Chanie Rosenberg Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Chanie Rosenberg

From world war to class war

(January 1999)

From Socialist Review, No. 226, January 1999.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The year 1919 was when Britain came closest to workers’ revolution. Chanie Rosenberg looks back 80 years at the tumultuous events and the weaknesses in the leadership that stopped the movement short

On the 80th anniversary of Britain’s teetering on the brink of revolution, there are still those who cry, ‘It can’t happen here!’ The lessons of 1919, when British workers, like those all over Europe, strained at the leash to overthrow the capitalist system but were dragged back, are therefore still very relevant today. The Russian Revolution of 1917 lit a flame which flared all over Europe. There were revolutions in Germany, Austria and Hungary, and in many countries the growth of mass Communist Parties. Britain in 1919 was part of this rising revolutionary wave.

The First World War ended on 11 November 1918, but workers continued to suffer all the wartime privations, and they rebelled in a massive wave of strikes, with working days lost leaping from nearly 6 million in 1918 to nearly 35 million in 1919 – an average of more than 100,000 workers on strike every working day – the highest, by 11 million, of the century.

The target of the workers’ discontent was the state. The controller of all the major industries during the war, it became the natural focus for protest. It also reeled under the impact of mutiny by its own soldiers, sailors and airmen at home and abroad. In addition the police, late in 1918, held a widespread strike, and their discontent seethed throughout most of 1919.

The crisis had many focal points – the army, police, engineers, but above all the great industrial unions of miners, railwaymen and transport workers, forged together in the Triple Alliance.

The first to step onto the stage of history was the army. The slaughter of 1914–18 had been ended on the Eastern Front by the Russian Revolution of workers, peasants and soldiers in November 1917, and on the Western Front by the German Revolution of workers and soldiers in November 1918.

Revolution, then, was the spectre that haunted prime minister Lloyd George’s newly formed cabinet. Churchill was demanding the retention of troops and further conscription to fight Bolshevism in Russia. Troops refused and mutinied to go home.

On 3 January 2,000 soldiers in Folkestone refused to board the waiting boats for service abroad, instead leading a protest march of 10,000 through the town. For the next fortnight, despite a total press blackout, there were nearly 50 mutinies involving tens of thousands of troops in Britain and abroad. All demanded speedier demobilisation and no fighting in Russia, but other grievances relating to dehumanising exploitation by officers piled up. The navy was not immune. At Milford Haven the sailors on HMS Kilbride refused to do their watches for the rotten pay they were receiving, refused to go to sea and hoisted the red flag.

Many of the mutinies were highly organised. The cabinet had no option but to concede. It saw the hydra head of Bolshevik revolution in every strike and mutiny. Mutiny was subject to the death penalty, but when the commander-in-chief, General Haig, wanted to shoot the leaders of one of the strikes, even Churchill had to demur, for fear of repercussions at home. The strength of the workers’ and soldiers’ struggles thus saved the mutineers, not only from death, but from any punishment at all.

The other instrument of the state’s security forces, the police, were also up in arms against poor pay, the sacking of a police union organiser, and – most importantly – for recognition of the union. The National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) had been formed in 1913 and was affiliated to the London Trades Council, but was harshly refused recognition by the Metropolitan Police who threatened dismissal of anyone joining it. A strike called for 29 August 1918 was supported beyond the wildest dreams of its organisers, by 12,000 out of the 19,000 Metropolitan police force. The striking police knew how to deal with a scab: ‘Within seconds his helmet was torn off and, his arms firmly held, he was dragged off with the crowd.’

Lloyd George was driven into a corner. With industrial unrest, police on strike, soldiers disaffected and unreliable, he capitulated, giving the police more than they had asked for in some respects – in pay, introducing a widow’s pension and reinstating all the 20 sacked NUPPO officers. He later said, ‘This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since.’

The police returned to duty 44 hours after the start of the strike with a famous victory under their belt. In one respect, however, Lloyd George outwitted the NUPPO negotiators. He said, ‘The government cannot recognise a union for the police in wartime.’ The union negotiators who acceded to this fully expected that recognition would be given after the war was over. But the government instituted a number of divide and rule alternatives to NUPPO, improved pay and conditions considerably, and when they were ready, at the end of July 1919, provoked a strike by snubbing a police deputation. Large sections of the force were thoroughly demoralised, and the strike failed miserably, with under 3,000 coming out nationally. All the strikers were dismissed and never reinstated. Meanwhile the government learned the danger of undervaluing those servants it expected to be its loyal bully boys when industrial strife took place. It never made the same mistake with the police again.

In 1919 strikes inspired more strikes in a ceaseless tide of militancy and solidarity. The key to the semi-revolutionary nature of the situation was the activity of the working class at the point of production.

The first major industrial confrontation, which started on 27 January 1919, was the Forty Hours Strike in Glasgow and Belfast. Glasgow had been in the vanguard of the class struggle during the war. Engineering – munitions – employed one third of all its workers, who were overwhelmingly unionised.

From 1915 onwards big strikes took place on both the economic and political fronts – all of them unofficial. Out of this movement was born the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC). This was made up of shop stewards from the striking factories, all of whom were socialists, and it led whatever strikes took place in the engineering industry. The end of the war faced the engineers with the problems both of unemployment and the absorption of demobilised workers. The CWC proposed a reduction of the average 54 hours a week then being worked to 40 hours. This is what they struck for.

The workers’ response was magnificent, up to 100,000 coming out in an active, energetic strike with mass pickets and daily mass meetings. But there were weaknesses. The strike committee this time included official as well as unofficial union bodies who were often reluctant partners, participating only in order not to lose control of their members. The executive of the main union, the engineers’ ASE, was pro-war and against the strike. After consultation with the government, it suspended its Glasgow and Belfast district committees six days before the strike ended.

Another weakening factor was the pressure by its leaders to keep politics out of it. Willie Gallacher, one of the strike leaders and a revolutionary socialist, later observed, ‘We were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution.’ The government, with the war over and not requiring armaments, noted that the strike was localised in Glasgow and Belfast. They cleverly read the subjective situation and realised that the workers leaders were not totally united, and so decided the big stick could successfully be used. On Saturday 1 February Glasgow was an armed camp, occupied by troops with bayonets, machine guns, tanks and aeroplanes. The leaders were attacked, some injured, and nearly all arrested and sentenced to prison terms.

The government’s panic measures in Glasgow had their root in fears from another quarter – a national strike by the million miners. The Triple Alliance’s potential power was enormous, and the danger of a conflagration imminent, as all three had wage claims in at the same time. Britain was on the brink of an offensive general strike which could have led to a challenge for power.

The miners put forward demands for a 30 percent wage increase, a reduction of working hours from eight to six per day, and nationalisation of the industry with joint control by owners and miners. The government had a bottomless appetite for coal to keep industry going; the threat of a miners’ strike was national; two respected left wing union leaders – Robert Smillie, president of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, and Frank Hodges, its secretary – were leading the agitation. Wielding the big stick could have been a disaster for the government, if, as seemed very likely, they would not be able to call on a sufficient number of loyal soldiers and police to break the strike. So the wily Lloyd George decided to dangle a carrot.

This was the talking shop of the Sankey Commission which promised to inquire into wages, hours and conditions in the pits, and ‘any scheme...for the future organisation of the coal industry, whether on the present basis, or on the basis of joint control, nationalisation, or any other basis’. At the miners’ conference called to decide whether to accept the Sankey Commission, delegate after delegate spoke against. But Smillie and Hodges drew back. Smillie subsequently admitted, ‘I have not the slightest doubt in my own mind that, if the miners were so advised, they could, within a month, stop every mine in the country till the mines are nationalised. That will stop all the railways and the other industries dependent upon coal.’ At this most crucial point in history, the innate reformism, the parliamentarism, of this doughty ‘left winger’ rose to the top. ‘We do not want to do that,’ he said. ‘We want to act “constitutionally”.’ So Smillie and Hodges stomped the country to get the Commission accepted.

The Commission’s interim report out three weeks later did offer significant reforms, a wage increase of about 20 percent, and hours down from eight to seven per day. But the key question – nationalisation – was postponed for reporting on till June. For a second crucial time Smillie and Hodge stomped the country to get the unwilling miners to accept the report, which they did – after some substantial strikes against it.

When the final report came out in June, there was indeed a majority for nationalisation, but the steam had gone out of the movement, and the government easily managed to dupe the miners’ leaders, leaving intact the status quo of private ownership with its terrible conditions and scandalously high death rate.

Railwaymen were the other partner in the Triple Alliance. They were straining at the leash to go on strike at exactly the same time as the miners, for their demand for upward standardisation of wage rates for all grades. Their leader was an extreme right winger who would do anything to avoid a strike. The government was more than willing, at that dangerous time, to give concessions: extra wages, a shorter working week, a week’s holiday a year, machinery for making complaints against management – and a recognition of the principle of standardisation upwards. So Jimmy Thomas succeeded in calling off the threatened strike, on 27 March.

This was a historic turning point in the whole industrial and political situation in Britain. At a peak of revolutionary potential, historical destiny may be embodied in one person. In Russia it was Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Party, who steered history onto the side of the revolution and workers’ power. In Britain it was the ‘left wing’ union official Robert Smillie who, with the right wing Jimmy Thomas in tow, sold his members out and thus steered history onto the side of the capitalist class and mere reform.

That was not the end of the story, however. Huge strike waves continued to rock the country throughout the summer of 1919, including one of 450,000 cotton workers for 18 days – the biggest single strike of the year. And the railwaymen continued to chafe at the bit for the ‘standardisation of wages upwards’.

The government, having secured victory with the carrot, was now determined to smash the rebellious workers with, if necessary, the big stick. When it felt it had sufficient control, it was ready for the kill, the object being, as it had been all along, to turn the tide and implement ‘the universal determination of the capitalists to reduce wages to pre-war levels’.

The government now provoked the railway strike with measures drastic enough to overcome Jimmy Thomas’s infinite opposition to strike action – instead of standardisation upwards, draconian wage cuts for 100,000 men, and no increase for anyone. The strike started on 27 September. It was rock solid, and even at this late stage there were demands from a host of unions to get their members called out in solidarity – which Thomas declined. Against all the odds, the railwaymen won, getting all the cuts rescinded and extra pay for the lowest grade. Even at this late stage the troops proved unreliable, some fraternising with the strikers and having to be recalled to barracks.

The strike provided another opportunity, even if not so ripe as in the spring, to broaden the struggle and challenge the state. The embers could have been fanned into flames if there had been a well rooted revolutionary party, conscious of its aims. The workers’ militancy had not yet been quenched. Instead, at the final rally in the Albert Hall on 5 October, Thomas’s message was ‘We did not want to beat the government’!

The industrial and political struggles of 1919, because they were so big, bring out more clearly and starkly the lessons that apply to all class battles, big or small. The main lessons relate to relations between the contending forces.

First there is the government, acting on behalf of the ruling class whose aim is to smash working class militancy which raises wages and improves conditions, thus reducing profits. Workers in rebellion will do everything possible to thwart its plans. The government needs the mediation of a reliable go – between, whose interests, at least in part, coincide with its own. These are the trade union officials. The task of the trade unions is to improve the terms on which workers are exploited within the capitalist system, not to end capitalist exploitation. While uniting the workers in one trade they separate them from workers in other unions.

This sectionalism inevitably produces the trade union bureaucracy, whose special task is to mediate between the employers and the workers. Their role safeguards them from the job insecurity, low wages and constant conflicts with management faced by those they represent. Instead their role closets them with management in endless hours of negotiation, whose very core is reconciliation between capital and labour, and whose expression is always compromise. Although there are differences between right and left bureaucrats, they all develop into a distinct, basically conservative, social stratum, which tries to hold back the militants and keep the members passive.

An important ideological factor inclining the trade union bureaucracy to the government is its attitude to the state. The ruling class presents the state as a neutral institution, above classes, serving the best interests of ‘the community’, ‘the nation’, ‘the country’. It is only when working class struggle rises to revolutionary proportions, and workers gain confidence in their own ability to emancipate themselves, that they throw off the shackles of bourgeois ideology and see the state as it is – the instrument of the rule of one class over others. They are then prepared to smash it in order to achieve their own emancipation.

This discovery does not apply to the trade union leaders, who completely embrace the bourgeois ideology of the state, and speak in almost identical terms as the government. This was well illustrated in the spring of 1919 in an interview Lloyd George held with the leaders of the Triple Alliance. After telling them that the government was at their mercy, Lloyd George went on: ‘In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so, have you weighed the consequences? ... 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 itself, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, 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.’

Lenin said that ‘for a revolution to take place, it is not usually sufficient for the “lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way.’ With the working class seething throughout the year, and the arms of repression liable to fail the state, these conditions existed in Britain in 1919. But the picture was incomplete. Had there been a well rooted revolutionary party leading the working class – acting inside the trade unions to push them along a revolutionary road as far as they were capable of going, and at the same time surmounting their sectionalism in a united, self-conscious bid for political power – the revolution could have happened here.

Chanie Rosenberg Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 11 June 2021