1920s >> 1926 >> no-262-june-1926

The Result of “Trust”: A Lesson of the Great Strike

Huxley once said that Hutchinson Stirling’s “explanation” of Hegel had made the darkness opaque. So, it may be said, the “blackness” of Friday, 17th April, 1921, has been made to look almost white against the opaqueness of Wednesday, 12th May, 1926. The greatest Trade Union action that was ever taken in any country was closed by the most gigantic swindle in the whole history of Trade Unionism.

Numerous explanations are being given by members of the General Council, by “Right Wingers’’ and “Left Wingers,” by Labour Party apologists, and industrial action idiots. It may be useful to examine some of these “explanations,” even if certain important facts are not yet available to outsiders.

The Communists, who are “united” into several sections, issue two rival papers—”The Workers’ Weekly” and the “Sunday Worker”—in contradiction to the instructions from Moscow. The “Sunday Worker” fills up a large space with the capitalist “dope” of betting and sports information, giving “tips” on horse-racing to those of its readers who may have become tired of the contradictory policies given in the leading articles. Like the rest of the Communists the writers in the “Sunday Worker” preach the slogan of “Follow vour leaders.” When, as in the present case, these “leaders” sell out their followers the excuse is made that they were “bad” leaders. The simple fact is that wherever the rank and file accept “leaders” such acceptance always provides the conditions for selling out. While the “Sunday Worker” encourages the following of leaders it is helping to sell out the workers, no matter who those leaders may be. And in sheer wooden-headedness it admits this fact in the issue of 16th May, when it states :—

“At the end of the strike, when the Right Wing leaders, with the acquiescence and even support of some Left Wingers, left the miners in the lurch, while the workers stood bewildered, aghast, and finally deeply humiliated at this unexampled betrayal—all through the workers led the way.”
“It will only be a step from this to the conclusion that they must now find leaders who will lead.”
“The workers have had a practical demonstration—and the Left Wing’s job is to drive the lesson home in the unions—that they must find new leaders, leaders who will fight instead of running away.”

And as the “Left Wing” are either members of the Communist Party, or supporters of Communist notions, the above quotation makes it clear that Communist leaders sell out as soon as any others.

On the next page of the same issue we are told :—

      “At the end of the strike, when the Right Wing leaders, with the acquiescence and even support of some Left Wingers, left the miners in the lurch, while the workers stood bewildered, aghast, and finally deeply humiliated at this unexampled betrayal—all through the workers led the way.”
“It will only be a step from this to the conclusion that they must now find leaders who will lead.”
“The workers have had a practical demonstration—and the Left Wing’s job is to drive the lesson home in the unions—that they must find new leaders, leaders who will fight instead of running away.”

In brief, as the Left Wingers have displayed cowardice and supported betrayal the workers should now select—Left Wingers. Wonderfully simple!

To further illustrate the idiotic ignorance of the Communists, we are told in the same leading article that “Parliament very rapidly receded into its real place in the background.” The Parliament that issued the Proclamation bringing into operation the Emergency Powers Act; the Parliament that day by day issued fresh regulations under that Act, even to the forbidding of the importation of money to assist the strike; the Parliament whose orders prevented the “Sunday Worker” (see issue of 23rd May) as well as others, from stating what they wished to say, was supposed to have receded into the background. How curious.

The Workers’ Weekly,” the official organ of the Communist Party, has had for its slogan, “All power to the General Council.” In the issue of 21st May its leading article is headed, “Cashier the Cowards.” Further on it says:—

    “The truth cannot be concealed. We had men at the head of the General Council who were more afraid of winning than of losing.”
“But why did the better and more virile of the members of the General Council—those we have called the ‘Left Wing’—allow themselves to become involved in their panic?”

Only echo is left to answer. Then follows this brilliant gem :—

  “The principle of All Power to the General Council was more than vindicated by the promptness and steadfastness of the rank and file. But clearly the composition of the Council must be changed, and that at once.”

That is, having “cashiered the cowards,” the rank and file is to replace them by “more virile” Left Wingers who become involved in the cowards’ panic. And is not the “ principle” of all power to the General Council equally “vindicated” by the action of the latter on the 12th May? “ Where ignorance is bliss,” says Gray, “it is folly to be wise.” The Communists must simply be overflowing with bliss.

Mr. Wheatley, M.P., is looked upon as a “Left Winger,” and in “Forward” for 22nd May he reviews the situation. After stating that the workers have sustained a smashing reverse, he says :—

       “Not only had the T.U.C. deserted the miners, but they had gratuitously thrown their own members to the wolves.”
.   .   .   .   .
“One wondered how on earth those trade union leaders did not even stipulate, in return for their desertion of the miners, the unconditional reinstatement of their own members.”

Further on he says :—

       “Some days must elapse before we learn accurately all the causes of the dreadful debacle. But I have no doubt that when everything is straightened out cowardice will occupy a prominent position.”
.    .    .    .    .
“From the first moment of the struggle, and indeed before it, prominent Labour leaders were whining and grovelling. The day before the General Strike was declared we were told by one of the men who were going to lead us that defeat was certain.”

Was it cowardice that prevented Mr. Wheatley publishing this latter statement when it was made? Or had he another reason? Time, perhaps, will tell.

Lansbury’s Labour Weekly” professes to give a “secret” history of the strike in the issue of the 22nd May, but there is very little information given that was not already public. The only two points that might deserve the term secret are given without any authority and must be treated on their own merits. The first point is stated as follows :—

    “Finally, on Sunday night, or thereabouts, the war lords of the Cabinet, the same who had a week ago declared war, decided that the war must be turned into a counter-revolution. Information reached Eccleston Square that they had decided (a) to arrest the members of the General Council and of Local Strike Committees; (b) to call up the Army Reserve; (c) to rush through the packed House of Commons a Bill repealing the Trades Disputes Act, and thus making union funds definitely liable to seizure.”

This statement may have been true; at any rate there is nothing inherently improbable in it. But the second point is on different lines :—

“On the other-hand, there was the General Council believing that the Cabinet was about to use the last weapon on them, and knowing that, if they did so, the workers in every part of the country would certainly reply with reprisals—that in fact then ‘industrial struggle’ would, if the strike were not called off immediately, turn not merely into a political issue, but into a civil war, for which they had neither any desire, nor any formal mandate.”

This statement is not merely unsupported by any evidence—it is in contradiction to the facts of the case. Nowhere did the workers show any desire for civil war, nor any understanding of how to carry through such a war even if they did desire it. The paragraph is a piece of frothy bunkum written to excuse the General Council.

The “New Leader” for 21st May has a bitter cartoon on its front page of a miner with wife and child, and the line underneath, “Locked Out and Alone.’’ In a leading article Mr. Brailsford deals with what he calls the “Inner History of the Great Strike.” He examines the main features of a General Strike and the value of a partial strike, and rather leans towards the latter, in the form of an embargo on coal, as being more effective. Then he says :—

  “The plan which was eventually adopted was a compromise which fell far short of a General Strike. it was Mr. Bevin’s work, and he was, throughout, the general, as Mr. Thomas was the diplomatist, of the struggle.”

Later on he says :—

  “Mr. Bevin foresaw what might happen when the strike came to an end, and laid it down as a condition, to which all agreed, that in the event of ‘trade union agreements being placed in jeopardy . . .  there will be no general resumption of work until those agreements are fully recognised.’ That vital condition was forgotten when the end came.”

On the next page, when dealing with the conduct of the negotiations, Mr. Brailsford makes the following significant statement:

    “It was unlucky that through all the critical days the miners had no representative of their own on the Council, for Mr. Tom Richards was seriously ill and Mr. Smillie absent in Scotland. The active, mobile mind, the leader in all the diplomacy, was Mr. Thomas. Him the miners deeply distrusted, and said so in the bluntest language before the Council. They felt that he gave away their case when he met the Government; they thought him more zealous to press them to accept wage cuts than to oppose the Government.”

When the strike had started the General Council began to look for a way out and found, as they thought, a saviour in Samuel. What a godsend he seemed to some of that body can be gathered from Mr. Brailsford’s remark :—

  “Mr. Thomas was uneasy under the accusation of ‘unconstitutional conduct ’; he foresaw disorder and talked of the ‘streets running with blood’—though strikers and policemen in this incorrigible English strike were playing cricket together. His one platform speech—if it was fairly reported—was that of a man who dreaded, and in fact disapproved, the strike for which he had voted.”

Right up to Tuesday afternoon, 11th May, the negotiations over the Samuel Memoranda went on, with the miners’ representatives refusing to accept it. On Tuesday night the Council came to a decision, and one prominent member told the driver who took him home from the meeting that “it was all over.” Mr. Brailsford says :—

‘‘The Council took its decision to end the strike on this Tuesday night, and took it without informing the miners. But it did inform the Government, and when it again met the miners on Wednesday morning it was only to beg them to join in a surrender which, in fact, they had already made. In the decision to call off the strike, the Council, Left and Right, was unanimous, and seemed to feel wholehearted satisfaction.”

Summing up, Mr. Brailsford says that it was the blunt, undiplomatic miners, and not the skilful Mr. Thomas, who saw the plain reality. His final remark is :—

“But the deep stain upon them [the leaders] is that in this struggle which had evoked the passionate loyalty, the selfless idealism of the mass, they sullied its record and nullified its sacrifices by abandoning the miners to their fate.”

Except for an inspired article in the “Daily Herald” denouncing all who would dare to criticise the General Council, that body has said very little on their action, though some individual members have rushed into print—with disastrous results to themselves. Thus Messrs. Bevin, Walker and Findlay, tried to claim in an article in the “Sunday Worker,” 23rd May, that Mr. Baldwin’s statement as to the extent to which the Government were committed by the Samuel Memorandum was not in accordance with their information. And they called upon Sir Herbert Samuel to speak out. This statement is sheer bluff, as can be proved from the General Council’s official Bulletin. In the “British Worker” for Wednesday evening, 12th May, appeared Mr. Samuel’s letter, which contains the following paragraph :—

  ” I have made it clear to your Committee from the outset that 1 have been acting entirely on my own initiative, have received no authority from the Government, and can give no assurances on their behalf.”

This clause in Mr. Samuel’s letter is plain and unequivocal —it cannot be misunderstood and makes the position of the Government quite clear. But Mr. Samuel, has called the bluff in an interview reported in the “Daily News” for Monday, 24th May. He repeated the statements given in the letter quoted above, and added: –

“No suggestion in any different sense was made by me at any stage.”

Three supposed “Left Wingers,” Messrs. Swales, Hicks and Tillett, have written an article in “Lansbury’s Labour Weekly” for 22nd May, which opens with a brazen lie. They say :—

The General Strike is ended, having served the purpose of urgent and necessary defence.”

The “purpose” of the so-called General Strike, according to the General Council’s statement in the “British Worker,” was to secure the withdrawal of the lock-out notices and to obtain a decent standard of life for the miners. Not only has this purpose not been accomplished, but the General Council surrendered without asking for any terms at all. Yet these brazen liars can talk of the strike “having served its purpose ” !

Perhaps the slimiest piece of hypocrisy is the article written by Ramsay MacDonald in “Forward” of 22nd May. It seems strange he should not have published the article in his Party’s paper, the “New Leader,” but possibly the Editor of that journal may have raised objections. Had the article been signed by a Nonconformist parson it would easily pass as genuine, for it is full of sham religious phrases and forms.We are told :—

   “There was a religious fervour in the movement. The people were to be oppressed, and the people would not have it.”

Fancy that! And some of us were so foolish as to imagine we had been oppressed for quite a long time. But, apparently, we were wrong. We were only “going to be oppressed,” and we refused to have it.

Follows then a sermon on the strike containing the following remark :—

“Whoever has witnessed a first-class religious row being worked up in heathendom will have breathed a familiar atmosphere in London during the past week.”

Fortunately a saviour was at hand.:—

    “But reason was harboured in Eccleston Square. The forces were kept well in hand, and when the substance of victory was gained by a bold and wise stroke, the Mad Mullah and his organ were left to cock-a-doodle-doo to the heavens for nothing.”

And where is this “substance of victory”? Only in the imagination of mis-leaders like MacDonald, Tillett, Hicks, Swales and Co.

There are two curious facts worth noting about the General Council’s handling of the strike. The first is that with Thomas, MacDonald, Bevin, Tillett, etc., at the head of affairs, it would have been quite a simple matter for the Government to have arranged a formula that would have swindled the miners quietly. The only reason why this was not done seems to be that the coal-owners desired an open victory for the purpose of intimidating the rest of the workers who were demanding increases in wages.

The second fact is the curious unanimity among the various critics in ascribing the gigantic swindle of a settlement to the “cowardice” of the General Council. The shrieks of the job-hunting, feather-headed Communists can be ignored, but “Lansbury’s Weekly” labours the danger run by the General Council through several paragraphs as a sort of apology for their “cowardice,” while the reasoned article of Brailsford quoted above follows the same line.

What was this “danger” to the General Council?

In any strike every member of the rank and file runs the risk of losing his job at the end of the strike. If he has been an active member of his trade union, he runs the additional risk of being black-listed, and if the industry has a working combination, like the Railways, or is a Trust, like Tobacco and Cotton Thread, this black-listing will completely prevent him from obtaining a living in that line. A strike is, therefore, always a serious matter for the rank and file.

Then what of the officials? Apart from the personal discomfort of being imprisoned they run no risk at all! On the contrary, so far as his job is concerned, an official who suffers imprisonment for a trade union action is assured of his job for life, as he will be looked upon as a “hero” or a “martyr” in the cause. In the present instance it must be remembered that hundreds of the rank and file have been arrested and fined or imprisoned, in some cases for merely being in possession of certain documents. And this, be it noticed, with hardly a single serious riot taking place during the whole strike.

While it may be granted that cowardice was one factor in the unconditional surrender of the General Council, in face of the above facts it does not fill the whole or even a major portion of the bill. Then what does?

Though the mine-owners desired an open victory, there were certain disturbing factors to be considered. Throughout the whole industrial field there was—and is—considerable discontent with wages and conditions of employment. Despite the bad state of trade, the leaders of the Engineers had considerable difficulty in preventing a strike. The Building Operatives, despite something of a boom, have found that to accept several reductions merely leads to more being demanded. Although the short memory of the working class is proverbial, the previous swindles of “Black Friday” and the railway strikes still rankle in the minds of many. These factors furnished the view that if the Miners were forced into a strike, large numbers of other workers would come out in support of the Miners without waiting for official sanction, or even against it. ‘The problem was how to prevent such action taking place, or, if it took place, rendering it as ineffective as possible. One method would be to have a sham fight. Call a more or less “General” Strike for a few days and then find some pretext to close it down before too much damage was done.

The game was somewhat risky, for while in the view of some there was a doubt whether the men would come out, the far greater fear in the views of others (see, for instance, MacDonald’s article quoted above) was that they would not get the men back at the appointed time. As it was the greed of many employers in at once demanding cuts in wages or alterations in conditions of employment, nearly spoilt the game, but Baldwin’s appeal eased off the situation.

Such is the lesson. “Trust and ye shall be betrayed.” After all the lessons of the past the same “leaders” were entrusted with power, and acted along the same lines as before. Which was to be expected. The workers have still a fair road to travel before they will get rid of the superstition of “Leadership” or the dope of “good” and “bad” leaders. But the splendid solidarity of the rank and file, along with their steady refusal to follow the maniacs who advise the formation of “Workers’ Defence Corps” and other methods of crude force, are healthy signs of the beginnings of an understanding of their slave position that forms the first step in the work of establishing Socialism.

Jack Fitzgerald