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Andy Price

A miners’ leader and 1926

(December 1983)

From Militant, No. 679, 9 December 1983.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NOVEMBER 22 marked the centenary of the birth of A.J. Cook. The occasion was remembered by miners throughout Britain and the world because of the enormously important role he played in the struggle to establish trade unionism amongst miners.

The battles Cook led and fought in the 1920s contain important lessons for trade unionists today and that is why we should carefully study his life and work.

The main influence on Cook’s thinking was that of syndicalism. As a philosophy syndicalism is characterised by both strengths and weaknesses. It argues, and this is its fatal weakness, that the struggle for socialism is essentially an industrial struggle, which begins and ends on the shop floor. Marxism, on the other hand accepts the importance of industrial struggle, but also argues that on their own industrial struggles are insufficient to bring about socialism. Shop floor battles need to be generalised into political struggles linked to the perspective of achieving power for the working class.

Syndicalism’s strength in the early twentieth century lay in its progressive role in breaking down parochial attitudes amongst workers and in fighting to organise strong industrial unions, particularly among semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

This was true of one of the very early organisations in which Cook played a part. The South Wales Miners’ Unofficial Reform Committee was formed out of the experiences of the 1912 miners’ strike and the Cambrian lock out. Cook and Noah Ablett established themselves as dedicated fighters for the main demands of the committee, contained in The Miners’ Next Step:

Cook’s struggles in South Wales to win support for the demands of The Miners’ Next Step were a mere foretaste of the titanic battles he was to lead in the 1920s. In this period the whip of the bosses, determined to make the workers pay for capitalism’s crisis, and the inspiration of the Bolshevik Revolution, spurred the working class to colossal battles.

The first major battle came in 1921 when Lloyd George suddenly announced the ending of war-time control over the coal industry and the owners, proposing massive wage cuts, posted lock-out notices at every pit.

The determination of the ruling class to break the unions and in particular the miners was observed by Julian Symons, not a writer noted for his revolutionary fervour:

“A state of emergency was declared, reservists were called to the colours, machine guns were posted at pit heads and troops in battle order were sent to many working class areas.” Symons – The General Strike! (our emphasis)

The working class were betrayed by their own leaders. Last minute hesitancy by miners’ leader Hodges let the ultra-reactionary leader of the railwaymen, Jimmy Thomas, seize the opportunity he had been looking for [to call – ID] off the strike of Triple Alliance unions. The entire working class, not just the miners, had been betrayed in a most abject manner. The miners would now have to fight on their own, and Friday 15 April, 1921 was to be bitterly remembered as Black Friday.

During the 1921 lock-out Cook achieved national status as a miners’ leader. Correctly he tried to make the best of a very bad situation and worked tirelessly for the miners’ cause. A parallel can be drawn here with the overwhelmingly successful struggle of the miners in 1972 when a little known Yorkshire organiser, Arthur Scargill, rose to national prominence.

Cook’s high point

Given the betrayal of the leaders of what was subsequently referred to as the Cripple Alliance the defeat of the miners was inevitable. The betrayal wrought a terrible price not just on the miners who returned to work on the coal owners’ terms of massive wage cuts, but within a year of the 1921 lock-out wage cuts had successfully been imposed on engineering workers, shipyard workers and cotton operatives. Drunk with success the coal owners and the government decided where ever possible to victimise militants. Cook was arrested, charged with unlawful assembly and sentenced to four months imprisonment.

One of the conclusions drawn by rank and file militants from the defeat of 1921 was the need to organise more effectively and to build a fighting leadership in the TUC. To this end Cook played an important role in the establishment of the National Minority Movement. In 1924 its founding conference was attended by 270 delegates representing a quarter of a million workers. At its peak the NMM had one million trade unionists affiliated to it, which represented only a fraction of its true support and influence.

The newly formed Communist Party placed itself at the head of the Minority Movement and, because of this, the movement was never able to realise its true potential. Hindered by early bouts of ultra-leftism and fatally misled by Stalin during the general strike, the influence of the CP was another factor in the defeat of 1926.

In 1924 the solid support enjoyed by the Minority Movement among miners was reflected in Cook’s election to the General Secretary’s position of the MFGB.

Shortly after his election Cook led the miners into what appeared to be a great victory. The appalling mismanagement of the industry by the coal owners had delivered it to almost complete financial ruin. The coal owners, determined to shift the responsibility for the crisis onto the shoulders of the miners, served notice that the miners would have to accept less money for working longer hours. In June 1925 the owners served one month’s notice on the miners to terminate the existing wages agreement, cut wages and enforce longer hours.

During this crisis Cook adamantly refused to even to speak to the coal owners until the notices were withdrawn. When the government, obviously stalling, set up a court of inquiry into the coal industry, which Cook correctly refused to appear before, so overwhelming was the case in support of the miners that the court of inquiry, eventually ruled in their favour! At rank and file level the miners enjoyed massive support from fellow trade unionists and this was sufficient to force the TUC General Council, frightened of losing its authority, to declare in favour of the miners and threaten widespread sympathy action in their support. In the face of such solid opposition Tory Prime Minister Baldwin capitulated and on 31 July announced a subsidy of £23 million to the coal industry to prevent wage cuts.

The miners had won a great victory largely as a result of Cook’s determined leadership. 31 July went into the annals of labour history as Red Friday.

Battle lines

The tragedy of Red Friday was that many trade union leaders, even some on the left, believed that Red Friday was the end and not the beginning of the struggle. Baldwin’s subsidy was to last nine months, until 1 May 1926. The ruling class was to use this nine months to prepare thoroughly for a major confrontation with the trade unions.

“Whatever it may cost in blood and treasure we shall find that the trade unions will be smashed from top to bottom” – declared Lord Londonderry speaking not just on behalf of his fellow coal owners, but on behalf of the whole ruling class.

“I mean all workers in this country have got to take reductions”, said Baldwin.

The ruling class’ meticulous preparations for civil war were spearheaded by Winston Churchill who never missed an opportunity to express his almost pathological hatred of trade unionism and socialism. The TUC General Council did nothing.

When the general strike began the right-wing leadership of the TUC were absolutely terrified of the force that they had unleashed. Again Thomas personified the sheer rottenness of their position.

“What I dreaded more than anything else was ... if by chance it should have got out of the hands of those who could be able to exercise some control, every sane man then knows what would have happened.”

Cook declared a radically different, but nevertheless dangerously misguided, point of view. “A strike of the miners would mean the end of capitalism” he declared on the eve of the strike.

Throughout the nine heroic days of May 1926, whilst the right wing consciously sold out their members, Cook fought might and main for a miners’ victory. But in this situation honesty and dedication were not enough. Cook did not, and as a syndicalist could not, understand the situation. The only way the general strike could have led to the end of capitalism was to link the struggle to the perspective of workers’ power. This meant a leadership prepared to broaden the struggle to link the Councils of Action to the perspective of a democratic workers’ state.

Unfortunately the Communist Party was totally misled by Stalin. They persuaded the Minority Movement to place their faith in the ‘left’ members of the TUC General Council. Two of these leaders, Powell and Hicks, were to play a key role in the betrayal of the strike whilst the CP tail-ended the movement with the totally abstract slogan “All power to the TUC General Council”!

During the 1926 general strike the question of power was posed in the starkest possible terms in British society. Syndicalism was put to the test and failed. The main responsibility for the defeat of 1926 will always lie with the treacherous policy of the right wing leaders of the TUC General Council. Compared with Cook they will forever stand as pygmies in the gallery of working class leaders in British history. Having said this it would be foolish to deny that Cook’s politics bore no responsibility for the defeat of the general strike.

The position of Marxism and the brilliant predictions made by Trotsky in Where is Britain Going? were borne out entirely by the events of May 1926. No situation could be of greater class polarisation than that of a general strike.

Despite Cook’s total commitment to the miners’ cause his confused position left him with no credible alternative to that of the right wing. In fact Cook withdrew from sale his pamphlet Nine Days in which he criticised the right wing’s role in the strike. He refused to support the demand for the reconvening of the conference of trade union executives until after the miners’ lock out. Scandalously in the first TUC Congress after the strike Cook added his enormous authority to the demand of the right wing that the strike should not even be discussed!

The defeat of the general strike, the long lock-out of the miners, and their return to work on the coal owners’ terms shattered Cook. The general strike constituted the greatest ever defeat of the British working class. The unbelievable indignities the Tories inflicted on the miners, and the sheer desperation of the situation were summed up in a letter which Cook wrote in April 1929 to Arthur Horner:

“Practically every day young men, stranded, call for food, clothing and shelter at my office. Every day the post brings terrible epistles of agony and despair. I have helped all I can, begged all I can till I have been almost demented with despair.”

Shortly after this Cook died of cancer. Every ounce of his energy had been devoted to the cause of socialism, and every penny he owned was given to the Miners’ Federation. Hodges, his predecessor, was appointed by the Tories a member of the National Electricity Board. He later became a director of several colliery and steel companies and died in 1947 leaving an estate of over £100,000. He represents the traditions of the right wing. Cook represents a tradition the right wing cannot begin to understand.

After 1926 the trade unions were broken. Company unionism spread like a cancer throughout the coalfields. Today the unions are infinitely stringer and in the coming battles we can learn from Cook’s weaknesses, but more importantly draw inspiration from his strengths.

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Last updated: 14 November 2016