Stalin, Trotsky and the 1926 British general strike

Part Two

By Chris Marsden
29 December 2008

Below is the second part of a lecture delivered at a  summer school of the Socialist Equality Party held in August of 2007. Part one was posted on December 27.

Trotsky's urgings were to be suppressed, rejected and denounced, as the Comintern insisted that the Communist Party of Great Britain subordinate itself to the alliance with the Trades Union Congress and its left flank, making the central demand of the party and its press, "All power to the [TUC] General Council."

To understand just what a shift was being imposed, we can look at what the CPGB was saying prior to having been brought firmly behind the new line by the Comintern. There were already dangers in the conception of the National Minority Movement, but nevertheless the contrast is stark.

In August 1924, the first annual conference of the National Minority Movement called for the setting up of factory committees and for a strengthening of the powers of the General Council as a weapon against sectionalism. But this was combined with a call for a struggle against the union tops. A resolution stated, "It must not be imagined that the increase of the powers of the General Council will have the tendency to make it less reactionary. On the contrary, the tendency will be for it to become even more so... We can guard against the General Council becoming a machine of the capitalists, and can really evolve from the General Council a Workers' General Staff, only by, in the first place and fundamentally, developing a revolutionary class consciousness amongst the Trade Union membership..."

Writing in 1924 of the role of the lefts in the TUC in calling for relations with the USSR and making anti-war speeches, John Ross Campbell warned, "It would be a suicidal policy, however, for the Communist Party and the Minority Movement to place too much reliance on what we have called the official Left wing... It is the duty of our Party and the Minority Movement to criticize its weakness relentlessly and endeavor to change the muddled and incomplete left-wing viewpoint of the more progressive leaders into a revolutionary viewpoint. But the revolutionary workers must never forget that their main activity must be devoted to capturing the masses."

Rajani Palme Dutt wrote in 1925, "A Left wing in the working class movement must be based upon the class struggle, or it becomes only a manoeuvre to confuse the workers."

He stated that the greatest danger of the coming period was the ability of the "lefts," "owing to the weakness of revolutionary development in England, and to the authority and prestige of their positions, to win the ear of the masses with a handful of phrases and promises, so as to gather the rising movement of the masses to themselves and then to dissipate it in a comic opera fiasco... The Communist Party must conduct an unceasing ideological warfare with the left, exposing from the outset every expression that betrays confusion, ambiguity, vain bravado, frivolousness, opposition to actual struggle and practical subjection to the right wing."

Even on the setting up of the Anglo-Russian committee, the Workers Weekly commented:

"Unity that only means a polite agreement between leaders is useless unless it is backed up by mass pressure. Unity that confines itself to negotiations between Amsterdam and the Russian Unions only touches on the fringe of the question... Vast masses of workers everywhere are moving slowly forward. Those leaders who stand in the way are going to be swept aside. The class struggle cannot be limited to an exchange of diplomatic letters."

The political struggle against the lefts was linked to a revolutionary orientation. After Red Friday, 1925, J.T. Murphy wrote that the general strike had been postponed but was still inevitable: "But let us be clear what a general strike means. It can only mean the throwing down of the gauntlet to the capitalist state, and all the power at its disposal. Either that challenge is a gesture... or it must develop its challenge into an actual fight for power..."

Under the tutelage of Stalin, Zinoviev and company, such criticisms were abandoned and the revolutionary perspective previously advanced was denounced as ultra-leftism and Trotskyism.

Stalin in turn identified revolution with the TUC General Council—insisting in January 1925 that the "incipient split between the General Council of the TUC and the Labour Party" was a sign that "something revolutionary... is developing in Britain"—or rejected any possibility of revolution, writing in Pravda in March that year that capital had "extricated itself from the quagmire of the post-war crisis," resulting in "a sort of lull."

This was taken up by the CPGB. A resolution denouncing Trotsky was sent to Moscow and an article by Bukharin attacking Trotsky was published in the Communist Review for February 1925, with an editorial comment describing it as "a brilliant contribution to the theory and practice of Leninism."

In March and April, a joint plenum of the Comintern executive and the central committee of the Soviet Communist Party was convened to organize a campaign against "Trotskyism." Tom Bell reported that the CPGB had "no hesitation" in associating itself with the Soviet party leadership.

The Workers' Weekly of June 5, 1925 reported the CPGB's Congress as giving "no countenance to the revolutionary optimism of those who hold that we are on the eve of immediate vast revolutionary struggles. It recognized that capitalism had stabilized itself temporarily."

The second annual conference of the National Minority Movement in August made its central demand the granting of full powers to the TUC General Council, with hardly any qualification.

Dutt, writing in November and seeking to excuse the left allies of the Comintern for not having opposed the expulsions of Communists from the Labour Party in 1925, explained that they lacked "self-confidence." To "overcome this weakness" was "an essential task for the future," he declared.

Three days before the general strike erupted, on April 30 1926, Murphy wrote on the front page of the Workers' Weekly, "Our party does not hold the leading positions in the Trade Unions. It is not conducting the negotiations with the employers and the government. It can only advise and place its forces at the service of the workers—led by others... To entertain any exaggerated views as to the revolutionary possibilities of this crisis and visions of new leadership ‘arising spontaneously in the struggle' is fantastic..."

(Quotes taken from M. Woodhouse and B. Pearce, Essays on the History of British Communism, New Park, 1975)

The role of the CP in disarming the working class is underlined by the subsequent statement of Murphy that "the shock" of the strike's betrayal "was too great to make any quick throw-up of a new leadership possible."

So too with the comments of George Hardy, acting secretary of the National Minority Movement during the General Strike, in his memoirs that, "Although we knew of what treachery the Right-wing leaders were capable, we did not clearly understand the part played by the so-called Left in the union leadership. In the man they turned out to be windbags and capitulated to the Right Wing. We were taught a major lesson; that while developing a move to the left officially, the main point in preparing for action must always be to develop a class-conscious leadership among the rank and file."

If taken at face value, such statements demonstrate that, bereft of any revolutionary guidance from the CPGB, the working class had no possibility of arming itself against the role of the lefts who were being continually boosted under the Comintern's orders.

The lefts were thus able to play a direct and instrumental role in the betrayal of the strike. The right-winger Thomas of the National Union of Railwaymen was in charge of negotiations with the government and worked deliberately to ensure its defeat. But the lefts allowed him to do so, under conditions where millions had no confidence in the TUC General Council or the Labour Party leadership. The chairman of the Strike Organization Committee was Purcell, while Swales negotiated alongside Thomas with the Baldwin government. Hicks and others also occupied leading posts.

The CPGB leaders succeeded in transforming the party into a left ginger group for the trade union bureaucracy, while the Russian trade unions served as mere advocates of industrial militancy. The entire apparatus of the Communist International was mobilized to deny the need for the general strike to be pursued as a political struggle against the state and to insist that united trade union action alone would bring victory.

As for the CPGB leaders having not been warned about the lefts' betrayal, this is a simple lie.

Trotsky wrote on May 6, in the very midst of the strike, in his preface to the second German edition of "Where Is Britain Going?": "It has never yet been possible to cross a revolutionary stream on the horse of reformism, and a class which enters battle under opportunist leaders is compelled to change them under the enemy's fire."

The CPGB sought to suppress these warnings. Where is Britain Going? was not published in England until after the TUC's betrayal.

Brian Pearce was a member of the History Group in the CPGB, alongside E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. He was recruited to the Trotskyist movement by Gerry Healy following Kruschev's secret speech in 1956 and wrote some of the best material on the General Strike and the history of the Communist Party. He notes that the preface cited above to the American edition of Where is Britain Going? was omitted, as well as an entire paragraph that includes the words, "The most important task for the truly revolutionary participants in the General Strike will be to fight relentlessly against every sign or act of treachery, and ruthlessly to expose reformist illusions."

Thanks to the Comintern, the general strike was headed not merely by people who did not believe in revolution, but by a leadership that was the most convinced and determined opponent of revolution. The TUC's attitude to the strike, and by implication the service rendered to it by the Stalin faction of the Comintern, was summed up by Thomas in Parliament on May 13, the day after the betrayal of the strike. He said, "What I dreaded about this strike more than anything else was this: 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..."

The strike took place only because the TUC was pushed into a dispute it could not avoid and the government wanted a dispute for which it had long prepared. The government-appointed Coal Commission under Sir Herbert Samuel had reported on March 10, recommending wage cuts and restructuring. On April 8, the miners asked the TUC to support their demand for "not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day" and for no departure from national agreements. The TUC Special Committee supported a reduction in wages and recommended further talks.

Lock-out notices were posted at every pit on April 16, timed to expire 14 days later. The government demanded that the miners accept the Coal Commission's report and the General Council agreed with the government. But the miners refused. Lockouts began on April 30 and the king signed an Emergency Proclamation for May 1.

Thomas explained how he "begged and pleaded" as never before. "We have striven, we have pleaded, we have begged for peace, because we want peace. We still want peace. The nation wants peace," he said. But the lockouts continued.

On May 1, the TUC held a special conference and announced plans for the strike, set to begin May 3. The strike call was endorsed by a massive majority by the conference. The union tops continued to make frantic efforts to reach an agreement with the government and the mine owners. But when printers at the Daily Mail refused to print an editorial condemning the General Strike as "a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people," Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin used their action as an excuse to call off negotiations.

He told the chairman of the TUC negotiating committee, "It is a direct challenge, a direct challenge, Mr. Pugh, and we cannot go on. I am grateful to you for all you have done, but these negotiations cannot continue. Goodbye. This is the end." He said to Walter Citrine, "Well, I have been happy to meet you and I believe if we live we will meet again to settle it. If we live."

And then he showed them both the door.

The strike began on May 3 and immediately hit transport, printing and the productive industries—steel, metal, heavy chemicals, the building trades, electricity and gas. It was to involve four million out of five-and-a-half million workers organized in the unions.

Workers responded not merely only out of sympathy for the miners, but because they knew they would be next. Many remembered Baldwin's declaration in 1925 during negotiations with the miners' leaders that "all the workers of this country have got to take reductions in wages to help put industry on its feet."

The Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies (OMS) was set in motion, focusing attention on keeping transport running. The battleships Ramillies and Barham were recalled from the Atlantic and anchored in the Mersey and warships were anchored in most other major ports.

On May 6 Baldwin described the strike as "a challenge to the Parliament" and "the road to anarchy." Barrister Sir John Simon told the House of Commons that the strike was illegal and strikers were in breach of their contracts. Therefore, he said, the 1906 Trade Disputes Act protecting individual trade unionists and trade union funds from damages was not valid. The very next day the TUC met with Sir Herbert Samuel of the Coal Commission and made proposals to end the dispute, but these were rejected by the Miners' Federation.

In contrast to the TUC's cowardice, as far as the ruling class was concerned, this was war. They organized a force of hundreds of thousands—the OMS, 240,000 specials, the armed forces—to break the strike. To cite two major offensives, early in the morning of Saturday, May 8 more than a hundred lorries formed a convoy escorted by over twenty armoured cars bearing soldiers to get goods moving on the London docks.

Lorries broke the picket line and transported food to Hyde Park. The government also tried to use the OMS at the docks in Newcastle under the guns of two destroyers and a submarine, provoking a walkout by dockers handling food. Police action caused clashes up and down the country.

Was the situation pre-revolutionary? Let me read the following somewhat lengthy passage on the type of conflicts that developed from Christopher Farnam's account (The General Strike 1926, Panther, 1972).

"Mass pickets gathered in the main roads of London's East End before seven o'clock on Tuesday morning 4th of May, and during the day scores of vehicles suspected of carrying goods or office workers to and from the City were stopped and quite frequently wrecked. Several vehicles were set alight, others thrown into the river. After a night of fierce street battles, thirty civilian casualties were taken to Poplar Hospital. One man dies of his injuries on Wednesday morning...

"On Tuesday night there were also disturbances in Newcastle and at Chester-le-Street near Durham, mounted police broke up a crowd that had invaded the railway station."

On Wednesday, "There were further baton charges in Poplar and Canning Town and violent clashes around the Blackwall Tunnel, where cars were smashed and set alight. In Hammersmith seven buses were wrecked, strikers and Fascists fought a pitched battle, and police made forty-three arrests. Attacks on trams and buses also led to sporadic clashes in Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester, Stoke, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. In Sheffield four men were charged with unauthorized possession of a machine gun.

"On Thursday there were more clashes in the East End and at the Elephant and Castle mounted police broke up an angry crowd after a bus, which was trying to dodge strike pickets, had crashed onto a pavement killing a man. In the same area another bus was set alight. The Manchester Guardian Bulletin's London correspondent reported that ‘Things seem more serious today with the streets emptier through the taxicab drivers joining the strike. There are more buses now, each with one or two policemen beside the driver. A new strikers' plan has been tried this morning in Camberwell; some women laid their babies on the road in front of commercial vehicles and when the cars stopped, men jumped on the footboards and turned out the drivers and smashed machinery in the cars.' There were renewed clashes in Nottingham when strikers tried to march on factories where work was still continuing, and strikers and police fought pitched battles in Cardiff, Ipswich and Leeds...

"A mob of 4,000 wrecked goods and passenger stations a Middlesbrough and chained lorries to the railway line. While naval ratings struggled to clear the line, fighting also erupted at the bus terminus and outside a nearby police station... In Aberdeen police baton-charged a crowd of more than 6,000 who were smashing the windows of passing buses and trains...

"On Friday there was fresh violence in Polar, Ipswich, Cardiff and Middlesborough, and disturbances in Sheffield, Newark, and Darlington. A mob of 1,500 demolished a brick wall in Wandsworth to obtain missiles and a member of the British Fascisti was almost lynched when he deliberately drove his van into a crowd of demonstrators on Wormwood Scrubs, severely injuring a man."

In Hull, "As rioting spread, trams were attacked and burned and the civil authorities appealed for help to the captain of the Ceres, the light cruiser responsible for protecting Hull Docks. While fifty of his men faced the crowd with rifles and fixed bayonets, the captain addressed them from the balcony of the City Hall. Explaining that it was his duty to safeguard the city's property, he warned that if another tram was attacked, he would man them all with naval ratings."

To be continued