Striking Back: Novels of Class Conflict by Two Proletarian Women Writers

For the first time since the General Strike in Britain in 1926, the two biggest member unions of the national Trades Union Council (TUC), Unite and Unison, which together organise over three million private and public sector workers, have called on the TUC to prepare for a general strike to protest the Conservative Government’s brutal austerity policies. The leader of Unite, Len McCluskey, said this would be an “explicitly political strike [that] would be a landmark in our movement’s recovery of its morale, strength and capacity to play a leading part in a society crying out for credible and honourable leadership.”1 This call to action in Britain follows on from the one-day European general strike that took place on 14th November 2012, involving workers from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic states, in protest against the economic, political and social counter-revolution that the European Union and International Monetary Fund are pushing through in the wake of the world financial crisis. Sporadic general strikes continue to break out across Europe, an indication that the class struggle is sharpening and the trade unions are being compelled by the rank-and-file to respond in a much more overtly political way.

In this article I want to discuss in more detail the function and significance of the mass strike in relation to works written by two proletarian women writers in the 1920s: Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s This Slavery (1925) and Ellen Wilkinson’s Clash (1929). I have chosen these two novels for several reasons. First, they are both compelling depictions of big strikes, which make up the core of the narrative: This Slavery is based on the great Lancashire lockout and strike of weavers in 1911-12, while Clash is centred around the general strike in Britain in 1926. Second, not only are strikes the setting of these novels, they also portray the active participation of women as the main focus of the story, something that is almost unique in British working-class fiction. Third, and most importantly, they explore in a psychologically convincing way the impact of the strikes on the development of these female protagonists, in terms of their deepening awareness of the revolutionary implications of the conflict. What I want to argue therefore is that these two novels of class struggle have a continuing political relevance in the way they dramatise the problems and possibilities of the mass strike, on both an individual and a collective level.

The mass strike as revolutionary tactic

In the classical marxist discussion of the function of the mass strike, a key element has been its role in the promotion of class consciousness among working people. In a letter to Friedrich Bolte in New York, dated November 23, 1871, Marx for example explained the difference between economic and political strikes, and how at a certain stage in the development of the class struggle, economic issues can quickly become transformed into anti-capitalist demands as strikes take on a more direct political significance. This is a process that can be seen even more so today where capitalism is no longer willing or able to maintain the most basic social and economic reforms of the past. As Marx noted, in such a situation, the struggle for even limited aims threatens to go beyond the scope of the system:

The ultimate object of the political movement of the working class is, of course, the conquest of political power for this class, and this naturally requires that the organisation of the working class, an organisation which arises from its economic struggles, should previously reach a certain level of development.

On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class as a class confronts the ruling classes and tries to constrain them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt by strikes, etc., in a particular factory or even a particular trade to compel individual capitalists to reduce the working day, is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force through an eight-hour, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say, a class movement….

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power, of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against this power and by a hostile attitude towards the policies of the ruling classes.2

What this quote also points to is another fundamental problem Marx already identified in The German Ideology (1845-7): how is the working class to become capable of actively emancipating itself when it is on the receiving end of a constant process of ideological conditioning that is bent on keeping it politically passive? For Marx, this dichotomy of oppression and liberation can only be resolved by working people transforming themselves through the day-to-day process of class struggle: “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”3 Such was the general marxist connection between individual and social transformation, but at this early stage in the development of the workers’ movement, it remained somewhat abstract. Strikes, however, were nevertheless viewed as one important factor in the emergence of a radical shift in popular consciousness.

One of the decisive turning points in the marxist debate was outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1905, a prolonged general strike that, despite its failure, became a model for the subsequent October revolution in 1917. What this earlier event showed most clearly was the function of the mass strike, not only in linking the economic and political demands of the working class, but also in releasing its revolutionary potential to develop new forms of democratic power, in this case, the soviet, or workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils.

It was Rosa Luxemburg who wrote the most immediate and comprehensive study of the significance of the strike movement in Russian in 1905, in her book The Mass Strike: the Political Party and Trade Unions (1906). In her analysis of the fundamental lessons of the strike, Luxemburg builds on Marx’s earlier observations by arguing that the general strike is not just one more expression of the class struggle, but that it is where the working class actually prepares itself for the taking of power, drawing to itself other sections of the population that might still be in the hegemonic thrall of capitalist ideology. A strike moreover radicalises the workers in a much shortened period of time, challenging the tyranny of their everyday routine and exposing the class antagonisms that lie behind. It is this dialectic between spontaneous action, collective organisation and class consciousness that, according to Luxemburg, characterises the revolutionary dynamic of every mass strike:

[I]n order to carry through a direct political struggle as a mass, the proletariat must first be assembled as a mass, and for this purpose they must come out of factory and workshop, mine and foundry, must overcome the pulverisation and the decay to which they are condemned under the daily yoke of capitalism. The mass strike is the first natural, impulsive form of every great revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and the more highly developed the antagonism is between capital and labour, the more effective and decisive must mass strikes become.4

Moreover, Luxemburg used the example of the mass strike in Russia in 1905 in order to criticise the reformist leadership of the Second International which, because of the previous parliamentary success of the German Social Democratic Party, had abandoned the idea of the revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society by the working class itself. Luxemburg sought therefore to stress the international significance of the Russian experience of the mass strike, from which it was necessary to draw fundamental revolutionary conclusions about the tactics and strategy of the workers’ struggle:

Accordingly it appears when looked at in this way, to be entirely wrong to regard the Russian revolution as a fine play, as something specifically “Russian,” and at best to admire the heroism of the fighting men, that is, the last accessories of the struggle. It is much more important that the German workers should learn to look upon the Russian revolution as their own affair, not merely as a matter of international solidarity with the Russian proletariat, but first and foremost, as a chapter of their own social and political history.5

A similar observation can also be made today about the significance of the Arab spring, as well as the spread of mass strikes throughout the countries of southern Europe (Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Italy, Spain and Portugal) – mobilisations that seek to defend the basic requirements of a modern civil society, such as the right to employment, healthcare, housing, food, education and old-age pensions. This has become an unequal but combined struggle that clearly needs the international co-ordination and co-operation of workers’ parties, trade unions, student groups and other radical social, political and green movements in order to succeed. In a world of global capitalism, there is no longer any national road to socialism.

In his own dramatic, eye-witness account of the 1905 revolution in Russia, written in 1908-9, Leon Trotsky, who was elected chairman of the newly created St. Petersburg Soviet, also shows how, as the strike movement gained momentum, economic demands were transformed into political ones, regional struggles became national, producing in their turn a leap in revolutionary consciousness among the strikers themselves:

On 9 October, at an extraordinary meeting of the Petersburg delegates’ congress of railway personnel, the slogans of the railway strike were formulated and immediately disseminated by telegraph to all lines. They were the following: eight-hour day, civil liberties, amnesty, Constituent Assembly.The strike began confidently to take over the country. It finally bade farewell to indecision. The self-confidence of its participants grew together with their number. Revolutionary class claims were advanced ahead of the economic claims of separate trades. Having broken out of its local and trade boundaries, the strike began to feel that it was a revolution – and so acquired unprecedented daring.6

Continuing the debate in his “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” written in January 1917 on the eve of another revolutionary upsurge that would most dramatically apply the lessons of the previous popular uprising in Russia, Lenin reasserted not only the fundamental significance of the mass strike as the motor force that drives the revolution forward, but also the need to comprehend more fully the tactical implications of this critical mode of class struggle:

At the same time, the Russian revolution was also a proletarian revolution, not only in the sense that the proletariat was the leading force, the vanguard of the movement, but also in the sense that a specifically proletarian weapon of struggle – the strike – was the principal means of bringing the masses into motion and the most characteristic phenomenon in the wave-like rise of decisive events.

The Russian revolution was the first, though certainly not the last, great revolution in history in which the mass political strike played an extraordinarily important part.7

Lenin’s basic point here is that the 1905 strike revealed the challenge to power that this kind of mass mobilisation always represents: the question of “Who rules?” is immediately posed, initially in the workplace, but then in the nation at large. This process was repeated for example in Britain in 1972 when a national strike of coalminers brought the country to a standstill and caused the Conservative government led by Edward Heath to call a general election on this very question of which side had the majority support of the population – the government or the trade unions. The election result was a resounding defeat for the government and a victory for the miners, forcing Heath to resign. It was this bitter blow to the Conservative Party that led Margaret Thatcher later to launch a much more consolidated and violent confrontation with the miners that culminated in the prolonged strike of 1984-5. After the breaking of this mass strike, mainly because of the lack of active support of the Labour and trade union leadership, the government closed down most of the mining industry in Britain, punishing the miners for their militant tradition of class mobilization.8

Thus, in this stage of the death agony of capitalism, Lenin argues that every big strike has the power to trigger a life-and-death conflict with the whole system:

The day-to-day experience of any capitalist country teaches us the same lesson. Every “minor” crisis [in such a country] discloses to us in miniature the elements, the rudiments, of the battles that will inevitably take place on a large scale during a big crisis. What else, for instance, is a strike if not a minor crisis of capitalist society? Was not the Prussian Minister for Internal Affairs, Herr von Puttkammer, right when he coined the famous phrase: “In every strike there lurks the hydra of revolution”? Does not the calling out of troops during strikes in all, even the most peaceful, the most “democratic” – save the mark – capitalist countries show how things will shape out in a really big crisis?9

Moreover, following on from Marx’s analysis of the dialectical link between working-class existence and consciousness, Lenin insisted that the “real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political, and especially revolutionary, struggle. Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will.”10 A few months later, in April 1917, Lenin returned once more to the experience of 1905 in order to show the revolutionary direction that the new process in Russia was taking – towards a clash of dual power between the ruling class and the workers.

The two principal tasks facing the people remained the same as before: how to get rid of capitalism and with to replace it with. This time however the answers were already there. It was the emergence of the soviets or workers’ councils during the mass strikes of 1905 that provided the basis for replacing the bourgeois state with a truly democratic one, involving the direct, decision-making participation of the workers, peasants and soldiers. The creation of the soviet was therefore an historic achievement of the working class, something that Rosa Luxemburg had surprisingly ignored in her earlier appraisal of the events of 1905.11 In contrast, for Lenin, it was the most fundamental aspect of the strike in Russia, one that showed how the revolutionary transition from capitalism to socialism could be made. At this crucial moment in the process of 1917, one can see Lenin drawing directly on the experience of the previous mass strike in Russia in order to promote the organisation of new forms of democratic control in the revolutionary situation that was again developing:

The Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’, and other Deputies are not understood, not only in the sense that their class significance, their role in the Russian revolution, is not clear to the majority. They are not understood also in the sense that they constitute a new form or rather a new type of state […]

This is the type of state which the Russian revolution began to create in 1905 and in 1917. A Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, Peasants’, and other Deputies, united in an All-Russian Constituent Assembly of people’s representatives or in a Council of Soviets, etc., is what is already being realised in our country now, at this juncture. It is being realised by the initiative of the nation’s millions, who are creating a democracy on their own, in their own way, without waiting […]12

As can be seen from the above interventions, the mass strike retains a central place in the marxist understanding, then and now, of how a deeper awareness of the need for radical social change, and for alternative forms of direct democracy, can be developed. Our task here will be to explore the literary dramatization of such moments in the works of Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Ellen Wilkinson – and how these fit into the larger tradition of working-class fiction.

The traditional strike novel

In the history of international socialist and working-class literature, the strike novel has had a central position. The drama of a strike has always attracted radical authors, since such a precipitous event quickly lays bare the underlying class relations of society. Strikes are about collective struggle, but also involve the personal choices of individuals in terms of which side are you on? The strike theme is therefore particularly pertinent to the exploration of tensions both within and between the different classes. This is certainly the case in some of the most famous strike novels written in the 19th and 20th centuries: Émile Zola’s portrayal of French coal miners in Germinal (1885), Martin Andersen Nexø’s epic novel of the general strike in Denmark, Pelle the Conqueror, the Great Struggle (1917), John Steinbeck’s story of striking migrant fruit pickers in California, In Dubious Battle (1936), and Sembene Ousmane’s depiction of the trade union struggles of Senegalese railway workers in God’s Bits of Woods (1960). What is common to all these novels, however, is that the authors are men and the main protagonist is also a man, usually the strike leader, who becomes the psychological focal point of the conflict in the narrative.

This gender bias is also the case in most of the strike novels written in Britain, especially those about the general strike of May 1926, an event that has attracted particular attention among radical writers. These include Harold Heslop’s The Gate of a Strange Field (1929), James Hanley’s The Furys (1935), Leslie Paul’s Men in May (1936), John Sommerfield’s May Day (1936), and Lewis Jones’s We Live (1939). However, not only are these British working-class novels again written by men about men, they often reproduce a further gendered stereotype of a family conflict between men and women, where the home is pitted against the factory, and where women are depicted as being opposed to the trade unionism or politics of their boyfriend or husband. The complaint of two male factory workers in Sommerfield’s May Day is typical in this respect:

‘It’s the wives that break many a strike.’

‘She says my conditions are all right and what the others do is their affair.’

‘That’s the worst with women – no offence meant to your wife, mate, but they’re all of a piece. You can’t make them see we’ve all got to stand together […]’.13

In her recent survey of the often troubled political relationship between women and the labour movement, Cinzia Arruzza refers to this early established image of the home and family as a conservative bulwark, which kept women isolated and often unsympathetic to radical ideas: “At the time an argument [about votes for women] was very prevalent that women were more influenced by religious and reactionary forces than men, and therefore their votes would favour right-wing and conservative political parties […] The family was seen, for the most part, as a place where oppression was perpetuated and conservative, reactionary values, prejudices and superstitions were inculcated. It was seen as an obstacle to a fuller, richer social life outside the walls of domesticity.”14

It is their complete break with this narrative convention that makes Carnie Holdsworth’s and Wilkinson’s novels so remarkable and challenging, as they depict women as activists at the very forefront of a big strike. Their writing thus throws a very different gendered light on the experience of a strike, most significantly in the way they link the private concerns of these women to the broader issues of the strike. This radical shift in perspective was of course very much a product of the marxist-feminist consciousness that these female writers shared and which defined both their writing and their lives.

The two writers and their works

Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (1886-1962) and Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) combined a solidly working-class background with radical political commitment. Both were born in the industrial northwest of England, their fathers working as weavers in the cotton mills, their mothers as working-class housewives. Carnie Holdsworth became herself a mill operative at the age of eleven, working a ten-hour day at the factory as a cotton winder. She was only able to leave the mill after almost two decades when she published her first novel, Miss Nobody in 1913, after which she became a full-time writer and journalist. Both women were political activists who were very much inspired by the 1917 October revolution in Russia, leading to their involvement in the British Communist Party. Wilkinson, or “Red Ellen” as she was always known, was herself one of the founding members of the Communist Party, but later joined the Labour Party, eventually being elected as a trade union sponsored Member of Parliament (MP) in 1924. Although she also accepted to become Minister of Education in the radical Labour government of 1945, “she retained a Marxist outlook for much of her life.”15 According to her biographer, she always kept a portrait of Lenin above her bed, about which she said: “I look at it every morning and get cracking.”16 Her most famous work is The Town that was Murdered, published by the Left Book Club in 1939, depicting the economic and social rise and fall of the shipbuilding town of Jarrow, in the district she represented. In one of the most iconic events of the Depression in Britain, Wilkinson organised and led the famous Jarrow March of unemployed workers to London in 1936 to protest against the government’s complete neglect of working-class communities that had been left to rot in the wake of the economic crisis. Both Wilkinson and Carnie Holdsworth were also campaigners in the Suffragette movement and remained committed to the cause of women’s liberation. As anti-fascists and anti-militarists, they were active in support of the republican government during the Spanish Civil War and against fascism in the Second World War. Surprisingly, however, given the similarities of their literary, feminist and socialist range of activities, they never seemed to have met.

When it comes to the limited critical discussion of their work, there is agreement about their significance as proletarian women writers of industrial fiction. Both their novels have also been recognised as powerful literary responses to the deepening class struggles of their time. P.M. Ashraf writes for example: “In This Slavery the problems of political education, of a mature leadership, of reformism, of mastering revolutionary theory and the lessons of a sharpening conflict in industry are not character traits but part of the story.”17 Referring to the same work, H. Gustav Klaus comments that “its revolutionary ardour … indicates how much it owes to the 1911-14 unrest when industrial conflicts were spreading, and the deployment of troops against strikers, as related in the novel, was no unusual feature.”18 In contrast, however, recent critics have tended to focus more on the use by both writers of the romantic conventions of the popular novel in order to bring out issues of gender in their work. In the case of Carnie Holdsworth’s novel, This Slavery, Nicola Wilson describes it as “a passionate feminist-Marxist critique of both economic and sexual slavery, coupled with a plea for women’s freedom under socialism.”19 Similarly, Wilkinson’s novel has been seen as “a romantic plot within a class-conscious and feminist framework of ideas.”20 Pamela Fox makes this narrative connection even more explicit in relation to both Wilkinson and Carnie Holdsworth:

[I]t is Wilkinson’s incorporation of the cross-class romance plot into this […] narrative that is most crucial to the working out of her feminist, as well as proletarian, agenda […] Even more so than This Slavery, Clash self-consciously foregrounds the ideological functions of the cross-class romance. The romance plot most dramatically facilitates the text’s concern as a whole with the opposition between “false” and “true” class consciousness.21

It is clear that these two working-class women writers not only complement one another politically, their novels have much to say about how the roles of women, both at home and at work, are transformed by the impact of a big strike. Exploring the relationship between private and public spheres in the context of a sudden and dramatic sharpening of the class struggle, these novels are highly successful literary expressions of radical political consciousness.

Class conflict and the novels

The decade of the 1920s was one of the most radicalized periods in the whole of 20th century Britain, in many ways much more so that the more iconic age of left-wing commitment of the 1930s. One of the decisive factors here was the Russian revolution, which inspired a whole series of revolutionary uprisings in Germany, Hungary, Mexico and China, and more limited workers’ revolts in Spain, Italy, Poland and elsewhere. In Britain, as John Lucas argues, the so-called Jazz Age of the 1920s was also a period of much more sustained social, political and economic upheaval than has previously been acknowledged:

As soon as we turn from the glittering lives of the social butterflies we can see that the definitive moment for the 1920s is not the Wall Street Crash but the General Strike. Even more than the election of two minority Labour Governments, first in 1924 and then again in 1929, the calling of the strike in May, 1926, and its ignominious collapse after 10 days, made for a wholesale change in the way an increased number of people, including writers and intellectuals, thought about the society they lived in and of its, and inevitably their, social and political values. I am not certain how quickly the change happened or was perceived to have taken place. For some, immediately. Others, looking back, realised that 1926 marked an occasion when something momentous had occurred. The strike itself might not have been the moment but it was undoubtedly the catalyst.22

For Ellen Wilkinson, this was certainly the case. Not only did she contribute to the writing of A Workers’ History of the General Strike (1929), she also drew the radical political conclusion (in her introduction to another book on the conflict) that the “General Strike may not be Britain’s 1905, but it undoubtedly has been a rehearsal for something bigger. Who knows how soon the performance will be staged?”23

Both Wilkinson and Carnie Holdsworth based their fictional narratives on their own knowledge and experience of two decisive events in the history of the class struggle in Britain, which together represented a significant débâcle for the Labour movement. The collapse of the General Strike after ten days in 1926 is the turning point in Wilkinson’s Clash, while the Great lockout of Lancashire mill workers in 1911-12 forms the background to This Slavery. The latter conflict was a consequence of the employers’ refusal to accept a closed shop, that is, that all the workers in the mills should be members of the same union. However, in both cases, it was the trade union leadership that failed to push through a determinedly militant struggle which in the end led to defeat. It is not surprising therefore that the clash between reformist and revolutionary politics provides one of the underlying ideological themes in the novels.

In his study of the actions of the trade unions in the Lancashire conflict of 1911-12, Joseph L. White corroborates the claim that it was the failure of the union leadership that was the main cause of the defeat of the workers:

The officials did not appear to realize that their tactics must have resulted in an industry-wide lockout. The base of public support was extremely narrow. When they finally realised the mess they had created, they indeed had no plan save that of complete surrender.24

Peter Taaffe is even more damning about the capitulation of the British TUC in 1926 after nine days of general strike in support of the miners’ fight against longer working hours and less pay: “[A] general strike is the greatest school for driving home the realities of class society and the nature of the state […] the General Council of the TUC was not capable of doing this. On the contrary, by the end of the first week of the strike, they were desperately attempting to rein it in and secretly opened negotiations with the government.”25 A.J. Cook, the coal miners’ leader, wrote later in a similar vein: “It seemed that the only desire of some leaders was to call off the General Strike at any cost, without any guarantees for the workers, miners or others.”26

The question of the role of the Labour and trade union leadership is certainly a recurring one in Clash, where the abrupt ending of the strike has direct repercussions on the personal decisions facing the main character, Joan or “Red Joan,” about her own future. As a trade union organiser, she is active in both promoting the strike and organising a campaign of solidarity for the miners and their families. The calling off of the general strike represents therefore a devastating blow, especially to the miners, who nevertheless continued to fight for another nine months on their own. But the novel does not end on a note of defeatism, at least not as far as Joan is concerned. The strike is instead a baptism of fire that defines her life and continued commitment to the cause of the working class.

A similar consequence of the strike occurs in This Slavery, which brings back together the novel’s main protagonists, Hester and Rachel Martin, two sisters, one of whom has escaped the grinding poverty of their lives by marrying a mill owner, while the other remains a mill worker. Although they have been both brought up as radicals, Hester’s subsequent cross-class romance could be seen as a reformist bridging of the social divide, a plot device popular among middle-class writers of philanthropic industrial novels in the early 19th century – Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855). In This Slavery, however, Hester’s marriage turns out to be a personal disaster and she eventually gravitates back to her radical roots – first, by supplying the strikers with secret information about the mill owners’ plans and then, at the very end, by intervening between the strikers and the troops, who have been sent to crush the strike. It is this final act of class solidarity that gets her shot and killed.

Thus, in both novels, the struggle between reformism and revolution are illustrated by the lives of the female protagonists. In Joan’s case in Clash, it is reflected in her relationships with prospective male partners: the middle-class writer, Tony Dacre, and the revolutionary working-class activist, Gerry Blain, whom she finally chooses. In This Slavery, the ideological tension is between the two sisters, whose loyalty to their working-class roots is tested by the strike. The somewhat melodramatic twists in both plots have, however, led critics like Pamela Fox and Maroula Joannou to overstate the case for a popular cultural reading of the two novels in terms of the romantic love lives of the female characters, a focus that relegates the function of the strike to the background of the narrative. Fox is typical in this respect, when she writes critically of P.M. Ashraf’s more overtly political interpretation of This Slavery:

I, too, applaud Rachel’s refreshing role as a speaker and strike leader who courageously confronts the mill owner, struggles to read Das Kapital, and spends time in prison for the cause – especially as she so clearly supersedes the prototype socialist/union figure Jack Baines. But in the haste to claim Rachel as a new improved version of the proletarian fictional hero, Ashraf neglects to mention other more problematic aspects of her character, specifically her involvement in a love triangle that includes Baines and Hester. This omission creates a distorted picture not only of Rachel as a female figure, but also of the novel as a whole, whose political and romantic plots are undeniably interwoven.27

Fox is without doubt right to remind us of how gender and class are linked in the novel, although she herself is clearly more concerned with the emotional aspects of these women’s domestic lives. However, the fundamental political significance of this intersectional connection becomes blurred in her analysis. The fact that Rachel “supersedes” Baines, the reformist trade union leader, is for example a narrative turn that is loaded with symbolic meaning and has profound implications for the ideological projection of the novel beyond cross-class reformism. This more revolutionary oriented interpretation is supported most explicitly by the function of Hester, who at first appears to be a class collaborator, but whose trajectory points instead to the impossibility of any such social reconciliation. The mobilising of the troops and her death at their hands is surely the final blow to this kind of political illusion of a mutual interest between workers and capitalists. Instead, the discrepancies between individual and class consciousness during the strike are revealed with both psychological insight and poignant effect. Throughout the novel, there is moreover a clash between the politics of reformist parliamentarianism and of revolutionary force, a debate that is expressed most consistently by Rachel in the speech she makes to the strikers about the prospect of a peaceful outcome of the struggle:

That is the difference between myself and you. I am not content to be a moderately-fed slave. You are. I am not content to be a slave at all. I want a Labour Government to get in. If that fails – if any illegal force is used against us when we get that, as no doubt there will be, then it’s a straight fighting issue between this class and that class, and I hope we shall have more weapons than they will, seeing we make them, so that there will be as little blood shed as necessary, and that not our blood, but the blood of those who would clutch their ill-gotten possessions even into the grave, and beyond!28

A similar critical objection can be made of Joannou’s tendency to emphasize the personal elements of Clash as a popularized depiction of the specifically female-oriented desire for emotional fulfilment. Once again, however, in such a revisionist reading, the revolutionary politics of the narrative become subordinate to a more historically indeterminate context of gender expectations within the narrative. Thus, Joannou writes:

Clash can be read as a site of a transformative socialist-feminist politics: Ellen Wilkinson offers the reader revealing glimpses of how political struggle enables women, as a consequence of their very involvement, to identify and clarify their own priorities as women. Even if the brisk narrative pace makes it impossible to develop ideas in any real depth, the novel dramatises prescient feminist issues, including women’s right to express their sexuality, the importance of paid employment, and their right to be physically and economically independent of men.29

Joannou’s claim about the impossibility of developing ideas “in any real depth” in the story is a surprising one, since the novel is in fact shot through with political debate: about the role of reformism and the trade union movement, the relationship between the leadership and the rank-and-file, the Labour Party and Communist Party, and not least the link between the general strike and revolution. I would argue, therefore, that while the issue of gender equality is certainly dramatically expressed through the love life of the main female character, in the end her choice of partner is also a political one. In Joan’s case, she rejects the reformist socialism of the middle-class members of Bloomsbury, personified by Tony, and identifies instead with the more revolutionary cause of working-class self-emancipation, represented by Gerry. Ostensibly, it seems to be a question of which man to marry, but the decision is also ideological, as she herself admits:

“Gerry, you were right,” she said. “It’s difficult when you get to the fine shades between class and class, but the big broad issue is there. It’s the issue that this century will be occupied in fighting out. We don’t want to face it, but it’s there.”

“It’s there all right,” answered Gerry quietly.

There was a silence for a time, and then Joan said in a low tone, “I’m sorry about dishing Helen’s show, but this afternoon showed me where I had been drifting. I’ve got to stick with my crowd, Gerry, and work with them. I’ve got to be in this fight. You were right. One can’t live in luxury and pretend one is working with them just the same. I’m in the ring from now on. No more trips to the stalls,” and she smiled at him.

“Is there any reason why we shouldn’t be in the ring together, Joan?”

She did not answer for a moment – and then said slowly: “Not if the work comes first, Gerry.”

“It will – with both of us.”30

The figure of Gerry is not only significant in terms of the life of political engagement that Joan envisages with him; throughout the novel he represents also the most consistently marxist appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of the strike. The fight therefore that Joan refers to is the building on the lessons of the defeat, not least in relation to the role of the revolutionary party and the trade unions. In another of the many prolonged exchanges about politics in the novel, it is Gerry – in conversation with Tony – who draws the most far-sighted conclusions about the need for workers’ leaders to be made more democratically accountable, politically and personally, through their sharing the same living conditions as the workers. This had been one of the most calamitous contradictions of the strike, since it was the division between the privileged trade union bureaucrats and their ordinary members that left the leadership completely out of touch with the rank-and-file, allowing them to call off the strike despite the growing militancy and momentum of the movement:

“I except nobody, least of all myself – but I do say this. When we’ve finished all our explaining and apologizing to Rothermere and Beaverbrook [owners of the bourgeois press] we remain a revolutionary party – at least, that part of it that’s worth anything does. Well, that means leaders, and it seems to me that old man Lenin got right at the root of things when he insisted on the necessity of trained leaders.”

“Professional revolutionaries – a damnable idea,” said Tony sternly […]

“Paid agitators? No, I don’t want people paid for agitating. That’s the devil of things as they are now. As soon as any member of the working class shows ability as a leader, if he’s too rebellious to be collared as a foreman by the boss, the men make him an official and he steps right out of his class. Take Joan there. Now think what a power she would have been if she could have been kept in that shop where she used to work. Of course she would have got the sack and had to get another, but she’d have gone on fighting. What happens? She’s pretty (don’t blush, Joan), she’s clever, she is made an official. Then come along the Mary Mauds and the Anthony Dacres.” (“and the Gerald Blains,” put in Dacre). “Quite. She is now a member of the middle class. Then she’ll get into Parliament and be quite a lady. Shall you be presented at Court, Joan? Women M.P.s can be if they like, I understand,” he said teasingly […] “You asked me what could get things altered in this country, and I say the only thing is for the men and women who can lead the workers is to stick with them, live their life, eat their bread, and resolutely refuse to go one step beyond the standard of living of the people they are leading. I tell you, that would create the revolution quick enough.”31

As can be seen from the above, radical politics remains at the very heart of this strike novel. The same applies to This Slavery. Although both Carnie Holdsworth and Wilkinson are consciously recycling certain popular narrative tropes, clearly their prime intention is to concentrate on some of the key ideological contradictions that emerge during the strike, conflicts that transform their characters’ view of themselves and others.

How do workers build their collective strength?

Strikes are not only transformative for those who take part in them; they also reveal to working people their real collective strength as a class. Even though these novels deal with trade union betrayals, the ultimate message is that such a defeat can sometimes be more valuable an experience than a partial victory in the class struggle.

In This Slavery, the breaking of the strike by scab labour and finally the violent repression by the troops appears to be overwhelming proof of the ability of the employers to quell any rebellion of the workers. But the story makes tangible not only the experience of militant class solidarity, but also the influence socialists like Rachel have on the strikers in helping them see themselves as part of a broader movement of social protest. As in Clash, a conscious political point is made about the bond that needs to be built between leaders and workers, one that is firmly based on a sense of mutual class interest:

It was the Fellowship Socialist propaganda had created, the Fellowship of comrades, who, though they now abide under Capitalism, shall shatter it at last, stretching their hands down to the most wretched, recognising nothing but Class Honour, Class Unity, and Class Organisation, and bringing this Trinity to beat at last, with unscarred hands, with mailed fists, on the brass gates whereon is written, ‘Ye may not enter’.32

It may seem at first somewhat unlikely that Rachel spends her evenings reading Marx’s Capital, after working long hours at the mill. But there is another conclusion drawn in both novels about the translation of theory into practice, about the need for political direction in order to move forward. Rachel is a working-class autodidact, someone who has become actively aware of the tradition of working-class struggle that she can reach back to in order to understand herself and her world. Moreover, the personal sacrifice of her sister, Hester, to defend to the death the cause of the strikers, is not just an act of foolhardy idealism, but is the logical consequence of her own understanding of what is at stake in the class struggle. This is shown most clearly when she argues with Jack Baines, the trade union leader, about the limitations of a purely economic fight for wages, a tactic that only goes to preserve the status quo. In the end, it merely reproduces the stasis of class oppression, one that also corresponds in many ways to the condition of women. It is a powerful indictment of the reformism of the union bureaucracy, showing how public and private concerns are inexorably intertwined in the novel. Implicitly, it is also a call for the overthrow of patriarchal capitalism, articulated by a politically conscious, working-class woman:

“Nothing. You are always doing nothing – always bargaining for percentages – like the bosses. Perhaps I fancied that you might think it more practical to fight for Freedom – than haggle with the bosses for percentages. But I never had any opinions that were worth anything. Women never have.”

A mocking, pale-faced ghost, with vibrating passion in her voice, she challenged him again, from a new vantage-ground.

“So long as our hair is nicely put up, so long as we attend to the things between the four walls, that is sufficient for boss and slave. So long as we will continue to breed children, whether they are to be bosses or slaves, that is all you care. So long as we are the slaves of slaves, or the slaves of bosses – that is enough. So long as we make a neat job of either boss’s-house or slave’s-house – that is enough. And if you are the Galahads you would have us believe – you ought to be prepared to do anythinganything – to change the lives of women and children from slavery to freedom – even though you had to lay down your own lives to do it. Instead of which you are trying to get five per cent. – five per cent. – of the wages of Slavery, increased. And you come here and taunt me. And we have both got our wages of sin, you as a Trades Union official bargaining for five per cent. rises – and I, as the wife of the boss. Shall we shake hands?”33

In Clash, there is also a growing sense of the revolutionary potential of the strike and the possibility of a violent confrontation with the state, something for which the trade union leadership is completely unprepared. It is once again Joan, personifying the radical conscience of the novel, who contemplates the prospect of the leadership abandoning the strike and the consequences such a betrayal would have for the workers:

What good could a general strike do unless it ended in a revolution and the workers really took control? Joan found herself smiling at the bare thought. Weston and Arkwright and Hepplestone – were these trade union leaders likely to lead a revolution? Still, things might get out of hand. Joan shuddered to think what that could mean in the mining areas if some of these ex-officers were given a free hand. The miners would be fighting machine-guns with only their bare hands and the faith that was in them.34

More so than in This Slavery, there is in Clash a tangible expression of the power of the workers to take control and re-organise society themselves.

As Lenin noted, a general strike always tends to pose the question of who rules and how. In the case of the British general strike in 1926, the spark that ignited the strike was the breakdown of negotiations with the government after the printers’ union, Natsopa; refused to include an article in the reactionary Daily Mail newspaper attacking the strike. This immediately put into question the freedom of the bourgeois press, which caused the government to cease negotiations with the trade unions. During every day of the strike, including the last one, millions of workers heeded the call for solidarity with the miners, spreading the strike further throughout the country. Moreover, in many towns and villages, strike committees became the only functioning organ of local government, giving the workers proof of their own capacity to run society themselves. This was the first indication of dual power – proletarian versus bourgeois – that began to emerge during the 1926 strike. It is also an experience that leaves a profound impression on both Joan and Gerry in Clash: this sense of radical initiative and collective energy of ordinary people that the strike produced. These expressions of democratic workers’ control come as a revelation to those who have only seen working people as passive wage slaves, as Gerry explains: “In most places the strike committees are really great. It just shows what a lot of organising ability is running to waste among the workers in this one-eyed country, when a man is called a ‘hand’ and allowed to think. Crewe and Coventry, and a score of the towns I have visited, are being run by sheer soviets.”35

This fictional observation was in fact also a reality during the general strike, especially in the working-class areas of northern England, where the beginnings of a take-over of state control could already be discerned. Thus, according to Chris Farman: “The strike committees were clearly intending to substitute their own authority for that of the government. It is probable that, if the strike had been prolonged, regional groupings of councils of action would have operated with an increasing indifference to the TUC and they may well have evolved into embryo soviets.”36 Despite the defeat of the strikes, there is therefore in both novels a pronounced utopian element in the depiction of working-class mass mobilisation that projects a more radically optimistic image not of what is, but of what could be. It is also a reflection of the unique capacity of literature to render political conflicts in personal terms and in doing so show how underlying class ideologies are expressed in everyday structures of feeling, to use Raymond Williams’s phrase.

In the context of the discussion within marxism about the role of the mass strike, novels such as This Slavery and Clash can help us grasp some of the decisive political questions, both individual and collective, that are posed by a broad strike movement. But they do more. In depicting the process of workers moving beyond the day-to-day struggle for survival to challenging the whole system of capitalist power, these novels can help us make a leap in thinking that another world of direct people’s democracy is possible. Even though they are set in the early decades of the last century, these novels still speak to us through the voices of their working-class characters who are faced with the task of fighting for a radical social transformation of society. That challenge still remains.

In an article entitled “The Nature of the General Strike,” written on September 18, 1935, Trotsky warned against the bureaucratic abuse by reformist leaders of the tactic of the mass strike in order to waylay the militancy of the workers and ultimately exhaust them:

The parliamentarians and the trade unionists perceive at a given moment the need to provide an outlet for the accumulated ire of the masses, or they are simply compelled to jump in step with a movement that has flared over their heads. In such cases they come scurrying through the back stairs to the government and obtain the permission to head the general strike, this with the obligation to conclude it as soon as possible without any damage being done to the state crockery. Sometimes, far from always, they manage to haggle beforehand some petty concessions to serve them as figleaves.37

This strategy can most certainly be discerned today in the wake of the recent upsurge of popular resistance to the economic cutbacks in Spain, France, Italy and Greece, with limited one-day general strikes having been called on several occasions by the trade unions. These are mass strikes that mobilise the people, allowing them to vent their rage at the system, but which have tended to lead nowhere. In the final analysis, this form of truncated strike is counterproductive and poses no real threat to the bankers, big shareholders and bourgeois politicians who are behind the current crisis. The system has learned to accommodate these manifestations of protest since it recognises the political impotence of the reformist leaderships that call such single days of action.

Strikes and more particularly general strikes are the penultimate weapon of the workers in the class struggle. They are precursors of revolution, and an understanding of their decisive political function remains therefore essential, if they are to be successful. The experience of past strikes, both gains and losses, nevertheless forms part of the legacy of collective action that the Labour movement can learn from in order to prepare itself better for the battles to come. The strike novel has also contributed to this rich tapestry of workers’ history, a radical narrative tradition that needs to be recovered and revived by each new generation of readers and activists. As this article has sought to show, Ellen Wilkinson’s Clash and Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s This Slavery still stand out as two compelling sources of insight and inspiration in the ongoing debate about where we are now in the struggle and where we go from here.


1. Quoted in The Independent newspaper, 4 April 2013.

2. Karl Marx to Friedrich Bolte in New York, 23 November, 1871. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence 1844-1885, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975, 254-5.

3. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978, 94-5.

4. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike: The Political Party and the Trade Unions, London: Merlin Press, n. d., 67 (translation slightly modified).

5. Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 69.

6. Trotsky, 1905, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973, 106.

7. Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” Selected Works, vol. 1, Moscow: Progress Publishers 1970, 781.

8. At the time of the great strike in 1984-5, there were 250,000 miners in Britain; today there are hardly 5,000, even though one third of the country’s energy supply still comes from coal, which is now imported. See Lee Hall, “A history still being written,” in The Miners’ Hymns, London: BFI, 2010, 7.

9. Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” 787.

10. Ibid., 783.

11. Luxemburg makes only a brief and passing mention of the new soviet, without commenting on its significance: “The general council of workers delegates decided to achieve the eight-hour day in a revolutionary manner.” The Mass Strike, 39-40.

12. Lenin, “The Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution,” Selected Works, vol. 2, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970, 62.

13. John Sommerfield, May Day, London: London Books Classics, 2010, 45.

14. Cinzia Arruzza, Dangerous Liaisons: The Marriage and Divorces of Marxism and Feminism, Pontypool: Merlin, 2013, 37-8

15. Ian Haywood and Maroula Joannou, “Introduction” to Clash, Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2004, viii.

16. Quoted in Betty D. Vernon, Ellen Wilkinson, London: Croom Helm, 1982, 120.

17. M. Ashraf, Introduction to Working Class Literature in Great Britain, Part II, Prose, Berlin: Lehrmaterial zur Ausbildung von Diplomlehren, 1979, 195.

18. H. Gustav Klaus, “Silhouettes of Revolution: Some Neglected Novels of the Early 1920s,” in H. Gustav Klaus, ed. The Socialist Novel in Britain: Towards the Recovery of a Tradition, Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982, 95.

19. Nicola Wilson, “Introduction” to This Slavery, Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2011, xiv-xv.

20. Haywood and Joannou, “Introduction” to Clash, xiv.

21. Pamela Fox, Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working-class Novel, 1890-1945, Durham: Duke University Press, 1994, 170.

22. John Lucas, The Radical Twenties: Aspects of Writing, Politics and Culture, Nottingham: Fives Leaves Publications, 1997, 3-4.

23. Quoted in Maroula Joannou, ”Reclaiming the Romance: Ellen Wilkinson’s Clash and the Cultural Legacy of Socialist-Feminism” in David Margolies and Maroula Joannou eds., Heart of the Heartless World: Essays in Cultural Resistance in Memory of Margot Heinemann, London: Pluto Press, 1995, p.152.

24. Joseph L. White, The Limits of Trade Union Militancy: The Lancashire Textile Workers, 1910-1914, London: Greenwood Press, 1978 145.

25. Peter Taaffe, 1926 General Strike: Workers Taste Power, London: Socialist Publications, 2006, 109.

26. Quoted, Ibid., 109.

27. Fox, Class Fictions, 164.

28. Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, This Slavery, Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2011, 112.

29. Joannou, “Reclaiming the Romance” (note 23), 158.

30. Ellen Wilkinson, Clash, Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2004, 189.

31. Ibid., 167.

32. Carnie Holdsworth, This Slavery, 163.

33. Ibid., 139-40.

34. Wilkinson, Clash, 30-31.

35. Ibid., 82.

36. Christopher Farman, quoted in Taaffe, 1926 General Strike, 114.

37. Trotsky, “The Nature of the General Strike,” 18 September 1935, Marxist Internet Archive,

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