Communism, Stalinism and the British General Strike

Author: 

Stan Crooke

By Stan Crooke
Taking its name from a union bureaucrat’s complaint about a “minority of troublemakers”, the National Minority Movement (NMM) was formally established in August 1924 as a rank-and-file trade union organisation.

The founding conference was attended by over 270 delegates, claiming to represent some 200,000 workers. It defined the “aims and objects” of the NMM as:

“To organise the working masses of Great Britain for the overthrow of capitalism, the emancipation of the workers from oppressors and exploiters, and the establishment of a Socialist Commonwealth.

“To carry on a wide agitation and propaganda for the principles of revolutionary class struggle… and against the present tendency towards social peace and class collaboration, and the delusion of the peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism.”

Between its founding conference in 1924 and the General Strike of 1926 the NMM grew substantially. 443 delegates attended its 1925 conference, and 547 delegates attended the following year’s conference.

At its height, the NMM claimed to represent 957,000 workers. Unfortunately, the real figure was a lot lower: a union branch’s membership would be counted three times over if the branch itself, the local union district committee, and the local Trades Council all sent delegates to a NMM conference.

Moreover, support for the NMM was very unevenly spread, both in terms of unions and geographically.

Only amongst miners, engineers and, to a much lesser degree, transport workers did the NMM enjoy a solid base of support. Geographically, support for the NMM was concentrated primarily in London, Sheffield, and parts of Scotland and Wales.

Yet the early years of the NMM are an important source of lessons — both positive and negative — for revolutionaries in our trade union work.

The driving force behind the NMM was the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), founded in 1921 as the product of the fusion of a number of small socialist organisations. It was a revolutionary party.

Modelling itself (even if not always successfully) on Lenin’s Bolshevik Party which had achieved victory in Russia, the CPGB embodied a new approach to the struggle for revolutionary politics.

Prior to the CPGB’s foundation, most socialist organisations in this country had been propagandistic: instead of actively intervening in the class struggle, they made passive propaganda about the need for socialism.

Their approach to politics is summed up by the following description of their public meetings (which were usually their only form of public activity):

“The speeches usually took the form of a general statement of socialist aspirations, a general criticism of capitalism and its evils, and a special application to current happenings — particularly the doings of the local borough or town council.”

Consequently, such socialist organisations took little interest in the trade unions and workers’ industrial struggles. The only exception to this was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), which did have a major orientation to workplace struggles.

But the SLP suffered from a major weakness of its own: syndicalism. It believed that strike action and industrial union organisation alone would be enough to achieve socialism.

This fundamental difference between the CPGB and its predecessors was summed up by J. T. Murphy, a leading figure in both the CPGB and also the NMM, after attending an international congress of Communist Parties in 1920:

“Instead of thinking that a socialist party was merely a propaganda organisation for the dissemination of socialist views, I now saw that a real socialist party would consist of revolutionary socialists who regarded the party as a means whereby they would lead the working class in the fight for political power.”

This new insight into the nature and role of the revolutionary party underpinned the CPGB’s approach to work in the unions.

Party members were not to be a mere “ginger group” in the unions, pushing union leaders to the left. Their task was to mobilise workers on the basis of class struggle politics as part of the fight to achieve a revolutionary leadership of the workers’ movement.

Sectarian and syndicalist prejudices had not been completely eliminated amongst the party membership. As one party member later recalled:

“Considerable time and energy had to be expended to fight down the belief that there was no room for a movement dealing with immediate and ‘narrow’ economic issues, that it was a reformist conception.

“(Some members believed) that such an organisation would stand in front of and hide the face of the Party from the workers. Sneering descriptions of the NMM were given in the Party as being ‘an attempt to dress a red man in a pink cloak’.”

There was thus a constant tension in the trade union work of the CPGB in the early to mid 1920s and, by extension, the NMM itself.

Another, far more powerful, influence was at work as well. The CPGB looked to Moscow for political guidance. As Stalin consolidated his grip on power in the Soviet Union, the political guidance which the CPGB received was based increasingly upon class collaboration rather than class confrontation.

Early years of the Minority Movement

But in 1924 the NMM signalled a new approach. It opened up the possibility of united action by CPGB members and union militants outside the ranks of the party in a joint struggle against both the capitalists and also the “labour lieutenants of capital” in the union bureaucracy.

As NMM National Secretary Pollitt put it: “It was necessary to make a decisive turn towards mass work in the factories, trade unions and working-class organisations, and to try to end the old sectarian traditions of the British revolutionary movement once and for all.”

The CPGB had already begun such an approach prior to the creation of the NMM as a national organisation.

In 1922 the party had taken the lead in organising a series of “Back to the Unions” conferences as part of its “Stop the Retreat” campaign. The aim was to reverse the fall in union membership resulting from the employers’ offensive and from the repeated betrayals by trade union leaders.

In the early years of the NMM, particular emphasis was placed upon the creation of powerful Trades Councils which would function as local general staffs of the working class: “By joint activities of the unions and Trades Councils (we can) create powerful nuclei around which the masses will gather.”

The NMM campaigned for all union branches and district committees to affiliate to Trades Councils, and also called for a change in the structures of Trades Councils: they should accept direct workshop representation, and their right to send delegates to TUC congresses should be restored.

Affiliation to the National Federation of Trades Councils (initiated by the CPGB in 1923) was another campaigning focus of the NMM. As a result of such initiatives, the NMM itself won the affiliation of over 50 Trades Councils in the period 1924-26.

Arguably, the CPGB overestimated the potential of Trades Councils. And by the time of the General Strike it was certainly using its influence to ensure Trades Councils meekly fell into line behind the TUC.

Even so, there is some basis in reality for the NMM’s claim that it was “the first organised movement… to draw attention to the importance and real role of Trades Councils in the labour movement.”

Similar considerations apply to the NMM’s call for increased powers for the TUC General Council. The political validity of this demand should not be obscured by the later failure of the NMM to challenge the role played by the General Council in the General Strike.

Well before the establishment of the CPGB many militants and socialists had advocated greater powers for the TUC General Council and its transformation into a “general staff of labour.”

The concentration of capital demanded that the labour movement should concentrate its forces and break away from trade union sectionalism. As one NMM pamphlet put it, a TUC “General Staff” would:

“Mobilise and concentrate all the forces of the working class movement for the purpose of opposing a united class front to the united capitalist enemy… Sectional fighting is doomed, only conscious class fighting can be of use.”

But the CPGB and NMM did, at least initially, recognise that increased powers for the General Council could be used to police the union membership in the interests of capitalism, unless those powers were subject to rank-and-file control and were used in pursuit of the class struggle.

This was clearly spelt out in a resolution passed at the NMM’s founding conference. If the General Council was to become a “Workers’ General Staff” rather than a “machine of the capitalists”, what was necessary was:

“In the first place and fundamentally, to develop a revolutionary class consciousness amongst the trade union membership, and in the second place to so alter the constitution of the General Council as to ensure that those elected thereon have the closest contact with the workers.”

“All power to the General Council”

Before long, however, the qualifications and safeguards linked to the demand for increased powers for the General Council slipped into the background, and then out of sight, in the agitation of the CPGB and the NMM.

The 1925 conference of the NMM, for example, again called for more powers for the General Council, but added only as a vague afterthought that such powers should be used “to fight more effectively the battles of the workers.”

The CPGB itself collapsed into wishful thinking: “The new General Council (of 1925) will simply have to prosecute more vigorously the fight on behalf of the workers… The mass pressure from behind will force even then (the right-wingers on the General Council) to toe the line.”

Hardy, a leading figure in the NMM, displayed a similar attitude of political blindness when questioned about the wisdom of the slogan “All power to the General Council” in March 1926:

“Should they use that power wrongly, it only means that we have got another additional task before us of forcing them in the right direction, which direction they will ultimately have to take.”

By the time of the General Strike itself, two months later, the CPGB had completely turned its back on its earlier understanding of how to raise the question of increased powers for the General Council. Now the role of the CPGB was to be a dogsbody:

“Our party does not hold the leading position in the trade unions. It is not conducting the negotiations with the employers and the government. It can only advise and place its forces at the service of the workers — led by others.”

With the NMM’s campaigning for industrial unionism and workshop committee too, positive initiatives foundered on the rocks of deference to the union bureaucracy.

From its founding conference onwards, the NMM campaigned to reorganise trade unions so that each industry was represented by one union. Divisions between workers in different unions in the same industry could thus be broken down.

The achievement of industrial unions, a long-standing objective of revolutionaries and syndicalists well before the creation of the NMM, would help bring about a unified workers’ movement and thereby strengthen the forces of labour in the class struggle.

Campaigning for industrial unionism meant an emphasis on campaigning at rank-and-file level. This had been recognised by the unofficial shop stewards’ movement during the 1914-18 war. It always emphasised that “unity from below” was the precondition of industrial unionism.

In practice, however, the NMM looked increasingly towards the TUC and the union executives to bring about industrial unionism.

Thus, a resolution passed by the 1924 TUC, originating from the Minority Movement in the South Wales Miners Federation, instructed the TUC itself to “draw up a scheme of organisation by industry.”

Needless to say, the General Council allowed the resolution to remain a dead letter. The minutes of the following year’s TUC record the lament of one CPGB member who attended the Congress as a union delegate:

“…Delegates’ confusion was made worse and confounded by the General Council not giving any lead whatever. He suggested that the General Council might have done something to resuscitate the enthusiasm which had been engendered in the workshops.”

The NMM did not completely transform the proposals for industrial unionism and workshop committees into appeals for implementation by the bureaucracy. In 1926, for example, the NMM press was itself advocating that rank-and-file trade unionists take the initiative in setting up workplace committees.

Even so, there had been a clear drift on the part of the NMM — away from action and initiative at rank-and-file level, and towards appeals for industrial unionism and workshop committees under the patronage of the TUC.

Writing in the CPGB’s newspaper in 1926, Hardy merely listed the more militant resolutions passed at the previous year’s TUC congress as proof of the positive achievements of the NMM. This was completely at odds with the role originally envisaged for the NMM.

In the General Strike

The crucial test for the NMM came in the run-up to the General Strike of May 1926. The conflicting tendencies which had always been apparent in the NMM, and the CPGB, reached a climax.

Organisationally, the NMM survived the General Strike. Politically, the NMM irrevocably turned its back on the revolutionary politics which had inspired its creation. The NMM survived the General Strike in name only.

A special conference of the NMM held in March 1926 agreed upon a plan of action in preparation for the looming General Strike.

Particular emphasis was placed upon the formation of Councils of Action in the localities. Without waiting for the TUC General Council to give a lead, the NMM circulated all Trades Councils with an appeal to call Conferences of Action:

“Conferences of Action (should be convened) for the purpose of setting up Councils of Action under the control and auspices of the Trades and Labour Councils.”

The Councils of Action were to bring together representatives from working-class political and trade union organisations, and also from the unemployed workers’ movement. Their role was to prepare for taking over the running of essential services during the General Strike.

The NMM conference also advocated the establishment of a Workers’ Defence Corps, the formation of workshop committees, and the extension of the Triple Alliance, “with instructions given to the General Council to take over the leadership of the alliance on behalf of the whole working class movement.”

In response to the national appeal of the NMM and the work of NMM members in the localities, many Trades Councils did convene Unity of Action Conferences for the purpose of establishing Councils of Action.

During the General Strike these Councils organised mass meetings, produced local strike bulletins, mobilised workers for mass pickets, and, in some areas, established Workers’ Defence Corps and took over the control of essential services.

Well over 1,000 CPGB members — some 25% of the organisation’s membership — were arrested for their activities during the General Strike. The entire top leadership of the CPGB had already been arrested the previous year and, not by chance, was still in prison at the time of the General Strike.

There can be no doubt about the commitment of members of the NMM and the CPGB to the miners’ cause and a working-class victory in the General Strike. The tragedy was that the NMM and the CPGB proved incapable of providing effective leadership during the run-up to the strike and the strike itself.

In 1925 the CPGB had correctly argued that, “the miners’ crisis is part of the general economic crisis in British industrialism. It has passed beyond any purely economic stage. It is a definitely political crisis and can only be solved by revolutionary political means.”

But by the eve of the General Strike the CPGB had struck a very different note:

“To entertain any exaggerated views as to the revolutionary possibilities of this crisis and visions of a new leadership ‘arising spontaneously in the struggle’ etc., is fantastic.”

This about-turn was equally noticeable in relation to the fake-lefts on the TUC General Council — the bureaucrats who talked left but acted right.

Shortly after the formation of the NMM, J. R. Campbell, a leading figure in the CPGB, had warned:

“It would be a suicidal policy for the CP and the NMM to place too much reliance on the official left wing. It is the duty of the Party and the NMM to criticise its weakness relentlessly.”

In the run-up to the General Strike the political bankruptcy of the fake-lefts became daily more apparent. They did nothing to implement the left-wing resolutions passed by the 1925 TUC Congress, and they made no preparations for the General Strike.

But neither the CPGB nor the NMM set about criticising their weaknesses relentlessly. Instead, they merely complained about the “lack of self-confidence” of the fake-lefts, and urged them to “overcome their weaknesses.” They had “acted very foolishly” and needed to show more determination in future.

When the fake-lefts duly betrayed the General Strike, many CPGB members were genuinely confused by the behaviour of “our friends on the General Council.” As one CPGB member plaintively asked:

“Why did the better and more virile members of the General Council — those we have called the ‘Left Wing’ — allow themselves to become involved in their [i.e. the right-wingers’] panic?”

The role envisaged for the Councils of Action who underwent a dramatic transformation between 1925 and 1926.

In 1925, when a General Strike seemed possible in July, the Councils of Action were to take the lead in spreading the strike action, organising mass demonstrations and mass picketing, and fighting for an unofficial general strike.

By 1926, however, the leaders of the NMM and the CPGB were declaring that:

“There should be no rival body to the Trades Council… We should avoid rivalry and recognise the General Council as the General Staff of the unions, directing the unions in the struggle.”

The NMM had been set up to fight for the revolutionary transformation of the trade union movement. But less than two years after its creation it was spinning illusions in fake-lefts and calling on workers to fall into line behind the TUC General Council.

The influence of Stalin

The reasons for this degeneration lie partly in the significance attached to the maintenance of the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee (ARTUC) by the CPGB.

The ARTUC was a bloc between the emerging Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union and the British TUC. Having abandoned any commitment to promoting international socialist revolution, Stalin looked to international diplomacy and alliances with labour movement bureaucracies abroad in order to “protect” the Soviet Union.

The fake-lefts were leading supporters of the ARTUC, formally established in 1925: it boosted their fake-left credentials. The CPGB, as loyal followers of Stalin, was therefore anxious not to alienate the fake-lefts, in case this led to them pulling out of the ARTUC.

But this factor can be only a partial explanation for the degeneration of the NMM.

The NMM and the CPGB had been inconsistent in their attitude towards the union bureaucracy before the creation of the ARTUC. Criticism of the union bureaucracy, for example, had been largely confined to the theoretical publications of the CPGB and had been less than prominent in the party’s agitational press.

On the other hand, the NMM and the CPGB were criticised by Moscow for their softness towards the bureaucracy even after the ARTUC had been set up.

The NMM conference of 1926, for example, held after the defeat of the General Strike, advocated that members restrain criticism of the TUC General Council where it was likely to “militate against the possibilities of bringing the miners’ strike to a successful conclusion or operate against the future welfare of Anglo-Russian unity.”

This position was sharply rebuked by Moscow. Instead of soft-peddling its criticisms, the NMM should recognise that “merciless criticism and exposure of the manoeuvres of the new consolidated trade union bureaucracy is one of the foremost tasks in the struggle for the revolutionising of the British trade union movement.”

How sincere Moscow was in its appeal to revolutionise the British unions is, to put it mildly, open to debate. Clearly, though, there was an internal dynamic to the increasingly erratic course pursued by the NMM in 1925/6.

The shortcomings and eventual degeneration of the NMM were rooted in the failure of the CPGB, the driving political force in the NMM, to overcome the political legacy which it had inherited from its political predecessors.

That legacy was mainly one of propagandism and syndicalism, sometimes accompanied by opportunism. In its early years the CPGB, under the guidance of a genuinely revolutionary movement based in Moscow, had begun to overcome that legacy. The formation of the NMM itself was one manifestation of this.

But the CPGB never completely broke from its political inheritance. Syndicalism remained a force within it, as too did the opportunism of some of its members who had previously belonged to the British Socialist Party.

The CPGB’s level of theoretical and political training was insufficient to eradicate such political shortcomings. As J. T. Murphy put it in 1924:

“If I were asked what are the principal defects of the Party today, I would answer unhesitatingly: formalism, organisational fetishism, and lack of political training.”

Once the pressure from Moscow ceased to correct the failings of the CPGB — and instead hardened out such failings into a political method — the CPGB and the NMM collapsed into political incoherence.

On the positive side, in its early period, the NMM displayed a real drive to carry the struggle for revolutionary politics into the workers’ movement. It did not dismiss the trade unions as reformist, but regarded them as a vital arena of struggle.

And negatively, in terms of its degeneration and eventual demise, the NMM taught an even more valuable lesson: a socialist who lacks a coherent revolutionary world-view is incapable of effective intervention in the trade unions.