H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XIX
Of Strikes

CAN anything be imagined more foolish, more harmful, more, in the widest sense of the word, unsocial, than a strike? A number of men, greater or less in proportion to the extent and power of their organisation, have grievances for which they are unable to get redress. Though under existing conditions they have no means of keeping themselves and their families except by their daily work, they throw down their tools, refuse to go into the factory, declare they will not descend into the mines, decline to work the railways or the ships, and half starve themselves and the persons dependent upon them, in the hope of compelling those who own these various forms of private or company property to give way to their demands. It is a desperate method of fighting. There is only one more unsocial act possible in our present society, and that is the lock-out.

Both show actively what few educated people, even now, will admit passively: namely, that our existing system of making and distributing wealth is one long line of antagonisms; and that capital and labour are terms which mean and must mean a never-ending class struggle, or class war, between the employers or capitalists, whose sole object in producing wealth is to make profit out of the unpaid labour of their “hands,” on the one side; and the wage-earners, who, in their capacity as wealth-producers and wealth-distributors are compelled by the necessities of their existence to furnish such profit by accepting as wages a fraction of the wealth they aid in producing, on the other. This bitter struggle is always going on; but until it shows itself in the acute form of strikes or violence the well-to-do always contend that perfect harmony exists, or should exist, between profitmongers and wage-earners, and that capital is essential to the creation of social wealth. Capital, which connotes the use of the privately-owned means of making wealth in order to engender profit for the few, being thus confused with tools, machinery, methods of transport, and even land itself, which, socially handled, would suffice to provide ever-increasing wealth and well-being for all.

Which is not what I intended to say when I began.

I have never yet advocated a strike; but I have seen many strikes and I have helped to support not a few, when they had once begun. Yet it is scarcely too much to state that I have never known what I should call a successful strike – a strike, that is to say, which, the men having gained, temporarily at least, what they strove for, compensated them in the long run for the sacrifices entailed by their action. I have recognised, nevertheless, that, at times, the men have no other weapon at command and therefore were obliged to resort to this revolt of despair, unless they were content to submit to a still more intolerable existence, with never-ending anxiety for themselves and their families superadded as a perpetual moral torture.

One of the strikes which made a great impression upon me was the great strike of the coalminers in North Staffordshire and East Worcestershire in the early eighties. It was indeed a terrible affair, and lasted fully sixteen weeks. My friend Herbert Burrows was quartered at Netherton on official duty at that time, and, in the first instance, I went down to stay with him. Such a place as Netherton was! Dewsbury is an awful den for human beings to live in – a bad bit of London or Liverpool plumped down by itself in the heart of the great county of Yorkshire. But Netherton is worse. In addition to its lack of all reasonable sanitation or municipal care, the wretched miners’ cottages and degraded-looking beer-houses, fully half the buildings in the town, that is to say, stand askew, with a debauched mien, as if recovering from a night’s orgie and consequently unable to maintain themselves erect. This is due to the fact that, regardless of the comfort or the safety of their occupants, the ground beneath the houses has been mined out for coal and the structures have perforce accommodated themselves to the sinkage below. No sane owner would kennel his horses or his dogs in such dens.

The whole made a most gruesome impression upon me the first time I saw this array of tumbledown dwellings, stretching along the ill-kept roads, and the long years which have passed since have done little to efface it. Not a blade of grass or a flower was to be seen. The people who inhabited Netherton and its adjacent villages, however, were too much accustomed to their rickety shanties and the depressing landscape of piles of slag, alternating with mountains of mullock, all about them, to pay any attention to their lugubrious surroundings; and at the time I speak of they understood no more about their real relations to the owners of the minerals and the capitalists who employed them than negroes brought up on a breeding farm in Virginia before the American Civil War understood the ethics of modern chattel-slavery. They struck against intolerable wage reductions and petty tyranny of the worst kind. Huge fortunes had been and were being piled up out of this ill-looking and evil-smelling centre of industry. Millionaires of the House of Lords and of the House of Capitalists had drawn their great incomes out of the men and women who toiled and suffered here in squalor and semi-starvation and constant danger to life and limb. There was little hope of improvement in their lot, but conditions had become so unbearable that a great strike was decided upon. As one of the pitmen who, with his family, was barely existing on strike pay, said to my wife: “If we work, we starve. If we play, we starve. We may just as well play for a bit as work on and starve on.” So they came out.

“My son, if you have never been down a coalmine, don’t go. You can always say you have been and nobody can contradict you.” This, or words to the same effect, was what Lord Chesterfield said to his son. I followed his advice to the extent that having been down coalmines many years before I declined to visit any of the pits in the fighting districts. But I knew enough about the work from my own experience to feel quite sure that even in the best-managed pits today a coalminer’s life is not a happy one, is indeed as miserable a way of earning subsistence as can possibly be. And I have verified this opinion in South Wales and elsewhere since. If any set of toilers in Great Britain deserve to be well treated by the community they supply with a necessary of industrial and domestic life, it is the coalminers, who pass their existence in hard, exhausting, and dangerous work below ground and in mean and depressing conditions above.

Now the men were out on strike and we read in the newspapers that the half-starved people whom we saw around us had been habitually drinking champagne out of pewter-pots and feeding their bulldogs on beef-steaks. Certainly, for such work as they do, they are entitled, if anybody is, to as much champagne as they like to have, though they would not care to drink it, and to as much beef-steak as would keep a menagerie full of bulldogs. Needless to say, the whole statement was a lie from end to end. But it was useless to contradict it.

Even when Winwood, the leader and agent of the miners, proved conclusively from the books of the various mines that the average wage over years was less than £1 a week per head, and that this small wage was undergoing reduction, the public, misled by the capitalist press, which refused to publish the figures, still believed all this malignant rubbish, purposely invented by the tools of the coal-owners in order to prejudice the case of the men. Living among them, seeing their wretched dwellings, going into their rough “pubs,” and taking account of all the dogs to be seen within the whole district, it was impossible even for a stranger not to feel indignant. That the pitmen themselves were not goaded into anarchist action by such disgraceful tactics on the part of “the organs of public opinion” was to me a constant cause of amazement. Suffering as they were, with their wives and children starving around them, it was indeed wonderful that they patiently put up with what they did.

The conditions of their daily life being what they were, and completely shut out from any community with the well-to-do, they expected to find no fellow-feeling outside of their own class. One poor miner was killed in a pit before the strike began. Burrows went to see his family, expressed his commiseration for the widow, followed the body to the grave, and put a handful of flowers on the coffin. The whole neighbourhood was astounded that a man of Burrows’ position should show any sympathy in the matter; such a thing was quite unheard-of in the district. In fact, the pitmen and their families were regarded by the upper classes around much as their slaves of the mines or farms were looked upon by the Roman land and slave-owners, or as a great noble of the ancien régime in France viewed his ancestral serfs.

Thus, when I addressed mass meetings of the men on strike I could not but think, as I surveyed the worn faces and skeleton forms of the men, with their sad-looking wives and children gathered on the fringe of the crowds, that an uprising against such a state of things was to the full as justifiable here as it had been in France a century before. But such reflections were quite premature at the time. However, Burrows, Burns, Helen Taylor and myself delivered ourselves of our speeches at meeting after meeting; we did our best to keep the men in good spirits; we stirred them up as far as we could to the appreciation of Socialism, contributed our mite to the strike funds, and left, wishing, rather than hoping, after two or three visits, that success might be achieved. During the strike Lady Dudley, the mother of the principal owner of the coalfield, came down to open a free library or something of that sort in a neighbouring town and was received with the greatest cordiality by the people!

Not far from Netherton is Cradley Heath. Here the conditions for the workers were, inconceivable as it may seem, even worse than at Netherton. Low wages – 8s. to 9s. a week – bad houses, insanitary workshops, heavy labour, girls competing with men: this chain-making industry has often been described and its effects upon the people denounced, but though there is improvement the change has been comparatively small. The men and women were too poor and too ill-organised even to strike for relief and betterment. I left this particular district quite convinced that nothing short of a social revolution could bring any remedy. I look back at the record of our visit a quarter of a century ago, I read how things are going there today, and I remain of the same opinion, though some trifling reforms have been made.

The Helen Taylor of whom I speak above was the step-daughter of John Stuart Mill. She fought a very good fight in her day on the London School Board for secular and gratuitous education in all the schools, and stood up likewise for “women’s rights” at a time when to do so in earnest was very unpopular. Now both she herself and her services to the people are almost forgotten. Nor can it be said that J.S. Mill’s works, either as an economist or as a philosopher, wear very well. Students, however, in the fifties and sixties of the last century were no doubt much influenced by his eclectic methods. At the close of his life Mr. Mill accepted in the main the doctrines of Socialism, though this fact has been carefully disguised by his Radical admirers, and Helen Taylor was inclined towards Socialism herself and certainly did some very good work in connection with the Social-Democratic Federation in the early days of the movement.

Unfortunately, like some other women of her class, she could not put up with the long, wearyful, disappointing period of waiting, and this, combined with her inability to stay in London during the winter owing to bronchitis, gradually drifted her away from us. She was an exceedingly good, logical speaker with a high, clear, penetrating voice that seemed to cleave the air and reach to the remotest corner of a large hall like the high notes of a violin. She always began very quietly, her tall frame as upright as possible, and apparently without any emotion whatever. Once in St. James’s Hall, at a very crowded gathering, a Webster [1] man at the back shouted, “Speak up.” Miss Taylor did not raise her voice in the least, but by degrees that telling intonation of hers seemed to fill the air with its vibrations and everybody could hear quite well. It is strange to recall nowadays what an amount of passion was roused by her School Board candidatures at Southwark and how hard Soutter and her other Radical supporters had to fight, physically to fight, in order to obtain for her anything approaching to fair play. Now that the all-important question of Education has been thrown back for at least a generation by the success of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb, their fellow-Fabians and other middle-class municipalists in mixing it up with sewerage, paving, lighting, water-supply, and the like, it is sad to reflect upon the real interest awakened among at any rate a large section of the workingclasses by direct agitation and representation on the School Boards for Education in London, and throughout the country. Really capable, independent women in this matter like Miss Taylor, Mrs. Annie Besant, and Mrs. Bridges Adams, have far less chance of being elected today than they had twenty years ago; which, no doubt, is what the fanatics of bureaucracy desired. At any rate, Helen Taylor did what she could to help on the cause of progress, and was not afraid at Netherton and elsewhere to speak out boldly on behalf of the disinherited class.

A number of the labour leaders of that day also came down to speak at this great strike. They were very decent fellows indeed, and, according to their lights, quite true to their class. But they regarded Socialism as a mere chimera, and it was waste of time to try to make them understand. I got on very well with them, and told them stories of my experiences in various parts of the world: told them, for one thing, how, before I became a Socialist, I, on the occasion of one great strike in London, in order to learn precisely the rights and wrongs of the case, disguised myself as a blackleg, and came before the Strike Committee to be persuaded in that capacity. I had, of course, got up all the jargon of the trade beforehand, and my make-up was carried out by one of the greatest artists in that line in the metropolis. So I completely took in the men whom I met.

I gave the Labour leaders round Burrows’ fireside at Netherton an amusing but perfectly true account of what I did, where I went, how I felt, what I said, what was said to me, and told them how the adventure ended. They listened, they laughed, they asked questions, which I answered quite frankly, and they showed no distrust of my statements, which, as I say, were merely records of the actual facts. Then, somehow, one of them, who had been for a time in the coasting trade, began to talk about the dangers of the sea, the particularly hazardous nature of the seafaring life round our shores, and gave us an account of narrow escapes he had had, especially on sailing vessels.

Thereupon I spoke of catamarans and canoes with outriggers, how they tacked by carrying the sail when lowered from one end of the craft to the other, how, when it blew a little hard, one man got out on the outrigger to balance the weight of the wind on the sail, and thus to keep the canoe from capsizing. Then when it blew harder another man sat on the outrigger beside the first. Later, when the breeze rose to the proportions of a gale, man after man crept out to join his companions, only the steersman being left in the body of the vessel. Again they asked questions, which 1 answered as frankly as before.

Encouraged by their attentive listening, I told them other tales, one of them the most terrible of its kind I know. A planter in the South Seas, a very fine fellow, a man of good family at home and of decent life as life went in those parts, formed the usual sort of connection with a particularly rough female specimen of the labour people from the Line Islands. Physically a splendid creature, this woman was violently passionate, addicted to liquor, and furiously jealous.

Time passed on. Elphinstone, the planter in question, fell in love with and became engaged to a very handsome and well-educated girl from the Colonies, and went back to New Zealand to be married to her, taking this person, madman that he was, with his betrothed and her sister, as their maid. The marriage took place, and Elphinstone and his wife returned to the plantation, the Line Island woman being still with them. Her conduct on their return became unbearable, and Elphinstone was warned that the woman was becoming actually dangerous, and that his wife’s life was not safe. The coloured girl was therefore removed to another island at some distance. There she remained, and it was naturally thought, as there were no canoes available where she was, that all danger was at an end. Elphinstone, a little later, was obliged to go to the principal town on his schooner for business, leaving his wife, as he thought, in perfect safety behind him. He returned within three days, and on landing from his boat, was horrified to learn that this discarded woman had actually swum across from the other island, regardless of sharks, had attacked his wife with a great knife, had cut her to bits, and had then swum back again to the island to which she had been banished. My Labour friends once more listened with all their ears, and we remained up talking and story-telling till a very late hour.

In the morning Burrows, who had not been present for some reason, having night duty to attend to, or at any rate being away, asked my companions of the night before what they thought of Mr. Hyndman. “Oh!” replied one of them, “we all thought him a very nice gentleman; but, my word, Mr. Burrows, ain’t he just an awful liar!”

The North Staffordshire and East Worcestershire coal strike failed, after its sixteen weeks of sad starvation and suffering for the men and their families, and I was more set against strikes than ever, except on a vast scale, and as a deliberate preparation for a complete revolution.

But did you ever speak from an orange-box, which you had borrowed yourself from the old fruitwoman at the corner, to hundreds of dockers at the Dock Gates at five o’clock in the morning, day after day for weeks? I presume not. Yet that is the work that was done by Jack Williams and Burrows, and Hobart, and Hunter Watts, and Tom Mann, and Ben Tillett, and Will Thorne, and Champion and myself for weeks and months at a time before the great Dockers’ Strike in 1889. We were preaching Socialism and the need for solid combination among all classes of workers as the sole remedy for the hideous state of things which existed; whereby, owing to the excess of casual labour, men were competing and even fighting with one another for a starvation wage on the chance of receiving pitiful daily pay – being treated worse than dogs by the dock companies and their overseers. We had all of us then in our minds the desirability and possibility of so organising the East End workers as a whole that we might be able to induce them to bring direct pressure to bear upon the West End rulers.

It cost us much time and much trouble. It is not my way to enlarge upon the trying work we did in those old days. But I do think those longcontinued early-morning exhortations at the Dock Gates were, on the whole, the most depressing experiences I ever had. Others did a great deal more at the time than I did; but it was all on the same lines. This is what occurred to me:

  1. Acquisition of orange-box for platform, done, in the first instance, in a sheepish, shamefaced way.
  2. Placing of the orange-box at a convenient corner – still with much diffidence; men lounging around, now the Dock Gates were shut, with their hands in their pockets, and looking on, as I thought, contemptuously, at my proceedings.
  3. Mounting of the orange-box by the orator, and the commencement of his speech to no one in particular, with the familiar “Friends and Fellow-Citizens.” How cold and empty I did feel, to be sure, and no one near.
  4. Gradually drifting me-wards of a few of the sad-looking stragglers on slump. Steady increase of numbers as address went on.
  5. Some interest awakened, and even a little applause from hands reluctantly drawn from pockets gave the speaker courage; he was able to reflect upon the class of men he was addressing. They looked what they were, workers capable of much better things than casual labour, but worn, weary, and anxious, with that unfinished appearance about the neck which the absence of a collar always gives to an observer from the west.
  6. Attempts at jocularity not badly received, earnest adjurations to the men to combine, pointing out that they could, as a whole, gain for one another together what none of them could gain separately. A little enthusiasm here and there in a fairly big crowd.
  7. Finish up. Sometimes questions. Return not altogether hopeless.

Such is a fair account of my experience at the Dock Gates. Others, such as Jack Williams, John Burns, Hunter Watts, and Herbert Burrows, were more successful. But for myself I can safely say that nothing but the religion, not to say the fanaticism, of Socialism could have kept me up at those early, chilly, depressing Dock Gate meetings.

To be successful with such elements we knew must take time and much trouble. The tale told of the Metropolitan police magistrate, who said, “I never go to bed at night but I ask myself whether the East will come West before morning, and I never wake up in the morning without asking myself whether the East has come West in the night,” had no echo with us. We knew the circumstances and the minds of the people too well to have any faith in such a spontaneous eruption. Apathy, ignorance, and utter lack of confidence in one another were not to be removed at a stroke. That was very certain. Moreover, we had not the slightest belief in the success of a strike at that juncture. Where was the money to come from to keep the men and their families when they were out? That was the question.

However, advantage was taken of our propaganda to start the still famous Dockers’ Strike of 1889. Though confident that no permanent good could come of the movement, we pursued the course we have invariably adopted, and backed the strikers to the full extent possible when the strike had once begun. Of those who were the leading figures on the side of the men, Eleanor Marx, Will Thorne, Tom Mann, Dr. Aveling, Ben Tillett and John Burns, three are still left who are as active and determined as ever – Will Thorne, Ben Tillett and Tom Mann.

What followed the strike of the Dockers was surprising. Quite a large proportion of the public was in their favour, and, at first, funds poured in to sufficient amount to enable the strike to go on. It produced a great effect – greater in the West than in the East. Cardinal Manning and other high-placed personages openly took the side of the men. The vigour displayed by Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and others was nothing short of amazing. The loyalty of the men themselves to their comrades and the general cause was magnificent. The Dockers’ tanner – 6d. an hour – for their hard and dangerous work became a cry which awakened sympathy in the most unexpected quarters; the processions of the men were cordially greeted in every district, and the unwearied efforts of the leaders and spokesmen called forth universal admiration. In spite of all this, contributions began to fall off, the organised Trade Unions, not recognising that the uplifting of the unskilled labourers must benefit them, rendered little or no assistance, and the probability of a complete fiasco was creeping into the mind of the most sanguine.

Suddenly the big contribution of £35,000 came from Australia in one lump, and put a new face upon the whole matter. The men and their leaders were immensely encouraged; the employers, who really had a very bad case, were proportionally depressed. It at once became possible to carry on the strike for a little time longer. But all knew the real weakness of the men, and compromise became inevitable. The sixpence an hour was conceded, and a nominal victory was gained.

But all who know the actual facts in relation to riverside labour are well aware that the improvement in the status of the dockers was rather nominal than real. A few of those permanently engaged benefited considerably, more got the rise they had striven for, when employed. Viewed generally, however, it is the fact that the dockers as a body were, in some repects, even worse after the strike than they were before.

There has been a tendency to forget of late years that the Great Dockers’ Strike of 1889 spread rapidly to other trades, and throughout the provinces. Yet this was the case. There was a period of marked unrest in every direction, and there were even some who thought that a semi-prediction I had made, for the purpose of encouragement, some years before, to the effect that the year 1889 might show itself worthy of being the centenary of the 1789 would be realised in this island. But those of us who had studied the position close at hand were in nowise of that opinion. We knew that the old Trade Unionists were still steeped in apathy and saturated with purely bourgeois conceptions; that, likewise, even if they had been willing to give a lead, shortness of funds and downright ignorance would prevent any enduring success. We Social-Democrats, therefore, were not at all surprised when the great stir of 1889-93 brought forth but a small result in the end.

The principal advances, regarded from the point of view of the general progress of the working-class, were: First, a rude conception, which it has taken twenty-two years to develop into action, that the unskilled casual dockers, with their allied trades, might, if sufficiently organised, control the entire water-borne trade of London. Second, the formation of Unions of unskilled labourers, such as the Gas-workers and General Labourers, the Dockers, the Matchmakers, etc., all of them founded and headed by Socialists. Third, the growth of a demand for independent working-class representation in the House of Commons. But events move very slowly indeed in Great Britain, and a new generation grows up before the lessons of the movement are taken to heart.

Strange as it may seem, there have been men who could easily have obtained and kept far better paid and less exhausting work, to say nothing of immunity from danger, who have deliberately preferred the personal freedom of the casual dock labourer to any sort of engagement, however remunerative, which would in any way fetter them from one day to another. Such a man was C.W. Pearson, quite an exceptional character, whose early death by misadventure I, in common with all those who knew him, have never ceased deeply to regret.

Pearson was by nature an individualist of the most intense description. When he first came among us he could not bear being controlled, even on terms of perfect equality with his fellows, and found contradiction, and even adverse criticism, or argument, very hard to brook. His dark, keen, eager face, well-knit frame, and sharp, resonant voice soon made him a well-known figure at all our gatherings. He speedily found out and recognised his own shortcomings, and set to work to remedy them in earnest. He was one of the few workers whom I have ever known to correct assiduously not only his pronunciation, but his intonation, entirely of his own accord. And he succeeded. It was rather surprising to those who did not know him to hear a man in rough docker’s garb speak as correctly, as naturally, and with as refined an accent and intonation as a thoroughly educated member of society. His dress, also, when he left the docks, bore out this impression, and his whole demeanour and conversation at last gave you the idea of a highly-cultivated University man without the least assumption or air of superiority.

His mode of life was most extraordinary. He would work for a few days at the docks until he had earned what he considered was enough to keep himself for the rest of the week. Then he would dress in his West-End apparel and make his way to the British Museum, where he would study from the time the doors opened in the morning until they closed in the evening. He became, by dint of this continuous and intelligent work, an authority on subjects which few thoroughly master. In practical affairs what specially interested him was that encyclopaedic subject – the land. The land: how to deal with it, how to interest the people in tilling it, how to accommodate its cultivation to the Socialist period we were entering upon. To this he largely devoted himself, and, enormous as were the difficulties, practical and theoretical, which he had to encounter, it is my belief that, had he lived, he would have helped greatly to the solution of this very complex problem. Though, as already hinted, he was, when roused, a most vigorous and bitter controversialist, there was no man in the Socialist movement more respected and admired.

Many a time I begged of him not to continue his work at the docks, pointing out to him that, much as we might desire social equality, and certain as we might be that we should achieve it in days to come, nevertheless his life was much more useful and valuable to the movement than the lives of other men of his class who had not trained themselves as he had. Consequently, I urged, and so did we all, that he owed it to the cause to accept what was frequently pressed upon him – a much less hazardous mode of earning his livelihood with far better pay. It was of no use. His handsome face would light up, his eyes would brighten at the appreciation shown of what he was doing and intended to do, but nothing would induce him to give up the careless freedom of a docker’s life. And so one day this fine young fellow, in the very prime of his active physical and mental career, when opportunities of real distinction in the service of his class, which he never would have abandoned, still less betrayed, were crowding upon him, went as usual to his docker work.

How it happened nobody ever precisely knew, but his foot slipped as he crossed a plank, and his head was smashed against the side of the basin below. “I never thought the day would come,” said the old Duke of Wellington, “when the death of such a promising young officer would make so little impression as the news of this death does upon me.” It is natural that, as we get older, thousands of bright and hopeful lads having passed away around us before their time, we should feel less and less the departure of any individual. But Pearson’s mournful and quite unnecessary cutting off greatly saddened me, I confess. The crowds that followed his body to the grave were no consolation for his premature death, and as I said a few words to the assembled thousands gathered in the cemetery, I felt that we had lost a leader of his class whom we might never be able to replace.

And what is leadership? What is the rarest faculty in man? Precisely that which our modern institutions do their utmost to repress. In peace and in war, in business and in pleasure, in art and in science, in politics and in organisation, the rarest faculty is initiative. At a time when I was being carefully shepherded by the police of London my wife had a conversation with one of the heads of the detective force whom we then knew pretty well. “What your people seem to lack,” she said, “is initiative; you should encourage initiative.” “Just show us the man with initiative, Mrs. Hyndman, and we’ll encourage him fast enough. The difficulty is to find him. We want him badly enough.” And so it is. Genuine initiative and leadership is rare. In youth, in maturity, in age, it is the one ready to go ahead and jump the dyke, or face the angry farmer, who opens up new vistas of progress and puts the motive power into the machine.

When, therefore, I hear foolish people say, “We don’t want any leaders,” I recognise that at once as the cry of mediocrities who are afraid of any vigorous initiative, or of incompetents who think all leadership must mean dictatorship which, of course, is a very different thing. The loss of the leaders of French Socialism in the Paris Commune threw back the French movement twenty years. The death of Liebknecht greatly weakened Internationalism in the German party. The collapse of Parnell and the death of Davitt converted the Irish Parliamentary Party into a commonplace middle-class caucus, representative only of Roman Catholics and gombeen-men. A great leader in China at this moment would change the face of the world. But half-educated democracy in Western Europe wavers between servility to authority and jealousy of capacity. And so I suppose it will go on until thorough education, an easy outlet for all faculty, and the removal of any incentive to cupidity or ambition accord a natural and unenvied lead in the various departments of human activity to those who are capable of showing the way.

Bethesda, in North Wales, has been the scene of two great strikes of Welsh slate quarrymen against Lord Penrhyn and Mr. Assheton Smith, the monopolists of this industry. The first of these I went down to, and did my best to help the men. It was again a terrible situation. Lord Penrhyn took upon himself all the airs of a feudal autocrat of the Middle Ages, and Mr. Assheton Smith was not the man to be behind the Peer in dictatorial arrogance to “his” men. Starvation and misery pervaded the district. I declared in Justice that the behaviour of the proprietors and their agents was “infamous.” Straightway, on my return to London, I was served with a writ for £20,000 damages by that illustrious firm, Lewis and Lewis of Ely Place, whose head was then the famous George Lewis. I was informed that I could have no prospect of successfully defending the suit. But there were points in my favour which even Lewis had disregarded. The character of his clients was none of the best.

My friend and solicitor, Mr. Leonard Hill, a member of the Social-Democratic Federation, went down himself to the district as my solicitor and his own detective, and returned with such a long and formidable catalogue of unseemly acts and indecent behaviour that my answers to the interrogatories submitted to me by the plaintiff’s attorneys, which did not tell one-half the story, showed a state of things existing in the district, with such overwhelming evidence at hand to prove it, that the action was withdrawn and all my costs were paid. I have always congratulated myself upon this result of the only libel suit with which I have ever been threatened. But I must not boast too soon.

Unluckily, though the men gained some advantages in this first strike, they were unable to obtain any real security for a decent living wage and fair treatment, and afterwards a larger and even more determined strike broke out which, after involving terrible suffering, was likewise unsuccessful. Strikes, unless organised on a revolutionary scale, are, indeed, a poor weapon of class warfare and, even when so organised, victory is none too certain.

Wales has a special advantage in strike organisation. It is scarcely too much to say that the Welsh language, as against us English, gives the Welsh workers almost all the gains with none of the drawbacks of the secret society. It is a pity they do not make more use of this. When staying, however, at Pen-y-Rhws with that remarkable man the late Lord Stanley of Alderley, I had not been there more than three days before the servants and workers on the property got to know I had stood by the Bethesda men in their difficulty. Although I don’t believe there was the slightest necessity for any secrecy in the matter where Lord Stanley was concerned, as with all his Mohammedanism and extraordinary learning he was a very open-minded and tolerant man indeed, they took an opportunity when I least expected anything of the sort, to convey to me personally, the other guests being out of the way, that they all regarded me as a friend for what I had done on behalf of the Welshmen – not quarrymen – at Bethesda, but gave me to understand they did not wish this recognition of my services to be mentioned.

And here I must tell a story at my own expense. One day at dinner at Pen-y-Rhws the discussion turned on a future life, its prospects, its advantages, its possibilities, and so forth. The majority, I am not sure it was not the whole, of those present believed in immortality and in the recognition after death of the persons whom we had loved on earth – post-mortem encounters with the hated and disagreeable were not considered. I have not, as a rule, the spirit of caution developed in me to the Scotch extent. I could not say as did my old friend Alexander Finlay, the father of two of my college friends at Cambridge, as we sat one fine summer evening on the terrace at Castle Toward, overlooking the glorious view of Rothesay and the Kyles of Bute, and I stated my opinions about the Christian religion – “I have held those views, my dear Hyndman, for more than forty years, but I have not thought it prudent to express them.” I do not possess, I repeat, this valuable quality of concealing my thoughts; but on this occasion I carefully held my tongue. At last I was asked point-blank whether I believed in a future life or not. I replied that I did not, and that when the very basis of memory was obliterated, self as a recognisable individuality necessarily ceased to be. Our bodies were simply reabsorbed into the immensity of matter, and no future life with conscious mentality was possible. This statement seemed to shock the rest of the guests a good deal, and there were some exclamations and objections. Lord Stanley was very deaf, and did not hear what was said. He asked what I had stated. He was told that I had expressed my conviction that there was no future life. “Then we shall at least be free from his undesirable agitations,” was his reply.

I do not know that I ever met a man with a wider or deeper range of knowledge than Lord Stanley. Whatever subject he took up he genuinely studied and made himself master of, while his information on Eastern affairs, in particular, was as extensive as it was thorough. It is strange that with all this knowledge and considerable general ability he made so little impression in the House of Lords. Probably this was another case of the overrating of the mere speaking faculty or rather of the underrating of the man who does not possess it. Lord Stanley could speak; but like some others of marked ability, Belfort Bax for example, he delivered himself in such wise as to belittle his own intelligence. It was a great pity. He prided himself very much more upon his descent in the female line from the famous old Welsh family of Owen, from whom he inherited his Welsh property, than upon his English blood and position, and he was adored by his tenants. He knew them all and their children too by their names, and so managed that even in these days farmers would go any distance to get a farm under Lord Stanley. I have sometimes wondered whether his Radical brother who succeeded him, and who belongs to the buy-cheap-and-sell-dear school, has followed in his footsteps. I hope so; for, as long as the present system holds, a good landlord, who also looks after his labourers, is a monstrous deal better than a bad one. It was a pleasure to see the relations between Lord Stanley and his people. That he should have been a convinced and even a devout Mohammedan is, no doubt, evidence of eccentricity at the beginning of the twentieth century. But he never, so far as I know, in any way paraded his religious belief or allowed it to interfere with his ordinary duties. It is strange, nevertheless, to reflect that an English Peer of undoubted capacity should have felt that it would conduce to his comfort when dying to know that he would be buried in the Park at Alderley, with full Mohammedan rites, which a great religious functionary of the Moslem faith came expressly from Constantinople to celebrate. He evidently did believe in a future life – and the Houris of Paradise?

All this has taken me a long way from my subject, which I believe is strikes and my experience of them. As to sabotage, or rattening, or destroying machinery or means of transport. This is a poor sort of fighting, a reversion to the “Luddite” foolishness of a bygone day. Yet it is a form of class war in action, however much we may consider it objectionable and futile. 1 do not deny that I myself have wished at times that some spirit of this sort would be spontaneously displayed by the men. But to be effective it must be spontaneous and not stirred up from outside. I remember when the great strike on the Midland Railway was in full blast in 1893, I said in the Democratic Club that I wished the men, instead of starving themselves, their wives and children for months on end, would bring the whole thing to a head by blowing up a lot of the bridges, and thus render the three main lines of railway to the North unavailable. It would, I said, convince me they were in earnest and meant to fight the thing to a finish; though on principle I was not at all in favour of destruction, but of appropriation.

There was a roar of protest from Radicals present. I was denounced as an anarchist of the most incendiary brand. More, I was told that it was a most cowardly thing to advocate such monstrous proceedings at a safe distance, and that, if I really meant what I said, the least I could do was to go down and blow up some bridges myself. For once in my life I was quite meek and mild in my rejoinder, and I pointed out in a true pacifist spirit that I had not advocated bridge-destruction, but had said, what I stuck to, that I should be glad to hear that the men, quite unaided, had brought themselves to the point which induced them to do this; that also for me to go down there and attempt this wild policy of revenge and partial overthrow would have no significance at all, except that of qualifying me beyond a peradventure for a permanent post as an inmate of a criminal lunatic asylum. The blowing up of bridges by, or at the instance of, a sympathiser from London could scarcely be regarded as conclusive evidence of the exasperation and vigour – however misdirected – of the strikers on the spot.

But I verily believe that the ordinary educated bourgeois, especially the smug Radical bourgeois, regards the destruction of private property as a much more heinous offence than even the sacrifice of human life. Middle-class ethics are based upon the sanctity of individual appropriation, and therefore upon the protection of such property once acquired, no matter how, from injury at all costs. Consequently, wilful damage to property constitutes an assault upon the very Ark of the profitmonger’s Covenant, a criminal attack upon the Holy of holies of the capitalist creed.

It is perhaps strange at first sight that the Welsh, with all their tenacity and class loyalty, as a whole, in the district, should be even more unfortunate in their strikes than others. What happened in the Slate Quarries of the North under Anglican Tory landlordism occurred also in the South under Nonconformist Radical capitalism. There is no need to recall the origin and causes of the strike of the colliers in 1911 against the magnates and monopolists of the Cambrian Coal Combine. Suffice it to say that here the colliers were ill-paid and living under bad conditions. I visited the district many times, and there was nothing to my mind more depressing than to contrast the splendid scenery of the Welsh moors and mountains with the dog hutches and pigsties which served in many cases to house the men and their families, approached as they were by precipitous, horribly ill-kept roads that were positively dangerous to life and limb. Amusements, so far as I could see, there were none outside the public-house and the conventicle – “rum and true religion.”

What chance had these poor people unaided, on their strike pay, against the great Coal Trust, owned and managed by Radical-Nonconformist millionaires, with all the power of the Liberal Party behind them, and that Party in office? What chance had the coal-slaves against a concern which had paid £13,000,000 in dividends in eleven years? None at all, unless the whole coal industry all over the country made common cause with them, and this the older school of Trade Unionists who dominated the coal-workers at that time, as they still do the cotton-workers, steadily refused to do.

But then, here again, the very same men who keep out on strike on starvation wages, who fight against tyranny, who are batoned by police and coerced and shot down by soldiery, who denounce their employers as sweaters and slave-drivers – these identical men, like their fellows in the North and the Midlands, return to Parliament to represent their political, social, and economic interests, Mr. D.A. Thomas, the head of the Cambrian Coal Combine, whose injustice has forced them to strike! Can anything possibly be more imbecile? But so it is, and it is extremely doubtful if even Mr. Keir Hardie would be elected again at Merthyr Tydvil, if the Liberal voters of similar character turned against him.

Arid then there are the Nonconformist Ministers, most of them in the pay of the various companies. They have great influence, and in the main it is necessarily exercised in favour of their paymasters. When Tom Mann went to address the miners in the full heat of the strike at one of the principal villages, he had a remarkable experience of the chloroforming effect of the religionist element. On his arrival at the station he was met by one of the local leaders of the men. “We shall have a good meeting, I suppose,” said Mann. “Well, I’m a bit afraid: there are five prayer meetings in the village tonight.” Mann’s hall was barely half full; yet he is one of the ablest, most stirring, and most attractive speakers in the movement. In the end the Federation of Coal Miners refused to go on with the strike pay, and the strike collapsed. So it goes.

Of course, the great strikes of the summer of 1911 are supposed to have been successful, and it is beyond all question that the admirably organised Dockers’ and Carmen’s, etc., strike did obtain substantial advances for the various combined transport trades, as represented in the Transport Workers’ Federation. But this strike had been worked up for twelve months beforehand, the men were well disciplined and loyal to one another, and their grievances were generally admitted. Even so, the strike broke out prematurely, did not last long, succeeded in arresting the victualling of London, and, though the men were even more vehement than their leaders, was handled in masterly fashion in the first place by Tillett, and at the back of him by W. Thorne, H. Gosling, Orbell, J. Jones and others. When also the dockers were once out in London, and then in Liverpool, the strike spread just as in 1889. The unrest was more extensive than it had been twenty-two years before, the men stood better together (the Federation idea having gained ground), the apparent gain was much greater, and in London itself probably permanent. But, taken as a whole, the similarity of the entire thing is only too marked; lack of preparation, want of food, readiness to listen to professional upper-class strike negotiators and to mistake the shadow for the substance, as the railway men undoubtedly did in 1907 and again in 1911.

It is questionable, even, whether the growth of solidarity, the great scare of the well-to-do classes, who were taken by surprise and found their food supplies and locomotion threatened, and the confidence of being able to impose an industrial interdict on the whole community at a later date, will make up for the discouragement among a large section of the workers at the surrender; for the successful employment of the soldiers in several districts; for the reaction which followed; or for the awakening of the rich and their hangers-on to what a genuine class-war strike really means.

Unless industrial combination and capable political action go hand-in-hand together, the prospect of victory for the wage-earners in this country is still very remote. But for the exceptionally hot weather which rendered worklessness and loss of wages more bearable, the neglect on their side to make ready for such a serious upheaval would have been still more bitterly felt. Moreover, the possessing classes in England up to now have not begun to bribe, or to cajole, or to organise spies and agents of provocation systematically, or, in short, to use in earnest the many weapons of defence which lie ready to their hand. That they will do so when they clearly realise that the “rights of property” are threatened, I myself have no doubt whatsoever. A very superficial acquaintance with the history of the Chartist movement, when the outlook for the wage-earners was not nearly so favourable, gives some idea of what the governing classes are capable when alarmed.

Strikes, also, however successful they may be, do not necessarily lead to a capable organisation and administration of industry and transport, especially with an uneducated and undisciplined population such as ours. That must ever be borne in mind.

Thus far had I written about strikes when, after ample warning extending over many months, and notices extending over thirty days, the whole of the colliers of the country came out on strike for a minimum wage; the most remarkable part of their demand, thus enforced by a strike of the entire industry, being that the so-called minimum was a variable amount from 4s. 11d. in one district, through various grades, up to 7s. 6d. in others. Logic in this there was none. The miners themselves actually argued that they did not wish to occasion the shutting down of the poorer pits; though, undoubtedly, their whole case would have been stronger had they declared out and out that no adult should work below ground for less than 7s. 6d. or 8s. per day. There are hundreds of millions of tons of coal in this island still awaiting development, and plenty of capital to open up collieries to get out the coal; but so long as low wages rule, inferior pits will be kept working rather than sacrifice the amounts of capital embarked in them. That the pitmen themselves should act in support of such a bourgeois conception is amazing, after all the economic teaching which has gone on for at least a generation.

This last strike was really the indirect outcome of the long dragging strike in South Wales of 1911, unsupported by the Miners’ Federation. That strike was directed against the systematic defrauding of the miners of their wages when working in abnormal places – virtually doing what is called “dead work”: work essential to the upkeep of the mine, that is to say, but not directly profitable – by the Mining Trusts, as exposed not only by the miners, but by more than one of the ablest mining managers in the district. When the miners, as a whole, came out to demand what is, after all, but bare justice, namely a decent wage paid every week, not merely “on the average,” to every man who works underground, they undoubtedly menaced the entire well-being of the whole nation. But what were they to do? Their case was most reasonable: they had given a full seven months’ warning: the Government and the country were well aware of what lay ahead of them. The best proof that the men had right on their side was that even the coalowners themselves were prepared to accede to their demands by 65 to 35, a majority of nearly two to one. The Government, not daring to coerce the 35 per cent of recalcitrant Trust-magnates and monopolists, set to work to cajole or bully the miners at a series of “Conferences,” while the industry of the nation was “held up” for an entire month. The passing of an Act recognising the principle of a minimum wage, without any definite figures being cited, was indeed a poor result for all the sacrifices undergone by the miners, and imposed by them upon the community. This even the most strenuous advocates of the miners must recognise. [2]

But there were two features in this great strike which are worthy of notice. First, the miners struck not for increase of pay for the higher and betterorganised grades of labour, but for a “living wage “ for all engaged in the industry, and a proper scale of payment for every miner at work in “abnormal places,” where no remunerative quantity of coal could be won. Secondly, it was impossible for the capitalist class to play off as usual one section of the coalminers against another. All were united. It was a strike not only of trade but of class, and not merely of skilled but of unskilled workers, on the same ground and for a common object. Such complete solidarity had not been witnessed in this country before, not even in the great railway strike of 1893.

Hence arose the cry on the other side of “Syndicalism” and Syndicalists. It is certain that there is no effective Syndicalism in the French sense in this country. Syndicalism is a bastard form of anti-political Anarchism. Each Trade Union is to be a law unto itself; to eschew all idea of political action; to resort to rattening, sabotage, and wrecking wherever it seems likely to be effective; to adopt such methods as may break down profit in each trade in turn, and organise wholly and solely for the benefit of the workers in that trade. There is, I repeat, practically no effective Syndicalism or Industrial Unionism of this kind in Great Britain, nor do I believe it will ever have much influence here. The great colliers’ strike was in no sense a Syndicalist strike, although, as it dealt with one industry alone, this was in some quarters taken for granted. I know many of the men who have most influence among the miners, and who were talked of as Syndicalists. Every one of them is in favour of organised and independent political action, is opposed to strikes, except as a last resort against unendurable tyranny on the part of the employers, and has a contempt for “rattening” or “sabotage” as a serious weapon in the class war.

The causes of the strike, apart from direct tyranny and cheating, which was specially noticeable in Wales in the matter of “abnormal places,” were unquestionably the general unrest of the wage-earners, including, of course, coalminers, as a class; the universal disappointment with the doings of the Labour Party in Parliament; the world-wide fall in the purchasing-power of wages, reckoned on a gold basis, owing to the cheapening of the cost of producing gold, without a corresponding rise in the money-wage paid; and the persistent Socialist agitation carried on among the coalminers, in spite of all discouragement, for fully thirty years. In fact, the general unrest in every country, as well as in Great Britain, is mainly due to the increasing recognition by the workers of every nation in Europe that modern wage-earning is merely the ancient chattelslavery in disguise. The wage-earner is not personally at the mercy of his master or his company in the same way as the chattel-slave, or even as the serf was at the command of his owner or his lord; but, economically, he has as little command, as a class or as an individual, over himself and his power of labour as his predecessors in the task of providing unpaid-for wealth for the owners of land and capital had over their toil or the product of their enforced labour.

That the majority of the dissatisfied wage-earners understand the historic and economic causes of their enslavement; how it has come about that, instead of controlling the great mechanical, chemical, electrical powers to create wealth, engendered by the social progress of the human race, they themselves are over-mastered by the very vastness of these powers, which might easily provide health and enjoyment, luxury and leisure for all; – that the mass of the discontented and disinherited comprehend the reasons for their enforced subservience to the owners of the means of making and distributing such wealth, is far too much to say as yet. This calls for an amount of study and an intelligent appreciation of sociological development to which they have not yet attained, or have attained, at any rate, in only one country.

Strikes, Syndicalism, Anarchy are but varying forms of restless working-class ignorance, or despairing revolts against unendurable oppression. There is nothing in strikes themselves, whether for a rise of wages for all, or for the enactment of a minimum wage for the lowest grades of labour in any industry, which can emancipate the propertyless workers, or render them less dependent upon the owning and employing class who make profit out of their unpaid labour. On the contrary, the most successful strikes under existing conditions do but serve to rivet the chains of economic slavery, possibly a trifle gilded, more firmly on their limbs. Trade Unions, by admitting wages as the permanent basis of the industrial system, virtually condemn their members to continuous toil for the benefit of the profit-takers so long as that view obtains. The organisation of the Trade Unions is sometimes useful: their theory of society is hopeless.

Syndicalism is barely worth criticising. That each set of workers in every particular trade should set themselves by strikes, sabotage, ca’ canny, and the rest of it, to render it impossible for the owners to work that trade to a profit, and thus should obtain possession of the whole industry for themselves apart from all the rest of society, is as antisocial and hopeless a proposition as has ever been made; and is none the better for the fact that so many who have advocated this unintelligent method of warfare have gone over to the enemy when they saw the folly of their own propaganda.

Obviously, a policy which aims at securing the coalmines for the coalminers alone; the railways for the railway men alone; the cotton-mills for the cotton operators alone; the iron-works for the engineers, boiler-makers, and iron-workers alone; and the houses for the bricklayers, carpenters, and plumbers alone; needs only to be bluntly stated to be repudiated as utterly ridiculous in a community which is dependent for six-sevenths of its food-supply upon sources outside of these islands, and in every department of industry upon exchange, not upon division of product. And the majority of the people in this island are not producers or necessary distributors.

That strikes, inevitable as they may be, are but the least valuable weapon at the disposal of the workers – even when, as in the case of the Transport Workers, they give a temporary success, or, as with the coalminers, succeed in holding up the entire trade of the nation for weeks – can scarcely be disputed. Yet they have produced some remarkable men, a few of whom I have seen very close. It is safe to say, however, that no Trade Union official ever willingly enters upon a strike. The cry raised against the “paid agitator” and the “unscrupulous Trade Union fomenter of discord” is absurd to any one who knows the facts. Strikes mean to the President or Secretary not only a harassing increase of responsibility, excessive and ill-paid additional work, but a great probability that, win or lose, he may forfeit his job to a more active and popular member of his trade than himself, who has gained a dominant position during and in consequence of the strike. Such men as James Mawdsley, Broadhurst, or Burnett of the older school of Trade Unionists, or George Barnes, Tillett, Thorne, or Hodge of the newer, have never advocated a strike in their lives. Their action has invariably been in the direction of moderation in this matter, knowing, as they all do, the terrible privations and sacrifices entailed by even a short cessation of labour, and the comparatively small advantage gained, as already noted, even by complete success. Barnes, essentially a moderate and, indeed, though personally courageous, in economic action almost a timid man, was actually ousted from his post as Secretary to the Amalgamated Engineers, the most powerful Trade Union in Great Britain, because his judgment was in favour of peace, of control by the entire organisation over recalcitrant individual branches, and of keeping agreements whose basis had not been vitiated by an entire change of conditions.

All the recent strikes have been revolts of the rank and file of the members of the Unions. In the case of the coalminers’ strike the whole of the miners in the great Federation of the United Kingdom took control of the entire movement themselves, and absolutely refused, as the result proved, to allow even their chosen delegates to decide on their behalf – which was one of the difficulties of the situation. Afraid of being jockeyed, as they considered, by the superior dexterity and ability of the politicians, as the railway men were in 1907 and 1911, they were determined that nothing short of their own vote should settle the question of going in. Those delegates who were most closely in touch with the men, such as Stanton, Hartshorn and Smillie, were well aware of this, and the fact that, in spite of the weakening of some of the English “leaders,” there was no breakaway among the miners for four solid weeks, and there was no possibility for the coal-owners to play off one section of the Federation Miners against another, as they had always been able to do before, proves that what I state is true.

During the strike of the Transport Workers also, in the summer of 1911, Tillett, who is one of the ablest organisers, as he is one of the first orators in the Trade Union movement – had his hand forced by the men themselves, and, though he did his best for them in every way, and represented them admirably throughout, besides speaking from first to last with quite amazing eloquence and vigour, he refused to take personal responsibility for the strike, and referred every difficult question for decision to the men themselves at their great public meetings. He and they won; but he knew, if they did not, that it was a touch-and-go affair; that but for the fine weather and the hot sun, the strikers could not have stood out so long; and that, even as it was, the feeling of the East End working class, sympathetic at first, was beginning to turn bitterly against the strikers, as hundreds, and even thousands, of families began to feel the pressure of want owing to the suspension of all trade. In my opinion Tillett, who is one of the old guard of the great Dock Strike, deserved the highest credit for the manner in which he kept his head and handled the situation in that most difficult time. But powerful as his influence was, and vigorously and judiciously as he used it, not Ben Tillett, still less his coadjutor Gosling, organised or rushed on that strike. It was the doing of the men themselves, who were quite ready, and even eager, to use the services of their tried and trusted leaders; but who would have pushed them aside relentlessly in favour of other probably less capable representatives, if they had refused to go forward on the dockers’ and carriers’ behalf.

In Liverpool the case was virtually the same, but the real state of things was shown still more markedly. Tom Mann is the boldest, most vehement, and most stirring agitator and organiser I have ever known. If his mind had been capable of continuous action along one definite line, Mann would, in my opinion, have been also the most formidable leader of the proletariat of our day. But, as John Burns once said of him, “Tom has a tidal intellect.” It is true, and I have admired him and been friendly with him in all its ebbs and flows, in spite of his most provoking tendency to start little whirlpools of his own outside of the main stream of work for the time being. His dark black hair, his fiery eyes, his energetic face and figure give Mann a distinctly foreign appearance. For life, go, humour, vigour, inexhaustible and unflagging energy, I have never met Tom Mann’s equal.

After spending the whole of the daytime in speaking, organising, persuading, denouncing, pervading the entire area of disturbance to an extent that made him appear to be ubiquitous, after a display of zeal and a manifestation of enthusiasm enough to have exhausted half a dozen even good men at this arduous business, Tom would turn up at tea or supper as gay and cheery and full of fun as if he had never done any work at all. His laugh would go ringing through every room in the place, he would stir up the most apathetic and weary to fresh work, and then, at Heaven knows what hour of the night or morning, the weary innkeeper would cajole or entreat him, still carolling, to go to bed, only to be up again the following morning first of all and more vehement than ever to begin the same game over again. And this has gone on not for a year or two, or even for ten years or fifteen years. For a good deal more than a quarter of a century, since Tom Mann came up to our house in Devonshire Street in 1884, he has been carrying on in the same way, not only in Great Britain but in Australia and elsewhere.

There is no end to him. And his knowledge and charm of manner are equal to his marvellous vitality. Moreover, of all the Labour leaders I have ever met, Tom Mann is the one who, however successful he may be, puts on the least “side.” After a speech which has roused his audience to the highest pitch of almost hysterical enthusiasm, down Tom will step from the chair in the open air, or from the platform in the hall, and take names for the branch or organisation, and sell literature to all and sundry as if he were the least-considered person at the gathering. Even those who differ most widely from him cannot but respect him, for he has assuredly gained nothing personally by his stupendous efforts.

At the time of writing Mann is, or believes himself to be, a Syndicalist, and is violently anti-political in his exhortations. More’s the pity. I am in hopes the tide will soon turn and flow again the other way. But as to his personal influence even in this hopeless camp there is no doubt whatever, though the disintegrating effect of his oratory and adjurations is speedily apparent when he goes away. Yet even Tom Mann himself in Liverpool, when he was the darling of the proletariat of the entire city, could not induce the workers who were out on strike to return to their employment when he thought it highly advisable for them to do so. They were immensely obliged to him for his services but they declined to accept his judgment.

This is another weighty piece of evidence in support of my contention that not the leaders but the rank and file of the workers, whether Trade Unionists or Non-Unionists, were and are the real organisers and fomenters of strikes. If a leader of Mann’s quite exceptional qualities could not enforce his views in favour of peace upon the men he was leading, it is, in my judgment, quite ridiculous to contend that the men’s minds are made up for them by the speakers and organisers they employ.

There is one point in regard to strikes which has now and will probably still more later have a sinister significance. Is it or is it not well that the army should be used in order to protect the property of the employers, or to ensure that the minority of the workers in any particular trade shall be able to return to their employment against the feeling and vote of the majority? It is scarcely too much to say that opinion on this matter is sharply divided between the two camps which carry on the inevitable class war of our day.

On the one hand, it is argued by employers and their well-to-do sympathisers of every grade:

“No State and no Government can hand over, under existing conditions, the real power to preserve or destroy property, to ensure security for life and limb, or to uphold the right of men who are ready to accept a given rate of wages for their labour, to a determined or perhaps an infuriated mob. That means and must mean the installation of downright anarchy at short order. Troops are only called out against strikers or any other body of citizens when the police have failed to cope with the tumult, when rioting and dangerous disorder have begun, and when the magistrate on the spot, recognising that the case has passed beyond the possibility of civil control, has read the Riot Act calling upon all peaceable and law-abiding citizens to disperse and go home, and has then appealed to the National Government to put soldiers as well as police at the disposal of the local authorities.

“If, even as a last resource as it is today, this is prohibited, then all law and order, as against determined and hostile strikers, is at an end, and propertyowners would be obliged in self-defence and in defence of their property to arm themselves and their friends as well as their retainers, and perhaps outsiders hired for the purpose, in order, as citizens, compelled to protect their possessions and their lives, to perform a duty which they had hitherto supposed they supported and paid the Government to discharge for them. Can it be wished to reduce society to its primitive elements in this way? Are not those who have invested their money and managed their business according to the law, entitled to the fullest protection of their property under the law in return for the taxes which they pay, even though the undesirable display and use of military force should become indispensable in order to attain this essential end?

“The Army, it is urged, is a National Force not a class force. That may be readily granted, and yet what higher national service can the army perform than to prevent the nation from drifting into downright anarchy? Even from the workers’ point of view have not they as individuals the right to deal with their labour as may seem good to them which should be protected against the tyranny of the majority, though that majority may have some or even much right on its side? No Government has the right to sacrifice personal freedom to the dictation of the local or even the national majority of a particular class or trade. If force is to be used, as it is used, by the Trade Unionists to tyrannise over and terrorise a minority, eager to work on the conditions offered, surely in this case also it is the manifest duty of the Government to meet force by force, in the interest of fair play for the whole community.”

Nobody can deny that, with society as it exists today, this constitutes a case for military interference in the last resort. And I have endeavoured to put it as strongly as I can.

The case for the strikers is this:

“We are the disinherited of the earth, we have no property whatever except the power to labour in our bodies, which we are obliged to sell to those who are ready to buy it, by the week or month, in order merely to gain enough in money to enable us to buy the absolute necessaries for ourselves and our families. Many of the trades we are compelled to work at are extremely unhealthy, and some are dangerous both to life and limb. Of all this no account is taken. The one object of the employers who buy our labour power is to get it at as low a price in wages as they can. By cutting down our pay for the same or a greater amount of work they increase their profits from the same source that they gain all their profits, namely out of our unpaid labour and the value created by us over and above the actual wages which we receive in money.

“When, therefore, we strike to obtain higher wages, or to prevent the remuneration we are in receipt of from being cut down, we do but endeavour either to secure for ourselves a portion of the unpaid labour which the employer embodies in saleable value for nothing, or to prevent him, or the Manager of the Company or Combine, from exacting still more of that unpaid labour without return.

“Nothing but a sense of desperate wrong would drive us to strike, for we know what privation that involves, not only for ourselves but for our wives and children. It is we who have dug the pits, made the machinery, erected the factories, constructed the railways and tramways and built and launched the ships. Yet they are owned by those who had no share in creating them and perhaps have never even seen them. If, therefore, we are forced to lay down our tools and thus to fight despairingly against our employers, at least do not strengthen and embolden them by promising them at the very outset the support of the troops of the National Army drawn from the unemployed of our class, who, after having been used to lower our wages by their competition in the field of industry, are brought in as purchased men of the Government to be the determining factor on the field of economic struggle. Even should the safety of property be endangered by the fury of starving men the lives of the producers are far more valuable to the country, leaving aside the moral aspect of the question, than the most valuable of the buildings or machinery which the soldiers are called in to protect by slaughtering or maiming their fellow-men. Manifestly, too, the defence of the minority of the wage-earners in an industry, against persuasion, or even against threats and violence, is taking sides against our interests and in favour of the employers, when these blacklegs are upheld by police and even by soldiers in going to work upon conditions which the more independent among us cannot agree to. We protest therefore against national forces, largely paid for by us and manned by our class, being used to make ill-paid wage-slavery permanent, by shooting down Englishmen who rise up against it.”

These are the two sides to the strife, and it shows what a chaotic society ours is when such arguments can be honestly brought forward on the one part and on the other. That those who produce the wealth are entitled to infinitely the greater consideration seems to me indisputable.

And yet, as I felt in the case of the Gas-Workers’ and General Labourers’ Strike, the case of the so-called “blacklegs” is hard. Here are agricultural labourers half-starved on 12s. to 15s. a week. They learn that unskilled men are out on strike who are earning 32s. a week. To the countrymen this weekly earning means luxurious living. Up they come to take the places left vacant in consequence of the strike or lock-out. Is it reasonable to ask them to go on working at the paltry wage of 12s. when they can nearly treble it by blacklegging, especially when it is quite certain the gas-workers will never trouble themselves about raising the wages of agricultural labourers?

That same question was put to me very straight by a blackleg himself. I was remonstrating with him on acting against the interests of his class and thus playing into the hands of the capitalists. “I don’t know much, Sir, about class and capitalists. What I do know is that I don’t get more than thirteen bob a week, one week with another, at the outside, and after paying for our bit of a cottage it is pretty near starvation for us and the kids. Here’s a job going at over thirty shillings – why shouldn’t I take it? I have as much right to it as the lot that’s here.” There was no answer to that from the point of view of the individual. My blackleg could scarcely be expected to regard the matter from the standpoint of general sociology and the class war. Nor do I see that, except upon those grounds, he could be expected to sacrifice himself for the sake of the comparatively highly paid gas-worker. That is where the employer has hitherto had such an advantage in dealing with unskilled labour. He can always play off the country against the town.

Even the last strike of the Transport Workers, with all their improved organisation, brought out the blacklegs in considerable force and naturally provoked a great deal of ill-feeling on the part of men whose places they were taking. Throughout the strike the Government virtually helped the employers, though Sir Edward Clarke’s judgment showed that they had broken their agreement to a far greater extent than the men; and Sir Edward Clarke is an out-and-out Conservative. The representative of the workers who was most to the front was once more Tillett. He was regarded as the firebrand of the whole affair. Tillett, so it was said, was responsible for the strike itself, and kept it going when it would otherwise have broken down. Whereas the fact is, as has been the case with many of these recent strikes in regard to the leaders, that Tillett, who was against the strike himself at that time, was outvoted and overruled; but then, the strike having once begun, devoted himself night and day to a hopeless endeavour to make it a success.

The reasons why most sober and judicious men opposed the strike were that the Transport Workers had not accumulated sufficient funds to remain out; that it was better to put up with breaches of faith by the small employers for a time than to rush into a bitter struggle unprepared; that the success of last year could scarcely be repeated to any certainty this; and that it was impossible under such conditions to rely upon sympathetic and simultaneous strikes on the part of the railway men and others. These views have been justified by the event. The terrible starvation and suffering of men, women, and children in East London have been undergone for nothing, and public feeling has been to a large extent against the strikers.

Most of the active strike leaders understand the situation perfectly and know that only by a combination of political and industrial action can the wage-earning class hope to gain anything by peaceful means. As they are not trained and disciplined to use force, and decline to accept compulsory service, even in the form of a non-militarist citizen army, obviously political action, however discouraging it may have been hitherto, is far the more effective weapon of the two. The collapse of the Transport Workers’ Strike, after a desperate struggle for ten weeks, tends to prove this. The rejoicing of most of the capitalist newspapers at the defeat of the men, and in particular their denunciations of Tillett, the advocate of the men who was most to the front, ought to teach all workers what utter madness it is for them to vote for their masters as their representatives in Parliament.

But it will do nothing of the sort. Nay, the workers themselves cannot hold together. At the very crisis of the whole fight, when a failure to obtain blacklegs might have compelled the Government to interfere and force the employers to surrender, workers in other parts of London were actually giving up their jobs wholesale to go down to the docks and obtain the high pay which the Directors were giving, in order to get a proportion of the vessels unladen even by men quite unused to the task. I was loath to believe this. But a Socialist member of the Independent Labour Party living in one large block of working-class buildings in Westminster fully convinced me by incontestable evidence that this was going on quite commonly, and that “free labourers” were in a large number, if not in the majority, of cases men who were earning better wages at the employment they abandoned, in order to go down to the docks, than the best-paid of the regular dockers received when in full work. It was natural that the strikers should attack these men; but as starvation and misery spread all round them, and the horrors of the situation became more acute, I wondered – yes, I wondered why they confined their assaults to members of their own class.

But that was by no means the only evidence of lack of solid combination where absolute unanimity was essential. When the strike was at its height the Labour Party was not only quite half-hearted in its support of the strikers, which might have been excused if not pardoned on the ground that no steps had been taken before coming out to secure such support, but some of its leading men actually played into the hands of the individual employers and the Port Authority by denouncing the leaders of the Transport Workers; though one of them, Will Thorne, is a member of the Parliamentary Labour Party himself, and two or three others, such as Lansbury and O’Grady, were speaking daily for the men at Tower Hill. Not only so, but when Tillett took a leaf out of the book of the old Hebrew “peaceful persuaders” with sword and javelin and battle-axe, and prayed to Jehovah to smite his enemies, Will Crooks of all men took it upon himself to repudiate this out-of-date enormity, and the Labourists in the House applauded him. Such scurvy hypocrisy and cowardice, I confess, revolted me, certain though I was that the strikers could not win, and I wrote to Tillett a strong letter of congratulation upon the magnificent pluck and endurance he had displayed throughout, though the strike was none of his making. I did say, however, that it seemed to me a little strange that he should pray to a God in whom he had no belief and who, if he existed, probably would never hear a whisper of the Transport Workers’ Strike – leur planète a péri peut-être!

And so once more the strikers were beaten – this time without any necessity for calling upon Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Ramsay Macdonald and the hirelings of the Board of Trade, to exercise their familiar chicanery and cajolery. Railway men, colliers, transport workers were all defeated and driven back to their penal servitude for life with the purchasing power of their wages decreasing all along the line. Knowing many of the leaders in each case, I repeat positively that these revolts were due to the action of the rank and file themselves and not to the counsels of their nominal chiefs.

It may be that the consequent failures will bring about reaction. It seems certain that what has occurred has not yet awakened the toilers to the truth of the situation under the conditions of today. That truth is that a wage-earner is only a Man when he votes for himself and his class, or when he fights for himself and his class. At other times, even when out on strike, he is merely a commodity. And as a striker, unless he becomes a great deal more than a mere striker and passive holder-up of business and traffic, he inflicts far more injury on himself, his family, and his class as a whole, than he does upon those who, by the monopoly of the means of production and distribution, compel him by the hunger-whip to work day in and day out, on the average, for a mere subsistence wage.

I end as I began. I regard strikes as a very bad weapon for the workers to use. But the deep-seated hatred fostered by recent failures may easily give rise to concerted action, which will not confine itself to mere peaceful “down tools” self-immolation. Any shock from without would precipitate a state of things in this country with which the most dexterous politician or most convincing lay preacher would be quite unable to deal. The nice old bourgeois conviction that no catastrophe is now possible in human affairs may be unpleasantly shattered.


1. The famous American orator Daniel Webster was delivering an address on one occasion in Faneuil Hall, Boston, when a man at the back of the hall shouted, “Speak up!” Webster paid no attention to the interruption. A second time came the summons, “Speak up!” Webster went on without raising his voice. A third cry in the same sense followed, “Speak up!” Webster then turning to the chairman, said: “Sir, at the Last Great Day, when all the infinite generations of mankind are gathered together round the footstool of the Throne, awaiting the final Judgment; when the heavens are rolled up as in a scroll, and the countenance of the Almighty is turned towards the good and the evil, the just and the unjust; when the angels with their silver trumpets are sending forth their clarion blast of blessing or of doom: in that great and terrible moment of universal anticipation and mortal dread, as the first words issue from the mouth of the Omnipotent Recorder, some damned fool from Boston will cry out – ‘Speak up!’ ‘Speak up!’”

2. Obviously a minimum wage, even securing a fixed sum per week or day for all employed, cannot cover the ground. The variation of the purchasing-power of the amount of wages paid on a gold basis must be taken into consideration. A wage of seven shillings a day in 1912 purchases no more than a payment of six shillings a day did in 1902, owing to the depreciation or gold. A minimum wage must be based on a standard of life.

Last updated on 1.11.2007