Socialist Alternative

95 years since the General Strike: lessons for the struggle today

The General Strike of 1926 is arguably the closest Britain has ever got to a socialist revolution. Its defeat was one of the greatest setbacks the working class has ever seen in this country. During the nine days the strike lasted the British economy ground to a halt as millions joined the strike, which was still going strong when the leadership of the Trades Union Council called it off – failing to win even the basic demand of a  guarantee that there would be no victimisation of strikers.

Background/The role of the miners

The conditions for the strike had been ripening over the preceding decades, with the situation coming near to general strikes in 1919, 1921 and 1925. The British economy was on its knees following the first world war, with the capitalists making the workers pay for it. At the same time, workers had been radicalised by the Russian Revolution of 1917 – which saw workers, led by the socialist Bolshevik party, take power – as well as the wave of revolutions in Europe which followed it. Class tensions were high, with the miners playing a central role in the years leading up to the strike, as well as in the strike itself. They were at the heart of British industry, producing the raw materials upon which the economy was built, and they were also a substantial part of the overall workforce, being the only industry to employ over a million workers at the time. 

The miners were also one of the most militant groups of workers – some 1.2 million were members of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB) at the time of the general strike. By 1921, as the post-war boom burst and coal prices fell, pressure on the government to re-nationalise the mining industry was mounting, and the new mine owners were planning drastic cuts to wages (ranging from 10% to 49%!) as well as revoking the national agreement which kept wages consistent across the country. In response, the ‘Triple Alliance’ (the miners in conjunction with the railway workers and dockers) called a national rail and transport strike in support of the miners, meaning more than two million men would stop work. The leaders of the alliance, however, called off the strike before it even started, leaving the miners to conduct the fight on their own. After two months of struggle they finally gave in and accepted the pay and conditions offered by the new owners.

Emboldened by this victory, other parts of the capitalist class forced through wage cuts in many other industries, including cotton, engineering, construction and merchant navy. The following period also saw a steep decline in trade union membership (from 8.3 million in 1920 to 5.6 million in 1922). This was driven partly by the rise in unemployment but also disillusionment of the workers. The betrayal of the right wing trade union leaders would also live on in the workers’ memories, with the positive side-effect of pushing many to draw more radical conclusions, including about the need for strong rank-and-file organisation.

Following this defeat, left militants started organising independently within the unions as the National Minority Movement, heavily influenced by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). They scored a victory with the election of the militant trade unionist Arthur Cook – a self-proclaimed follower of Lenin – as the leader of the MFGB.

This was the backdrop against which the general strike would happen: the mine workers constituted a crucial part of the British economy. At the same time, being the most organised and radical meant they remained the main target of ruling class attacks who saw defeating the miners as a means of ‘breaking the back’ of the workers’ movements and avoiding working-class gains. . The right-wing trade union leaders had shown themselves as unreliable, and the idea that the miners formed the first line of defence for the wider working class was confirmed. 

War Preparations

In May 1925 further pay cuts for the miners, along with longer working hours, were back on the table. It was clear the time was ripe for a reckoning between bosses and workers – at the 1925 TUC congress a clear majority of delegates voted in favour of a motion that called for the “overthrow of capitalism” and for the formation of workers’ councils (soviets).

The then Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, made it clear that indeed this was only the first blow, and that “All the workers of this country have to take reductions”. With the Triple Alliance out of action at this point, the MFGB turned to the TUC for support. While the TUC leadership was dominated by right-wingers such as the National Union of Railwaymen’s Jimmy Thomas, they represented over 4.5 million workers and, after negotiations, the government agreed to subsidise the coal industry for 9 months while undertaking a Royal Commission, under the direction of Home Secretary Herbert Samuel, to recommend what course of action was to be taken. 

Although dubbed ‘Red Friday’ by the papers, this ‘victory’ was shallow and temporary. The situation was comparable to the tactical retreat made by Thatcher in 1981, when facing the threat of a miners’ strike in response to pit closures. She proceeded to build up coal stocks and prepare for the struggle she knew was coming. Similarly, the government in 1925 used the time it had bought itself to immediately start preparing for the battle ahead. It set up the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) to organise an army of strike-breaking volunteers (a notoriously right-wing crowd, including many fascists) as well as coordinating food and fuel supplies, recruiting 240,000 special police and putting the army on standby. It also oversaw a crackdown on the left, most notably the arrest of Communist Party leaders, which sparked mass protests across the country.

The TUC, meanwhile, did absolutely nothing to prepare for the showdown that was clearly going to happen. They waited for the subsidies to run out and for the Samuel commission to report. When the report was published on 10 March 1926 it recommended a pay reduction of 13.5% for the miners and for the subsidies not to be extended. In response to this, the mine owners announced wage cuts and longer work days and the miners, upon not accepting these conditions, were locked out of the mines. Rallying around the slogan of ‘not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’ the miners went back to the TUC for support. The TUC Special Committee’s response was to support wage reductions and recommend further talks.

Having done little since Red Friday the TUC did now enter negotiations with the government, but still failed to make any attempts to rally their forces. It was only six days before the negotiation deadline that they first called a meeting of their general strike committee and it was obvious from the start they did not want a general strike. Right-winger Jimmy Thomas was heading the negotiations with the government and explained that “every sane miners’ leader wants, as every employer wants – peace”. But it was very clear that the ruling class did not “want peace” – not only did the attacks on the pay and conditions of workers warrant a fight-back, but the evident preparation for an all-out battle should have made it clear that the government and bosses had other plans. 

Whether trade union officials and leaders like Thomas actually believed peace was an option, or were wilfully turning their eyes away, the problem stemmed from the same attitudes: an unwillingness to see a break with capitalism, and even more so an unwillingness to lead the workers in the struggle towards such a goal. Even if the TUC leaders did not understand or acknowledge what was at stake, it seems the ruling class did. Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer as part of Baldwin’s government, summed up the situation saying “It is a conflict which, if it is fought to a conclusion, can only end in the overthrow of parliamentary government or in its decisive victory, there is no middle course open”. The options were revolution or the brutal defeat of the working class, and the actions of the TUC made it clear their preference was ultimately the latter.

It should be emphasised that it was not just the trade union leaders who failed to do anything to prepare for the strike and engaged in self-sabotage: the Communist Party had substantial support and influence amongst the workers, including through their work as part of the National Minority Movement, but under the influence of the increasingly Stalinised Communist International their slogan was to be “All Power to the General Council [of the TUC]”, thus leaving the TUC free reign to carry out its strategy unopposed. (For more on the destructive role of the Communist Party during the general strike, see part three in our series on the history of the CPGB in issue 8 of Socialist Alternative).

Giving in to pressure from below, on 1 May the TUC held a special conference to announce plans for a strike to begin on 3 May – an announcement endorsed by delegates representing an overwhelming 3.5 million (99.9%) of the members. Meanwhile, the leaders were growing increasingly desperate in their efforts to secure a deal with the government, who were not conceding any ground. In fact it seems Baldwin was only waiting for an excuse to call them off. This excuse came a couple of days later when the printers who printed the Daily Mail refused to print an editorial condemning the strike plans. The editorial did in fact make a valid point, saying that “A general strike is not an industrial dispute” (which the TUC doggedly claimed) and that “It is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government”. Further on, however, its ideology became more clear as it went on to say that it was “subverting the rights and liberties of the people”. Workers and socialists back then, just as today, would point out that it is the capitalist system that is in fact “subverting” those “rights and liberties”!

General Strike!

The strike began on 3 May and it became instantly clear that the attitude of the masses was different to that of the trade union tops – millions responded to the call, with hundreds of thousands more demanding to be called out. Many non-union workers would also join in. 

In addition to the one million locked-out miners, some two million workers across transport, printing and production (metal, chemicals, heavy construction, electricity and gas) were initially brought out, with another 500,000 joining as the strike went on.

The scope and intensity of the response seems to have surprised both the government and the TUC – it was immediately clear that the TUC’s fear of losing control had come true. As one union official  complained: 

“Every day that the strike proceeded the control and the authority of that dispute [were] passing out of the hands of responsible executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control, and [were] wrecking the movement from one end to the other.”

The TUC would spend the duration of the strike trying to control and subdue the movement. They had an additional one million members that were never called on to strike; they published a strike bulletin called the British Worker, which discouraged picketing; they advised strikers to maintain friendly relations with the police.

Most of this ‘advice’ went unheeded as strikers confronted strike-breakers and police across the country. There were riots in Plymouth, Swansea, Southsea and Nottingham; clashes with police across London, Leeds, Cardiff, Ipswich, Manchester, Stoke, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh; in Preston 5,000 stormed a police station to free an imprisoned striker.

Across the country between 100 and 147 ‘Councils of Action’ were formed in order to organise picketing, food distribution, dissemination of information, and tasks like issuing passes to vehicles moving essential goods. In Edinburgh a football pitch was used to impound vehicles that did not have trade union passes. 

An account from a Clydeside striker states that: 

“The central strike committees and the councils of action were twenty-four hours a day in session. They had their own transport; they stopped all other forms of transport but they had their own courier system to carry messages because there was no such thing as postal services, no such thing as the press. The press had turned in 100 percent and stopped all the papers, and so the council of action had to carry out its work by getting bicycles, old and new, motorcycles, old vans—anything that could run on wheels was used by the couriers and also to take leaders in the strike to certain fronts in the strike.”

The organisational structures that these councils formed is similar to what happened in Russia in 1917 – they represented the early stages of ‘dual power’ in which the workers simply started taking over the running of society themselves, with official power structures becoming increasingly impotent. The next step would have been to link these councils up nationally, forming a workers’ government placed to take over state power and be at the helm of the socialist transformation of British society.

What was missing was a consistent revolutionary socialist leadership to put forward these ideas, and direct the energy of the revolting people. While the CPGB were very actively intervening and building the Councils of Action, and overall playing very positive roles on a local level, their instructions were that “ the councils of action were under no circumstances to take over the work of the trade unions… The councils of action were to see that all the decisions of the General Council and the union executives were carried out.” (George Hardy, Organising Secretary of the NMM)

Despite this lack of leadership the strike was growing in strength and determination day by day – by the second week key industries were closing down through lack of supplies and there were indications of the armed forces starting to mutiny, with soldiers in the Welsh Guards and the Bedfordshire and East Lancashire regiments refusing to enter mining areas. Despite all this, on 12 May the TUC General Council went to the prime minister with the disgraceful proposal that they would call off the strike on the paltry conditions that the proposals of the Samuel Commission be adhered to and that there would be no victimisation of strikers. The government called their bluff and refused both these proposals. The TUC called off the strike anyway, justifying it by claiming that the strikers were giving up and returning to work and that the strike funds were empty.

While it seems there was some truth to the fact that there was a small number of people going back to work, according to a report by the TUC’s own intelligence committee, this was in “some outlying areas” and due to the lack of information by the TUC, and moreover it was “easily offset by those joining the strike and industries closed by it.”

As for them being out of funds it is worth mentioning that, although the official Soviet advice to the CPGB was destructive, in Soviet Russia, the working class were told that the British TUC were waging a great class struggle, and in order to support the cause of international socialism they collected the equivalent of over £1m in roubles from ordinary Russian  workers showing solidarity (the equivalent of over £60m today) which they presented to the TUC at the height of the strike. The TUC refused the money.

The news that the strike was called off, and in particular of the conditions of the surrender, was met first with scepticism and then with anger. Few workers actually went back to work on the following day. In fact, as they found out about the betrayal and of colleagues losing their jobs due to striker victimisation, 100,000 new workers joined the strike. This meant that 13 May, the day after the strike had officially ended, more workers were out on strike than any day of the official strike.

Without the support of the unions, however, strikers did gradually return to work and soon only the locked-out miners remained. They held out for another three months before they were ultimately forced to return to work with wages and conditions diminished.

Blowback and legacy

As predicted the defeat was a huge setback for the working class, and paved the way for a period of repression and rolling back of workers’ rights. While the the consequences of the defeat was not quite as severe as those of the defeat of the German Revolution some years earlier, which helped pave the way for the Nazi party taking power, the effects were profound. Trade union membership declined; in 1927 the Trade Dispute and Trade Union Act was passed which entailed a number of attacks on workers’ ability to organise. These included making sympathy strikes and mass picketing illegal. 1928 saw the advent of Mondism and ‘social partnership’ models – the idea that trade unions should cooperate with bosses in order to achieve their goals. This was followed by the Hungry Thirties, characterised by mass unemployment and poverty.

No defeats for the working class are ever final. The 1930s themselves saw a huge resurgence of industrial struggle and workers’ militancy. These were characterised by bitterly fought industrial battles, mass movements of unemployed workers and huge revolutionary possibilities across much of the continent of Europe.

Although the 1926 general strike, because of misleadership, never got to the point of an actual insurrection and a de facto takeover of the state might mean it is easier for some to dismiss its significance, this in some ways misses the point. A revolution is not a single event, for an insurrection to succeed and a workers’ government be established workers must have in fact already taken power – both on the streets, and through holding the society’s economic levers through democratic control of the workplaces. In the accounts of the general strike we can see that in only nine days things did move remarkably fast in this direction, and although the process was cut short it does disprove the common belief that a revolution ‘could never happen in Britain’ because of the ‘British temperament’.  It was never the British determination or radicalism of the British workers which fell short!

While there are important differences between the situation today and that of 1926 there are many important lessons to be drawn from the general strike. Obvious comparisons can be drawn between the reluctance of the TUC leadership of 1926 not to ruffle any establishment feathers and doing its best to put a lid on any popular momentum and approach of trade union leaders and TUC today! Statements like that of TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady last year that we need trade unions, bosses, and the Tory government to ‘come together’ in order to overcome the covid crisis leaves little room for optimism that the role of the TUC has improved much since 1926. 

The current situation also follows decades of neoliberal dominance where the ‘social model’ which first rose to prominence following the general strike has been the standard framework for many of the trade union tops.

 Trade unions have been relegated to a service provider, offering advice alongside life insurance deals to its ‘customers’ rather than a means of struggle and social change. Membership and activity levels have been at historic lows, but we are beginning to see a change, and with the economic crisis developing the attacks on workers which have already begun will push these developments forward.

The history of the general strike is rich in lessons for all workers and trade unionists who are engaged in the struggle for decent wages and conditions and against government attacks today. Then,  as now,  a crucial task for our movement is to remove the ‘block at the top’ by replacing with working-class fighters (and where necessary circumventing) the right-wing trade union leaderships.  As socialists, we put forward demands we consider necessary to take the struggle forward – seeking support for them not simply ‘at the top’ but most crucially among rank-and-file union members. After all it is ordinary workers who are ultimately able to push union leaderships  into action or to expose them when they fail to do so.

This is an equally important lesson of the strike: workers need a revolutionary party with a clear socialist programme and the correct approach to linking the everyday struggles of workers with the necessity to change society fundamentally. It is only by breaking with capitalism that the victories won by workers can be consolidated and built upon – without any threat of them being reversed at a later stage.  This is the kind of organisation we are seeking to build today in Socialist Alternative. While we are not immediately facing a pre-revolutionary situation in Britain, we are witnessing a remarkable radicalisation of young people, and the extensive disruption caused by the Covid pandemic and its fallout is not a world away from the disruption caused by the first world war. 

Studying events like the general strike can not only teach us how not to repeat past mistakes, but importantly they can remind us that this mass struggle will take place – Britain is no exception! While it is hard to know when or exactly what shape the next showdown will take, many of the same underlying conditions that brought the general strike about are still around – because capitalism is still around – and at some point we will see things come to a crunch point again. As socialists it is our job to prepare for these events and ultimately do everything we can to ensure the  workers’ movement is successful.