The Fallout from the 1926 General Strike



Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]



The social policies that formed the core of the emerging welfare state in post war Britain were highly complex to implement, and were intensely contested. In 1921 a brief attempt was made to cut back expenditures (‘The Geddes Axe’) in order to make a return to pre war laissez faire. The social backlash was immediate, with major labor strikes and industrial unrest exacerbated by disaffection of decommissioned and unemployed soldiers. Avoiding disorder became a major concern for established politicians across the ideological spectrum, including labor politicians[144]. The massive 1926 general strike was a turning point in bringing about a ‘passive revolution’ in the general acceptance of the need for the consolidation of social policies that over time would come to form the backbone of what is now known as the welfare state. The strike involved more than 2.5 million[145] miners, transport workers, and steel workers against unilateral wage reductions of 13 percent, exacerbated by the withdrawal of government subsidies (effectively further reducing real wages by another 7-10 percent), in addition to the imposition of longer work hours, and generally worsening living conditions. These were the heavy industrial sectors that had greatly expanded in wartime, but were now facing dramatically reduced demand, coupled with unprecedented international competition during a period of major economic contraction.
Although the strike was defeated without much bloodshed, it had a considerable polarizing cultural impact. On the one hand, the general strike mobilized significant segments of the middle classes against radicalism, while on the other hand it convinced the Labour Party leaders to focus their efforts on accommodation with the parliamentary system and demand reformist concessions and favorable social policies[146]. Among the ruling circles the debate over how to respond to radical social discontent was intense. While some, like Churchill (the Chancellor), demanded a violent crackdown by the military, others, most notably Stanley Baldwin the Prime Minister, adopted a policy of appeasement combined with repression. The state had long prepared itself for the strike. The establishment press helped mobilize the middle classes against the strikers by claiming their actions to be a radical assault on the social order. Eventually the strikers could no longer sustain their effort and had to compromise amidst rising material pressures[147]. Chronic unemployment and persistent labor discontent and social unrest during the post war years (1918-1926) eventually tilted the balance toward the general acceptance of the need for the implementation of social and welfare policies. However, neither bureaucrats nor politicians were equipped on their own to justify, conceptualize, plan, implement, and evaluate the performance of the expanding array of social policies that were being formulated in ad hoc response to various crises. This task fell to the professional middle classes, including by now professional labor politicians and representatives[148], who had emerged as an increasingly coherent social force in the inter war era.
The ‘social question’ was gradually but unmistakably being defined in public discourse as, on the one hand, intolerable problems arising from class conflict and the insecurity caused by unregulated free markets and, on the other hand, the subversive agitations of political radicals taking advantage of public discontent[149]. From 1918 to 1926 chronic unemployment hovering over 1 million, deteriorating wages, and poor housing and living conditions, were by far the greatest causes of social discontent and the reason behind continued waves of strikes and political protests[150]. To save capitalism from itself the different spheres of the market economy needed to be differentiated and regulated in order to modify their combined and spiraling negative social impact, and the working population needed to be made stakeholders in the political and economic system.
Influential intellectuals and prominent economists, such as J.M. Keynes, argued for the necessity of differentiating markets according to their social impact. Labor markets, for example, could not be treated the same as consumer commodities: Whereas supply and demand could govern the market for physical goods, a sharp fall in demand for labor would have severe political consequences. The same was true for financial markets, as money and finance was the lifeline of the entire economic order, and the collapse of currency due to inflation or speculation would disrupt the political stability, as it had done in post war Germany[151]. Solving the crisis required authoritative and impartial intervention against individual interests of the employers, by insuring full employment, good wages, and economic security for the working classes. This would improve effective demand for consumer goods, and create economic prosperity and turn workers into stakeholders rather than exploited adversaries[152]. The trauma of the general strike of 1926 had rendered these arguments more convincing.
Taking on the role of formulating a growing set of social policies to deal with rising social crises and class conflict fell to professional experts from the academia as well as those employed in the private and public sectors, including urban and economic planners, journalists, engineers, civil servants, economists, statisticians, medical and public health officials, lawyers, and social scientists among others[153].
These social policies were advanced as new regulatory laws and institutional arrangements, addressing problems ranging from unemployment insurance to poverty alleviation, education reform, public health, workplace rules, affordable housing, old age pensions, and social security[154].
Historically, during the long 19th century, the drafting and proposal of social policies in Britain had been undertaken through parliamentary committees, like Edwin Chadwick’s mid-nineteenth century parliamentary reforms of Poor Laws, improving factory conditions, and public health and sanitary measures. Unemployment in particular, was a whole new category of social crisis that was ‘discovered’ after 1870, and came to be seen as “the fundamental problem of modern society”[155]. Great expositions of poverty and social injustice by journalists, philanthropists, popular novelists, and social reformers such as Henry Mayhew, Charles Booth, Ebenezer Howard, Arnold Toynbee, and Charles Dickens among others, had contributed to the social critique of the negative consequences of industrial capitalism and laissez faire. These sustained critical discussions by prominent academics and public intellectuals had given credence to the idea of a “social body”, or to ‘the nation’ as a collective social organism that required nurturing and rational guidance in order to improve (evolve and progress), and to avoid corruption and disease[156]. Earlier in the 19th century, these responses to intolerable social problems had begun to give impetus to the novel idea of the English government as a regulator and manager of social problems, especially when it came to dealing with the threats of contagious diseases, as we discussed earlier in this chapter[157].
However, to the extent that the government had involved itself in making social policy, it had been primarily the domain of elite amateur reformers, most of whom were dilettante gentlemen and products of middle class public schools who were in charge of effectively autonomous local governmental institutions, while a small and permanent corps of civil servants and bureaucrats was managing the drafting of related parliamentary acts for national implementation[158]. Gradually from the 1870’s onward, the trend toward the emergence of a new breed of middle class intelligentsia and technical experts displaying self-awareness as an increasingly coherent group, differentiating their social role from the other main social classes of landed gentry and aristocracy, businessmen and industrialists, and working classes, became unmistakable.
At the avant-garde of this spectrum were reformist socialists, trade union activists, and other prominent social reformers committed to the improvement of the living conditions of the working classes and the urban poor. Most of these reformers were associated with the Fabian Society and were shaped under the influence of the 19th century Benthamite utilitarianism. The Webbs, Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells, Ebenezer Howard, and (later on) Keynes, stood as prominent examples of this trend[159]. But the major shift took place when the governing Liberal Party itself became the main advocate of implementing social reforms and welfare policies, as the means of improving the national economy and the productivity of labor, and of averting political instability.
Perkin identifies this as an important moment in the rise of “the professional social ideal” in response to the crisis of a segregated class society. This collective identity was articulated around a number of key premises: At its core was a critique of the irrational consequences of unfettered laissez faire. It was built around a gospel of work and productive activity in service to ‘universal welfare’ as opposed to the ‘idleness’ bequeathed by private wealth (of hereditary landed proprietors) and selfish individual pursuits (of competitive merchants and industrialists). According to Perkin, “Professional people saw themselves as benevolent neutrals, standing above the main economic battles…While all classes try to justify themselves by their own concept of distributive justice, the professional class can only exist by persuading the rest of society to accept a distributive justice which recognizes and rewards expert service based on selection by merit and long arduous training… It is the success of such persuasion which raises him (when he succeeds) above the economic battle, and gives him a stake in creating a society which plays down class conflict…In all its manifestations, liberal, conservative or socialist, the professional social ideal consistently applied the test of justification by service to society and, in one form or another, of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, to the analysis and criticism of contemporary society”[160].

The critical importance of this development for the formation of the oil complex in Khuzestan becomes clear when we explore the apparently puzzling question of why in the post-WWI era both APOC and the fledgling Pahlavi state eagerly justified the expanding range of their social interventions and urban infrastructural activities in the name of disinterested service for universal public welfare, while they were engaged in actively dismantling existing local social and political structures and coercively dispossessing peasant and pastoralist communities.
Whereas a generation before, at the onset of the D’Arcy Oil Concession, British oil speculators had dealt exclusively with Persian courtiers and local tribal elites (19011921), by the mid 1920s the political irrelevance of the ordinary population could no longer be taken for granted. The practices and cultural attitudes of the oil corporation and state administrators and policymakers had undergone a significant change as a result of these global re-alignments. By the mid 1920s, both Oil Company officials as well as British and Persian administrators and policymakers had adopted the language and the outlook of professional experts, seeking to justify their actions and policies in the name of universal benefits to the ordinary population. The oil habitus in Khuzestan had changed, along with the global, national, and local transformations that had been ushered in the course of WWI and its aftermath. Already prior to WWI middle class expert professionals had played an increasingly important role in crafting social policies, especially in sanitation, factory and workplace regulation, cartography, and municipal affairs, but not directly in industrial and governmental policy-making[161]. The pattern was different in the colonies, where the ideology of laissez faire and competitive markets and free trade were not held as sacrosanct[162]. Throughout the British and French colonies technical experts were assigned a far more prominent role in governance through social engineering, surveying and mapping, infrastructure development, urban planning, and colonial governance through designing spaces and social life[163]. Hobsbawm’s statement about India holds true for the rest of the empire, despite his exaggerated singling out the crown jewel of the Empire as a supposed exception: “India was the only part of the British empire to which laissez-faire never applied. Its most enthusiastic champions in Britain became bureaucratic planners when they went there, and the most committed opponents of political colonization rarely and then never seriously suggested the liquidation of British rule”[164]. Throughout the 19th century the colonies had served as convenient laboratories of social engineering by technical and scientific experts in a manner that would have been politically and ideologically unacceptable in the home countries. Involuntary evictions and reallocations of populations, outright confiscations or the imposition of limits on property relations, coercive regulations of workplace habits, personal hygiene, family relations, domestic architecture and housing design, etc. were sensitive issues that lay at the ideological heart of liberalism and individualism, but were routinely practiced without undue moral qualms across the colonies. However, the global crises of the first decades of the new century paved the way for many of these techniques of governing the economy and society to be implemented in Europe as well, albeit with considerable political modifications in order to make them more acceptable. WWI precipitated the consolidation of Fordism, the new regime of capital accumulation, a central characteristic of which was the close coordination and overlap between large industry, centralized government, organized labor, expanded military, and universities165. The new political economy was also imposing significant reorganizations on these institutions, both internal and external. Managing this transition to a new regime of accumulation became the domain of professional experts and laid the foundation for the gradual but highly visible emergence of the technocracy, and its differentiation from civil servants, businessmen, and politicians[166]. The professionalization of philanthropists, reformers, and political activists who had advocated social reforms prior to WWI created a labor market for the emerging technocracy, allowing them to fill the social spaces between labor and capital, and between politicians, bureaucrats and the civil society[167].
The formalization of this new labor market for the professional class also led to the reform of the educational system, especially secondary schools and universities, as the institutions that would train and produce the professional classes, and accredit their scientific credentials and technical abilities. Since building an educational infrastructure aimed at shaping an adequate labor force in Khuzestan’s oil complex became a major bone of contention in the 1920s. I will review the relevant aspects of educational reform in Britain during this period, to provide a wider comparative context on this topic, which will be one of the topics of the next chapter.


Notes :
144. See for example Ernest Bevin and his role in the Labour Party’s highly reluctant endorsement of the 1926 general strike. J Graham Jones, “Ernest Bevin and the General Strike; a Note,” Llafur 8 (2001): 97–104.

145. The strike involved 800 thousand coal miners directly who were supported by 1.8 million steel and transport workers.

146. See Martin Pugh, “The General Strike,” History Today, no. May (2006): 40–47. On the impact of the general strike on public discourse see Kate. Flint, “Virginia Woolf and the General Strike.,” Essays in Criticism 36 (1986): 319–34; D. H. Robertson, “A Narrative of the General Strike of 1926,” The Economic Journal 36, no. 143 (1926): 375-393.

147 See Taylor, The Oxford History of England. 1914-1945, 241–248.

148. On the Labour Party and its commitment to industrial conciliation and accommodation with the political system see Ibid., 198–200, 219–220, 248–249.

149. Burnett, Idle Hands, 215-241 Deacon, “Concession and Coercion: The Politics of Unemployment.”

150. Thane, The Foundations of the Welfare State, 147–148; Wolfgang Mommsen, “Preface,” in The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany: 1850-1950 (London: Croom Helm, 1981); Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 89, 93–94; Landes, The Unbound Prometheus, 368–369.

151. See John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion (New York: Norton, 1963), especially 80–104, 186–212, 312–348; Richard D Wolff and Stephen A Resnick, Economics: Marxian versus Neoclassical (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Pres, 1987), 109–117. An important social critique of laissez faire came from Polanyi in the 1940s. Polanyi argued that land, labor, and money were fictitious commodities that should not be treated according to the laws of the free market. Their th
commodification during the 19 century had been the reason behind the depression and the two world wars. The solution was to embed the markets within a web of social needs, regulated and planned according to collective needs. See Polanyi, The Great Transformation.

152. This was the general premise of Fordism, and of mass consumer society. See Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 277–320; Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation; David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity : An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990), 125–140. See also previous footnote.

153. From the mid-1920s as the economic malaise deepened, the role of experts was in part framed within the debate between advocates of planning versus a free market economy. Obviously, the alternative example of the Soviet planned economy was to have an influence, especially in the 1930s. But in the post WWI era, social policy and economic planning, and the role to be played by technical experts in the process were also an important aspect of public debate. I have discussed the debates over planning and expertise in this period in Ehsani, “A Critique of Planning, Development and Progress.” The debates over the economy, and the role of economists, and the mechanisms of the institution’s ascendance during the interwar period and after is the topic of important contributions by the following authors who have influenced my work: Michael A. Bernstein, A Perilous Progress: Economists and Public Purpose in Twentieth-Century America. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Timothy Mitchell, “Rethinking Economy,” Geoforum 39 (2008): 1116–21; Timothy Mitchell, “Economists and the Economy in the Twentieth Century,” in The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences : Positivism and Its Epistemological Others, ed. George Steinmetz (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 126–41; Fourcade, Economists and Societies; Richard Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable (Waukegan: Fontana Press, 1995); Yves Dezalay and Bryant Garth, The Internationalization of Palace Wars: Lawyers, Economists, and the Contest to Transform Latin American States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Jamie Peck, Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (Oxford University Press, USA, 2010); Dieter Plehwe, “Introduction,” in The Road from Mont Pelerin, ed. Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 1–44; Block and Somers, “In the Shadow of Speenhamland”; Foucault et al., The Foucault Effect : Studies in Governmentality : With Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault; Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79; Donzelot, The Policing of Families. The formation of the development discourse, or planned intervention in forging economic and social policy in the former colonies by technical experts is the subject of the following work: M. P. Cowen and R.W. Shenton, Doctrines of Development (New York: Routledge, 1996); Frederick Cooper and Randall Packard, eds., International Development and the Social Sciences: Essays on the History and Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). My sociological and analytical critique of professionals as a social class, and their institutional production through educational accreditation and other professional institutions is influenced by the work of George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, trans. Andrew Arato and Richard E. Allen ( New York:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979); Alvin Ward Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Alvin Ward Gouldner, The Two Marxisms: Contradictions and Anomalies in the Development of Theory (New York: Seabury Press, 1980); Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1967); Pierre Bourdieu, The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

154. On 1880-1920s Britain see Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society, 218–404; Harold Perkin, The Third Revolution: Professional Elites in the Modern World (London: Routledge, 1996), 49–76. This trend also extended to the colonies. See Robert Home, Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities (London: E & FN Spon, 197); Anthony D. King, Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power and Environment (Routledge, 2007); Frederick Cooper, “Urban Space, Industrial Time, and Wage Labor in Africa,” in Struggle for the City: Migrant Labor, Capital, and the State in Urban Africa, ed. Frederick Cooper (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983), 7–50. The trend toward the expansion of social policies and the making of a welfare state under the aegis of the rising professional middle class was a trans-European phenomenon, with the unified Germany at the forefront. The discussion of Germany in the pre-WWI period falls outside the pursue of this essay, but it is important to note that its increasing range of social policies, including the incorporation of trade unions into policy making, had a major influence on its major European rivals. For Germany I have relied on Steinmetz, Regulating the Social : The Welfare State and Local Politics in Imperial Germany. The important range of social policies implemented in France after 1871 is the subject of the magisterial Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen. There are two important comparative studies of Germany and Britain’s routes to building a welfare state, although the role of professionals as a distinct social class is not emphasizes in either. See Mommsen, “Preface”; Richard Biernacki, The Fabrication of Labor: Germany and Britain, 1640-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 437–470. The latter work highlights the nationally different cultural and ideological formations in the workplace and labor organization in the two countries over a longer period (17th century to WWI). Of specific interest is the contribution of economists, political activists, and especially overseers to the reception of the ideas and practices of commodification of labor in the pre-WWI decades.

155 Burnett, Idle Hands, 145-198.

156. See Poovey, Making a Social Body, especially 1–24, and 98–114.

157. See Oliver MacDonagh, “The Nineteenth-Century Revolution in Government: A Reappraisal,” The Historical Journal 1, no. 1 (1958): 52–67.

158. Fourcade, Economists and Societies.

159. S e the fascinating memoirs of Beatric Webb, My Apprenticeship. For a contemporary re- evaluation of their impact see Wallis, From the Workhouse to Welfare.

160. Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society, 116–123.

161. Scientific labor management (Taylorism) had become an increasingly important feature of industrial production in the United States, but the widespread a ceptance of its managerial and corporate practices in British large industries took place after the WWI. See Maier, “Between Taylorism and Technocracy”; Jones, Multinationals and Global Capitalism; Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company; Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation.

162. Home, Of Planting and Planning; Dasgupta, “A City Away from Home: The Mapping of Calcutta”; Rabinow, The French Modern; Dossal, Imperial Design and Indian Realities: The Planning of Bombay City 1855-75; Mitchell, Rule of Experts.

163. On the urban intervention in designing colonial spaces see King, Colonial Urban Development; Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore; Çelik, Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations; Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism; Abu-Lughod, Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco, 1981; Rabinow, The French Modern; King, Colonial Urban Development; Lawrence Vale,
Architecture, Power and National Identity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

164. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, 148–149. As the sources in the previous footnote make clear Hobsbawm’s observation about Indian exceptionalism is exaggerated.

165. James P. Hull, “From Rustow to Chandler to You: How Revolutionary Was the Second Industrial Revolution?,” Journal of European Economic History 25, no. 1 (1996): 202.

166. See the important essay by Maier, “Between Taylorism and Technocracy.”

167. Christophe Charle makes a distinction between the sociological emergence of “intellectuals” and “professionals”. The former, a category of cultural and political avant-garde gained coherence in Republican France, in the course of the Dreyfus Affair, and maintained an uneasy distance from formal institutions of political power and the university labor markets. By contrast, the Anglo Saxon category of ‘professionals’ “ accepted the internal division of labor of the ruling class, while ‘the intellectuals’ aspired to the universal and defended their own values. The ‘professional’ aspires to attain the status of the real social elite through individual effort. He manages his career as an entrepreneur would manage his business. He seeks to fulfill the functions of notables (similar to old provincial liberal professions), of personal wealth (as would have popular novelists and dramatists, or successful doctors and lawyers) and the status of an expert (scientists, physicians, jurists). Among the professionals these three objectives overlap.” Christophe Charle, Naissance des “Intellectuels”, 1880-1900 (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1990), 232.
Russel Jacoby makes a similar argument regarding the demise of “public intellectuals” in post 1968 United States. See Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (Boston: Basic Books, 1987). The important but problematic distinction between intellectuals and the intelligentsia is discussed in Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (Vintage, 1996); Pat Walker, Between Labor and Capital (Boston: South End Press, 1979); Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (New York: Harcourt,Brace & World, 1968); Gramsci,
Selections from the Prison Notebooks; Konrad and Szelenyi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power; Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class; Ehsani, “A Critique of Planning, Development and Progress.”

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