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Book Review Near-miss for revolution

A new pamphlet reveals just how close Britain's labour movement was to overthrowing the government post-WWI, says ANDREW MURRAY

The Councils of Action 1920 and the British Labour Movement’s Defence of Soviet Russia
by John Foster
(Manifesto Press, £4)

FIVE years ago historian Frank McLynn authored The Road Not Taken, a book arguing that there had never been a revolution in Britain, unlike almost everywhere else.

His thesis was susceptible to the immediate objection, which he struggled with, that there had indeed been a revolution in the 17th century. Nevertheless, since then, there has been nothing more than several near misses, reinforcing the complacent Whiggish assumptions of British constitutional exceptionalism.

The flood tide of Chartism around 1842-43 may constitute the nearest of those misses, partly because the capacity of the British state to cope with putative insurrection was rather less than it was shortly to become.

But the period immediately after WWI must run Chartism a close second. While most people will be aware of the 1926 General Strike, by which time the revolutionary tide was on the way out, far fewer appreciate the significance of the great turmoil a few years earlier.

This pamphlet by the eminent Marxist labour historian John Foster addresses this gap in understanding. He writes of a nearly unique passage in British history where the leaders of the labour movement were ready and willing to use their industrial strength to confront the elected government on a matter of public policy.

It was then that Prime Minister Lloyd George told a delegation of transport and mining union leaders that: “we are at your mercy… if you strike then you will defeat us… but are you ready to take on the functions of the state?”

They weren’t, but the head of MI5 was still alarmed enough to report to the Cabinet that only sport and the popularity of the royal family were restraining the working class from revolutionary moods driven by unemployment, gross inequality, profiteering, bad housing and more, including international influences headed by events in Soviet Russia and Ireland.

Foster, outlining the context to this revolutionary moment, demonstrates that before the crisis provoked by Poland’s attack on Russia in summer 1920, the trade union movement had swung decisively to the left, reflecting the new spirit in the mining districts in particular.

While there were more than enough domestic sources of discontent, it was the threat of war that finally tipped the balance in the working class towards initiatives that were directly revolutionary in their implications.

The war danger arose from Cabinet plans, promoted first of all by Churchill, to send troops to Poland to fight the Red Army, then advancing following the failure of ruler Josef Pilsudski’s march into Ukraine.

The Tory imperialists were panicking at the prospect of Europe-wide revolution and ”Bolshevism reaching Berlin.” The form the revolutionary initiative took was the creation of local Councils of Action, the focus of Foster’s lucid and informative pamphlet, allied to the threat of a general strike against intervention.

Their significance lay not only in the organisation of industrial action against the planned British intervention but also in preparing to assume control of basic state and social function in their localities. While Foster locates the idea of the councils in part to earlier experiences in Glasgow and Belfast, the echo of the Russian Soviets was plain to friend and foe alike.

Foster identifies over 300 such councils, although their actual work varied considerably. They were heavily concentrated in the older industrial areas of northern England, Scotland and Wales and for the most part based on local trades councils, Labour Parties or both. They supported the basic demand of the united labour movement for an abandonment of military action against Russia.

In the event, the Poles first halted and then reversed the Red Army offensive. Peace of a sort was re-established in the east.

Nevertheless, as Foster argues, the threat of a general strike, added to the development of Councils of Action, had tipped the balance in the Cabinet against intervention.

The British state’s resources would have been taxed to the utmost had events moved further in the direction of a direct revolutionary challenge. The first rampart of defence, which Foster rightly emphasises, had fallen with the temporary loss of control by the right-wing over the Labour movement, as even inveterate reformists advocated direct action. The army was also over-stretched, logistically and perhaps politically, by the exigencies of counter-revolutionary war in Ireland and other colonial commitments.

As we know, the moment passed and, despite the formation of the Communist Party in the midst of these events, the labour movement incrementally returned to something more like “business as usual.”

But the words of GDH Cole in the midst of the strife, with which Foster concludes his illuminating essay, resonate: “We are co-ordinating the force of Labour not simply in order to increase Labour’s strength in negotiations, strikes and elections.

“We are marshalling our battalions for an actual assault on capitalism, to be followed by an actual assumption of power.”

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