On the one hand, the General Strike was characterised by ruthless determination on the part of the British imperialist bourgeoisie in pursuit of its interests. On the other hand, the working class displayed a fighting spirit and immense solidarity in pursuit of its interests, showing a flair for organisation. The outcome of this clash was determined not only by the relative strengths of the opposing sides in battle, but also by the treachery of the social democrats who controlled the Labour Party and were in leading positions in the trade unions. While claiming to be on the side of the working class, these members of the labour aristocracy were in fact in the camp of imperialism, wedded to the latter by their cut in imperialist superprofits.
In the context of this, the young Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), small though it was, showed that correct, courageous and determined leadership can be very effective.
In the years leading up to the general strike, Britain’s monopoly position in the world, which had been under attack from developing rival powers since the 1860s, was dealt further severe blows after the first world war. Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson of the first Labour government had agreed the Dawes Plan with the USA to assist the recovery of a defeated Germany to stop it treading the path towards socialism. The subsequent Conservative government returned Britain to the Gold Standard. These and other measures exacerbated the effect of the growing competition that British imperialism was facing and, as always when capitalism feels the pinch, it was the working class that had to pay.
The British ruling class, however, found itself in a peculiar situation. A serious attack on the standard of living of British workers was required in order to keep British capitalism ‘competitive’, but the persistence of a revolutionary wave throughout Europe following four years of horrendous warfare and under the direct stimulus of the October Revolution militated against such an assault. The British working class had launched a wave of militant strike action immediately after the war, and the government’s main concern was to strengthen counterrevolution. The government made a political decision to make a tactical withdrawal, allowing a few temporary concessions and postponing an all-out confrontation until such time as it had made extensive preparations.
It was during this time that British mine owners attempted to decrease the wages and increase the hours of the miners. There were both defeats and victories for the miners during their struggle against this onslaught. In 1919, the Lloyd George government made compromises with the railwaymen and the miners in the face of a triple alliance of miners, railwaymen and transport workers, the miners gaining higher wages and a seven-hour day. But the ruling class was biding its time while it prepared. In 1921, the leaders of the National Union of Railwaymen and Transport Workers reneged on the Triple Alliance, when, on ‘Black Friday’, 15 April, they left the miners struggling alone against the mine owners, to be forced back to work with wages cut and agreements in shreds.
In 1925, the mine owners tried to impose further wage cuts and longer hours. The miners resisted, and the transport and railway unions pledged to embargo the movement of coal throughout Britain. Not yet ready for a showdown, the Baldwin government retreated and agreed to continue subsidising the coal industry for the next nine months, ending on 1 May 1926. The government also set up the Samuel Commission to make a full inquiry into miners’ conditions of work. Friday 31 July 1925, when these terms were agreed, became known as ‘Red Friday’.
During all this time, the bourgeoisie was making preparations for a showdown with the working class, and in particular with the miners. The mining industry in Britain was now technically backward and needed ‘rationalisation’, but, more importantly, in the words of Stalin, “The miners have always been … the advanced detachment of the British proletariat. It was the strategy of British capital to curb this advanced detachment, to lower their wages and lengthen their working day, in order then, having settled accounts with this main detachment, to make the other detachments of the working class toe the line.” (J V Stalin, Collected Works, Vol 8, p167)
These preparations by the ruling class and the events since the war indicated that preparation and solidarity was the order of the day for the working class too. But the TUC made no preparations and the Labour Party remained silent. It was left to the CPGB to articulate the danger and urge preparations. Under its influence and leadership, the Minority Movement (MM) – the communist front within the trade unions – prepared local organisation centred on Trades Councils. Small as it was, the CPGB exerted great influence, not least because its position corresponded with reality, and it thus posed a great danger to the bourgeoisie, who responded by jailing its 12 most prominent leaders. Apart from the CPGB, only the miners took practical steps to prepare for the struggle ahead.
On 10 March 1926, the Samuel Commission reported with recommendations for a reorganisation of the mining industry at a future date, an immediate cut in wages and a complete end to the government subsidy. Forced to pass resolutions promising support for the miners, the TUC, ready to capitulate, set about underhand negotiations with mine owners and the government. The TUC Industrial Committee begged Prime Minister Baldwin for small concessions that they could dress up and sell to workers as an ‘honourable settlement’, but the ruling class was now fully prepared and offered no concession at all. Under great pressure from the miners’ leaders and other workers, the TUC called the strike.
In spite of the TUC’s foot-dragging, the response from workers was magnificent. The leadership given by the Communist Party and the Minority Movement produced efficient local organisation and support grew. The CPGB emphasised the political nature of the strike, which was also openly acknowledged by the bourgeoisie. It was the social democrats who shied away from the political question. When the government declared the strike to be “a challenge to Parliament”, the General Council of the TUC replied in a grovelling editorial in its paper, the British Worker, “No political issue has ever been mentioned or thought of in connection with the strike. It began over wages and conditions of working; it has never been concerned with anything else … The General Strike is not a ‘menace to Parliament’; no attack is being made on constitutional government. We beg Mr Baldwin to believe that.”
More communists were imprisoned as the strike progressed. Saklatvala, the communist MP for Battersea, was sentenced to two months for his May Day speech in Hyde Park; Stoker, a leading member in Manchester was given the same treatment, and in West Yorkshire, Isobel Brown was given six months’ hard labour for a speech in Normanton calling on soldiers not to go against their class. Upon release she compared the life of the new royal baby with the life of babies of locked-out miners, and received a further six months. Communists all over the country were harassed and the party headquarters was raided and ransacked by an army of special constables seizing material.
The TUC, anxious to prove to the ruling class that they weren’t soft on communism, refused to accept substantial financial donations form the workers of the Soviet Union, despite the fact that these solidarity funds would have helped alleviate some of the worst hardships being faced by British strikers and their families.
After nine magnificent days, and while support for the strike was still going from strength to strength, the gutless lackeys of imperialism that led the TUC in cahoots with the Labour Party called it off. There was utter disbelief and anger among workers. The CPGB raised the slogan: ‘Refuse to return to work!’ and there were more people on strike the day after it was betrayed than there had been on any of the nine official strike days. Despite the workers’ stomach for a fight, however, such action could not be maintained in the confusion caused by the TUC, and the miners were left to fight on alone until forced back to work by starvation and homelessness. The working class had suffered a severe defeat through the treachery of social democracy, and one for which it paid a heavy price.
One cannot help but draw parallels with that other great battle of the British working class in the 20th century, the great Miners’ Strike of 1984/5. There too, the government attacked the miners as a prelude to attacking wages and conditions for all sections of the British working class; there too, the TUC and Labour leadership acted to undermine the strike rather than supporting it; there too, it was ultimately social democracy and not the direct strength of the bourgeoisie, despite all the coercive state forces at its disposal, that settled the issue in favour of the ruling class.
The British General Strike of 1926, like the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984/5, is not simply an event to be commemorated as some kind of religious ritual. It is a living lesson to the British working class of what can be achieved through organisation and unity, and of what will never be achieved while the working-class movement remains dominated by social democracy and opportunism. Until we learn that lesson and act upon it, British workers will remain essentially impotent in their struggle for social emancipation and equality. The best homage we can pay to the brave strikers of 1926 is first to break forever the links between the organised working class and the imperialist Labour Party, and then to go on and build a truly anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, revolutionary movement capable of sweeping away forever the chains of capitalist exploitation, poverty, degradation, racism and war.
There has not been space here to do more than summarise the main points of the circumstances of the British General Strike of 1926. We recommend to readers the much more thorough treatment that this struggle is currently receiving in the pages of Lalkar www.lalkar.org).