From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, p.28-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Gareth Stedman Jones
Why didn’t London experience a revolutionary uprising at the end of the first world war, while Moscow and Berlin did? Why has the London working class appeared relatively passive compared with its brothers and sisters in other European capitals?
Outcast London by Gareth Stedman Jones, in a new paperback edition from Penguin, gives some of the information to answer these questions. A mass-based socialist movement had not emerged in London by the end of the nineteenth century. Factory industrialisation was small scale. Trade unionism was weak and skilled and unskilled workers were sharply divided. The Outcast Londoners of the book were the thousands of poverty stricken casual labourers who lived in the city in the second half of the nineteenth century. The 1880s, in particular, were a decade in which the London working class was severely hit, as the decline of the traditional craft trades of London and a chronic shortage of working class housing in the inner areas coincided to create a social crisis of huge proportions. This was the decade that introduced the terms ‘unemployment’ and ‘the unemployed’ into the common language.
While unemployment grew, workers from skilled trades were forced into the growing sector of sweated unskilled jobs in which men women and children worked long hours for poverty wages, Security declined, and casual work flourished.
Railway clearances led to wholesale demolition of working-class housing causing massive overcrowding. In the twenty years from 1861 to 1881 the city’s population (i.e., that inside the old city boundaries) fell by over half – from 113,387 to 51,439 – through forcible eviction and demolition. Rent racketeering mushroomed in these conditions of overcrowding and acute poverty.
The London riots and street marches of the unemployed in the 1880s arose from the anger and frustration built up in these conditions. The small groups of socialists now emerging were able to recruit numbers of artisans. For as the depression deepened, more and more of the ‘respectable artisans’ of the previous two decades were drawn into the crisis and the struggle. Their activities assisted the new growth of organisation of the unskilled into unions. But many of the gains made by the socialists were short lived. The immediate respite from impoverishment brought about by the unionisation of some of the unskilled was soon eroded.
The middle class response to the crisis of the poor is well documented, particularly the ‘sick fear’ of the ‘London mob’ that ravaged the wealthy. Stedman Jones shows how the vast public support for the 1889 dock strike revealed the middle class preference for the lesser evil – rather an orderly strike than a riot.
The new paperback edition of Outcast London will help give this excellent piece of analysis of the social and material conditions of the London working class the attention it deserves. While the history of the skilled working class has been researched in some depth, this work penetrates new areas of the lives and experiences of the unskilled and casual poor. Cut off as they were from the institutional development of the aristocracy of labour and the traditions of radicalism of the artisans in the earlier part of the century, we are shown one of the ugliest faces of the Workshop of the World, and the ‘rootless volatility’ of its inhabitants.
‘Brought up to treat life with the fatalism of the gambler, the casual poor rejected the philosophy of thrift, self-denial, and self help preached to them so insistently’ by the middle class. But ‘the ever pressing demands of the stomach, the chronic uncertainty of employment, the ceaselessly shifting nature of the casual-labour market, the pitiful struggle of worker against worker at the dock gate, the arbitrary sentence of destitution, and the equally abitrary cascade of charity, provided no focus for any lasting growth of collective loyalty upon which a stable class consciousness could be based.’
The failure of the socialist movement of the 1880s to overcome these mountainous problems paved the way for the establishment of the ‘bureaucratic machine politics of Herbert Morrison’s London Labour Party’ in the twentieth century.
Last updated: 25.3.2008