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1926: How the TUC betrayed the General Strike

The 1926 General Strike is rich in lessons for today. Dave Stockton looks at how the ruling class prepared for it while the unions leaders did not.

In the mid-1920s the Miners Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) had almost a million members, and was the militant core of the working class movement. Coal was still the main fuel of trade and Empire, powering factories, railways and the electricity supply. It fuelled the word’s largest navy, which in turn guarded an empire containing 458 million people, a fifth of the world’s population.

In October 1924, Tory Stanley Baldwin was elected prime minister with a huge majority. Baldwin’s Chancellor Winston Churchill headed a fiercely anti- working class group in the cabinet: Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, India Secretary F E Smith (Lord Birkenhead) and Home Secretary William Joynson- Hicks. They were eager to “put the trade unions in their place” and crush the young Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to boot. At key moments they rather than Baldwin called the shots.

On 30 June 1925, mine owners announced plans to cut miner’s wages and increase their working hours. Miners responded with the slogan “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day.” At the head of the MFGB stood one of the most combative union leaders in British history, A J Cook.

Cook had been elected with the support of the CPGB and the Miners’ Minority Movement, the rank and file organisation formed by the CPGB and its allies in January 1924, which became a cross-union body in the summer of that year. Most other trade union and Labour Party leaders hated him with a passion.

Fred Bramley, Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary, commented to his assistant, Walter Citrine: “Have you seen who has been elected secretary of the Miners’ Federation? Cook, a raving, tearing Communist.”

Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald called him “a guttersnipe”, while Beatrice Webb, ideologue of Labour’s reformist Fabian right, wrote of him that: “He looks low-caste – not at all the skilled artisan type, more the agricultural labourer… an inspired idiot”.

The Lefts

Transport workers’ leader Ernest Bevin had represented the union movement’s left wing until Cook’s election. Previously, right-wingers like rail workers’ leader James Henry Thomas, textile union leader John Robert Clynes and Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) leader Arthur Pugh had dominated the TUC, until Thomas and Clynes left the TUC General Council to join MacDonald’s short-lived minority Labour cabinet in January 1924.

This opened the way for the election of a number of “lefts” to the General Council, including Alf Purcell of the furniture union, Alonzo Swales of the engineers, George Hicks of the builders’ union, and A J Cook.

These figures pressed for the TUC to support an initiative for unity between the Amsterdam-based International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and the Moscow-based Red International of Labour Unions (RILU). When the IFTU rejected this initiative, the TUC formed the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee with the Soviet trade unions.

Following MacDonald’s defeat and Baldwin’s re-election, the mine owners demanded wage cuts, an increase of the working day from 7 hours to 8, and coalfield wage agreements in place of a national one. The new General Council promised industrial action in support of the MFGB. Taken by surprise and unprepared, Baldwin’s government played for time and agreed to a nine month government subsidy to the mine owners to avoid a strike on 31 July 1925.

Labour paper the Daily Herald dubbed this tactical retreat “Red Friday”, a great victory for working class solidarity. But for Baldwin this was only a breathing space for preparations to smash the unions, first and foremost the miners. He lulled the unions into quiescence with the time-honoured ruse of a Royal Commission, to investigate conditions in the mining industry. Under the chairmanship of Sir Herbert Samuel, the Commission was to report in March 1926.

“All Power to the General Council”

The CPGB and the Minority Movement argued for unions to give more power to the General Council so that it could act as “the general staff of Labour”, and in particular so that it could call a general strike. Nevertheless it also warned that the existing leaders were not to be trusted to use that power in the interest of the workers.

In August 1924 the National Minority Movement (NMM) stated: “It must not be imagined that the increase of the powers of the General Council will have the tendency to make it less reactionary. On the contrary, the tendency will be for it to become more so… We can guard against the General Council becoming a machine of the capitalists, and can only really evolve from the General Council a Workers’ General Staff, only by, in the first place and fundamentally, developing a revolutionary class consciousness among the Trade Union membership.”

J R Campbell wrote in the Communist Review in October 1924 that: “It would be a suicidal policy for the Communist Party and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on what we have called the official left wing. It is the duty of our Party and the NMM to criticise its weaknesses relentlessly. The revolutionary workers must never forget that their main activity must be devoted to capturing the masses.”

The weakness in this position is that it did not spell out how the union rank and file could assert its control over the union leaders and replace them if they wavered or betrayed. Worse, a real degeneration in the CP and the MM’s position was at hand – a collapse into a zigzagging policy that cloaks climb-downs with “revolutionary” phrases and compromises with reformism. The origins of this lay in Moscow.

A critical change in the Soviet Communist Party’s leadership had taken place. The first phase of this (between 1923 and 1925) saw the rise of Grigorii Zinoviev, supported by the Soviet growing bureaucracy, and marginalised the revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky. Zinoviev had become impatient with the small CPGB’s slow growth, looked to the left union leaders as a vehicle for the emergence of a mass communist party. Under his leadership, the Communist International’s wooing of the TUC lefts began in earnest.

Trotsky later described this rotten method:

“This only possible road (building a revolutionary party), however, appeared too long and uncertain to the bureaucrats of the Communist International. They considered that by means of personal influence upon Purcell, Hicks, Cook and the others (conversations behind the scenes, correspondence, banquets, friendly back-slapping, gentle exhortations), they would gradually and imperceptibly draw the ‘left’ opposition (‘the broad current’) into the stream of the Communist International.”

Joseph Stalin and Nicolai Bukharin ousted Zinoviev from the right in early 1926, adopting a strategy of building “socialism in one country.” This consigned national sections of the Communist International (Comintern) to the role of protecting the Soviet Union first, and subordinating revolutionary strategy in their own countries to this goal.

In Britain this meant that the Anglo-Russian Committee, and the TUC as a whole, were regarded as a vital ally of the Soviet Union against the British and French warmongers. The independent policy of the CPGB had to be sacrificed to this. It had to express complete confidence in the TUC lefts and tone down its criticism of the TUC right. This led to the CPGB concentrating more and more on the slogan “All Power to the General Council”, with none of the warnings that Campbell and the NMM had previously issued.

In September 1925, the TUC’s congress in Scarborough seemed to indicate a further swing to the left. But it also indicated the CPGB’s swing to the right. Alonzo Swales in his chairman’s remarks claimed to observe “clear indications of a world movement rising in revolt and determined to shake off the shackles of wage slavery.” CPGB leader Willie Gallagher welcomed this uncritically, saying, “In the stern, tough voice of Swales spoke the working class dictatorship.”

Trotsky’s estimate of the congress was far more accurate: “it was left so long as it had to accept no practical obligations.” Indeed a closer inspection would have revealed that a larger right wing, headed by J H Thomas, had come back onto the General Council.

A big shock to the Communists came immediately after, when the Labour Party’s conference in Liverpool extended bans on CPGB members joining, and the CPGB’s application to affiliate to the Labour Party was defeated even more overwhelmingly than in previous years. Moreover the General Council lefts failed to speak up for the Communists.

But the Communists only made excuses, claiming that their failure was merely due to “lack of confidence”. The fact that the CPGB’s allies were broken reeds however was not lost on Stanley Baldwin. On 14 October, police raided the CPGB’s headquarters, arrested twelve members of its executive and charged them under the Incitement to Mutiny Act of 1797. Willie Gallagher, Wal Hannington and Harry Pollitt were shut up in Wandsworth Prison for twelve months.

The TUC leaders knew well that a massive struggle would break out in the spring when Samuel’s Commission finally reported and the government subsidy ran out. They watched as the Tories prepared to militarise the country and break a general strike, and did nothing.

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