The Folkestone strikes of 1919 should remind us that the organised working class can effect huge change in this country, argues John Westmoreland
1919 was the year when modern Britain came closer to revolutionary change than at any other time. The number of days lost to strike action rocketed from nearly 6 million in 1918 to nearly 35 million in 1919. And in every fresh outburst of militancy the government of Lloyd George saw another manifestation of the Bolshevik revolution that had ended war on the eastern front in 1917.
The soldiers’ strikes that began on 3 January 1919 at Folkestone were particularly terrifying for the ruling class. Soldiers, sailors and airmen showed they were willing to refuse the orders of their officers. This challenged the ruling class who thought their right to govern was God-given. It also limited the government’s power to use repression on striking workers at home and to continue waging reactionary war abroad.
The Armistice, November 1918
The Armistice of 11 November 1918, contrary to the official historical account, was a tactical move by the British and French governments. On 9 November Sir Henry Wilson, Britain’s Chief of the Imperial Staff, recorded in his diary that Lloyd George was worried about the imminent collapse of Germany and the possibility of a Bolshevik seizure of power. Wilson records:
“Lloyd George asked me if I wanted that to happen or if I did not prefer an armistice. Without hesitation I replied ‘Armistice’. The whole cabinet agreed with me.”
The intention of both the French and British governments was to use the Armistice to continue to gain military and political advantage over Germany. Therefore the British naval blockade of Germany continued despite massive civilian casualties. As the German troops left the battlefield on the western front, British and French troops pressed into West Germany.
The political objectives were not only to disable Germany’s participation in the peace settlement that was to follow, it was also to use the ceasefire to mobilise troops against Bolshevik Russia. This meant that the Armistice, far from ending war, meant fresh military campaigns and prevented the much awaited demobilisation that the British troops craved.
The government failed to calculate the extent to which the conscripted workers that formed the bulk of the British army in 1919 would resist. The war had produced a wave of militancy throughout Britain, and the beacon of hope that the Russian revolution had offered workers across Europe was another factor to be reckoned with.
On 3 January 2,000 soldiers in Folkestone refused to board troop ships that would take them back to France. They refused orders – a capital offence in wartime – and led a protest march of 10,000 through the town. They then proceeded to form a Soldiers’ Union with a committee of rank and file soldiers.
The newspapers were forbidden to report what was a major insurrection of national importance. Nevertheless the success of the mutiny at Folkestone spread. There was something approaching fifty mutinies across Britain despite a total press blackout. The demands of the soldiers were for speedy demobilisation and no fighting in Russia.
If the mutinies had been isolated from other servicemen and workers the government would have used force to crush the rebellion. Indeed General Haig advocated shooting rebels. He was, however, restrained by the Cabinet who saw this as a sure way to spread the strikes. Even Churchill appeared to be a moderate offering restraint, but this was largely because he knew that when this had been attempted in Russia, it had served only to increase the authority of the Bolsheviks.
The strikes spread across the English Channel too. In Calais a strike of 20,000 troops, including nurses in the Medical Corps, demanded an end to bad food and excessive duties, as well as more pay. The strike was highly organised and lasted from 27-31 January. Altogether there were nearly 50 mutinies involving tens of thousands of troops in Britain and abroad.
There was mutiny in the navy too. At Milford Haven the sailors on HMS Kilbride refused to do their watches for the rotten pay they were receiving, refused to go to sea and hoisted the red flag.
The demands of the strikers were not revolutionary. However, the ruling class were aware that unless they were responded to sensitively they could well escalate. Britain’s attitude to revolutionary Russia was to be a decisive factor.
Hands off Russia!
If the demands of the soldiers had simply been about pay and conditions the government would have found it much easier to manage the situation. However the mutinies were against war and the right of the ruling class to declare war. The slaughter in the trenches had revealed the callous indifference of Britain’s rulers to the working class. The desire to attack the workers’ government of Russia blew apart the wartime propaganda about the war being declared simply to defend Belgium from the German aggressor.
As George Lansbury put it in The Herald,
“Have you wondered why demobilisation is so slow? Perhaps you think it is merely ‘red tape’. It is not. It is the Red Flag – in Russia. Our masters are trembling for more than their Russian dividends; they are trembling for the security of the dividend-hunting system all the world over”. Chanie Rosenburg, 1919: Britain on the Brink of Revolution, page 13.
Lansbury was absolutely right. Winston Churchill was the most ardent opponent of what he called ‘the foul baboonery of Bolshevism’, and his hereditary wealth and privilege, love of war and empire, no doubt contributed to his view. The British government, at Churchill’s request, and despite massive national debt, committed £100 million to the cause of the White Russian counterrevolutionary forces.
However, the Hands Off Russia campaign thwarted Churchill. The campaign began at a conference held in London in January 1919. Prominent socialists such as Tom Mann and Davie Kirkwood were among the attendees at the conference and many of the delegates went on to be members of the British Communist Party.
Sylvia Pankhurst commented on the success of the Hands Off Russia campaign in August 1919:
“For months past "Hands Off Russia" has found its way into the resolution of every Labour and Socialist propaganda meeting, and literature about Russia has been the more eagerly read than any other.”
The significance of the Hands Off Russia campaign is that it connected the workers and the soldiers around a clearly political demand – solidarity with Soviet Russia and no to imperialist war. The campaign in Britain chimed with the experience of soldiers already in Russia, who were unwilling to treat their former allies as the enemy. The mutiny of the 13th Battalion of the Yorkshire Light Infantry at Archangel in Northern Russia, in February 1919, sent a shock wave through the British ruling class. Field Marshall Lord Ironside warned about British troops being prepared to turn their machine guns on the White troops. The mutiny in Russia compounded the refusal of troops in France and Britain to go to Russia, and as a result Lloyd George reluctantly refused Churchill’s request for more troops to be sent.
The Hands Off Russia campaign was the decisive factor in preventing the British ruling class from taking the country into another round of imperialist war and it forced the government to demobilise the troops.
Russia and the Labour Party
Was Britain on the brink of revolution in 1919? To the ruling class it must have looked particularly ominous. The unity of workers and soldiers in militant action around clearly political demands looked too much like Soviet Russia for their liking.
However, Britain and Russia were different entities in many respects. Britain had no peasants demanding the redistribution of land, which was a central plank of the Bolshevik appeal to dispossess and disempower the Russian ruling class. Britain also benefited from a highly developed middle class upon which the ruling class relied as a transmission belt of their rule, and a managerial layer between themselves and the workers.
The most important difference between Britain in 1919 and Russia in 1917 was, however, the weight of reformism in Britain. Both the trade union leaders and their parliamentary representatives were prepared to use the militancy of workers and soldiers to support their goal of achieving reforms through parliament, but nothing else. If revolution was to succeed the workers would need to develop their own leadership, independent from the trade union bureaucrats and placemen. There were many clear-sighted socialists in Britain trying to offer this kind of lead, such as John Maclean in Glasgow, but they lacked the numbers and unity of purpose to out manoeuvre the Labour leadership.
Labour leaders were only prepared to work through ‘constitutional methods’ and this placed them in direct opposition to any demands that had revolutionary implications. The war years had seen Labour leaders working closely with government to meet the needs of war. They believed that after the war was over Labour could more reasonably expect to be perceived as a party fit to govern. They argued that ‘reason was better than treason’ and sought to isolate the Left. The Labour leaders united with the Tories in condemning the Bolshevik revolution as violently undemocratic, which was somewhat ironic in the aftermath of an imperialist world war that had claimed the lives of millions.
In March 1919 the Miners’ Federation demanded that British troops should be withdrawn from Russia, and in April they put a similar resolution to a conference called jointly by the TUC and Labour Party. The resolution advocated that industrial action should be taken to force the government to cede to their demands. However the right wing determined that industrial action could not be discussed on the grounds that trade union activity for political ends undermined the parliamentary methods of the Labour Party. The conference ruled to seek ‘clarification’ from Lloyd George, who duly informed them that no more troops were to be sent to Russia. However, he confirmed that support would continue to be provided for General Kolchak. Kolchak was the White general who used collective punishments against those suspected of being Bolshevik sympathisers. Whole villages were burnt. Mass floggings and shootings were commonplace. Yet Lloyd George’s assurance proved to be good enough for the Labour leaders!
Thus the revolutionary potential in 1919 remained in the hands of Labour leaders who were not prepared to use it. Unlike Russia, the most militant British soldiers and sailors did not have a revolutionary party like the Bolshevik Party that they could use to advance their own independent strategy against the reformism of the Labour Party and trade union leaderships. To Lenin's immense frustration, a communist party in Britain was not founded until 1920.
The mutinous soldiers largely escaped any punishment. The government was forced to accede to many of their demands. The speedy demobilisations from February were testimony to the effectiveness of the protests. For the ruling class it was also a means of disempowering armed and battle-hardened adversaries who had been prepared to brandish their guns.
The ruling class learned from their near disaster much better than the Labour leaders, and planned to intensify their methods of class rule once the crisis was over. This was something the Labour leaders were unprepared for. They had chosen not to use the potent weapon they held in 1919 and it was the working class who paid the price, not least in the next chapter of wholesale slaughter that commenced in 1939.
The Hands Off Russia campaign had frightened the British ruling class. The vicious imperialist rule gloried in by Churchill, and thwarted by the mutinous soldiers, would burst upon the independence movements in India and Ireland with horrific results. This was a bloody reassertion of imperial and Conservative rule.
However, it would be wrong to remember the strikes of 1919 as simply a glorious failure. In 1945 the memory of 1919 was still strong. The post-war government rolled out the modern welfare state after 1945 precisely to avoid another revolutionary challenge, as returning soldiers and sailors asked what their reward for victory would be. In India and Africa British rule was challenged with renewed vigour, and Churchill’s glorious British empire crumbled.
For us the lesson of 1919 is that when the ruling class is in retreat, when their callous indifference is exposed, when their entire legitimacy is taken away, then we have the right to press for revolutionary change to stop imperialist war and class rule. Who knows? Maybe sometime soon austerity, war and environmental destruction will expose capitalist governments the world over, and we will get our chance to finish the job.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.