The stories of 1919 are historic struggles. But mostly, they failed. Even when they succeeded in heading off a particular attack or winning an advance, they did not succeed in remaking society.
Imagine if they had. Imagine if workers had succeeding in taking and holding power in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere, and had linked up with Soviet Russia. Imagine if movements in the colonies had won full independence and brought an end to empire; the end of war had seen a democratic and internationalist peace rather than a punitive one. Imagine if Britain’s trade union battles had won public ownership and democratic control of industry, and if workers had consistently fought against the government and employers instead of against each other. Imagine if the labour movement’s leaders had fought our side of the class struggle as effectively as the capitalists’ leaders did.
The entire history of the last hundred years would have been completely different. There would have been no fertile ground for Hitler to come to power and murder millions. A Soviet Union not battered and isolated would have been unlikely to see a tyrant like Stalin take its reins. Working people could have reorganised production so that it met human need rather than filling profit accounts, eliminating poverty and protecting the environment. A collective and planned economy would not have lurched into crisis, causing the hunger and desperation of recession. National rivalries and war could have been replaced by the solidarity of peoples.
Is this just fantasy? Was workers’ revolution possible?
The Socialist Labour Party claimed in its 1919 manifesto that, ‘The air of Europe is quivering with revolution! And not alone the air, but the whole land-owning and capital class of this country are quivering with fear at the unforeseen results of the European War.’
There is plenty of evidence that the ruling class genuinely feared working-class revolution. Lloyd George wrote to his Cabinet Secretary, Tom Jones, that should the Triple Alliance strike, ‘it is imperative that the state wins. Failure to do so would inevitably lead to a Soviet Republic.’
The conditions for revolution
Revolution becomes possible when people lose faith in the old order, refuse to support it or follow its instructions, and people create, participate in and obey a new source of power.
There was a glimpse of this in the general strikes in Glasgow, Belfast and especially in Limerick. Strike movements become potentially revolutionary when they progress from refusing to work to working under their own orders rather than the bosses’.
The British government certainly believed that workers’ revolution was possible, saying this in public words and private letters. In May 1919, a Home Office survey listed the six top causes of revolutionary feeling amongst the working class: high prices; bad housing; hatred of the rich; education; leadership; and unemployment. But the sad truth is that there was no revolutionary leadership.
Workers’ revolution needs the existing regime to be in crisis and the workers’ movement to be conscious of its need and ability to overturn it and take control. In 1919, both these conditions were developing.
So, why didn’t it happen?
The short answer is that the leaders of the ruling class fought their side of the class war more effectively than the leaders of the working class did.
Labour MPs were at best absent from working-class struggles, at worst actively opposing them. The communists had not yet formed a united party.
On 1 February, the Herald complained of ‘little or no co-ordination in the Trade Union world. … There is no concerted plan of action: there is merely a growing spirit of unrest. There is no clear vision of the goal in view, and little or no conscious revolutionary feeling.’Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative Party leader in 1919, said that ‘The trade union organisation was the only thing between us and
anarchy’. In his history of the year, written from the point of view of the British state, Simon Webb concluded that, ‘In a very real sense, the leadership of the unions were allies of the government, as anxious as the Cabinet that the political system of Britain remain intact.’
This is not a matter of anger at the personal failings of Thomas, Smillie and other union leaders, however justified that anger may be. The bureaucratic structure of our unions creates leaders who find a comfortable niche in the system, negotiating between the rulers and the workers.
1919 provides inspiring stories and important lessons.
Capitalism has crises, and at times becomes weak enough to directly challenge. The working class can confront capitalism and replace it with socialism if it forges an effective, democratic, rank-and-file-led movement with accountable, representative, recallable leaders. And if it has the political consciousness to take the situation forward.
To put these things in place, we need to study and learn from our history, and to develop theory and strategy. Workers’ Liberty is working to build an organisation that can do this. Contact us and work with us.