Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Review: 1926 General Strike – Workers taste power

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Eighty years after history’s greatest display of working-class power in Britain, Peter Taaffe’s book comes at a time when organised labour is again beginning to flex its muscles.
Tony Mulhearn, Socialist Party Millions of words have been written about the event, but this book is different. Peter Taaffe not only faithfully records the mighty scope of the strike movement, but also analyses the role of its key players.

The outright treachery of the trade union leadership and the divisions within it are critically examined. The role of the newly-formed Communist Party (CP) and the Minority Movement (in which it had great influence) is evaluated, showing both its positive and negative influences.

The book explains the remorseless logic of capitalism in the economic crisis of 1925 that demanded the reduction of workers’ share of the wealth they produced and how Churchill’s decision to go back to the gold standard impacted on the miners.

The miners and the TUC, under pressure from the rank and file, organised opposition to the proposed wage cuts and increase in the working week. In the face of mass opposition Baldwin agrees to a subsidy to the coal owners for nine months to maintain the miners’ wages and hours.

Serious preparations were then begun by the government, led by the most ruthless representatives of capitalism: Winston Churchill, Lord Londonderry (an Irish coal owner), Home Secretary Joynson Hicks and the more astute Stanley Baldwin. His reason for granting the subsidy was simple: “We weren’t ready”.

The objective power of the working class, which had been demonstrated on several occasions since the end of the first world war in 1918, persuaded the government that the crisis of 1926 was the opportunity to once and for all deal with this threat. Lord Londonderry’s infamous statement encapsulated this: “No matter what the cost in blood and treasure we shall find the trade union movement will be smashed from top to bottom.”

Contrast this with the statement from arch-traitor Jimmy Thomas, general secretary of the railway workers union: “I have never disguised that in a challenge to the constitution, God help us unless the government won.”

The parallels with today’s labour leaders are clear. Blair, Brown, Lord Kinnock, Lord Bill Morris (ex-general secretary of the transport and general workers union) would be perfectly at home in the company of Thomas and his collaborators.

Peter also focuses on the role of the left. The CP rank and file is afforded enormous credit in its courage and organisational skills before and during the strike. But its role as the cutting edge of the struggle was fatally undermined by its slogan ‘All power to the General Council of the TUC,’ and its support (under the influence of Stalin) for the Anglo-Russian Committee.

The CP’s failure to warn workers that the General Council were working to defeat the strike disarmed them. They only raised the extent of the right wing’s treachery fully after the strike.

Miners’ leader A J Cook, a giant compared to the pigmies on the general council, is shown to lack a clear strategy at key moments of the struggle.

Instead of a magnificent victory being secured by the greatest demonstration of working-class solidarity in history, the strike ended in abject surrender. A historic opportunity was lost by the revolutionary left to extend its influence and win the best working-class fighters to the cause of socialism.

This is a book that provides a rich insight into the inner mechanisms of a titanic social conflict. It shows how an opportunity once missed can lead to dreadful consequences for workers for generations to come. It is an absolute must in preparing today’s activists for the coming struggles to forge a party with a leadership capable of leading the fight to establish a socialist society.

Available now from the Socialist Party National Office (Australia) $15 plus postage & handling or for bulk orders contact Socialist Publications PO Box 24697, London E11 1YD. email


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