The largest battle in English industrial history is over and the wounded are being carried off the field.
The first point that strikes one, after making the necessary allowance for the intimidation of the nervous, is the amazing solidarity of the workers on this occasion. The consciousness, dim though it may have been in the main, that they must make common cause and stand together, though only one section was being immediately attacked.
The next point was the demonstration of where the power really lies in modern affairs. The control of the governmental machinery gave the masters the key to the situation.
Strictly speaking it was not a general, strike, but it was general enough to make apparent the limitations of such a method as a weapon to be used by the workers in their struggle for emancipation. The advocates of direct action had little to find fault with. On the Monday night the strike was declared and on the Tuesday morning the transport services were paralysed. In almost every instance the workers, unionist and non-unionist alike, answered the call. In many cases workers came out who had not been called upon to do so. As time progressed more and more workers came out and there was little sign of any returning. From this point of view, then, the strike was a success—it was as complete as may be wished, and lasted for nine full days, and yet the food supply was not paralysed nor seriously disturbed.
An ordinary strike depends for its success upon putting the masters to so much expense that they would prefer to concede the conditions demanded by the workers (whether reduction of hours, increase of wages or similar demands) than bear the expense and disorganisation of a strike. In other words, they are faced with the problem of the respective costs of resisting or conceding the demands and decide accordingly.
It is not necessary, for the purpose of the argument, to consider those strikes or lockouts instigated by the masters when a favourable opportunity has presented itself for depressing the workers’ condition. For instance, when there is a surplus of certain goods or, as in the coal industry, when the summer is coming with a slump in the demand for domestic coal.
Employers in different branches of industry support each other (apart from the universal intermingling of capital in different concerns) because a successful strike in one branch might lead to strikes in others. On the other hand, as the making of profit is hindered by industrial troubles, and as dissatisfied workers do not work well, the threat of a strike is sometimes sufficient to force the employers’ hands and obtain concessions.
When we come to a strike of the huge dimensions of the recent one the position is entirely different. It is in effect a challenge to State power. The demand, made on behalf of the mass of the workers, was that a Government, placed in power mainly by the votes of the workers, should be forced, without regard to their wishes, to take action in a given direction. That is to relinquish their political functions as the generally accepted and approved guardians of society and capitulate to one section in the community—or starve.
A calm, passionless examination of this position makes it clear that under such conditions no capitalist Government dare surrender—for such in fact would be its action. To have submitted to defeat in these circumstances would have left the way open for the workers to put forward whatever demands they wished, backing them with the threat of a general strike. This was the more likely at the moment because wage struggles were already on the board in other industries as well as the coal industry. We may interpolate here that, had the employers themselves deliberately planned the recent industrial upheaval the result all round, as far as they are concerned, could hardly have taken a more favourable turn. They have been able to settle many of their difficulties, such as the redundant labour in the rail industry brought about by the fusion of companies a few years ago, and nipped in the bud further strike trouble for a year or two.
What action did the Government take in this emergency? Already during the railway strike of 1919 plans had been prepared to deal with the sudden cessation of the transport services. Since that time the plans had been further perfected, and now was the time to test them. From the point of view of the supporters of direct action, in this higher developed form, the evolution of the oil engine has been disastrous.. The employers and what are called the “professional classes” (the last section of the proletariat likely to become revolutionary) are accustomed to learning motor driving as a hobby, and, consequently, there was available a large reserve of prospective drivers for the transport services, quite apart from the professional drivers and other assistants that could be obtained from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. With petrol lorries and an odd train or two it was possible to provide sufficient transport to meet the essential food requirements of the nation. As time passed it became increasingly evident that this could be done for several weeks. The fact that there was a good deal of muddle does not matter; the point is that the Government could have muddled through sufficiently well to meet the needs of the population until the strikers could not tighten their belts any further, so that starvation would have finally driven the workers either to surrender, extinction, or the shambles. And this was, is, and will be true of all attempts at industrial action on such a vast scale, involving serious interference with the food supply.
By their control of political power the Government were able to put their transport plan into action and to prevent any interference with it. They were also able to put the Emergency Powers Act into operation and effectively silence any disturbing opposition. To the last action the Labour Party can say nothing, as, when in power, they themselves were prepared to evoke the same black spectre when threatened with a large strike.
The cold hard fact has been made plain once more that “unless they are prepared to give up the kingdom of this earth the working class must some day take the political power into their own hands.” Until they do so they must expect defeat in industrial battles of any great magnitude.
So far we have pointed out that, in this strike, the workers must ultimately have been defeated. This might lead some to believe that on this particular occasion the workers were defeated. Such a view would be entirely erroneous. The workers came out solidly and, in the main, gave every evidence of a determination to remain out solidly for quite a while longer. But in the meantime the leaders had decided otherwise, and without a shadow of a solid guarantee that the object of the strike had been achieved—the withdrawal of the lock-out notices against the miners, and the removal of the stipulation by the mine-owners of a reduction in the miners’ wages as a preliminary to coal negotiations—the strike was called off. This was not defeat, but deserves another and much more ugly name. Already details of the sordid business are leaking out, and some of the erstwhile trustworthy leaders are likely to lose their reputations. In time, no doubt, the whole truth will come out and the workers may learn more quickly the frailty of leadership in general, and the broken reed they are leaning on.
We have often flogged the leadership idea in these columns, but must plead the “occasion” as an excuse for mentioning just one or two points again.
The method of handling the strike was bad from beginning to end, from the point of view of advantage to the workers. Before anything in the nature of a general strike took place the whole of the workers concerned should have had an opportunity of expressing their view upon it by means of a ballot. And no such strike should have been undertaken unless there was a substantial majority in favour of it. The method of handling the situation during the strike should have been also decided upon by those taking part, before the strike was put into operation. Delegates from the unions should have been deputed to carry out the strike with no power to make any arrangements for ending it without first consulting all those on strike, who should themselves have decided the ending in the same way as they decided its commencement. With a full knowledge beforehand of the difficulties the strike would place in the way of carrying out this programme, arrangements should have been made to enable it to be done. To put the matter another way, there should have been no leaders in whom to place a trust that could be betrayed, but rather delegates to carry out instructions formulated by those taking part in the strike. Until such a method operates, both industrially and politically, it will always be open to leaders to betray their following. In the present instance, A. J. Cook, the Miners’ Secretary, speaking at an open-air demonstration at Porth, in the Rhondda Valley, on the 23rd May last, is reported as follows :—
“I say to the railwaymen that one of the greatest crimes that can be laid at the door of their leaders is that they not only left the miners in the lurch and betrayed them, hut they betrayed the railwaymen.”—Daily News, 24/5/26
Had the line we have indicated been followed in the conducting of the strike, then there would have been no question of betrayal by leaders, as there would have been no leaders to betray. Those who were suffering would have put an end to that suffering when they had decided the suffering had gone far enough. As it is, so far as immediate matters are concerned, their suffering has been not only entirely wasted but it has placed the miners in a far worse position than before. On top of that, each group of workers has had to give up certain of their hard-won privileges and depleted both funds and enthusiasm for the future wage fights that had already loomed up.
What we have said should have made clear by now the only real solution to this, and all the other economic troubles afflicting the workers. If the workers had been as solid in voting for Socialism as they have been in striking on behalf of the miners what a different tale there would be to tell! And yet, as long as the workers support a condition of things which lays it down as a fundamental proposition that there shall be employers and employed, capitalists and wage-slaves; and at election time puts control of the governmental machinery into the hands of the masters and their supporters, they must expect defeat in their struggle for better conditions. The solution of the difficulties lies in the workers’ own hands. The substitution of common ownership in the means of wealth production in place of the present private property system, and the accomplishment of this end by voting delegates to the central seat of power at election times to carry out instructions formulated by their working-class electorate.
In conclusion, let the strike engrave deeply upon the mind of the workers the evil of leadership, good, bad or indifferent; the solidarity and ruthlessness of the master class when they think their privileges are in danger; and finally, the utter hopelessness of attempting anything that might shake the foundations of capitalism without, as a preliminary, getting control of political power, which can be done quite constitutionally without the risks attaching to industrial action.
If these lessons are laid to heart then the strike will not have been in vain, and the victims will, in the fullness of time, reap their reward.