Eleanor Marx 1890

The Liverpool Congress

Source: Time, October 1890, p.1088-1097;
Public Domain: this work is not subject to any copyright restriction;
Transcriber: Ted Crawford.

The Liverpool Congress of 1890 marks, as its President said in his valedictory address, a new departure in Trades Unionism in England. It was the largest Congress yet held. It was also the most representative – representative not merely, as former Congresses have been, of the aristocracy of labour of the “skilled” artisan, but of the hitherto despised “unskilled” worker, who is also, to quote the address of the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, “the most numerous, important, and essential of all.”

The last eighteen months will be memorable in the history of the working-class movement. In England during the few months more actual work has been done than during almost as many previous years. On the 12th March, 1889, the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union was formed, and began the work of organising the unorganised masses. They have gained – in spite of one serious defeat – innumerable victories for the Gas Workers, and for thousands of the “unskilled” workers of both sexes enrolled under their banner. The Dockers whom one had grown to look upon as the most hopeless of men – following in the wake of the Gas Workers, fought their magnificent fight and won something more than the historic “tanner” – self-respect, a belief in their own manhood, a powerful organisation. In these eighteen months hundreds of thousands of men and women, who had been a terror in themselves, and a standing menace to the rest of their class, have been organised, and, far from being a drawback, have become the very back-bone of the working-class movement.

In Germany, during these same eighteen months, the workers won the election fight in February, and overthrew even the man of blood and iron. Most important of all, perhaps, the great Paris International Congress brought the chosen representatives of twenty-two nationalities face to face, and convinced them and the world that the interests of all workers are identical, and that in the dictionary of the working-class there is no such word as “Jingo.”

The Paris Congress, among other things, declared in favour of a “Legal Eight Hour Working Day,” as a first and most essential etape in the onward march of the proletariat. To give effect to this resolution the Congress also decided that a universal demonstration should be held in the May of 1890. The manner in which the working-class “did observaunce” to this new “morn of May” is still fresh in the memory of all. In England the fight of those who undertook to carry out the instructions of the Paris Congress was peculiarly difficult, for your true Briton is rather a dull dog where a new idea is concerned. Still, thanks to the unremitting work of the Central Committee and of the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, the London demonstration was perhaps the most successful of all. How successful, the Liverpool Congress has shown. It is no exaggeration to say that the Central Committee and the 250,000 men and women they took to Hyde Park on May 4th are the immediate cause of the legal eight-hour vote of Liverpool. Many who were so eloquent at this Congress on the need for a legalised working-day, had, in May, been of a contrary opinion. Thus Mr. Mann, Mr. Macdonald, Mr. Hammill, Mr. Freak – to mention only a few – spoke in Hyde Park with those who want eight hours by Trade Union combination, and the devil take the hindmost. So late as the Memorial Hall meeting of April, Mr. Ben Tillet was eloquently certain English workers were not “ripe” for eight hours. The Hyde Park demonstration was conclusive, and these men, like the sensible fellows they are, made up for earlier defections by being especially energetic and eloquent at Liverpool. There is nothing like the zeal of the convertite.

Eighteen months ago, then, a new movement had begun, and during these months we have heard not a little of the “Old” and “New” Unionism. These terms are a trifle misleading, and when Tom Mann and Mr. Burt protest there is no real difference between the two, they are not altogether wrong. It would be truer to speak of the Old and New Unionists. The difference is more in the interpretation of Unionism than in the Unionism itself.

The differences between the Old and the New Unionists and Unions were very soon to the fore at Liverpool. The “New” Unions on the first day protested against the school-boy half-holiday and treat offered by the Corporation. The “Old” not only wanted their half-holiday: they even refused a hearing to Taggart, member of the Gas Workers’ Union, and the Liverpool Councillor who wanted delegates to know how the said Corporation treats its unfortunate employees.

And here one word as to the “behaviour of both parties. The penny-a-liners have spoken much of the “scenes” at the Congress, and some of the “Old” Unionists have waxed eloquent over the “deterioration” in the manners of the Congress – much like a Primrose Knight deploring the “vulgarity” of Irish members.

The impartial on-looker, however, is bound to say that as usual the “lor-an-order” party were by far the more ill-mannered. Whenever a man rose who was supposed to be “advanced” the “Old” Unionists yelled, shouted, stamped their feet, even blow railway whistles – did anything, in fact, rather than listen, or allow others to listen, to the arguments of their opponents. It is true that, as Cunninghame Graham says, “vanity, egotism, and self-advertisement” had something to do with the occasional disorder; it is true that perhaps one or two of those who speak for the “New Unionism” were a little blatant, and a little too anxious that when they spoke no other dog should bark. But on the whole, the New Unionists set an admirable example of good-humoured patience – under much unfairness and provocation – and forbearance. Any one looking over the reports of the Congress will find that the really “New” Unionists rarely interrupted, rarely even spoke, and never disregarded the chair. Once or twice only did they protest. “A firewood-cutter is as good as an engineer,” they cried when the “Old” Unionists jeered and laughed (the pity of it!) at so unrespectable a Union and calling. “Are you only going to listen to engineers, and not to unskilled workers?” shouted Will Thorne, for one moment stung out of the quiet good nature of a strong man.

It should also be remembered that the greater part of the “scenes” of which so much has been made were due far less to any differences between Old and New than to trade and personal differences and jealousies. So the rising of a joiner acted like the proverbial red rag to a bull on the shipwrights, and the war between these two closely allied trades was loud and furious. Especially when Mr. Gould of Hull tried to speak did the shipwrights yell and howl. I fancy Mr. Gould must have had a strong argument, or his opponents would not so persistently have prevented his being heard. Mr. Gould heaped coals of fire on the heads of his persecutors by seconding one of the shipwrights’ resolutions. Then the two sections of miners – Durham and Northumberland against the rest, were not exactly friendly towards each other, and the feud between them also was fierce. It was one of the finest moments in an interesting week when, during one of these miner disputes, Cowey, full of splendid power and real eloquence, called on God to wither his hand if he had any wish but to help his fellows.

And apart from these trade enmities, there were the greater personal ones. If Keir Hardie rose to make even the simplest and most practical of suggestions, Mr. Chisholm Robertson lost all self-control. It is said these two were once on a time rival candidates for the secretaryship of the Ayrshire liners, Again, John Burns and Mr. Austin squabbled considerably. Each claims to be the real representative of the engineers. As the five engineers sent to Liverpool were elected by nine men (the A.S.E. Executive), and as three out of the five voted against, and two voted for the legal eight hours, and as the said Executive had “recommended” its delegates to vote for the eight hours, and the secretary of the Union, Mr. Austin, refused to consider a strong recommendation equivalent to a mandate, it will be clear that things, so far as the engineers are concerned, were somewhat mixed. It is only fair to again repeat that in all these little quarrels the ‘'New” Unions had neither part nor lot, and that where they did spar with the Old Unions it was on neither small personal nor small trade differences, but upon real questions of principle.

The President’s address was extremely interesting and “advanced,” and so long as he confined himself to “sentiments” everybody cheered. When he came to the practical application of his sentiments the sky changed. When he declared that “we were face to face with new conditions;” that an Eight Hour Bill should be secured to any trade that demanded it, the Right became silent; and there was thunder in their silence when referring to Labour Representation the President said: – “The time has arrived when the considerations of party shall give place to the claims of labour, and when Labour candidates shall he run irrespective of party conveniences:” and the storm burst when the President declared the workers must disregard the wire-pullers who told them to wait till such or such a measure was carried. “This is just” quoth he, “what those politicians have been saying for the last 25 years ..... and will repeat for generations, if we will allow them, and take no action to enforce our claims” The Left cheered this lustily, and “Old” and “New” scowled at one another.

It was clear, from the very outset, that the main fight was to be on the Eight Hour question, and the dogs of war were let slip immediately after the reading of the Parliamentary Committee Report. It was certainly a very unsatisfactory Report, and miner after miner rose to denounce it and the Committee. I don’t know if it is a matter of trade selection, but certainly the miners are the best and most eloquent of speakers. Cowey, Abraham (it is impossible to listen to these two unmoved), Woods, Whitfield – one after the other rose, till it seemed the line would stretch out to the crack of doom, to denounce the Committee who had so shamefully neglected its duty.

Then Mr. Broadhutst appeared for the defence. He has apparently picked up all that is worst in his middle-class models, and forgotten all that is good in his own class. His performance, as performance, was decidedly fine. His ready transitions from humour to pathos, from pathos to eloquence, his quick seizing upon every useful “interruption,” and adroit ignoring of awkward questions, his perfect avoidance of even the fringe of the matter in debate, were all admirable. If I were writing the Dramatic Notes of “Time” just now, I should have nothing but praise for Mr. Broadhurst, although he has not yet quite mastered that highest form of art which conceals art. But I am not writing Dramatic Notes, and as a serious answer to serious accusations, Mr. Broadhurst was a lamentably failure. It is worth remembering that 92 delegates voted for Mr. Woods amendment, which was practically a vote of censure on the Parliamentary Committee.

But despite, certain alarums and excursions, of which I shall speak later, everyone knew that the real tug of war was to come on the resolution moved by those two compositor evangelists, Mark(s) and Matthew(s), in whose favour a resolution by Thorne for the Gas Workers and General Labourers was withdrawn.

“That, in the opinion of this Congress, the time has arrived when steps should be taken to reduce the working hours in all trades to eight per day, or a maximum of forty eight hours per week; and, while recognising the power and influence of the trade organisations, it is of opinion that the speediest and best method to obtain this reduction for the workers generally is by Parliamentary enactment. This Congress, therefore, instructs the Parliamentary Committee to take immediate steps for the furtherance of this object.”

No very new arguments wore brought forward on either side, but certainly both the best of the speaking and the best of the argument were with the “New.” The main arguments of the “Old” were two: – 1. Their fathers had not appealed to Parliament, and what our forefathers had done must be right, and we must do the same; 2. Certain industries, the cotton-spinners, e.g., could not exist under an eight hour day. On the first point one was, quite astonished not to find some one protesting against the use of railways, and appealing to delegates to come to Congresses by way of diligences and mail coaches, “as our forefathers” – for want of anything better – no doubt would have done. On the second point the main “argument” seemed to be India, and our good cotton-spinner friends seemed to have altogether overlooked two facts. – That the very arguments they now use against their fellows were only a few short years ago used against themselves, and that to fight for an Indian Factory Act would be far more useful to the English cotton operative (not to speak of the Indian), than fighting against an English Eight Hour Bill.

The argument of the Durham miners was on somewhat different lines. We have gained a six hour day, said the Durham men. You go and do likewise, and don’t force longer hours on us with your Eight Hour Bill. As Mr. Abraham said, Cowey “knocked tine stuffing out of that argument.” He showed conclusively that only a small portion of even the Durham men work six hours, and that the lads in Durham mines work eleven hours! Moreover, said Cowey, no one wanted such strong men as the Durham miners to work one minute longer than they themselves desired. All the “eight hour men” wanted was that six hours for men should not be secured by the eleven hours labour of boys, and that eight hours should be the outside limit of labour. Let every one get as much less as he could; only no one should work more.

As I have already said, neither New nor Old Unionists brought forward any very new arguments. The most effective speeches were unquestionably those of the miners (both for and against the eight hours), Woods, Abraham, Cowey, and Paterson; of Marks (Compositors), Weighill (Stonemasons), and Paylor, (Gas Workers’ and General Labourers Union). Good and telling speeches were also made by Burns, Thorne, Mann, and others. But they added little or nothing to the general value of the debate.

Among the opponents of the eight hour idea, every one noticed a certain number of the Seamen and Firemen’s Union. And it was also noticed that some of the men who on the amendment voted against the eight hours, voted for it on the Resolution. The honours of that conversion, I believe, to Mr. Weighill, the Stonemasons’ delegate. “You tell us we should help ourselves,” said Weighill. “Now look here. We confess we can’t. Suppose we were shipwrecked. You, a sailor, can swim. I, a mason, can’t. Surely you'd not refuse to hold out a hand to me, to help me to get safe ashore?”

That, argument ad hominem was conclusive. That sailor, at any rate, is now a determined “legal” man, and will help his fellows to swim safe into the haven of the Eight Hour bill.

The interest in the eight hour debate has somewhat obscured other most interesting and important votes of the Liverpool Congress. Thus the Socialist amendment, moved by Mr. Macdonald, has not received the attention it deserves. Mr. Macdonald moved that no Parliamentary or other candidate be accepted who would not pledge himself to “nationalisation of the land, of railways, mines, and of all means of production.” I have said Mr. Macdonald moved this. To be accurate I should say he tried to move this. The “lor-an-orderites” howled him down, and refused to give him not only a “fair” hearing, but any hearing at all. Finally he had to give in and hand over his motion to the President. Half-a-dozen men jumped to their feel to second him. Burns, blessed with the best lungs and the greatest self-confidence caught not only the chairman’s eye but the congress’ ear, and in a vigorous speech supported Macdonald. When the amendment was put, 55 delegates voted for it. Only 55 out of 457! Let the scoffers look back at the votes of former Congresses. Then they will understand how much these 55 votes mean.

There were many other resolutions voted either by large majorities or unanimously that deserve more attention than they have had, or that can be given them in one short article. I do not even speak of the specialist resolutions, demanding greater protection for our miners, our sailors, engineers, etc. I shall call attention only to a few general resolutions. Thus the Liverpool Congress demands that there shall be a larger number of Factory Inspectors; that those inspectors shall be practical workers, and that they shall be of both sexes. The Congress also calls for the abolition of all “disciplinary lines” in workshops and factories, demands the abolition of “contracts” in public works, calls on “all government works and municipalities” to pay “the wages recognised by the Trades Unions” and demands railway- inspection by inspectors and the abolition of middlemen. Above all, the Congress demands that “any person who desires to open a, factory or workshop must give notice to the Chief Inspector of Factories, at the same time furnish particulars of that branch of industry which is intended to be carried on, and that receipt of notice from the person desirous of opening a factory or workshop, the Chief Inspector of Factories shall, within six days of the receipt of such notice, cause the sanitary and technical inspector to visit such places, and see whether it was sufficiently lighted, and had proper sanitary arrangements for workers of both sexes, and was properly ventilated in proportion to the number of persons to be employed therein, and in all cases there shall be not less than 600 cubic feet of space provided for each person employed.” A resolution that, if carried out, would knock half the sweating dens in London on the head.

Resolutions also were passed against the worst clauses of the Conspiracy Act, for an extension and more stringent application of the Truck Act, of the Employer and Workman Act, and “to compel” employers in textile factories to supply workpeople with descriptions of the work, “so as to enable workpeople to ascertain the amount of wages due to them; “ making it penal to employ anyone, with or without consent, after recognised hours: in favour of the proper examination and registration of watermen, “persons in charge of vessels,” plumbers, engine and boiler attendants, etc.

A resolution moved by Tom Mann demanding “the municipal organisation of workers” is worth noting. It is such a curious revival or survival of the old Louis Blanc “National Workshops” idea. The Dockers Union, of which Tom Mann is president, has recently decided to “close its books” and refuse to admit any more members into its ranks. Now the man forcibly excluded from a Union has no choice but to become a “blackleg,” – and so to get out of this difficulty Mann wants municipalities to employ these outsiders. He does not tell us exactly how, but he declares “this, if carried out (a very big if!), will solve the social problem.” Alas! The social problem will hardly be solved by “ Municipal Workshops!”

Apart from the eight hours resolution and the many ‘'advanced” resolutions carried, the “New” Unionists’ chief victory was in the election of Secretary to the Parliamentary Committee, and of the Committee itself. Mr. Shipton, who is generally discredited, and is unpopular in exact proportion to his being known, has been defeated, and Mr. Fenwick elected. The victory is the more remarkable that Mr. Fenwick was avowedly not a “legal “ man. He was only known to be honest. His election was both an absolute and a moral victory. As to the Parliamentary Committee, it will assuredly do what its predecessor did not – carry out the instructions of the Congress. And the new Secretary, Mr. Fewick, will do what the old Secretary, Mr. Broadhurst, did not – obey the instructions of his electors. Mr. Birtwistle has withdrawn because he cannot, he says, reconcile his conscience to serving on a committee charged with the carrying out of measures to which he objects. We are told Mr. Broadhurst “heartily approves” Mr. Birtwistle’s attitude. But surely neither of these gentlemen has heretofore felt any such conscientious scruples, and it would probably be nearer the truth if they admitted a reluctance to serve on the Committee, not because it has been charged with certain work, but because it seems likely to take its instructions seriously, and really try to do the work it has been elected to do.

One other matter to be noted. The reception given the invitation from Brussels to an International Congress. The Resolution “that the invitation be accepted,” moved by Ben Cooper, seconded Mr. Fenwick, and supported by at least half-a-dozen enthusiastic delegates all speaking at once, was carried unanimously, and with what the reporters call “general acclamation.” The idea of the International nature of the working-class movement has gown not a little since the days of the old International.

To sum up. What, was the effect of the Liverpool Congress? What will be its result?

It was an immense success for the New Unionism. A victory all along the line for the Unionism that sees in working-class organisation something more than sick and benefit societies, or even close corporations for the advantage of any one given trade; a triumph for the Unionism which realises that the interests of employers and employed, of master and men, of capitalist and worker, are not, and never can be, identical, and that the “class war” is something more than an empty phase.

The result? – Fresh life infused into English Trades Unionism. An awakening of the English working-class to the fact that the immense political power in their hands must be used henceforth, not for the benefit of any middle-class political party, but to form a labour party opposed to and differing from all the old political parties; a realisation of the truth that the final emancipation of the working-class must be won by means of the seizure of political power by the workers themselves, and that in order to abolish class rule and the bourgeois state, the workers must themselves become the “State.”

Eleanor Marx Aveling