The postwar prelude
It should be remembered that the previous decade had seen a long series of partial confrontations and skirmishes in which the ruling class had never managed to win a lasting victory.
From the unofficial shops stewards' movement which developed during World War I in Scotland, from 1915 onwards, to the widespread unrest which broke out among soldiers forcing their prompt demobilisation in 1919 and the huge strike waves which started in 1918 and lasted well into 1920, whole sections of workers had been shaking off the wartime straightjacket to reclaim the ground lost during the war or, for those whose conditions had improved, like in the railways and the mines, not to return to their pre-war conditions. A sense of power had emerged inside the ranks of the working class and the bosses had known better than to defy it openly.
The attitude of the union machineries, which had been marshalling the working class into accepting wartime conditions, had been ambivalent. Like the capitalists, they dreaded this unruly upsurge of militancy and they certainly had dragged their feet as much as they could. But trade union membership had risen to 4.5 million in 1918 and then to 6.5 million in 1920, compared with only 2.25 million at the beginning of the war and the union machineries were the first beneficiaries of this growth. However, the ambivalence of the reformist leaders was never put to the test during this period. They rarely opposed strikers simply because, despite its scale, the strike wave always remained atomised and, therefore, was never a real threat for capital.
But while the union machineries were riding the wave of militancy with relative ease, the capitalist class was becoming increasingly worried and restless. During the last years of the war, already, there had been a mushrooming of reactionary pro-business organisations, using the patriotic mantle as a cover. In 1918, for instance one of these organisations, the British Empire Union, launched a campaign against offering employment to any German workers before 1925 - a demand which, sadly enough, was supported by at least one union leader, J. Havelock Wilson of the Merchant Seaman's League. This British Empire Union was said to have 10,000 members and included no fewer than 25 aristocrats among its vice-presidents - including some respectable business figures. One of the features of this organisation was its indulgence in red-baiting and anti-Semitic outbursts. This feature was shared by a related organisation, more targeted at the lower middle-class, called the National Citizens Union, which was established in 1919 to "withstand the rapacity of the manual worker and profiteer". Its president was a retired army colonel and throughout the 1920s, it prided itself in acting as a strikebreaking agency on request.
But the fears of the capitalist class were even better illustrated by the government's moves. In 1919, the then coalition government led by the Liberal Lloyd George took the strike wave so seriously that it set up two permanent sub-committees - the "Industrial Unrest Committee" and the "Munitions and Weapons Committee" - to deal with the situation and make contingency plans in case of a general strike. The following year, just as he was giving in to the striking miners, Lloyd George rushed through the Commons his Emergency Powers Bill which was designed to provide the government with all the necessary powers to deal with a real threat from the working class. This included among other things the possibility for ministers to confiscate union funds, to close down banks so as to prevent strikers from drawing disguised strike pay and to make incitement to strike a criminal offence. In Churchill's words during the Bill's discussion phase, "we should use a form of words which would allow us to pick and choose the people we arrested." Clearly the politicians of the bourgeoisie were preparing for a major confrontation.
Capitalist bankruptcy and offensive
British capital was all the more worried about working class militancy because, although it was one of the three main victorious powers of the war, it was beginning to discover that this victory came at very high cost.
As world trade resumed, British exporters soon found that they were facing cheaper American rivals in large areas of South America and Asia where British trade had been "ruling the waves" before the war. Even the rest of the empire was no longer so keen to trade with Britain as they were getting paid in pounds which had to be used to buy expensive British goods.
The fact was that during the five years of the war, British capitalists had happily lived a parasitic life on state investment in war industries and state subsidies and import controls in consumer goods industries, without paying a penny out of their own pockets. By 1919, as a result, the export industries were in the same state as they had been in 1914, except that machines were exhausted and costs too high.
At first, the government used a controlled devaluation of the pound against the dollar to ease off the pressure on export businesses. But while this did little to increase exports, it caused havoc in other areas.
The British colonies had never been consulted, of course, about this devaluation which reduced their purchasing power as well as their income. So it only boosted dramatically their attraction to the dollar. Moreover the sudden instability of the pound was a serious blow to the credibility of the City as the world's number one financial market. Since the dollar was now the only stable and trusted currency present everywhere across Europe and much of the world, why would bankers and industrialists bother to trade in the City if they could find an unlimited source of dollars seeking borrowers in the US?
It was against this backdrop that a world recession, caused by the massive scaling down of war production, started to bite at the end of 1920. Export and world market prices collapsed, affecting almost every industry from coal and textiles to engineering and shipbuilding. Profits melted away and factories and pits began to close, up and down the country. The number of registered unemployed shot up from 250,000 at the end of 1920 to 2 million by June 1921.
From this point onwards, the capitalist class went onto the offensive in order to survive. Not just because of this temporary crisis, but also because of the legacy of two decades of complacency by an ageing dominant power.
On the financial side, it embarked on a drastic austerity policy aimed at rebuilding the strength of the pound. This involved reducing any kind of "unprofitable" consumption at home while increasing lending abroad. Eventually, in 1925, the convertibility of the pound into gold was restored to its pre-war level - which amounted to a brutal 10% increase in the pound's exchange rate and a corresponding cut in the standard of living of the working population.
The corollary of this policy, in social terms, was to force the working class to submit to not one, but two waves of wage cuts. The first, in 1921, in order to foot the bill of the world recession and the second, even more drastic, from 1925 onwards, in order to pay for the pound's revaluation and the cost of restructuring industry.
The need for a class leadership
As early as 1920, therefore, the battle lines were drawn. The capitalist class and its state - in fact every one of its governments, including MacDonald's short-lived Labour government of 1924 - would have no respite until the resistance of the working class was crushed. This meant that if the working class was to resist the attacks of the capitalists, it had only one possible strategy - to aim at the very foundations on which rested the power of capital, that is its control over the economic organisation of society, i.e. a social revolution.
However for such a revolution to take place a revolutionary leadership was needed. But where was this leadership going to come from? Clearly it would not come from the Labour and union bureaucracies. Labour already had a very long record of class collaboration and the union machineries were designed for little else. In fact it was not surprising that, even to defend the most basic material interests of the working class, the wartime shop stewards movement had to by-pass the structures of the union machineries. But the strength of the union machineries' sectional outlook was such that even these very militant shop stewards had not managed to go far enough in this direction to enable them to mobilise the working class as a class. They too, were unable to see the need to by-pass sectional divisions.
As to the Labour party, of course it had attracted hundreds of thousands of workers seeking a political outlet after the war. But this had not changed its political nature. It remained what it had always been - the political instrument of the union leadership to obtain a space for itself within the capitalist order. This had determined the Labour party's betrayal of working class interests in 1914, when its leadership wholeheartedly endorsed the war effort. The fact that, from 1923, Labour became the country's second largest party, only reinforced its "responsible" attitude towards the bourgeoisie.
This was demonstrated again and again during MacDonald's interlude in government in 1924. Not only did his Labour government fail to repeal the anti-working class legislation adopted since the war - such as Lloyd George's Emergency Powers Bill, for instance - but it used this legislation, as well as the army, against striking workers. Nor did it bring to an end the austerity policy initiated by its predecessor. In fact, MacDonald's government only provided a consistent political continuity between the previous coalition government and Baldwin's Tory government, which took over at the end of 1924.
This did not mean that all Labour and union leaders spoke the reactionary language of a MacDonald or a Thomas, former leader of the National Union of Railwaymen (the forerunner of today's RMT), and Labour MP. Both the Labour and union machineries had a substantial "left ", including in very high places. Some unions had a "left" leadership - like the Miners' Federation, with A.J. Cook as its general secretary (although he was probably more a charismatic demagogue than anything else) and Herbert Smith, its president. Some left-wingers even sat on the TUC general council, following the departure of right-wingers who had been called by MacDonald to join his government - they included people like Swales of the engineering union, Hicks of the building workers and Purcell of the furnishing trades. In the context of the time, however, being "left" meant first of all expressing sympathy for Soviet Russia, something which Trotsky remarked upon in 1925. This should ring a bell, given the record of some of our present day "left" bureaucrats in the unions:
"In the British labour movement international questions have always been a path of least resistance for the leaders'. In regarding international issues as a sort of safety valve for the radical mood of the masses, these leaders are prepared to bow to a certain degree to revolution (elsewhere) only the more surely to take revenge on the questions of the domestic class struggle. The left faction on the General Council is distinguished by a total ideological formlessness and for this reason it is incapable of consolidating around itself organisationally the leadership of the trade union movement."
Likewise, noting the religious beliefs advocated by "left" Labour figures such as Lansbury, Kirkwood and Wheatley, and the rejection of "force" expressed by Lansbury, Trotsky added: "Under the pressure from below, the top layers of the Labour party will quickly shed their skins. We do not in the least mean by this that MacDonald will change his spots to those of a revolutionary. No, he will be cast out. But those who will in all probability form the first substitutes, people of the ilk of Lansbury, Wheatley and Kirkwood, will inevitably reveal that they are but a left variant of the same basic Fabian type. Their radicalism is constrained by democracy and religion and poisoned by the national arrogance that ties them spiritually to the British bourgeoisie."
The Communist party
There remained, therefore, only one force to play the role of this alternative leadership that the working class needed so badly, at least in embryonic form - the Communist party. In embryonic form, because the Communist party, although significantly larger than any of today's left organisations and with much deeper roots in the working class, was still only at best the embryo of a party. It had about 5,000 card-carrying members in 1923, of whom probably less than half were really active. And its growth was made even more difficult by the fact that, ever since its launch, it had been the target of systematic repression by all governments. In particular, in October 1925, 12 members of its leadership were jailed - half of them for six months and the other half for 12 months for incitement to mutiny, so that when the General Strike broke out, a number of them were still in prison.
But the CP's main problem was the fact that this leadership, although comprising a number of experienced union activists, had no experience of large-scale political struggles. In its early years, for instance, it was constantly criticised by the Communist International for its wavering between ultra-left positions and a tendency to seek recognition from union leaders by toning down its criticisms of them. To make matters worse, by the end of 1924, the stalinisation of the USSR was beginning to shape the CP leadership as Stalin's envoys pushed to the side lines all those who might have proved unwilling to bow to each and every diktat from Moscow - and this kind of selection was certainly not the best way to build a solid revolutionary leadership. Especially when, in addition, Moscow began to encourage the CP's opportunistic tendencies by demanding that it should lend its support to precisely the kind of "left" union leaders who Trotsky considered so hopeless.
On the other hand, the CP had one major asset - its links with the working class, both directly through its membership, through the National Unemployed Workers Movement, which it had created, and through the Minority Movement. The latter had been set up as a national and local framework for CP activists to work jointly with militant union activists who opposed the policy of their leadership, on the basis of a class struggle programme. This way CP members had, therefore, built a working relationship with thousands of activists whom they could influence and win over to a revolutionary policy. At the same time, should a radicalisation take place in the working class, the CP activists involved in the Minority Movement could be the transmission belt of this radicalisation in the party and, hopefully, would be able to influence the policy of the party leadership. In any case, this was the only instrument really available for the working class in the near future.
But Trotsky's assessment was not very optimistic in 1925, when he was writing that: "The working class will in all probability have to renew its leadership several times before it creates a party really answering the historical situation and the tasks of the British proletariat." As it happened, however, time was too short for the working class to be equipped with the party it needed when the General Strike broke out.
The miners - the first targets
Both in 1921 and in 1925, the miners were the first target of the capitalists' offensive. There were economic as well as political reasons for it.
Economically, coal mining obviously had major importance. Not only because it was virtually the only source of energy in the country, and high coal prices affected almost all the industries, but also because it was a major producer of exports. On the other hand it was also one of the oldest and most antiquated industries in the country, with little investment in machinery in many areas, so that profitability was very uneven from one coal field to another. But overall it was also one of the most unprofitable industries.
And yet a whole layer of parasites lived off the miners' labour. In the early 1920s, there were 3,000 pits owned by 1,500 operators. Some of these operators were merely cowboys, while others were big companies or industrialists such as the Tory MP and minister Lord Londonderry. In addition, due to Britain's unfinished bourgeois revolution which left the ownership of underground resources to the owner of the land, unlike in almost any other industrialised country in the world, a large number of landowners received royalties from the coal mined under their properties. On average it was estimated that 20% of the profits made on each ton of coal extracted went to landowners, the most prominent of these villains being none other than the Church of England, with annual royalties equivalent to 2% of the country's entire profits from coal!
To turn mining into a profitable industry while producing cheap coal, could only be done in one of three ways. First, by restructuring the industry, eliminating the smallest unproductive mines and investing massively in the large productive ones - but the coal owners would have none of that, nor were they prepared to make the investment required, and none of the successive governments was willing to challenge this powerful lobby. Second, by subsidising the coal owners, which was done throughout the war and for a brief period afterwards, but as the state was virtually broke this was not considered an option. Or, finally, by drastically cutting the miners' wages and conditions to reduce production costs - which was the "solution" favoured by both the mine owners and the Baldwin government.
The political importance of the mining industry was primarily due to the enormous size of its workforce - 900,000 just after the war - and the fact that the coal fields were scattered almost everywhere across the country. Any wave of industrial unrest in the mines was, therefore, bound to have a physical impact on the working class nationally. All the more so because, since the wartime government had taken over control of coal mining, national bargaining had been implemented and the Miners' Federation was in a position to act as one single voice for the entire industry - thereby giving to the miners a sense of solidarity which had never existed in the previous decades.
All this meant that, for the capitalist class and its strategists, the miners were the first section of the working class whose resistance had to be crushed - for obvious economic reasons. But also because it was estimated, probably rightly, that a defeat inflicted on the miners would automatically demoralise the rest of the working class and, in any case, it would deprive it of its largest single battalion.
On the other hand, despite the miners' potential strength, working conditions in the mines were worse than in most other industries. Safety measures were virtually nil, or at best they reflected the local relationship of forces between the miners and the coal owner. In the year 1922-24, for instance, it was estimated that five miners were killed every working day and 32 injured every hour - and this despite a theoretical working day of 7 hours. With such conditions the miners were not likely to agree to a pay cut or to increased hours easily.
From defeat to fake "victory"
In 1920, the miners had gone on strike. They had forced the government and coal owners to back down on their attempt to reduce productivity bonuses and even concede a pay increase. But the government stuck with its plan to return control of the mines to their owners by the end of March 1921.
A few weeks before the deadline, the coal owners issued notices to the miners which cancelled national wage rates and announced cuts of up to 49%. On 1st April, the miners came out on strike. The Triple Alliance - which brought together the miners, transport and railway unions - was meant to come into play with a national strike to halt all movement of coal, starting at 10pm on Friday 15 April 1921. But at 3pm that day, Thomas, the NUR leader, called off the rail strike, on the grounds that now that national wage bargaining was gone, a solidarity strike would not help the miners to defeat every single one of their 1,500 employers. This "Black Friday" as it was called, left the miners to strike in isolation for three months before going back to work with virtually nothing to show for it.
This was the first betrayal experienced by the miners, a betrayal for which they had not been prepared since, even for the most radical activists, the Triple Alliance was supposed to be the ultimate and invincible weapon of the miners - except that the Triple Alliance was not under the control of the rank-an-file miners, but under the control of bureaucrats who did not want wholesale class war and even, certainly in the case of Thomas, considered that it was legitimate in this context for the bosses to expect the working class to make concessions in order to "help out" the industry.
During that year, as a result of this betrayal, average wages dropped by 30% in the mines. By the end of it, 6 million workers had suffered pay cuts across the country. But this was only the beginning. The next year, 260,000 engineering workers were subjected to pay cuts after a 13-week lock-out. And by the end of 1922, it was estimated that workers had lost on average 3/4 of all wage increases since 1914 - which meant that real wages were actually way down from their pre-war level.
The second bosses' offensive began in June 1925. By that time, about 400 collieries had closed down due to the high pound and an oversupply of coal in Europe. The coal owners then announced that by August 1st they would end the National Minimum Wage system in the mines (implemented in 1912) and warned of the need to return to the 8-hr day. This time, it seemed that the Triple Alliance was going to function: on 25 July its leaders agreed on a total embargo of coal (but not a strike, except for the miners) from the 31st July at midnight. On the eve of the deadline, prime minister Baldwin made his famous remark that "all the workers in this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put the industry on its feet." The next morning, Friday 1st August, however, the same Baldwin offered a subsidy to the coal owners in return for the withdrawal of the announced measures against wages and conditions until 1st May 1926. At the same time he proposed the setting up of yet another Commission to investigate the coal industry - later known as the Samuel Commission. In return, Cook immediately called off the strike. And Labour's Daily Herald came out with a headline in huge letters screaming victory for what it called "Red Friday."
Who at the time honestly believed that this was a victory for the miners? In any case, Tory ministers did not, since they immediately proceeded to plan openly for the next deadline. And their plans showed without any doubt that they were preparing for a confrontation, not for a peaceful resolution.
Preparing for battle
Since the first government anti-strike subcommittees had been formed in 1919, a whole bureaucracy had been developed and improved by each successive government, including Labour's, to deal with a general strike. At its heart was the Cabinet's Supply and Transport Committee, which was to coordinate the emergency operation of the various departments. Everything was planned - from the storage depots to be used for food stocks to the routes they would take in order to be distributed and the vehicles that would be used.
After Red Friday, this machinery was put on full alert and stocks were built up. But compiling lists of jobs which needed to be filled in case of an emergency would hardly be effective if there was no one with the right qualifications to do them. Finding such people was the mission of the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies, or OMS. On paper, this was a non-governmental organisation, whose sole aim was to recruit, train and organise "those citizens who would be prepared to volunteer to maintain supplies and services in the event of a General Strike". But at its head were characters such as a former Viceroy of India and a former Admiral of the Fleet, both of whom just happened to be closely associated with the Home Secretary.
For the government the OMS served a dual purpose. On paper it did recruit around 100,000 strikebreakers to act as special constables, public sector workers, dispatch riders, drivers, etc.., although not all that many turned out to be of any use during the General Strike itself. But, possibly more importantly, the OMS provided a channel for an open anti-working class mobilisation. Its recruitment bureaux, often set up in reassuring local authority premises, made more effective propaganda weapons to prepare the middle-class to side with the government than the most inflammatory speeches against the possible threat of a General Strike. They offered a tangible objective and appealed to the nationalist outlook of the middle-class as much as to its social prejudices. Whether it was efficient or not in terms of reinforcing the government's anti-strike machinery, the OMS undoubtedly helped to polarise society for the benefit of the bosses' offensive.
Compared with this comprehensive organisational and propaganda preparation carried out by the government, the inactivity of the TUC seemed beyond belief. It was not as if the TUC general council was unaware of the stakes. Red Friday's so-called "victory" and the fact that the government was openly seeking recruits for the class war left no doubt that a decisive power struggle would have to be fought within nine months. Yet neither the general council, including its "left" members, nor the tough-talking leadership of the Miners' Federation did anything to prepare workers for the coming battle, neither morally nor organisationally - on the grounds that this would be taken as a provocation. As if the Tories' propaganda and OMS recruitment were not provocations that deserved an appropriate response! Instead, union leaders - including those of the Miners' Federation - gambled everything on their ability to reach some sort of 11th hour agreement to prevent an all-out confrontation.
This had nothing to do with naivety on their part. As the whole course of the General Strike was going to expose, the union machineries never wanted such a confrontation for fear of undermining their own status in capitalist society, that is, in today's language, their "partnership" with the bosses.
Last-ditch attempt at a compromise
The General Council's main preoccupation throughout these nine months was to ensure that it controlled the working class rather to prepare it for a confrontation it wanted to avoid. A so-called "Industrial Committee" was set up to "handle" the situation. But although, on paper, it agreed with the Miners' executive on opposing any reduction in wages or increase in hours and defending national bargaining, its real purpose was to start direct negotiations with the government at the first opportunity - and if necessary, over the heads of the miners.
Predictably, the report of the Samuel Commission came out in favour of wage cuts. Provided this was agreed in principle by the Miners' Federation, it recommended a three-month prolongation of the government's subsidy to help minimise these cuts. However, on 13 April the Coal Owners' association made it crystal clear that they intended to go ahead with the wage cuts regardless. Time was now running out. Yet even at this stage the TUC exhorted the Miners' Federation to continue negotiations in order to "reduce points of difference to the smallest possible dimensions."
On 26 April, the General Council got the opening it had been waiting for. Its Industrial Committee, now with MacDonald and Arthur Henderson co-opted onto it as representatives of Labour's hierarchy, was invited to talks by Baldwin. Until the very last minute, the TUC was to seek a compromise with government ministers, meeting with them at times with the miners' leaders present and sometimes without them.
The coal owners, however, were in no mood to compromise. On 30 April, they notified the miners' union that wages would be cut by 13.5% and the working day would be gradually prolonged over the next three years and the majority of miners were locked out. The same day King George V proclaimed a State of Emergency and the BBC broadcast an announcement about the coal stoppage. This was a declaration of war which left the TUC with very little to bargain with, except their threat of a general strike. And if the TUC authorised the sending of telegrams calling the relevant union structures to prepare for a national strike from 3rd May at midnight, it was only as a bargaining ploy.
Indeed, as the subsequent talks showed, the General Council was willing to bargain away the miners' wages, provided it got something in exchange that could be sold to the Miners' Federation. The miners' leaders also indicated their willingness to concede temporary wage cuts provided they were allowed first to negotiate "page by page" the proposals of the Samuel report - so as to have something to sell to their members. So the talks went on long after the General Council had finally issued its call for action, with the TUC engaging in meeting after meeting with Baldwin and his Cabinet committee.
But the bosses and the government wanted a surrender, not a compromise. So the government chose the first pretext at hand to break off negotiations. On the evening of Sunday the 2nd of May, an editorial entitled "For King and Country" had reached the Daily Mail's machine room, ready for printing. It is worth quoting, if only for its tone:
"A General Strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary movement intended to inflict suffering upon the great mass of innocent persons in the community and thereby to put forcible constraint on the government. It is a movement which can only succeed by destroying the Government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people. This being the case, it cannot be tolerated by any civilized Government and it must be dealt with by every resource at the disposal of the community. A state of emergency and national danger has been proclaimed to resist the attack. We call on all law-abiding men and women to hold themselves at the service of King and country."
Predictably, having read this, the printshop workers objected that it was an incitement to strike-breaking and refused to print it. So immediately Baldwin seized his opportunity, accusing the TUC of "interfence with the freedom of the press" and refused to talk any further. He knew full well that the General Council would come back to him begging, sooner or later.
Taking battle positions
In the meantime, on the trade union side talks had also been going on. On 29th April, a Special Conference of union executive committees, consisting of 800 delegates from 141 unions, had been convened in the Memorial Hall in Farringdon Street, to define a collective attitude regarding the situation in the mines. On Saturday May 1st, eventually, Arthur Pugh, in the chair, had to announce "with regret" that the dispute was on. He added that this dispute "requires that the Miners' Federation of Great Britain hand over to the General Council the conduct of this dispute. On that we have heard from the Miners' Federation through their President, Mr Smith, and their Secretary, Mr Cook, that that condition ... is accepted." A card vote was taken, which was overwhelmingly cast in favour of the so-called "proposal for co-ordinated action". It was then that a "national" strike - rather than a "general" strike - was actually declared, to begin at midnight on 3rd May.
The conference's decision meant that the General Council was now entrusted with every decision concerning the General Strike. In and of itself, there was nothing wrong with the working class having a centralised command when embarking on a general strike. On the contrary, it was a necessity, given the centralised nature of the capitalist state. But what the working class needed was a command that was accountable to it and, above all, one that was prepared to fight. Yet everything about the General Council's behaviour had exposed its reluctance to fight. As to its accountability to the working class, the Memorial Hall decision ensured that it would not even be accountable to the various union machineries, let alone to their members!
The main issue from the General Council's point of view was that it had secured total control of the strike, at least for the time being. And all its subsequent policy was to be dictated by its determination to keep hold of it. As the NUR leader Thomas wrote afterwards: "If by any chance it should have got out of the hands of those who would be able to exercise some control, every sane man knows what would have happened ... That danger, that fear, was always in our minds, because we wanted at least, even in this struggle to direct a disciplined army". And of course what he meant when he talked about a "disciplined army" was one which did exactly as it was told by a General Council whose aim was to find a compromise at almost any cost for the strikers.
Now the TUC leaders had at least to make the strike appear serious and effective. The plans which were hastily drawn up exposed their strategy right from the start. They had no intention of calling on all workers to strike from day one. Their so-called "first line of defence", which was expected to come out on day one, consisted of workers engaged in: transport (rail, sea, docks, road), printing (including the Press), iron and steel production, installation of alternative plants to take the place of coal, the building trade "except such as are employed definitely on housing and hospital work", gas and electricity power supply. But this list left out post office and communication workers and workers in engineering and all other manufacturing trades such as textiles and shipbuilding who made up a large section of the working class. In fact, postal and communications workers were not even on the list of so-called "second line" workers who would be called upon to strike the following week. This "second line" was to be made up largely by engineering and shipbuilding.
In and of itself, the military sounding tactics of having a first and a second line, only exposed the General Council's hope that the second line would never have to be called upon. Worst of all, it could only result in the spreading of confusion among workers and make more difficult the indispensible task of uniting the ranks of the working class as a whole in the strike.
In the enemy camp, preparations had been in full swing well before the 3 May. Already a week prior to the strike, two battleships had been recalled from the Atlantic fleet and anchored in the Mersey River in Liverpool. Two battalions of infantry were actually marched into the city as a show of strength. Naval contingents had been sent from Portsmouth to various points in the country for guard duty. All army and navy leave had been stopped.
To win the middle class to its side and demonstrate its strength, the government was determined to keep supplies running despite the transport strike. To this end food stocks for two weeks had been built up and, in London, Hyde Park was turned into a food and milk depot. Private trucks and vehicles had been enlisted and there was a precise plan for running public and freight transport with volunteer labour.
Although the unofficial OMS was not used as such for strike breaking purposes, mainly because civil servants considered its organisers too unreliable, its register of volunteers was used to recruit strike breakers. In the course of the strike, the government's Supply and Transport Committee claimed to have recruited over 200,000 volunteers, including those provided by the OMS. All volunteers were offered the average trade union rate for the job. But to make the offer even more attractive to the 1.4m unemployed, they were promised an additional carrot of a 3s 6d food ration allowance and 5s clothing. Despite all this, volunteers were still outnumbered by strikers by more than 10 to one...
But in fact, the purpose of this strike breaking operation was more political than economic. No matter how many volunteers were recruited, there was no way the government could prevent the capitalists from suffering a big cut in their profits due to the strike and Baldwin knew it - and this was one of the strikers' main weapons. On the other hand, by keeping a few trams and trains running, the government could use the sectional outlook so deeply rooted in the trade-union movement and try to demoralise workers by offering them the sight of a handful of strike breakers - something that was aided by the union machinery's on-going emphasis on "disciplined" picketing at the expense of any other activity.
The General Strike begins
Tuesday the 4th May was the first full day of the General Strike. Between 1.5 and 1.75 workers came out and the majority of them stayed out for the whole nine days. The locked out miners brought the total number of workers immediately involved in the struggle to over 2.5m.
In London (and most of the main cities) all public transport systems came to a halt. On London Docks no more than 40 men out of 14,000 were available for work. The narrow streets around the wharves were packed with strikers. Most of the daily newspapers failed to appear, though the Times managed to produce a four-page paper rather than its usual 24-pager. Streets were jammed with cars and the pavements crowded with people walking to work. At the Blackwall tunnel, crowds of strikers and others who supported them, stopped cars - which were still largely seen as a privilege of the rich - and made passengers get out and walk. The police made baton charges against these spontaneous pickets and many injured landed up in Poplar Hospital.
Across the whole of Britain, the response to the strike was similarly solid. What was even more remarkable was the attitude of those workers who had not been called out. The General Council's instructions about who was to be in the "first line" or not, caused much confusion - particularly for power workers, skilled workers and workers in the building trade. George Hicks' bricklayers' union resolved the problem by circulating the following instruction its members: "If in doubt, come out." And building workers often made up their own criteria: so work went on only on houses for rent and repairs were allowed at a Dr Barnado's home but not at the Savoy hotel. Many workers simply disregarded the TUC instructions and came out regardless.
Even the TUC had to acknowledge this explosive character of the strike, together with their own surprise, in their official communique: "...not only the railwaymen and transport workers, but those in other trades have come out in a manner we did not quite expect immediately. The difficulty of the General Council has been to keep men in [who are] the second line of defence..."
There were many examples of this. In Battersea, Harry Wicks recalls that on the opening day of the strike he and others from the Young Communist League marched round local factories to bring them out. Morgan Crucibles, was partly unionised and immediately came out, led by Bill Savage, an old Wobbly. At Carsons Paint factory which was not unionised, workers were already putting their coats on and leaving the factory when the YCL contingent reached the gates.
In other cases, unions which were not even affiliated to the TUC called their members out, like for instance the Lightermen's Union and the Stevedore's Union. Bob Edwards, an electrician and a union activist in Liverpool, recalled his surprise when he was sent to the cotton town of Chorley: it "wasn't a trade union town. I suppose 10% of workers were in unions there. In fact, from a Socialist point of view, we used to say that it was as fertile as granite. But the whole of Chorley was closed."
Right from this first day though, the police adopted a high profile. In Battersea, the Communist party MP, Saklatvala, was arrested for a "seditious" speech he had made at the Mayday Rally, before the strike. In Manchester, one William Richard Stoker, a company director, was also arrested under the Emergency Powers Act after police found "Stoker's high-powered car outside a Socialist Hall at Openshaw, ready to proceed to Glasgow with 1,600 copies of the Workers' Daily', which, the prosecution alleged, Stoker knew contained seditious matter".
The Workers' Daily was the Communist Party newspaper. In fact their press was confiscated and they were reduced to producing duplicated copies of their "Workers' Bulletin" at local level. As to the TUC's own paper, it had still to be produced. No plans had been made for it until the Strike started.
The first week
By the second day of the strike, the volunteers, particularly on the buses and trams were beginning to help run services. But there was very little that the government could do about the rail strike, despite its numerous volunteers. Most railway companies were running at less than 1% of their normal freight volume and passenger volume was down to an average of 3.7%. The problem was that making trains run required expertise which volunteers just did not have. Despite this, attempts were made to run trains along some routes for short distances, very slowly and very unsafely.
The London Omnibus Company which had run no trams at all on the first day of the strike had 86 operating on the second day, albeit only on short journeys. However, from midnight, London Taxicab drivers joined the strike which added to the chaos. In Leeds, despite the presence of police on board, trams which attempted to run had their windows systematically smashed. After a day or two few buses had any glass in their windows and graffiti began to appear such as "Try our Fresh Air Cure" and"A stone in the hand is worth two in the bus."
On that second day, the first issue of the Government's British Gazette appeared but with blank middle pages. In its columns, Churchill, who had been put in charge its publication, depicted the strike as an attempt to overthrow the government. The response to this by the TUC's official bulletin, the British Worker, which came out the same day, was spineless: it fell over itself to deny any such thing, defining the strike as an "industrial dispute" and exhorting the strikers to be disciplined and peaceful.
The government of course was not committed to a peaceful profile. A destroyer and submarine were berthed in the Tyne and warships landed supplies in Liverpool. In London police baton charges again took place in Canning town and Poplar. Notice was given for the recruitment of special constables to bring numbers up to 50,000 in London alone and to set up a Civil Constabulary Reserve drawing from the Territorial Army. However despite their call the government only signed on 11,000 special constables and had to make further appeals via BBC radio.
Despite the assertion by the TUC that everything was progressing peacefully, many more collisions between police and strikers occurred up and down the country on the third day of the strike. Arrests were more frequent. In Southwark, after police charged strikers, 32 were arrested. In Glasgow there were 66 arrests after rioting and in Edinburgh, 22 arrests. In Middlesborough, there were angry scenes when a crowd of 4,000 prevented level crossing gates from being closed and tried to stop a train by chaining lorries to the rails.
In London, 47 buses were put entirely out of commission by the strikers. Wire meshing was fitted to prevent flying bricks from hitting the drivers and their escorts and a number were successfully run, though their progress was very slow. However one of these rash attempts resulted in the first fatality of the strike: a bus driven by a volunteer careered onto the pavement killing a pedestrian.
Two things became obvious on the Friday. First that the government was engaging in a concerted effort to break the blockade of the London Docks and generally increase its offensive. And secondly, that despite the upping of the stakes on the government's side, the TUC was determined not to respond accordingly. In fact on the contrary, they began to make tentative moves to re-open peace talks. The Negotiating Committee, led by Thomas, met Sir Herbert Samuel unofficially, behind closed doors, while denying at the same time that it was re-opening negotiations as this was not a "direct discussion with the government"...
In terms of the government's successes in getting transport moving again, so far, one can say these were pretty minimal. Train journeys were few and far between and slow: as a Westminster strike bulletin mocked, "We understand that luncheon cars are to be put on trains running between Westminster and Blackfriars". More buses were put on the streets with heavy police guards, and the first main line train from London to Edinburgh left King's Cross, driven by a volunteer. That said, limited Underground Services were put into operation in London. Churchill's wife noted in her diary her surprise when Churchill took the Underground on that day, as this was his first, and in fact his last ever trip by public transport. Indeed, what extreme suffering this aristocrat was prepared to undergo in order to demonstrate his contempt for working people!
Throughout the country violent confrontations between strikers and police continued. In Hull, when strikers tried to halt the movement of trams from the docks, many were injured and arrested by police. There, in a separate incident, 1,000 men and women flocked to City Hall to prevent volunteers from signing up. In Glasgow the daily arrests continued as the unemployed and strikers continued to disrupt all transport on the streets, and another 89 people were arrested. Meanwhile, Cambridge undergraduates on Dover Docks were prevented from unloading ships by strikers.
Despite armoured car escorts for convoys of trucks carrying supplies in London, many of these trucks never reached their destinations. But the following day, this situation was to change.
A striking weekend
On Saturday 8 May, the fifth day of the strike, at 4am, 20 armoured cars from the Royal Tank Corps left Hyde Park to escort 105 lorries with armed Welsh and Coldstream Guards on board through the West End and City of London to load flour from the Rank's Flour Mill at Victoria Dock. After volunteers had loaded the lorries they drove back to Hyde Park without any hold-ups, accompanied by their heavy military escort. This time the pickets stepped back in front of the mounted police who cleared the way - after all, they were "backed this time by enough artillery to kill every living thing in every street in the neighbourhood of the mills". After this convoys operated between the docks and Hyde Park until the end of the strike. Nevertheless, as the Tory minister, Moore-Brabazon records, "the convoy system was alright but it was not moving enough food into London."
Inside the London docks, by that time, fully armed Grenadier guards watched the buildings and gates and Lewis guns were mounted at various points. At East India Docks, the masses of pickets outside the gates had a mounted machine gun aimed at them.
Outside of London, there was little involvement of troops and in most districts the strike remained 100% solid. In Wolverhampton and District not a bus nor a tram was running even by the weekend. In Coventry the picture was the same. In Northampton the rail strike remained total, with even the Railway clerks all out. In Birmingham volunteers had some success however, in mounting limited bus services.
In the railways, the companies' haste to get trains running was causing accidents. On the Sunday, the Flying Scotsman derailed near Newcastle. The volunteer engine driver had been stopped and warned that rails had been removed, but he chose to drive on. Fortunately, only one passenger was injured. Nevertheless, 8 miners were given jail sentences of between 4 and 8 years over this incident. But in fact, it was the dangerous operation of trains by volunteers which caused death and injury. For instance 3 people were killed when a passenger train hit a goods train between Berwick and Edinburgh. Another collision between a passenger and goods train occurred on the Cambridge-Bishops Stortford line killing one passenger.
Volunteers among the Special Constabulary found themselves laid upon by strikers. For instance, a polo team which had volunteered as a mounted contingent were lured into a cul-de-sac in Whitechapel and had chamber pots emptied on their heads after which an assortment of heavy objects descended. But as another Special noted "it is not difficult to understand the strikers attitude towards us. After a few days I found much of my sympathy was with the men rather than with the employers or the Government. For one thing, I had never realised the appalling poverty which existed then in Wandsworth, Nine Elms and Vauxhall Districts - and probably elsewhere in London was just as bad."
Generally on this first weekend of the strike, violent incidents and repression increased. Anyone found circulating the Communist Workers' Bulletin was arrested immediately. Two hundred people were arrested in Glasgow and half of them received sentences of three months' imprisonment. In Hull more arrests took place and sentences varied from 3 to 9 months. In London, strikers now were even given jail sentences for jeering at strike breakers. There were violent confrontations leading to injuries and arrests in Preston, Edinburgh, Newcastle (involving 10,000 people) and surrounding areas, just to mention a few.
The story of the football match played between police and strikers in Plymouth (the strikers won 2-1) is always quoted to show the alleged "good relations" between a "good-humoured" police and "law-abiding" strikers. But not many accounts exist about the situation in Fife where miners had to organise their own defence militias (700 men in total) to prevent the systematic police attacks on them and their families. There were at least ten other defence corps formed during the course of the strike, three of these in London boroughs. Predictably, however, the TUC dissociated themselves from such initiatives, refused to condemn the repression against Communists and even returned a £26,000 donation for strikers sent to them by the General Council of Unions of the USSR - for fear of being accused of taking "Moscow's gold", no doubt.
Probably one of the major features of this weekend, however, was the organisation of huge meetings and rallies up and down the country. For once, and in many cases for the first time since the beginning of the strike, the strikers were able to measure their numbers. London was one of the few exceptions, no doubt because there it was the General Council itself which was in control and the last thing they wanted was to allow the strikers to get a sense of their collective strength.
The making of a betrayal
After the weekend, the press made much of the increase in the number of trains running, in order to demonstrate that the strike was weakening. However this was only possible because right from the start a section of white collar workers and management had never gone out on strike and of course, working on trains was the most attractive job for volunteers. But in fact though Great Western Railways, for instance, may have managed to run 21% of its passenger trains on the Tuesday, freight services never managed to run more than 5% of their usual journeys.
On the Tuesday, the "second line" was called out on strike, consisting of 41 unions. And the response was again overwhelming. Far from weakening, the General Strike was reaching its highest point, reinforced by this large contingent of fresh troops who had often been waiting impatiently for that day.
However, the fate of the strikers was already being sealed behind their backs. During the weekend, the TUC had carried on "unofficial" talks with Samuel and others, in which the NUR leader Thomas had let it be known that the strike would be called off if some assurance could be given by "persons of influence" that the Samuel Report recommendations would be implemented without delay. As a result a series of formal meetings were held secretly. And on the Tuesday, the very same day when the General Council called out the "second line", its negotiators sent a message to Samuel announcing that they would be ending the general strike the following day at noon.
In the meantime the TUC negotiators had met with the Miners' leaders and told them that this was as far as they were going. Their secret discussions with government dignitaries had convinced them that the fairest settlement the miners would get was the implementation of the Samuel Report as soon as the strike was called off and that Samuel himself had given his guarantee. Thomas is even said to have told Cook: "You may not trust my word, but will you accept the word of a British Gentleman who has been governor of Palestine?" But the truth was that Samuel's word, assuming it was ever given, was not Baldwin's. There was no reason for Baldwin to compromise when the TUC was so obviously desperate to end the strike rather than to use its power as a bargaining chip.
Cook and Smith reiterated that they would not accept these wage reductions and that they objected to the TUC's decision to end the dispute. But they did nothing to stop them, neither personally nor by alerting their members. Citrine duly arranged a meeting with Baldwin for noon on 12 May, and though he said the aim was to get some further concessions for the miners, in fact he and his fellow Council members told Baldwin that they were ending the strike unconditionally. And Baldwin announced this triumphantly.
One may wonder why the TUC leadership bothered to call out the "second line" when they already knew that the strike was over and why, having done it, they did not even try to use the scale of the strike to extract even the slightest concession from Baldwin.
There was method and logic in this apparent madness. The General Council's secret diplomacy showed that they wanted to take the strikers by surprise - for fear of losing control while the strike was still strong. Failure to call out the "second line" would only have exposed the fact that they were in the process of betraying the strikers. At the same time, extending the strike was bound to weaken temporarily the ability of the strikers to resist a sell out. Because those workers who had just come out would not have time to settle into the strike before being told to go back to work and were likely, as a result, to generate a back to work movement - something which would have been much more difficult to force down the throats of the original core of strikers, as the case of the miners themselves showed.
The choice of the General Council not to even try to get anything in return for ending the strike only exposed the paralysis of a reformist leadership in a situation of acute crisis - that is its total inability to make the best of the power of the working class. Indeed, embarking on a new bargaining session at the beginning of the second week of the General Strike (assuming that Baldwin was prepared to play ball) meant taking the risk of the strike carrying on for at least a few more days. This meant giving the strikers time to measure their newly-acquired strength, but even more importantly, it increased the likelihood of a radicalisation of the strike. As the General Council's Intelligence Committee reported at the time, "the situation is one in which we are holding our own. But the Government's organisation is improving and its policy is gradually becoming more aggressive. Every day the intensity of the struggle will increase." Given the power of the strike, this increasing intensity meant increasingly radical methods on the part of the strikers, which the TUC would have had to oppose at some point. They would risk loosing credit and, therefore, their control over the strike.
Because of its determination not to allow the strike to go beyond limits which the capitalist system could tolerate, the reformist TUC leadership had no option but this shameful capitulation.
The last jolts
However, the TUC's unconditional surrender did not prevent it from boasting of a victory. On 13 May the TUC's British Worker claimed that "through the magnificent support of the Trade Union Movement" it had "obtained assurance that a settlement of the mining problem can be secured which justifies them in bringing the general stoppage to an end". The circular sent to the union general secretaries explained that the strike had been ended "in order that negotiations could be resumed to secure a settlement in the mining industry, free and unfettered from either strike or lock-out." Of course they were lying, but who would expect them to expose themselves as traitors?
The truth was that the strike was ended but not the lock-out. The miners remained out on their own, because their leaders, regardless of how they really felt about it, did not dare to call off the strike. So the miners had been betrayed once more, but this was far worse than Black Friday, because this time a decisive victory was probably within their reach.
Strikers all over the country heard the news of the end of the strike with bewilderment. Some drew the only possible conclusion: that they had won. In several towns in fact, victory meetings were held on Wednesday 12th. As a striker in Sheffield recalled: "When the news arrived, it could hardly be believed and the departure from the sheds of the first tramcars was regarded as the action of blacklegs." A despatch rider for the Councils of Action between Barnet and Carlisle said: "I shall never forget our chagrin. We were full of confidence that all was going well and that we were winning, when we saw the evening paper contents bill announcing the strike was over. We simply couldn't believe it and were convinced that the pass had been sold in London." They were left in no doubt however after Baldwin made his triumphant announcement on the radio that evening.
Thereafter an angry mood developed, especially when the government issued a statement that it "had no power to compel employers to take back every man who has been on strike." In many cases strikers were offered re-employment only if they tore up their union cards and accepted lower wages. Victimisation of strikers, especially in the trams, buses and railways began on a large scale.
The London County Council reduced wages of some workers by putting them on different jobs. Great Western Railways demanded that employees should sign a statement that they were not protected from the consequences of having broken their contract of employment with the company. In most train companies workers had to re-apply for their jobs.
The result was that local union activists, utterly disgusted with the TUC, took control of the situation and called the men back out on strike. 24 hours after the General Council had called off the General Strike, the number of strikers had increased by 100,000 and they were prepared for a confrontation. On Friday 14 May, 30,000 rail workers demonstrated in Manchester for unconditional reinstatement. In Hull all transport workers and dockers refused to return to work because 150 tramway workers had been threatened with dismissal. Even the government's volunteers became restless: the Manchester Guardian reported on the 13th that when the London Omnibus Company refused to give returning strikers their former status back, volunteers made it clear that they would not continue to do their work: "The feeling that there were some employees who wanted to turn the general strike surrender into a rout (...) went completely against the grain of the volunteers who had come out for the national need and not for the cause of any employers...On the whole it has been an anxious and unpleasant day as any in the strike."
The cost of defeat
Despite the rallying of many sections of workers and their partial success in preventing employers from taking advantage of the situation, there still were dire consequences for many workers as a result of the defeat. But the continued defiance of workers prevented the employers from turning this defeat into a rout.
Nevertheless in Glasgow, for instance, 368 of 5,000 tram men were suspended or dismissed. Brighton Town Council forced its tramway staff to leave the T&G; printing employers eliminated unionisation in Scotland while in the rest of the country the printing unions signed an agreement which amounted to giving up their right to strike. On the London docks, employers (with Bevin's agreement) agreed only to take back workers "when work was available", so that thousands were left unemployed for months.
Worst were the Railway companies where employers tried to force through selective re-employment. On 14 May the NUR leader signed an agreement which suspended the guaranteed working week and removed immunity from penalties as a result of the strike, in return for reinstatement. Many workers throughout industry faced similar conditions.
The miners carried on with their strike until November but were finally forced to capitulate. The workforce was cut, wages were cut, hours were lengthened and many again faced "demotion". One of the consequences of the miners' isolated rearguard battle was the formation of a breakaway union in Nottinghamshire, led by George Spencer, an ex-Notts Miner who was also a Labour MP. He was actually expelled from the Miners' Federation for starting a return to work in Nottinghamshire pits because he considered that this being a more prosperous area, he could negotiate a better deal for Notts miners. Indeed he did. In Nottinghamshire miners got a 4s per week wage increase. This union had initially obtained much of its funding from the National Union of Seamen (under the patronage of NUS leader Havelock Wilson, one of the few union leaders to keep his members officially out of the General Strike). It remained the only only recognised miners' union in the area until 1937 when it re-merged with the Federation. At its peak, the Spencer union organised 80% of the 44,000 Notts miners and conducted recruiting campaigns in other coalfields with some success, resulting in sometimes damaging and acrimonious disputes with the Miners' Federation.
Despite the government's victory, it took a full year after the General Strike before Baldwin felt confident enough to bring in anti-strike legislation. So it was not until 1927 that the Trades Disputes and Trade Union Act was passed, the gist of which was to prohibit all sympathetic strike action and general strikes. It made the political levy - the source of funding for the Labour party - conditional on union members opting in rather than opting out. It also excluded all Civil Service employees from belonging to TUC affiliated unions.
This Trades Disputes Act in fact turned out to be a useful weapon in the hands of the union bureaucrats. Even though the clauses against sympathetic strikes were never actually invoked in practice, they could use them as a constant threat to deter such action, and they did. But as far as the Labour Party's finances were concerned, though their income from Trade Unions fell by one third, this did not prevent them, nevertheless, from winning the 1929 general election.
A pre-revolutionary situation?
So was the defeat of the General Strike a foregone conclusion? And if not, what potential did it have?
The context of the General Strike can be summarised in this way: first, the working class had reached the point where it could no longer bear the on-going cuts imposed upon it by their exploiters; second, the exploiting class had reached the point where it could not carry on ruling in the old "democratic" way and needed to crush the resistance of the working class to maintain its profits. Lastly, the confrontation between these two opposing classes, both having reached the limits of their tolerance, was coming to a climax. These features are precisely those that Trotsky used to characterise a pre-revolutionary situation - that is a situation which can potentially open the path to a proletarian revolution or, at least, to the emergence, among the working class, of the awareness that it has no option but to overthrow the rule of the exploiters. But the betrayal of the strike by the Labour and Trade Union leaders had the immediate effect of blocking off further development along this road.
The activities of the Councils of Action, Emergency Committees and Strike Committees that emerged in the period before the strike was called and during its course, indicate how elements of class consciousness were beginning to emerge among the strikers. These were centralised bodies which mostly grew out of the existing Trades Councils, but which allowed new leaderships to emerge as they elected their own steering committees very often different from those of the Trades Councils themselves.
These bodies certainly provided a centralised organisational focus at local, bringing delegates from all the local unions together, as a means of gathering and disseminating information as well as organising the strikers.
The Leeds Council of Action was one of the first to be formed and was launched at a Trades Council meeting as early as November 1925 on the initiative of the Water Haigh Miners lodge. Fred Warburton who was a Water Haigh miners' branch delegate and CP member on the council recalled: "...after outlining the miners' case, I called for unified control so that what had been a hotch potch in previous strikes could be averted." Of the 11 delegates elected to run the strike council, 5 were members of the Communist party and two were not, but were members of the CP-led Minority Movement. He also recalls how on the first day of the strike, the local ASLEF and NUR branches who were not represented on the Trades Council and already had their own effective strike committees, came to ask if they could send delegates to the Council of Action "since they recognised that a single direction was needed...meanwhile the local hierarchy of TU officers found themselves no longer taking part in the strike having been superseded by the rank and file..."
To give an example of the role of such councils here follows a report on its activities by the Methil Council of Action in Fife. "The Methil and District Trades and Labour Council formed itself on Mayday into a Council of Action, organised into the following sub-committees: Food and Transport, Information, Propaganda and Defence Corps. To these there were later added Entertainments and Class-War Prisoners' Aid. Each subcommittee had its own convenor and there was a convener of all committees, a sort of convenor-general, who was, in effect, the chief executive officer of the Council of Action.
"Food and Transport: This committee was charged with the organisation of communal feeding (though this did not come into operation until after the General Strike) and the whole system of transport permits. Permits were only issued to trade unionists and the Council's control was very complete.
"Information and Propaganda: For its courier service the Council had three motor cars, 100 motor cycles and as many ordinary bicycles as were necessary. These worked under the information Committee covering the whole of Fife, bringing in reports, taking out information and carrying speakers who were everywhere in demand. Speakers were sent as far north as Perth; a panel of 30 speakers was drawn up (they went in threes, a miner, a railwayman, a docker) and speakers' notes were issued by the propaganda committee. A daily news bulletin was duplicated. There were daily meetings and demonstrations.
"Defence Corps: At the beginning the Workers' Defence Corps comprised 150 men, but this rose to 700 after police charges on pickets. the area was patrolled by the Corps, organised in companies under ex-NCOs and there was no further interference by the police with pickets."
In many ways these councils were little local replicas of the TUC, but they found themselves forced to act against its instructions on a number of important issues. For instance, the "spontaneous" mass picketing and obstruction of scab vehicles and trains - which they in fact organised. It was also up to the local Councils of Action to produce duplicated strike sheets which were the only publications to maintain regular contact between local areas and inform people of what was going on - and in fact they were produced against TUC policy, since the General Council had proclaimed that its "British Worker" was the only official strike news bulletin. They proved undeterred either by the fact that, due to police searches, they were often forced to move their duplicating machines from house to house every night, and they risked arrest and jail.
Admittedly the role of these councils was limited to certain areas. All too often they brought together the most militant union activists rather than new elements out of the ranks of the strikers. Their accountability to the strikers was limited and they did little to remedy this nor or involve rank-and-file strikers in the organisation of the strike. But they reflected the class aspirations of the striking battalions and, in that sense, they could have formed the basis of an embryonic democratic power of the working class.
However for this to happen, it was necessary to have a policy aimed at centralising the activity and authority of these councils on a regional and national level, democratically, so that out of them could emerge structures which really represented the working class as a whole and could form an alternative leadership to the TUC. However no one proposed such a policy.
The CP which was instrumental in setting up many of these committees saw them as mere auxiliaries for the "left" union bureaucrats they were wooing. After all, it was under the influence of the CP that during a conference held the previous August, the National Minority Movement had adopted a resolution calling for the development of a strong General Council of the TUC "with full powers to direct the whole activities of the unions and under obligation to the TUC to use that power to fight effectively the battles of the workers." Given their policy to put the strikers in the tow of the General Council, they often were responsible for quashing independent initiatives of workers and insisting that they strictly followed the TUC "rules". All the more so since they wished to prevent the TUC from pointing a finger at the "communists" as being a disruptive element bent on revolution. The illusions in the General Council encouraged by the CP were such that the minority of members of the ILP and the CP in Liverpool who thought the revolution was "around the corner" believed, according to Bob Edwards who was one of them, that "the government would collapse leaving the workers to take over...[and] the General Council of the TUC would become the Workers' Government." Such illusions and the policy of the CP which encouraged them, disarmed the party's activists and made them incapable of providing a different perspective to the strikers, regardless of their courageous commitment in developing local organisations for the strike.
Was everything possible?
The absence of a revolutionary party capable of developing a policy independently from the reformist machineries to defend the political interests of the working class was paid dearly. But even an organisation as small and uninfluential as the CP could have played a decisive role, had its objective been to rely on the capacity of the working class to fight rather than on the goodwill of a few "left" bureaucrats. The fact that the CP played such a disproportionate role in the development of the Council of Actions, bears witness to this.
What could its policy have involved? Clearly convincing the strikers of the necessity to bypass the bureaucratic structures of the union was vital, but not easy. Yet the way in which this was achieved in practice in many localities at local level, particularly during the victimisations after the strike, proved that it was not impossible. But it was also necessary to have the same policy on a national level, by fighting for the centralisation of the Councils of Action as the real leadership of the strike. Only such a policy would have made it possible to unite the ranks of the working class in the struggle, despite and against the divisive policies of the union leadership - and, in particular, to discredit the official line of the TUC machinery which was that this was a "solidarity strike", in aid of the miners, and nothing else. And of course many, if not most, strikers outside the mines were more or less conscious that they were also fighting for themselves. This meant that clear objectives had to be defined for the strike, objectives which went well beyond the miners' demands and with which all workers and jobless could identify.
The CP may not have been in a position to win the working class to such objectives - although it could have at least proposed them to workers instead of adapting to the sectional outlook of the trade union leadership - but a central Council of Action could have enjoyed enough credit to do just that. Likewise the CP could have argued for the strikers to address themselves to other sections of society, like the petty-bourgeoisie, the unemployed and the non-organised workers, who the government was trying to rally against the strikers. There was ample evidence of the fact that many volunteers were not hostile to the strike.
Would the strike have won and prevented the capitalists' onslaught on workers' conditions? Probably not without the working class overthrowing capitalist power, something which was still very far from the working class' consciousness at the time. If the bosses had chosen to back down temporarily as they had done in 1925, this would only have postponed the decisive confrontation. Otherwise the strikers were bound to lose. But there are many different ways to lose. Losing without fighting, while your forces are still intact is the worst possible experience. But losing after having caused panic in the enemy's camp and having built up such ties in your own, that even once defeated they cannot be undone, is quite another thing. Then, for instance, the extensive victimisation that followed the strike would have been impossible. And in the process a whole new tradition of organisation and a whole new consciousness would have been developed in the ranks of the British working class. Labourism and trade-union reformism would have come out of the strike badly bruised and the odds are that the Communist party, armed with such a policy, would have come out of it with a mass following and a new generation of cadres capable of turning it into a revolutionary party.
And had the course of history taken this direction, today, who knows, this forum might have been one of many history workshops aimed at recalling the proud past of those who had turned the planet into a communist world.
Appendix - Leon Trotsky on the build up to the General Strike
From a letter written by Leon Trotsky on 5 March 1926, just one month before the beginning of the General Strike:
"In Britain more than in all the rest of Europe the consciousness of the working masses, and particularly that of their leading layers, lags behind the objective economic situation. And it is precisely in this direction that the main difficulties and dangers lie today. All shades of bosses of the British labour movement fear action because the historical impasse of British capitalism places every problem of the labour movement, however major, at point-blank range. This applies especially to the coal industry. The present miners' wages are maintained by a subsidy from the state, burdening an already crippling budget. To continue the subsidy means to accumulate and deepen the economic crisis. To withdraw the subsidy means to produce a social crisis.
"The necessity of a technical and economic reconstruction of the coal industry represents a profoundly revolutionary problem and requires a political 'reconstruction' of the working class. The destruction of the conservatism of the British coal industry, this foundation of British capitalism, can only be through the destruction of the conservative organisations, traditions and customs of the British labour movement. Britain is entering an entire historical phase of major upheavals. An 'economic' solution of the problem can be expected only by the conservative British trade union leaders. But it is just because the British trade union leaders direct their efforts towards an economic' (i.e. peaceful, conciliatory, conservative) solution of the problem, that is they run in defiance of the historical process, that the revolutionary development of the working class in Britain in the period to come will have higher overhead costs than in any other country. Both the rights and the lefts, including of course both Purcell and Cook, fear to the utmost the beginning of the denouement. Even when in words they admit the inevitability of struggle and revolution they are hoping in their hearts for some miracle which will release them from these perspectives. And in any event they themselves will stall, evade, temporise, shift responsibility and effectively assist Thomas over any really major question of the British labour movement (with regard to international questions they are a bit bolder!).
"Hence the general situation can be characterised in this way. The economic blind alley of the country which is most sharply expressed in the coal industry thrusts the working class on to the path of seeking a solution, that is on to the path of an even sharper struggle. Its very first stage will as a result reveal the inadequacy of the 'usual' methods of struggle. The whole of the present-day 'superstructure' of the British working class - in all its shades and groupings without exception - represents a braking mechanism on the revolution. This portends over a prolonged period the heavy pressure of a spontaneous and semi-spontaneous movement against the framework of the old organisations and the formation of new revolutionary organisations on the basis of this pressure.
"One of our principal tasks is to assist the British Communist Party to understand and think out this perspective fully. Inside the trade union apparatus and amongst its left wing the active elements, that is the elements which are capable of understanding the inevitability of major mass battles, and who are not afraid of them but go to meet them, must be sifted out far more energetically and decisively than has been done up to now. The tactic of the united front must be increasingly and more firmly placed within the context of this perspective.
"With regard to the miners' strike, it is not of course a question of an isolated strike, however big it may be, but the commencement of a whole series of social conflicts and crises. In this situation one cannot of course orientate oneself with the conceptions of Purcell and others. They fear the struggle more than anyone. Their thoughts and words can at best have in our eyes the importance of a symptom.
"The British trade unions fear (in the form of their bureaucracy and even of its left) our 'intervention' in their internal affairs no less than Chamberlain does.
"There are any number of inhibiting elements in the apparatus of the British working class. The whole situation can be summarised in the fact that the alarm, discontent and pressure of the British working masses is all along the line running up against the organisational and ideological barriers of the conservatism of the apparatus. Under these conditions to worry about how best to assist the impatient leaders is really to pour water into the ocean.
"Everything goes to suggest that in Britain in the next period (I have in mind two or three years), a struggle will break out against the will of the old organisations yet with the complete unpreparedness of the young ones. Of course even with the firm revolutionary (i.e. active) footing of the Communist Party and of the best 'left' elements it cannot be assumed that the proletariat will come to power as the result of the first big wave by itself. But the question is this: Will this left wing pass through the first stage of the revolution at the head of the working masses as we passed through 1905; or will it miss a revolutionary situation as the German party did in 1923? This latter danger is in the highest degree a real one. It can only be reduced by helping the left wing (the really left wing and not Lansbury or Purcell) to an effective orientation. And to accomplish this task (that of assisting the revolutionary elements in Britain to a correct orientation) it must be clearly understood that all the traditions, organisational habits and the ideas of all the already existing groupings in the labour movement in different forms and with different slogans predispose them either towards direct treachery or towards compromise, or else towards temporising and passivity in relation to the compromisers, and complaints about the traitors."