May 1926: when workers stopped the country
The May 1926 General Strike could have changed the course of British history but, as Andy Yorke and Mark Hoskisson explain, the trade union leaders demobilised the workers and handed victory to the bosses
“I suppose my usual critics will say I was groveling, and it is true. In all my long experience I have never begged and pleaded like I begged and pleaded all day today.” These were the words of Jimmy Thomas, a leading member of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), on May Day 1926.
Thomas had spent the day with Tory ministers in Downing Street, desperately trying to find a way to call off the imminent general strike. Meanwhile more than 100,000 workers, determined to stop an ongoing bosses’ offensive, gathered in Hyde Park for the biggest May Day demonstration in living memory.
But Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government gave Thomas no way out. They had prepared for battle. On Monday 3 May 1926, the TUC called the majority of organised workers out on strike. The British general strike had begun.
The Tories were driven by an intensifying economic crisis on the one hand and by the need to counter the wave of militancy that had swept the globe since the Russian Revolution of 1917 on the other. Baldwin’s Tory government came to power in December 1924 determined to smash the unions.
On 30 June 1925, the owners of Britain’s coal industry terminated all existing wage agreements and slashed pay. All sides saw the attack on the miners as a test case. The TUC called solidarity strike action and the government retreated. It announced a nine month wage subsidy for miners and a Royal Commission on the industry.
This retreat was hailed as “Red Friday” by the workers’ movement. It demonstrated the power of workers’ solidarity. But instead of using it to prepare for a red future the union leaders sat back and congratulated each other. Yet it was clear that the Tories had no intention of giving up. Faced with Red Friday Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, explained: “We therefore decided to postpone the crisis in the hope of averting it, or if not of averting it, of coping effectively with it when the time comes”.
The government and employers began preparations. The country was divided into 10 districts, each under a “Special Commissioner” in charge of strikebreaking. The Tories strengthened the army and police, creating a Civil Constabulary reserve made up of ex-soldiers. They set up the Organisation for Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) – a semi-official strike breaking organisation that was set up to run the rail and road supply system.
In contrast the TUC, the “general staff” of the workers, made no preparations.
This passivity was all the more unpardonable given that there was a sizeable left-wing faction on the TUC leadership – the General Council. The miners’ leader, A J Cook, together with TUC president George Hicks and builders’ leader A.A. Purcell, enjoyed the support of many workers as they argued a militant line. But most of these lefts were, as Trotsky commented, radical in words rather than deeds.
It was left to the rank and file, organised in the Communist-led Minority Movement, to prepare from below. On the eve of the General Strike the Minority Movement was able to hold a conference of delegates from 547 union bodies, representing 957,000 workers.
In March 1926 the Tories went onto the offensive. The Royal Commission proposed scrapping subsidies to the coal industry, a measure that would immediately result in massive wage cuts and job losses. If it went ahead it would pave the way for similar policies in every industry.
The right-wingers on the General Council, like Jimmy Thomas and Ernest Bevin, had a powerful influence that the lefts had done little to challenge. In an attempt to avert the crisis the lefts effectively ceded leadership to these two, dispatching Thomas on his famous trip to Downing Street to “beg and plead” for a compromise. They all feared that a general strike could lead to revolution – the last thing these reformists wanted.
But the miners were already locked out and a printers’ strike had started at the Daily Mail in protest at its anti-strike editorial. The Tories broke off negotiations and forced the TUC to call the strike.
The response from the ranks was immediate, solid and overwhelming. Once the working class had shut everything down it was immediately faced with the problem of who runs society. As councils of action and local strike bulletins mushroomed, millions of workers began to realise they could run society themselves.
In the Fife coalfield, in Scotland, the trades council formed a workers’ defence corps. A member of the Fife council of action wrote: “The organisation worked like clockwork. Everything was stopped – even the railway lines were picketed… After police charges on mass pickets, the defence corps, which 150 workers had joined at the outset, was reorganised. Numbers rose to 700, of whom 400 marched in military formation through the town to protect the picket. The police did not interfere again.”
Throughout the country the strike was gaining strength. In contrast the union leaders were desperate to find a way out. General and Municipal Union leader, Charles Dukes expressed their fears: “Every day the strike proceeded, the control and the authority was passing out of the hands of responsible executives into the hands of men who had no authority, no control.” A revolutionary situation was developing. The strike did not just call into question the survival of the government, it called into question the survival of the system.
What was urgently needed was a communist party that actively pushed this development towards its natural conclusion – the formation of a revolutionary workers’ government. This would have entailed preparing the workers for seizing power and smashing the obstacles that stood in their way-the police, the OMS and the army.
But the Communist Party failed to challenge the hold Hicks and Purcell had over the most advanced workers. And as the strike continued these lefts ran for cover behind the coat-tails of Bevin and Thomas. On 12 May, only nine days into the strike, the right wing delivered their unconditional surrender to the Cabinet. Bevin remarked: “We have taken a great risk in calling the strike off. I want to argue it must not be regarded as an act of weakness, but rather one of strength…it took a little courage to take the line we have done.”
The TUC lefts stayed silent. Even A. J. Cook, general secretary of the miners, refused to go over the heads of the TUC and call for continuation of the action from below. Yet the workers themselves showed no signs of wanting to retreat, on the day after it was called off 100,000 more workers came out on strike. But in the end the miners were left to fight alone, for seven more months. Starvation and isolation led to a terrible defeat.
The Communist Party failed to learn from the defeat indeed Stalin’s faction had to cover it up. They certainly attacked the right wing of the labour movement and their “left-wing satellites” but at the same time maintained their alliance with them in the ARC. They attacked Trotsky for his criticisms of the Anglo-Russian Committee and for his demands that the Russian trade unions should have publicly broken with the traitors in front of the working class.
To pursue the policy of “socialism in one country” inside the USSR, Stalin sought allies in the imperialist countries to ward off any attack on Soviet Russia. The “Anglo Russian Committee” (ARC) – an alliance struck between the Russian and British trade union leaders – was used by Stalin to promote sympathy for Russia and prevent, he hoped, imperialist attack. But this policy had a price. The CP had to promote the left reformist trade union leaders who were vital to this policy and mute its criticism of them in order to preserve the ARC.
These left leaders proved incapable of fighting the sell-out policies of the right wing and the CP never prepared its members, or the hundreds of thousands in the Minority Movement, to fight independently of the TUC leadership. Before and during the strike the CP’s main slogan – “All Power to the General Council” – disarmed and confused the militants – it was this very General Council, which organised the sell out.
Trotsky had outlined an alternative to this disastrous policy and warned in advance that the left leaders would vacillate and betray. But with Stalin’s campaign against “Trotskyism” in full swing his warnings were either suppressed or construed as “sabotage” because they undermined the ARC
The defeat of the general strike and the miners was a massive set back for the British workers. Thousands were victimised and wages slashed. General strikes were outlawed. The unions lost millions of members as the whole movement retreated after this strategic defeat of the working class.