Socialist Worker

The union leaders and revolution

Our series continues with class struggle during and after the first world war

Issue No. 2209

A cartoon of a mineowner from 1925

A cartoon of a mineowner from 1925


The outbreak of war in 1914 dampened class struggle in Britain—but not for long.

There were powerful strikes during the war, and when it ended, discontent boiled over and the ruling class feared revolution.

Soldiers and sailors were impatient for demobilisation. People who suffered terrible deprivation during the war wanted change—and were willing fight for it.

Britain was caught up in a revolutionary wave as hundreds of thousands of workers struck, soldiers mutinied and even the police went on strike.

The prime minister, Lloyd George, had no doubt about the power of the revolt.

In 1919 he told the leaders of three powerful trade unions, “In our opinion we are at your mercy.”

The government could no longer call on the army to crush workers resistance.

Over 50 mutinies took place in 1919. All called for faster demobilisation and for no soldiers to be sent to fight against the revolution in Russia.

When a soldiers’ delegation marched to parliament, the chief of the Imperial General Staff said that it “bore a dangerous resemblence to a Soviet”.

In Archangel, north Russia, the 13th battalion of the Yorkshire Light Infantry refused to fight against the revolution and set up a soviet. In Milford Haven soldiers flew the red flag.

When the police struck over pay and union recognition, soldiers meant to replace them outside Downing Street fraternised with the strikers instead.

“This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since,” said Lloyd George.

Masses of workers were striking. They took control of entire cities, setting up what the government called “soviet committees”.

Union membership quadrupled between 1910 and 1920.

In Belfast, an unofficial engineers’ strike shut down trams and heavy industry. There was no heat or light in the city.

When engineers struck for a 40-hour week in Glasgow, the secretary of state for Scotland described it as a “Bolshevist rising”.

Fearing revolution, the bosses made serious concessions unthinkable in normal times.

Engineers won cuts to working hours, as did miners who also won pay rises, and soldiers won faster demobilisation.

Britain was ripe for revolution, but there were a number of factors holding the working class back.

Conservative

A developing layer of conservative trade union officials managed to contain workers’ struggles.

Jimmy Thomas, the leader of the rail workers’ union, said about 1919, “We did not want to beat the government”.

And there wasn’t a revolutionary party that could intervene to argue for a broadening of the struggle.

But the union leaders didn’t have total control—unofficial action frequently broke out and workers ignored or defied their officials. Union officials were forced to tour South Wales to convince coal miners to accept a deal.

The government was terrified about the growth of unofficial strikes. But the trade union officials exercised enough control to direct the general course of the struggle—which they did again during the 1926 general strike.

In 1925, mine owners announced that they would rip up miners’ national agreements, increase hours and cut pay.

The TUC prevaricated but was forced into calling a general strike in May 1926. They didn’t want the strike—but nor did they want to leave the battleground open to revolutionaries or to be seen to have abandoned the miners.

Workers’ enthusiastic response to the strike surprised union leaders. But the TUC called off the strike after just nine days.

Workers wanted to fight—some 100,000 more came out on strike after the TUC called it off.

The Communist Party, although small, had influence beyond its membership but didn’t use this to build up rank and file confidence to keep fighting.

Instead it called for, “All power to the [TUC] general council”, sowing illusions in union officials.

The magnificent battles of 1919 and 1926 show that British workers can and do take radical action and that the ruling class fears their potential power.

They also show that reliance on trade union leaders leads to disaster.

The Clyde Workers Committee expressed this during the First World War, declaring, “We will support the officials just so long as they rightly represent the workers, but we will act immediately they misrepresent them.”


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