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How to write history

How to write history

On May 23rd «Rinascita» [organ of the Italian Communist Party in 1964] published a commemoration of the great English General Strike of May 1926, courtesy of the quill (a peacock’s quill) of «comrade» historian Eric Hobsbawm. At least, for once, we are presented with a really good example of the Stalinian and post-Stalinian art of rewriting history.

«On May 4th 1926», we read, «the English workers went on strike and gave the best example of organised solidarity [with the miners] England, and perhaps any other country, has ever seen. Nine days later, still as united as ever, they went back to work betrayed by their leaders. This was the glory, and at the same time the tragedy of the General Strike. The battle was fought marvellously by the soldiers but led by generals who neither wanted to fight nor knew how to fight.
‹Lions led by asses› was the definition somebody gave of the English army during the 1st World War, and there is an analogous contrast between the rank and file and the leaders in the army of the Labour Movement during the strike. But it isn’t identical. The ‹Lions› demonstrated not only their courage, discipline and steadfastness, but also the capacity to organise and show initiative, whereas the leaders revealed not so much their stupidity as their fear, fear of the workers rather than of the enemy»

What the illustrious historian omits to mention is that the English strike of 1926 did not break out in the airtight vacuum of an exclusively «national» campaign, but flared up at the same time as the great proletarian movements in China were inflaming the passions of the working masses throughout the World. Also, it wasn’t just the leaders of the trade unions and the Labour Party who were responsible for the defeat of the strike. As well as these professional traitors, the unfortunately already Stalinised Comintern was also to blame because instead of bypassing the traitors and taking a generous outburst of class struggle into its own hands, the best it could do was join the traitors in founding the famous Anglo-Russian Committee; imprisoning the British proletariat in an organ not of revolutionary leadership but of reformist reconciliation in the same way as it had imprisoned the glorious Chinese proletariat of Shanghai and Canton in the Kuomintang and later in the Kuomintang’s «left wing».

About a year later in his first speech to the Central Control Commission [June 1927] Trotsky exclaimed:
«We told you that this Committee was ruining the developing revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. In the meantime, all your authority, the entire accumulation of bolshevism, the authority of Lenin – all this you threw on the scales in support of Purcell [the «union left» man]. You will say, ‹But we criticise him!› This is nothing else than a new form of support to opportunism by backsliding Bolsheviks. You ‹criticise› Purcell – ever more mildly, ever more rarely – and you remain tied to him. But what is he enabled to say in reply to revolutionists in his own country when they brand him as the agent of Chamberlain? He is able to say, ‹Now look here! Tomsky himself, a member of the Political Bureau and Chairman of the All-Russian Central Council of the Trade Unions who sent money to the British strikers[1], has made criticisms of me but nevertheless we are working hand in hand. How dare you call me the agent of imperialism?›. And would he be right or wrong? He would be right. In a devious way you have placed the entire machinery of Bolshevism at the disposal of Purcell».

These things the loyal Hobsbawm cannot say, and if he did «Rinascita» certainly wouldn’t publish them. But when the English historian recalls the words of Thomas, the leader of the railwaymen’s union:
«God help us if the Government doesn’t win!»,
or the words of MacDonald, the Labour Party leader:
«The greater the threat, the more rigidly must the Government respect the letter and the spirit of its constitutional responsibilities»
along with the revealing post-script
«I don’t like general strikes»;
when he recalls that the TUC only called out the «first line» of workers on strike, keeping in reserve the «second line» (the more powerful ones since composed of the metal workers and naval shipyard workers) and cancelled the strike just when they should have been brought into play; when, in a word, he recalls that trade-union and political opportunism sensed that they were directly menaced by the readiness of the masses to supplant them, and did everything to ensure a rapid and unsuccessful conclusion to the strike, we are entitled to shout in the faces of these specialists in the rewriting of History: So why did the International, which was so busy getting rid of the Left opposition precisely at that time, not lift a finger to separate itself from the trade unions, and «take the rudder of the movement» itself? Why did it let the money which Russian proletarians had generously donated for their British brothers to end up in the hands of the Thomases and the Purcells, in a word, in the hands of the traditional props of English capitalism? Why did it keep the Anglo-Russian Committee going even after the great British strike had been absorbed thanks to the betrayal of its allies? And what do you epigones do today whenever there’s a strike if not the same as those «chief sheep» of then?

Silence from Hobsbawm: and no wonder he’s silent. As far as he is concerned the most significant aspect of the English General Strike of May 1926 wasn’t its potential to spur on revolution but exactly the opposite… its legalism! For him the «extremists» who wanted «civil war» weren’t, Heaven forbid, the strikers, but… the Government officials! And if these officials were prevented from achieving this aim
«it was mainly because of the self-control of the workers and the strike’s total solidarity, as strong on the last day as the first».
This is the poison of opportunist betrayal: the strike is «as strong on the last day as on the first» but its strength is held to lie wholly in its «self-control»; in not seeing things through to the end. In fact the masses were ready for an all-out struggle and only needed to be given the word – we need only point to the miners’ refusal (after more than a year’s struggle) to accept the trade-union’s hurriedly concluded pact with the bosses. The masses, hitherto numbed, were ready to use force, and it was precisely the men who considered civil war a bourgeois provocation which the proletariat should carefully refrain from responding to who would prevent the General Strike in 1926 from being pushed to its ultimate global consequences. Today the same men are still at it, rewriting history by omitting to mention both the strike’s international impact (or more importantly, the impact it could have had) and the internationally orchestrated act of sabotage which marked the first blood-spattered dawnings of Stalinism; still they insult the defeated British proletariat by casting them in the role of specialists in «self-control», blindly obedient to bourgeois laws. Finally, it is the same men who effectively justify the Labourite betrayal, for if it was a matter of «exercising self-control» in order not to be provoked into falling into a Government trap, in that case the Labourites were right… to do nothing!

Hobsbawm says
«the leaders kept to this position [of avoiding any radicalisation of the struggle] right up to the end of the strike and even after».
Certainly the Anglo-Russian Committee continued to exist «even after» the generous outburst of class struggle had been stabbed in the back, and the International continued to back the committee as a potential «bulwark» against the menace of war, against… the U.S.S.R.! If the Committee existed today you can be sure that Hobsbawm (and Togliatti who commissioned the article) would have been party to it!

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  1. During the course of the General Strike itself, the General Council of the TUC would reject the Russian union’s offer of 22 million rubles; causing Trotsky to remark a few days later that this was bound to have surprised the Russian people who until then had not seen in the Soviet press any criticism of the General Council. After the strike was broken, massive donations were made by Russian workers to the miners as they continued to fight on. Trotsky would make the following observations about this financial assistance in his book «The Third International after Lenin»:
    «Certainly, support of an economic strike, even an isolated one, was absolutely necessary. There can be no two opinions on that among revolutionists. But this support should have borne not only a financial but also a revolutionary-political character. The All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions should have declared openly to the English mine workers’ union and the whole English working class that the mine workers’ strike could seriously count upon success only if by its stubbornness, its tenacity, and its scope, it could prepare the way for a new outbreak of the general strike». [⤒]

Source: «Il Programma Comunista», n.11, 1964, English translation in «Communist Left», n.10–11, 1996

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