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The General Strike

TUC leaders in 1926. Left to right, J.H.Thomas, Alonzo Swales, Ben Turner, Arthur Pugh, Citrine

While his initial brief was mainly administrative, the indisposition of his boss, Fred Bramley, meant Walter Citrine was increasingly called on to deputize in wider matters. He impressed the senior General Council members such as the left-wing President, Alf Purcell MP, whom he relied on for advice in Bramley's absence. An indication of his standing and outlook was a personal invitation to visit the Soviet Union by the powerful leader of the Russian unions, and Politburo member, Mikhail Tomsky (1880-1936). Tomsky was in London for critical Anglo-Soviet trade negotiations and was invited to address the TUC Congress at Hull in September 1924. It was from this visit that Citrine was suddenly recalled in October 1925 to become Acting General Secretary when Bramley died from a heart attack. He had hardly time 'to draw his breath' when the left-led TUC was thrust into the thick of the biggest and most dramatic industrial and political confrontation of the twentieth century.

Citrine was present throughout the meetings of the General Council and of the TUC negotiations with the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, on behalf of the miners and coal-owners, though only in an officerial capacity. The strike lasted nine days in glorious May weather involving over four million workers throughout the country. Although enthusiastic in pursuit of the action, Citrine was not impressed by the lack of preparation by the TUC leaders in charge. He had advised this in committee beforehand, but was ignored. In fact, they had never intended that it would come to a strike, expecting the government to pressurize the coal-owners into a compromise by the threat of such action - as they had done in 1925, 'Red Friday', with Bevin's T&G actively prepared to halt the movement of coal. (23) This was again a form of extra-parliamentary action by the Miners Federation, the T&G, NUR and TUC, signalling the trade unions' attempt to pressurize the government directly.

(23) ibid., 270-8.

But this time they gravely miscalculated. As the strongest union with a deeply empathetic cause and a messianic-type leader in Arthur (A.J.) Cook, the Miners Federation were able to push an excited London conference of all union Executives to demand, and an unresisting General Council to call, a general strike. It would start on Tuesday May 4th 1926. The government's initial stance was to continue discussions with the TUC for a negotiated settlement, but their mood hardened as the solid nature of the stoppages throughout the country dispelled any notion of a compromise settlement, with both the miners' leaders and the coal-owners 'digging in' for a long and most disruptive confrontation. An increasingly hawkish Tory Cabinet, with Churchill to the fore, began treating the strike as a constitutional challenge and prepared to use military force unless the TUC called it off. The General Council, including Bevin, felt that they had no alternative in those circumstances. It was left for Citrine and the TUC President to deliver their capitulation.

Despite Citrine's emphasis on the positives, there was no escaping the scale of the defeat and humiliation for the TUC and later the miners. It is an indication of Citrine's support for the strike that he was not blamed by the miners' leaders and he was elected General Secretary at the annual Congress in September 1926, with their support. Bevin's view of the strike was more bleak saying, 'we have committed suicide.' (24) We have dwelt on this titanic event at length as it was a watershed in the fortunes of the Labour movement and in the careers of Citrine and Bevin. Despite the undoubted fiasco of 'the Great Strike', it had been an amazing display of solidarity and protest by the British working class, which had sent a ripple down the spines of all other classes in Britain. When Citrine brought the news to the Cabinet that they were going to call it off, Baldwin expressed genuine relief - 'I thank God for your decision'. In his 1927 New Year message, George V appealed for reconciliation and this was endorsed by all the political leaders and many employers. But this didn't stop the Conservative Party and their angry employer supporters in the country, MPs and Ministers, seeking revenge. However, the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927, which they passed, did not include much of their atavistic desires to roll back union rights beyond the landmark 1906 Trade Disputes Act - perhaps due to Baldwin's moderating influence. Nevertheless, the TUC acted as if the government had reverted to the Combination laws. It gave Citrine and the TUC a useful rallying point to restore morale from the depression induced by the defeat of the strike itself.

(24) Murray, The T&G Story, 52-3.

But the 'Great Strike' had changed the outlook of Walter Citrine, Ernest Bevin and of many more on the union and Labour side. All illusions about bringing down the 'Walls of Jericho' through syndicalist action, which had had a strong purchase on the minds of union activists like them since the turn of the century, were dispelled. (25) Things would never be the same again.

(25) Hugh Clegg, A History of British Trade Unions since 1889 (1989), vol. II, 1911-1933, 455.

The Comintern assault

Britain's trade union leaders were put on the defensive after the defeat of the General Strike, getting most of the blame for the TUC's alleged 'betrayal '. The Communist International (The Comintern, founded in 1919 by Lenin) was then a serious force globally, especially in the national trade unions, through the 'Red International of Labour Unions' (RILU). In Britain it operated through a CPGB front organization known as the National Minority Movement (or NMM). Excited by the prospect of revolution in Britain in the run up to the General Strike, the Comintern leaders sought to exploit discontent among the defeated miners and Left-led sections of other unions. They attacked the TUC frontally and union leaders generally. This was not measured criticism either. The union leaders, Bevin included, were reviled 'as traitors, renegades and capitalist lackeys'. The NMM's slogan was, 'Don't Trust Your Leaders' and that was the tenor of their dirty campaign. (26) Even those General Council union leaders on the Left, such as Alonzo Swales (AEU), Alf Purcell (Furniture Trades) and George Hicks (Construction), were disgusted and angry. But the communists met their match when the new TUC General Secretary and his Council fought back vigorously.

(26) R. Martin, Communism and the British Trade Unions 1924-1933, (Oxford,1969), Preface, v and 188.

When he became President of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) in 1927, Citrine learned from the other countries' union leaders how such tactics had split and mortally weakened the Labour movement in Europe. (27) Bevin experienced it at first hand in his own T&GWU. Communist-led activists again exploited tensions between militant 'rank-and-file' groups, for example in the London bus section, and the union leadership, as they had done in 1921. (28)

(27) Citrine, Men and Work, 90-4.

(28) Bullock, Ernest Bevin –Trade Union Leader, 143-179; 521-4, 612-4.

Characteristically, Citrine did his homework and put together the evidence of 'a deliberately organised attempt ... made to capture the Trade Union Movement and to exploit it for a revolutionary subversive purpose'. He published this as a personal view - initially in a series of articles for the Labour Magazine, but they were soon taken up and issued by the General Council as an official TUC pamphlet. (29) It was a pretty compelling case and contributed to the marginalisation of communists in most of the British unions for a decade. Citrine thought that many individual communists, such as Harry Pollitt and Arthur Horner, were genuine in their beliefs, but by slavishly following the Comintern's line, he felt that they had greatly 'overplayed their hand'. (30) Confirmation of this Comintern design is now admitted even by scholars sympathetic to the British communists' side of things. (31) Between 1926 and 1937, about 150 British 'alumni' of the Lenin School in Moscow, became 'the most extreme of the intrusions by the Third International, the Comintern ... of a trained, responsive and carefully vetted cohort of revolutionary activists.' (32)

(29) W.Citrine, Democracy or Disruption – An Examination of Communist Influences in the Trade Unions, (1928 –TUC Library HX 695).

(30) Citrine, Men and Work, 253 and 257. Pollitt’s Reply to Citrine was published by the N.M.M.

(31) Nina Fishman’s The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions (1995), though focused on the later 1933-45 period, in the introductory chapter stressed how Pollitt and Campbell sought to move the CPGB away from its earlier adventurism (pages 4-9).

(32) K.Morgan & G.Cohen, Stalin’s Sausage Machine – British Students at the Internatonal Lenin School 1926-1937, (University of Manchester CPGB Biographical Project).

Citrine's anti-communism was therefore not primarily ideological, but a reaction to what he saw as an underhand campaign to undermine union leaders' position with their members, which he saw as both divisive and disruptive. A strong supporter of the Russian Revolution for nearly a decade after they had taken power, 'I had been enthused by Lenin's picture of an electric republic ...[which] would ensure to every citizen ... the advantages of a planned economy and the blessings of a modem civilisation'. (33) He had eagerly accepted Tomsky's invitation to visit the Soviet Union in 1925. He had been actively involved with IFTU President Purcell's efforts to establish a link between the Russian unions and the IFTU until 'a torrent of abuse' (in a 1,000 word telegram to the 1926 Congress and a RILU pamphlet), over the TUC conduct of the General Strike, ended those close relations. [Men and Work, 88-94]. He would go to the Soviet Union again in 1935, 1941, 1946 and 1956. He retained a keen interest, warm feeling but outspokenly critical attitude for what he saw as the first socialist experiment in a workers' state, whilst being in no doubt about the increasingly totalitarian nature of the Communist regime.

(33) Citrine, Men and Work, 88.