The Origins of British Bolshevism. Raymond Challinor 1977

Chapter IX: 1918-1920: A Missed Revolutionary Chance?

The prospects appeared gloomy for the British ruling class as the First World War neared its end. It faced a swelling tide of industrial discontent. Workers became increasingly exasperated by rising prices, food shortages and repeated appeals for further sacrifices. New and dangerous leaders emerged from the ranks to express their feelings of disenchantment and to channel discontent along lines which seemed to threaten capitalism’s very existence. Faced with this challenge, the British government had little ground for manoeuvre. It sought to bolster the public’s flagging morale by making promises. It held up the vision of a better society, with homes fit for heroes, where everyone could enjoy the fruits of victory. The problem was that, at the same time as the government encouraged these expectations, its ability to fulfil these promises continued to dwindle.

The First World War left the British economy considerably weakened. In human terms, the losses had been great. Three-quarters of a million men, most of whom were young, with the major portion of their working lives in front of them, had been killed in the fighting. A further 1,700,000 had been wounded. The provision of scanty pensions for the most seriously crippled caused an annual drain on the exchequer of £100 million. On top of these physical losses, there was the rundown in productive capacity. Some industries had been compelled to make do with antiquated equipment so that more resources could be devoted to producing machines of war. Even where after 1918 it was possible to produce on a competitive basis, many foreign markets that had been the preserve of British firms had gone forever. Unable to buy British during the war, many countries had either found other sources of supply or developed their own industries. In some cases, customers had now become competitors. As a consequence, the recapturing of lost overseas markets was an exceedingly hard task. The whole situation was aggravated by the state of the world economy: the considerable uncertainties and dislocations made the re-establishment of international trade difficult and was particularly badly felt by a country like Britain, so dependent upon foreign trade.

All this was taking place against a background of the emergence of a new world power. By 1918, the United States was definitely the strongest capitalist country. In the course of the war, America had suffered negligible losses. For most of the time, she had not been a belligerent but had acted as a quarter-master, making money by supplying the combatants. As the United States’ productive capacity and output increased, so did the indebtedness of other countries to her. By contrast, the United Kingdom had been compelled to sell some of its foreign assets, and its investments in Russia had been confiscated. What was more, a question-mark had not merely been placed over Britain’s foreign assets but also its colonies. There were the rumblings of nationalism in Ireland, Africa and Asia. The clamour for Indian independence had resulted in a number of serious incidents. At Amritsar, troops fired on an unarmed demonstration, killing 379 and wounding a further 1200 people. This act of imperialist savagery aroused widespread condemnation. It also had a special significance: the world was witnessing the beginning of the decline of the British Empire as well as of Britain itself.

Clearly, Lloyd George and his fellow ministers faced a situation fraught with dangers. Probably at no time since the 1840s has a government been faced with such a serious challenge. No wonder they had to give considerable thought to the possibility that there would be an attempt to overthrow the existing social order. The head of the Special Branch was quite explicit. ‘We cannot hope to escape some sort of revolution’, declared Lord Burnham, ‘and there will be no passionate resistance from anybody.’ [1] Likewise Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson told the Cabinet that, in his opinion, ‘a Bolshevik rising was likely’. [2]

The government resolved to combat the menace, and if this was to be done effectively, information had first to be acquired about the nature and disposition of the enemy. So a Cabinet sub-committee was set up, which met regularly, to monitor the activities of subversive organisations and make suggestions about whatever counter-measures the government could adopt. Plainly, the surveillance was most rigorous and thoroughgoing. Even items of little consequence were carefully documented. For example, it is recorded that Jimmy Stewart, of Wallsend SLP, had acquired shop premises which he used for teaching Social, Economic and Industrial History. ‘He calls his shop a Labour College. The classes are attended by a few youths from 18 to 21.’ [3] Equally trivial, but indicative of a concern for minutiae, is this reference to IP Hughes, of Liverpool:

A young man named Hughes described himself as a shop steward and Bolshevik, and said he had been trying to educate his workmates, but that they were not sufficiently advanced to understand his teaching. His creed seemed to be purely Syndicalist. [4]

What must have been highly disturbing to the authorities, as they carefully documented subversive activities, was the rising curve of working-class discontent. In previous chapters, the battles on Clydeside of 1915-16 have been discussed. Subsequently, the struggle was mainly centred south of the border. In the autumn of 1916, trouble flared up in Sheffield. The cause was the insistence of the War Office that a young engineer named Leonard Hargreaves, previously exempt, should nevertheless join the army. Failing to get this decision countermanded through official channels, Sheffield shop stewards got 10,000 munition workers to down tools. They also sent a fleet of motor-cyclists to other industrial centres calling for sympathetic action. It was a direct challenge to the government’s right to conscript men — and the Sheffield shop stewards won. Hargreaves returned to his bench at Vickers, and the Ministry was forced to negotiate a ‘Trade Card Scheme’, exempting engineers from military services. [5]

To some extent, the government retrieved the situation later. In March 1917, 10,000 workers at Barrow went on strike because of alleged cuts in piece-work rates. They appealed, like the Sheffield men, for support from elsewhere. But none was forthcoming. The Cabinet, having discussed the dispute, decided to issue a proclamation, threatening arrest and imprisonment for anybody who came out in solidarity. As a consequence, the Barrow men remained isolated, and after a fortnight returned to work. [6]

The authorities’ success proved to be short-lived. In April 1917, the Rochdale firm of Tweedale and Smalley tried to extend dilution, which up till then had been confined to munitions work, to private contracts. This was a violation of national agreements and trade unionists were soon out. The strike spread to many parts of the country until it encompassed all the major industrial centres, with the exception of Clydeside and Tyneside. More than 200,000 workers were involved and 1.5 million working days lost, making it the largest unofficial strike in British history. [7] In a desperate situation, the government endeavoured to stir up patriotic feelings by sending the King and Queen on visits to the main strike areas. When this failed, it arrested 10 of the men’s leaders. Effectively, this beheaded the strike. With them in prison, awaiting trial, the government opened negotiations with the union bureaucrats of the ASE. Pliant and cautious, JT Brownlie and his colleagues, who had opposed the unofficial stoppage from the outset, were quick to arrive at an agreement. After the men were back at work and the situation defused, FE Smith went as the government’s emissary to the imprisoned shop stewards. He offered to drop the charges on condition that they accepted the agreement reached by the officials of their own union. This they agreed to do. [8]

Irrespective of how skilful the government’s tactics happened to be, the successes it scored merely gained a temporary respite. Within a short time, the industrial scene had again become stormy. In November-December 1917 a dispute over bonus payments at White and Popper led to 50,000 workers in the Coventry area going on strike. And worse was to follow in 1918. Led by militants, the South Wales miners came out in May and, later in the year, the usually docile textile workers of Lancashire struck. The result was that 1918 had the highest number of working days lost through industrial disputes of the whole First World War, a total of 5,875,000 days. Clearly, the government had failed to curb the industrial militancy.

The administration and its supporters anticipated the worst. In the Air Ministry’s weekly orders, it stated that firing on rioters must be effective. Commenting on this, the journal Aeroplane declared that the RAF ‘would have but little mercy on a Bolshevik mob... the RAF pilots and observers have had much practice during the German retreat in operating against mobs on roads and in streets’. [9] The Glasgow Evening Times also gloated over ‘the irresistible logic inherent in the bayonet and bullet’. [10] Nor was this point lost on Winston Churchill, then Minister of Munitions, who referred to the role of the tank corps: ‘They will be valuable in savage frontiers, and they obviously have police value in India, Ireland and at home.’ [11]

It was very much in this frame of mind that the government responded to the 40-Hours’ Strike early in 1919. Faced with the prospect of large-scale unemployment, the Clyde Workers Committee sought a solution through a campaign to lessen the working week. It tried, with limited success, to spread the stoppage to the whole of Scotland. Trouble broke out on 31 January 1919. A delegation of men’s leaders had gone to Glasgow City Chambers to meet the Lord Provost. While they were in the building, an argument occurred on the south side of St George’s Square. A big crowd had assembled there, awaiting news from the talks, when a tramcar was heedlessly driven at them. This caused tempers to rise. The police drew their batons, and mounted police charged the crowd. About 40 people were injured, some of whom were merely innocent bystanders. Officialdom greatly exaggerated the incident. The Secretary of State for Scotland, R Munro, informed the Cabinet that ‘in his opinion, it was more clear than ever that it was a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a strike — it was a Bolshevik uprising’. [12] As a consequence, the government quickly despatched six tanks and 100 lorries to Glasgow by train. Strike-bound Central Scotland was placed under army occupation, with machine-gun posts at strategic places.

Military intervention in industrial disputes in this way was highly exceptional. While force might be used, sometimes in abundant quantities, against hapless colonials, successive British governments have tended to behave with greater restraint when dealing with workers at home. As Marx observed in the Manifesto, the state in the final analysis is a body of armed men. Nevertheless governments had discovered through experience that it was usually prudent to keep the military in reserve; to let it be the last argument of kings, not the first. Force used unwisely could be counter-productive.

But in the post-First World War situation, there were other reasons why the authorities would be chary of committing the troops in civil strife: they were not sure of the soldiers’ reliability. Throughout the services, disaffection was rampant. In January 1919, 10,000 soldiers mutinied at Folkestone and refused to return to France. A further 4000 in Dover demonstrated in sympathy. In the same week, 1500 men from Osterley Park seized army lorries and went to Whitehall to protest. Within a short while, similar acts of insubordination had occurred in units throughout the Home Counties. Aboard HMS Kilbride matters became even more out of hand: on 13 January 1919, its seamen hauled the Red Flag up its masthead, declaring: ‘Half the Navy are on strike and the other half soon will be.’ [13]

The government must even have had qualms when it returned to that customarily stolid and reliable protector of capitalist property, the British Bobby. A trade union had been formed in the police force. In May 1919, 1000 London policemen went on strike, while on Merseyside half the force came out. For months afterwards, the authorities had misgivings about the reliability of the police if an awkward situation should arise. [14] Clearly, had the government wished to use the police or the armed forces in a violent confrontation with the workers, then it could easily have found things getting out of hand. So other means of quietening the angry multitude and bringing Britain back to a state of capitalist normality had to be found.

Lloyd George and his Ministers aimed to achieve these objectives by devious and subtle methods: first, to smash unofficial rank-and-file movements or, where this proved to be impossible, render them harmless through incorporation into the established structure; second, to lessen the strength of the official trade-union movement, thereby making it more pliant and obedient to the needs of industry and the capitalist state; and third, to harass and persecute left-wing organisations so that their activities were disrupted and they failed to have an impact on the course of events.

The government was fortunate because it faced rank-and-file movements which were fragmentary and lacked coordination. In many industries, they remained feeble or non-existent. Where they did exist, their limited membership and different stages of development made united action next to impossible. They had, moreover, come into being as a consequence of the special conditions prevailing during the war. Once union leaders were no longer hamstrung by wartime laws and regulations, they could move nearer towards expressing some of the aspirations of their union’s membership, thus lessening reliance at factory-floor level on shop stewards. Likewise an issue like dilution and Trade Card scheme ceased to be matters of great import, and the main areas on which rank-and-file bodies centred their struggles appeared to vanish overnight. Even as early as 17 January 1919, the Workers Dreadnought was reporting that most workers’ committees had gone out of existence.

The government aimed to hasten this process. This could be accomplished by refusal to negotiate with unofficial bodies, arresting their leaders and letting industrial disputes continue until the rank-and-file organisations had been smashed. This is precisely what happened to the CWC in 1919. On 27 January, 40,000 shipbuilding and engineering workers struck. The following day the figure had swollen to 70,000. But after the Battle of St George’s Square, all the committee’s leading members — Gallacher, MacManus, Shinwell, etc — were charged with riotous assembly. By 3 February 1919, when it had become obvious that the strike would not spread, the drift back to work began. This defeat of the CWC marked the end of it as an effective organisation. Left £5000 in debt after fighting the legal cases, the CWC never again called workers out on strike. [15]

The pattern was repeated elsewhere. An attempt, roughly at the same time, by Belfast workers to secure a 44-hour week ended in defeat. Similarly, in his autobiography, Harry Pollitt described how the River Thames Shop Stewards Committee, a well-organised body which ran its own paper, choir and orchestra, was smashed as a result of industrial defeat early in 1919. On Tyneside’s shipyards, the collapse of a strike in February 1919 virtually eliminated rank-and-file organisation, which in any case was only rudimentary. Likewise Barrow shop stewards’ committee took a battering and, in May 1919, was compelled to suspend publication of its journal, Northern Light. [16]

Associated with this employers’ offensive was an attack on the jobs of individual militants. Even in its period of ascendancy, when the shop-stewards’ movement was at its point of greatest strength and with full employment created by wartime conditions, the committee found it difficult, if not impossible, to stop victimisation. For example, 56 men were dismissed from Hotchkiss et Cie’s factory in Coventry in 1918, including shop stewards and the leader of the Coventry workers, David Dingley, without effective resistance taking place. [17] But in the conditions prevailing after the war it became much easier for management to weed out the militants; as JT Murphy clearly admitted in July 1919:

At Vickers, Sheffield, it is questionable whether there is a single, active shop steward or literature seller left in the place. They have practically all been cleared out under the cloak of unemployment. The same applies to many prominent people on the Clyde. [18]

The government also appreciated the effect of joblessness. A report on revolutionary organisations in the Cabinet papers mentioned that ‘the fear of unemployment is exercising a steadying influence’. Elsewhere there is reference to the conflict and disunity engendered within the working class by lack of employment. On Clydeside, demobilised soldiers discovered that Irishmen, brought over during the war, had taken their jobs in the shipyards. This, naturally, aroused extensive anti-Irish feeling. [19]

Lack of unity within the working class and the smashing of rank-and-file organisations helped to make the industrial scene more tranquil. The government sought to further this process by assisting surreptitiously the trade-union bureaucracy’s fight with its left-wing critics. As was pointed out, in the Cabinet’s survey of British revolutionary movements in 1920, much agitation resulted from small groups of politically-motivated people, securing influence within the lower echelons of trade unions. Referring to the disputes in the railways, textiles and transport, the survey stated:

In spite of the fact that the basis of the claims advanced was economic, as distinct from political, unrest was largely the work of the revolutionary minority which had captured the branch and lodge machinery. [20]

Frequently, the inefficiency of union officials provided the basis upon which the left-wing critics extended their influence. Wherever possible, the government aimed to disrupt this activity, to create confusion in the ranks, by the timely arrest or harassment of militants.

Gradually, the combined effect of the government and employers’ strategy was to strengthen the power and authority of union leaders over their membership. The wild boys, the unofficial leaders thrown up from the factory floor, with no respect for constitutional proprieties or inhibitions in fully pursuing workers’ demands, became less and less important. Replacing them was the stolid, well-paid and highly respectable union official, who would not dream of breaking a law or endangering the capitalist system which he cherished.

Even where shop stewards continued to function, they operated in a different context and in a different way. Now they had become part of the unions’ official machinery, with clearly-defined duties and responsibilities. In this manner, their teeth were drawn. They no longer possessed the power or freedom they previously had. Vanished was the kind of independence that James Messer, Secretary of the CWC, described in a letter he wrote in 1917: ‘The relations between the Committee and the official side of the trade unions may be taken as nil.’ [21]

As the union leaders gained ascendancy, it made the task of Lloyd George and his Ministers much easier. The Cabinet now had to deal with gentlemen very much more reasonable. They felt a natural bond of sympathy for a union man like JH Thomas, who came rushing back from America in an attempt to avert a dispute. As he informed his members in the union’s journal: ‘I must candidly admit that the mere threat of a stoppage, or the danger of rupture, is at all times sufficient to absorb my whole being and to prompt my instant return to London.’ [22] Clearly, Lloyd George was correct when he declared about Thomas in a Cabinet meeting: ‘He wants no revolution. He wants to be Prime Minister.’ At another cabinet meeting, he added: ‘I have complete confidence in Mr Thomas’ selfishness.’ [23]

But it did not have to be sordid self-interest that led union leaders to betray their members and capitulate to the government. Lacking a proletarian worldview, determination and a will to win, they would always surrender rather than endanger the fabric of the existing social order. Indeed, the weakness of their position was most clearly displayed at the time they appeared strongest: when they were able to defeat the Lloyd George government’s reactionary policies, they instinctively drew back, afraid that the ensuing chaos could lead along the perilous path to revolution.

This is plainly shown in the dealings of Lloyd George with the Triple Alliance, an alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers, designed to increase their collective power. In 1919, the Triple Alliance leaders went to Downing Street to see the Prime Minister. The proceedings there are described by Aneurin Bevan in his book, In Place of Fear:

I remember vividly Robert Smillie describing to me an interview the leaders of the Triple Alliance had with David Lloyd George in 1919. The strategy of the leaders was clear. The miners under Robert Smillie, the transport workers under Robert Williams, and the National Union of Railwaymen under James Henry Thomas, formed the most formidable combination of industrial workers in the history of Great Britain. They had agreed on the demands that were to be made on the employers, knowing well that the government would be bound to be involved at an early stage. And so it happened. A great deal of industry was still under government wartime control and so the state power was immediately implicated.

Lloyd George sent for the Labour leaders, and they went, so Robert told me, ‘truculently determined they would not be talked over by the seductive and eloquent Welshman’. At this Bob’s eyes twinkled in his grave, strong face. ‘He was quite frank with us from the outset’, Bob went on. ‘He said to us: “Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps. We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices, and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us."’

‘"But if you do so,” went on Mr Lloyd George, “have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,” asked the Prime Minister quietly, “have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?” From that moment on’, said Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were.’

After this the General Strike of 1926 was really an anti-climax. The essential argument had been deployed in 1919. But the leaders in 1926 were in no better theoretical position to face it. They had never worked out the revolutionary implications of direct action on such a scale. [24]

More perceptive than many socialists, Lloyd George’s Cabinet recognised the essential conservative role played by the Labour leaders. In periods of acute class tension, they could be guaranteed to place their full weight behind the preservation of the status quo. As the Tory leader Bonar Law said, referring to the Triple Alliance: ‘Trade-union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy, and if trade-union organisation was against us the position would be hopeless.’ [25]

Likewise some union leaders were prepared to recognise the part they were performing. TE Naylor, of the London Compositors, told the government to remember that, had it not been for their moderating influence, ‘the revolution would undoubtedly have broken out’. [26]

As it was, the union leaders went along with the government’s policy. Essentially, this was a question of playing for time: ministers wanted the talking between both sides of industry to continue until the revolutionary tide had subsided and the state considered itself thoroughly in command of the situation. So, on 27 February 1919, a National Industrial Conference met. It discussed far-reaching plans for the regulation of industry, the improvement of conditions and the introduction of a universal 48-hour week. The employers’ representatives appeared amiable, almost ingratiating in their desire to understand the workers’ point of view. Admittedly, they seemed to be more eager to pass resolutions asking the government to initiate improvements than to accept the onus — and expense — on their own shoulders. Yet, nevertheless, they gave the impression that concessions would be made. But as the danger to the social order receded, it became clear that neither the employers nor the government intended to implement the decisions reached. The National Industrial Conference had merely been a talking-shop, a public relations exercise designed to gull the workers.

The same was true of the Sankey Commission on the coal industry. When it issued its interim report, in March 1919, it proposed higher pay, a seven-hour day, later to be reduced to six, and condemned ‘the present system of ownership’. In its final report, published three months later, the majority of the Sankey Commission called for the nationalisation of the coal industry. Initially, some of the miners’ union, suspicious of the government’s intentions, had been reluctant to participate in the commission. Their misgivings, however, had been allayed when Bonar Law spoke of the earnest sincerity of the government and made the matter a question of his personal integrity. He wrote to the Secretary of the miners’ union, Frank Hodges, assuring him of the government’s earnest sincerity:

Dear Sir

... I have pleasure in confirming, as I understand you wish me to do, my statement that the government are prepared to carry out in the spirit and in the letter the recommendations of Sir John Sankey’s report.

Yours faithfully

A Bonar Law

Of course, once the emergency had passed, the government quietly forgot its promises. The recommendations of Mr Justice Sankey suffered the same fate as those of the National Industrial Conference. Both had served their purpose; now the talking could stop. As the new relationship of class forces developed, the government felt confident it could deal with any group of workers. In rapid succession, it crushed the miners, railwaymen and engineers. The British ruling class again asserted its supremacy; the period in which its dominance could be seriously challenged was over.

The crucial question is: was the restoration of capitalist normalcy inevitable? With greater foresight and knowledge, could socialists have conquered power and created a new society? An examination of the Socialist Labour Party, the largest of the revolutionary groups, suggests that broadly speaking it pursued the correct policy. Its inadequacies did not arise from policy blunders; rather they resulted from lack of members and resources. In 1917, as the wave of discontent was rising, the SLP only possessed 15 branches. This meant that in many parts of the country where crucial battles were being fought, it had no chance of participating. Even where it was fortunate enough to have a branch, the SLP’s monthly journal could not hope to be topical, commenting on day-to-day events in the struggle.

Yet, despite these handicaps, the SLP’s voice frequently did secure a hearing. Because its line fitted the needs of the time, militants flocked into its ranks. In three years, the number of branches had more than trebled. At the same time, the membership had risen to 1258, almost a third of whom had joined in 1919. [27] Still small, the SLP nevertheless was a force to be reckoned with. Its journal, The Socialist, had been made into a weekly in 1919, with a circulation of about 20,000 copies, and as a consequence, could have a bigger impact on industrial affairs.

The SLP’s growth helped to change the nature of the party. In its early days, it had possessed an overwhelmingly Scottish membership. This is probably the basis of the myth, still widely held among students of labour history, that the SLP was largely confined to skilled engineers on the Clyde. But this no longer was true by 1910 and, as the influx of new recruits occurred in the immediate postwar period, it became even less true. Probably, by 1920 four-fifths of the SLP’s membership lay south of the border.

The expansion of the SLP generated tensions inside the party. The new members brought new experiences and a new outlook into its ranks. Unlike the old-timers, they had not received years of tuition in Marxism at SLP classes, and many of them had never read the works of Daniel De Leon. Instead of joining after profound theoretical study, as was the usual practice in the SLP before 1914, these new members’ decision to join arose from their experiences in the heat of class conflict. Not generally as theoretically sophisticated, many of them still carried the intellectual baggage from the positions they previously held. Even as thoughtful a man as JT Murphy illustrates this point: joining the SLP in 1917, at the age of 29, he had previously been a syndicalist and had imbibed the traditions of the SLP but imperfectly. Murphy’s book, Preparing for Power, is strewn with factual inaccuracies about the party. [28] This was not to say that he did not make an important contribution to the SLP — indeed, during his time in the party he was one of its most talented and hard-working members.

Facing unprecedented situations, with opportunities for intervention not previously known by British revolutionaries, the SLP probably gained through being an admixture of old and new, and the tension it generated helped the party between 1918 and 1920, its most fruitful and creative period.

Typical of its style of working was its participation in the 1918 khaki election. The SLP fought three constituencies — Gorton, Halifax and Ince near Wigan. At one time, it was hoped also to fight Nottingham with Tom Bell, and Camlachie in Glasgow, but in the pre-election rush this idea had to be dropped. Haste, however, had not prevented a careful choice of targets — each constituency was chosen for a purpose.

At Gorton, the sitting Member was the Minister of Pensions. His SLP opponent, JT Murphy, had made a special study of the pensions. His pamphlet, Equality of Sacrifice, contrasted the vast wealth accruing to arms manufacturers and other industrialists as a result of the war with the scant provisions made for the widows of servicemen and for soldiers permanently disabled. The grim harvest of the conflict, the vast numbers killed and injured, meant that millions of people’s lives would be affected by whether or not they obtained pensions and, if they did, how much. As Murphy saw it, they would only get what they were prepared to struggle for: in his pamphlet he recommended the formation of ex-servicemen’s organisations to fight on this issue.

At Halifax, the sitting Member was J Whitley, whose name is still remembered because he presided over the committee that led to the creation of the Whitley Council, the body that determines pay and conditions in the civil service. Precisely for this reason the SLP decided to fight the seat. It had repeatedly attacked Whitleyism in The Socialist. As well as epitomising class collaboration, the Whitley Council by its composition had a built-in bias against the workers.

At Ince, the sitting Member was Stephen Walsh, one of the most right-wing members of the Labour Party. Having held a minor position in the Coalition Government, he was reluctant to fight the 1918 general election under the banner of the Labour Party. This incensed many members of the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners Federation, which sponsored his candidature. At a meeting just before the general election, a resolution calling for his expulsion from the union was narrowly defeated by 868 votes to 853. The SLP put forward a candidate to expose this particular labour lieutenant of capitalism and to appeal to disgruntled miners. Its candidate, William Paul, stated the aim of his campaign:

I don’t know how many votes will be cast for me, and I don’t care. The fight as a piece of revolutionary propaganda is the greatest educational campaign the SLP has ever undertaken. The effect of the great enthusiasm of our meetings, together with the distribution of our literature, must lower the prestige of capitalism and its parliamentary institutions. To have accomplished that is a victory in itself. [29]

Under the pretext of fighting the election, the SLP produced 100,000 copies of its manifesto, calling for the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. Many found their way to soldiers serving overseas. [30] In normal circumstances, the distribution of anti-militarist and pro-Soviet Union literature to members of HM Forces would probably have led to prosecution.

The result of the Ince election was that Walsh obtained 14,882 votes as against Paul’s 2231. No Tory or Liberal candidates stood, and their supporters were advised to support the official Labour candidate. As for Paul, he received help from the local Independent Labour Party and British Socialist Party, whom he subsequently thanked. This did not happen at Halifax, where the local ILP refused to campaign for MacManus. Nevertheless, he gained 4036 votes. At Gorton, Murphy did less well, polling 1300, and again having no help from the ILP or BSP.

Throughout the election campaign the SLP suffered from the handicap of being without its printing presses. These had remained immobilised since the police raid on 6 July 1918 (see Chapter VIII). The suppression of a socialist paper had caused embarrassment, particularly for Labour members of the Coalition Government. In October 1918, when George Barnes tried to justify the ban before the Glasgow Trades Council, he came under heavy fire. As the act of suppression had not been effective — The Socialist continued to appear — it was decided, once the war was over, not to stop the SLP from replacing those parts of the two linotype machines that the police had taken away. In January 1919 the presses were once more in working order. Within two hours of the replacement parts arriving, they began printing 20,000 copies of the Clyde Strike Bulletin daily. [31]

The SLP aided the Clydeside struggle for the 40-hour week in other ways. It saw that its one chance of success depended on extending the strike to other parts of the country. So it sent comrades to try and do this. David Ramsay, an Edinburgh engineer, went to London. He was charged with ‘preaching sedition and sowing disaffection among the civilian population’ while making a speech at the Croydon Cinema. Conducting his own defence, Ramsay claimed words had been added to his speech. The court did not accept this plea and he was given a five-month sentence. [32]

No action, however, was taken against William Paul, who went to South Wales, presumably because the authorities did not wish to anger further the people there. (A secret report to the cabinet, which mentioned Paul’s activities, said that: ‘The main storm centre at the moment is South Wales.’) [33]

In his speeches, Paul constantly referred to the need to link the struggle of the miners with that of the Clydeside engineers: together they stood a very much greater chance of wresting shorter hours from the employers. But he also gave another reason: if the Clyde strike spread ‘the government, instead of sending a few thousand soldiers to Glasgow, would be compelled to withdraw all the British soldiers from Russia and Germany, and this would help the Bolsheviks and our German comrades’. [34]

The defeat of the 40-hour strike was regarded by the SLP as a temporary setback. Discussing the lessons to be learnt from it, The Socialist said ‘it proved that the government stand behind the ruling class with the whole power of the armed forces to fight Labour'; ‘it proved that the trade-union leaders in London, who control the large unions, are prepared to betray and blackleg their own members’. [35] Principal culprits were the leaders of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, who played a vital role in defeating the strike. They suspended the Glasgow and Belfast District Committees for supporting the strike and the London District Committee for backing attempts to spread it.

Underlying these two lessons of the 40-hour strike was a third, the defects it revealed in the revolutionary ranks, which severely disturbed leaders of the SLP. Disunited, belonging to various small groups, the militants were unable to make their potential impact upon events. Murphy alluded to this in a leading article entitled ‘Appeal for a United Effort’, which said:

Strikes are threatening of a magnitude which alarm the governing class... and still the socialist movement flounders about and allows petty things to obscure the demands of the international situation. [36]

MacManus was even more forthright in his criticism:

With the passing of each succeeding ferment is recorded a loss of opportunity. To make the most of a crisis, the main point of action must be controlled by, and in the hands of, revolutionary socialists. Theoretical differences, so far as discussion is concerned, are of little moment, in this intense dynamic surge, the extent of each particular school’s success being ultimately determined by the actual amount of work done. [37]

Mindful of the need for left unity, the SLP had held a special conference at Glasgow on 11-12 January 1919. The delegates unanimously agreed to suspend the party constitution so that none of its provisions could impede unity negotiations. The conference also endorsed ‘A Manifesto: A Plea for the Reconsideration of Socialist Tactics and Organisation’. This document declared that the aim of socialists should be to achieve working-class unity, both industrially and politically, but to be truly socialist this could only be done on a revolutionary basis. With that important proviso, the SLP was prepared to join with comrades with whom it had theoretical differences: ‘The organisation should be all embracive.’

The spirit in which this manifesto was compiled was explained by an editorial in The Socialist:

Four years of world war and one year of revolution in Russia have taught the SLP many things. It has revealed the weakness of the organisation of the revolutionary movement in this country. Our manifesto indicates where the weakness lies, and seeks to outline a new basis of organisation. It is neither issued as a bigoted catechism nor as a dogmatic pronouncement. It is placed before the movement to provide the basis for discussion. [38]

Copies of the manifesto were sent to the BSP and ILP, as well as to socialist journals. The tortuous negotiations over unity which finally led to the formation of the British Communist Party will be discussed in a later chapter. But what is worth considering here is whether there was potentially a revolutionary situation at that time. Had a Communist Party existed at that time and seized the opportunities, could capitalism have been vanquished?

Definitely, Gallacher thought there was:

We had possibilities of winning great new forces to our side if we had only the necessary revolutionary understanding and audacity. Revolt was seething everywhere, especially in the army. We had within our hands the possibility of giving actual expression and leadership to it, but it never entered our heads to do so. We were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution. [39]

In retrospect, the SLP made rather a different analysis. Writing in The Socialist, of 3 January 1922, James Clunie said:

According to Sir Basil Thomson, the most critical period in this country after the war was the beginning of 1919. Caused by the delay in demobilisation, the insufficient aftermath preparation, and the general temper of the soldiers and sailors. That it was a critical period let us further agree. But do not let us be carried away with the idea that the situation was one that could have given rise to revolutionary change.

In my opinion, the weight of evidence tends to confirm the view of Clunie. It would appear to have been objective conditions that were responsible for no revolution occurring in Britain, the comparative lack of severity of the crisis of British capitalism and therefore its failure to be reflected in an acute form inside and throughout the working class. Even had an active and vigorous Communist Party existed, it would have been unable materially to have altered the situation. The reasons for holding this opinion are:

1. Economic conditions in Britain were not as bad as those in countries where revolutions did break out. In 1917 the Russian economy ground to a halt, in 1918 the Germany economy collapsed exhausted. No similar strains were felt in Britain, which emerged from the war as one of the victors.

2. The workers’ rank-and-file movements were relatively weak. The shop-stewards’ movement had major deficiencies: (i) it was largely confined to skilled men; (ii) many industries and many areas were without shop-stewards’ committees altogether; (iii) where they did exist, they were often small and ineffective; (iv) they were usually preoccupied with local issues; (v) the leadership of the various committees, as well as their memberships, were at various stages of development. The overall effect of these shortcomings was to make joint action difficult and sustained action impossible. As an independent industrial force, the shop-stewards’ movement ceased to exist by 1920.

3. The ability of the official trade-union leaders, who never lost control, to divert working-class militancy into channels that were harmless to the system. Their policy of class collaboration, the traditional policy accepted by the British working class, still possessed powerful appeal. Once the class action initiated by flimsy unofficial committees petered out, it tended to discredit the notion of class action altogether. The trade-union leaders were able to sell the way of caution and compromise as the most sensible to follow.

4. The political immaturity of the working class. By relatively tranquil progress, continued virtually for three-quarters of a century, the British proletariat had been steeped in evolutionist, reformist ideas; a belief in modest gains made under the aegis of that venerated institution, Parliament. Significantly, a sizeable proportion of working people still enthusiastically supported the Tory and Liberal Parties, the open and avowed advocates of capitalism. Even the one party that, albeit timidly and hesitantly, criticised a few aspects of the existing system — the Labour Party — secured very little support from the working class. At the 1918 general election, the Liberal–Conservative coalition under Lloyd George romped back to power with 478 MPs; the Labour Party obtained a mere 63 seats. Significantly, on the ‘Red Clyde’, only one of the 15 Glasgow constituencies was won by a Labour candidate. The overall evidence does not point to class consciousness being deeply and widely rooted in the British working class at the end of the First World War.

5. Although there were undoubtedly grumblings within the armed forces, the main body of the military remained loyal to the state. Against the disaffection, mentioned earlier in this chapter, which at the outside involved a quarter of a million men, it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of the 3.5 million soldiers did not mutiny. Moreover, the most extreme acts of defiance could be construed in a different way: when sailors hoisted the Red Flag, it may have been not so much a sign of political commitment as simply a gesture of defiance, an expression of disgust about demobilisation delays. In the opinion of the Home Office, one of the influences dampening revolutionary enthusiasm in 1919 was the troops returning home. Most of them, it was claimed, came back with a feeling of antagonism towards those whom they thought had been troublemakers and shirkers during the war. [40]

6. Last, but most important of all, the British working class failed to develop workers’ and soldiers’ councils. These were the prerequisite of a revolutionary transformation: only if they existed would there be an alternative power-base to capitalist rule. In Russia, the workers spontaneously created their own workers’ and soldiers’ councils, the soviets, without any instructions coming from the Bolsheviks. The task of Lenin and his comrades was to raise the demand ‘All power to the soviets’. In Britain, such a call hardly had a realistic ring about it. The workers’ committees went out of being or became hollow shells soon after the war ended. The London Workers Committee’s influence can be gauged, to some extent, by the support given its journal. In 1918, Solidarity’s circulation was 10,000 copies, hardly an impressive figure, but by 1919 it had shrunk to a mere 3000 copies. [41] As we have already seen, the CWC, which had been the strongest in the country, never recovered from the débâcle of the 40-hours strike.

For these reasons, I do not consider a revolutionary situation existed in Britain after the First World War. There must, however, be an important proviso made: had the German Revolution been successful, it would have altered the entire relationship of class forces. The position of the British left would have been much stronger. But at the time socialists thought that other events might have given them an opportunity. They envisaged the possibility of Ireland going socialist or the possibility of British involvement in the war of intervention against Russia leading to extensive disaffection among the troops and heavy expenditure that proved too great a burden for this country’s economy. The solidarity shown by socialists for events in Ireland and Russia will be dealt with in the next chapter.


1. Sir Basil Thomson, The Scene Changes (London, 1939), p 410.

2. R Higham, Armed Forces in Peacetime: Britain, 1918-1940, A Case Study (London, 1962), p 21.

3. CAB 44 GT 3838.

4. CAB 24/57 GT 6603. IP Hughes, among the first batch of organisers appointed by the Communist Party, remained active in politics throughout his life. In his later years, he became a member of the International Socialism group. He died in 1972.

5. A useful account of events in Sheffield is contained in Bill Moore’s pamphlet, Sheffield Shop Stewards in the First World War, published in the Our History series, no 18, Also, Dr James Hinton, The First Shop-Stewards Movement (London, 1974), pp 162-77, which gives a more analytical account.

6. War Memoirs of David Lloyd George (London, 1938), p 1149; JT Murphy, New Horizons (London, 1941), pp 54-55; JT Murphy, Preparing for Power (London, 1934), pp 135-37.

7. Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21 (London, 1969), p 371.

8. At first, Arthur MacManus refused to sign. When all the other imprisoned shop stewards agreed, he fell in with the majority opinion.

9. Air Ministry Weekly Orders for 7 November 1918, 1380-1433; Aeroplane, 13 November 1918.

10. Glasgow Evening News, 8 March 1919.

11. Sheffield Telegraph, 16 March 1919.

12. War Cabinet, 31 January 1919, CAB 23/9.

13. The Times, 30 January 1919. According to Cole and Postgate, the Red Flag was also raised by servicemen stationed at Kinmel Park, near Rhyl, see GDH Cole and R Postgate, The Common People (London, 1968 edition).

14. Glasgow Herald, 28 and 29 January 1919.

15. The Socialist, 16 October 1919. Other committees were suffering similar financial difficulties. The Workers Dreadnought, 17 January 1920, cites one workers’ committee that contributed £88 to headquarters in 1918, but only £4 the following year.

16. CAB 77 GT 7254, 14 May 1919. Also Harry Pollitt, Serving My Time (London, 1940), p 107.

17. James Hinton, The First Shop-Stewards Movement (London, 1974), pp 226-28.

18. The Socialist, 17 July 1919.

19. CAB 96 CP 462, ‘Survey of Revolutionary Feeling 1919’, p 4. The other steadying influences cited were (i) the Royal Family, (ii) workers’ preoccupation with sport, (iii) the poverty of revolutionary organisations, (iv) soldiers returning from the armed forces, (v) disunity inside trade unions, and (vi) increases in wages.

20. CAB 24/118 CP 2455, The Directorate of Intelligence (HQ), ‘A Survey of Revolutionary Movements in Great Britain in the Year 1920’, p 11.

21. Letter from James Messer to Herbert Highton, 15 October 1917.

22. Railway Review, 13 June 1919.

23. Lloyd George’s comments were made at Cabinet meetings on 4 and 5 April 1921.

24. Aneurin Bevan, In Place of Fear (London, 1952), pp 40-41.

25. CAB 23/9.

26. GDH Cole and R Postgate, The Common People (London, 1968 edition), p 550.

27. Report of SLP Carlisle conference, 3-4 April 1920.

28. Among the errors in Murphy’s Preparing for Power (London, 1934) are: (i) that the SLP was centred on Scotland (p 87), (ii) that the SLP accepted the pseudo-syndicalist ideas expressed in Connolly’s pamphlet Socialism Made Easy (pp 87-88), (iii) that most SLP members became conscientious objectors in the First World War (p 106), (iv) that the SLP pursued a purely sectarian policy (p 208).

29. The Socialist, December 1918.

30. Tom Bell, The British Communist Party (London, 1937), pp 49-50.

31. The Socialist, 20 and 27 February 1919.

32. The Socialist, 20 and 27 February 1919.

33. CAB 77 GT 7091.

34. William Paul’s speech aroused the wrath of Robert Blatchford, the editor of Clarion, who denounced him in the Sunday Pictorial, 23 May 1919.

35. The Socialist, 20 February 1919.

36. The Socialist, 5 June 1919.

37. The Socialist, 6 March 1919.

38. The Socialist, January 1919.

39. William Gallacher, Revolt on the Clyde (London, 1949), p 221.

40. See note 19.

41. Workers Dreadnought, 17 January 1919. It is worth comparing the puny circulation of British left-wing journals with the position in Russia before the October Revolution. There were six socialist dailies being published in Petrograd alone.