alasdair MacIntyre’s radio talk on Communism and British Intellectuals has provoked a most interesting correspondence in The Listener. In the issue of February 4, E.P. Thompson, one of the board of New Left Review takes MacIntyre to task for adding ‘his own original mite to mis-history’ by suggesting that some of those who took part in the revolt in the Communist Party in 1956 have joined the Socialist Labour League. ‘Not one of those who were actively associated with John Saville and myself in The Reasoner episode has done this’, writes Thompson.

Not one? Yet, it cannot be news to Thompson that the ‘Joseph Redman’ who wrote the first of the Reasoner pamphlets was the present writer of this column; who also, as ‘Leonard Hussey’, contributed the article Mr. Rothstein and the Soviet Union to the first issue of the New Reasoner. The use of pseudonyms was strongly urged on me by John Saville in order to safeguard my then position on the Communist Party History Commission. Correspondence with Saville which I have kept shows that I associated myself pretty ‘actively’ with The Reasoner itself in such respects as helping with articles, supplying addresses, providing money, and so on – even if, doubtless, on a smaller scale than some others. Those who accuse us of possessing Stalinist traits often themselves reveal horrible survivals of their Stalinist miseducation. and this is another example of that sad fact.

Because Brian Pearce is now with the Socialist Labour League, his association with Thompson and Saville at an earlier stage must be suppressed. To use Orwell’s felicitious word, he becomes an ‘unperson’ – and is struck out of the history of the ‘Reasoner episode’.

Having got that off my chest, may I take this opportunity of recommending to students of the history of the British working class movement the study by Thompson entitled Homage to Tom Maguire, in the Essays on Labour History in honour of G.D.H. Cole (Macmillan, 42s.), published this week under the editorship of Asa Briggs and John Saville?

Readers of Thompson’s great book on William Morris will remember the interesting material on Maguire given there. The story of this neglected pioneer of independent working-class politics in Yorkshire is much more fully developed in this new work.

Freedom Fighters

Some readers may like to have chapter and verse for the fact, mentioned here recently by Gerry Healy, that the Socialist Leader, the weekly which now gives hospitality to Cadogan and rebukes the Socialist Labour League for its tyrannical procedures supported, the banning of our predecessor, Socialist Outlook, by Transport House.

It was in the Socialist Leader for August 21, 1954, that the editorial, devoted to this ban, justified it in these words: ‘No political party worthy of the name can allow a dissident group of its members to publish papers, manifestos or proclamations directed against the authority of the party as expressed in its constitution, and against the general interests’.

A correspondent in the following issue of the Socialist Leader pointed out that Tribune, the New Statesman, Forward, Peace News and Labour’s Northern Voice had all protested against the ban. The Daily Worker had kept silent. Only the Socialist Leader had openly supported the ban.


‘Throughout this dispute [the 1919 rail strike] all manner of pressure was brought to bear upon me with the object of extending the scope of the strike. Offers of assistance came in from all quarters. I set myself resolutely against any proposed extension of the strike ...’
– J.H. Thomas, then General Secretary, NUR, foreword to G.W. Alcock, Fifty Years of Railway Trade Unionism (1922)

Last updated on 14.10.2011