The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The British Labour Movement

Category: Politics

…Who, on looking back over nearly two centuries of heroic struggle, patient loyalty and ever-renewed endeavour to seek out the true course for the advancement of the work­ing people, can doubt the ultimate success of the British Labour Movement?

Dating back to the eighteenth-century trade clubs and the Corresponding Societies who defied bitter persecu­tion in their fight to bring democracy toBritain, the British labour movement was the first in the world. The British workers were also first to form a mass party, the National Charter Association, fighting for political freedom and ultimate so­cial emancipation. It was the British workers, too, who first formed co-operative societies and built co-operation into a national economic institution. Even in the period of apparent quiescence after the collapse of Chartism, the workers retained that deep loyalty to democracy, both national and international, which was the basis of the fight for liberty and democratic rights. They continued, too, to build and cherish their trade union organisations, which, despite limitations, were able to beat off determined efforts at destroying them.

Through the whole epic story runs a theme of struggle, of constant though at times slow and painful adaptation to new conditions. Thus, the ideals which had inspired Owen and the greatest of the Chartist thinkers burst forth once more in the glorious work of Morris and Hardie in the revival which was a prelude to the tremendous develop­ment of the phase in which the labour movement, now millions strong, declared its intention to advance to socia­lism.

How was such a movement thwarted? it may be asked. Part at least of the answer lies in the divisions within the movement, and above all in the corrupting influence of im­perialism, especially upon certain upper sections of the work­ers who, through their strategic position, exerted an in­fluence out of all proportion to their numerical strength. Their desire for an acknowledged place in existing society led to a willingness to tolerate and even defend capitalism, to turn a blind eye to and even actively support the exploi­tation of colonial peoples. This corruption, and the division and weakening which it entailed, go far to explain the fact that the oldest labour movement in the world was not the first to build the new socialist society.

Of the many lessons which emerge from this history, one stands out above all others: to win socialism requires a lead­ership, a party, self-dedicated to that end and with full scientific understanding of it, and at the same time closely in contact with the people, leading their daily struggles, guiding the movement of the overwhelming majority of the working class with as many as possible of the middle class as allies,

Britainhas her glorious roll of socialist thinkers and fight­ers; she has too a mighty and disciplined labour movement. But socialism is not achieved by either of these two in iso­lation — by the mass movement without the profound and conscious desire to build a new society, or by the idea of socialism which has not taken root in the everyday lives of the people. The union of the two is the indispensable precon­dition for the passionately-sought hope of generations: the victory of the working class and the common people over capitalism and the establishment of socialism in the land which gave birth to its idea.

From The British Labour Move­ment by A. L. Morton and G. Tate

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