The British general strike of May 1926 was one of the great events in working-class history. Its consequences were felt far beyond Britain, in far-off Russia and by Communist Parties all over the world.
It was a great working-class defeat. It was an unnecessary defeat brought about by the treachery of the leaders of the British trade union movement.
The history of the bourgeoisie for hundreds of years past is the history of states in which they rule, deeds that some of them have successfully done, victories that they have won.
The history of the working class and of its parties is mainly the history of defeats. The working class is the subordinate class — the main exploited class in advanced capitalist society, the source of wealth of the bourgeoisie. We are the foot-soldiers and non-commissioned officers of the armies which the bourgeoisie have led.
Our own history is divided into our history as wage-slaves, soldiers, tools of the bourgeoisie – and our history when we have operated as a more or less class-independent, more or less conscious anti-bourgeois force, that is, the history of the labour movement.
A history of, first, primitive and embryonic, and then more sophisticated, trade unionism — the binding together of workers so that they can resist the power of the employer to push the price of labour power down and exert a collective countervailing pressure to raise the price of labour power. A story of immense numbers of revolts, skirmishes, of the shooting and hanging and jailing of unruly workers until we won the right to organise.
Then, a history of attempts to form working-class political parties. All too often it is also the story of how the ruling class won over working-class leaders by crude bribery, crude threats and subtle flattery, so that they betrayed their own class. As a 19th century Liberal politician put it to one of the Fabian socialists: “Trade union leaders? You train them and we’ll buy them.”
But our history also tells of working-class leaders that could not be bribed, intimidated or flattered to the side of the bourgeoisie. And great revolts.
Of the ancestors of the modern proletariat in Paris during the French revolution, acting as shock-troops in the revolution to win “liberty, fraternity, and equality”.
Of the silk-workers’ rebellion in Lyons in 1831. Of the British Chartists who organised a general strike in the North of England in 1842.
Of the workers of Paris, thousands of whom rose up and were massacred in 1848. Of the Paris Commune of 1871, when the working class held power for nine weeks.
Ours is the story of the defeated workers’ insurrections in St Petersburg and Moscow in 1905. And the victorious workers’ insurrection in the cities and towns of Russia in 1917, when for the first time the workers took and held for years state power.
The story of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the Spartacist rising in Berlin in 1919, when Luxemburg and Liebknecht lost their lives. The story of the Viennese workers in February 1934, who rose and fought a bloody battle against fascist reaction.
Of the workers rising in Berlin and other parts of Stalinist Germany in 1953. Of the workers of Hungary in 1956, who rose against Russian oppression and fought Russian tanks with guns and petrol bombs and then with a general strike.
It is the story of the Trotskyists in Stalins concentration camp at Vorkhuta in 1938, when their only weapon was a prolonged hunger strike — in which they won their demands, but were then systematically massacred.
It is the story of the industrial rising of the British miners in 1984, when the Thatcher government had already consolidated itself. They fought a bitter rearguard action on behalf of the whole British labour movement — whose leaders betrayed the miners and the working class.
It is the story of many, many such events, vast numbers of which are not even recorded.
It is the story of the hard-core Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky, and then after Lenin’s death by Trotsky, who led the Russian working class to power, fought off the armies of 14 invading states and then resisted the Stalinist counter revolution.
Our history is all of those things, and more. It is the history of people learning the hard-won lessons of defeats so that those lessons enter the memory of the working class, of which the conscious socialists are the custodians, and next time we will have a better chance of avoiding defeat.
It is the history of partial victories such as that of 1945 and after, when a labour movement that wanted to have done with capitalism, didn’t know how to go about achieving it, but nevertheless won a tremendous, if partial and ultimately insecure, victory in creating a welfare state that made bourgeois Britain less brutal than it had been.
All in all, though we have won victories — won and consolidated democratic rights, the right to organise, the right to associate freely, the right to free speech — where the history of the bourgeoisie is the history of victory and consolidation on all the fundamental questions of class rule, ours is so far a history of heroic efforts and bitter defeats.
The bourgeoisie too, before it became the ruling class, was a subordinate class, in a world ruled by feudal barons and kings, and the bearer of a different economic and social system. It too went through decades and centuries of partial victories and defeats. It is in the nature of class struggle.
Our history is also, and it is the most painful part of it, the history of the might-have-been. Of conflicts, wars and battles, industrial, political, or arms-in-hand, where we were defeated and yet, if things had gone a little differently, we might have won, or suffered a less costly defeat.
For example in Britain, during the miners’ strike of 1984-5, things could have gone differently.
If for example, dockers had stopped work — as they did very briefly — and stayed out, and linked arms with the miners, then both the outcome of the strike and the subsequent 20 year history of a bourgeois Britain shaped by working-class defeat could have been radically different.
If the socialists had, before the miners strike, succeeded in creating an organised network of rank and file militants threaded through industry, who could have worked to win for the miners the working class solidarity action that could have ensured Thatcher’s defeat... If in the early 1980s the local government left, which took control before the vicious Tory government had consolidated itself, had resisted and fought the Tory cuts…
Ours is the history of inadequately prepared workers and socialists pitting themselves against a bourgeois ruling class that is entrenched in power, is highly conscious of itself as a class and of its class interests, and has its own state and other institutions which embody its historical interests and class traditions.
The conclusion? Socialists have to work at learning the lessons of our history, preserving them and passing them on, as an essential part of the work of building an organisation of socialists armed with these lessons and conscious of the whole history of our class.
Conscious too of the history of the bourgeois class which, like everything else has its past and its present and will eventually have its end.
The British General Strike is one of the great might have beens of working class history — and of British history. The strike could have been victorious. When its treacherous leaders called it off after nine days it was escalating. There were more workers out on the last day than on the first. The story of the British General Strike of 1926 is not only the story of how trade union bureaucrats and Labour Party leaders sold out the strike. It is also the story of how the honest communists of the then-revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain were derailed in their political purposes and inadvertently contributed to the defeat of the strike because they followed who they thought was the advice of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, but was in fact the advice of the leaders of the bureaucratic counter-revolution that would end in the overthrow of working class power in the USSR.
Trotskyism too is rooted in the history of the working class. It was founded in the 1920s, to resist the Stalinist counter-revolution. It was shaped by a series of experiences of which the defeat of the British General Strike was one (the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927 was another).
In the articles and excerpts which follow, not only the events of the British general strike are recorded, but also the effects on the strike of the degeneration of the Communist International, and the acceleration of that degeneration as a result of the defeats which the earlier degeneration had engendered.