Socialist Worker

The minority movement and the General Strike

The second column in our series looks at the left’s mistakes in the 1920s

Issue No. 2175

Britain’s rulers survived three huge waves of workers’ struggle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The New Unionism of the 1880s saw previously unorganised workers take action. And the Great Unrest of 1910-14 saw tens of thousands fighting the bosses’ system.

Only the outbreak of the First World War ended this movement.

Another upsurge broke out in 1919 when rail workers, miners, dockers and even the police struck and rioted.

But the lack of united, co-ordinated action meant that Liberal prime minister Lloyd George was able to buy off the different groups one by one.

The struggle wasn’t over though. The bosses and government, terrified at the potential power of the working class, began to organise to crush it.

The owners of the mines, transport and engineering works prepared for battle.

The newly-formed Communist Party responded to this by attempting to build a more militant spirit in the unions.

It formed the National Minority Movement (NMM) in 1924 at a conference with 270 delegates, who represented 200,000 workers.

Its aim was clear: “The Minority Movement itself is not a trade union. It consists of militant members of existing trade unions, who aim at making the trade unions real militant organs in the class struggle.”

Tom Mann, one of the leaders of New Unionism, became the NMM president.

Bosses feared organisers like him. He had demonstrated how to form and build unions, and also how to transform them.

After years of fighting for better rights, Mann won the presidency of the once arch-conservative Engineering Union in 1919.

A J Cook, a South Wales miner, was another talented organiser who was involved in the NMM.

He was influenced by the 1912 pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step, which outlined the need to organise against leaders who refused to fight.

Cook won the leadership of the Miners’ Federation in 1924. Fred Bramley, the TUC general secretary, denounced him as a “raving, tearing Communist”.

He wasn’t—he was a member of the Independent Labour Party. Other influential left leaders worked with the NMM, although they were not members of the Communist Party.

The conservative leaders of the unions feared that the minority movement could become the majority within the working class.

Their fears were further confirmed by the fact that by early 1926 the NMM had bodies affiliated to it representing 957,000 workers. Its supporters won top union positions.

The Communist Party was the driving force of the NMM.

It linked the struggles of British workers to the hope of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the possibility of the socialist transformation of society,

It wanted to put pressure on the trade union leaders and, if necessary, to replace them.

During 1926 the government launched an offensive against wages and conditions.

The NMM spearheaded the Triple Alliance of miners, engineers and transport workers that was to resist this.

The TUC reluctantly called a national strike against the wage cuts, which began on 3 May .

Hundreds of thousands of workers responded magnificently to the call.

Their determination to fight only hardened during its nine days, as the state mobilised to break it.

The Communist Party adopted the slogan, “All Power to the General Council.”

But the TUC’s General Council limited the strikes, effectively leading to its demise. They called the strike off after nine days.

The left wing union leaders failed to challenge this failure and eventual capitulation.

In fact it was the left leaders who brokered the deal ending the strike, accepting wage cuts, mass job loses and victimisations.

This was a brutal lesson for the Communist Party which had put its faith in these leaders.

It was a major defeat for the working class. The bosses got their revenge and the miners were smashed in a six month lock-out.

One important division in the unions is between the left and the right.

But the crucial one is between the trade union bureaucracy and the rank and file— between those who want to challenge capitalism and those who seek compromise.

Real power and influence must lie with workers on the shopfloor. This lesson, learned in the General Strike, was one that shaped resistance in the 1970s.

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