Paper given at conference on “The 1926 General Strike at 90: What is its relevance now?” organised by the London Socialist Historians Group on 21 May 2016.

    The General Strike was not merely a major event in British history, but an event of international significance. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution it had seemed, to friends and foes alike, that the revolution might quite quickly spread elsewhere in Europe. With the failure of a German revolution to materialise in 1923 it seemed as if the revolutionary wave had subsided, but the British General Strike and the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 offered a brief hope that the movement was reviving. If either had ended in victory, the course of history might have changed; Stalin’s triumph and then Hitler’s might not have been so easy.  The role of the Comintern in the General Strike was to become a major issue in the dispute between Stalin and Trotsky.[1]

    It may therefore be of interest to see how the strike was perceived outside Britain. As a very small contribution to this I want to look at how the strike was reported and analysed in two publications of the French left – L’Humanité, the daily paper of the French Communist Party (PCF), and La Révolution prolétarienne, a monthly journal produced by some of those who had been expelled from, or left, the PCF, including Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer.[2]

    A general strike was a matter of particular interest to the French left. The revolutionary syndicalist tradition had been strong in France before 1914.[3]  Many on the left had looked forward to the grand soir  – the great evening-time when all workers would stop work.  Two syndicalists, Pouget and Pataud, had written a book called “How we shall bring about the revolution”, in which they described how a general strike developed into a capture of power by workers.[4]  The revolutionary syndicalists had played an important role in the foundation of the PCF (much more important than was recognised by most Stalinist historians).[5] And La Révolution prolétarienne very much stood in the syndicalist tradition.

    Yet France had never had a general strike – the nearest it had come had been in May 1920, when a railway strike had been extended to miners, seafarers, dockers, metal-workers, builders and others. It led to total defeat and trade-union membership fell by three-quarters in the aftermath.[6] (Later France would see two massive general strikes, in 1936 and 1968, the latter the biggest general strike in history.)  So the British general strike was a matter of particularly keen interest.

    L’Humanité was the daily paper of the PCF, normally of six pages. Founded by Jean Jaurès, it had become the organ of the Communist Party when the majority of the Socialist Party voted to affiliate to the Comintern in 1920. It gave extensive coverage to the strike – there was a major item on the front page for every day of the strike. This despite the fact that other important events were happening; the Rif War, which had been a major campaigning issue for the PCF, was entering its final phase.  L’Humanité had a correspondent in London, one C David, who was L’Humanité’s London correspondent from 1924 to 1928.[7]  He was joined by a second reporter in the course of the strike.[8] (Perhaps for security reasons the second journalist was never named.)

    It is important to be clear about the nature of the PCF in 1926. In many ways the party had retreated since its foundation five years earlier. Some of the best militants had been expelled or left.[9] The party had suffered from the “Bolshevisation” imposed by the Comintern under Zinoviev’s leadership. But it was still far from being a “Stalinist” organisation. Much of the initial revolutionary impulse remained – it would only be by 1930 that the PCF finally became a thoroughly Stalinist organisation. It is interesting to note that just after the end of the strike L’Humanité  published on its front page an extract from a book on Europe and America by Trotsky, described as “our comrade”.[10]

    It is of course easy to point to minor misunderstandings in the coverage by L’Humanité’s journalists. The French seem unable to distinguish between Britain and England – the strike was referred to as being in England even when events from Wales and Scotland were being reported. Place names were sometimes garbled  - Elephant and Kastle, Glascow, Victoria Embarkment[11] – though it is impossible to say whether this can be blamed on the correspondents or the typesetters.

    One of the first concerns of L’Humanité’s correspondent was to dispel the idea that the British were particularly peaceful and law-abiding. Two hundred years earlier Voltaire had told his French readers that they should not be too critical of the British for executing their king (something the French would never dream of doing).[12] Now David rather gleefully reported various incidents of violence and commented: “This is happening in the peaceful, traditionalist, democratic, legalistic, constitutional England which Bernard Shaw once said was immunised against the ‘Marxist and Leninist virus’.”[13]

    David gave a number of vivid descriptions of the popular mood, showing the impact of the strike on everyday life and the way in which the strikers were getting solid support from the great majority of working-class people. Public support seemed to be greater than either the TUC leadership or the government had expected: “The leaders themselves did not believe that the response of workers would be so unanimous everywhere …. It is obvious that the government has underestimated the power of working-class solidarity.”[14] Obviously the very fact of the strike made travel difficult, and David does not seem to have left London, though he gave reports from elsewhere in the country, probably obtained through his contacts in the CPGB.  He described various actions of militancy by strikers; for example “The Tottenham Council of Action stopped 65 pirate buses, whose drivers and conductors immediately joined the union”.[15]

    One main theme in David’s reports was the fascist threat. In a report dated 8 May David claimed the government was “pushing for the creation of a fascist army.  There is no other way to describe enrolments for the special police. It’s clear that they want to arm a huge fascist anti-working-class army….. These exceptional measures seem to show that the government can’t rely on the army.”[16]

    Earlier in the decade the Comintern had had a confused position on fascism,[17] but now there was a clear recognition of the fascist danger. If the strike was defeated then the fascist threat would undoubtedly increase.  True on a European level, and true of Britain as the rise of Mosley was to show.

    L’Humanité also regularly carried pictures of the scene in Britain. These were announced with some pride as being “exclusive” and were sent by air.[18] There was something of a paradox about this. L’Humanité was appealing to sailors and dockers to block transport to Britain in solidarity, but whereas sea travel had a long history of militant unionism aviation was a new industry and was apparently less well organised.

    As well as the reports from London, L’Humanité carried almost every day a major editorial statement about the strike and its political implications. Many of these were written by Gabriel Péri, head of L’Humanité’s foreign coverage,  who would later be shot as a hostage by the Nazis. Péri was concerned to draw out the significance of the strike for French workers and to explain what was at stake.

    On 2 May, as the strike was about to begin, Péri pointed out that it had to be understood in an international context: “The English mining industry is being crushed by the modern techniques of its German and American rivals, so that the English coal crisis is only a part of the great world crisis of coal production!”

    But above all the strike was about power. The British ruling class had already attacked railway workers, engineers and building workers. “In these circumstances the victory or defeat of the English miners would be the victory or defeat of the British working class.” And more than that: “If a united front is established on the other side of the channel, it would be the signal of renewal for the workers of Europe, the dawn of a victorious workers’ offensive.” But a defeat would have equally dramatic consequences: “Weakened, wounded in the heart, the continental workers’ movement would experience the most painful period of its post-war history. In these grave hours, the workers of England are the trustees of the destiny of the international working-class movement.”[19]

    L’Humanité quoted from other organs of the French press which directly reflected the thinking of the French bourgeoisie. Thus Paul Vaillant-Couturier quoted Le Temps: “One does not compromise with the spirit of insurrection, one does not come to terms with those who declare that they are in a state of revolt against the nation”. (As he pointed out, this virtually echoed the words of Thiers just before the crushing of the Paris Commune.)[20]

    The next day Péri quoted Le Figaro: “If the English strike were to spread and last, it ….. could have a harmful influence on our own affairs. The continent and France first of all would feel the backlash. Before cultivating solidarities which are imaginary and hence deceptive, let us recognise, whenever necessary, real solidarities.” Péri noted that this was “admirable class consciousness” and urged those on the other side of the barricade not to let themselves be left behind.[21]

    The strike had very practical consequences. On 30 April, before the strike had started,  miners in the Saar region of Germany (occupied jointly by Britain and France)  received a wage rise. L’Humanité noted that the employers wanted to “avert effective solidarity in the event of a strike by English miners”,[22] and over the next few days increases were granted in the Nord, and then in other parts of France. As L’Humanité commented “The mining magnates think they have neutralised the French miners and that they will prevent them from showing solidarity with their English brothers.”[23] French employers were anxious to avoid any possibility of simultaneous action by British and French miners, something which could have raised the spectre of an international general strike. Indeed at the end of April the CGT miners’ federation had declared that “as of now only a national and international general strike can save the miners”.[24]  But such a demand was to remain purely on the level of propaganda.

    So there were constant appeals for solidarity with the British strikers. The CGTU railway workers’ organisation launched the slogan “Not a kilo of coal must be sent to England.”[25] An appeal was directed particularly to miners, railway workers and dockers.[26] By 6 May transport of perishable goods from Dieppe to Newhaven was suspended, and goods for England were not being loaded at Le Havre.[27]  Marseille stevedores refused to load coal for England.[28]

    Three rallies were organised in halls in various parts of Paris and the suburbs on the evening of 14 May, under the slogans “Support the English strike! Against fascism! Against war!”[29]  One was addressed by Jacques Doriot, later notorious for moving to the extreme right during the course of the Second World War[30], but at this point a rising star of the PCF who had become prominent by his activity against the Rif war. Doriot showed how the whole of Europe was becoming unbalanced – a coup d’état  in Poland, governmental crises in Belgium and Germany, a financial crisis in France and a general strike in Britain: “Increasingly English workers will recognise that the reformist illusions of their leaders will never lead them to victory, and that will find expression in a strengthening of the Communist Party which from the outset has shown them the true objectives of the struggle they have embarked on.”[31]

    But there was a major problem with solidarity. Compared with the British unions (which had over five million members) the French unions were weak, with a total of only around a million members nationally. Partly this resulted from the old syndicalist tradition which saw unions as the organisation of the “active minority” rather than as bodies involving the whole class. But even worse, the French unions were divided. In 1921 there had been a split in the Confédération générale du travail, [CGT], leading to the formation of the Confédération générale du travail unitaire [CGTU]. Communists were active in the CGTU.

    The PCF line was to call for a united front. This was very much in the tradition of what the Comintern had advocated since 1921,[32]  and the appeals were very plausible. Maurice Thorez, who would later be the party’s General Secretary for over thirty years,   issued a vigorous appeal for united action on the question of the printing of the Daily Mail in France:

    “But here in the Paris of the Commune, Paris which gave birth to revolutionary syndicalism, Paris which has been the trusty guide of the French proletariat, the international bourgeoisie is publishing a fascist paper in the English language which is becoming an effective weapon in the hands of British capitalism. This is a scandal which must be ended forthwith.”

    The PCF was calling for the establishment of a “Vigilance Committee” which would bring the two union confederations together. Initially intended to help British workers, it could become a means to trade-union unification both nationally and internationally. As Thorez pointed out, trade-union membership in France totalled only one million in both confederations – there were twelve million unorganised workers, including three million of foreign origin. The PCF’s emphasis had to be on organising the non-unionised. Thorez was therefore urging a break with the French tradition of minority unionism in favour of something closer to the British model. The General Strike was an example of mass trade unionism in practice.[33]

    When one reads L’Humanité from the time of the General Strike it is sometimes hard to realise that within two-and-a half years Trotsky would have been exiled and the Communist International would have abandoned the united front in favour of the suicidal theory of the “Third Period”.

    And it was not only in France that union organisation was divided. In 1921 the Red International of Labour Unions had been founded.[34]  This aimed, not to divide unions, but to provide a focus for militant unions and militant currents within unions; it sought  affiliation, where possible, from national federations, but also from minorities within such federations. In Britain the Minority Movement was linked to the RILU. The CGTU was affiliated to the RILU, but the International Federation of Trade Unions [IFTU], generally known as the Amsterdam International, had the loyalty of both the TUC and the CGT. At the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921 the Amsterdam International was said to be facing “imminent and complete collapse”.[35]  But Amsterdam had survived and it was necessary to persuade it to take action.

    The question was raised in particularly concrete form by the fact that the Daily Mail was being printed in France.  To prevent this would have been a significant victory, not only in symbolic terms, but because the Mail was playing a part in the ideological struggle about the strike. The Paris Committee of the printers’ union called on its members to refuse to work on any publication in the English language.[36]  But it was not successful. One reason was that the printshop which had taken on the Mail was mainly staffed by CGT members.[37]

    In particular the question was raised of what would happen in the event of a victory for the strike. On 6 May L’Humanité  quoted the CPGB’s Workers’ Bulletin, which was calling for the resignation of the government and the formation of a “workers’ government”. This was a slogan which had been discussed by the Comintern a few years earlier.[38] Presumably in the British context it would mean the return of a Labour Government. In fact this seems to have remained an abstract slogan.

    L’Humanité also published a statement by Zinoviev, president of the Comintern. This made some valuable points about the interconnection of the political and the economic but ended up with a triumphalist and ultra-optimistic perspective of the sort typical of Zinoviev: “There is now no force in the world capable of stopping the rapid Bolshevisation of the vanguard of the English proletariat, and the development of the revolutionary spirit and Communist ideas in the English working class. This is sufficient to constitute an event of world historical importance.”[39] If only…..

    This, however, reflected a dilemma faced by all socialist papers reporting on industrial disputes. As long as the strike continues, they have to stress the possibility of victory and avoid pointing to weaknesses in leadership and organisation if there is any danger that this might undermine the struggle. L’Humanité’s general approach was therefore understandable, but it led to a rather serious error of judgment at the end of the strike.

    When the news that the strike had been called off came through, the first report in L’Humanité hailed the result as a victory. Under the headline: “WORKING-CLASS SOLIDARITY HAS MADE THE BRITISH BOURGEOISIE RETREAT!”  Vaillant-Couturier told the paper’s readers that “the old capitalist England, slow, powerful and traditional, has been struck full in the chest; it is tottering. Undoubtedly the outcome of the conflict is a victory for the proletariat of Great Britain. Above all it is a lesson in its march forward since in fact this victory settles nothing.”[40]

    When the situation became a little clearer it was obvious that this had been a major misestimation. The paper’s editor, Marcel Cachin – generally a very indolent editor[41]– had to make a retraction : “After the first incomplete and contradictory news which reached us from London on Wednesday, we now have information which enables us to clarify our judgment. …. For ten days the English bourgeoisie was sweating with fear. It had never suffered such anguish.  And now, like our bourgeoisie after the 1920 strike, it is looking for reprisals. The first phase of the gigantic conflict ended on Wednesday in Baldwin’s cabinet with the capitulation of the workers’ leaders. A second episode has begun with the mining proletariat, odiously sacrificed by the reformists, rising up in its bitterness and anger.”

    Cachin recognised that there had been a serious defeat. He named Thomas, MacDonald and Henderson, who had opposed the strike from the beginning. “Why? They have been in power. They are Privy Councillors of the King of England. They hope that tomorrow they will once again be ministers of the Crown.”

    Rather dramatically he concluded: “The English reformists ….. have unconditionally sacrificed the comrades who had put their trust in them. Since the days of January 1919 when the Scheidemanns and Noskes murdered the German workers’ revolution, there has not been in the reformist International any event so full of consequences for the future of the workers’ movement.”

    On the same page there was a message from the Central Committee of the PCF to the British Communist Party, congratulating its “English fraternal party which has fought the struggle in the vanguard of millions of workers, and expresses its confidence that it will gather around it all the forces of the working class for the decisive battle against the bourgeoisie”.[42]

    A few days after the strike L’Humanité announced that it was sending a special correspondent to Britain to prepare an analysis of the strike. He was named as Vital Gayman. (I had not previously heard of Gayman and assumed the name was a pseudonym, since a Communist correspondent might have had difficulty in getting into Britain. But Gayman was real enough  - and had no problems getting into Britain.) Active in the PCF youth organisation, he had worked on L’Humanité since 1923, and in 1924 had done a speaking tour in Britain (so he must have been fluent in English). He was a Central Committee member from 1926 to 1929, but opposed the “Third Period” strategy; he stayed in the party, but was no longer so prominent; he left the PCF in 1939 over the Hitler-Stalin Pact; after the war he worked as a journalist and broadcaster.

    Gayman produced a set of five substantial articles[43] which appeared prominently in L’Humanité. The analysis largely reflected the positions of the CPGB.[44] Gayman was particularly concerned with the failures of the General Council, and he described in great detail the way in which the decision to end the strike had been taken without consultation with the miners.[45] In general his analysis focussed on inadequate leadership; the TUC had  “capitulated without reasons, without anything  in the objective situation of the strike being able to justify their treachery”, and he noted “the absolute contrast between the attitude of the leaders of the trade union movement and the magnificent class consciousness shown by the proletarian masses”.[46]

    The alternative leadership, he claimed, would come from the CPGB. He quoted Stewart, the Party secretary, who had told him: “The workers have realised that the only people who saw things correctly were the militants of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement.  In battle they have learnt to know us by fighting alongside us. Now the Communist Party and the Minority Movement will recruit proletarians who have learned from experience. The coming harvest will be a good one for us.”[47]

    There was little about rank-and-file organisation or the situation at the grass-roots. Gayman recognised that the strike had ended in defeat – and explained that L’Humanité had originally got it wrong because it was believed that the General Council had got assurances from the government.[48]  But his conclusion was optimistic, if not to say triumphalist:

    “Already English workers are turning towards the Communist Party and the Minority Movement. …..  Today tens and hundreds [of Communists] are doing hard labour in the prisons of Joynson-Hicks.  No matter! New fighters are rising up each day to come and fill the gaps made in their ranks by repression. In May 1926 English capitalism has won the first round. Soon the English proletariat will take its revenge!”[49]

    La Révolution prolétarienne was launched as a monthly journal with 32 pages  in 1925, called a “monthly communist syndicalist review”. It was produced by a nucleus (noyau) including some who had been expelled from the PCF at the end of 1924, among them Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer. Monatte had launched the fortnightly journal La Vie ouvrière in 1909,[50] and in many ways La Révolution prolétarienne  could be seen as continuing the tradition of La Vie ouvrière. Rosmer had served on the Comintern Executive and played an important role in the founding of the RILU.[51] Rosmer and Monatte had been expelled from the PCF at the end of 1924 because they had argued that the PCF line on the 1924 British Labour government was wrong in claiming that it would be enough to denounce the treacherous MacDonald government for workers to see its true nature and flock to the Communist Party. Thay had argued that a more patient strategy would be necessary; the raising of concrete demands and systematic united front work with the Labour left.

    In an article written at the start of the strike Rosmer assessed the situation and looked at the perspectives for the forthcoming confrontation. Rosmer, born in the USA, spoke English fluently, and had visited England before 1914 to report for La Vie ouvrière. He argued that the mine-owners had “wanted war”; the Baldwin government would have preferred a compromise, but it was only the “chargé d’affaires” of the industrial magnates, and had to do as they wished. He concluded:

    “Now battle is joined. Its meaning is perfectly clear; it’s about lowering workers’ living standards; they are going to have to carry on paying for the great imperialist slaughter, the ruins it caused and the crises it provoked. The bourgeoisie is mobilising all its forces, the army, regular and special police, as well as its auxiliary organisations, notably the OMS, the great British ‘civic union’.

    “To win, the British workers need the assistance of workers from all countries who must not only demonstrate Platonic sympathy, but understand that the present battle is their battle. Everywhere the bourgeoisie is considering attacking workers’ living standards, and its victory in England would soon make itself felt throughout Europe.”[52]

    La Révolution prolétarienne did not have the resources of L’Humanité, but it had one asset which its contemporary lacked – a British correspondent. This was Raymond Postgate.[53] Postgate has been a founder member of the CPGB and had been editor of its publication The Communist,  but had left in 1922, being opposed to “democratic centralism”.  How he had come into contact with La Révolution prolétarienne is not clear[54] – perhaps through syndicalist circles in Britain which had had contact with La Vie ouvrière before 1914. In the June issue he wrote a long analysis of the course of the strike, entitled “Was the English General Strike a Failure?”[55] Later he became a well-known writer on food and wine.

    Postgate attempted to balance enthusiasm for the strike with a sober assessment of the result. He argued that “the strike was a failure, but the workers have not been defeated”. The strike had failed because the miners were scarcely any better off, but the workers had not been defeated because “their organisations are stronger than ever and have not lost an inch of ground.”  He added that “continental socialists have always regarded the [British trade-union movement] as the elephant of the working-class world, slow to move, limited but gigantic; if it agreed to stir itself, the earth would shake.”[56]

    Postgate concluded that the strikers had achieved “a solidarity and unity that very few believed possible and which was unprecedented in Great Britain”.  The movement had failed because the General Council did not believe in it. Hence “when the unions engage another great battle, they will have to have at their head men who believe in them and their strength, and who, when they give the order for a general strike, will do so without doubt and fear in their hearts, but with the determination to use without weakness the weapon that they themselves will have chosen.”[57]

    On one point Postgate differentiated himself sharply from the account presented by L’Humanité. Like many ex-members of an organisation, he showed particular scorn for his former comrades. He insisted that the British Communist Party had played no role whatsoever in the course of events: “The Communist Party, which has three thousand members out of a population of forty-five million, had no influence whatsoever on the movement. According to instructions from the centre, members were supposed to forget that they were Communists and behave as ordinary trade unionists; they followed these instructions loyally.”[58]

    Postgate’s analysis was followed by what was described as the diary of the strike written by “an English Communist”[59] (though the following issue explained that the author was in fact Postgate[60]).  He was still working as a journalist (on Lansbury’s Labour Weekly)  and he gave a number of illuminating details about the organisation of the strike  and the general mood in London. He began with the massive demonstration on May Day. On 4 May he walked through the East End:

    “The ‘mass pickets’ leap in front of the lorries and put them out of action. A garage mechanic told me he’d been exhausted all day, repairing lorries, smashed petrol tanks, burst tyres etc. The police are as nervous as kittens and that is not surprising.”[61]

    The National Union of Journalists did not support the strike – which made little difference, since nothing was printed. “Mechanically I send copy to the printer’s. I think it’s pointless. I telephone the journalists’ union: ‘Carry on working as usual,’ I’m told, ‘until orders come from the TUC’.”[62]

    But by 7 May, while noting that the East End was still solid, he was concerned at the failure of the strike to spread: “I bitterly regret seeing that the General Council still doesn’t want to extend the strike order to gas and electricity workers. Why? Already trains driven by scabs are running on the underground.”[63]

    And when the strike was called off his judgment was savage: “The General Council, not the movement, failed. It was dominated by its own fears. It ended the strike without firm commitments from its opponents, it broke the unity and spirit of the workers. Nothing has been done for the miners. No effort has been made to help the victims who are still in prison because they faithfully followed the Council’s instructions. The whole Council, right and left, should be put in the same sack. Our leaders were: age, indolence, alcohol and fear.”[64]

    Monatte added his own comments to those of Postgate, giving a slightly more optimistic assessment of the outcome:

    “The English general strike had given rise to such great hopes that as a reaction we have felt too great despair.

    “It’s no surprise that certain Communists …. saw only two alternatives, defeat or revolution. Between these two alternatives there is a vast space.

    “In my opinion, the English movement has just made a serious step forward on the revolutionary path, it has made an effort of solidarity and struggle which will not be unprofitable. In 1921 the miners had not obtained solidarity from the other unions. In 1926 they were given this solidarity for twelve days. Too short, and inadequate solidarity. Agreed. It seems certain that a longer and more fruitful effort of solidarity would not have been beyond the capacities of the proletariat. But what there was was not negligible.”

    Postgate had recalled that the last general strike in Britain had been in 1842. Monatte commented:

    “As for believing that  the idea of the general strike has been buried once again in England, and that it will not revive for another eighty years, this is not the case. ….. It’s a long way to Tipperary, the English soldiers used to say. It’s not so far to the revolution, the English workers might say, but you don’t get there in one go.”

    Monatte also looked at the practical question of solidarity: “In France we should beware of judging the English events too harshly. We’ve talked a lot about solidarity, but we didn’t do much.” In particular the French had allowed the Daily Mail to appear. He quoted Lord Rothermere as having said that 250,000 copies of the Mail had been produced and that they had had an influence on the defeat of the strike. Monatte pointed out that the printshop which had produced the Mail had been staffed by the CGT, with only one CGTU member. The CGT had refused to ban the work until it received a request from the printing union in London – although in the circumstances such a request could easily have been blocked or intercepted by the British authorities.[65]

    The June issue also contained an interesting news item. The TUC had rather churlishly refused to accept financial assistance from Russian workers,[66] but British banks, faced with a liquidity problem caused by the strike, were getting large sums of money from banks in the erstwhile enemy country of Germany.[67] It seemed  that the bourgeoisie understood international solidarity rather better than the organisations of the working class.

    La Révolution prolétarienne did not publish anything more substantial on the strike, but a few brief pieces illuminated aspects of the strike.

    In the July issue a reader’s letter pointed out that although there had been much talk about solidarity, the fund-raising had been extremely inefficient: “Truly the campaign for financial support to the English miners has been effectively sabotaged. We don’t know who is organising the fund or where to send the money.” Various organisations, including the CGTU, had made appeals, but it was unclear where the money would go. A single appeal published daily in L’Humanité would have been much more effective, and could have raised a large sum of money.[68]

    In the August issue there was a “Letter from England” signed by “an English Communist” (presumably Postgate) describing events at the conference of the National Union of Railwaymen at Weymouth. Initially there were hopes that the conference would repudiate the “archreactionary” JH Thomas. But then there was what Postgate rather unkindly called “a new manifestation of the typical stupidity of the Communist Party and the Minority Movement”.  Thomas had got hold of, and quoted in his speech, internal documents of the Communist Party which showed that Communist delegates were following instructions from their party rather than from the union branches which had delegated them. As a result Thomas turned the conference against the opposition and won the vote by a large majority. Postgate concluded:

    “A party that imagines it can create a great revolutionary movement by pulling strings and plotting behind the scenes must be led by idiots. But I would have thought that even such idiots would have had enough sense not to offer their plan to the enemy.”[69]

    In the same issue La Révolution prolétarienne published two letters from a former member of the central committee of the French print union now working as a linotype operator on The Times in London. The letters were headed “The English strike seen by a reformist”. The writer argued that the strike had been widely unpopular even with strikers, and that it was correct to call it off. The journal printed them in an attempt to explain why the British unions had not intervened more vigorously to demand solidarity from the French unions over the printing of the Daily Mail.[70]

    The following issue carried a sharp response from Postgate. “The nonsense scribbled by A Fleuriet does not deserve the honour of a place in your magazine.” He pointed out that the printworkers on The Times were particularly reactionary and untypical. And to illustrate the popularity of the strike he told how men employed to sell ice-cream from tricycles had gone on strike and then spent three days trying to find a union to join.[71]

    The September issue also carried an extract from a speech given by Bukharin in Moscow on 8 June:

    “Why, in England, were councils of action and not soviets organised? Why was there not the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’? Because the working class in England – which distinguishes it from other countries – is marching on a different road. By reason of its whole history, of the enormous strength of its trade unions, of its historical traditions, the English working class approached the question of power, not outside the unions, but through the unions. Lenin used to require of us that we should analyse the specific particular features of each period in each country and not just mechanically repeat what can serve for all times and all situations.”[72]

    To revolutionary syndicalists (which Monatte still clearly was) this must have seemed like an endorsement of the syndicalist view that it would be the trade unions which would play the essential role in the establishment of working-class power.

    This brief survey of two French far left publications does not provide any significant new insights into the events of the General Strike. But it does show that the left across the channel was watching events closely, was keen to give what support it could and was trying to learn the lessons of defeat. L’Humanité  expressed a keen sense of class consciousness and solidarity, and was aware just how much was at stake. But its political perspective was sometimes distorted. La Révolution prolétarienne, while it could not offer an organisational alternative, did provide a political corrective to the analyses of the PCF.

    In particular the reality of a general strike made visible both the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary syndicalist tradition. The strength of syndicalism was its stress on workers’ self-activity and self-organisation, its vigorous internationalism and anti-militarism. Much of this can be seen in La Révolution prolétarienne’s response. But the syndicalist view of the union as a hybrid organisation, simultaneously union and political party,[73] lay behind the French tradition of minority unionism, which seriously damaged the working class’s ability to fight.

    Ian Birchall

    May 2016

    [1] See for example “The Struggle for Peace and the Anglo-Russian Committee” in Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, Vol. 2, London, 1974, pp 205-18; P Broué, Histoire de l’Internationale Communiste 1919-1943, p. 423.

    [2] L’Humanité [hereafter Huma] and La Révolution prolétarienne [hereafter RP] are available on-line at http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb327877302/date and http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb34387382s/date.r=r%C3%A9volution+prol%C3%A9tarienne.langFR

    [3] See R Darlington, Radical Unionism, Chicago, 2013.

    [4] E. Pataud & E Pouget, Comment nous ferons la révolution, Paris, 1909.

    [5] See François Ferrette, La Véritable Histoire du Parti Communiste Français, Paris, 2011.

    [6] R Wohl, French Communism in the making 1914-1924, Stanford, 1966, pp. 164-5.

    [7] J Maitron & C Pennetier, Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier français, Paris, 1964ff, normally very well informed, has no further details on David.  Other biographical information in this paper is taken from Maitron and Pennetier.

    [8] Huma, 7 May 1926, p. 1.

    [9]See I Birchall, “PCF: The Missing Founders” http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2011-pcf-the-missing-founders/

    [10] Huma, 15 May 1926, p. 1.

    [11] Huma, 7 May 1926, p. 3.

    [12] Voltaire, huitième lettre, Lettres philosophiques (1734), in Voltaire, Mélanges, Paris, 1961, pp. 22-3.

    [13] Huma, 6 May 1926, p. 1.

    [14] Huma, 6 May 1926, p. 2.

    [15] Huma, 6 May 1926, p. 2.

    [16] Huma, 9 May 1926, p. 1.

    [17] See T Behan, The Resistible Rise of Benito Mussolini, London, 2003.

    [18] Huma, 7 May 1926, p. 3

    [19] Huma, 2 May 1926, p. 3.

    [20] Huma, 4 May 1926, p. 1.

    [21] Huma, 5 May 1926, p. 1.

    [22] Huma, 30 April 1926, p. 5.

    [23] Huma, 11 May 1926, p. 5.

    [24] Huma, 30 April 1926, p. 5.

    [25] Huma, 5 May 1926, p. 3.

    [26] Huma, 5 May 1926, p. 1.

    [27] Huma, 9 May 1926, p. 3.

    [28] Huma, 12 May 1926, p. 3.

    [29] Huma, 12 May 1926, p. 1.

    [30] See D Drake, Paris at War, Cambridge Mass. 2015, pp. 196-8.

    [31] Huma, 15 May 1926, p. 3.

    [32] See J Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International 1922, Leiden, 2012.

    [33] Huma, 9 May 1926, pp. 1-2.

    [34] See R Tosstorff. Profintern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920-1937, Paderborn, 2004.

    [35]J Riddell (ed.), To The Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Leiden, 2015, p. 62.

    [36] Huma, 5 May 1962, p. 3.

    [37] See RP June 1926, p. 10.

    [38] J Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Leiden 2012, pp. 22-27. See also C Harman & T Potter, “The workers’ government”, at https://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1977/xx/workersgov.htm

    [39] Huma, 11 May 1926, p. 3.

    [40] Huma, 13 May 1926, p. 1.

    [41] A Rosmer, Lenin’s Moscow, Chicago, 2016, p. 210.

    [42] Huma, 15 May 1926, p. 1.

    [43] Huma, 20, 21, 23, 25, 27 June 1926.

    [44] For the CPGB’s analysis of the strike, see LJ Macfarlane, The British Communist Party, London, 1966, pp. 163‑76.

    [45] Huma, 23 May 1926, p. 1.

    [46] Huma, 21 May 1926, p. 1.

    [47] Huma, 27 May 1926, p. 2.

    [48] Huma, 25 May 1926, p. 1.

    [49] Huma, 27 May 1926, p. 2.

    [50] See I Birchall, “La Vie ouvrière: A Beacon of Internationalism”, Socialist History No. 46 (2015).

    [51] See material in Revolutionary History, Vol. 7, No. 1 (2000).

    [52] RP, May 1926, p. 30.

    [53] See J & M Postgate, A Stomach for Dissent: The Life of Raymond Postgate 1896-1971, Keele, 1994. See also M Mulholland, “How to Make a Revolution: The Historical and Political Writings of Raymond Postgate”, Socialist History No. 49 (2016).

    [54] J & M Postgate, A Stomach for Dissent makes no mention of La Révolution prolétarienne  or of any French contacts; the names Monatte and Rosmer do not appear in the index.

    [55] RP, June 1926, pp. 1-5.

    [56] RP, June 1926, p. 1.

    [57] RP, June 1926, p. 5.

    [58] RP, June 1926, p. 1.

    [59] RP, June 1926, pp. 5-8. Postgate’s diary appeared in English in the US journal New Masses in September 1926. The text is reproduced in J & M Postgate, A Stomach for Dissent, pp. 127-36.

    [60] RP, July 1926, p. 6.

    [61] RP, June 1926, p.6

    [62] RP, June 1926, p. 6.

    [63] RP, June 1926, p. 7

    [64] RP, June 1926, p. 8.

    [65] RP, June 1926, p. 10.

    [66] Huma, 9 May 1926, p.3.

    [67] RP, June 1926, p. 28.

    [68] RP, July 1926, p. 5.

    [69]RP, August 1926, p. 19. Postgate’s account of the Weymouth conference is largely confirmed by HRS Phillpott, The Right Hon J.H. Thomas, London, 1932, pp. 118-9.

    [70] RP, August 1926, pp. 30-31.

    [71] RP, September 1926, pp. 31-2.

    [72] RP, September 1926, pp. 30-31.

    [73] See A Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre, Paris, 1936, p. 36.