Saturday, January 12, 2019

Chanie Rosenberg - 1919: Britain on the Brink of Revolution

The events to mark the end of World War One almost universally ignored the mass revolutionary movements that helped end the conflict. The Russian Revolution's centenary received hardly a mention, despite its role in ending the slaughter on the Eastern Front. The mass rebellions of German soldiers, sailors and workers that made sure the Kaiser could no longer fight in the west received event less acknowledgement.

Also ignored were radical events in Britain. In late 1918 and early 1919 a mass rebellion took place which, as Chanie Rosenberg argues in this 1987 book brought the country to the brink of revolution. The mood was certainly high. In November 1918, 300,000 Clydesiders applauded the German Revolution at a mass protest and there were around 34 million days of strike action. Eric Geddes, First Lord of the Admiralty, said on the 5th of February, "there was no doubt that we were up against a Bolshevist movement in London, Glasgow and elsewhere."

Lloyd George's government had reason to be fearful on several fronts. Firstly they could no longer trust the army or navy. Anger at conditions among soldiers had led to mass mutiny, protest and strikes, including a march on the cabinet offices. The anger was driven by frustration at the time taken to demobilise after the end of the war, appalling food, low pay and terrible living conditions. In the navy similar conditions led to discontent and even mutiny on HMS Kilbride. The army could not be relied on to put down strikes or take on roles needed to keep industry going and units that fraternised with striking workers often became unreliable.

Secondly the police themselves were enormously discontented and were taking strike action and even rioting. This began in 1918 and went through into 1919 before the government was able to undermine their union building through a combination of carrot and stick. This, however, led to the government understanding that the police had to be treated far better than other workers to ensure their future loyalty.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the powerful workers movement was flexing its muscles. Through 1919 millions of workers took strike action that, on occasion, reached insurrectionary levels. Battleships and tanks were deployed to key centres of militancy like Glasgow and Liverpool. The government was petrified and there was division about how to proceed. Lloyd George preferred the strategy of acceding to some of the demands while drawing out the process of satisfying them over Winston Churchill who wanted to use force to smash the strike. The Prime Minister prevailed, and his strategy had one great weapon - the trade union leaders. Rosenberg shows how the trade union leaders made their interests clear - they were certainly not for Bolshevik revolution and in fact, they all - both left and right - did not want mass militancy. This would get out of control and so they worked hard to undermine the strikes, limit further action and dampen militancy. Also effective in this was the fledgling Labour Party whose MPs wanted to prove themselves loyal servents of the Crown, not radicals unfit for parliament. There's a famous scene that Rosenberg reproduces an account of a meeting between the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Triple Alliance:
Gentlemen, you have fashioned, in the Triple Alliance of the unions represented by you, a most powerful instrument. I feel bound to tell you, that in our opinion we are at your mercy. The Army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has occurred already in a number of camps. We have just emerged from a great war and the people are eager for the reward of their sacrifices, and we are in no position to satisfy them. In these circumstances, if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us. But if you do so, have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the Government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the State which is stronger than the State itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the State, or withdraw and accept the authority of the State. Gentlemen, have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?
 Robert Smillie, the left leaning leader of the powerful Coal Miners' union of around one million men, said "From that moment on we were beaten, and we knew we were." It was an extraordinary admission - going to the heart of the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy.

Mass strike in Glasgow 1919
Rosenberg argues that Britain was on the brink of Revolution, but there was a factor missing. No revolutionary socialist organisation existed that could push the movement forward, encouraging militancy and rank and file self-organisation - exposing the sell-outs of the trade union leaders and offering alternative strategies. The result was that while many workers won short term gains, almost nothing fundamentally changed, and workers militancy declined dramatically.

One hundred years later the British union movement is very different. Nothing like the Triple Alliance exists, and workers struggle is at an all time low. Nonetheless the potential for radical upsurges always exists - and discontent is certainly high. The left must learn from history. 1919 is a forgotten, but enormously inspiring moment of our history that Chanie Rosenberg's short book rescues for us. I recommend it to trade unionists and socialists today.

Related Reviews

There's an excellent piece in Socialist Worker about 1919 to mark the anniversary.

Rosenberg - Fighting Fit: A Memoir
Branson - Poplarism 1919 - 1925
Cliff & Gluckstein - Marxism and Trade Union Struggle

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