The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Labour Movement

Category: 20th century

Changes in the position of British capitalism led to the revival of the labour movement and trade union militancy in the 1880s. The long depression of the seventies brought an end to a long period of steady wage increases. The main advantages of this process were enjoyed by the labour aristocracy. Now the golden age was over; any real advance in wages had to be fought for.

Throughout the era of growing imperialism there was good reason for new developments in trade union policy. Even the respectable new model unions had to fight now and then, while.the underprivileged unskilled workers were now beginning to organize and fight.,The organization of the unskilled workers in the new trade unions was a great step forward in the history of the British trade union movement. It happened not only because of the economic effects of the long depression, which ruined thousands of workers, especially in London; it was also stimulated as a result of the revival of socialist ideas in the eighties! Socialist organizations soon revived. Engels was closely associated with this development. He wrote a series of articles in 1881 in the Labour Standard, the journal of the London Trades Council, in which he exposed the ideas of class collaboration and helped to give theoretical guidance to the rising tide of working class militancy.

The breakthrough came in 1888 with a strike by the girls in Bryant and May’s match factory. The success of this strike, led by socialists and given wide publicity, encouraged other sections to organize. The gas workers were next, helped by such socialists like Tom Mann and John Burns, together with socialist intellectuals like Edward Aveling and his wife, Eleanor, daughter of Karl Marx. London dockers then struck for 6 pence a day, the famous ‘dockers’ tanner’, and inspired the whole working class with mass picketing, marches and collections for the strike fund. After five weeks they, too, won, and a flood of strikes then swept the country. Trade union organization spread among dockers, gas workers, railwaymen, busmen, carters, unskilled workers in factories. This great step forward was called the ‘New Unionism’ by Engels.

At the beginning of the 20th century there was a further deterioration of the living standards of the working class. The manufacturers facing increased competition abroad attempted to improve the sales of British goods on the world markets by cutting down the wages. Inevitably industrial action was taken by the working class, A new wave of strikes swept across the country, the most serious of which was the Taff Vale railwaymen strike in Wales. The dispute was brought before the House of Lords which acted in favour of the employers; the trade union was ordered to pay for the industrial damages, caused by the strike, thus making strikes almost impossible.

The strike highlighted the necessity of creating an independent working class party which was to defend the rights of the workers. This process was well under way since the eighties and it culminated in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 with the aim of electing working class representatives to Parliament. In 1906 the Committee was renamed the Labour party.

The new party was an amalgamation of trade unions and socialist organizations as the Social-Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour party formed in 1893 and the Fabian Society (1884) — a party of middle-class intellectuals the most prominent of whom were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Bernard Shaw, Herbert Wells. The Fabians formulated the theory of evolution and rejected class struggle and revolution. They fought against Marxist ideas and provided theoretical arguments for the future right-wing leadership of the Labour party. Such origins of the Labour party affected its political platform. The leadership of the Labour party consisted of some reformist, opportunist socialists and a number of trade union leaders. Even militant leaders like Keir Hardie without a scientific socialist theory, soon adapted themselves to the procedure and traditions of a bourgeois parliament.^ The leaders of the Labour party rejected Marxism and relied mainly on evolutionary means and reforms which did not change the nature of capitalism. The strength of the party was in the support of the trade uniongj

From the start it was a federation, in which the majority of affiliated members were in the trade unions. Individual membership was practised on a limited scale. Lenin saw the great potential of the Labour party in its mass membership. At the same time Lenin criticized the bourgeois character of the policies of the leaders of the party. This struggle between the right and left wing is inherent of the history of the Lahour party.

In the  pre-war years the labour movement grew both in scope and strength. The Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1905 enhanced the British working class struggle. The strike movement was becoming more militant and revolutionary in character. JHowever, at the same time the threat of war began to overshadow other problems! The Second International had been formed in 1889 and the Labour party affiliatra to it in 1908. The policy of the International if war should break out, to use the crisis ‘to accelerate the fall of the bourgeoisie’, was reaffirmed in 1910 and 1912, only to be forgotten by the Labour party leaders in Britain and the social-democrats in other imperialist countries in 1914.

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