History of the workers’ movement in Britain, Part 3: Trade unions and the growth of reformism

Printer-friendly version

Between 1850 and 1880 British workers fought for, and won, real gains from the capitalist system: rises in real earnings, improvements in working conditions, reductions in the working day, and electoral and trade union rights. But these gains were won at a price; whereas in the previous period reforms had been wrested from the bourgeoisie only on the threat of violent insurrection, now these improvements were won largely through peaceful struggles led by the trade unions and political alliances with parliamentary factions of the bourgeoisie, which encouraged illusions in the eternal correctness of such methods and the absence of a need for a revolutionary struggle in Britain. The leadership which emerged in this period was deeply penetrated by bourgeois notions of legality and peaceful change, and pursued policies of conciliation and class collaboration which were to become characteristic of British trade unionism long before capitalism finally entered into its decadence at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The revival of class struggle and the growth of trade unionism

Except for two brief intervals, the whole period from 1850 to 1870 was one of continuous growth for British capital and this enormous economic power enabled the bourgeoisie to grant substantial concessions to the working class.

The working class emerged from the defeat of Chartism and again began to advance its own class interests, and after a relatively short reflux, the 1860s saw a revival of struggles, with many hard-fought strikes and protracted lock-outs in the cotton, engineering, building and mining industries over higher wages, shorter hours and the right to organise. There was an enormous growth of trade union organisation in this period, leading up to the formation of the national Trades Union Congress in 1868. The ‘New Model’ trade unions, which represented the skilled sectors of the working class, not only engaged in struggles for limits to the length of the working day and improvements in conditions, but also became active in political campaigns to extend the vote to the working class.

But the leadership that emerged from these political struggles preferred to win influence in the corridors of bourgeois power and support for strikes and political agitation was sacrificed for fear of alienating ‘public opinion’, in favour of conciliatory policies towards industrial struggles and collaboration with the bourgeoisie.

The nature of the trade unions as permanent mass organisations within bourgeois society, created bureaucratic tendencies right from the beginning. As early as 1850, British trade unions were establishing their own national headquarters with full-time staff, and the dues of the relatively well-paid skilled workers created substantial funds which appeared to justify a cautious approach by the leadership, as William Allen of the engineers explained in evidence to the 1867 Royal Commission on Trade Unions:

...I should say that the members are generally are decidedly opposed to strikes, and that the fact of our having a large accumulated fund tends to encourage that feeling amongst them. They wish to conserve what they have got...the man who has not got a shilling in his pocket has not much to be afraid of, but with a large fund such as we possess, we are led to be exceedingly careful not to expend it wastefully, and we believe that all strikes are a complete waste of money, not only in relation to the workmen but also the employers.” (Frow and Katanka, 1868: Year of the unions).

It was obviously in the bourgeoisie’s interests to encourage the growth of such ideas as an effective means of tying the working class to the interests of the national capital, and Engels himself remarked that, after the failure of Chartism and the victory of free trade policies:

Trades Unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions, and as useful means of spreading sound economic doctrines amongst the workers. Even strikes, than which nothing had been more nefarious up to 1848, were now gradually found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves, at their own time.” (Engels, Condition of the working class in England).

Once the British bourgeoisie had learned the basic lesson that granting reforms would not lead to the immediate collapse of production (on the contrary, rises in workers’ wages could actually provide a stimulus to further growth), it began to adopt a more sophisticated strategy, judiciously granting economic and political reforms (including most of the radical aims of Chartism) to avert potentially dangerous class explosions and, more subtly, encouraging the emergence of a ‘respectable’ leadership from the skilled, trade-unionised working class which could safely be incorporated into bourgeois society while the great mass of the proletariat - the so-called ‘dangerous class’ of the unskilled, unorganised and unemployed - was kept in social quarantine.

The consolidation of reformist ideology in the leadership of the trade unions is clearly shown in the creation of a national organisation around the London Trades Council. This was a co-ordinating body which had its origins in the London builders’ strikes of the 1860s, but became dominated by a small bureaucratic clique of craft trade union leaders - later nicknamed the ‘Junta’ - who soon assumed leadership of the whole movement. The ‘Junta’ bought its seat at the bourgeoisie’s table by convincing the Royal Commission on Trades Unions that trade unions were not at all intended as weapons to wage the class war, and that, on the contrary, their leaders were the firmest opponents of militant class struggle. Robert Applegarth, for example, disarmingly described the carpenters’ union as a mere friendly society for the mutual support of its members and boasted how the leadership had refused to support workers in Manchester who in 1866 struck (successfully, as it happens) for higher wages and shorter hours (Frow and Katanka).

Nor was the ‘Junta’ by any means an isolated phenomenon; in many ways the reformist leadership was personified by Alexander MacDonald of the miners’ union, who was leader of the faction which favoured influencing parliament and public opinion rather than supporting the class struggle. MacDonald encouraged a policy of conciliation, which in 1874 led his union to accept wage reductions after an unofficial strike in Durham. He was a leading figure in the early trade union movement, sitting on the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC, and in 1874 he became one of the first two working class ‘Lib-Lab’ MPs, taking his seat in parliament as a Liberal.

Reactions against reformism

But there were those within the workers’ movement who opposed these conservative and sometimes openly reactionary policies: the ‘Junta’ faced open opposition from many provincial union leaders, and from a militant section led by George Potter of the London building trades which called for tactics of active solidarity and direct action. In 1866 Potter also formed the London Working Men’s Association, which included former Chartists, to fight for working class representation in Parliament along more militant lines.

More significantly, this period also saw the first reactions by the union ‘rank and file’ against the policies of their leaders. In 1871, the opposition of the engineering union to a five month-long struggle of engineers and miners for wage increases and a nine-hour working day resulted in the formation of dissident trade unions.

The reformist trade union leadership was able to consolidate its control over the organised working class in this period, primarily due to the apparent success of their methods in securing real economic and political benefits; extension of the franchise, legalisation of trade unions, as well as real wage rises for at least the skilled workers. This, in a period of relative prosperity, made it very difficult for the few, isolated revolutionaries to develop an influence in the working class, let alone build an alternative leadership.

The bourgeoisie, of course, did what it could to encourage this state of affairs. Certainly the Royal Commission on Trade Unions (1867) was an important mechanism in establishing the influence of the reformist trade union leaders within the state apparatus. In fact the whole campaign over legal recognition for the trade unions was used as a cover to further isolate those workers prepared to take violent action in defence of their interests, and to consolidate the position of the most respectable and pacifist faction in the leadership of the movement. The Commission itself was originally set up to investigate acts of sabotage against non-union workers - acts which the trade union leadership were keen to condemn in order to prove their respectable credentials. By the late 1860s, as we have seen, the whole question of legal recognition for the unions was very much a formality; but just as legislation was being proposed, various legal threats suddenly appeared which had the effect of rallying all of the opposing factions in the trade unions behind the existing leadership. Potter, for example, dropped his opposition and called for conciliation with the Junta. Legal recognition of the trade unions did not therefore represent an unequivocal victory for the working class; it also signified a consolidation of reformism in the workers’ movement.


The economic ‘take-off’ of British capital in the middle of the nineteenth century provided fertile ground for the growth of reformist ideas and methods of struggle in the working class. The early rise of reformism was also facilitated by the perceived failure of five decades of violent, semi-insurrectionary struggles to win any immediate gains.

The appearance of tendencies even in the 1850s for the trade unions to become politically conservative, bureaucratic organisations, with leaders who (all too literally in some cases) ‘sold out’ to the bourgeoisie, served as a warning to the entire proletariat of the dangers posed by reformism and opportunism.

Reformism represents the influence of bourgeois ideology within the working class; an abandonment of long-term revolutionary goals in return for short-term advantage; an accommodation to the laws of capital. It was an ever-present danger in a period when capitalism was still clearly capable of granting reforms, and where revolution was not yet on the historical agenda. The trade unions, established as permanent organs of the class, and engaged in day to day negotiations with capital about the price of labour power and amelioration in the workers’ conditions, inevitably risked acting as transmission belts for bourgeois ideology in general and reformist ideas in particular. The narrow craft base of the ‘New Model’ unions, and the ability of the skilled workers to make real gains in a period of growth, made all these tendencies particularly acute.

However, it is important to keep these tendencies in a proper historical context. First of all, the gains made by the working class in this period were not granted willingly but fought for every inch of the way: “...only against its will, and under the pressure of the masses, did the English parliament give up the laws against strikes and trade unions.” (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1). Secondly, the benefits of any improvements obtained were offset by the influx of unemployed, immigration from the country and new machinery replacing jobs. Fewer slumps meant more steady employment, with shorter hours and better conditions, but this was not reflected in higher real wages and it was not until the early 1870s that there was any large general advance in wage rates, measured in purchasing power, and this was enjoyed for but a few years before the coming of the great depression. Thirdly, many of the improvements tended to be restricted to the minority of skilled workers: “...even under the unparalleled commercial and industrial expansion, from 1848 to 1868”, the working class underwent “great misery”; the great bulk” at best experiencing only a temporary improvement in their conditions (Engels, op. cit.).

In this historical period, given the condition of the great mass of the working class, it was still absolutely necessary to struggle for reforms such as the limitation of the working day, as a precondition for the further development of the class struggle. It is also important to remember that even after the legal recognition of trade unions in the early 1870s, trade unionised workers were only a small minority of the class in Britain - around half a million in 1873 out of at least 18 million manual workers. Vast sectors of the working class were still virtually unorganised. On the political terrain, the working class in Britain won only partial suffrage in 1867.

The necessity for the working class to struggle for reforms did not imply a struggle to reform the capitalist system. It was not an end in itself, but a means of building the proletariat’s forces, in preparation for its final overthrow of capitalism. With the First International, Marx argued strongly that it was necessary for the trade unions to become organising centres for the day to day struggle between capital and labour, and to aid any social movement tending towards the emancipation of the working class, while on the parliamentary terrain, it was the duty of the class to struggle for universal suffrage and to use its vast majority in the population to turn the institutions of parliamentary democracy against the bourgeoisie.

It’s true that such formulations contain ambiguities about the possibility of the proletariat winning power through parliament. It’s also true that Marx sometimes exaggerated the revolutionary potentialities of the trade unions. But Marx never ceased to emphasise that the emancipation of the working class “...can only proceed from a revolutionary action of the class of producers - the proletariat - organised in an independent political party.” (“Introduction to the programme of the French Workers’ Party”, The First International and After).

Above all, the struggle of the working class in the era of reforms was a struggle to organise itself as a class, independently of the bourgeoisie. This was the struggle Marx fought in the First International. But despite all the theoretical and organisational advances made by the International, the working class in the most powerful country of capitalism remained under the sway of reformists in its trade unions. An independent party - a revolutionary leadership capable of intervening in the workers’ everyday struggles - remained to be built. MH 06/07

The other articles in this series can be found here .


Heritage of the Communist Left: