From International Socialism (1st series), No. 1, Spring 1960, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Paul Blackledge.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Essays in Labour History
Edited by Asa Briggs and John Saville
This volume, originally conceived in homage to Professor Cole on his 70th birthday, had to be changed, due to his unfortunate death, into a memorial to him – a well-earned tribute. For G.D.H. Cole, more than any other British socialist, has been responsible for transforming the study of the Labour Movement’s history from being a grubby, suspect business, carried out by a few cranks, into an accepted part of historical study. All socialists owe him a debt of gratitude.
He was the Barbara Moore of the Labour Movement, keeping on, accomplishing tremendous feats of physical and mental endurance. His enormous output of books, essays and articles, almost invariably of the highest standard, has never been matched in recent years. Cole’s culminating work – a massive, five volume History of Socialist Thought – is a classic, an enduring work of immense value. Such books, by filling in the general outlines, helped to make more detailed studies on limited aspects of Labour history possible. Indeed, in an important sense, he can be regarded as the author of Essays in Labour History, which is dedicated to him.
But this book is not merely a monument to the greatness of Cole, it also displays his weakness. For while he was a Barbara Moore of the Labour Movement, he was a Barbara Moore who never quite knew whether he was going in the right direction. His political life was marked by violent changes of outlook. At the beginning of his career he was a Guild Socialist, emphasising the importance of workers’ control. Later, he veered right, making an uncomfortable peace with reformism. At other times, he went through Stalinist and Marxist phases.
Cole’s political ambiguity is reflected in this book. Right-wing contributors, like Gaitskell, jostle with Marxists (Collins, Saville and Thompson) and unrepentant, if unorthodox CPers, like Hobsbawm. While all contributions in Essays in Labour History reach a high standard, illuminating previously obscure aspects of working class activities, they are not united by a common method or approach.
The first essay, by Professor Asa Briggs, traces the evolution of the idea of class. Before the 19th century, the term was never used. Professor Briggs shows, in a fascinating way, how the impact of the Industrial Revolution made the use of the term meaningful. It is a pity, however, that Professor Briggs restricts his essay to this country. For the notion of class conflict first arose during the French Revolution, with the emergence of the Third Estates as a social force and its conflict – the most severe there had been up till then – between the Third Estates and the aristocracy. Other valuable contributions include Hobsbawm on wages and Labour conditions in the 19th century; Henry Collins on the fragile and tenuous connections between British trade unions and the First International; and Peter Brock, exploring completely fresh ground, with his essay on the period of bitter disillusionment among Polish socialists after the defeat of the rising against Tsardom in 1830.
But perhaps the most fascinating, and most relevant to practical activity to-day, is the essay of Edward Thompson. Homage to Tom Maguire. Tom Maguire was a little known socialist of the 1880s who did much painful and, for a long time, seemingly unrewarding work that ultimately led to the formation of the ILP.
Living, as we do, in a time when real socialists are as rare as four-leafed clover, we can readily appreciate Maguire’s position. He reached political maturity well after Chartism had collapsed. The few veteran Chartists who remained were extinct volcanoes. Thompson recounts the pathetic episode of how they assembled in 1885 at a Halifax Temperance Hotel to toast Gladstone’s Liberal Government with lemonade! It is a pitiful – but timely – reminder that the revolutionaries of one generation often become the reactionaries of the next.
In the 1880s the prevailing political attitude was one of comfortable complacency. With an innocence only exceeded by Tony Crosland, Sir Jacob Behrens’ inquiry into the Conditions of the Industrial Classes (1887) showed the worst abuses of capitalism had been abolished. The workers had never had it so good.
Yet, within three years of his inquiry, cries of discontent swept the textile towns. Even local Liberal and Conservative papers carried exposures of decaying slums, insanitary conditions, appalling social evils. Why this sudden, dramatic change? Thompson explains:
“a new generation was arising which demanded more of life than had contented their parents ... It required a new generation, and the new militant unionism, to twist ‘self-help’ into socialist campaigning. The prevalent tone of the earlier years is one of surfeited, self-satisfied Liberalism.”
Tom Maguire and a small band of young socialists, helped by favourable conditions, changed the political climate. In 1885, the Leeds Socialist League had 16 members. After four years’ intensive work, it had risen to 30. But no progress appeared to have been made in broad, working class circles. The vast majority of the workers remained unconcerned about the calls for Socialism. Disheartened, the League’s members began to quarrel and split. But, as Thompson writes, “the years of seemingly fruitless propaganda, when the joint forces of Leeds and Bradford Socialism had tramped like a group of youth hostellers, spreading ‘the gospel’ in villages and singing Morris’s song in country lanes, had not been wasted.” When the industrial struggles of 1890–3 started, the slow but incessant spreading of socialist ideas in previous years helped to push the movement along socialist lines.
A turning-point proved to be the textile workers’ strike at Manningham Mills, Bradford. When it ended in defeat, workers learnt from experience the need for independent political action. Economic oppression and social injustice could only be lessened – but not abolished – by industrial struggle. The need was for a political party that would fight, both in Parliament and on the local councils against unemployment and for better schools, houses and medical services. Above all, in an industry fragmented by sub-contracting and ‘sweatshops’, the textile workers unifying demand for a Legal Eight Hour Day could only be achieved through political action. Further impetus towards the formation of an independent labour party came from the rapid organizing of unskilled workers into unions in which the young socialists played a prominent part. Then, in June, 1890, came the Leeds gas strike. The Liberal-dominated Leeds Council, who owned the gasworks, sought to use a drop in the demand for gas as a pretext for withdrawing concessions conceded to the workers after they had joined the union. In the ensuing bitterly fought struggle, the Liberals’ high-handed actions alienated the working class and some of the middle class. It led to a general realisation that the old Liberal Party could never be fashioned, or altered, so as to be a vehicle for expressing workers’ aspirations.
The time-worn pattern of politics, where genteel Liberals and Tories played their game of ins and outs, lay broken. A new social class, raising its own banner, had entered the political arena. As Thompson says, “the two-party system cracked in Yorkshire because a large number of Yorkshire working men and women took a conscious decision to form a socialist party. The fertilisation of the masses with socialist ideas was not spontaneous but was the result of the work, over many years, of a group of exceptionally gifted propagandists and trade unionists.” To-day we also live in a period of Liberalism. The leaders of our own Party are liberals at heart. They are content to work within the capitalist framework, making minor alterations but not changing the basis of the social system. Therefore, our task to-day, very much like that of the small bands of socialists in the ’80’s, is to keep banging away, putting the socialist case. For when the breakthrough comes – as come it surely will – socialist ideas will spread, like a forest fire, throughout the working class and smash capitalism. This truly will be the best homage to Tom Maguire – and to G.D.H. Cole.
Last updated: 6 November 2015