Part 11: The escalation of the class struggle 1908-1911

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From 1908 to 1914 the working class in Britain threw itself into an intense struggle against its exploiters, part of an international wave of struggles across Europe, which included the mass strike in Russia in 1905. The days lost through strike action reached a level never seen before and only surpassed by the General Strike in 1926. Even more significantly, these struggles saw the workers begin to wrest control from the union leaderships and move into open confrontation with the state.

Only the unleashing of the First World War curtailed this explosion of class anger and then only for the first two years of the war. With these strikes the working class in Britain answered the notion of its supposed passivity and conservatism and reaffirmed itself once again as an integral part of the international proletariat.

The decline of British capitalism

Underpinning this development were the changes in capitalism as it moved out of its period of ascendance into its decadence, and the specific form it took in Britain. In our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism, we show the extent to which the growth of production has slowed down in the period of decadence and go on to draw the economic and political consequences of this, not least the dramatic increase in imperialist rivalry leading to an escalation of war and the tendency for the living and working conditions of the proletariat to come under attack. Britain not only fully shared these tendencies but, as a consequence of its previous position as the most advanced capitalist state, tended to experience them sooner.

As early as the 1880s Engels had noted the relative decline of British capitalism. Between 1883 and 1914 Britain’s share of the global economy declined from 31.8% to 14.1%. After 1870, the economies of Britain’s two greatest rivals, the US and Germany, grew at about twice the rate that Britain’s did. One of the factors behind this was the flight of British capital abroad, leading to a reduction of investment in the domestic economy and a consequent decline in the growth of productivity (between 1856 and 1873 productivity grew at 1.3% per annum; between 1873 and 1913 this declined to 0.9% per annum). This only further stimulated the flight of capital so that in 1907 investment abroad exceeded investment at home.

For the working class the result was an increase in its level of exploitation as the bourgeoisie tried to make up for the decline in productivity. Rothstein, in From Chartism to Labourism, brings together a range of statistics to illustrate this situation. Real wages (i.e. wages in relation to prices), after steadily increasing from 1870, began to decline after 1907; fewer workers had to do more work; unemployment began to go up, reaching 7.8% in 1908; and industrial accidents increased.

The weight of reformism: the unions

The political situation also contributed to the context in which the class launched its struggles and was a significant factor in shaping the form they took. The Trade Unions were the dominant organisations of the working class in Britain throughout the second half of the 19th century. They were also strongholds of reformism and class collaboration. Their role in opposing the development of the class party of the proletariat has already been examined (see part 6 in WR 218). The extent to which they had actually abandoned the class struggle can be seen in the relationships they developed with the employers and in aspects of their internal organisation.

In the latter part of the 19th century a number of mechanisms were established between workers, or rather between their union representatives, and the employers to regulate wages and disputes. In the mining industry the sliding scale linked wages directly to the cost of the coal produced. In 1893 the unions and employers in the cotton industry signed the Brooklands Agreement which established a conciliation board to settle disputes, again based on the fluctuations of the employers’ profits.

In 1896 the Conciliation Act encouraged the creation of conciliation boards, which brought employers and union leaders together to ‘settle’ disputes, with 282 coming into existence by 1910, increasing to 325 by 1913. The result was that the majority of disputes went before the boards: in 1909 1,997 disputes followed this course (of which 1,025 were resolved) while only 436 resulted in strikes or lockouts. In 1911 the Liberal Government enabled the state to intervene directly by setting up the ‘Industrial Council’ to resolve disputes that the conciliation boards could not settle.

The hostility of the union hierarchy to strike action was also expressed in the separation of strike funds from other funds, such as unemployment and sickness benefits, and the low level of the former. Strike funds were also invested, making it difficult to access them when needed.

Such open class collaboration was an advantage for the bourgeoisie not the workers since the unions won neither significant pay rises nor improvements in working conditions. While wages did increase between 1875 and 1900 the real reason for the improvement in living standards of the working class was the fall, of up to 50%, in the price of basic foodstuffs over the last 25 years of the century. Similarly, the eight hour day, which had been a goal of the workers’ movement since the time when the General Council of the First International was based in London, continued to elude many parts of the working class. Cotton workers, for example, saw a reduction of just one hour in their working week from 56.5 to 55.5 over the twenty years from 1886 to 1906.

In such a situation, where the unions could appear either unnecessary or ineffectual, it is no surprise that their growth slowed down and even, as in the first few years of the century, went into reverse (in 1900 there were just over two million union members, in 1904 this figure had declined by over 50,000, but thereafter it steadily increased as the wave of strikes developed).

The Labour Party

The election of 24 Labour MPs in 1906 was hailed by its leaders as a historic step forward. In reality, as we showed in part 7 (WR 222), it was part of a conscious strategy by the most enlightened part of the British bourgeoisie to blunt the threat of socialism. The range of social measures passed in the first year of the new government continued this strategy by seeking to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of capitalism, such as the poverty commonly associate in old age, sickness and unemployment. All of these measures received the uncritical support of Labour, as did the annual budgets, including expenditure on the army and navy.

The same was true of the measure which had provoked the unions into supporting the LRC: the reversal of the Taff Vale decision, which had rendered union funds vulnerable to claims for damages from employers following industrial action. Although there was strong opposition from the more reactionary elements in the Liberal Party, as well as from the Conservative Party and much of the press, the legislation was passed virtually in the form desired by the unions. While bourgeois historians, such as Pelling in his History of British Trade Unions, suggest this was a factor behind the growth of militancy in the succeeding years, its actual purpose was precisely the opposite: to strengthen the unions’ hold over the workers.

Subsequently, support for the Labour Party began to decrease, opposition being expressed on the one hand by the return to the Liberal Party of many voters, resulting in a sharp reduction in the number of Labour MPs following the two General Election of 1910, and, on the other, by support for more clearly socialist candidates, the best example of this being the election of Victor Grayson in 1907 standing as a Socialist rather than a Labour candidate.

The class consciousness of the proletariat in Britain

The form taken by the workers’ movement in any given period fundamentally reflects the level of consciousness of the working class. If the leaderships of the unions and the Labour Party most clearly expressed the ideology of opportunism and reformism in the years covered by this series, they were able to do this because the working class allowed them to, because it shared the ideology. The roots of this lay in the material situation of the working class, in the fact that the great expansion of capitalism in the final decades of its ascendancy meant that the working class as a whole saw improvements in its living conditions. As Rothstein argues, the fact that in Britain this arose from the fall in the cost of foodstuffs, rather than from increases in pay won through the class struggle, particularly strengthened illusions in the beneficence of capitalism.

However, while this explains the dominant tendency within the working class in Britain, it is important to also recognise the existence of a counter-tendency. This was evident in the struggles of the late 1880s, leading to the creation of ‘new unions’ of unskilled workers; in the numbers participating in the May Day demonstrations of the 1880s; in the growth of socialist organisations in the same period; in the struggle for the unity of the SDF and ILP in the early 1890s; and in the fight against opportunism within the SDF at the turn of the century.

1908 to 1914: the escalation of the class struggle

The immediate cause of the strike wave lay in the steady increase of prices in the period from 1900 to 1914 and the attacks by the ruling class on wages and working conditions. While the first major strike did not break out until 1908, a number of developments in the years preceding expressed the changes beginning to take place within the working class. In 1905-6 a movement arose in the South Wales coalfields to organise the previously unorganised miners, through the use of force if necessary, in order to prepare for a confrontation with the owners. The demand for a minimum wage was also raised. In 1906 the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants called for an all-grades increase and recognition of the union. The membership also voted for strike action.

A detailed account of the development of the strike wave is outside the scope of this series and instead we will just highlight the major developments:

  • 1907: Lockout of Belfast dockers following a dispute provoked by employers. Soldiers and police occupy part of the city, with fights leading to several deaths.
  • 1908: Strike by cotton workers in response to employers’ demand to cut wages under the terms of a previous agreement. Compromise reached after 7 weeks which was effectively a defeat for the workers. Strike by engineers following the threat of a pay cut and against the advice of union leaders.
  • 1909: Strike by ship workers, breaching the previous conciliation agreements, and leading to the resignation of the secretary of the union. Sporadic strikes continued and a further ‘general’ strike threatened even after the bosses and union leaders struck a deal.
  • 1910: Strikes by miners in South Wales leading to fighting with the police and mobilisation of the army. Two strikers killed by troops. Union leaders refused to support the call for a general miners' strike and some had to be protected by police when visiting the coalfields. Syndicalists elected to union leadership. Refusal by cotton workers to accept reduction in pay under conciliation agreement, leading to the threat of a lockout. The government intervened to resolve the dispute.
  • 1911: Strike by Transport Workers Federation uniting dockworkers in London. All transport in London stopped. The government initially threatened to send in troops before negotiating. Strike by railwaymen in Liverpool met by mobilisation of troops, street confrontations and the sending of two warships to the Mersey. Followed by a general strike on railways (although not complete). The government mobilised troops, but faced with the continuing strike by the South Wales miners and a growing movement for a general strike amongst all miners, it eventually forced the employers to agree to the workers demands.
  • 1912: General strike of miners launched despite efforts of both the government and the union leaders to prevent it. However, the employers and government were well prepared with ample supplies of coal stockpiled and the strike was defeated after 7 weeks, the government passing a bill compelling the miners to accept a deal previously rejected.
  • 1913: Dublin Transport Workers strike. Supported by workers in Britain but not by the union leadership, who manoeuvred to prevent support being given.
  • 1913-14: Smaller strikes continue.

The outbreak of the war brought the strike wave to a halt. In the first seven months of the year there were 836 disputes involving 423,000 workers. In the following five months there were 137 disputes involving 23,000 workers. The ideological defeat inflicted on the working class by the open betrayal of the Labour Party and Social Democratic parties across Europe, with their support for imperialist war, disorientated workers. However, the working class was not beaten, which was shown most emphatically with the outbreak of the revolutionary wave in 1917.

Organisation and consciousness

Between 1910 and 1913 more than 10 million days were lost through industrial disputes every year. In 1912 this reached a peak of 38 million days. The strikes smashed through the opportunist policies and agreements of the union leaderships. Beneath the specific issues involved in each struggle ran two fundamental tendencies: towards the unification and politicisation of the class struggle.

Through its struggle the working class found again, as Marx had argued, that its only real weapons are its organisation and consciousness. The impact of these events on the development of socialist organisations and syndicalism in Britain will begin to be examined in the next part of this series.


First published in World Revolution 230 (December/January 1999/2000)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914