Part 4: 1880s and 1890s: revival of workers' struggle and the socialist response

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This series of articles began by outlining the resurgence of the working class movement in Britain at the end of the 1880s. It went on to deal with the particular roles of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, concluding that both failed to respond to the needs of the proletariat (see WR 198, 205 & 208). In this fourth part, we return to a more detailed consideration of the revival of struggle in the 1880s and 1890s, to show why and how it developed and to draw out both what it shared with the international workers' movement and what distinguished it.

The balance of class forces

While no mass political movement was created in Britain in the decades following the defeat of Chartism, the working class, nonetheless, constituted a force within society. The fundamental reasons for this were the strength of trade unionism within the working class and the bourgeoisie's own understanding of the potential threat posed by the proletariat. These points were emphasised by Engels in 1881 in an article on the Trades Unions in The Labour Standard. "The Act of 1824 [which repealed the Combination Laws which had banned Trades Unions] rendered these organisations legal. From that day Labour became a power in England. The formerly helpless mass, divided against itself, was no longer so. To the strength given by union and common action was added the force of a well-filled exchequer - `resistance money', as our French brethren expressively call it" (Collected Works Vol.24, p.384). The unions became "a power which has to be taken into account by any Government of the ruling class" (ibid, p.386), winning not only economic concessions, such as the regulation of wages, hours and factory conditions, but also political reforms with the gradual extension of the vote. However, they failed to use these "new weapons". The majority of union leaders remained staunch liberals. Indeed, as Engels showed, it was the bourgeoisie, "which knows their strength better than they do" (ibid) who took the initiative, 'volunteering' the extension of the vote to parts of the working class. The bourgeoisie was quite clear about its aims in doing this: "every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or of political danger is morally entitled to come within the pale of the constitution" (Gladstone, quoted in Torr, Tom Mann and His Times). Thus, while the struggle for the franchise was an important aspect of the wider class struggle at this time, its acquisition was only a victory for the working class to the extent that it was consciously used as part of that wider struggle. Engels concluded the article in The Labour Standard by arguing that the unions' failure to use the franchise in this way meant that the working class had been "moving in the wrong groove" (op.cit).

The trade union struggle ensured that part of the working class shared in the advantages that flowed from Britain's economic supremacy but, as Engels repeatedly argued, the union struggle, by its nature, could not challenge the wages system itself. Furthermore, the very success of the unions fuelled illusions about the existence of common interests between the classes and helped create strong support for the Liberal Party within significant parts of the working class, thus ensuring that the political initiative lay more with the bourgeoisie than the proletariat. For this to change decisively there would have to be an equally decisive change in the objective conditions.

The start of the decline of British Capitalism

The early industrialisation of Britain gave it an advantage over all of its rivals that lasted for much of the 19th century. However, by the 1880s competitors such as France, Germany and America were threatening this monopoly. While their total productive capacity still lagged behind Britain at the start of the decade, its more rapid rate of increase indicated that this would not long remain the case. This sharpening of competition fuelled the growth of imperialism as each nation struggled to increase its share of the world market. The previously unexploited parts of the world, notably Africa and Asia, became the focus of intense rivalry in the last decades of the century.

In Britain, as Engels noted, the classical industrial cycle had begun to change with the periods of collapse lengthening and recovery becoming more difficult: "... what distinguishes the present period of depression, especially in cotton and iron is this, that it has now for some years outlasted its usual duration. There have been several attempts at a revival, several spurts; but in vain. If the epoch of actual collapse has been overcome, trade remains in a languid state, and the markets continue incapable to absorb the whole production" (“Iron and Cotton” published in Labour Standard 1881; Collected Works vol.24, p.411-2). There were depressions at the end of the 1870s and during the middle years of the 1880s (the Great Depression) while throughout there was a gradual decline in the rate of growth. These developments not only heralded the end of Britain's economic monopoly but were also the first signs of the end of the period of ascendancy of capitalism as a whole and the beginnings of its period of historical decline or decadence (see our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism).

At the same time as these developments led to an increase of rivalry within the capitalist class, they also provoked an intensification of the struggle between the classes. The employers sought to protect their profits by increasing the exploitation of the working class, both by changes in working practices and attempts to keep down, or even cut, wages. By the turn of the century wages had ceased to increase and even moved into reverse. The recessions threw hundreds of thousands of workers into unemployment and destitution, with rates reaching 12% in 1879 and 10% in 1885-6, before falling back to 3 % during the relative recovery of the later 1890s.

The proletariat was hit very hard by these developments and initially membership of the unions slumped, but from the latter half of the 1880s on its combativity gradually recovered, with significant strikes taking place in the mines in Northumberland and in the engineering industry in Bolton. These strikes were marked by an increasing bitterness, the employers forming national organisations to protect their interests and the state intervening in a number of strikes, such as Manningham Mills in 1890 when police broke up the strikers’ meetings. This increasingly direct confrontation between the classes eroded the illusions weighing on the working class and created the conditions for a politicisation of the proletariat's struggle.

The economic struggle

The most significant aspect of the economic struggles of this period was the mobilisation of the unskilled workers. In March 1889, agitation by the gasworkers in London, with regular demonstrations of several thousand and the enrolment of 20,000 workers in the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers, forced the employers to concede an 8 hour day and a pay rise. Later the same year the London dockers' strike generated massive solidarity, with the marches and demonstrations involving 100,000 workers. Official figures for the period show 119,000 workers involved in disputes in 1888, 360,000 in 1889 and 393,000 in 1890, rising to a peak of 634,000 in 1893, and remaining high for the rest of the century.

This historic movement of the working class is often subordinated to the story of 'new unionism' and its leaders which, while of great importance, can obscure the real significance of the movement. In the dock strike for example, previous attempts at unionisation by Ben Tillet had only limited success and the strike itself began amongst non-union workers who, while they subsequently turned to Tillet for assistance, formulated their demands independently, as had the gasworkers previously (see Mann Tom Mann 's Memoirs, pp 58 & 61). Furthermore, while a large number of new unions sprang up subsequently around the country, both they and the gains they won frequently proved unsustainable. The dockers had to accept a compromise (although achieving their main demand of 6d an hour and 8d overtime) and the Gasworkers were defeated in a strike at the end of 1889. Between 1892 and 1894, the new unions only comprised some 107,000 out of the total of 1,555,000 union members.

The real success of the struggles lay in the mobilisation of the working class, in the demands advanced and in the determination with which they were fought. The dockers stayed out for five weeks, sustained by the solidarity of the proletariat internationally. An act in keeping with the foundation of the Second International that same year.

That socialists, such as Eleanor Marx, Will Thorne and Tom Mann were able to play a leading role was primarily a consequence of the maturation of the class consciousness of the proletariat in Britain. It also reflected the capacity of these socialists to break with the sectarianism of the main socialist organisations (even though Thorne and Mann remained members of the SDF) and grasp where the real movement of the working class lay. This movement was not towards the immediate acceptance of socialism, to which many workers remained hostile, but away from domination by bourgeois ideology and politics and towards independent class organisation.

The political struggle

This dimension of the class struggle generally developed in a far more dispersed and hesitant manner than the economic struggles.

Although the SDF and the Socialist League were never more than sects, they did have a lasting impact in some parts of the country. The SDF particularly had a presence in parts of Scotland and above all in Lancashire, where the involvement of some of its members in a number of industrial disputes had left a legacy of branches in towns such as Salford, Blackburn and Rochdale. Some of these were far less sectarian than the parent organisation and worked readily with other socialist and labour organisations. The splits from the SDF (see part 3 of this series) had produced organisations which, while generally short-lived, had left some traces. These organisations had tended to react strongly against the 'revolutionary' purism of the SDF, the Socialist Union, for example, adopted exclusively reformist and legalistic positions.

In 1888 the Scottish Labour Party had been formed in the wake of Keir Hardie's failure to be elected as an independent labour candidate in Mid Lanark. Although it sought to draw in socialists, much of its platform was composed of traditional radical liberal demands and, more significantly, it showed a continued willingness to negotiate with the Liberal party to obtain electoral deals. Despite this, the election and its aftermath indicated that the grip of the Liberal party was weakening, although it sought to respond by adopting a more radical programme at the 1891 election. In other parts of the country similar efforts to field independent labour candidates in local and national elections gradually gained support, Hardie being elected in the West Ham South constituency in 1891.

In various parts of Britain independent labour organisations emerged. Labour Unions were established in Bradford, Halifax, Hartlepool and Keighley, the founding resolution of the first declaring that "its objects should be to advance the interests of workingmen in whatever way it might from time to time be thought advisable...its operation should be carried on irrespective of the convenience of any political party" (quoted in Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, p.179). In Manchester a local Independent Labour Party was established in 1892, the fourth clause of its constitution stated "That all members of this party pledge themselves to abstain from voting for any candidate for election to any representative body who is in any way a nominee of the Liberal, Liberal-Unionist or Conservative parties" (quoted in Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party, p.97). Other organisations included the Aberdare Socialist Society in South Wales and the Newcastle Labour Party.

Another important aspect was the growth of labour and socialist papers, such as the Labour Leader, Labour Elector, the Workman 's Times and Clarion at the national level, alongside a host of local or sectional papers, such as The Miner and the Yorkshire Factory Times. Even though many titles were short-lived and the motives of both proprietors and journalists were often questionable, they still expressed the forward movement of the proletariat. In 1892, the Workman 's Times, which was edited by Joseph Burgess, a long-time supporter of independent labour activity, launched an appeal for readers to send in their names to support the formation of an independent labour party. Over 2,000 replied and a number of branches were established, although without any national organisation.


The developments that we have sketched out are frequently presented as both uniquely 'British' (reflecting the 'common-sense' pragmatism of the British working class) and as simply the raw material of the ILP, which itself was but a preparation for the Labour Party, the inevitable destination of the working class. In reality, as we have repeatedly stressed, the working class movement in Britain was an integral part of the international movement although, as with each part, it was influenced by its particular situation.

In the first place, the international working class affirmed itself as a class with its own interests opposed to those of the ruling class. If this found its highest expressions in the great Social Democratic parties in countries like Germany and, above all, in the creation of the Second International, it could also be seen in the vibrancy of the proletariat's social life, in its clubs with their emphasis on education and in the proliferation of newspapers, journals and pamphlets. Engels repeatedly expressed confidence that this dynamic would rapidly lead the workers to socialism. Commenting on the strikes of 1889 he argued "Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands only as provisional although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for. But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlike the old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between Capital and Labour with scorn and ridicule, this will not take very long... " (Engels to Sorge December 1889, quoted Pelling op. cit). It was this dynamic which was expressed so forcibly in the massive May Day demonstration in London the following year and which prompted Engels to declare, "There can be no doubt that on May 4, 1890 the English working class joined the great international army" (“May 4 in London”, Collected Works vol. 27, p.66).

At the same time however, an opposite dynamic emerged, based on the very success of the unions and independent workers organisations in wrestling concessions from the ruling class. The bourgeoisie was able to grant these because of the immense continuing growth of capitalism. In the case of Britain, although it suffered from the loss of its monopoly position, it still remained immensely powerful and in the later 1890s enjoyed a period of prosperity in which the falling price of foodstuffs temporarily offset the decline in the rate of increase in workers' wages. This favoured not just a preoccupation with winning immediate reforms but also the development of an opportunist tendency which transformed this error into a political principle. This led eventually to the rejection of the class struggle, the abandonment of the revolutionary goal of the proletariat and, ultimately, to the defence of capitalism against the working class.

What particularly marked the situation in Britain was the existence of a number of factors which gave added weight to this tendency:

* Firstly, the weakness of the socialist movement in Britain, undermined organisationally by the parasitism of the dominant Hyndman clique in the SDF and the destruction of the Socialist League by the anarchists with aid from the state. The consequence was that, while Socialists played an active and significant part in the emerging movement, they did so in a dispersed and unorganised way that wasted much of their efforts. For many workers socialism was identified with the 'revolutionary' bluster of Justice (paper of the SDF) and the glorification of violence in Commonweal (paper of the Socialist League).

* The nature of the union movement in Britain gave an added weight to reformism. As we have seen, the traditional unions remained the dominant force, while the new unions were unable to sustain their original memberships and gradually moved towards the more traditional forms of organisation according to trade and level of skill.

* The activity of organisations such as the Fabian Society, which essentially advocated an opportunist and class-collaborationist policy and opposed marxism, gave a further push to reformism. Although the Fabian Society was small it was well organised and funded and the stupidities of the revolutionary sects gave it room in which to work.

* Lastly, the state itself worked actively against the working class movement. If its use of spies and agent-provocateurs was the most obvious aspect (and even here it was more skilled than its continental counterparts) the more dangerous was its ability to use concessions against the class struggle, particularly by playing the democratic card through the extension of the vote. This was underestimated throughout the workers movement, where the oppression of Bismarck in Germany and the Tsars in Russia was contrasted with the 'liberties' enjoyed in Britain. The weight of democratic illusions has remained a consistent weakness in the revolutionary movement in Britain.

However, it is essential to underline that the movement that came to life at the end of the 1880s and which flourished in the 1890s, was a genuine expression of the proletariat as a revolutionary class and that it had the potential to develop into the mass socialist organisation that Engels envisaged. Contrary to our bourgeois historians it was not pre-ordained that it would end in the Labour Party. The period which now began, and which lasted until the First World War, was one of an intense struggle for the creation of a mass workers party and against opportunism. It is the first part of this struggle, the founding years of the Independent Labour Party, that we will take up in the next article in this series.


First published in World Revolution 213 (April 1998)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914