As 1919 began, working-class people in Britain and many other countries looked forward to leaving the Great War behind them and rebuilding their lives.
They expected and demanded a better society than the one they had endured before the war had started four-and-a-half years previously. Their Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, had promised them a ‘land fit for heroes to live in’ and told them that by defeating Germany and its allies they had defended freedom and democracy. Liberal Lloyd George had just led his Tory-dominated coalition to a landslide victory in a general election called at very short notice to cash in on armistice euphoria.
But Labour had polled well in that election and was growing stronger in the country. Trade unionists were ready to resume their ‘Great Unrest’: the wave of strikes for better wages and conditions that had begun in 1911 and paused when the war started in August 1914. Shop stewards and rank-and-file workplace activists had gained confidence and experience during the war, as they had pursued industrial struggles when their union leaders had refused to do so.
Ineffective union leaders were matched by ineffective Labour MPs. Labour’s impressive twenty per cent of the vote had won it just eight per cent of Parliament’s seats, and the fifty-seven Labour MPs were mostly conservative union officials committed more to maintaining Parliamentary respectability than to advancing working-class interests.
So Britain’s working class had high expectations but a government that did not intend to deliver them, and a labour leadership which for the most part did not intend to lead it not battle. And it had an example in Russia of workers taking power into their own hands.
Lloyd George had promised much in order to get the votes of the newly-enfranchised British working class in December 1918. But before very long, in the words of communist Wal Hannington, his slogans and soundbites ‘rang like bitter mockery in the ears of the men who had come from the bloody battlefields only to be cast on to the industrial scrap-heap of capitalism and to see increasing privation for themselves and their families.’
The year ahead would see a huge wave of working-class struggles in Britain and around the world. There were mutinies by soldiers, strikes by workers and rebellions in colonies. There were even places where the working class rose to political power. But in all but one case, that power was brutally defeated by the old order, and the one exception – Russia – was isolated, invaded and starved.
Workers won victories as well as suffering defeats, but did not overthrow the oppressive system they lived under and create a better one. Could they have won more? What went right and what went wrong? What does the experience of 1919 tell us about our struggles and our prospects in 2019?
To read more about working-class struggle in 1919, buy this pamphlet.