Black Friday and the 1921 miners’ lockout

The Great Betrayal: Black Friday and the 1921 miners’ lockout

By Michael Borodin, translated by Pete Dickenson

Published by Mentmore Press, 2021, £10-99

Reviewed by Ross Saunders

Pete Dickenson has translated into English for the first time The Great Betrayal, written following the events of ‘Black Friday’ in 1921 when conservative trade union leaders betrayed the miners who were battling against a national lockout organised by the private owners of the coal mine industry.

Written shortly after the events which it describes, the book is an attempt by an active participant in the fight for socialism to understand and explain a workers’ struggle of world significance. As the introduction says, “many of the lessons drawn about revolutionary tactics and winning over the working class are very relevant for today’s generation of activists”.

Michael Borodin travelled to Britain in 1921 in order to help build the new Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He is most famous for having played a disastrous role, under Stalin’s direction, in the Chinese revolution later in the same decade, when the Chinese Communist Party was wrecked as a result of having remained locked in an uncritical alliance with capitalist forces in the Kuomintang. In this book, however, the author is sharply critical – including of CPGB members – of those who did not clearly oppose trade union leaders who failed to take the bold action necessary to win the dispute.

Black Friday smashed the ‘Triple Alliance’ which had been formed in 1915, linking up the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (‘the Fed’), the Transport Workers’ Federation (TWF), and the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR – now, the RMT). Each union pledged that they would support the others if they were attacked by the bosses.

Britain dominated the coal industry in this period, exporting almost 100 million tonnes in 1913 and employing a million people in Britain. But despite its scale, the industry was hopelessly inefficient. Britain’s 3,000 pits were owned by 1,500 separate firms. Wages were different in every party of the country and changed as the price of coal, the main fuel of industry at this time, fluctuated. War had forced the government to temporarily nationalise the industry in 1917, but the mine owners were hungry to get their hands back on the profits, especially since the price of British coal – the last producer left standing in Europe – shot up once the war had ended.

Conservative miners’ leaders had failed to organise strike action in 1919 to win their demands and kill privatisation plans for good when they were first raised. Britain was going through a short-lived boom post-war, with full employment in the mines and rising coal prices which raised the confidence of workers. Between 1919 and 1920, there were separate strikes on the railways, in the docks, in the Yorkshire coalfield, and even amongst police officers. On average, 200,000 workers were on strike every day of 1921 – a huge increase compared to the period before and after.

But there was no national strike in the mines. Union leaders cancelled action while the ‘Sankey’ royal commission bought time for the coal owners and the government while miners’ demands were investigated. When the economic situation worsened in 1921, the bosses seized their opportunity. The boom ended abruptly and the re-entry of German coal onto the market sent the price of coal in particular plummeting. The government, a coalition led by the Liberal politician Lloyd George, declared plans to re-privatise coal on 1 April 1921, and immediately the private owners locked out the miners, stopping wages and refusing to resume production unless they accepted massive pay cuts of up to 50% in some regions. Today’s employers, issuing section 188 notices and using ‘Fire and Rehire’, would recognise the tactics.

The Fed immediately called a strike, including of safety workers whose withdrawal threatened to collapse some mines, and put out the appeal to the rest of the Triple Alliance for coordinated strike action. The miners demanded pay rises, a national pay agreement rather than regional negotiations, and the nationalisation of the industry under workers’ control and management.

The Alliance was potentially an incredibly powerful weapon in the hands of the workers. It linked up a sixth of the working class, and had it been used to defend the miners it could have halted the bosses in their tracks, and would even have posed the question of power – of which class runs society. But the idea of holding this responsibility terrified the conservative reformist leaders of the trade unions. Prime minister Lloyd George, who was a wily capitalist politician and had the measure of NUR leader Jimmy Thomas and the other Alliance leaders, pointed out to them that “the strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state that is stronger than the state itself, it must be ready to take on the functions of the state or withdraw and accept the authority of the state”. (In Place of Fear, Aneurin Bevan)

While the union leaders were paralysed, the government moved into action to defeat the strike. Lloyd George would later describe the situation as like a civil war. A state of emergency was declared. Government employees were directed to police stations ready to drive scab trucks. Decrees were issued reducing fuel consumption. Police were given new powers to arrest strikers and break up meetings. Agitation in the army and the police was made illegal and workers’ organisations were banned from using the telegram – the internet of its day. A vast army encampment took over Kensington Gardens and Victoria Park in London as soldiers were recalled from occupied Ireland. The army occupied the coal fields where some mines saw machine guns set up at the pit head.

But it was not primarily this mobilising of the state which defeated the strike. A wave of revolutionary sentiment swept the continent after the war. Workers were enraged by the slaughter and inspired by the powerful example of the Russian revolution of 1917, and this mood profoundly affected state forces.  Lloyd George himself admitted that “the army is disaffected and cannot be relied upon. Trouble has already occurred in a number of camps”. British capitalism teetered on the brink of a mighty clash between the classes, but it was saved by the betrayal of the conservative leaders of the British trade union movement and the Labour Party.

Borodin noted that “the Tsarist regime would have stopped at purely military preparations, at the decisive moment it did not know other methods of struggle. But the bourgeois democratic government of Lloyd George knew of other methods too, of the greatest importance in the struggle with the working class. This was the dislocation and splitting of its opponents with cunning, deception, lulling it to sleep and with all sorts of bribes to its leaders”.

“Lloyd George carried out this role brilliantly… He interfered in every way, delaying all preparation for a successful intervention and conduct of the struggle. He apparently agreed to concessions, then asked his opponents to ponder and think again about the nation’s fate. Then he threatened repressive measures, then invited the leaders to visit him and complimented them on their abilities, on their loyalty to the country, appealing to their sense of patriotism”.

Marxists understand that ‘national unity’ doesn’t exist. Britain in 1921 (and in 2022) is a society made up of classes whose interests are diametrically opposed. But Thomas and the other union leaders were not Marxists, and in practice accepted the limitations of capitalist society and all that that entailed.

In contrast, Borodin recounts how rank and file trade unionists enthusiastically prepared for the strike. Local branches all over the country agreed resolutions of support for the miners. Local committees were set up in several areas between rail, transport and other workers, and linked up into regional committees. In several areas, contact was made with producers’ cooperatives in order to prepare to provision the strikers. In a short time these organisations covered vast areas: the Lancashire committee, for example, together with the miners, representing 200,000 workers.

Workers were poised for action, but their willingness to fight was not reflected by their leaders. After two weeks of dithering, the Alliance leaders called the strike for Friday 15 April, only to cancel it the day before it was due.

They justified the betrayal by referring to a speech made by Frank Hodges, the right-wing secretary of the Miners’ Federation. Hodges had met with MPs on the eve of the strike and declared to them, in complete breach of the miners’ agreed position, that the miners would drop the demand for a national agreement on pay rates. Despite a furious Federation executive disowning Hodges’ position, Thomas and others argued that if the miners would not hold firm, then other workers could not be expected to back them. Amongst them was Communist Party member Robert Williams, who sat on the TWF executive member. Williams was expelled from the party because of his role in calling off the strike.

Borodin tells the miners, “you found yourselves isolated in your fight not because the British working class lacked a sense of class solidarity, that it was tired, lacked interest and had run out of steam, but because it allowed its leaders in every way to kill every possibility of expressing its class solidarity”.

He quotes in colourful detail the storm of protest that erupted from the rank and file of the unions after the strike was cancelled. Dockers in Carlisle and Bristol went ahead with strike action in defiance of their leaders and many other branches demanded a new date for action and the resignation of their traitorous leaders. Thomas himself said “I am receiving a greater proportion of abuse, deceitful and defamatory letters than any leader ever has”.

The betrayal killed the Triple Alliance and the miners were left to fight alone until they were starved back to work three months later. On average they were forced into pay cuts of 30%. Engineers, builders, seafarers and cotton workers were all forced to accept big wage cuts soon after. After the sell-out, trade union membership in Britain fell dramatically from 8.3 million in 1920 to 5.6 million in 1922.

Other effects were less immediately visible, but were profound. The defeat prompted a layer to draw more far-reaching conclusions about what kind of fight was necessary to advance the interests of workers, leading to growing support for combative left wingers in several unions. Hodges, for example, was replaced by radical leftwinger Arthur Cook as secretary of the Fed in 1925 in a process which eventually led to the general strike of 1926.

“The 15 April”, writes Borodin, “concluded the story of one of the most contemptible betrayals of the British labour movement ever to take place. The proletariat will remember this day with feelings of great rancour and profound disgust towards its treacherous leaders. Without doubt, the British proletariat can expect to live through yet more similar and still worse betrayals and treachery, until it finally frees itself the influence of these leaders”.

It was necessary to ruthlessly expose the role played by such leaders in order to assist the working class to free itself from their influence in this way. That’s why Borodin doesn’t spare even the heroic Tom Mann from censure. Mann, hoping that strike action could be put back on the agenda, didn’t condemn the leaders’ betrayal, but instead urged workers not to break unity. Whatever the intention, explains Borodin, the effect is to help maintain such leaders in their positions.

“Under all circumstances”, he writes, “we of course should arouse feelings of class solidarity in the workers. But this is not enough… These leaders prevent the creation of a united working class front. Therefore the more quickly they are exposed, the sooner Comrade Mann will achieve his aim”.

What doubled the tragedy of Black Friday was that the painful lessons taught by this betrayal were thrown away by Borodin and others who would shortly come under the influence of Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy as the Soviet Union degenerated. As Peter Taaffe explains in his book on the 1926 general strike, Britain’s trade union leaders were once again given uncritical left cover in the Anglo-Russian Committee formed with the Soviet trade unions in April 1925.

In 1922 Borodin had helped the new and inexperienced CPGB, which had failed to energetically intervene during the lockout, to reorganise from top to bottom in order to fight to become a party that could assist workers in working out how win battles against the bosses and how to win the war to gain control of society. The Stalinised Communist Parties would shortly come to play the opposite role in holding back the development of the advances in consciousness. The need to build such a party however, is still urgent.