Why 1926 Failed
The repeal of the 1927 Trades Disputes Act by the Labour Parliament makes little difference to the prospect of a General Strike. The Labour leaders believe that, for the present at least, they can better suppress strikes by their control of the trade unions than by Parliament. On the other hand, when the workers are willing to engage the class enemy in a General Strike they will not consult Acts of Parliament to do so. During the 1926 General Strike the strikers did not care two hoots whether the strike was legal or illegal.
Why did the British General Strike of 1926 fail? Not because the workers failed to strike. The number of blacklegs was insignificant. The attempt of the middle-class to scab on the strikers was a poor effort and was rapidly breaking down the machines used. About one per cent of normal train services were running, but only nine days of that caused chaos on the railways for months afterwards. The breakdown was greater than that caused by the air raids on London in 1940-41 and took much longer to repair. The University students and other middle class scabs could not replace the transport workers and certainly did not intend to replace the miners.
Nor did the strike fail because of a fall in the morale of the workers. The aggregate of strikers was much greater on the last day of the strike than on the first and the fighting spirit was much tougher.
The Collapse of Leadership
The strike failed only because it was called off by the trade union leaders and the workers had not learned to distrust those leaders sufficiently. Worse still, the most important divisions of strikers were organised in trade unions and they were used to obeying instructions from the officials of those unions. The strike was betrayed by the leadership.
But do not let us fall into the error of believing that the leaders called off the strike because of their own cowardice. The Labour leaders economic interests are those of capitalism and in betraying the strike they were defending the economic interest. The trade union leaders never believed in the strike and only led it in order to prevent it being controlled by the workers; they led it in order to ensure its failure. Scores of quotations from the leaders of the Trades Union Congress could be, produced to prove this. We have room for but one.
“No General Strike was ever planned or seriously planned as an act of Trade Union policy. I told my own union in April, that such a strike would be a national disaster.”
“We were against the stoppage, not in favour of it.” J. R. CLYNES; Memoirs.
True, the workers were rapidly developing an alternative to the leader principle. The Councils of Action were improvised bodies born of local initiative. Even more significant was the spontaneous and widespread creation of mass picket lines and their unqualified success. But in spite of such a hopeful development the strikers still had the habit of obedience to leaders. It was not, of course, the leaders alone who were defending their capitalist interest inside the Labour movement. The trade unions were not only, through their vast invested funds, shareholders in capitalism – they were part of the social order; as much capitalist institutions as the workhouse or the “Houses of Parliament.
To wage a successful General Strike the workers must reject, not only certain leaders, but the leader principle, using to the full their own initiative. They must organise, not in trade unions, but in syndicalist or revolutionary industrial unions (in Britain the two terms mean the same), and they must change their strategy from that of the General Walk Out Strike to that of the General Stay In Strike.
Stay in Striker
Consider what happens in an orthodox strike, general or particular. The strikers, who had the means of production in their hands one day, on the next hand them over to their class enemies in a nice tidy working condition and go home. The railmen and bus and lorry drivers hand over the vital means of transport, without which modern capitalism and the State cannot exist. The electrical engineers hand over the power stations, the gas workers the gas producers. Dockers, warehousemen and food factory workers surrender millions of tons of precious flour, bacon, meat, butter, rice and fruit. Engineers vacate arsenals which might be used to arm Fascists. Then they go home to sit by grates which gradually become fireless or at tables with a lessening loaf or go out on to the streets to be battened upon their defenceless heads.
How much better to stay at work and do your striking there. Naturally, to many workers this will seem a strange idea, they are used to striking by leaving the job, not by staying on it, least of all to continuing at work and striking at the same time. But stay awhile, all fruitful ideas must have sounded startling at first hearing, as startling as the first steam-locomotive to a stage coachman.
Look at it this way. We all depend for our very living upon the machines and those who tend them, the employer even more than we. Not only does he depend upon servants to clean his home and cook his meals, to wash him and dress him and to do everything but chew his food for him, he also depends far more than we ever shall upon complicated mechanisms, telephones, electric fires, automobiles and so on. There he is vulnerable. Even more vulnerable is his industrial and commercial system and his political institutions.
And behind the machine is a man; he has not yet achieved his dream of Rossum’s Universal Robots. That man is the striker – all things are in his hands. Industry is in the workers’ hands. They control the trains, the ships and the buses. They run the telephone exchanges and the power stations. They warehouse and prepare the food, clothing, shoes and myriad commodities which make life possible.
In the Social General Strike the workers decide to cut off these supplies from the employing class and to supply them in full – for the first time in history – to the working class.
Instead of starving, we eat as we have never feasted before, instead of being clubbed, shot and imprisoned we retain the means of defending our lives.
The employing class will be without petrol, heat, electricity, communication or servant. Such a General Strike has been often called The General Lock Out of the Capitalist Class. Perhaps that is a more appropriate term.
To accomplish such an end, however, the workers must shed the old, outworn methods of trade unionism and adopt those of the Syndicalists and Revolutionary Industrial Unionists. Instead of organising in the branch room of the local Labour Club or the tap room of the “Red Lion” we must organise on the job; the miners in the pits, the engineers in the factories, the seamen on the ships. Only by organising on the job are we preparing to take over industry. By organising in the trade union local branch we are fitting ourselves for nothing greater than taking over the local dart team.
Let us now consider in greater detail the mode of organisation advocated by Syndicalists for the defence of our class and the taking and holding of Industry.
The basis of trade union organisation, as well as its growth and practice, make it unsuited, even dangerous to the taking and running of industry. Trade unions are of three types, trade unions proper, that is craft unions, bastard forms of “industrial unions” and general mass unions.
Craft unions may have been justified in the days of handicraft production when a craftsman produced, almost entirely alone, the commodity of his trade. Today, however, by the development of technics and the subdivision of labour many crafts and occupations are necessary to the production of even a simple commodity. If we walk into an engineering factory, for instance, we find the workers already organised by the capitalist. The patternmakers work in harmony with the moulders who pass their work to the machinists. The machinists’ work is dovetailed into that of the fitters. Maybe blacksmiths, plumbers, coppersmiths, joiners, sheetmetal workers, boilermakers and painters join in the production of this one commodity. Clerks, time-keepers, inspectors and draughtsmen too, are necessary to industrial process.
Yet, while all may be under one roof, producing one type of commodity, say locomotives, these workers may be “organised” into forty unions. Disorganised would be a more apt word. To ask a Syndicalist, “do you believe in trade unionism “, is like asking a man if he believes in the pennyfarthing bicycle.
However, not all of our engineering workers will be members of craft unions, some will be members of an alleged industrial union, the Amalgamated. Engineering Union. The A.E.U. is not a true industrial union for it is organised on the basis of craft not industry, though the craft is given a wider meaning than that of the accepted craft unions. Thus the A.E.U. claims members among marine workers aboard ship, in the chemical industry and scores of other industries and for twenty years has had uneasy relations with the Miners’ Federation over its attempts to organise coalmining workers. In any case, the A.E.U. is not organised on. the basis of industry, but upon the basis of residence. That is, if you work in East London and live in West London you will, generally be organised, not where you work, but where your bed is.
Besides the craft and pseudo-industrial unions some of the workers will be organised in at least two “general workers unions”, such as the Transport and General or the Municipal and General. These are general unions which “organise” anybody and everybody, engineers, miners, dockers, busmen, shop assistants, clerks or farm labourers. Anybody and everybody in a vast; amorphous disorderly mass.
None of these three types of unionism meets the needs of labour in the modern age. What is needed is a union which will organise the workers of one factory in a single industrial union – craftsmen, labourers, clerks, storekeepers and draughtsmen – male and female – young and old. An industrial union not split into residential areas, but organised on the job, built up inside of the factory.
The organisational plan of revolutionary industrial unionism allows, of course, for complete organisational relations with other factories in the industry. Industrial unions are organised in each industry and service, mining, textiles, rail, education, building, health and so on. All industrial unions are federated into One Big Union. It is intended that the One Big Union shall be a world-wide union of all workers with autonomous administrations in each country.
We have here a plan of union organisation which is capable of running successfully a Social General Strike, of taking and holding industry and locking out the employing class. Not for the General Strike alone must we organise scientifically – the everyday needs of the workers cry aloud for an efficient union movement to protect their wage packets. During these wage struggles and the smaller disputes and tussles which take place daily on the job, the revolutionary unionists are all the time studying their jobs, the technics and organisation of industry. When the occasion to strike occurs they are thus fitted to take and hold the undertaking.
How would the Social General Strike method be applied? On the morning of the strike the revolutionary unionists no longer obey the foremen and managers, each person or gang take over their own job. Where liaison, delegates or committees are needed such have already been organised.
Who’ll Pay the Wages?
Who will pay the wages? No one. Money, the most powerful weapon of the capitalist is discarded. The banknotes in his wallet are so much fluff. But we must eat to live. Very well, the canning factories, the docks and warehouses are already in the hands of the workers. The flour mills and bakehouses, the dairies and packing houses are controlled by them. The dockers, railwaymen and lorry drivers deliver the food to the factories and working class districts, the shop assistants and canteen workers supply it to the workers and their families.
Distribution will not be according to the amount of money a person has but according to his need. Large families will receive more than small families or single persons. Children will have first call on milk and sweets. Delicacies such as poultry and grapes will go to the hospitals and invalids instead of to wealthy overfed idlers. Farm labourers and smallholders send food to the cities. Miners will continue to send coal to the surface, and the railwaymens’ industrial union will deliver it to the factories, gasworks, power stations and distribution centres. Power station-workers organised in their syndicate will produce electricity and distribute it to the workers’ houses, factories and transport undertakings.
Necessary communication among related industrial plants will be the responsibility of the telephone and other post office workers.
Stores of clothing held by textile mills and shops will be distributed to the most needy by the Textile and Distributive Syndicates. Hospital and other health service workers will continue their work through their unions. Water and other municipal services will be carried on by the Municipal Workers’ Industrial Union.
Newspaper compositors and machinists will refuse any longer to print the lies and provocations of the employing class, as they refused on the eve of the 1926 General Strike in Britain. But instead of walking out of the print shops they remain at work and turn the newspapers into organs of the General Strike.
Author: Tom Brown