In and of itself, the centenary of the Labour party's formal launch, on 15 February 1906, is not an anniversary that the working class movement has any reason to celebrate.
In fact the new party got off to an ominous start. To all intents and purposes it had already been in existence for six years, since the day in February 1900, when representatives of the main trade unions and socialist groups formed the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), in order to provide the working class movement with a political voice. Had the aim of the LRC's initiators been to build a political instrument for the struggles of the working class, they could have launched the new party straightaway. If they did not, it was because their primary aim was to launch it as a competitor to the mainstream capitalist parties - around a Parliamentary group in the Commons. And six years was what it took for the LRC to get enough MPs elected in a general election, to form such a group.
Right from its inception, therefore, the electoral sphere was intended to be the main field of activity of the new party, rather than just one field among others. The class struggle was to be left in the hands of union machineries, which were increasingly bureaucratic. Issues which union leaders could not resolve through their bargaining partnership with the bosses were to be entrusted to the goodwill of the various bodies of the capitalist state - government, local and parish councils, etc. - by their elected representatives. In the Labour party's scheme of things, the role of the working class was to be limited to selecting the right ballot paper on election day and paying union dues.
Within only eight years of its launch, the new party sided unambiguously with British capital, by endorsing without any qualms its imperialist aims in what was to be, at the time, the largest human slaughter in history - World War I. The following year, in 1915, it was rewarded for its loyalty by the capitalist class with a junior post in government. The dreams of the LRC's initiators had been fulfilled. For the first time, a recognised representative of the labour movement - in fact, Arthur Henderson, a former official of the Iron Founders' Union - was sitting in a British government. But Henderson was not even there as the voice of the union bureaucracy, as the Labour party founders had hoped. He was there as an undertaker, for the millions who were to die in the killing fields of Europe and the Middle East during that war and its aftermath, and as a policeman for the millions of workers on whose exploitation the war effort depended in Britain.
Since then, not only has the role of the Labour party in British politics remained the same, but it has replaced the old Liberal party as one of the two main pillars of the so-called "democratic" system behind which British capital rules. It has owed its weight in elected state institutions - and still does - to the votes of a section of the working class - albeit a shrinking one. Although, particularly over the past 50 years, it is certainly true to say that Labour owes more votes to being the only credible institutional alternative to the Conservatives than to its historical working class references. In any case, Labour never ceased to be a bourgeois party - i.e. a loyal manager of capitalist affairs, always respectful of big business interests, whether it was in opposition or in office. In fact, in so far as it retained a measure of its past apparent connections with the working class movement, the Labour party has been, and remains, a major obstacle to the development of a genuine working class party in this country.
This is why there is nothing for the working class - and therefore for revolutionary communists - to celebrate, in this centenary.
Nevertheless, regardless of what it has come to be, the Labour party was, in a certain sense, the result of a process rooted in the struggles of the working class and its aspiration for political independence as a class. And although history does not repeat itself, a lot can be learnt from this - in particular, for those who set themselves, as we do, the task of building a genuine workers' party, without which not much will be achieved by way of social change. There were precious few real attempts at building a workers' party in British history. The process that resulted in the launching of the Labour party was one such attempt. What were the possibilities in that period and why did it all go so wrong? It is these issues that we intend to cover in the present forum.
The cesspool of triumphant capitalism
The period that concerns us starts in the mid-1860s, spanning half a century, until the Labour party's final demonstration of political bankruptcy, in 1914. This was a period in which the economic power of British capital reached unprecedented heights - both in relative and in absolute terms. British trade amounted to nearly half of world trade at one point, industrial production increased in proportion and so did the size and the social weight of the working class.
However, this was not a period of steady, regular growth. There was a succession of ups and downs. And while the "ups" were usually too short-lived to allow workers to build up reserves for the bad days, the "downs" invariably resulted in massive layoffs, wage cuts and a deterioration in working conditions. The only thing that increased consistently over this period was the accumulated wealth and profit made by the capitalist class as a whole.
True, a small layer of the working class succeeded in finding a niche for itself in society, enjoying a comparatively higher standard of living, which put it on a par with small artisans. Its situation, however, was anything but "safe", being the result of circumstances rather than economic necessity. And as soon as the class balance of forces was tilted against it, this so-called "labour aristocracy", as Lenin later described it, found itself defenceless. This applied in particular to the skilled section of the working class whose services were increasingly dispensed with as a result of technological progress.
For the vast non-skilled majority of the working class, however, conditions had hardly changed since the days of the Chartist explosion of the 1830-40s. If anything, due to the rising density of the urban population they had become worse. Unemployment was always very high even if, deceptively, official figures indicated levels lower than what we know today. In fact a large proportion of non-skilled labourers were casual workers, whose employment was put into question every day. None of this hidden unemployment ever entered official statistics.
So, right up until the 1880s, dockers could only expect an average of 5 to 6 months of actual work a year. Every day they were subjected to what was called the "call on", a process by which they were given (or refused) their work ticket for the day. During this process, they were locked up while the foreman handed out the tickets. Ben Tillett, one of the leaders of the 1889 dockers' strike, gave the following description:
"At the 'cage', so termed because of the stout iron bars made to protect the 'caller on', men ravening for food fought like madmen for the ticket, a veritable talisman of life. (..) Coats, flesh and even ears, were torn off, men were crushed to death in the struggle, helpless if fallen. The strong literally threw themselves over the heads of their fellows and battled with kicks and curse, through the kicking, punching, cursing crowd to the rails of the cage, which held them like rats - mad, human rats - who saw food in the ticket."
Conditions in industry were not much better. A pamphlet called "the factory hell", was published by Marx's daughter, Eleanor, on the basis of the official 1884 Factory Inspectorate report. It gives an idea of what conditions were like. Although various pieces of legislation were introduced to regulate the length of the working day, Eleanor Marx quoted letters of complaint addressed by flour-mill workers to factory inspectors, because they were made to work 16 to 20 hours a day. In the same pamphlet, a dramatic inventory of accidents on the job was made: "The number of fatal accidents in the year ending October 31, 1884, was 403. Amputations ran up to 1,337, fractures to 830, injuries to head and face 981, lacerations, contusions and such 'small beer', 5,413. In all 8,964. Without hesitation, it may be asserted that the larger number if this frightful array of accidents are preventable. The two greatest causes of them are non-fencing of machinery and the anxiety of workers to get through their work as rapidly as possible, inasmuch as this work is piece work."
That such brutal exploitation should, at some stage, generate social explosions, was written on the cards. There had already been quite a few in the first half of the 19th century, and more were to come.
The weakness of craft organisation
The collapse of the Chartist movement, at the end of the 1840s, had left an incredibly atomised network of local societies in the ranks of the working class - ranging from working men's clubs to friendly societies, which was the closest one could get legally to a union, and so-called "self-help" groups providing anything from adult education to welfare services, which were often under some kind of religious influence.
Because the main objective of the semi-official unions, and their main argument for winning recruits, was the provision of some sort of protection against the hazards of life - be it sickness, injuries, short-time work and, in some cases, old age - they could only maintain themselves on the basis of a relatively stable workforce which could afford to pay regular and adequate enough union dues. As a result, most of these unions were craft-based, and often confined to just one locality or, at best, one region.
Of course, the need for workers to defend themselves against the bosses' exploitation often resulted in these unions becoming natural conduits for organising a fight back. But this was not necessarily what their officers aspired to. More often than not they were cornered into a fight by the need to defend their own organisation against the bosses' bloody-mindedness. In which case, a portion of the union fund was allocated to play the role of a strike fund - as much to help the membership to win the strike, as to provide its officers with a vital instrument of control over the strikers. But, by and large, the main ambition of union officials was to be recognised as equal partners by the bosses as well as responsible and respectable members of the local establishment.
This was illustrated, for instance, by the demands made by unions in many industries that wage rates should be indexed on the market price of the products sold by companies - which amounted to underwriting in advance wage cuts when market conditions were bad and tying the workers' situation to capitalist profits. For these union officials, the relationship between workers and bosses was a business relationship, not one determined by conflicting class interests. Of course, such logic is not all that far from that underlying the so-called "industrial case" made by most unions today to justify their pay claims (as if there was a need to justify better wages!), or their underwriting of job cuts in order to help the bosses make "savings" and boost profits!
The craft unions cultivated and wooed the prejudices of skilled men who saw themselves as higher on the social ladder than the ordinary labourer. The theory was that their members' skills could be traded against better conditions, since these skills were scarce and skilled workers could always play one employer against another by offering their services elsewhere. However, while this rationale worked sometimes in certain periods and certain industries, its weaknesses became particularly obvious in the growing number of areas where skill demarcations were being eroded by technical progress.
In the cotton industry, for instance, where skilled cotton-spinners had been displaced by the introduction of the steam engine, their organisation tried to hang on artificially to their old craft-based way of operating. But with dire consequences, according to the following account by socialist historian James Hinton: "Spinners minded machines and were paid according to output. They worked alongside two or more hourly-paid piecers whose work they supervised. So long as the industry was expanding, most of the piecers could hope eventually to become spinners." However, "the spinners' main problem was to prevent employers using the piecers, who quickly picked up the skill, to do their work at lower rates. They did this by struggling to regulate piecers' promotion according to seniority. In effect the seniority system tied both piecer and spinner to working for a particular employer. Piecers could not move around without losing their place in the queue. And spinners found it difficult to move, since any employer taking on a spinner from outside risked provoking a strike by his own piecers who were queuing for the vacant spinner's job. (..) Employers accepted this because it enabled them to use the spinners as a supervisory elite with a vested interest in intensifying the labour of the low-paid and unorganised piecers."
This was a very far cry from the proud "independence" on which craft-based unions tried to sell themselves to their membership. Not only did the operation of the craft unions condemn skilled workers to isolation when they came under attack, but it helped the bosses to set sections of workers up against one another, thereby weakening all of them. As technical progress broke the barriers between jobs and increased the masses of the unskilled, together with their concentration, craft-based trade-unionism was doomed. But rather than its leaders giving way to new forms of working class organisation as a result of a conscious choice, they were forced to make space for them by a series of social explosions.
The "new model unions" and the birth of the bureaucracy
There had been some attempts to make up for the weaknesses of the craft unions, by setting up national organisations, within the framework of the law, which would have enough weight to overcome the atomisation of the existing craft organisations. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), which was set up in the 185Os, was the best known of these national unions, alongside Applegarth's Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASCJ). These unions came to be known as the "new model unions".
The emergence of these unions certainly marked a degree of progress, compared to the general atomisation of the working class movement. However, progress was still limited. Even the ASE, which was spread unevenly across the country, only organised a small fraction of engineering workers. What is more, although its rule book gave an impression of quasi-military discipline, the ASE really remained a collection of local structures. Many of them had kept some specific rules and, in some cases, separate funds. Worst of all, it was not unusual for rivalries to plague the relations between ASE branches, thereby undermining any kind of solidarity action between their members.
A the same time the pooling together of a large part of their funds by the amalgamated unions and their uneasy adherence to a common rule book, paved the way for the emergence of a salaried central union machinery, financed by union dues. In truth, the many clauses adopted by the new model unions in order to keep this bureaucracy under control, showed how suspicious the membership - and in particular, local union officers - were, of the new full-time officials. With time, however, such clauses tended to lose their teeth and the unions' general secretaries learnt ways of twisting their own rule books in order to steer their national executives in the direction they wanted.
Socially, these new union bureaucrats were the perfect expression of the aspirations of the labour aristocracy. They were as socially conservative as the vast majority of skilled workers, out of whose ranks most union officers came. But while local officers owed their social status to the continuing existence of their local branch and were, to that extent, somewhat receptive to the pressure of their members, the national officials owed their material existence and social status to the financial affluence of the union as a whole. Their ambition was status and recognition by bourgeois society and they were quick to substitute their own aspirations to respectability for the interests of their members. It was significant, in this respect, that the new model unions which presided over the launch of the TUC, in 1868, following a call issued by the Manchester and Salford Trades Council, insisted that they did not intend this body to coordinate trade-union activity across crafts and industries. Its sole purpose was to be a forum for the various union leaderships, no less, but no more.
However, the one thing that stood in the way of the aspirations of the emerging union bureaucracy to respectability, was the legal status of trade unions. The TUC therefore set itself the aim of gaining proper legal recognition. So far, the main threats faced by the union machineries were the clauses of the Criminal Law Amendment Act which allowed the courts to convict union officers and confiscate union funds in retaliation against secondary picketing. Moreover, from the late 1860s, the courts demonstrated an increasing tendency to use the existing anti-strike legislation as a weapon against the union machineries themselves.
So, for instance, six strike leaders at the Beckton gas works in Woolwich, were jailed for the crime of dimming the lights of London's West End. In this case, the judge even went so far as to describe any union activity as illegal, since it implied an "unjustifiable annoyance and interference with the masters in the conduct of their business." At the same time, the ruling class now threatened to use the Master and Servant Act against the very existence of union structures. It was this law which made it a criminal offence for workers to leave their employment in breach of contract and was often used against strikers. This tied the fate of union leaders to that of their members.
These threats galvanised a united reaction by the TUC, which embarked on a systematic lobby of all candidates standing in the 1874 general election. The following year, the Disraeli's new Conservative government repealed the Master and Servant Act, excluded trade-union disputes from the law of conspiracy, legalised peaceful picketing and repealed the clauses allowing the courts to incriminate union officers for trade-union disputes.
Of course, none of this prevented the state from subsequently resorting to repression in order to suppress working class unrest. But it did give the emerging union bureaucracy legal immunity, without which respectability could only remain an empty word.
Reform and social unrest
The 1875 TUC Congress congratulated itself for its success in winning reform through "legislation rather than agitation". However, there was a great deal of dishonesty in this claim. Indeed, the 1875 bills marked the end of a decade of widespread agitation in the working class, which, undoubtedly had prompted Disraeli and the capitalist class to realise that getting the union machineries on the right side of the law was probably the wisest thing to do, in order to keep social and political unrest under control.
It all started with a resurgence of the Reform movement when, in 1866, a very limited extension of the existing franchise, sponsored by the Liberals in power, was defeated in Parliament. This sparked off a wave of protest, which included both the working-class dominated Reform League and the petty-bourgeois Reform Union. The workers demanded "manhood suffrage" (which did not include women nor the poorest workers, since residential qualifications were taken for granted), while the middle class agitated for a more limited "household suffrage". None of these bodies was in any way radical. They expressed the desire of a broad layer of the population for political recognition, but not an aspiration to political or social change.
There were, however, activists within the ranks of the Reform League who still stood by the tradition of the Chartist movement and argued for direct action. Evidence seems to indicate that their agitation was instrumental in mobilising working class energy. The combination of this agitation and the spontaneous explosion of anger caused by the fall of the Liberal government, in June 1866, resulted in a wave of huge demonstrations up and down the country, including the famous "Hyde Park riots", in which the police fought the masses of the London poor for three days and nights.
In May 1867, it looked as though another similar confrontation was going to take place. As Disraeli's new Conservative cabinet was introducing a very limited extension of the franchise designed to dampen the mobilisation, the Reform League announced a new rally in Hyde Park to back its demands, but also in defence of free speech. The rally was banned, but went ahead regardless. Faced with a 150,000-strong crowd marching into Hyde Park behind a red flag, the government refrained from interfering. Disraeli had backed down. Within two weeks, the Conservatives' Reform Bill was amended and the numbers of people newly enfranchised by the Bill quadrupled. Only the rural and urban poor remained outside the franchise, together with all women, of course.
Following a tradition which dates back to the English Revolution, political agitation went together with social agitation, more or less intertwined with it. Admittedly, the Reform Bill movement of 1867-68 was nothing like the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 40s, neither in terms of scale nor in terms of depth. And the social unrest which developed in parallel with the Reform Bill movement was also more limited than the Chartists' fight for the 10-hour day. Nevertheless, it took on very peculiar features which anticipated the social explosions which were to come.
Unusually, the strike wave which took off in the early 1870s, was sparked off by a successful five-month strike in which the unions had played no role whatsoever. It had taken place in the traditionally badly organised North-East, among engineering and shipbuilding workers, and had been led by the non-union Nine Hours League. One remarkable feature of this League was that it organised all trades, skilled and labourers. The local committees set up by the League had helped to spread the strike to other towns and industries. Even shop assistants had joined the strike. Eventually, the bosses caved in right across the Tyne.
In London, where the dockers were faced with the threat of wage cuts, a Labour Protection League was set up at the end of 1871, following the model of the North East Nine Hours League. The level of organisation was low among the casualised dockers, who had little, if any, link with the existing unions. Nevertheless, by organising solidarity among all sections of dockers, the League managed to win a number of small-scale strikes over wages. Within a year, the League had recruited 30,000 members with, alongside a majority of dockers, a number of engineering labourers, dustmen, etc.. who worked in and around the docks.
In the countryside, another layer of unskilled labourers was beginning to organise as well. Starting in Warwickshire, in the spring of 1872, Joseph Arch's National Agricultural Labourers Union began to spread its influence across rural areas through a long series of strikes over wages. Similar progress was being made in the organisation of mining and railway workers.
In the end, most of the gains made during this wave of social unrest were eroded with time and, despite its scale, no lasting organisation came out of it. To be sure, the existing unions did nothing to help strengthen the movement or the organisations that sprang out of it - when they did not oppose them head on, as was the case in the coal mines, for instance. But this wave of strikes and organisation had proved one thing: that joining ranks across the artificial boundaries imposed by crafts and industries, was a far more effective way of defeating the bosses than the respectable methods of the traditional craft union. This was a lesson that a whole generation was to remember in due time, when, in the late 1880s, another social explosion took place.
The unorganised's explosion
The year 1889 is probably the most famous in the history of Britain's 19th century working class movement, to the extent that many of today's major manual workers' unions pride themselves in a tradition going back to the events which took place during that year. But this tradition has long been emptied of its real content by today's union bureaucrats, whose outlook is much closer to the conservative, narrow sectionalism of the 19th century craft union leaders than to the militant methods of the 1889 strike leaders.
Indeed, in 1889, as in the early 1870s, sectional barriers were broken down in the course of the struggle and the huge battalions of the unskilled were joined by whole sections of craftsmen - in most cases, against the determined opposition of their own leaders. But, unlike what had happened in the 1870s, lasting organisations came out of these events.
Giving a full account of the events of that year is beyond our scope. Instead, let us see what Eleanor Marx had to say about it in the report she later gave to the Conference of the Second International, held in Brussels in 1891. She started by reporting on the success achieved by the Gas Workers:
"The first successful attempt of the so-called 'unskilled' workers to do for themselves that which the 'skilled' Unions had never seriously tried to do for them, was in the March of 1889 when the Gas Workers of London determined to organise and to demand what no other body of men had yet, as a body, demanded - an eight hours working day. It was not the first time Gas Workers had tried to start a Union, but their former efforts - those made in 1872 and in 1876 (..) - resulted in dire failure. But in 1889 (..), the Gas Workers were more successful. Three months after the formation of their Union, they were able to hold a 'monster meeting' to celebrate on July 27th a victory greater than any achieved by older and richer unions - i.e. the granting by the gas companies of an eight hour day, without any reduction and in many cases with an actual increase of wage."
Out of this mobilisation grew the first lasting non-craft based union, which was to give birth eventually to today's GMB. Eleanor Marx explained how this happened:
"The news of this victory spread like wildfire. The example of the London men was followed in the provinces, and branches of the Union were everywhere started. Before long enormous numbers of those workers known as 'general labourers' applied to the Executive of the Gas Workers' Union, to ask if they could also become members. The request was considered by the Gas Workers' Executive and gladly granted, and the Union became the 'National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers of Great Britain and Ireland.' Nor was this all. A request to admit women into the Union was also enthusiastically conceded. It was the first, and is still, we believe, the only large Trade Union in which men and women are treated on an equal footing, which allows women to be represented at its Annual Conferences, and allows women to serve on its Executive. (..) It is today the best organised Union of unskilled workers. It counts within its ranks men and women belonging to over seventy different kinds of labour."
As it happened, the impetus given by the East London gas workers sparked off a much larger - and politically far more important - movement in the docks. On this 5-week strike, Eleanor Marx explained:
"There is not the slightest doubt that this remarkable movement was the direct result of the Gas Workers' victory. Hundreds of men shift between docks and gas works. If these Gas Workers could combine, why could not Dockers? Once the question asked, the answer became certain. They could combine. Yes, they, the poorest, the most despised, the hopeless portion of the proletariat could show they were something other than a drag upon the rest of the workers. They, too, could stand together; they, too, could fight for their rights. Indeed, they did what many a 'skilled Union' has failed to do. (..) This movement has not only organised some 200,000 to 250,000 hitherto unorganised workers; it has helped to awaken the old Unions from the lethargy into which they had fallen."
"New Unionism" and its pitfalls
After the London dockers' strike, the small London-based Dockers' Union spread across the South of England and Wales, while two other unions of docks labourers expanded from their original bases in Glasgow and Tyneside to the rest of the country. It was the amalgamation of these unions and a number of others, which was to give birth to the ancestor of today's T&G.
The victories won in London and the wave of strikes that followed across the country - some successful, some not - had a tremendous impact. In less than 12 months, trade-union membership more than doubled, spreading to industries which had hardly ever seen any union.
This trade-union explosion also affected sections of the working class which had been relatively better organised so far. For instance, 1889 saw the launching, at last, of the first national coal miners' union - the Miners' Federation. Within 3 years, even the strictly craft-based ASE, was to undergo a major facelift, when a younger membership threw out the old craft leadership and, for the first time, opened the union's doors to semi-skilled engineering workers.
This wave of "new unionism", as it was called at the time, marked a clear-cut break from the past. For the first time, under the pressure of events, a generation of activists recognised the need for working class unity in action, across sectional and craft boundaries - at least within the limits of the industries in which they operated. And these so-called "new" unions were the expression of this recognition.
However, in and of itself, this did not make "new unionism" a complete break from the entrenched sectionalism which permeated the trade-union movement - not even among the most progressive leaders of "new unionism" itself.
So, for instance, the Gas Workers' leader Will Thorne recalls in his memoirs the frictions that emerged after the setting up of the Dockers' Union: "Our principle was contained in our motto: 'one man, one ticket and every man with a ticket'. This meant in short that as long as a man or a woman had a trade-union ticket, they should be allowed to work side by side, in factories, workshops, at the docks, without any interference from any other trade union. Our object was to secure the consolidation of the trade union and labour forces. We wanted to eradicate quarrels between the workers because they belonged to different organisations, and realise the unity and oneness of the working class. To this ideal, opposition immediately came from both Tom Mann and Ben Tillett [two of the main leaders of the Dock strike]. They wanted to put a 'ring fence' around the docks and allow only the employment in the docks of members of the Dockers' Union, in the same way to which the stevedores protected their preserves. I was strongly opposed to this policy because (..) it was the custom and practice of many of the dockers to come and work in the gas works during the winter when dock work was slack, or for gas workers to work in the docks during the summer time.(..) A great deal of friction was caused by the enforcement of this policy, because our members took the view that if the Dockers' Union would not recognise our ticket, they would not recognise theirs."
Even the most progressive activists among the "new" unionist wave, like Mann and Tillett, just could not go beyond the traditional outlook, inherited from the craft unions, according to which the main strength of a union lies in its monopoly position among one section of workers or another. Or at least, if they saw beyond this outlook, which people like Mann certainly did, they were not prepared to challenge the prejudices of their own members on such an issue.
Of course, there would have been a way around such sectional problems - by setting up of a general workers' union, a single fighting organisation bringing together all sections of the working class, of the kind which Robert Owen had tried unsuccessfully to build in the 1830s. And it is reasonable to think that, on the basis of the impetus given by the events of 1889, such an initiative would have appealed at least to a section of the working class.
But, while there was much talk about the need for such a general workers' union, the political will to achieve such an aim was never there. It is difficult to say why this political will did not materialise. It was certainly not due to a lack of mobilisation among the working class: throughout the year 1890, massive numbers of workers took part in the 8-hour day campaign initiated by the "new" unions. Was it due to the reluctance of the leaders of these unions to face the prospect of open warfare with the craft-union leaders, who would have been dead against such an initiative? Or was it due to their own illusions about the possibility of influencing the machineries of the old craft unions from inside?
In the case of Tom Mann, for instance, the latter seems to have been the case. Being an engineer by trade, Mann was also an elected member of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers Executive and had managed to lead the overthrow of the union's conservative leadership in 1892. However, 3 years later he failed to be re-elected and the union's leadership fell back into the hands of the old craft leaders. Then, in 1897, he attempted to set up a Workers' Union, which was designed to embrace all categories of workers. However, by that time, the militancy of the early 1890s had receded, the economy was going through a deep recession. In short, the window of opportunity opened by the events of 1889 had been closed, for the time being.
Socialist politics - atomisation and sectarianism
So far, no explicit mention has been made of the role played by political activists and organisations in these events. This is no coincidence. Not because they played no role at all, but because, more often than not, they trailed behind events rather than initiating them.
The collapse of the Chartist movement had left British working class politics in disarray. It had left no political voice for the working class and no substantial left-leaning organisation. There was a small number of British activists and trade union leaders who sat on the General Council of Marx's International Workingmen's Association (or First International). But their involvement did not mean that they agreed with Marx's ideas. And even when they identified with his ideas, it was with all sorts of reservations based on the so-called "peculiarities" of Britain's working-class traditions. In 1871, in the red-baiting atmosphere that followed the defeat of the Paris Commune, most of the British supporters and fellow-travellers of the International, particularly among the union leaders, now distanced themselves from the International, behind the banner of "no politics". Subsequently, the headquarters of the First International were transferred from London to New York, where it was disbanded shortly afterwards.
The union leaders returned to their quest for respectability and recognition, and the cosy relationship they had never ceased to have with the more "enlightened" elements of the Liberal and Conservative parties. And what was left on the political scene, outside the traditional parties of the bourgeoisie, was a mushrooming of local societies - concerned with free-thinking, land reform, republicanism or even socialism - whose main activity was to talk rather than act.
At the end of the 1870s, there was a revival among these societies, initiated by people who wanted to give them a more militant orientation by turning them to the working masses. In the East End of London, for instance, a Labour Emancipation League, founded by a carter called Joseph Lane, began holding open-air meetings arguing for the public ownership of land and the means of producing wealth. Meanwhile, in Birmingham, a Midland Social Democratic Association was formed with, among its objectives, the abolition of the monarchy, House of Lords and state church.
London, of course, was host to a good number of such clubs and societies. To his credit, Henry Hyndman, took upon himself the task of trying to bring together as many of them as possible within the same organisation, on the basis of Marx's teachings. Thus was formed, in 1881, the Democratic Federation, soon to be renamed the Social- Democratic Federation (SDF). To be sure, Hyndman was not so much a socialist as a wealthy adventurer, who could afford the cost of maintaining a political organisation and its newspaper. As Lenin was to describe him three decades later, Hyndman was "an English bourgeois philistine who, being best of the best of his class, finally finds the road to socialism for himself, but never completely throws off bourgeois traditions, bourgeois views and prejudices."
Nevertheless, the SDF succeeded in winning over a number of valuable activists. Among them were intellectuals like William Morris, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, Henry Champion and George Lansbury, but also a number of working class members, like John Burns, Tom Mann, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett, who were to play leading roles, as trade-union activists, in the social explosion of the late 1880s.
However, the SDF's origins were to hamper its subsequent development. It was run dictatorially by Hyndman as his own private property. Members were expelled for voicing any disagreements and the SDF's paper, Justice, remained really the exclusive expression of Hyndman's brain waves.
Predictably, the tensions which were developing in its ranks came to a head, three years after its launch, when Hyndman refused to acknowledge a vote of no-confidence by the SDF's Executive over the patriotic and, at times reformist, language used in Justice. This resulted in a split, led by William Morris and Eleanor Marx, with Engels' support. A new organisation was formed, under the name of Socialist League, with a clear revolutionary internationalist programme and a new paper, Commonweal.
Another source of bitter disagreement in the SDF - often leading to expulsions and splits - was Hyndman's contempt for developments in the class struggle and, more generally, any form of consistent militant activity. In Hyndman's view, the advent of socialism was to be a more or less automatic development stemming from the flaws of capitalism, so that propaganda combined with the occasional spectacular stunt was all that was really needed. Of course, such an approach could only reduce the organisation to passivity and generate discontent in its ranks.
Nevertheless, for all their defects and limitations, the early socialist groups - the SDF, Socialist League and the many other smaller groups which existed on a local level - did produce a generation of working class activists who had a certain understanding of socialist ideas from a Marxist point of view. When circumstances became favourable enough to make it possible to translate these ideas into action, in the explosion of discontent of the late 1880s, a number of these activists proved capable of offering a fighting perspective to tens of thousands of workers - despite and against the reactionary policy of the traditional union leaders - people like Tom Mann, John Burns and Ben Tillett in the Docks, and Will Thorne in the Gas Workers' and General Labourers' Union.
However, it should be noted that none of these political organisations played any role as such, in these events. By the time they took place, Burns, Mann and Tillet had distanced themselves from the SDF. As to the Socialist League, it was too small in England to play any real role, even though Will Thorne worked in close association with Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling.
Finally, to complete the round-table of what are usually described as the "socialist" groups of the 1880s, one has to mention the so-called "Fabian Society". More than anything else, it incorporated the more radical elements of the liberal petty-bourgeoisie, whose main preoccupation was sociological studies. But their real nature was best summarised by Engels in his old comrade Adolph Sorge: "The Fabians are an ambitious group (..) who have understanding enough to realise the inevitability of the social revolution, but who could not possibly entrust this gigantic task to the rough proletariat alone and are therefore kind enough to set themselves at the head. Fear of the revolution is their fundamental principle. They are the "educated" par excellence. Their socialism is municipal socialism; not the nation, but the municipality is to become the owner of the means of production, at any rate for the time being. This socialism of theirs is then represented as an extreme but inevitable consequence of bourgeois Liberalism, and hence follow their tactics of not decisively opposing the Liberals as adversaries but of pushing them on towards socialist conclusions and therefore of intriguing with them, of permeating Liberalism with Socialism, of not putting up Socialist candidates against the Liberals but of fastening them on to the Liberals, forcing them upon them, or deceiving them into taking them. That in the course of this process they are either lied to and deceived themselves or else betray socialism, they do not of course realise. With great industry they have produced amid all sorts of rubbish some good propagandist writings as well, in fact the best of the kind which the English have produced. But as soon as they get on to their specific tactics of hushing up the class struggle it all turns putrid. Hence too their fanatical hatred of Marx and all of us - because of the class struggle."
Political representation and the birth of the ILP
The issue of the working class having its own political voice in Parliament was an old one. With the extensions of the franchise, in 1867 and 1884, in every election there had been a few candidates standing as independents on a "labour ticket", with the backing of local trades councils and/or socialist groups. But in the main, most union leaders still relied on their "working relationship" with Liberal politicians to achieve anything through Parliament.
However, since the mid-1880s and the launch by Tom Mann of the "8 Hour League", the problem had been raised in more concrete terms. This campaign was not about seeking a disguised wage increase through more hours being paid as overtime. Nor was it about protection for very young workers and women. On the contrary, it was about demanding from the state that it guaranteed the right for workers not to work more than 8 hours per day, period. And, by 1890, the success of the campaign had reached such momentum that the "Old Guard" of the TUC gave up its opposition to state intervention in labour's affairs and endorsed the demand for an 8-hour bill.
Even before 1889, more or less successful attempts had been made to bring together socialist activists and militant workers around a programme which included the 8-hour day and a package of social reform, with the aim of gaining political representation for the working class in Parliament. A North of England Socialist Federation had been set up in Northumberland in 1887. The same year, Tom Mann had made a similar attempt in Bolton. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Keir Hardie, a miners' union official and Liberal party supporter, had broken from his party to form the Scottish Labour Party along similar lines.
After the 1889 explosion, the level of political awareness had been raised considerably in a whole section of the working class. For many working class activists it was no longer conceivable to rely on Liberal demagogues to represent their interests in Parliament when Liberal governments had been shown consistently to side with the bosses on every important issue. The pressure for working class representation was rising among activists. In the provinces, despite the chronic sectarian squabbles between their national leaders, local branches of the SDF and Socialist League were getting into the habit of working together, whether it was in the practical tasks resulting from helping workers to take strike action or in day-to-day agitation.
Various organisations had sprung up all around the country. In West Riding, for instance, where the local Liberals had adopted a ruthless anti-worker policy during a 5-month lock-out in a Bradford mill, 23 labour clubs were set up in the woollen districts to promote labour representation in Parliament and councils "irrespective of the convenience of any political party". Scotland was now entirely covered since the formation of a Trades Council Labour Party, next to Hardie's Scottish Labour Party. Similar groups had been formed in Manchester and Birmingham. And more of them emerged in the run-up to the 1892 general election. In this election, five labour candidates stood in the name of this still informal movement. Ben Tillett stood in Bradford and Champion stood in Aberdeen, where both did well without being elected. Havelock Wilson, the seamen's leader, and John Burns were both elected, in Middlesborough and Hammersmith respectively, but with Liberal backing. Keir Hardie was elected in West Ham, although without being opposed by the Liberals.
At the next TUC conference following this election, an informal meeting of union leaders decided to call a conference in order to unite the various "independent labour parties", to be held in Bradford in January 1893. At the founding conference of the new party, there was much talk about "socialism". But a Scottish motion proposing to include the word "Socialist" in its name was rejected, for fear that this might alienate potential voters. The Independent Labour Party (ILP) was thus born. Its main priority was to get its candidates elected to Parliament and, to this end, a programme was adopted which was designed to win the support of the unions as well as to appeal to non-socialist voters. Only the SDF and the Fabians remained outside the new party. The SDF rejected it as opportunistic and for already making compromises in order to win votes and trade-union financial support. While the Fabians considered that the ILP was infiltrated by raving socialists and that the best course was to keep on attempting to win the support of "enlightened" Liberal politicians to the cause.
Engels, who had been directly involved for years in advising Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their militant activity, welcomed the launch of the new party. Writing to a friend shortly after the Bradford conference, he said: "The SDF on the one hand and the Fabians on the other have not been able, with their sectarian attitude, to absorb the mass pressure for socialism in the provinces, so the foundation of a third Party was quite good. But the pressure has now become so great, especially in the industrial districts of the north, that the new Party came out already at this first Congress stronger than the SDF or the Fabians, if not stronger than both put together. And as the mass of the membership is certainly very good, as the centre of gravity lies in the provinces and not in London, the home of cliques, and as the main point of the programme is ours, Aveling was right to join and to accept a seat on the Executive."
Engels, however, did not have many illusions about the leaders of the new party, as he showed by adding: "The fact that here too people like Keir Hardie, Shaw, Maxwell and others are pursuing all sorts of secondary aims of personal ambition is of course obvious. But the danger arising from this becomes less, according to the degree by which the party itself becomes stronger and gets more of a mass character, and it is already diminished by the necessity for exposing the weakness of the competing sects. Socialism has penetrated the masses in the industrial districts enormously in the last years and I am counting on these masses to keep the leaders in order. Of course, there will be stupidities enough, and cliques of every kind too, but so long as it is possible to keep them within decent limits."
Indeed, the leadership of the new party was, in fact, very far from being a class, let alone a socialist leadership. Of the ILP's two most prominent leaders, Keir Hardie, was a lay preacher before being a socialist, while Tom Mann, although closer to Marxism, was a pro-active Anglican and an individualist, who preferred looking for new adventures elsewhere rather than devoting himself to the tedious long-term task of building a party. But this leadership was, nevertheless, far more representative of the mass movement of the late 1880s than any of the existing groups. And as such, it had the means to bring into political activity a significant section of the working class - which was what really mattered. Provided, of course, it was also capable of providing the working class with a leadership for its struggles, not just in the ballot box.
A political voice for the bureaucracy
While a number of union leaders were involved in the ILP or tacitly supported it, the majority stuck with their traditional policy of seeking accommodation with the Liberals. And every year throughout the 1890s, TUC conference rejected resolutions in favour of supporting independent labour candidates in whatever shape or form. Of course, the ILP's relative lack of success in the 1895 general election, where it failed to get any of its 28 candidates elected, only reinforced the TUC leaders in this direction.
However, faced with another offensive against the union machineries themselves by the courts - and especially against their funds - the union leaders decided that some pressure had to be put on the Liberals. The motion put forward by one of the rail unions and carried by the 1899 TUC conference called for a special convention between the co-operative, trade-union and socialist organisations to "devise ways and means for securing the return of an increased number of labour members to the next Parliament". It had the advantage of leaving everyone with their options open. It was a warning to the Liberal Party that it had better deliver the goods if it wanted to rely on the unions' support. But it committed the union leadership to virtually nothing.
In fact, when the convention met, in February 1900, the only decision that was made, was based on a compromise resolution put forward by Hardie which committed the future labour members to form "a distinct Labour group in Parliament, who shall have their own whips, and agree upon their policy, which must embrace a readiness to cooperate with any party which for the time being may be engaged in promoting legislation in the direct interests of labour". Not a word was said about the precise content of this agreed policy. There was no decision made about the funding of the future candidates, nor was there any mention of other political fields of activity, in which the new Labour Representation Committee (LRC) might get involved.
This gave union leaders the best of both worlds. They could use the threat of the LRC candidate to pressurise the Liberals, while getting the Liberals to endorse their own candidates. As to the socialist groups, they were all represented on the LRC's leading body. In fact, these groups were even over-represented given their actual influence, with 2 members each from the SDF and ILP, 1 from the Fabian Society and 7 union leaders. In and of itself, this probably shows that the LRC was not, at this stage, a major priority for the union bureaucracy.
That the union machineries had not chosen to throw their weight behind the LRC at this stage was shown by the fact that in the general election held that same year, the LRC only managed to stand 15 candidates, with 2 of them being elected - Keir Hardie in Merthyr Tydfil and the railway union leader Richard Bell, in Derby.
However, more and more union leaders were becoming convinced that they needed some form of legal immunity to protect their funds against union-bashing bosses. And since the Conservatives refused to do anything about it while the Liberals could not be entirely trusted on such an issue, a growing number of unions came to agree with the need for a pressure group directly controlled by them within Parliament itself. So by 1905, the only large union which remained outside the LRC was the miners.
In the meantime, bye-election successes had increased the LRC's group in the Commons from 2 to 5, thereby showing the Liberals that it was a force to be reckoned with. As a result, in the run-up to the 1906 election, the LRC was able to make a pact with the Liberal party, whereby the LRC would be able to stand in 30 constituencies without Liberal opponents. In the end, 29 LRC MPs were elected. Most of them were members of the ILP but depended entirely on trade union funding. Of these 29, only 5 had been elected against a Liberal opponent. This meant that the 24 others had no electorate of their own - or at least, they were not certain to have one, should the Liberals stand a candidate against them in the following election. In other words, although the Liberal Party in power now had to deal with a labour group in Parliament, it was really a group of hostages, who could be forced into compromise under the constant threat of losing their seats in the next election.
The Labour party, which was officially proclaimed after this election, remained, in reality, an adjunct to the Liberal party, rather than an independent voice of the labour movement, let alone of the working class. Part of the union machineries was still in cahoots with the Liberal party at local level and a section of the union leadership was still busy trying to play both cards. Only the final downfall of the Liberal party in the aftermath of World War I was to change this and to turn the Labour party into the only political voice available for the union bureaucracy.
Labour's political bankruptcy
In the aftermath of the 1906 election, the Labour party concentrated its activity on consolidating its foothold in its constituencies. Eventually, in 1909, the Miners' Federation affiliated, bringing its 16 MPs to Labour. On paper at least, because Labour's existing MPs found it quite difficult to work with their new colleagues, who turned out to be Liberals at heart. In fact, of these 16 seats, Labour was to lose 11 before 1914.
Overall, Labour's electoral support was rising very slowly, without making new gains in terms of seats. The party was still far from having won over the support of all union members, let alone of the working class electorate as a whole. By 1913, almost 40% of the membership of the nine largest unions still voted against the political levy, whose main purpose was to fund Labour party candidates and MPs.
These early years of the Labour party's existence were also marked by its response to developments in the class struggle, which highlighted its political nature.
So, for instance, around the time of its formation, unemployment and homelessness were on the increase. Right to Work Councils had been set up jointly by the ILP and the SDF, particularly in northern cities, to help attempts by the unemployed to occupy and cultivate Church land. Keir Hardie, who saw this campaign as an opportunity to combine parliamentary and extra-parliamentary interventions, promoted a bill which would have compelled local councils to provide either work or maintenance for the unemployed and required the state to make provisions for public works schemes. However Hardie was soon forced to back-pedal on this, when the Right to Work campaign came up against the opposition of the TUC leaders.
However, new explosions of anger were brewing in the working class. The years 1908 to 1911 saw an on-going and bitter guerilla war between miners and their employers. In one case, a dispute involving initially 70 men exploded into a 12-month strike involving 12,000 miners, who were forced back to work in October 1911, after having had to face repeated attacks by the police and having been refused any support on a national scale. The following year, however, the Miners' Federation, feeling that it could not allow another defeat like that, got a four to one majority in a ballot in favour of a national minimum level of earnings for all underground workers. On March 1st, 1912, the Federation called out 1 million coal miners, in the first national coal strike. Within a month, the Liberal government passed a bill to this effect. Despite a small majority in favour of continuing the strike until local agreements were concluded, the Federation called for a return to work. This was not a 100% victory, but it was a tremendous show of strength on the part of the miners who joined the union in droves.
Meanwhile, another explosion had been taking place, in the transport industry. It started with a successful seamen's strike in June 1911, which was followed by a whole series of strikes affecting other industries connected in some way with the docks and waterfront areas. It was an explosive movement, in that workplaces came out one after the other, often without any union having anything to do with it. The systematic use of strike breakers by the bosses led to violent confrontations which, in turn, were used as a pretext for the Liberal government to send in the troops.
At the same time, an unofficial strike by rail workers in Liverpool blew up into a national railway strike. The Liberal government lost its wits. The army was mobilised and martial law was declared in whole areas of the country. In Liverpool, the strike committee led by Tom Mann started issuing permits for the transport of essential supplies, while the whole region ground to a halt. In some areas, miners came out in solidarity with the strikers, while in Scotland and South-Wales, threats of large-scale action in the mines were issued. Terrified by these developments, the Liberal government used the pretext of an "international crisis" caused by Germany's alleged "ambitions on Morocco" to get the railway companies to compromise. The railway union leaders, who were probably just as worried by the development of a strike that they had not initiated, responded promptly, by calling off the strike. Out of it they got a measure of recognition from the companies, although the strikers made no gains with regard to their main grievances - which were long hours, low pay and severely punitive discipline.
The strike wave continued unabated until the outbreak of World War I. 1913 saw the largest number of strikes ever recorded so far in Britain, particularly in engineering, urban transport and in the building trade. In the first six months of the following year, there were more working days lost through strike action in the building trade alone than during the whole of the 1911 transport strike.
However, this demonstration of strength was seen as a major embarrassment by the Labour party leaders. It was a bullet in the head of their uneasy alliance with the Liberal government. And the unofficial character of many of the strikes also complicated their relations with the union machineries. So, many ILP leaders came out openly against the strikes - with the notable exception of Keir Hardie, who was already marginalised within the ILP and who took a clear stand in support of the strikers. But otherwise, in the best of cases, the Labour leaders found nothing to say, no policy to offer, no perspective to put forward in front of the millions of workers who were struggling to find a way towards a better life.
The Labour party, therefore, failed its first real-life test, by letting down in the most contemptible way, the very same workers whose interests it purported to voice. Then came the second test, the most damning of all - the war. When the Labour and TUC leadership announced their wholehearted support for the war effort, there were few voices of dissent in the Labour party. Keir Hardie, who advocated a general strike, was one of the very few. Of course, it must be said that, unlike most Socialist parties in Europe, the Labour party leaders had never declared themselves against the threatening war. So no-one can say that they betrayed their word. But they did betray the British working class, precisely by not preparing it for this butchery and by not opposing it long before it happened.
As to the rest of the socialist left, which was mostly opposed to the war, it was once again atomised into a number of more or less rival groups with little influence and remained largely impotent, whether during the massive unrest of the previous years, or even more so, when confronted with the outbreak of the war.
And yet no-one can claim, that even in the last hours before the war broke out, the British working class was passive or resigned. It had an enormous explosive power in its hands and a colossal strength, which it had been able to measure over the previous four years. But it was prevented from doing anything with this potential power because, over the previous two decades, most of the activists who claimed to stand for its interests had decided that the way to do this was to find some sort of political accommodation with the trade-union bureaucracy, rather than to aim at organising workers to act for themselves. Predictably, the party which came out of their efforts proved to be a political reflection of the union bureaucracy for which it had been tailor-made - it was, and remains, an instrument of conservatism and, as a result, an instrument of capital.