Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book one: Europe

X. Organisation of general workers
1898 to 1901

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


During all this time I was amongst those, who, recognising the necessity for enormously extended industrial organisation, yet could see little hope that the organisations of skilled workers generally would recognise the necessity for this, and so broaden the basis of their organisations as to cover all sections of skilled and unskilled.

The unions that catered for labourers were very few, and in practice were mainly confined to certain sections. The idea that it is necessary to organise by industry, that is, with the whole of the trades and occupations in an entire industry as the unit, was only just emerging. Scarcely anyone gave serious attention to the matter, as it was felt there was no prospect of success in that direction.

The need for organisation by industry was in my mind the most outstanding fact; but the existing skilled workers’ organisations not only gave no encouragement, but were obstacles in the path. In the engineering industry, a workman who was on a job for which the recognised union rate was neither paid nor expected was looked upon by the members of the union as an outsider. They made the machine, they would not work the machine, neither would they broaden the basis of their union so that the man who had to work it could be organised in relationship with them. It was the same in every trade, and not more than one-fourth of the adult male population was organised. The proper course, had common sense prevailed, would have been for the existing unions so to broaden the basis of their organisations as to welcome every worker that came into the industry, and with the variations of occupation to have rules comprehensive and elastic enough for the admission of all. Instead of this, not only was there no provision for an ever-growing number of handy men, which the changing methods made necessary; but between existing unions, each catering for highly skilled men, there existed an absurd hostility. For myself, I refused to be dominated by such an environment and, resolved to face whatever of approval or disapproval it might bring, I determined to attempt at any rate to draft the rules and to prepare the framework of a union that should be open to any section of workers of either sex for whom no proper union already existed.

The name was important. The idea was to have a short name yet genuinely comprehensive. The Workers Union was decided upon, and it proved to be exactly the right name. It barred none; it welcomed all. It was wide, yet definite; and it has served exceedingly well. Amongst those who assisted in drafting the rules for the new union was Tom Chambers. We aimed at launching the new organisation on May Day 1898. The rules were out and enrollment begun a month earlier this, but the actual kick-off was as arranged. Advance was by no means rapid. A few branches were opened in London, and I went to a number of provincial towns wherever there was a chance of starting a branch. It was interesting to observe that some of my warmest friends showed a noticeable coolness in connection with my advocacy of the new union, as though it were an interloper. However, I approached Brother Charles Duncan, then of Middlesboro, whom I had known for some years as a member of the ASE, and one who shared my views in the matter of extended organisation. I requested him to come to London and accept responsibility in connection with the new organisation, as I wanted to be a freelance and move about anywhere, whilst Brother Tom Chambers, who had at its inception acted as secretary of the new union, was fully occupied with the secretarial work of the International Ship, Dock, and River Workers Federation. Charles Duncan immediately responded, came to London, and became engrossed in the work of the new union. He had to fight through many vicissitudes, often unable to pay his way, and for a time taking no wage. But the day came when the need for organisation was more appreciated, and the steady work put into the union gave confidence of ability to organise, to fight, to negotiate and to administrate. Many great struggles have been conducted by the Workers Union, many districts have been entirely changed in outlook, in intelligence and in relative well-being, as the direct outcome of the organising ability displayed. A change in the relationships between workers and employers has resulted. The report for 1921 shows that the union is over half a million strong.

The Workers Union and the General Workers Union, originally the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, have added enormously to their membership, and have done highly creditable work over the entire country. But their success has made it less easy to organise scientifically on the basis of industry, even if the members of the skilled organisations were ready for this, which they certainly are not. The principle that finds most general acceptance is “organisation as a class”. This is necessary, but still it leaves us with the difficulty of sectional action, and no special arrangements to secure common action on the part of all engaged in one or several industries. Thus, if the AEU were responsible for negotiating for all connected with engineering, using the term in its broadest sense, as the result of all sections of workers being under one set of rules, and one administration, no one can doubt that this would mean greater power, more effective solidarity, than anything which obtains under present conditions. Where sometimes overtures are made between the unions to secure common action, this ensues; but always there is the risk of conflicting policies being pursued, of personalities getting at cross purposes, with consequent weakness. In the trade union movement, as in many other phases of existence, there is more of muddling through than of scientific guidance. So it is with nations. Many things could be far better managed if Europe as a whole were responsible under one administrative department; but pettifogging nationalism asserts itself, and what might be better done on a large scale is indifferently done on a sectional scale. But are not these the ways of humans, and, therefore, to be expected, though not encouraged?

About this time a group of comrades joined together to organise a series of meetings on successive Sunday evenings at the Lambeth Baths. These were run on lines similar to those at the Holborn Hall some two years previously. We had a good choir and a good orchestra, (conducted by H.W. Lee, secretary of the SDF), also good soloists and a good choice of chairmen. We ran a series of twelve meetings. I was the lecturer on each occasion, following a well-arranged syllabus that covered the whole field of social economics. The singing by the audience, aided by the choir and orchestra, was inspiring. Altogether, the series proved to be the most successful I had undertaken.

At this period I became the tenant of “The Enterprise”, in Long Acre, and so had control of a good-sized room for lectures, and for trade union, socialist, and other meetings. This room soon became a rendezvous for those who were in difficulties for a gathering place.

The Young Ireland Society met there, as did also for a time the Central Branch of the SDF, also the Friends of Russian Freedom and the Cosmopolitans. Amongst those who regularly attended the Russian meetings were Kropotkin, Tchaikovsky, Felix Volkovski, Goldenburg, and when in London, Louise Michel. The Cosmopolitans, true to their name, had a great variety of speakers, and conducted highly successful meetings. John Morrison Davidson lectured there on his favourite topic of Winstanley the Digger. The Diggers were the communists of the Oliver Cromwell period. Gerard Winstanley was the chief spokesman on their behalf, sharing the views of John Lilburne, the Leveller. They declared that no advantage came to the common people as the result of the Cromwellian revolution; it was simply a change of persons as to who should exercise kingly power; a change from the king to a group which called itself the state. The change in no wise bettered the condition of the people, or secured them liberty. They, therefore, claimed the right to use such land as they needed, to cultivate the same for their maintenance. In April 1649, General Fairfax sent two troops of horse to have account of certain Levellers at St Margarets Hill, near Cobham, and St Georges Hill, inasmuch as they digged the ground and sowed it with roots and beans; and on April 20 Everard and Winstanley, the chief of those that digged at St Georges Hill, in Surrey, came to the general and made a large declaration to justify their proceeding, stating:

That all the liberties of the people were lost by the coming of William the Conqueror, and that ever since the people of God had lived under tyranny and oppression worse than that under the Egyptians …

That they intend not to meddle with any man’s property nor to break down any enclosures, only to meddle with what was common and untilled to make it fruitful for the use of man, and that the time will be that all men shall willingly come in and give up their lands and estates and submit to the community …

Shall men of other nations say that notwithstanding all those rare wits in the parliament and army of England, yet they could not reform the clergy, lawyer and law, and must needs establish all as the kings left them?

Will not this blast our honour, and make all monarchical members laugh in their sleeves to see the government of our commonwealth still built upon the kingly laws and principles? I have asked divers soldiers what they fought for: they answered they could not tell, and it is very true indeed they cannot tell, if the monarchical law is established without reformation.

Morrison Davidson specially drove home the point in “The Three Great Modern Revolutions, the English, the American, and the French”. The rank and file never knew what they fought for. We can add that there has been another revolution since, where the people did know what they fought for. Winstanley put it to Fairfax:

And is not this a slavery, say the people, that though there be land enough in England to maintain ten times as many people as are in it, yet some must beg of their brethren, or work in hard drudgery for day wages for them, or starve, or steal and so be hanged out of the way, as men not fit to live on the earth? Before they are suffered to plant the waste land for a livelihood, they must pay rent to their brethren for it. Well, this is a burden the Creation groans under; and the subjects (so-called) have not their birthright freedom granted them from their brethren, who hold it from them by club law, but not by righteousness.

But, adds Davidson:

Needless to say, all this invincible logic was wasted on Fairfax, Cromwell, and the piously rapacious gang of Ironside Colonels, whose sole aim it was to put down King and Cavalier, that they themselves might live by kingly principles. “What,” asked Oliver, with true squirearchical imperviousness, “is the purport of the levelling principle but to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord? I was by birth a gentleman. You must cut these people in pieces, or they will cut you in pieces“; and the old Puritan savage was as good as his word.

Morrison Davidson himself was a great character: he was terribly proud of being a Scotsman, and believed, or pretended to believe, that a very big share of all that was passable in the British Isles originated in Scotland. He was a whole-hearted advocate of “Home Rule All Round”, but he specially wanted it for Scotland. In this regard he was very emphatic as to the Irish being West Britons, and he put the case thus:

It is sometimes objected to the term Britain that it does not include Ireland, but that is not so. The geographer Ptolemy, in the early part of the second century, speaks of Hibernia as “Britannia Parva“ (Little Britain), and Albion as “Britannia Magna“ (Big Britain). Pliny was still more comprehensive: ”The island of Britain, so famous in the writings both of the Greeks and the Romans, is particularly called Albion, whereas all the isles which are about it are called the Britains.”

In his book Scotland for the Scots, Davidson writes further on the same topic, saying:

Anyhow the name of Briton is historically far more ancient, comprehensive and respectable than that of Saxon, Anglo-Saxon or even Englishman. We were all Britons before we were either Englishmen, Scotsmen or Irishmen. In point of fact, when we magniloquently talk of the Anglo-Saxon race — and our American brethren also indulge in this cant phraseology to a most reprehensible extent — we are speaking of a race that does not exist, and never did exist. Both the Americans and we are Anglo-British, the Romanist British element having never ceased to predominate ethnically, even during the Heptarchy.

I believe dear old Davidson was quite right in all this, but what is really puzzling is how these Scotsmen can be so brimful of conceit over a Scotsman’s tongue twisting itself about with broken English, with a spice of Gaelic, a pinch o’ Doric, another o’ Danish, until we get a veritable porridge of a language; and yet, here is the debonair Cunninghame Graham who openly laughs at the puerilities of snobocracy, and in his time has even written articles on the English workman’s home, and the wife’s china dogs on the mantelpiece corners, slyly digging at the worship of such household gods; yet see how he bows down to the gabbled utterances of a braw Scotty!

In this book of Morrison Davidson, the preface is written by Cunninghame Graham, and a third of his space is devoted to telling the following story of something which happened to him in South America:

And as I sat and smoked, upon a thin old chestnut horse with a torn English saddle over which a sheepskin had been laid, a man of about fifty years of age appeared. Dressed in a suit of Scottish homespun, such as our farmers wore but twenty years ago, before the looms of Bradford and of Leeds had clothed them all in shoddy, with a grey flannel shirt without a collar, and the whole man surmounted by a battered, flat straw hat, which might have made an indifferent strawberry pottle, I at once descried a brother Scot. Dismounting, and hobbling his horse, he drew a short clay pipe out of his pocket, capped with the tin cover that workmen in the north used to affect, in the pre-briar-root days, and greeting me in a strange Doric-Spanish, he sat him down to smoke.

Some time he talked, till in compassion I said, “Friend, you appear to make but middling weather of it in the Spanish tongue.” No sign he gave of the least astonishment, but between two draws, and as he rammed the dottle hard into his pipe, he said, “I see ye speak the English pretty well.” I, though at the time just at the age when a man speaks, rides, and shoots better than any other man in all the world, suppressed a smile, and said, “Yes, how do you like the view?”

“A bonny view, sir, aye, ou aye; I’d no say onything against the view: but man, may be ye ken a hill — they ca’ it Dumyel — just abune Brig o’ Allan?” I did so, having climbed it as a boy, and watched the Forth wind out, a silver ribbon, towards Aberfoyle. “Weel, weel, if ye ken it, ye’ll ken that there’s a far brawer view frae the Dumyel than frae the wee boranty that we’re sittin’ on the noo.”

When he had got upon his horse, and shambled down the hill, I fancied that I could smell the heather and sweet gale, hear the whawps calling on the moor, and in the towns see drunken folk a-stotterin’ from the public house.

It was customary to have debates as well as lectures at the Cosmopolitans’ meetings. Just at the period when public opinion was highly strung on Italian affairs, Enrico Malatesta opened a debate on anarchism which aroused so keen an interest that three evenings had to be devoted to it.

About this time, W.M. Thompson, then editor of Reynold’s Newspaper, and his friends, were particularly keen upon the wiping out of the anomalies of the electoral system, claiming that a man should have the right to a vote because he was a man, and that it should not depend upon the house he occupied or the rent he paid. Many anomalies existed: these were exposed, and a vigorous campaign was conducted under the auspices of the National Democratic League. I became secretary of the league for a time, and helped to carry on the agitation extensively, as far as other duties would admit; but I continued to give attention to the industrial side of the movement, keeping up my relationship with the Amalgamated Engineers and with the Workers Union. I also helped in the formation of the Waiters Union, and quite a number of others.