Learning the lessons of the past

Issue: 149

Shaun Doherty

John Newsinger, Them and Us: Fighting the Class War 1910-1939 (Bookmarks, 2015), £7.99

John Newsinger opens this timely account of working class struggle in the first half of the 20th century with what at first seems an incongruous statement: “We live in a period of unprecedented class warfare”. But he argues that the only reason this sounds strange is that the war has been so brutally one-sided in recent years. The Tories’ “austerity” agenda has been pursued relentlessly while resistance to it has been sporadic and muted. He ends the book by hoping it will contribute in some small way to “the coming fightback”. Indeed it will, because any effective response from our side will require a concerted attempt to unite the political dimensions of the struggle to the economic and ideological and it is useful to remind ourselves of the past combativity and resilience of workers and working class communities. The themes of the book will be familiar to readers of this journal—the willingness of the ruling class to use the coercive power of the state apparatus when necessary; their dependence on trade union leaders’ ability to exercise control over their members; the speed with which Labour politicians can transform themselves from socialist firebrands to fawning sycophants of the established order; the gap between abstract general propaganda and specific material struggle and, above all, the inevitability of a barbaric capitalist system forcing a multiplicity of responses from those it seeks to exploit.

Newsinger is right to remind us that this is war. A crucial aspect of this war is that our ruling class wants the history of working class resistance to be buried in the past while we want to absorb it in order to prepare for future struggles. He begins by describing the Great Unrest (1910-1914), when union membership nearly doubled rising to 4.5 million. It began in the South Wales coalfield with miners demanding 2s and 6d per ton for working in abnormal conditions and the coal owners offering only 1s 9d. A strike was called in the Cambrian Combine and the owners responded with lockouts. The police were put at the disposal of the mine companies and fierce fighting broke out in response to police attacks. Winston Churchill, the home secretary at the time, sent in the army under General Macready to provide “a little gentle persuasion with bayonets”. Keir Hardie wrote in the Labour Leader that: “the valleys are thronged with police…detachments of soldiers are billeted in farm houses…the entire district looks like a besieged district in war time”. (Events found their echo in the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5.)

In 1911 the strike-wave was initiated by seamen and spread to the dockers causing fear and desperation among ruling ­politicians—“the local unrest in Hull is akin to a revolutionary outbreak”—and memories of the Paris Commune were invoked. In Liverpool on “Bloody” Sunday 13 August police attacked a demonstration of 80,000 in support of the dockers and pitched battles continued for days. Shots were fired by troops on a crowd trying to free protesters from police vans taking them to Walton prison. King George, abandoning any pretext of being above politics, told Churchill that the troops “should be given a free hand and the mob should be made to fear them”.

A key element in future struggles was the emergence of workplace organisations like the Clyde Workers’ Committee—arising out of the strikes of shipbuilders and ­engineers in Glasgow in 1915 against dilution (the opening up of skilled jobs to unskilled workers reducing wages and conditions). Its manifesto denounced union leaders’ support for the Munitions Act and famously declared: “We will support the officials just so long as they represent the workers, but we will act independently immediately they misrepresent them.” David Lloyd George as Munitions Minister accompanied by the Labour leader Arthur Henderson came to Glasgow to reason with the strikers, but was given a dusty response. At that point conciliation went out the window and the courts and imprisonment of the key activists took its place. But the lesson that the ruling class learnt for future struggles was not that the unions should be smashed, but that the officials of the unions should be incorporated and strengthened against the shop floor.

After the end of the war the ruling class was gripped by fear that unrest would spread into the armed forces and the virus of “Bolshevism” would infect the masses in Britain. This was exacerbated by the use of British troops against the new ­revolutionary government in Russia. When the chief of the army Henry Wilson met a ­delegation of soldiers, he told Lloyd George “they bore a dangerous resemblance to a soviet”. Indeed the end of the war from November 1918 until late 1921 “saw the most prolonged phase of union militancy and class ­confrontation ever experienced in Britain”—union membership rose to 8.5 million.

A key dispute of this period was the 1919 miners’ strike in South Wales, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire demanding a 30 percent wage increase, a 6 hour working day and the nationalisation of the mines to boot. The government was terrified that this would resonate with other struggles and raise the spectre of a general strike. Lloyd George reputedly told the union leaders that the government could not hope to defeat the Triple Alliance of miners, dockers and transport workers, the strikers could have caused a constitutional crisis—but had they thought of the consequences of defeating the government? Robert Smillie, the left leader of the miners, reflected: “From that moment on we were beaten and we knew we were.” The unions were willing to take action on economic issues but did not want political control. Not even the most militant of union offensives was prepared to reckon with the consequences of assuming state power!

This was manifest again in the Hands Off Russia campaign that opposed intervention against the revolutionary government. Local Councils of Action mobilised around the issue and the government backed off, but crucially for the ruling class union leaders put themselves at the head of the campaign against intervention partly to ensure it did not get out of their control. Andrew Bonar Law expressed the view that “the trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy” and even Churchill could remark that “the curse of trade unionism is that there is not enough of it”.

This review does not have space for more than these few snapshots of a phase of struggle that continued through the General Strike of 1926, the unemployment agitation of the 1930s and the fight against the rise of fascism and the defeat of the blackshirts. But this succinct and accessible book provides us with an antidote to those who today are looking solely to “movements” and new forms of organisation. Of course historical circumstances have changed and we need to be open to innovations in the way we organise, but Newsinger reminds us of the foundations that any effective resistance will be built on: “The lessons of the past are clear: what is needed to turn the tide is workplace organisation, militancy and most important of all working class solidarity.”