In 1919 Glasgow was in the grip of a general strike. Although the strike began with the limited demand of a cut in the working week, it raised - as general strikes do by their very nature - the question of power in society.
The strike leaders saw the strike purely in terms of a fight for the 40 hour week, but the press treated it as a threat to the capitalist order of society itself. And for once the press was right.
The strike was a continuation of struggles which had rocked Glasgow throughout the war. Elsewhere, the combativity of the working class had been diminished by the ruling classes' propaganda about the need not to let down "the boys at the front" during the war.
But in Glasgow this line didn't work. "By November 1914", wrote Willie Gallacher, one of the leaders of the 1919 strike, "the campaign against the war, against high prices and rents, and for increased wages was in full blast. Housewives as well as factory workers were being brought into political activity.
In February 1915, 9,000 engineers struck for tuppence an hour increase [about £0.50 on today's prices]; a few months later the shipyards were shut down by a strike against measures contained in the new "Munitions of War Act"; then the engineers were out on strike again, in opposition to the victimisation of the convenor at Parkhead Forge.
Interlinked with these struggles on the industrial front, a bitter campaign was being waged against massive rent increases which landlords were demanding. Rent strikes were organised, bailiffs coming to evict tenants were physically driven off, and when over 10,000 workers struck against the eviction of 18 munitions workers for non-payment of rent, the government was forced to back down and rush the Rent Restriction Act through Parliament.
Events in Ireland and Russia also contributed to the build-up of militancy.
"War waged by the oppressed nationalities against the oppressors and the class war of the proletariat against capital ... is the swiftest, safest and most peaceful form of constructive work the socialist can engage in," James Connolly told the May Day rally in Glasgow in 1915.
The murder of Connolly a year later by the British state for his part in the Easter Uprising in Dublin unleashed a wave of anger in Glasgow, especially in sections of the Irish community, and contributed to the general bitterness against a government which was not only attacking living standards and sending millions of youth to their deaths at the front, but now also brutally crushing Ireland.
And the revolutions in Russia in February and October 1917 led to euphoria on the Clydeside, with massive meetings and demonstrations being held in support of the overthrow of Tsarism and then of capitalism.
"Here we were in the earliest months of 1917 with the greatest masses of Glasgow aroused to the highest pitch of enthusiasm ... How is it possible to describe those hectic days and the never-ending stream of activity that was carried on?" writes Gallacher, describing the reaction to the February revolution.
Harry McShane describes the political impact on Glasgow made by the Bolshevik seizure of power: "We had only known working class revolt; now we could talk about working class power".
Material conditions for working class families were grim by the end of 1918.
Wages had failed to keep up with wartime inflation; Glasgow had always suffered from slums; during the war however, housebuilding and repairs had practically ceased, leading to a shortage of accommodation and worse slums than ever.
Before 1914 the working week had been 54 hours, which meant starting at 6am and finishing at 5.30pm, and working to noon on Saturdays. During the war this was extended to a 12 hour day, plus Saturday and Sunday working.
How many were unemployed in Glasgow at this time is impossible to estimate since even fewer of the real unemployed were registered as such than now: benefit was only paid out for six weeks and after that there was little point in continuing to register.
But the official figures for the period do reflect the trend: 17,000 were registered as unemployed in Glasgow in the last week of 1918. Just a week later the number had increased nearly 50% to 25,000. And by January 24 1919, the Friday before the start of the strike, the number was nearly 31,000. In four weeks unemployment had virtually doubled.
An edition of the Strike Bulletin, the daily broadsheet produced during the strike, describes what unemployment meant: "The workers dread unemployment as worse than epidemic of fever. We know what it means - low wages, hunger, soup kitchens, doles, evictions, fireless grates, ragged clothes, weeping children,' frantic women, desperate men ... Unemployment is the Workers' Hell, and, it is into that Hell those who oppose the 40 hours' week want to drive us".
In January 1919 the Glasgow labour movement rose up in revolt against such intolerable burdens. The wartime tradition of militancy, which neither government legislation nor the hysterical jingoism of the yellow press had succeeded in breaking, boosted by the war against the British state in Ireland and the revolutions in Russia, fused with the spontaneous revolt of the workers condemned by capitalism to slum housing and either mass unemployment or long hours of work at rock-bottom wages.
On Saturday January 18 500 delegates attended a meeting jointly organised by the Clyde Workers' Committee, which had played a leading role in organising the wartime struggles, the Glasgow Trades Council (which at that time had delegates from both union and Labour Party branches), the Scottish TUC, and the district committee of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. The following motion was overwhelmingly passed.
"The Joint Committee... hereby resolves to demand a 40 hour working week for all workers as an experiment with the object of absorbing the unemployed. If a 40 hour week fails to give the desired result a more drastic reduction of hours will be demanded. A general strike has been declared to take place on Monday January 27 and all workers are expected to respond".
In the following week, workplace meetings were held throughout Glasgow to organise support for the strike, and in some places the workforce had to be persuaded to wait until January 27 before coming out. On the Monday the response was overwhelming: all the main factories were shut down and a mass meeting of the strikers in St Andrews Hall passed a motion pledging no return to work until a 40 hour week with no loss of pay had been won.
After the meeting a demonstration (30,000 strong according to Gallacher, 10,000 strong according to the Glasgow Evening Times) marched through the city centre to a rally in George Square. The Evening Times report describes what happened: "A few enthusiasts, who had a red flag in their possession, hoisted it to the top of the flag pole in front of the Municipal Buildings. The raising of the flag was greeted with loud outbursts of cheering".
The hoisting of the workers' flag over the buildings of the local authorities was an unconsciously symbolic act. The "few enthusiasts" little realised that they were giving expression to the internal logic of the general strike beginning that day: the strike was a challenge to the capitalist authorities which could result either in utter defeat or the overthrow of bourgeois rule. The tragedy is that the leaders of the strike did not realise this either.
Right from the outset the strike challenged and denied the agents of bourgeois rule their "right" to administer and control society. In everyday capitalist society, for example, production and distribution of goods, the maintenance of "law and order", the circulation of traffic, etc., are in the hands of agents of the ruling classes. But in Glasgow 1919 the strike movement established its own rule and administration, challenging and replacing that of the bourgeoisie.
This was most obvious in the sphere of production. By definition a strike and in particular a general strike, brings production to a halt and thereby disrupts the normal functioning of society. But at the same time vital services, such as medical facilities or food supplies, have to be maintained; and the working class establishes its own organisation and authority to do this.
Glasgow 1919 and the simultaneous solidarity strike in Belfast were clear examples of this.
Most of industry, in particular engineering and shipbuilding, was shut down by the strike, and by the third day of the strike over 40,000 workers were on strike in Glasgow. But at the same time the strike movement established certain categories of exemption: all workers in "infirmaries, hospitals and similar institutions" were instructed to remain at work, and "maimed and disabled ex-soldiers" were given the option of doing so as well, if they wanted to.
Other categories of exemption established by the strike movement included all workers "employed in the manufacture of artificial limbs" and drivers conveying fuel for schools. A report from a trade-unionist in Belfast describing the strike there, published in the Strike Bulletin, brings out the power of a general strike, even when confined to one area:
"The Strike Committee decides which cranemen are to work at the unloading of coal-boats; gives permission, under stipulations, for the taking of ships out of dry-dock; receives applications for electric current and refuses some, but allows hospitals to take current for X-ray purposes and for light at night... In short, the Strike Committee is master of the situation in Belfast and is exercising its power with firmness and moderation".
And nor was it "just" the sphere of production that was re-organised under the rule of the general strike. The whole concept of the private ownership of land and property was challenged by the rent strike which was organised in parallel with, and inseparably from, the industrial strike.
At the St Andrews Hall meeting the following motion had been passed without opposition: "that no rent or income tax shall be paid until a satisfactory settlement of the demand for a 40 hour week has been come to", and the motion was widely publicised through the Strike Bulletin to help ensure its implementation.
The same methods were used during the strike as during the war to prevent evictions. Appeals against the eviction were made to the courts to slow up the procedure and gain time to organise, so that when the bailiffs turned -up to carry out the evictions, they could be physically prevented from doing so: "Mass pickets don't like evictions, and sheriff officers don't like mass pickets. Sit tight".
The control of the streets was also no longer the preserve of the police and other agents of bourgeois rule. Ever since the unemployment agitation of 1908, for example, meetings had been banned in George Square, the site of the municipal buildings, where the red flag had been hoisted at the rally on the opening day of the strike.
But in spite of the official bans there were mass meetings in the square every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the strike. Each area had its own local meeting place where the strikers and unemployed would assemble and then march en masse to the square and take possession of it. Confronted with thousands of marches converging on the square from all over the city, the police were powerless to intervene. Whether or not rallies were held in George Square was decided by the strike movement, not the police.
Traffic control also came under the jurisdiction of the strike movement. For example, there was the issue of special permits to drives conveying school fuel, referred to above. But the greatest challenge came in the attempts of the strikers to stop the trams from running.
On the Friday before the strike, the Joint committee, the leading body of the strike movement, had instructed the magistrates that the trams must be off the roads for the duration of the strike. but when the magistrates failed to comply, the strikers took the matter into their own hands: all over the city strikers cut the ropes connecting the trollies to the overhead lines, with the result that hundreds of trams blocked the routes and dislocated the whole tram service.
Police were physically driven off if ,they attempted to prevent the trams from being immobilised. McShane describes one incident in the Saltmarket when two constables tried to stop a tram from being immobilised: "The strikers pulled the clothes off the two men and they had to run for their lives naked".
The most serious incident came when police tried to prevent a tram from being disconnected during a meeting at George Square. A full-scale riot erupted, with running battles in the streets.
Such physical confrontations with the police were another aspect of the way in which the power of the strike movement challenged the power of bourgeois society. The "normal situation" under capitalism, in which a monopoly of force is exercised by defenders of the capitalist regime (police, army, etc.), had disappeared, and the strike movement organised the basis of a workers' militia, as it had to in order to implement its decisions.
This was much more apparent in the Belfast strike than in Glasgow. A Belfast strike patrol, 2,000 strong and identified by white bands in their hats, was established to maintain law and order.
This was not the law and order of capitalism which protects private property from strikers and pickets. It was working class law and order, preventing attacks on strikers by police and scabs, and preventing "the hooligan element which seems to be helping the authorities to break the strike ... from abusing the strike for disruptive forces".
In Glasgow there was nothing as well organised as this, although the activities of "the rowdy element who are hoping to break the strike by fomenting trouble" were sufficient for the Joint Committee to consider the organisation of a Belfast-type patrol for the maintenance of order, and to send out instructions to local committees to take the appropriate measures to maintain order in their areas.
In Glasgow it was, above all, the mass picket which challenged the state's monopoly of force. During a strike the workers would always go to the factory gates to get information, but this time, instead of dispersing to go home , they marched en masse to other factories in the area to bring them out.
The decision to hold mass pickets was taken at the initial mass meeting held in St Andrew's Hall. The Strike Bulletin describes how the mass pickets were used: "about 2,000 marched to Anniesland in an orderly procession. Arriving there, two cordons were drawn across the street to await the men coming out. On the assurance that they would hold a meeting after dinner, the picket allowed them to pass... The men held sectional meetings and decided to fall in line with the movement".
Similar events occurred throughout the rest of Glasgow. The day after the mass picket at Barr and Strouds described in the Strike Bulletin, a mass picket of over 10,000 persuaded workers at the Singer's factory to come out, and a a "mass formation" at Weir's in Cathcart, formed by strikers from Govan and Parkhead, brought the place to a standstill.
The same results were achieved .again the next day by a mass picket of the motor works in Alexandria, and McShane describes how he only needed to mention the possibility of a mass picket at his workplace to get them all out.
Although the Strike Bulletin described the mass picket as an "effective offensive of a passive nature", it was in reality very far from passive. Thousands of workers marching through the streets, blockading the entrances to factories and ensuring support for the strike, destroyed the authority which the police always attempt to exercise over strikers and pickets. For the duration of the strike the traditional "right" of the police to control picketing, and thereby make it ineffective, was effectively abolished by the use of the mass picket.
The bodies responsible for ensuring the implementation of the decisions of the Joint Committee were the district committees, consisting of ten members each plus a delegate to the strike's central Information Bureau. Each district committee also had a local speakers' sub-committee of three, and a messengers' service of six.
The Strike Bulletin defined the functions of the district committees as: "To arrange meetings in local halls and obtain speakers for the same. To act as responsible persons for all local business and communication with headquarters... to send delegates to the Information Bureau every morning at 11am and report all progress... to hold mass meetings every day so as to furnish all strikers with particulars of the growth of the 40 hours movement".
These district committee held regular local meetings to discuss the strike, to build up support for it, and to organise distribution and sale of the Strike Bulletin, which eventually achieved a circulation of 20,000 copies a day.
But these district committees also did much more. For the duration of the strike these committees were the source of power and authority in Glasgow. They decided on exemptions from the strike and special permits for transport, organised the marches, stopped the trams, etc. In essence they were soviets - the form of working-class democracy which had overthrown and replaced bourgeois rule in Russia.
The general strike created a "dual power" situation in Glasgow. Dual power is when the labour movement partially takes over the running of society but not to the extent of the total expropriation of the political, economic, and military power of the bourgeoisie.
In Glasgow 1919 two power structures existed in parallel and in conflict with each other: the power of the working class, organised through the Joint Committee and the district committees, and the power of the ruling classes, which had been drastically weakened by the former but was still a very real force. The question was: who would be victorious by the end of the strike?
Unlike the strike leaders, the ruling classes realised the revolutionary nature of the general strike and used all the weapons at their disposal to restore capitalist "normality". They recognised that the various measures being implemented by the strike movement were an encroachment on their power, which could end in the total overthrow of bourgeois rule.
The methods adopted by the ruling class to defeat the strike demonstrate the impossibility of a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism. The British ruling classes did not hesitate then (and they would not hesitate now) to resort to violence when they saw their power threatened.
At first the police were used to intimidate the strikers and drive them off the streets. On "Bloody Friday" (January 31) fighting broke out at a rally in George Square. What sparked off the fighting is unclear, although it is generally attributed to the police trying to stop a tram from being immobilised. In any case the police had orders to use their batons that day, and if the tramway incident had not provided an their attack, then another pretext would have been found.
Gallacher describes the attack. "Suddenly, without warning of any kind, a signal was given and the police made a savage and totally unexpected assault on the rear of the meeting, smashing right and left with their batons, utterly regardless of whom or what they hit... with brutal ferocity they made their onslaught on defenceless workers".
But the police got more than they bargained for. Pitched battles took place in the square and the surrounding streets. Charge after charge by the police was driven off under a hail of bricks and bottles, until the police were forced to retreat.
The government now sent in the army. Initially the government had hesitated to take this step because of fears about a possible mutiny by any troops used against the strikers. At a meeting of the war cabinet held on January 30, General Childs had pointed out that in the pre-war years "...we had a well-disciplined and ignorant army, whereas we now have an army educated and ill-disciplined".
But the defeat of the police put an end to the government's hesitation. Thousands of troops, fully equipped, poured into Glasgow late on the night of Bloody Friday and early Saturday morning. "Accompanied by heavy munitions wagons, the general appearance of long columns of khaki-clad men... suggests that at last the government is in earnest in the measures to crush the new revolutionary spirit," wrote the Glasgow Evening News.
Howitzers were positioned in the City Chambers, the cattle market was transformed into a tank depot, machine guns were posted on the top of hotels and, remembering Easter 1916, the main post office, and armed troops stood sentry outside power stations and patrolled the streets.
New regulations were also introduced by the government to legalise whatever violence the troops might need to use to break the strike. If the troops were used to suppress any fighting involving the strikers the Riot Act must first be read - but only "if circumstances permit". Similarly, the commanding officer had to consult with the magistrates before opening fire - but again only "if time permits".
Most revealing of all was regulation 965: "It is undesirable that firing should take place over the heads of rioters or that blank cartridges should be used." The readiness of the ruling class to have unarmed workers gunned down shows up the absurdity of the idea that some bold "Enabling Act" nationalising the top 200 monopolies would suffice to usher in the socialist society. A scrap of paper voted for by a few hundred MPs is no answer to the guns of the army.
In addition to using the army, the police, and scab organisations, th government was also prepared to introduce a whole new battery of legal restrictions on basic trade union activities and rights. Although never actually carried out, bemuse the strike ended before this was possible, they. illustrate the lengths to which the government was prepared to go:
- Striking railway workers were to be conscripted into the army and then ordered to keep the trains running.
- General mobilisation and demobilisation of the labour battalions was to cease during the strike.
- Legal sanction would be given to industrial agreements, and criminal proceedings begun if the unions did not keep to them.
- All strikes "endangering the public interest" (i.e. effective ones) would be "dealt with" under the Defence of the Realm Act (i.e. banned).
- Union funds would be seized if used to finance such strikes, and union officials involved in them arrested.
Apart from preparing new laws the government also used the existing one to carry out a decision made at the war cabinet meeting of January 31: arrest the strike leaders to weaken the strike movement.
The next day Gallacher and Kirkwood were arrested while trying to stop the( fighting in George Square, and in the following days the rioting was used a an excuse to pick up other leaders including Shinwell, Ebury (national secretary of the Marxist British Socialist Party) and Hopkins (Glasgow secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers).
Thus while certain laws were used to pick up the strike leaders, the same laws were ignored when broken by the scabs and the police themselves; and when existing laws looked like being inadequate to deal with the strike, the government rushed to put new ones on the statute book. As the strike showed, there is nothing neutral about the legal system; it is a weapon in the hands of the ruling class.
The press, too, joined in the ruling classes' counter-offensive against the general strike, and presented a totally false picture. Workplaces and union branches voting to join in the strike were ignored, while news about the Patriotic Workers League and individual workplaces that had voted not to come out got the front pages. Especially towards the end of the strike, reports appeared about various factories having gone back when in fact they were still on strike.
Often the reporting was just plain hysterical. The Glasgow Herald put the strike down to "the clap-trap nonsense of Trotsky" and "the studious inculcation of the temper of revolt" and described its leaders as "a gang of political revolutionaries who have contrived to exploit the industrial weariness of Scottish workers... notorious rebels against the social order".
"Terrorism on the Clyde ".proclaimed one headline in the Scotsman, and "Glasgow Bolshevism: disgraceful scenes" proclaimed another in the Evening News, over an article which claimed that the troops had been sent in to protect "life and property" from "the rabble".
Even detective stories were used as agitation against the strike movement. The Weekly Record published a detective serial about the "famous detective and crime investigator" Derek Clyde, who bumps off a Jew called Finkelstein (who of course isn't a Jew called Finkelstein at all but a Bolshevist agent called Vladimir Tolstoi) and impersonates his contact man Lucas in order to track down the other five Bolshevist agents who, under the leadership of the fanatically mad medical doctor from Petrograd who is hiding in Newcastle, are behind all unrest.
The police, troops, new legislation, a press witch-hunt - these and other similar tctics were used by the government and the employers to smash the strike movement. The action taken by the ruling class during the strike, and the measures in the pipeline when the strike was finishing, amounted to total military suppression combined with the outlawing of free trade unionism. Far from meekly giving in when confronted with the strength of the strike movement, the ruling class fought back with everything they had.
The strike ended officially on February 11, sixteen days after it had begun. The Strike Bulletin did the best it could to put a brave face on it. "The strike is suspended until we reinforce our ranks. We have retreated in good order without any intention of submitting to the abject terms our exploiters wish to impose on us... the knowledge we have gained will not be wasted. Be ready!"
But it was making a virtue out of necessity. In the days leading up the 11th, there had been a gradual return to work, although hardly the avalanch portrayed by the press, and the only alternative to instructing a return to work would have been to leave the most militant workers isolated and therefore an easy prey to victimisation.
The press had a straightforward explanation for the failure of the strike. It had never had any support to begin with in Glasgow; there had been a lack of support outside Glasgow as well; the government's firm stand had convinced the strikers they were not going to win; and the whole thing was totally un-British, "a symptom of incipient revolutionary tendencies wholly foreign to the good sense and the political and social beliefs of the people".
The talk about the "un-British" nature of the strike was superstitious nonsense; the claims about the lack of support in Glasgow were only a continuation of the propagada pushed by the press throughout the strike; and a resolute strike leadership would have answered the government's counter-offensive by escalating the struggle into a direct confrontation for power.
But did the strike movement possess such a leadership? And, more geneally, were the leaders of the British labour movement outside of Glasgow prepared to lead a fight for such high stakes? No: and that was the real reason for the strike's failure to achieve the 40 hour week, never mind the overthrow of capitalism.
Many of the local leaders went in fear of the massive social upheavals unleashed by the general strike, and did everything in their power to prevent the strike being pushed forward to its logical conclusion. They were left-talking demagogues; their practice put them in the camp of the right wing of the labour movement.
David Kirkwood was a typical example. Before and during the war he had built up a reputation for himself as a left-winger, and in his speeches to the mass meetings in the strike he would declare himself a revolutionary socialist. But in the same breath he would say that the strike was not a revolutionary situation, so everyone should be sensible and concentrate on no more than trying to get a shorter working week!
The plea made by his lawyer at the trial for his alleged crimes on Bloody Friday sums Kirkwood up. With a tremor in his voice and a sweep on the hand, the lawyer cried out: "Look at him. He's a Christian. His dear old mother who sits at home waiting for him is a Christian. You cannot send a man like this to prison".
The role of Emmanuel Shinwell, chairperson of Glasgow Trades Council (and later a Lord), was a lot worse. He had the same myopic view of the strike as Kirkwood "There was no I war, no plans for revolution- simply a wish to make life in Britain a semblance of the Land Fit For Heroes so glibly promised by Lloyd George".
Shinwell excelled in doing deals behind the strikers' backs. It was Shinwell who was responsible for getting full-time officials onto the Joint Committee set up at the January 18 meeting, and for doing a private deal with the Lord Provost whereby the latter would appeal for government intervention, whilst Shinwell would dampen down the strike movement until the Lord Provost got a reply.
Union officials, both locally and nationally, fell over themselves to prevent workers from striking and to get those on strike back to work. This applied in particular to the miners' officials: in Cambuslang they made an appeal for police protection - for scabs. In Lanarkshire they opposed the strike until an occupation of their offices by their members forced them to back down.
In East Fife they tried the routine of holding a ballot before deciding on whether or not to support the strike. And the members of the Scottish Miners' Executive publicly denounced the strike.
But the national leadership of the unions played the crucial role in the strike's failure. Instead of campaigning for support for the strike and spreading it, they ordered their members to stay at work and refused strike pay to those on strike, save in the rare cases when they gave in to the membership and paid out strike benefit.
The most scandalous role of all was played by the executive of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers [ASE, a forerunner of Amicus], which even went so far as to suspend Harry Hopkins, the Glasgow district secretary, and the whole of the district committee, for supporting the strike. It was a green light to the police: two days after the suspension of the strike they arrested Hopkins and threw him into prison.
The final edition of the Strike Bulletin summed up the anger felt by the strikers at the betrayals of their union executives: "Don't forget the executives who failed us in the fight! Those elected servants of ours who have become our bosses are not too favourable to the 40 hours' movement... If we don't put our executives in order we will get nowhere, as every time we make an effort to gain .an improvement in our conditions they generally assist big business to keep us from winning".
And the Labour MPs? Did they use Parliament as a tribune to denounce and disrupt the govermment's efforts to break the strike, or to campaign for support for the strike movement?
This was how the Glasgow Herald reported from Westminster on the day following the end of the strike:
"The debate was conducted in admirable temper and left the impression that it must be productive of much good in favourably influencing the atmosphere on both sides in the industrial world". The Labour MPs condemned the use of "unconstitutional methods" by workers to achieve their demands, and stressed that the use of strike action must always be subordinate to the "welfare of the state". Bonar Law, an arch-Tory, commended their attitude.
Kirkwood and Shinwell, the union executives, and the Parliamentary Labour Party all lived in fear of the power of our class which was thrown up by the general strike. They used their positions in the local leadership of the strike and in the national leadership of the labour movement to weaken and betray the general strike, instead of organising to defeat the ruling classes counter-offensive.
It would, however, be a crude oversimplification to say that the strike failed simply because it was stabbed in the back by the mis-leaders of the British labour movement. Their treachery was certainly a crucial factor in the strike's eventual outcome, but it was only half the picture.
Many of the strike leaders were sincerely hostile to capitalism and committed to the struggle for a socialist society, but their politics were so influenced by the ideas of anarcho-syndicalism that they were unable to build on the dual power situation created by the general strike and unable to raise the conflict to the level of a conscious revolutionary confrontation with the bourgeois state.
Anarcho-syndicalism is based on the idea that the working class, if well enough instructed and educated through propaganda, will spontaneously overthrow capitalism. All that is necessary in the meantime is for socialists to explain o workers the nature of capitalism and to build industrial unions which embrace all workers in a particular industry. Once the class is organised in "one big union", the cataclymsic upheaval which overthrows capitalism takes place of its own accord.
Due in particular to the strength of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) in Glasgow, anarcho-syndicalism had a strong influence on the Glasgow labour movement throughout the early part of the century.
The SLP had been formed in 1903 as a break-away in the direction of anarcho- syndicalism from the Social Democratic Federation, the only Marxist national organisation in existence at that time.
Anarcho-syndicalism was partly a reaction to the class collaboration practised by the labour movement leaders. As such and in its emphasis on the need to organise at rank and file level, there was a positive side, to the work of the SLP and others on the Clyde influenced by anarcho-syndicalism. It was central in generating the wartime unrest and struggles.
But the anarcho-syndicalists also suffered from political weaknesses so serious as to prove fatal in Glasgow 1919. The SLP did not exist to give leadership on day-to-day issues in the overall framework of working for the overthrow of capitalism; it existed only to carry out a propaganda role of lecturing workers about the evils of capitalism and the need to overthrow it.
In Glasgow 1919 the leaders of the movement influenced by anarcho-syndicalism floundered helplessly. Gallacher - worldly-wise, as ever, after the event - writes, "we were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution ... such was the condition of our leadership [that there was] no plan, no unity of purpose, we were watching one another and waiting for and wondering what was going to happen... A rising should have taken place. The workers were ready and able to effect it, the leadership had never thought of it."
Only a hopeless romantic could believe that the situation in Glasgow was as clear-cut as the quote from Gallacher implies, with the workers just waiting to be told to carry out a revolution but the leaders unfortunately having forgotten such a possibility. But the situation did demand a clear, revolutionary leadership which the anarcho-syndicalists were unable to provide. The ruling class displayed a ruthlessness and determination which demanded a similar reply from the strike leaders if defeat was to be avoided. Passive propaganda about the need to overthrow capitalism was meaningless when a counter-offensive by the ruling class was under way to beat back the threat posed by the general strike.
But there was no attempt to shut down the press and thereby deprive the enemy of its main instrument of propaganda. There-was no attempt to win over the troops in the Maryhill Barracks who were so close to mutiny that the government dared not use them against the strikers. There was no attempt to establish armed workers' militias despite the availability of weapons and ex-soldiers trained in their use. And despite the anarcho-syndicalists' emphasis on organisation at rank-and-file level, there was a particular failure to tap the discontent of the unions involved in the Triple Alliance.
In a situation of dual power where the balance could be tipped in either direction - a revolutionary restructuring of society or a return to capitalist stability, at least temporarily - the inability of the anarcho-syndicalists to sharpen the conflict and draw in wider forces proved a crucial weakness - " 24 hours can decide the fate of a revolution" wrote Lenin, and Glasgow 1919 proved it, negatively.
In both its strengths and weaknesses the strike contains a wealth of lessons for the labour movement of today. "The knowledge we have gained will not be wasted. Be ready!", the Strike Bulletin had told its readers. But it is up to the revolutionary socialists of today to draw the correct lessons from Glasgow 1919 and thereby ensure it is not a wasted chapter in the history of the struggle for workers' power.