[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Schools of War

The labour is theirs, the produce ought to be theirs, and they alone ought to decide how much each deserves of the produce of all. 

Thomas Hodgskin, Labour Defended, 1825.

The repeal of the infamous Combination Acts led to an explosive growth of trade union organisation. It opened up a stormy and, one can say, revolutionary period for the infant labour movement. Many “Friendly Societies”, which acted as a cover for illegal activities since the Friendly Society Act of 1793, came out into the open for the first time as fully-fledged trade unions. District union organisations came into being, first of one trade, then of several trades. Then, with the new climate, unions were formed in great numbers across the trades.

This spread of organisation and growing confidence within the working class inevitably led to a strike wave in the mid and late-1820s, which developed into a series of ferocious battles against wage cuts. For instance, the carpet makers of Kidderminster in the Midlands struck for six months against a 17 per cent wage cut, but eventually went down to defeat. In Lancashire, miners and textile workers brought their industries to a complete standstill. After a prolonged strike in Yorkshire, the Bradford Woolcombers and Weavers faced cuts in pay, and in Stockport the spinners fought a rearguard battle against wage cuts. These struggles were followed by the strikes of fine spinners in April 1829, and in July the rest of Manchester’s’ spinners took action, but were eventually forced back to work. “The history of these unions”, noted Engels, “is a long series of defeats of the working men, interrupted by a few isolated victories.”[1] Yet, these battles provided the working class with a vital education in the class struggle, which was to lay the basis for the establishment of large-scale national trade unions, such as the Spinners’ union in 1829, followed by the Potters’ union in 1831, and the Builders’ in 1831-2.

Under the brutal conditions of open class warfare, where the government acted as the naked instrument of the employers, many strikes took on an extremely violent character. In 1831-32, the cavalry was used to break strikes in the Durham coalfield, led by the legendary Tommy Hepburn. This involved the union in pitched battles with soldiers and blacklegs. Again government troops were used to assist the Welsh Ironmasters in 1831 against the Union Club led by Dick Penderyn. This famous leader of the Welsh miners and ironworkers was an insurrectionary fighter, who led the workers of Merthyr and Dowlais with arms in hand against the yeomanry called in by Crawshay, Guest and the ironmasters. Penderyn was subsequently captured by the authorities and executed in 1831. The Union Club was forced underground by the ironmasters and took the form of a ruthless clandestine organisation, known as the “Scotch Cattle”. This used the bull’s head and horns as a symbol to hunt down and deal with “traitors, turn-coats and others” throughout the industrial valleys of South Wales. The “Cattle” were organised into “herds” and, disguised in animal skins, confronted all those who dared opposed them. In their struggle with blacklegs, they did not mince their words or deeds:

“We hereby warn you the second and last time. We are determined to draw the hearts out of all the men above-named, and fix two hearts upon the horns of the Bull; so that everyone may see what is the fate of every traitor – and we know them all. So we testify with our blood.”

Similar bodies sprung up elsewhere, such as the secret Glasgow cotton-spinners’ union that organised the “disposal” of scabs, known at the time as “knobsticks”. Thomas Hunter and his comrades replied to the tyranny of the masters with counter-terror, setting fire to the mills of hated owners and killing blacklegs. In 1838, the leaders of the organisation were caught and Hunter and four fellow leaders were tried for conspiracy. According to the Webbs, “the whole body of working class opinion was on their side, and the sentence of seven years’ transportation was received with as much indignation as that upon the Dorchester labourers.”

“Hatred.... of the general oppression by the dominant classes blazes out in the trade union records of the time”, noted the Webbs in their classic History of Trade Unionism. This was the hatred of a working class becoming conscious of its position in capitalist society. For those who lacked formal schooling, the class struggle was the greatest teacher of all. According to a trade unionist at the time, quoted in the Poor Man’s Guardian:

“The great advantage of a strike is that it increases the enmity between labourer and capitalists, and compels workmen to reflect and investigate the causes of their suffering… The fruit of such reflections would be a violent hostility against the capitalist class; and the new converts would be prepared to second the efforts of emancipation made by labourers in other quarters of England.”

Frederick Engels expressed a similar view about the development of class-consciousness. Strikes, wrote Engels, “are the military school of the workingmen, in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided... As schools of war, the unions are unexcelled. In them is developed the peculiar courage of the English.”[2] It was this experience of the struggle that served to transform the working class into a “class for-itself”. The main lesson derived from this “school of war” was the need to organise not simply on a local scale, but on an industry-wide basis. The working class required maximum unity to face the united front of the employers; from trade unions, workers moved towards trades unions. These movements, continued Engels, were regarded as “the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition”, and exert control over their lives.[3]

“Captain Swing”

This “great leap forward” in organisation occurred in the late 1820s, when, after long and bitter strikes in the Manchester area, the Grand General Union of Operative Spinners of Great Britain and Ireland was formed under the leadership of John Doherty. Doherty, a militant young Irishman, went even further in 1830 with the establishment of the National Association for the Protection of Labour (NAPL). This Association alone enrolled 150 local unions in Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Leicester, and established a weekly journal to cover these trades. Very rapidly the NAPL reached an affiliated membership of over 100,000 members, and quickly spread its influence to the West Midlands and Wales. However, the attacks on organised labour led to the weakening of the NAPL. Different sections became preoccupied with their own bitter conflicts and had little energy to help build the wider movement. Finally, with the defeat and demise of the Spinner’s Union in March 1831, which provided the backbone of the NAPL, the organisation broke up and disappeared the following year.

Following the disillusionment with the Reform Act (1832) workers turned away from political struggle and concentrated their efforts on trade unionism and the establishment of co-operatives. Independently of the NAPL, a new general union grew up in the building trade, emerging from the General Union of Carpenters and Joiners. This 40,000-strong Operative Builders Union was governed by a “Builders Parliament” and was deeply influenced by the co-operative ideas of the great utopian socialist Robert Owen. This held major delegate meetings in London and Manchester to debate and decide upon union policy. The union fought a whole series of strikes “to advance and equalise the price of labour”. As expected, it met the ferocious resistance of the industrialists who reacted with lockouts and the notorious “Document”, requiring workers to renounce the union or lose their jobs.

The Poor Man’s Guardian, of 19 October 1833, reported that the delegates at the London Parliament

“show that an entire change in society – a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing ‘order of the world’ – is contemplated by the working classes. They aspire to be at the top instead of at the bottom of society – or rather that there should be no bottom or top at all!”

The trade union movement experienced a growth that was more rapid and comprehensive than any before or since. An army of trade unionists seemed to rise up from nowhere, as the spirit of rebellion swept through the working classes and intoxicated them with hope in the future and in themselves.

At this time, as a mirror image of the misery in the urban areas, there was profound distress in the countryside. This centred round the brutal administration of the Poor Laws, which in theory were supposed to supply some relief to the most destitute sections of society. In 1797 the pauper population was around 200,000, by 1834 it had increased to 1,200,000. The Enclosures robbed the peasantry of their economic independence, and with it the means of life. The starvation that threatened the labouring poor served to provoke fears of revolution in the upper classes. Wages fell so low, that the Berkshire justices, meeting at Speenhamland in 1795, authorised the supplement of starvation wages out of parish rates. While this subsidised the money-grabbing landowners handsomely, it served to kept destitute farm labourers and their families in a state of perpetual dependency. But as the Speenhamland system spread, the relief it offered gradually diminished. By 1820, many areas recorded that free labour had almost disappeared as employers chose only to hire paupers from the parishes. The situation resulted in an explosive situation in rural parts.

In 1830-31 agricultural uprisings developed on a scale far wider that ever before, and in East Anglia, Kent, Surry, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, and other counties, a general revolt developed. Threshing machines were destroyed and hayricks burned. The revolt spread from village to village across the Southern counties into the South West, Eastern region and the Midlands, often under the name of the mythical “Captain Swing”. At this time, the ruling classes were again petrified by the effects of the revolutions unfolding in France and Belgium, where the European proletariat independently taken to the streets under its own banner. The English oligarchy was not far wrong in its gloomy assessment. “Never since 1688 had Great Britain been so near actual revolution as in 1831”, stated historians Cole and Postgate, “never in all the troubles of the next two decades was she to come so near to it again.”[4] The government came down hard and dispatched troops to crush the unarmed labourers. In the period that followed, the prisons were bursting with some 1,900 rioters awaiting trial in 90 courts sitting in 34 counties. In the end, 19 men were hanged, 481 transported 12,000 miles to Australia, 644 imprisoned and one publicly flogged in the wake of this “last labourers’ revolt”. “From no other protest movement of the kind – from neither Luddites nor Chartists, nor trade unionists – was such a bitter price exacted”, state the historians Hobsbawn and Rudé.[5]

Whether on the continent or at home, reforms were a by-product of revolution. The bourgeoisie never volunteered anything free of charge! The 1830 revolutions in Europe forced the terrified British Establishment to adopt a policy of repression and concession. State repression was dispatched when needed, but when faced with a mass movement, concessions were usually granted to gain a breathing space.

The agitation for political reform and the extension of the franchise had long captured the popular imagination. This agitation, woven into the deteriorating social conditions of the masses, soon provoked violent outbreaks in many towns and cities. In June 1831, in Merthyr Tydfil, the red flag was raised in Britain for the first time as a symbol of working class revolt. A crowd of 10,000 confronted 80 soldiers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 20 were shot dead. Following arrests, two men were condemned to death, Lewis Lewis, whose sentence was commuted to exile for life, and Richard Lewis (alias Dic Penderyn), who was executed.

At this time only a privileged few had the right to vote based upon a propertied franchise. Out of a population of 14 million in 1831 a mere 400,000 privileged men possessed the vote. Large towns such as Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester had not a single political representative in the House of Commons. On the other hand, the “rotten” borough of Gatton in rural Wiltshire returned two Members of Parliament, but only had one voter! The same was true of Old Sarum, also in Wiltshire.

In 1832, fearing revolution from below, the government of Lord John Russell was forced to introduce political reform from above. After mass public protests, the Whig government brought in the long-awaited Reform Act. However, it was a franchise limited once again to those fortunate to own property. The propertyless working class remained without a political voice. “A government in every country should be just like a corporation”, stated Lord Baxfield, “and in this country it is made up of the landed interest who alone have the right to be represented.” For the government after this concession no more reform was needed. Russell, who became known in radical circles as “Finality Jack”, made that abundantly clear.

The bourgeoisie had gained enormously. The Reform Act handed effective political power from the landed aristocracy to the rising bourgeoisie, consolidating their dominant position in society. At first, they ruled in alliance with the old oligarchy, but in reality they had a commanding influence on the main aspects of government. Their final domination, however, was not fully completed until 1846 and the repeal of the Corn Laws. The working class, who were mobilised under the leadership of the mealy-mouthed middle-class radicals, saw their efforts deliberately betrayed. The workers had been used and manipulated by these petty-bourgeois upstarts. The Moor had done his duty and was dismissed. Five out of six male adults, the overwhelming bulk of the working class, remained disenfranchised. “… we cannot read without considerable indignation, the history of the struggle for the Reform Bill in the early 1830s,” remarked Trotsky in Where is Britain Going?[6] While the workers were betrayed, the Whigs, on the other hand, won a landslide victory in the newly reformed Parliament, taking 500 out of the 658 seats, and inflicting a devastating defeat on the Tories.

Nevertheless, even before the 1932 Reform Act, the working class was looking to fresh ideas and movements. While William Cobbett and Henry Hunt were outstanding spokesmen of working class radicalism, who despised “the lords of the loom and the spinning-jenny” and sought to restore the “Golden Age” of the past, it was a self-made man and manufacturer, Robert Owen, who established a profound influence in the young trade union movement. He was an intellectual giant of a man, and was later paid due respect for his contribution by Marx and Engels. He was in the same mould as Henri de Saint-Simon and Jean Baptiste Fourier, great men and socialists who saw developments far more clearly than any of their contemporaries. It can be said that the inspiration for this new, semi-revolutionary phase of trade unionism came largely from Owen.

Sickened by the oppression around him, Robert Owen came to despise “man’s inhumanity to man” and the brutality of the Industrial Revolution. He was deeply influenced by the French philosophers, and came to believe that a person’s character was not eternally fixed but shaped by their social environment. He wrote a fascinating book entitled A New View of Society, published in 1813, on the principle of the formation of the human character. For Owen, good working and living conditions, together with decent education, could eliminate the terrible ills of capitalist society. He experimented with this revolutionary outlook in his factory in New Lanark in Scotland (which still stands today), and later in other “Villages of Co-operation”, where for once, workers were treated as human beings in their own right. Each community, Owen presumed, should be based upon the principle of collective work, common property, equal rights and duties of all its members. He was determined to abolish all class differences. By his actions, Owen transformed the lives of the workers he employed and advocated that his methods should be universally adopted by society at large. “Let society be now based on the same principle, and all evil will soon disappear”, he wrote.

Inevitably, given the times, Owen appealed not to the working class for assistance, but to the rich and powerful classes of the land. For a while, the enlightened bourgeoisie even toyed with these strange and exotic ideas. Owen, although a far-sighted man, was a utopian socialist who believed a socialist reorganisation of society was not rooted in the struggle of classes, or in the material conditions of society, but simply based upon moral argument and persuasion. Soon, the upper classes lost interest in, and became hostile to his radical fanciful schemes. This reaction served to eventually push Owen towards the developing workers’ movement, and he became increasingly critical and outspoken in his attacks on capitalism.

“The rapid accumulation of wealth, from the rapid increase in mechanical and chemical power, created capitalists who were among the most ignorant and injurious of the population”, wrote Owen to devastating effect. “The wealth created by the industry of the people, now made abject slaves to these new artificial powers, accumulated in the hands of what are called the moneyed class, who created none of it, and who misused all they had acquired.”

While this alienated the liberal philanthropists, it attracted huge support from the radicalised working class. Owenism became a rallying-cry for those who rebelled against the factory system, which, in turn, served to transform his outlook into an influential tendency within the labour movement. Moreover, other socialist thinkers increasingly influenced Owen, pushing him further in the direction of the working class. In 1825 socialist books and pamphlets appeared, such as John Gray’s Lecture on Human Happiness and Thomas Hodgskin’s Labour Defended. Then appeared William Thompson’s Labour Rewarded (1827) and later J.F. Bray’s Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy (1838-9), all of which made an important contribution to English socialist thought. In 1830, Hetherington and Bronterre O’Brien launched The Poor Man’s Guardian, which expressed for the first time in simple language socialist concepts and ideas. “Those large profits are the sole cause why wages are low… The profit is that which is retained and never paid back… There is no common interest between workingmen and profit makers,” stated The Poor Man’s Guardian in 14 April 1832. “It is but common justice that the people who make the goods should have the sole privilege of making the laws,” stated the same newspaper on 26 November 1831. These home-grown “communist” ideas of British thinkers, however underdeveloped, were very advanced for their time, and indicated the ideological ferment within the labour movement at the time. It was another 10 to 15 years before the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Engels were to appear on the scene.

One of the most influential radical leaders of the London working class was William Benbow. He was very active in 1831 in the National Union of the Working Classes, and in January 1832 issued a pamphlet entitled the Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes, which, among other things, argued for a general strike, or “sacred month”:

“We are oppressed, in the fullest sense of the word; we have been deprived of everything; we have no property, no wealth, and our labour is of no use to us, since what it produces goes into the hands of others…

“One scoundrel, one sacrilegious blasphemous scoundrel, says ‘that over-production is the cause of our wretchedness.’ Over-production, indeed! When we half-starving producers cannot, with all our toil, obtain any thing like a sufficiency of produce. It is the first time that in any age or country, save our own, abundance was adduced as a cause of want. Good God! Where is this abundance? Abundance of food! Ask the labourer and mechanic where they find it. Their emaciated frame is the best answer. Abundance of clothing! The nakedness, the shivering, the asthmas, the colds, and rheumatisms of the people, are proofs of the abundance of clothing! Our Lords and Masters tell us, we produce too much; very well then, we shall cease from producing for one month, and thus put into practice the theory of our Lords and Masters.”[7]

The Grand National

In 1824, frustrated at the lack of interest by the ruling class, Robert Owen emigrated to America to establish the first of his unsuccessful experiments in communist “villages of cooperation”. The failure of these communities stemmed from an attempt to establish isolated islands of “socialism” – although the term was not used until the end of the decade – amid a sea of capitalism. It was in reality, to use Marx’s phrase, an experiment in Utopian socialism, an attempt to eradicate the laws of the “market” economy, without eradicating the system as a whole. In Owen’s defence, the working class at this time was only just emerging as a class. The forces for socialism were undeveloped. Nevertheless, his ideas remained utopian. Yet Robert Owen stands out as a genius of his day and a giant of the early workers’ movement. After his return from America (and the failure of his “New Harmony” community), he turned all his attention to the trade union movement where many of his ideas had taken root. After Owen realised that his own class would have nothing to do with him, “he turned directly to the working class and worked amongst them for another thirty years”, stated Engels, with a large degree of admiration.

In the autumn of 1833 Owen addressed two major trade union congresses in Manchester and London. By October his work resulted in a huge break-through, and the creation of new national union – the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU). This new initiative is correctly regarded as an historic step forward in the development of British trade unionism. The union completely overshadowed all other formations up until this time in shear size and influence. Its stated aim was not simply the fight for day-to-day “bread and butter” demands, but astonishingly, the abolition of capitalist rule and the revolutionary transformation of society.

“The great and ultimate object of it (the union) must be to establish the paramount rights of Industry and Humanity, by… bringing about A DIFFERENT ORDER OF THINGS, in which the really useful and intelligent part of society only shall have the direction of its affairs.” (Rule XLV1).

The Grand National experienced an explosive growth reaching a phenomenal 500,000 members across the different trades. Unorganised workers were quickly drawn into its ranks, including women workers, who were organised specifically into Lodges of Industrious Females. Other women’s groups, such as the Lodge of Female Gardeners and even the Lodge of Ancient Virgins, also seem to have been affiliated to the GNCTU. In Hull, two organisers recruited some 1,000 members in one evening to the union. In the countryside agricultural workers joined the union en masse – the first organised movement since the defeat of the “Last Labourers’ Revolt” of 1831. For the first time, organised labour began to flex its muscles on a national scale, with the rank and file pressing for immediate action to redress their plight. The threatening potential power of the mighty GNCTU was expressed in a contemporary trade union paper as follows:

“Every trade has its internal government in every town; a certain number of towns comprise a district and delegates from the trades in each town form a quarterly district government; delegates from the districts form the Annual Parliament; and the King of England becomes President of the Trades Union!”[8]

From its inception the Grand National became drawn into a series of strikes over wages and recognition. Bitter strikes took place amongst the hosiers of Leicester, cabinet-makers in Glasgow and tailors in London. Union-organised cotton spinners also led an uprising in Oldham over demands for the eight-hour day. In Derby, in the autumn of 1833, the refusal of workers to leave the GNCTU led to a lockout (the Derby Turn-out) involving 1,500 men, women and children. This used up all the available funds of the union and served to expose its weaknesses.

As expected, such scenes of trade union “Jacobinism” led to widespread panic in the ruling class. The state once again confronted the growth of trade unionism with intensified repression. In the Dorset village of Tolpuddle, two brothers, George and James Loveless, had contacted the Grand National to help establish an agricultural workers’ union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, with its Grand Lodge at Tolpuddle. The magistrates, hearing of what had been done through a spy, posted up notices threatening those who joined the Society with transportation, and proceeded to arrest George Loveless, his brother and four others on the charge of taking an illegal oath of allegiance to the union. For this crime, they were brought before the Court of Assizes and were sentenced under the Act of 1797 to transportation to Botany Bay for seven years. The sentences were carried out with immediate effect.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs became a cause celebre in the working class movement, and remains so to the present-day. However, while the right-wing TUC leaders pretend to pay homage to these martyrs each year at a Tolpuddle celebration, they are a million miles removed from the spirit of self-sacrifice of the Dorchester labourers. While these workers risked their necks and defied the laws of the land to remain loyal to their union, today’s right wing cringe before the Tory anti-union laws. They have become the “labour lieutenants of capital”, to quote De Leon, who, with their inflated salaries and flash life-styles, live at the expense of the working-class movement. In comparison, the simple trade unionists of Tolpuddle were men of courage, on whose shoulders the Labour and trade union movement was built. The monstrous sentences handed out to George Loveless and his comrades, defended by the Whig Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, aroused furious protests throughout the country. At the time, the unions instigated a mass campaign to free the Dorchester labourers, which culminated in a London demonstration of up to 200,000. Within two years, under pressure from the campaign, the sentences were quashed and the last of the men were finally brought home in 1839. They subsequently took part in the great Chartist movement, but later emigrated (with the exception of James Hammett) to a new life in Canada.

The attack in Tolpuddle signalled a general employers’ offensive. The subsequent prosecution and transportation for seven years of five Glasgow cotton-spinners in 1837 also provoked nationwide protests against the Whig government. A campaign was organised in support of the convicted men, not less memorable than that of the Tolpuddle martyrs. The infamous “Document” – sign or be sacked – was used to smash trade union organisation and institute a series of major lockouts. By the summer, the funds of the Grand National were practically exhausted as numerous strikes went down to defeat. By the end of the year, with its fragile federal structure and emerging differences within the leadership, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union finally broke apart. By this time, Owen, who had served to let the working class genie out of the bottle, had become increasingly despondent at the class-war tone of many of the union’s pronouncements. Consequently he closed down its newspaper, The Crisis, and declared the organisation formally dissolved in August 1834. Owen’s work then took a different direction with the formation instead of a new association for co-operative and socialist propaganda. The demise of the Grand National proved an inglorious end for such a powerful beginning. Nevertheless, its experience left its indelible mark on the consciousness of the working class.

Throughout the “Hungry Thirties” conditions in the working class were abominable. Hunger and destitution stalked the land. Many families were reduced to a diet of boiled nettles. Factory life was a hell on earth. It was not until 1833 that the first real Factory legislation was enacted. Yet this was limited only to children, preventing them from legally working more than 12 hours a day. Enforcement, however, proved almost impossible. Women and children as young as six continued to be employed in the coalmines, hauling trucks and even working at the coalface. Tens of thousands were also forced to work under inhumane conditions in the textile mills. The wretched handloom weavers were gradually ground down, hopelessly struggling to match the output and speed of the power looms. Accordingly, thousands of handloom workers died from malnutrition and physical exhaustion. They literally worked themselves to death. These conditions were ably described by Engels in his memorable book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844-5, which paints a graphic picture of the period and is required reading for every trade union activist.

With the shattering of the unions, the handloom weavers, alongside the agricultural labourers, were again forced well below the subsistence level. The suffering of the working class was further intensified with the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834. The Whig government abolished the Speenhamland system, replacing it with an Act based upon the philosophical principles of Bentham and Malthus, designed to make the lot of the pauper even more ghastly than that of the poorest labourer. It was aimed primarily against the agricultural labourers and handloom workers who refused to accept factory discipline. The New Poor Law served to tear out the last roots that united the workers with their parish and their old lifestyle, placing their fate into the hands of the notorious Boards of Guardians. The main principle of Poor Law relief was that assistance should be made more unpleasant than the most unpleasant means of earning a living outside the workhouse. At one such institution in Andover, brought to light by a national scandal, starving inmates fought for survival over the rotten disease-ridden horse-bones sent there for crushing. These hellish institutions were immortalised and exposed in the famous novels of Charles Dickens, such as Oliver Twist. Outdoor relief was stopped for the able-bodied and their families. Desperate men and women were forced to enter the workhouses, where the sexes were kept strictly apart to prevent them breeding.

Deeply despised Poor Law Commissioners, who appeared to revel in their absolute powers to dispense either life or death, administered outdoor relief. Edwin Chadwick, the stone-faced reformer who drafted the Poor Law Act and was for many years its administrator, graphically outlines the philosophy behind the law:

“By the workhouse system is meant having all relief through the workhouse, making this workhouse an uninviting place of wholesome restraint, preventing its inmates from going out or receiving visitors, without a written order to that effect from one of the Overseers; disallowing beer and tobacco, and finding them work according to their ability; thus making the parish fund the last resource of a pauper, and rendering the person who administers relief the hardest taskmaster, and the worst paymaster, that idle and dissolute can apply to.”[9]

On the back of working class agitation against the workhouse, or “Bastilles” as they were called, came a crescendo of opposition. Angry crowds frequently stormed these hell-holes, as resentment boiled over into violence.

The betrayal of 1832, which taught the workers not to put their trust in the middle class radicals, drove them towards the trade unions. But the collapse of Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union meant the end of revolutionary trade unionism. Faced with these experiences, the working class increasingly turned once more towards the political front to resolve its problems, but on a far higher level than ever before. Trade unionists, blooded in the class struggle, entered the revolutionary and heroic ranks of Chartism (1837-48). It is no accident that militant textile factory workers and mineworkers provided the shock troops of the Chartist movement. Although Char tism falls outside the direct history of trade unionism, its fate was certainly. For the first time, the British workers entered the stage of history as an independent political force, as a “class for-itself”. Chartism constituted the first working class political party in history, the first in the world. The struggle for the Charter involved a complete spectrum of action: mass petitions, mass demonstrations, lobbies, general strikes, and even armed insurrection. It was the most militant and class-conscious movement in British history. In the words of the great Chartist George Julian Harney: “Let the one universal rallying cry, from the Firth of Forth to the Land’s End, be EQUALITY OR DEATH.”

After 1832 the British ruling class, which dominated world trade and world production, exuded great confidence in its future. It was their hay-day and the pinnacle of the British Century. However, this ringing of bells, to quote Horace Walpole, would soon turn into a wringing of hands at the spectre of revolutionary Chartism. The shift towards independent working class politics served to transform the political landscape. For the first time in history the British working class stood defiantly on its own two feet.


[1] Marx & Engels, op.cit, p.252

[2] Ibid, p.260

[3] Ibid, p.254

[4] Cole & Postgate, op. cit, p.248

[5] Eric Hobsbawn and George Rudé, Captain Swing, p.225, London 1973

[6] Trotsky, On Britain, p.121, New York 1973

[7] Quoted in Cole and Filson, p.231

[8] True Sun, 30th December 1833

[9] Quoted in Hammond, The Bleak Age, p.114, London 1947