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Reg Groves

Folded Arms!

(May 1930)

First Published: Reg. Groves, Folded Arms!, Labour Monthly, May 1930, pp.298-304.
Editing, proofing & HTML markup: Ted Crawford and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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Four years ago this month of May the General Strike began and ended. May 1926 began with the mobilisation of class against class, but within nine days the betrayal was consummated; the most powerful and profound event in the history of the British workers was broken from within, and the courage, spirit and heroism of those nine days were sacrificed to capitalism. But this betrayal, tragic as it seemed at the time, closed one chapter to open another. That new chapter in the history of the British working class now rapidly unfolds itself before our eyes.

The purpose of this article is not to deal with the events of May, 1926, in detail, but to take the idea of the General Strike, interpreted as a strike with “folded arms,” to see when, where and how it arose; to survey briefly its attempted use by the Chartists; and also to see how the “folded arms” conception of the General Strike – either as a weapon to win economic demands, or as a weapon in the struggle for power – has been demonstrated to be utterly false by events of 1926.

Benbow and the General Strike

It was in the eighteen-thirties that this idea of the General Strike emerged with consistency. It did so partly through the activities of William Benbow and partly through the growth, during those years, of national working-class organisations.

There were several causes which led to the development of workers’ national organisations; experience had proved the weakness and isolation of the craft and district trade unions; these lessons had been reinforced by defeat in many sectional struggles; there was also the growing tendency of the employers to combine; all these factors contributed to build up a recognition of the importance of national trade unions and national strikes.

Throughout these years of movement among the workers for national organisation to carry through national action, Benbow’s conception of the General Strike was preached; it spread with amazing rapidity.

Benbow’s conception was of a general stoppage of work; he claimed that the workers had “only to say we must be free” and “they would be so two days afterwards.” Benbow held that violence was not necessary; Benbow would never “recommend violence of any kind.” He wanted the workers simply to dress themselves in their Sunday clothes and take a month’s holiday. This conception Benbow developed still further in his pamphlet, The Grand National Holiday, urging the workers to set up local committees to organise the holiday and see that violence was avoided.

The theory outlined above became amazingly popular among the workers; and the rise of the various national unions of the workers naturally in creased the support for the “National Holiday.” This, theory of the General Strike was carried a step further forward by the Left Wing of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in its declaration that the delegate conference of trades was a better form of government than parliament, and that it represented the government of the workers as against the government of the employers.

But the pacifism inherent in the theory of Benbow remained. Moral force was to be looked to as the power that would decide the issue between the classes . The idea that it would be impossible for a workers’ government and a capitalist government to exist peace-fully together was not considered. Appeal to armed power and decision of the issues by the use of guns and troops they did not include in their range of possibilities. It was taken for granted that the issues would be settled simply by the obvious superiority of the new form of government over the old being recognised throughout the land, but should pressure be needed that would be provided by the ever-increasing mass support for the National Holiday – which they regarded as being the peaceful way to power.

Challenge Voiced by Harney

These conceptions existed without challenge until the time of Chartism. The Chartist Convention of 1839 – faced by the rejection of the Petition – discussed “ulterior measures”; one of these was the “National Holiday” of Benbow, called by the Chartists the “sacred week” or sometimes “the sacred month.” Benbow emerged again; his pamphlet sold even more widely than before.

The advocates of moral force in the Convention supported the General Strike; they regarded it as a peaceful weapon. Their point of view was challenged by the revolutionary elements: George Julian Harney – Secretary of the London Democratic Association, and later the close friend of Marx and Engels – declared that, to be successful the general strike meant “nothing less than civil war.”

In the London Democrat, for May 4, 1839, Harney showed how impossible it was for the workers, on their low wages, to provide themselves with food to carry them through the strike, and described how they would be faced with starvation after the first few days, and so be driven to take food from the rich. This would bring them into conflict with the military and, he asked, “what would this be but insurrection and civil war?” He continued:–

I should not object to this plan, but that those who have been its loudest advocates have at the same time denounced the arming of the people. Suppose such a conflict, such as I have imagined, to take place in some petty district, the people, being unarmed, would suffer a murderous defeat. The news of the slaughter of the people in this one district would fly like wildfire throughout the country; the effect would be that the rest of the people (dispirited with hunger and but too conscious that they too were unarmed) would be compelled to return to their taskmasters soliciting again to be enslaved ...

What then should the people do? These are not the times to be nice about mere words; the fact is that there is but one mode of obtaining the Charter and that is by Insurrection.

Here, in an undeveloped form, is the first challenge, from the revolutionary point of view, to the theory that “folded arms” can defeat the power of capitalism. Here is an awareness that the General Strike means preparing to meet the troops, the police and the armed forces of the ruling class – which is precisely what the “moral force” supporters of the “National Holiday” did not intend to do.

The Chartist Strike

In the year 1842 the great “Plug Plot” took place; this was the nearest approach to the General Strike dreamt of and advocated by Benbow. The strike, which originated in Ashton and Hyde against a reduction in wages, spread rapidly to other parts of Lancashire, to Yorkshire, Staffordshire, the Potteries, and to parts of Wales and Scotland. Benbow’s dream of the workers in their Sunday clothes, on holiday, was rudely shattered. Hungry, shouting and grim bands of strikers invaded the various towns, carrying such banners as “They that perish by the sword are better than they that perish by hunger.” For days Manchester and other towns were in a state of siege; shops were shut, factories invaded, and the workers brought out – willingly or unwillingly – to join in the strike. Trains were stopped and frequent con-flicts took place between the strikers and the Government forces. In Preston and Blackburn the troops, who were poured into the strike areas by the Government, fired upon the crowds, killing six workers.

The delegate conference of the strikers decided to turn the strike into one for the Charter; all work was to cease until the “Charter became the law of the land.” The winning of the Charter could only be achieved by the forcible overthrow of the bourgeoisie – by the transformation of the strike into an in-surrectionary struggle for power, but the strikers’ decision was based, not upon a recognition of the need for revolutionary struggle but upon the belief that the General Strike would compel the ruling class to abdicate from rulership. “Never,” said the Northern Star, “for one moment let it be forgotten by any Chartist, that, to be successful, they must be peaceful”; the Chartist Association issued a manifesto:–

Englishmen! The blood of your brethren reddens the streets of Preston and Blackburn and the murderers thirst for more. Be firm, be courageous, be men. Peace, law and order have prevailed on our side; let them be revered until your brethren in Scotland, Wales and Ireland are informed of your resolution and when a universal holiday prevails, which will be the case in eight days, then of what use will bayonets be against public opinion?

The Government, however, far from surrendering its power, turned all its attention to repressive measures; whilst the factory owners formed themselves into volunteer forces of “specials.” The strike, however, did not develop further towards insurrection than a number of isolated conflicts between the strikers and the police and troops. In September the workers resumed without having carried the Charter into law and without having prevented the wage reductions.

So the theory of the “Sacred Month,” of the “National Holiday” was tried; Harney’s analysis of 1839 was vindicated in 1842, and it was demonstrated that “folded arms” is not the method by which the workers can achieve class power.

The Syndicalist Theory

The “folded arms” theory does not reappear as the theory of a movement until the years 1911-1914. These were years of developing “industrial unrest.” The principal sections of the working class were engaged in tremendous struggles with the employers; faced with serious decline the ruling class used every method to defeat the workers and the State was used more and more in these disputes; this and the discrediting of Parliamentary action, through the failure of the Parliamentary Labour Party, drove the workers increasingly to action on the industrial field. Out of this rising wave of militancy arose the Syndicalist movement, with its doctrines of “direct action” and its advocacy of the General Strike. The development of this powerful movement was turned aside by the war.

The Syndicalists were still under the illusion that the General Strike could achieve the emancipation of the workers. During the “Don’t Shoot” trial an article in the Syndicalist explained:–

The violence that the Syndicalists advocate is a strike of men united in such a powerful and solid industrial union that there will be no scabs for the troops to protect ... We think that nothing will conduce to a peaceful transfer of capital from the capitalist to the community as the realisation on the part of the capitalist that the Syndicalists have it in their power to annihilate their profits by withdrawing the workers. – (The Syndicalist, March 1912.)

The increasing use of troops in industrial disputes forced the Syndicalists to face up to the question of fighting the capitalist state, but beyond appeals to the soldiers “Not to shoot,” little was done. There was clearly no awareness on the part of the Syndicalists that to get power the workers must build a revolutionary party that would prepare for insurrection.

The General Strike

With the end of the war came the renewal of the struggle, with its political character evidencing more clearly. From “Black Friday” onwards the forces of the working class were moving towards mass action to meet the capitalist offensive, seeking ways, means and weapons to smash the capitalist front. From the end of the war onwards the employers and their State machine were expressing in words and deeds their conviction that the only hope for them lay in the driving down of the standards of living of the British working class. Upon this basis of starvation wages the existence of British capitalism depended. Any challenge to this basis meant a challenge to the whole capitalist class and to the rule of capitalism. Such a challenge the bourgeoisie would meet by the use of the whole forces of the State. Thus the struggle for bread and butter becomes a struggle for class power, and behind the nominal issues on which struggles were waged lay the fundamental issue – Which class was to rule ?

During the Nine Days the General Council did all it could to weaken and to hold back the strikers and to disguise from them its real character. Day by day they announced, through the British Worker, that “this is an industrial dispute; the General Council does not seek to challenge the constitution.” The Government, on the other hand, mobilised all its forces. Troops and armoured cars menaced the workers of London; in Hull, Middlesbrough and elsewhere they were used to break the strike; the police batoned workers, broke up strike meetings and arrested the most militant. To this, in spite of their leaders, the workers replied by action; scab buses were stopped by huge crowds of workers and turned back, scab trams were stoned, and in many cases overturned; mass pickets were organised to prevent blacklegging and Workers’ Defence Corps formed. Clearly within a short time the General Council would have lost its control over the workers, and the struggle, under a new leadership, would have gone forward to open civil war.

Then came the betrayal; the surrender by the General Council. When the full meaning of this was known there was a widespread wave of fury among the workers; from all parts came resolutions of anger, of protest, and of decision to fight on.

We cannot now deal with the rally of May 13; with the efforts of many local committees to link up and fight on; with the end of the strike; and with the subsequent struggle of the miners. For us the question is – is the General Strike still a weapon in the struggle of the working class and if so how has its form been changed by the events of 1926?

Never Again?

The Labour leaders united in declaring, after the General Strike, that it could never happen again – that the weapon of the General Strike had been finally discredited by the events of May 1926.

The reason for these statements can be found in the fact that the events of May, 1926, demonstrated that every industrial struggle of the workers is, in the period of capitalist decline, a revolutionary struggle; that a fight against one section of the capitalist class is a fight against the whole capitalist class raising the issues of class power, and raising the question of the fight against the capitalist State. It is no longer possible for the workers to fight for improved conditions or even to fight against worsened conditions without challenging the basis of capitalist rule.

For this reason Labour leaders will never use the General Strike weapon again. May, 1926, presented the alternative to the Labour leaders of revolutionary struggle for power or class collaboration with the bosses in reorganising capitalism on the basis of worsened condition for the workers; they chose class collaboration. It showed the need for a revolutionary party of the working class to link up the various struggles of the working class and lead them against the capitalist state.

The weapon of the General Strike remains a weapon in the class struggle; the events of 1926 killed the “folded arms” illusion for ever. In future it can only be used as part of the revolutionary struggle of the working class for power. In this sense and in this sense alone can we regard the General Strike as a weapon in our fight for emancipation; the events of May should be to us not only a lesson in this respect but an inspiration to us in the mighty conflicts of to-day.

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