Mick Jenkins : the General Strike of 1842

a tribute by David Jenkins

Around 1966 my father – then in his early 60s and close to retirement – moved from his position as the district secretary of the East Midlands Communist Party (Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire approximately) to become an organizer for the North West Communist Party.

This primarily, as I recall, meant Lancashire – with the exception of Liverpool and Manchester which, being massive urban areas, acted independently. The responsibility for the rest of Lancashire (Burnley, Bolton, Blackburn, Warrington etc.) a large swath of distinct towns each with their own active traditions but somewhat cut off from the metropolises of Liverpool and Manchester, were passed to my father. We quickly found a council flat just outside Bury and from there my father would traverse these Lancashire cities inspiring local branches and acting as a conduit between them and the North West headquarters. One byproduct of this change was that he became reacquainted with Lancashire history. 

It produced The General Strike of 1842.

The book offered a radically different interpretation of a strike that involved half a million people and lasted even longer than the general strike of 1926. Its aftermath had a profound impact on Fredrich Engels when he wrote Conditions of the Working Class in 1844. Prior to my father’s book, these events were more typically known as the “plug riots” since the “rioters” would shut down a factory by smashing the plugs to the steam boilers. Despite the scale of these events, the traditional assessment was more that it was a disorganized, violent outburst with some economic aims but little coherence. That conditions for the working class were intolerable was not denied but what was denied, in one way or another, was the consciousness of the participants, their self-awareness as a class with its own rights and perspective.

One academic reviewer deprecated the book with the criticism that “The ruling classes are villainous, and the workers are heroic”. My father would have agreed: He did feel that the strikers rose to the occasion as heroes and he did think the ruling class was cruelly villainous. He intended to produce an account that took seriously the discussions and the planning that occurred throughout the course of the strike. My father’s research eventually showed that there was in fact considerable planning and prolonged debates and that their poverty was seen to be closely linked with the main political goal of the Chartists, the right to vote. That this strike failed against the enormous might of British capitalism along with the power of its judiciary and the violence of its police and military did not alter the intent: It was a general strike rather than a riot.

Demonstrating his own radical perspective on these events proved to be a long journey. It was also joyful since my father felt he was setting the record straight. He was well-prepared for the task. The research and then the writing of this book were the culmination of his own experiences of working-class struggle. He poured into it the abilities and instincts that a lifetime devoted to working class struggles had created. 

My dad had been born in Manchester in 1906, the eldest son of Jewish immigrants from Kovno in Lithuania.

If they had escaped Tsarist oppression it was only to discover British capitalism with a view from the bottom rungs of its ladder. By the 1920s, when he was in his teens, the effect of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution on this Russo Jewish diaspora was enormous. It inspired large numbers of Jews centered around Cheetham Hill. They turned to revolutionary perspectives as an answer to the impoverishment that surrounded them. In 1926 my father, then 19, was prominent in the Young Communist League and was sent to Moscow to spend 9 months at the Lenin International school in Moscow whose director was Nicholai Bukharin. It was very intentionally a training as a professional revolutionary. This was a period of enormous ferment and vitality and confidence. The revolution (even in Britain!) seemed just around the corner. The school was intellectually and symbolically formative. There, young workers from all countries mixed together. They studied Marx’s writings, the Russian Revolution and some worked in Soviet factories. He met Bela Kun and other luminaries of the 1920s revolutionary movement. The personal bondings and the internationalism that the school created were lifelong. Amongst his clothes was a thick leather belt which, curiously, he never wore. He and a Ukrainian-Canadian comrade had exchanged their belts as a gesture at the end of their time in Moscow. My dad was then sent to Germany and helped bring a German comrade back to England. She had been involved in a bank robbery. 

I bring this up to point out that my father absorbed the previous generations of Lancashire working class struggles not so much as an insider, as did say Harry Pollitt, but as a newcomer whose history had many parallels to theirs. His own father, a cap maker, was a member of the anti-Zionist Bund organization and had deserted from the Russian army around 1904 (having been conscripted, probably for 25 years, against his will).

From Kovno, they went to Manchester, part of a great migration as Jews headed west in search of better circumstances. Around 1908 the family, my grandparents with two boys, returned from Manchester to Kovno and settled in again. The story is that a few years later the police came through the town looking for deserters and my grandfather disappeared out of the kitchen window and hotfooted it back to Manchester. My grandmother along with my dad, age 4, his brother Sydney, age 2, and a newly born sister Beattie, had to make the train journey across Europe to Manchester on their own. It is perhaps a comparable experience to those of Caribbean and East Asian immigrants to Britain in the 1960s or Middle Eastern migrants today. 

In the 1920s and 1930s my dad was deeply involved in the political life of the Communist Party.

Much of this time was involved in the cotton struggles around Lancashire. This was a time of naked class struggle with little veneer of democracy or fairness. The consequences of unemployment were dire poverty. In these respects, not much had changed since the days of Chartism. One of these campaigns stands out as an illustration of how he came to view the political history he came to write about. He was an agitator in the more-loom struggle in which cotton workers were being forced by the mill owners to work eight looms instead of the previous four. Arrested on a charge of assaulting a police officer at a demonstration, he went through the prison ritual with his mentor Ernie Robinson. A string of policemen took the stand and testified dishonestly to witnessing my dad attack their fellow officer. The understanding that there was collusion between the police and the judge was self-evident. I can personally testify that his favorite song was appropriately the IWW song I’m as mild a mild a man as can be. Add to that that there were hundreds if not thousands of people demonstrating outside the jail for Ernie’s and his release and you can see that his life-path as a dedicated organizer of the working class was sealed. Ernie received a six-month sentence. My dad was sentenced to three months imprisonment but was, as I recall, released early but only after the strike had ended. What he took from this confirmed his understanding that the ruling class ruled and it ruled in its favor. The idea that a ruling class lied about its doings, that profound wrongs were perpetrated and justified or hidden by those in power was, I would say, a cornerstone of his outlook on life. It is evident throughout this book.

That was the 1920s when there was ferment throughout Lancashire. The grinding poverty dovetailed with his own history and the political commitment that had been forged in Moscow. This was in a time before there was the slightest hint of a welfare state. He would describe regular working-class people struggling to maintain their dignity in the face of literal poverty. A striker’s family serving up a head of lettuce on a Sunday afternoon as though it was a main course was a story that cropped up over and over throughout his life.

In an introduction to the history of a British strike I would have ignored my father’s distant roots if I could. After all, he spoke with a Manchester accent, he knew these towns like that back of his hand and he married a Lancashire seamstress. However, the connection to the Russian Revolution was also so direct and personal for people like him. But for a few small twists of fate, he would have been there. 

And then there were cultural differences.

For example, as he and my mother came out of the registry office in 1938, my dad suggested the small wedding party go to a cafe for tea and cakes. Someone on the bride’s side said “Well I’m off for a pint” and was ready to head out on his own. Bill Rust, the best man, understood the situation perfectly and said “It’s OK. Mick’s got the first round in his left coat pocket and the second round in his right”. My dad, not at all sure what was in his pockets, nevertheless took the hint along with Bill’s guiding hand on his arm and the wedding party headed to the nearest pub. My mother, a sewing machinist with her own history of activism in Warrington, had joined the party some years earlier and had wisely chosen a man who had not a clue about the potentially devastating role of alcohol in a family. This was an important factor in itself since her own father, a hard drinking steel worker, had hit her across the head once too often. My mother lost her hearing in one ear. My grandfather, a staunchly tribal Protestant, was so determined that his children not marry Catholics that he was caught off guard when my mother slipped below the radar and married someone Jewish instead (the fact that all communists were Godless atheists was irrelevant). 

His life therefore completed a circle when he returned to these Lancashire roots where his own youthful protests against the system had begun.  He returned with a lifetime of experience under his belt. It was with this background that he began to acquaint himself with documents and histories that had been neglected for over a century.

I can state all this with considerable confidence. My dad’s strongest friendships were with Teddy Ainley also from the Cheetham Hill Jewish community, and his brother Sydney. They would have fascinating conversations, sometimes erudite, sometimes highly entertaining, that lasted long after the kids were put to bed. But also, from an early age our family would walk on Sunday afternoons—in Nottingham around the river Trent embankment—in Bury around the moors—and he would talk and I would listen. I learned about wages prices and profit, I learned about Chartism, the Spanish civil war, his time in jail, dialectical materialism and so it went on. In retrospect it was an astonishing education in Marxism and communist party history. I would guess that it began when I was around 10 or 11, no later, since I particularly remember discussions about EOKA and why communists disapproved of terrorism.  

This “seminar” was quite regular until I was 18 and quite often from then until 1973 when I left England. During this later period, 1966 to 1973, my dad was researching The General Strike of 1842. Anyone who has ever written a book knows the value of an attentive listener and, putting modesty aside, I was good at it. In part this was because my father was fascinating.  I would hear, sometimes over and over, as he honed the writing in his mind, the deep emotion that my father felt as he recounted his latest findings. 

I heard about the book as it happened. I heard about the work it required to ferret out obscure documents from their resting places in libraries and record offices all over Lancashire and the country. He talked about the  reports of police spies who he cursed but valued their unintentional role as secretaries (p.111), he told me about the indenture contracts in which parents committed their children to work 13 hours a day (p. 174), the Attorney-General planning the prosecutions (“The most formidable conspiracy ever” p. 221), the military working to crush the strike (this  “mad insurrection” p.191), the Lord Chief Justice (“If those who had no property should have powers to make laws, it would necessarily lead to the destruction of those who had property.” p. 15), the Chartists and their class consciousness demand for the universal right to vote (“securing political power to the working classes” p. 137), radical newspapers like Feargus O’Connor’s The Northern Star, the discussions the strike leaders held amongst themselves at Trades conferences and the many, many statements of participants from which my dad showed that this was a politically conscious struggle not simply angry, resentful workers causing havoc.  In doing this he also collected over 20 illustrations that appear in the book.  I can’t claim to have absorbed all of this at the time. The material came in piece by piece and a document’s significance did not necessarily make any sense to me at all. Nor could I appreciate the way the book would weave a gripping story into this painstaking research. I was listening to my dad and trying to follow along. Most of all, I remember his deep respect, even awe, for Richard Pilling. He identified personally with him and was struck by his abilities as an organizer and his many vivid speeches especially with the final line of his defence from the dock (“The masters conspired to kill me, and I combined to keep myself alive.” p. 111).

He understood these people as his predecessors. He recognized them as his political lineage irrespective of the fact that his own roots were 1,000 miles away in a Yiddish ghetto. He saw them as men (I’m afraid there were few women leaders who were properly recognized in those days even though there were enormous numbers of women mill workers) trapped by an intentionally inhumane and malicious system, struggling to understand themselves and the circumstances that oppressed them. These were people possessed of considerable intellect but deprived of formal learning; organizers with great oratorical and social skills applied to the betterment of their class rather than to serve the system. Beyond the intellectual achievement, it was an act of visceral solidarity and, to use an old-fashioned phrase, a task of honour, to re-present their case more than a century later. 

My father wrote many fine pieces of working-class history. He wrote where ever he was: about Friedrich Engels in Manchester, cotton strikes in Lancashire, George Brown who fought in the Spanish civil war, Les Ellis a Hucknall miner’s leader, Robin Hood in Nottingham, and more. But I think this is the work, again to use an old-fashioned phrase, a work of righteous anger, that best contributes to our understanding of our history. It is especially relevant in the 2020s as we approach a comparable period in which the working class has been stripped of many of its protections. 

Once written, actually getting the book to materialise into print proved to be quite a task in itself. Having formed the idea, carried out the research, thought it through and written the manuscript, it still required several more steps to reach the bookshelves. James Klugmann, at Lawrence and Wishart, and Professor John Foster, of Glasgow University, provided tutelage throughout the process.  John also wrote an introduction in which he gave a framework and a Marxist-academic perspective to the subject. Mike Luft, then at the Manchester Central Library, assembled the collection of illustrations.  There also was, without a doubt, some unsung editor who polished the prose. (My mother was, as ever, another unsung hero.) Finally, in 1980, with some ten to fifteen years in the making, The General Strike of 1842 by Mick Jenkins was printed, published and available to academics and socialists alike.

That was 1980.

Forty years on – in 2020 – the book was long out of print. Copies on the internet cost as much as £70 and essentially the book was lost to the people for whom it was written. My sister, Susan Foster, and I began discussing how to remedy this. Within 48 hours—totally out of the blue—Mark Metcalf, the socialist journalist who had long recognized its value, contacted us and generously offered to make an internet copy freely available if we provided the file.

As well as downloading the complete book here, it is also available at marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/history/england/chartists/generalstrike1842.pdf .

I think, if I were to have asked my father why he wrote it, it would have come down to two things:

Firstly, that the history of our country can be written by the “underdogs”, that, in fact, our abilities to organize, to see the political in the economic and eventually for the working people to own and run this country are greatly underestimated, that these organizational skills—to conduct coordinated action in the face of oppression—are always inherent our social circumstances.

Secondly, that we learn from their struggles because our own fight for our rights is so closely aligned with theirs. Just as generals still study Waterloo and other classic battles, we should study Peterloo and 1842 and the numerous times when the class struggle has come to a head. The task of a historian—a Marxist historian—is to connect, to inform and to inspire those struggling today with those men and women who acted so magnificently in 1842: The chartists and the strikers of 1842 are our direct ancestors and our teachers. That is, I believe, what he would have said had I asked.

I would add that the fact that he could bring his entire set of talents to bear in bringing into the light a truly historic event was one of the crowning achievements of a life already well lived.

In another conflict, in another time and place and country, Mario Savio would famously say “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” That was the perspective from which my father lived his life.